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.

The Best of Doctor Who: “The Eleventh Hour” (05.01, 2010)

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Adam Smith

I said of “Amy’s Choice” that it was quite possibly the episode I’ve re-watched the most of any episode of Doctor Who. If there’s one I’ve watched more, it’s probably “The Eleventh Hour,” the episode that introduces Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor and Amy Pond* and kicks off easily the strongest season of the series’ history.

*Technically, it also introduces Rory Williams, but he is so ill-defined and ineffectual a character, there as essentially nothing more or less than a plot device, that it hardly feels at all like his introduction. That’s not really a criticism of the episode, of Rory, or of Arthur Darvill, but it’s how this episode plays out.

Everything that Moffat does well is on full display here.

I said that part of his formula is that he loves to build up to a melodramatic crescendo and then about half the time he comically pulls the rug out from under the ending while the other half he lets play out. In this episode, he does both. First, the Doctor celebrates his own accomplishment in saving the world by saying, “Who the man?!” only to see Amy and Rory stare at him as if he has just said the dumbest thing in recorded history and then say, “Okay, that was rubbish. I’m never saying that again.” Then, when he brings the Atraxi back and warns them not to return, concluding, “I’m the Doctor. Basically: run,” and that’s exactly what the Atraxi do.

Moffat’s sense of humor results in a number of great comic moments throughout the episode. There’s the sequence of child Amy Pond trying to get the Doctor food he likes, with his palpable excitement at each attempt matched by his disgust at every result until he ends up with the atrocious-sounding fish fingers and custard. There’s telling Jeff to delete his internet history. There’s his dismissive treatment of Rory in saying, “Not him–the good looking one!” And of course, best of all, there’s, “I’m the Doctor, I’m worse than everybody’s aunt!”

Meanwhile, the new principal characters he introduces are quickly defined in ways that make sense. The Doctor has always been a mixture of deep caring and dismissiveness, perfectly exemplified by his willingness to help a little Scottish girl who is afraid of a crack in her bedroom wall but also his treatment of Rory as though his completely worthless. He’s a genius who can figure out that there is an Atraxi prison on the other side of the wall and the crack is deeper than just between those two but also clumsy enough to take 12 years after he says he will return in five minutes. And the new Doctor’s lightness and zaniness are immediately apparent–he evinces none of the internal darkness of the Ninth or even the Tenth Doctor, and he does bizarre things like taste a shed to figure out that it’s far older than Amy says it is. Amy Pond is an adventurous girl with no fear and more than her share of sarcasm, and that’s clear even before we meet her adult self, with her acceptance of the Doctor’s crazy antics and disbelief that he has a time machine.

And then of course there is the introduction of Karen Gillan. Her limitations as an actor are pretty obvious–seriously, explain what the hell she is doing when she talks to the Doctor about the psychiatrists she “kept fighting” with that bizarre, ineffable look on her face. However, so is her magnetic charisma and attractiveness, as well as the fact that her limitations aren’t crippling–she plays her angry, confused disbelief of the Doctor when she locks his tie into the car perfectly and her eventual acceptance of his reality a moment later is also perfect.

Season Five is the best in the series’ history, and it was obvious that we were in for a great ride from the beginning, because it was so obvious that the series was in good hands. Even if you ignored the great work Moffat had done earlier in the series (Spoiler: He has two more episodes on this list. Yes, he wrote the top three.), “The Eleventh Hour” makes it clear that he knows what he’s doing.

Oh, and “I Am The Doctor” is Murray Gold’s finest work, and this is its first appearance.

The Best of Doctor Who: No. 5, “The God Complex” (06.11, 2011)

Written by Toby Whithouse

Directed by Nick Hurran

“I stole your childhood and now I’ve lead you by the hand to your death. But the worst thing is, I knew. I knew this would happen. This is what always happens. Forget your faith in me. I took you with me because I was vain, because I wanted to be adored. Look at you, glorious Pond. The girl who waited for me. I’m not a hero. I really am just a mad man in a box. And it’s time we saw each other as we really are. Amy Williams. It’s time to stop waiting.”

I was very disappointed in season six of Doctor Who. After how great season five was, the messy season that came unraveled at the end seemed pretty poor by comparison. However, it still had some wonderful moments, especially including this little disconnected one-off episode tucked away in the middle of the unraveling.

The Doctor, like any truly complex character (or actual person), contains numerous contradictions, one of which is his combination of guilt-ridden self-loathing and arrogant self-love. While the self-love is more apparent and pretty clearly a mask for his guilt–“I am so impressive!”–the self-loathing is an important part of his character and extraordinarily powerful, and his speech to Amy is one of the two strongest examples. (The other will come up later in the countdown. In fact, it will be tomorrow’s episode.)

The episode begins with a terrifying setting: a dumpy ’80s hotel, complete with cheesy music and garish decor. Slowly, the Doctor and the Ponds discover that the rooms in the hotel are filled with everyone’s greatest fears, ranging from a giant gorilla to insulting teenaged girls. A Minotaur travels the halls, somehow taking away those who finally crack from the fear (though what it does with them is completely unknown).

Eventually, the Doctor figures out that the Minotaur is feeding on people’s faith, using fear to make people cling to that faith. Amy and Rory have been safe, he says, because they don’t believe in anything. The college student believes in conspiracies, the Muslim believes in God, but Amy and Rory don’t have a faith to feed off of. And then, it finds one in Amy–her faith in the Doctor. The Doctor decides that the only way to save her from the Minotaur is to convince her to forget her faith in him, giving her the speech above. He attacks her faith, using his self-loathing, and it works. It’s a turning point in their relationship, as he for the first time loses his power over her, as she is left wondering about the accuracy of his description and perhaps for the first time recognizing how little the Doctor thinks of himself.

It’s also noteworthy how well Karen Gillan and Matt Smith play the scene. If there is one scene that makes the perfect example of how much Gillan improved over the course of her run on the show, it’s her reaction to the Doctor’s speech. And the earnestness with which Smith delivers it, countering his usual goofiness, is a significant part of why it works.

It’s an episode that gives us a fantastic horror setting and then uses it to play out an important aspect of the Doctor’s personality as well as of his relationship with Amy Pond. And it has its own sense of humor, even if it’s much more serious than most episodes. Horror with a sense of humor and an understanding of the Doctor and his relationships–what more can you expect from Doctor Who?