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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TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Time Heist” (08.05, 2014)

Written by Steve Thompson and Steven Moffat

Directed by Douglas MacKinnon

This episode has an interesting teaser. The Doctor gets a call on the TARDIS’s external phone and after he remarks that hardly anyone has the number, he and Clara suddenly awaken in a dark room with two others, the Doctor holding a memory worm and throwing it away so unobtrusively that it could easily be missed. They hear a message that begins with their own voices saying that they have agreed to a memory wipe. That’s followed by a heavily altered voice telling them about a nigh-impregnable bank, the largest and richest in the universe, that this team will now rob.

It’s a tense, interesting premise that really has some promise for the episode. It’s a shame that the episode doesn’t fully deliver on that promise.

Once you’ve set up a bank heist, you either have to be much smarter than the audience or use the history of heist films/shows for comic effect. This episode does neither. The basic reversal of the heist itself is that eventually we discover that the Doctor was chosen for this mission because it is a time-travel heist, which he comments that he was stupid not to figure out earlier. He’s right. And then we get a second reversal with the reveal that the heist isn’t actually a heist but a rescue, but that rescue was telegraphed by the repeated discussions of family and people who care about you and presenting the Teller as this important figure while also keeping him at least somewhat sympathetic with the Doctor commenting about how “loud” it must be inside his head.

There is still some fun to be had in the episode, with the Doctor nonplused by Clara’s date preparations, the strong opening, and a nice guest performance from Keeley Hawes, who manages to come across as two very different characters in her two roles. However, it’s just a dull, unmemorable episode in general, clearly the weakest of this season so far.

One thing that’s interesting is that the closing seems to suggest that the Doctor is attempting to get in the way of Clara’s dating. Since we’ve all heard about Capaldi’s “no romance” dictum, that suggests that he’s just trying to prevent Clara from leaving, which is not unheard-of from the Doctor. However, Clara being the control freak that she is makes it difficult to imagine his plan sitting well with her. The preview for next week made it clear that we have a “Doctor gets in the way of real life” episode coming up, and I can’t help but wonder if we are actually getting the groundwork laid for Clara’s departure soon. This series does not tend to hide its secrets very well, and there have been rumors that the next Christmas special will be Clara’s swan song (The BBC, for its part, only said that she will be in that special, saying nothing about her future beyond then.), so it wouldn’t exactly be a shock. That would give Clara one and a half seasons and three specials, roughly a season less than Amy Pond.

Douglas MacKinnon has only been directing Doctor Who episodes for the last couple of seasons, having previously worked with Moffat on Jekyll. However, even though he had not worked on that series, his Doctor Who episodes have been notable visually for how much they look like Moffat’s Sherlock series. The kinetic cutting, the lack of camera movement, the cold lighting, the muted colors, and even the unusual uses of text on screen are all things Sherlock has used repeatedly that suddenly started appearing on Doctor Who recently, particularly with McKinnon’s episodes.

Notes

  • Does anyone else find the halfway-on tie that Clara was wearing weird? And I couldn’t tell how the Doctor was supposed to be able to tell she was getting ready for a date, really–I was nearly as bewildered as he was.
  • It’s funny how new Clara still feels new. By midway through her first season, Amy Pond felt like (a) the star of the show and (b) she had been there for a long time. Clara still just feels like she’s popped in from somewhere else and we don’t know her yet. I don’t know what exactly has caused it, but I suspect that Coleman’s performance is a big part of it.
  • I really don’t want to watch any more of Clara and Pink. Those scenes are repeatedly boring and uninteresting.
  • Only Doctor Who can make the name “John Smith” exciting.

TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Listen” (08.04, 2014)

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Douglas MacKinnon

“Question: Why do we talk out loud when we know we’re alone? Conjecture: Because we know we’re not.”

While the Doctor’s speech about evolution in the teaser is rather inaccurate (Evolution doesn’t “perfect” things. It’s a messy process that is only concerned with getting “good enough” results. There are, unsurprisingly, no “perfect hunters.” There is no reason to expect “perfect hiding” as a result. One would expect good camouflage, which of course does exist.), the science-based horror opening is probably the best teaser in the series’ history.

Moffat always says that this is a series “meant to frighten children.” What frightens more children than something under the bed? And this episode suggests that there really is something under the bed. The Doctor is suddenly, inexplicably obsessed with the idea that there is something that avoids being seen at all costs, the “perfect hider,” and that it’s the sense that such a thing is present that leads to fear of the dark (even though the Vashta Nerada were already presented as an explanation for that in “Silence in the Library”), fear of what’s under the bed, and talking when there isn’t anyone there.

“You know what’s under there? . . . Me!”

In the end, when it’s revealed that Clara gave the Doctor the nightmare and sent him on this chase, we don’t know whether to think that they’re real. While it’s explained that the incident in Rupert’s room could have been just another kid under a bedspread, it seems rather unlikely that it is. We get a fuzzy glimpse of it after it takes off the bedspread and it really does not look human–it looks like some sort of goblinoid creature. It also seems awfully heavy for a human child. And it seems to arrive in the room awfully quietly considering that Clara and Rupert are under the bed and should have heard essentially any arrival possible. The opening of the door to Colonel Pink’s ship is also rather inexplicable without some sort of creature like what the Doctor is postulating in the opening.

It’s the same type of ending that makes The Usual Suspects (Brian Singer, USA 1996) such a complex experience even on repeated viewings–the ending that renders what came before entirely questionable and completely unexplained. It’s difficult to know what we’ve learned from this episode, because we don’t really know what’s happened. It’s a level of intricacy that’s beyond what Doctor Who typically employs.

Part of the reason that complexity works is how well this episode is tied together. The Doctor gives Rupert a dream that apparently influences him to become Dan the Soldier Man in the same way that Clara gives the Doctor the dream that sends him on this chase. Clara tells Rupert that she’s under the bed and then it turns out that, in the Doctor’s case, she is in fact under the bed.

“Clara, you must have seen it–you’ve got eyes out to here!”

The relationship between the Twelfth Doctor and Clara has been a very interesting development. One of my favorite Doctor-Companion relationships ever was between the Fourth Doctor and the first Romana, a fellow TIme Lord who ridiculed the Doctor for being old, being old fashioned, not knowing how to use the TARDIS properly, and constantly flying by the seat of his pants instead of using the tools he has at his disposal. Her sarcastic edge took some pomposity out of the Doctor and made him more enjoyable for it. Donna Noble had a similar relationship with the Tenth Doctor.

However, Clara and the Twelfth Doctor are now playing out an inversion of the same idea. The Doctor is an egotist obsessed with his own cleverness and intelligence, so Romana made fun of him by saying that he isn’t actually as smart as he thinks. Clara is an egotist obsessed with her own attractiveness, so the Doctor says things like, “it’s fine” describing her backside and, “she has such a wide face, she needs three mirrors!” His attacks on her vanity make her easier to accept, and they provide us with some excellent humor.

Peter Capaldi’s performance is a big part of making this work as well. The great Neil Gaiman tweeted recently that he “feels younger and younger, where [the Eleventh Doctor] felt so old,” and that description is (unsurprisingly–I mean, it did come from Neil Gaiman, after all) very apt. His egocentrism and picking on Clara have a childlike quality in that they seem to come more from not understanding what could possibly be bad about them than any malice. And his palpable joy at discovering anything unusual, no matter how frightening it may be, also betrays his inner alien-ness.

Unfortunately, Jenna Coleman really isn’t up to playing across from Capaldi. She’s not awful, but there are certainly times when she seems artificial, like when he was slaving the TARDIS to her subconscious and she seemed to be changing her reaction by the sentence based on what the Doctor wanted her reaction to be rather than on what Clara’s reaction would in fact be. I’ve tried to avoid being too negative about her performance, because I think she’s had a difficult task with a character who has not been well-defined, but I think Moffat and company have given her some definition to work with this season and her performance still seems confused.

“What kind of explanation would you like?”
“A reassuring one.”

What really makes this episode work, however, is its use of tension. Breaking Bad, of course, set the all-time standard for tense television, because it understood that tension means telling us that something is going to happen and then just waiting. Most shows and films don’t understand that waiting is what actually creates the tension. But this episode of Doctor Who definitely understands, giving us powerful minutes of inaction like waiting for the child Doctor to step out of the bed or Clara and Rupert’s rather inane conversation under the bed.

Overall, this was a fantastic episode. Jenna Coleman’s performance wasn’t great and the ending went on a bit long, with the last few minutes really being more than we needed, but everything else was so good that it was forgivable. It’s been a while since Steven Moffat has written a truly amazing episode–long enough that I didn’t really think he had it in him–but this one can stand alongside the best in the series.

Notes

  • “Waiting? For what? For who?” Ricky Watters laughs.
  • It’s weird that Clara always seems very young to me. Jenna Coleman was born exactly one year after I was.
  • “Do you have your own mood lighting now? Because really the accent was enough.” I really don’t know what that means. It’s rather funny anyway, and Capaldi’s reaction is hilarious, but I think that joke requires some understanding of how the English view the Scots that I just don’t have.