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.

TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Kill the Moon” (08.07, 2014)

Written by Peter Harness

Directed by Paul Wilmshurst

The conceit of this episode is fairly simple: the moon is actually a giant egg that hatches some sort of giant space dragon that is forcing its way out in 2049. The Doctor arrives with Clara and Courtney Woods (the troublemaking student we met last episode) in tow, figures out the problem, and then leaves it to the humans to decide what will happen.

The Doctor has always had a complex view of humanity. On one hand, he clearly loves humanity’s pioneering, inquisitive spirit. He praises its growth and ability to span the reaches of the universe, even against those who claim humanity as a disease. On the other hand, he is often dismayed at humans’ odd materialistic preoccupations and violent nature. This episode was in part an examination of the Doctor’s attitude toward humanity, his paternalistic “patronizing” (as Clara calls it) and clear disapproval of humans’ bloodthirst.

On that level, the episode works well enough, with the Doctor clearly disapproving of the fact that humans immediately want to kill the space dragon but also unwilling to guide them. And his sudden “hands off” approach to the humans’ moral dilemma is something that certainly only seems to appear at times when it is convenient for the Doctor to pass the buck on a decision that he does not want to make, leaving him wide open to criticism that Clara does not miss. When the situation is resolved, Clara and the Doctor have a fight the likes of which the Doctor may never have had with a companion before, and that scene is the one scene in this episode that stands out in a good way, with Jenna Coleman finally nailing a scene at the same time that Peter Capaldi does. Ending it all with us supposedly in suspense about the Doctor and Clara’s future (though Coleman being confirmed to be in the Christmas special certainly gives something away there) was also excellent–the overriding theme of this season has been how to resolve the contradictions at the heart of the Doctor, and here Clara finally realizes one of them and takes him on. To paraphrase Alice Cooper, how is she going to see him now?

The problem is that all of that is surrounded by a ridiculously obvious and facile discussion of abortion. The Doctor ensures that it is not only humans but females who make the decision about what to do with this egg, and goes out of his way to mention them being women at every given opportunity. Clara declares the space dragon inside the egg “life” while Lundvik declares it “a threat” and their discussion essentially takes the form of, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one, or is that right?” which just makes for a dull, un-nuanced version of the abortion debate.

Further, Courtney Woods is a dull, useless addition to the TARDIS crew. She acts more like a ten year old than a 15 year old, complaining of boredom and incapable of leaving alone the controls on the TARDIS. She has nothing interesting to say and adds nothing to the Clara-Doctor relationship.

Overall, it’s an episode that’s really defined by one problem: it’s just dumb. The facility of its abortion debate and the inanity of its moral discussion is just so extreme that it becomes almost difficult to watch. The only saving grace is the strong ending, with the Doctor and Clara arguing.

Notes

  • Broken apart moon is a science fiction cliche that should be avoided.
  • Why didn’t he just call it a space dragon? That’s clearly what it was.
  • The mess of magazines on Clara’s coffee table seemed decidedly un-Clara.

TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “The Caretaker” (08.06, 2014

Written by Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat

Directed by Paul Murphy

Sometimes, Doctor Who just seems to be wasting time. This episode is a good example. Clara’s relationship with Pink is “getting serious” (I hate that nonsensical phrase. It suggests an incredible amount of disprespect in relationships to say that they “get serious.”), so now we have to see whether the Doctor will approve of him. This has been a repeated plot device with this series–the Ninth Doctor was dismissive of Mickey, and then the Tenth Doctor slowly came to give him a modicum (though that is all) of respect. The Eleventh Doctor was pretty quick to be respectful of Rory, but still started out dismissive and then came to accept Mr. Pond as a member of the team, even if he was clearly second banana to Amy. The Twelfth Doctor has not been as enamored of his companion as the past Doctors have been of theirs, which could have led to a different reaction. Instead of saying, “This guy isn’t good enough for you,” he could have said, “Hey, I like this guy. I might like him better than you.” But no, Moffat has to return to the same pattern.

This episode really plays as filler–the monster is ill-defined and dull, the characterizations are flat and lifeless, the interaction is so by-the-numbers as to be dull, even the humor just falls flat (with a few exceptions–“No, I read the book. There’s a biography in the back” was awesome). Nothing that this series usually does well is done well here, and that makes its flaws difficult to swallow. It’s hardly even worth watching. An episode that gives us so many minor characters who are not likely to show up often should leave us wanting to see more of those characters, but I was already tired of Clara’s colleagues before this one ended, which is a very bad sign.

The acting is a mixed bag. With less to do in this episode, Jenna Coleman is fine. Samuel Anderson, meanwhile, continues to be really difficult to take. Danny Pink is an ill-defined character, but he’s especially difficult to understand because of his bizarre smiling and oddly changing affect. I don’t know who Danny Pink is. The writers haven’t helped, but that’s largely because of Anderson’s performance. However, Peter Capaldi continues to be brilliant. The scene of him and Danny on the TARDIS is one that I could not imagine either Matt Smith or David Tennant playing believably, but Capaldi does. While this season has been uneven Capaldi is definitely a great find.

A series like Doctor Who, one that gets to take its time with every season and hire essentially any writer it wants, should not have filler episodes. I understand it with an American 22-episode network series–sometimes you just don’t have it and you don’t have time to wait for it–but it’s really a problem for a series like this. And yet, here we are, with a completely empty episode that none of us is going to remember in a month, let alone a year.

Notes

  • Yes, it’s repetitive, but I actually like the structure Moffat has found with setting up his overall stories over the course of a season. I spent this entire episode thinking, “Well, we will probably at least get a Missy scene to think about at the end,” which made it easier to sit through an exceedingly dull episode.
  • I only knew what the word “squaddie” meant from Amy using it back in season five.
  • While the robot monster thing still looked a bit silly, it was a good example of how much better the effects are now than they were a few years ago.
  • “What good is a policeman without a death ray?” in a country where the police don’t generally carry guns. (At least as I understand it.)