TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Flatline” (08.09, 2014)

Written by Jamie Mathieson

Directed by Douglas MacKinnon

First, a note about last week’s episode: I did not review it because it was such a piece of unmemorable filler that I had nothing to say about it. I hardly remember it a week later–that’s how memorable it was.

And then we get “Flatline,” which was . . . well, clearly an episode written to be able to give Peter Capaldi some time off without really moving anything forward.

The basic premise of this episode is that there are creatures living in a two-dimensional plane who draw power from first humans and then the TARDIS to bring themselves into the three-dimensional plane in order to . . . draw . . . more . . . power? It hardly makes sense and the episodes specifics make even less sense, using pure magic while barely even bothering to dress it up in the scientific gobbledygook that the Doctor usually spouts to explain his actions saving the world. It’s a shockingly unthinking episode for a show that, as silly as it may be, typically is built on a foundation of promoting intelligence and science that makes it stand out from other silly television.

Mathieson’s villain makes so little sense that the visual impact that it offers is muted by wondering what it is doing and why every step of the way. Never are we clear on the motives or even the import of the activities of the Boneless, and that makes the entire episode difficult to take.

And then the climax of this episode appears to be intended as the Twelfth Doctor’s version of the Eleventh Doctor’s “I’m the Doctor. Basically, run.” speech back in “The Eleventh Hour,” and as that, it completely fails. “I name you the Boneless!” is about as poor an attempt at badassery as could be made, and while Capaldi delivers the speech with gusto, it’s as empty as the rest of this episode.

At the conclusion, the Doctor and Clara have something of a confrontation where the Doctor comes to the terrifying realization that he has burned the idealistic goodness out of Clara Oswald, leaving her just as capable of cold-hearted, calculated decision-making as the Doctor is. He comments, heavy-handedly, that while Clara made an “exceptional” Doctor, “there was nothing ‘good’ about it.” The problem with this scene is that, for the first time since taking the role, Capaldi really seemed off. His reaction to Clara was a cold-blooded annoyance that simply does not befit the Doctor, even the less accessible Twelfth Doctor. One can imagine Matt Smith playing this scene, looking worried and sympathetic the way he did when he was watching the scans of Amy Pond vacillate between pregnant and not pregnant, and how much more emotional impact the scene would have under those circumstances. The Eleventh Doctor commented back in “Amy’s Choice” that Amy and Rory didn’t have much darkness to them, because “I choose my friends very carefully,” and yet the Twelfth Doctor seems to have no sense of pain or loss at the realization that his friend is no longer what he chose.

In the end, it’s an episode that keeps Capaldi off screen, likely for scheduling purposes, and whose only function in the larger arc of the series is to start the Doctor wondering about Clara as his companion. The story that it uses to get there is silly nonsense even by this series’s standards, and none of it works well. Doctor Who has been off its game since “Listen,” but at least we have two Moffat episodes to look forward to.

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