Without fail, some of my favorite Doctor Who episodes are the unabashedly weird ones. Usually once a series, there’s been one episode that just baffles or enchants because of its sheer out-thereitude. While Series 8 has had its share of strangeness, due in no small part to Peter Capaldi’s divisive (though I generally quite like him) portrayal of the Doctor. His episodes have been pretty straightforward, though, even the ones that have upended expectations. That is, until this week’s, which I can honestly say hasn’t quite been done this way before. “Flatline” by Jamie Mathieson, who did last week’s “Mummy on the Orient Express” (which I initially thought was just okay but have now decided I like quite a lot), is a science fiction idea that doesn’t normally get shown, but should. The Doctor goes through time and space all the time, but very rarely are any of his adventures to do with dimensions. But, when his whole spaceship’s identity is based on “relative dimension,” it was only really a matter of time before things went a little haywire.
The Doctor is about ready to drop Clara off back home for her lunch date with Danny, and she chats about taking her toothbrush and things out of the TARDIS even though Danny’s TOTALLY okay with her traveling in it still (yeah, sure). The Doctor lands the TARDIS in the right time but not the right place (he’s in Bristol) and something a bit funny’s happened: the TARDIS’ exit door has gotten smaller. Hmm. They exit to find that, on the outside, the TARDIS has indeed shrunk to be about the size of a trashcan. The Doctor loves not knowing what’s happening, though Clara is much more concerned about how they’re going to put it right. He sends her off to investigate (but, really, what on Earth is she going to find on a council estate that’ll give her clues?) and the Doctor returns to the TARDIS to see what’s up.
Well, believe it or not, Clara DOES find something. A foot tunnel in which are graffiti of people’s backs. Nearby, a group of men are painting over other graffiti, including a teenage boy named Rigsy (Jovian Wade) who is on community service for having graffitied in the first place. The old grouch in charge of the project is Fenton (Christopher Fairbank) and he forces Rigsy to paint over his own art to begin the punishment. Rigsy sees Clara at the tunnel and inquires as to who she lost. You see, all the portraits of people’s backs represents a person who has disappeared from the estate mysteriously. Clara goes back to the TARDIS to tell the Doctor what she and finds that is has now shrunk to the size of the toy TARDIS I have on my desk. The Doctor is still normal sized on the inside but now he’s trapped. He hands Clara the sonic screwdriver and the psychic paper, as well as an earpiece so he can see and hear what she’s doing. She puts the TARDIS in her bag and goes off, excited to get to be the Doctor.
Without much provocation, and despite the Doctor attempting to tell her to lie to the boy to not scare him off, Clara tells Rigsy about the Doctor and the TARDIS and all of that. They go into the flat of one of the missing people and find a strange pattern that looks like desert sands on the wall. Using the psychic paper, they then get a police constable to show them into another apartment, believing Clara to be with MI-5. The PC gets sucked into the floor, turned into drawings and lines, and then a pattern emerges on the wall, which the Doctor quickly deciphers to be a central nervous system. The desert pattern in turn is actually skin cells. Whatever entity this is is two-dimensional and attempting to either infiltrate, learn, or just destroy. The Doctor hopes they just don’t realize they’re hurting anyone.
Danny calls while Clara and Rigsy are escaping the crawling 2D creatures, and the Doctor then finds out about Clara’s lying. True to form, he’s much more upset that Clara lied to him than to Danny. There’s no time to talk about that, though; Clara and Rigsy head back to the tunnel where Fenton and the others are about to paint over the memorial, but the Doctor has a horrible realization: what if they aren’t a tribute at all? What if the 2D aliens are trying to mimic the people they murdered? Clara can barely articulate this when one of the group gets sucked into the wall, and the paintings begin to turn around. They all run for an old train yard and the Doctor tells Clara that, if she is indeed going to be the Doctor, she’s going to have to establish dominance in the situation before Fenton does. And Clara is great at it!
But they still have to run, because the 2Ds are closing in on them and the further into the train tunnels the humans go, the fewer places there are to run. The Doctor makes Clara a “2Dis,” or a device that can put things in three dimensions that the aliens have made two. They’re sucking energy from the TARDIS so the Doctor can’t do much else, and now the aliens are becoming three dimensional themselves. To quote Egon Spengler, “This is extraordinarily bad.” As the aliens close in, and the Doctor’s life support failing, Clara has to think on her feet (“what would the Doctor do?”) in order to save everyone, restore the TARDIS and the Doctor, and ultimately save the world.
I think this episode is really, really fantastic…mostly. The idea of 2D aliens that leech energy from 3D beings is one, as I said, we haven’t seen on Doctor Who before, or in sci-fi much at all. The visuals of the beings, and especially the janky, half-chalk look of them once they turn 3D, are chilling and quite effective. FINALLY, a show like Doctor Who tackles the great debate over 2D and 3D, although he comes down decidedly on the steroscopic side of the argument.
I also love the way this was made effectively into a Doctor-lite episode because of trapping him in the TARDIS. He’s omnipresent, but all of his stuff was probably filmed in a day or two. The dimensionality of the TARDIS is not something that gets played with nearly enough, despite the “It’s bigger on the inside” line. I also loved that it’s used here by Rigsy and the Doctor saying that it’s never been truer. Plus, the image of the Doctor’s hand coming out of a tiny TARDIS is always going to be funny to me.
The main reason I enjoyed this is, as has been the case for most of the season, Clara. She seems absolutely elated to get to be the Doctor for once but does so in her inimitable Clara way. When she talks Rigsy out of needlessly killing himself with the use of a hair tie, she makes him see how silly he’s being while still giving off that air of “Look, I don’t really care about you, but I’ll miss this hair tie,” which she obviously doesn’t mean. She makes her “companion” succeed on his own, which is a very Doctory thing to do. And at the end, she looks legitimately heartbroken when the Doctor refuses to tell her she did good as the Doctor, with his very heavy response of “You were an exceptional Doctor; goodness has nothing to do with it.” I really think Clara’s obsession with traveling in the TARDIS is going to get her in loads of trouble, and it makes me really nervous.
Oh, can we talk for two seconds about the Missy tag? Okay, so clearly she’s got her eye on Clara, fine, we could probably have figured that… but she has an iPad? The Gatekeeper to the Netherworld needs a tablet to do things? Maybe this is to indicate that she isn’t quite so godly after all, or maybe it’s just because iPads are everywhere, even in heaven.
All in all, I think this episode really delivered a unique and funny story with proper creepiness and some excellent Clara stuff. Definitely Jamie Mathieson should come back, with two excellent episodes in a row. Now, I said a bit ago that I really, really liked it…mostly. That “mostly” has to do with the human characters, especially Rigsy, who I felt was just kind of boring and generic. Oh, he’s a graffiti artist so he has to paint a fake door on a poster to trick the aliens. Clever, I guess. Fenton, too, was pretty one-note, although I did like that he didn’t even have enough imagination to see anything on the psychic paper, because he’s clearly not a creative type like Shakespeare or Agatha Christie. I know he was a character meant to be hated, but he was just that and was mostly a bother, despite the good performance from Fairbank.
But, like I said, this episode is great and I’m excited to see more from Mathieson in the future.
Next week, however, we get Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script directed by Sheree Folkson. The title is “In the Forest of the Night,” and it’s got about the least interesting Next Time trailer I’ve ever seen. Let’s hope the finished product isn’t like that. But, anyway. Enjoy!