TV Review: Doctor Who – Flatline (S8, E9)

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Director: Douglas Mackinnon
Screenwriter: Jamie Mathieson
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Joivan Wade, John Cummins, Christopher Fairbank, Matt Bardock, Jessica Hayles & Samuel Anderson

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9nIXbK_25c]

For all its faults, series 8 of Doctor Who’s great success has been its re-establishment of a Doctor-companion dynamic that we haven’t really seen since series 4. “Flatline”, for my money the best episode of Capaldi’s first series so far, is a tightly-crafted, chilling and consistently hilarious story that really allows the effortless chemistry between Capaldi and Coleman to dazzle like never before, without sacrificing any of its classic “monster of the week” sensibilities in the process.

This week’s episode dispenses with the formalities of a drawn out set-up, instead throwing everybody in at the deep-end with a keen and welcome awareness of the constraints of a 45-minute runtime. After accidentally landing in Bristol, a good 120 miles from where Clara needs to be for her date with everyone’s favourite fun-sponge and charisma vacuum Danny (Anderson), the Doctor notices that the exterior of the TARDIS has shrunk without warning. Clara goes outside to investigate, only to return to a TARDIS that is now small enough to fit inside her handbag. With the Doctor trapped within, Clara must communicate with him via an earpiece, taking on an unofficial role as the Doctor as she tries to discover what it is that connects the shrunken TARDIS, a series of disappearances and a wave of new graffiti that seems to have taken over the area.

Doctor Who Series 8 (episode 9)

Like last week’s adventure, “Flatline” is very much concerned with the tough decisions that the Doctor is sometimes forced to make. What sets this episode apart, however, is that Clara receives first-hand experience of the sacrifices that must be made and the lies that must be told in a desperate bid to keep as many people as possible alive. Equipped with all the Doctor’s tools and, after a while, some of the more objectionable facets of his personality, Clara makes for a good Doctor – though, as the man himself later informs her, “goodness” had nothing to do with it. Furthermore, unlike a lot of single-episode stories of Doctor Who, we have a supporting character – Rigsy (Wade, best known for his role in Attack the Block) – who is both likable and well-developed, meaning that the stakes are raised even higher than usual.

Now, considering the Doctor spends pretty much the entire episode trapped in the TARDIS, it’s astonishing just how well his natural camaraderie with Clara keeps things moving. Coleman breathes real charm and energy into her performance as “the Doctor”, and the witty one-liners come thick and fast as she rips the piss out of him while he, the universe’s most lovable curmudgeon, fires sarcastic criticisms down the earpiece at her. It’s been a long time since an episode of Doctor Who has been as sharp and quick-witted as this one, and it is once again to the testament of both Capaldi and Coleman that they have managed to carry the show valiantly into its post-anniversary era with real pizazz.

It can also be no coincidence that both this episode and “Mummy on the Orient Express” (another one that I really enjoyed, also written by Jamie Mathieson) features almost no interference whatsoever from Mr Danny Pink, whose relationship with Clara is by far the weakest element of the series so far. That Clara’s friendship with Rigsy was infinitely more realistic, more natural and more engaging than her romance with Danny doesn’t exactly bode well for her future with “PE”, though maybe that’s the point. I’m not sure what it is about Danny, but I just can’t buy into him at all. Anderson’s one-note performance doesn’t help, especially when he’s sharing screen time with Capaldi and Coleman, but the character is such a lazy replica of every other insipid love interest that he fails to mark any impact on me at all. At least Rory, for all his many faults, had a personality…

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“Flatline” isn’t anything close to a masterpiece, but it’s definitely the most simultaneously entertaining and creepy episode of Series 8 to date. With just three more to go, my expectations for the final run are pretty high and I have full confidence that Moffat won’t let me down (again…), although whatever happens it’s clear that Mathieson has to come back next year as his two contributions so far have been magnificent. He has a real eye for what makes a great villain (the “Boneless”, particularly in 3D mode, were terrifying, and last week’s Mummy was a fascinating and really rather poignant creation) and he seems to “get” Capaldi’s Doctor in a way that few other writers have done so far.

Tense, hilarious and exquisitely acted (as always), “Flatline” might well go down as this series’ high watermark. As I say, it’s not perfect, but it beats along at an incredible pace and takes an honest but critical look at the Doctor’s worst traits without being remotely patronising. It’s a real triumph, and one that has me stupendously excited for what’s still to come.

★★★★

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