This week’s episode of Doctor Who, “Flatline” (8×09 for those of you keeping track) followed some classic ideas and took them into interesting directions. We got a last-minute potential revelation about the season’s over-arching foe, got to meet a new alien race (though they weren’t as well realized as I would have liked), had some comically cute size jokes, and saw even more Doctor/Clara role evolution.
But first, I’d like to draw a line with Clara (of course the pun was intended). I thought she was becoming a stronger, more likable character, but she’s just a black hole for writers to throw ideas at & forget about. 2 episodes ago, Clara was so upset that she told the Doctor off, said she was done with him, and went running to the arms of her boyfriend (and likely future husband). Danny almost prophetically said that she wasn’t really done with the Doctor, because he could still affect her like this. The next episode, we saw Clara traveling with the Doctor again, and eventually manifesting some kind of “addiction” to the Doctor, lying to both the Doctor and Danny about what was going on (which she’d agreed not to do back when Danny learned about the whole Tardis/Doctor thing). Now she’s in full-blown lying mode, trying to sneak around both the Doctor and Danny to ensure that neither learns her secrets… and it’s just dumb.
Heck, this week we even saw her wanting to lie to people who were about to die, using the same tactics she chided the Doctor for back on the moon a few episodes back. It’s this inconsistency and sudden shifting that will make me totally fine with whatever they do to Clara to get rid of her in this year’s Christmas Special.
But let’s not let my anti-Clara sentiments spoil this otherwise fairly solid episode. Using the same concept as the hugely popular episode “Blink,” Flatline has an absent Doctor providing some clues, but really focusing on a non-Doctor character solving all the problems. Much like Blink, this episode featured a new alien threat. They started off pretty creepy, then got worse when they became semi-3-dimensional (kudos on the CG this episode), but unfortunately they lost all power when the Doctor showed up an, without even giving a wibbly-wobbly explanation as to how he did it, gave them a name (“The Boneless”) and made them go away. You know, with Doctor magic or something.
The physical comedy of the shrinking Tardis worked well in this episode, especially with the Doctor’s face/hand poking out of the really tiny Tardis. I was equally thankful that the writers avoided making the obvious shrinkage size joke. The Addams Family reference, with the Doctor’s hand looking like Thing, was also amusing. Given all the CG in this episode, it’s also fitting that they had a Pixar visual reference… the first train in the tunnel is number A113, the famous Easter Egg in most Pixar productions (and lots of others) referencing the classroom many designers sat in at the California Institute of the Arts. And did anyone else notice that when the Tardis went into lock-down mode, it looked a lot like the Pandorica? I also quite enjoyed the Doctor/Clara interactions. At the end, one of my favorite lines was when Clara was all full of herself for being a good Doctor, and the Doctor said she was a great Doctor, but goodness had nothing to do with it.
The Boneless were a so-so villain. The bits about how utterly alien they were reminded me of the Prophets from the first episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But instead of going the exploration/informational exchange route that DS9 did, this episode sort of wasted that opportunity and instead just made them monsters. The fact that the Doctor banished them with little more than a name and a bit of flourish felt empty, proving that these monsters were just another [insert “threat” here] in a larger season about the Doctor’s relationship with Clara. “Fear Her” in the Tennant era showed us a decent 2-D villain, as has Paper Mario and the A-Ha video “Take On Me”. There were a lot of places they could have gone with this threat that just never manifested. I still like the conceptual idea of the Boneless, but in the same way that I like the idea of Daleks trying to integrate human DNA to become better killers… yet HATED the implementation in “Daleks of New York”. The Boneless weren’t as bad as the human-daleks, but they weren’t nearly as awesome as the idea of them.
We had some great supporting cast action this episode. Veteran actor Christopher Fairbank was lovely as the heartless curmudgeonly Fenton (“It’d take an extraordinary lack of imagination to ignore the psychic paper”). The bit at the end, where he was so casual about the many deaths of lesser people, was also perhaps a turning point for Capaldi’s Doctor, when he’s confronted with two people (Clara and Fenton) who both show him how evil it is to treat human life with casual disdain. Joivan Wade also did a bang-up job as Rigsy, the street artist “companion” to Clara’s “Doctor” this episode.
And let’s talk about this week’s appearance of Missy, the season’s over-arching villain. Speaking about Clara, she said she had chosen well. She also referred to her as “My Clara”. The internet has been understandably abuzz with possibilities. Has Clara been a mole this whole time? It’s always been hinted that Clara’s very existence was somehow not accidental. Is she a later version of Clara? Maybe she’s a female future Doctor (the Valeyard?) looking back at Clara and how she interacted with an earlier Doctor? Is she a new Master who put Clara in the Doctor’s way as a long game to weaken or change him somehow? Is she some kind of afterlife/god/death entity who chose Clara (who had died so many times throughout the Doctor’s timeline) to be the one who finally sends the Doctor to his eternal rest? Do ridiculous theories become more interesting if I make them into questions?
Next week’s episode, “Forest of the Night,” looks to be a 12 Monkeys in London sort of setup, and clearly an homage to the Blake poem “The Tyger,” so I’m pretty jazzed about that. But after that we’ve only got the 2-part season finale, “Dark Water” & “Death In Heaven,” followed by Clara’s departure in the Christmas Special. I’m hoping the season goes out on a strong note, because while I’ve mostly liked a lot of it, there have been enough stumbling blocks that I don’t know if it’ll end up earning my seal of approval overall. We shall see.