Season 8, Episode 9—“Flatline”
Hidey ho readers! Did you miss my recaps? Well, I missed writing them; sitting on my couch grumbling about fictional characters to my loved ones is not as fun as making science fiction-based sexually suggestive jokes to a slew of internet friends. Well, I’m back for the rest of the season, so don’t fret, Elena is here to complain about how Steven Moffat needs to be put out to pasture!
Last time we checked in with the Doctor and Clara, our resident companion was throwing caution to the wind and hurling herself into danger once again for the Doctor (this will blow up in her face in 3…2…1…). With Who newcomer Jamie Mathieson taking the writing helm of the episode, did “Flatline” fix some of the emerging problems of this season?
To the recap!
We open the episode with a terrified man on the phone who is seemingly turned into a piece of modern art. Yep, because Doctor Who knows deep down our biggest fear is tilting our heads and not seeing what’s inside that Magic Eye image. Well, nothing this show could throw at me is scarier than American Horror Story’s new clown nightmare factory, so bring on art aliens!
Inside the TARDIS, Clara is still spinning lies about how Danny is totes SUPER KEWL with her risking her life time traveling with the Doctor. Problematically, the TARDIS gets smaller than usual on the outside and drops our duo off in Bristol, much to the confusion and delight of the Doctor.
While the TARDIS shrinks down to the size of one of your spinster aunt’s collectibles, Clara stumbles upon the cast of Misfits and finds out that several people have gone missing from the area.
Armed with psychic paper (hey that’s back!) and the sonic screwdriver, Clara goes on to befriend a wayward youth named Rigsy. Much like that one dude who is fond of trench coats and public places, Doctor Who seems intent on exposing the titular character’s alien-ness to pudding brains. Naturally, the new kid doesn’t ask any substantial questions of Clara (I guess aliens are easier to believe than a crazy lady getting her hands on sophisticated visual effects equipment).
Acting as the main investigator on the supernatural case, Clara travels with Rigsy to the home of a person who has mysteriously disappeared. In a visually hilarious moment rivalling Hermione Granger’s “bigger on the inside” charmed handbag, Clara pulls a sledgehammer from the mini-TARDIS and proceeds to check for the missing person inside the walls.
The gang’s theory turns out to be only partially true as the victims are less inside the walls and more on them, like a grotesque decal from Etsy. Turns out the baddies are experimenting with our universe’s dimensions by dissecting and flattening various human body parts like nervous systems and skin. Maybe it’s her. Maybe it’s Maybelline. Maybe it’s murderous aliens intent on killing everyone you love.
In the middle of an attack by the two-dimensional creatures, Danny calls to check in on his ladylove. Apparently Danny has better timing than a mom walking in on her son having an intimate moment with a sock, but just slightly worse timing than a neighbour catching you puking in his bushes. Though Clara and Rigsy escape, they aren’t safe for long, as the aliens begin another assault while wearing their victims’ images as camouflage.
After the gang accumulates a few more members on their way to a warehouse, it is Clara who must take on the reluctant mantle of hero and watch over the group of community service workers. Faced with a companion using his familiar deceptive tactics to maximize the group’s survival rate, the Doctor seemingly has a moment of self-reflection. Despite the distraction, our hero hypothesizes that the two-dimensional aliens might be attempting to communicate with the world via unintentional graffiti murder and… numbers? Apparently even flat worlds have pi. Go figure.
After tiring of their early Disney-style incarnations, the baddies evolve three-dimensional claws and Christmas special claymation bodies (Rudolph is horrified). At some point, the TARDIS falls out of Clara’s reach and the Doctor must save himself by pulling a Thing from the Addams Family.
After a slip up leaves the TARDIS at the mercy of an oncoming train, the Doctor resorts to turning on “siege mode”, a setting that restricts anyone from entering or exiting the craft. At this point in the story I was likely supposed to clutch my pearls, fan myself and walk about my home fretting for the Doctor’s safety. Instead, I kept thinking, “the TARDIS is gigantic! It even has a pool! There’s no way that baby doesn’t have several lifetimes’ supply of delicious food and Nora Ephron DVDs up for grabs.”
Below the warehouse, Clara stops an incoming service train with the hope of ramming it into the tunnel that’s become an alien lair. Somehow this was supposed to be helpful. Not having enough shit to deal with, Clara must also stop Rigsy from committing an idiotic act of self-sacrifice by driving into the tunnel himself. With the help of a headband, Clara rigs the train to drive itself and the two jump off in the nick of time. No suicide on her watch, idiot children! Fuck yeah, Clara Oswald.
I’ve already made friendship bracelets!
Unsurprisingly, the train plan doesn’t work. With the Doctor out of commission, it’s up to Clara to figure out how to rescue him and get the TARDIS working again. Ingeniously, Clara figures out that the aliens can’t discern a two-dimensional rendering of an object they’ve flattened from a regular two-dimensional drawing. Thus, when the aliens encounter a graffiti drawing of a door made by Rigsy, they expend an enormous amount of energy trying to make it three-dimensional again. Doubling down on cleverness, Clara places the TARDIS behind the poster, allowing it to suck up the aliens’ expended energy. You go sci-fi Lisa Simpson, you go.
Once the TARDIS grows to normal size (well as normal as a police box can be), the Doctor espouses a blistering speech denouncing the killer aliens as monsters determined to wreak death and destruction onto Earth. The Doctor then uses the charged up TARDIS and sonic screwdriver to send the aliens back to their own plane.
After the threat is eliminated, the Doctor points out to a crotchety community service worker that there should be more respect given to the people who died during the battle. “Those were people!” he spits. When Clara argues that the mission was successful because more people were saved than lost, the Doctor looks at her disappointingly. It seems that while she made an exceptional Doctor, Clara’s acceptance of her mentor’s espoused views are somewhat frightening to our hero.
We end the episode with the realization that Missy seems to be interested in both the Doctor (her “boyfriend”) and Clara.
Fun fact: aliens fucking love Apple products
Let’s start off with the good!
One thing I loved about this episode (and this season) was Clara’s ability to rib the Doctor on the quirkiest aspects of his persona. The fact that she’s able to make light of her friend’s self-importance while still maintaining their emotional bond indicates how close the two have grown over the course of the past few seasons. While many fans have criticized Coleman’s character for being a girlfriend stand-in, her increasingly accurate and pointed criticism suggests that she’s a much closer in personality to Donna than she is to someone such as the love struck Martha (sorry, MarFA). Hell, by the end of the series 8 she might become a being so independent of other characters that no true comparison will be able to be drawn.
Another facet of the story that I thought was particularly well done this week was keeping the Doctor’s level of curiosity and confusion at a level on par with the audience. Much like the show’s exceptional visual humour, this aspect of Steven Moffat’s Sherlockian storytelling has been successfully transitioned into Who.
Now onto the bad.
I wanted to be on board with the last scene between Clara and the Doctor. I really did. This season was clearly built as an exploration of the titular hero’s moral system and the consequences of his and his companions’ adherence to it. Great idea! Who wouldn’t want a sci-fi show to examine the ethics of its hero?
The problem is that while some episodes such as “Into the Dalek” have done a beautiful job at questioning aspects of morality such as the appropriateness of using Daleks as the reference point of evil, the majority of the season has been disappointingly repetitive. Instead of using every episode to challenge a different facet of the ethics Who has adhered to for decades, the writers have spent most of their limited time bludgeoning us over the head with the fact that the Doctor adheres to the fundamental axiom of utilitarianism: the measure of right and wrong is the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people.
I get it. People keep dying because of the Doctor’s antics and the feelings of heroism he stirs inside those close to him. The Doctor acts like an unfeeling robot and then people chastise him. The Doctor then grumbles and says something funny about his eyebrows without actually demonstrating any emotional depth (despite being portrayed by an exceptionally talented actor). I got it in “Into the Dalek”, I got it in “Time Heist”, I got it in “Robots of Sherwood”, I got it in “Mummy on the Orient Express”, and *surprise!* I still got it in this episode. I get it. I had it stitched onto my pillows. I posted on my dream board about it. I even trained an artisanal ant colony smelling vaguely of vanilla to spell it out for passers by. I. Get. It.
Due to Steven Moffat’s insistence on ham fisting the same plot devices and themes into each episode, I’m forced to believe that he is under the assumption that Doctor Who’s viewers have the adult ability to comprehend challenging concepts such as death and hero complexes, yet the memory of mere goldfish. Not only is this repetition tedious and insulting, it’s also light years behind what other shows are doing in terms of complex (and comprehensible) storytelling and character development. While Clara has gained dimension by showing us her humour, empathy and even reckless desire for adventure, the Doctor has seemingly regressed, expressing the same unchanging views for weeks on end. So while I wanted to buy his unnerved reaction at Clara’s adopted utilitarian views, I couldn’t help but find this sudden emotional development out of place and out of character.
With so much good television vying for viewers’ attention, Doctor Who is failing to offer much more than nostalgia as a reason to tune in every week. As much as I hate to say it, it’s time for someone else take the reigns and breathe new life into this once great show. For the love of lesbian lizards, step down Steven Moffat.
Doctor, regarding the youth: “He’s a pudding brain. He’s a fluorescent pudding brain.”
Doctor: “This is embarrassing. I’m from the race that built the TARDIS. Dimensions are kind of our thing.”
Doctor to Clara: “You made a mighty fine Doctor.”