The Skaro Review
Reviewed by Eddie McGuigan
The problem with Flatline is that it is SO much. It’s a study in what it means to be the Doctor, on what his life is like in a mirror. It’s a conceit about the companion, where they go when they’re with the Doctor, psychologically speaking, and what being with him changes them into. It’s an urban mystery. It’s a gritty horror. It’s the most terrifying Doctor Who episode I can actually remember. It’s funny, clever, thought provoking, honest, punch the air superb and look away horrible.
Yep, all at half eight on a Saturday night.
Whether Jamie Mathieson, the new saviour of Doctor Who, knew this episode was going out later than is normal for Who, I don’t know, but there’s no getting away with the fact that the episode benefits from less nervous censorship than it no doubt would have suffered if it had gone out two hours earlier.
Clara is back with the Doctor here, and they’re happy and travelling. Again, we’ve just missed an adventure, and the Doctor has promised to get Clara back to Danny. Ish. Ish, because, it seems, the dimensions surrounding the TARDIS aren’t behaving as they should, and the exterior size (and interior door) are shifting dimensions with alarming speed. With the Doctor stuck inside the TARDIS, Clara is charged with finding out what’s going on, and it’s not long before, with the Doctor in her ear, she gets herself a companion, in the guise of community service graffiti artist Rigsy, starts waving the sonic around, uses the psychic paper to claim to be MI5 and, much to the Doctor’s chagrin, calls herself Doctor.
It doesn’t take her long to discover missing people, and, on investigating, discover the terrifying truth. Something is breaking through from another universe, a universe in two dimensions. And as it does, it converts all it touches into 2D.
The deaths in this episode – and deaths aplenty there are – are horrifying. The effect of people, especially a hapless police officer, being transformed into 2D corpses is the second most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen in Doctor Who. THE most terrifying thing is when the alien creatures realise they can convert the corpses BACK into 3D, and the shambling, jittery, lurching zombie nightmares that pursue Clara and her little gang through the railway tunnels of Bristol. This is definitely not one for children. With the Doctor trapped in a slowly shutting down TARDIS, can Clara stay alive long enough for him to figure out what’s happening and how to stop it, and, more importantly, what can she do to help?
This is a gritty, urban nightmare firmly planted in reality. The deaths are eyewateringly effective and bone jarringly believable. The cast is small and play their parts, similar to Mummy on the Orient Express, with a realism that really adds to the suspension of belief. Christopher Fairbanks’ nasty piece of work Fenton is a lovely relection for the Doctor to muse on his own foibles (“Goodness has nothing to do with it!”) and Joivan Wade’s Rigsy is another in a long line of likeable pseudo companions s8 has thrown up.
Now, haters gotta hate, and people will criticise Flatline for being Claracentric (it’s not) and for making her the hero of the hour (she’s not). They may also criticise the fact that she now seems to be having a platonic affair with the Doctor and lying to both him and Danny, which won’t and doesn’t last long. But this is how Who is now, and for me this episode is a fantastic study in the dynamic between the Doctor and his companion, and how much the pair instinctively trust each other. Their relationship, despite the Doctor getting a bit annoyed, is very warm and loving.
Douglas MacKinnon does his best work on Who to date with Flatline, and is helped by another superb script by Jamie Mathieson, who really, really gets Doctor Who and is, in my opinion, the best writing discovery since RTD discovered Steven Moffat. Both director and writer are uncompromising, fearless, revelling in the horror of Who and not afraid to look at the dark places the Doctor has to go to to be the hero we know. In reflecting who the Doctor is in Clara, they let both her and us see that things aren’t as easy for him as we might first think, and it is a lovely motif followed through from Mummy on the Orient Express. Add to this another appearance from Missy who will leave us all chewing our knuckles in frustration, and Flatline is everything I want from Doctor Who. Anyone who disagrees is wrong. Simple as.