Doctor Who might have just found its new Steven Moffat. His name is Jamie Mathieson and he is the scribe behind last week’s “Mummy on the Orient Express” and this week’s “Flatline.”
Like Moffat’s earlier work on Who (“Blink,” “The Empty Child”), Mathieson’s episodes have featured adversaries with a creative spin—in “Orient Express,” a mummy that appears to a single person only to kill them after exactly 66 seconds and, in “Flatline,” beings from a two-dimensional universe that dissect and experiment on us three-dimensional humans. And while “Mummy on the Orient Express”—for me at least—didn’t quite stick the landing that its initial promise seemed to offer, I could admire its clever set-up and character-centric dynamics. “Flatline,” on the other hand, is a tour-de-force and deserves inclusion right alongside “Listen” as the best Who episode of the year.
What certainly helps distinguish “Flatline” is that it represents the year’s annual Doctor-lite episode, or one in which The Doctor’s appearance is marginalized (usually for scheduling reasons). Here, the situation comes about when The Doctor mistakenly lands the TARDIS in Bristol. Right off the bat, both he and Clara sense that something is amiss. Sure enough, while the TARDIS’ interior is still as large and expansive as ever, its outside has drastically shrunk, making it difficult for The Doctor and Clara to even fit through the door. The Doctor decides to stay inside and figure out how to correct the dimensions, but decides to send Clara away, lest she accidentally be squashed in the process.
Clara wanders about, and discovers that there have been a string of disappearances in the general area. What’s all the more strange is that murals of the missing locals—their backs turned to the viewer—have suddenly appeared on a pedestrian tunnel. She returns to the TARDIS only to find that it has shrunken to the point where the Doctor can barely fit his hand out of the door. Trapped in the TARDIS, he gives her his screwdriver, his psychic paper, and an earpiece, and orders her to be his eyes and ears as they figure out what is causing this.
Posing as “Doctor Clara” (much to The Doctor’s annoyance), Clara soon gains the trust of Rigsy, a local graffiti artist who is part of a community service group. He gives her the lowdown on the disappearance. and takes her to the apartment of the most recent victim. Inside, nothing seems to have been disrupted, save for a new mural on the wall that appears to depict a cracked, desert floor. On The Doctor’s orders, Clara investigates. She even enlists the help of a local police officer. Unfortunately, while Clara and Rigsy are looking in another room, the officer is sucked into the ground. Hearing her screams, Clara and Rigsy rush back in, but it’s too late. They quickly see that a new mural has appeared on the wall—this one depicts a human nervous system.
The Doctor quickly reaches a horrible conclusion—the beings behind the disappearances are two-dimensional alien creatures that have found their way over from another dimension. Currently, they are absorbing humans and dissecting them in order to fit these foreign, three-dimensional beings into their own dimensions. Whether this is out of sheer maliciousness or simple ignorance of how three-dimensional forms work is not made clear. As it stands, however, the nervous system on the wall belonged to the now-dead policewoman and the cracked desert mural from before is actually merely a close-up of the other victim’s skin. Clara and Rigsy return to the group just as the creatures animate the murals on the pedestrian tunnel and begin chasing them. The group takes refuge in a warehouse and, from here on out, they are on the run from the monsters and their ever-evolving methods of hunting.
Like a lot of Who fans, I’m always partial to the more “scary” episodes of the show. Given we’re nearing Halloween, it seems only natural that the show’s creative team would try to put their best foot forward. In some strange way, the mural aspect of the episode brings to mind “Fear Her,” a David Tennant-era episode from the second season, about a disturbed young girl with the ability to trap people and objects in her drawings. While that installment is widely regarded as one of the weakest episodes in the history of the show, “Flatline” takes a more sinister approach to the idea, emphasizing the grotesque idea that people are literally being pulled apart in the process. Moreover, the episode does a great job of building upon this central idea and delivering ever-escalating nightmare-fodder, including a harrowing image of the creatures using the bodies of their victims—who now appear looking like glitchy CGI works—to run after Clara and the rest of the group.
This isn’t to say the episode is without the typical Who irreverence. Indeed, despite his limited screen time, The Doctor makes for a few lighter moments, including a very funny scene where the TARDIS becomes trapped on a railroad track and The Doctor must use his hand to drag his miniaturized ship away from an oncoming train (a la Thing from The Addams Family).
That being said, the obvious star of this entry is Jenna Coleman. Although Coleman’s talent for comedic timing has been long-established with previous episodes, she proves here that her charm (she has a great ability to move from exceedingly confident to befuddled in a manner of seconds) is more than enough to anchor an episode. Should there ever be a point where The Doctor does end up regenerating into a woman, future producers would be wise to look for a Jenna Coleman-type.
If the episode has any faults, it’s in the supporting guest cast. What made “Mummy on the Orient Express” so distinct was that it took time to develop each character; thus, when they ultimately met their demise, you really felt the loss. Besides Rigsy and the cantankerous community service leader (who is there only to be cantankerous). I’m struggling to remember if several of the other community service workers were even given significant lines. In that way, it definitely fits more into a “slasher film” dynamic, which is a bit of a disappointment.
On a more minor level, the episode also features Capaldi’s first “I am the Doctor” proclamation. Normally, this would be a joy to witness but, considering it comes at the end of an episode where Clara has been doing the heavy lifting, it can’t help but feel a bit disingenuous.
Aside from those reservations, “Flatline” remains a clever, unnerving and altogether extraordinary hour of genre television. And though “Listen”—with its tension-filled atmosphere and pyrotechnic plotting—remains the most ambitious and rewarding offering of the season, “Flatline” stands tall for being a more straightforward Who adventure that illustrates all the reasons why the show has captured the imagination of audiences for hundreds of episodes, and will probably continue to do so long after Capaldi has turned in his TARDIS key.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.