Doctor Who Recap: ‘Flatline’ Was Doctor Lite, And A Triumph On Every Single Level

By necessity, Doctor Who is a show about the people that he travels with -- and there have been few better demonstrations of this than the brilliant 'Flatline'. [Spoiler alert.]

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This recap deals explicitly with plot points from this week’s episode of Doctor Who. Spoiler alert.

2014: “It’s Doctor Who, not Clara Who!” 2005: “It’s Doctor Who, not Rose Who!” 1989: “It’s Doctor Who, not Ace Who!” 1971: “It’s Doctor Who, not Brigadier Who!” 1963: “It’s Doctor Who, not Susan, Ian and Barbara Who!”

Long story short: ’twas ever thus.

Bizarrely, Doctor Who fans still get upset when the Doctor’s companion is put front and centre. When the series rebooted in 2005, some fans complained about the first episode Rose, because despite the Doctor doing lots of clever things and figuring it all out and defeating the bad guys, Rose had one moment where she saved the Doctor, so suddenly the Doctor was defanged and useless, and clearly the show had gone down the drain.

Two problems with this. Actually, about seventy problems with this, but I have a word limit. One: the Doctor as action hero who combats physical threats is a relatively new one. From the beginning, the Doctor was paired with a young, physically fit male companion – Ian, Steven, Ben, Jamie, the Brigadier and his UNIT soldiers – until about 1975. Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor was younger than his predecessors, and so the dashing Harry Sullivan was soon written out. But even with a new, fitter Doctor, he still had Leela throwing deadly Janis thorns and robot dog K9 laser zapping foes.

Doctor Who’s diminishing budget was evident: they could no longer afford to shrink Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman.

Doctor Who’s diminishing budget was evident: they could no longer afford to shrink Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman.

The second problem is a strange one. We’ve had 50+ years with the Doctor, and he remains a fascinating, mysterious character; we’ve always viewed him through the eyes of his companions. Because as much as we talk about the “Fourth Doctor’s Era” or the “Seventh Doctor’s Era”, the times are marked out by the emotional arcs of the companions.

Even back in 1964’s The Dalek Invasion of Earth, it’s quite jarring when the Doctor’s grand-daughter leaves and the show takes a sudden emotional left-turn into something quite different. Likewise, the Fourth Doctor’s relationship with his “best friend” Sarah Jane is completely different to the Pygmalion relationship he has with Leela, or the intellectual rivalry of Time Lady Romana. The show shifts based on who is travelling with the Doctor in the TARDIS, and it’s their journeys we follow.

The “floor is lava” game, rendered too terrifying for children to ever play again.

The “floor is lava” game, rendered too terrifying for children to ever play again.

This week Clara truly took centre stage in Flatline, the latest in the tradition of so-called “Doctor Lite” stories.

Doctor Lite episodes are a regular feature of the show, allowing the lead to take a break from the notoriously exhausting schedule. These have included the likes of Love & Monsters, Turn Left, The Girl Who Waited, and Steven Moffat’s 2007 masterpiece Blink, starring future Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan. They even go as far back as 1964, when the First Doctor would be knocked unconscious for an entire episode so that William Hartnell could take a week off.

This week’s story, Flatline, has a lot in common with The Girl Who Waited, in which the Doctor, trapped in the TARDIS, uses the companion as his eyes and ears. On the production side, it’s probably about a single day’s filming for the Doctor, but with these scenes sprinkled throughout the episode, we never feel like he’s gone.

Flatline is a triumph on every single level: as a science fiction concept, it’s one of the best the show has ever had; as a character piece, it’s superb; as a postmodern text, it’s blindingly clever; as a thriller, it’s bloody terrifying. The writing, directing, acting and special effects are all brilliant, with some truly extraordinary forced perspective and tremendous alien design that is intangible and frightening.

The moment where the Doctor is using his hand to move the TARDIS like a hermit crab is thrilling and hilarious all at once. That moment is the essence of the show: there are real stakes, but it’s also just silly enough to keep us laughing. Perfect.

As if TeeFury needed added incentive for a Doctor Who/Addams Family mashup.

As if TeeFury needed added incentive for a Doctor Who/Addams Family mash-up.

In this particular story, the idea of Clara Who isn’t just a reference to the fact that she’s carrying the episode: with the sonic screwdriver in one hand and the Psychic Paper in the other, she truly becomes the Doctor. At first, she’s amusing herself by doing an impression of him, and he’s shocked by her behaviour (as we all are when we see ourselves with some perspective). Faced with saving everyone’s life and combating a threat, she soon slips naturally into the role of genius protector.

The climax, in which Clara restores the TARDIS and saves the Doctor’s life, is an instant classic: the problem is difficult enough for us to be left wondering how she’ll get out of it, but logical enough that we can, after the fact, see perfectly how she solved it. In this respect, it’s one of the finest puzzles the show has ever had.

Doctor Who isn’t just about a time traveller solving crimes as an audience avatar looks on in wonder, occasionally screaming, running down corridors, and asking “But Doctor, what is it?”. By necessity, Doctor Who is a show about the people the Doctor travels with — and there have been few better demonstrations of this idea than the brilliant Flatline.

Questions to ponder:

  • Anyone else expect a Yeti to come stumbling through the darkness? Well, no, that wouldn’t have made any sense in the context of the story. But there’s something about Doctor Who and underground train tunnels that just feels right.
  • Is there any precedent for the TARDIS becoming a cube, you ask? Why, yes! You’ll want to seek out the 2000 Eighth Doctor novel The Burning by Justin Richards.
  • Did we enjoy this new limitation of the Psychic Paper? In the past, the all-purpose credentials have failed when the lie was too big (the Eleventh Doctor’s claim that he was “a mature and responsible adult”), or when the other person was too big a genius to be fooled by it (William Shakespeare). Here, one person’s lack of imagination prevents him from being taken in, meaning that it doesn’t work on the very smart or the very stupid.
  • Why did the Doctor feel the need to name them “The Boneless”? For the sake of fans and continuity guides everywhere! We don’t want another Ice Warrior situation, do we?
  • Any connection between the Boneless and the Isolus of 2006’s Fear Her, who could transfer from 2D to 3D and back? Fan fic away!

Throwback Thalday

ThrowbackEnjoy seeing the TARDIS shrunk to comical dimensions? There’s a number of classic stories that do this, such as 1964’s Planet of Giants and 1981’s Logopolis, but I’m going to direct you towards 1973’s Carnival of Monsters.

It looks like a nightmare of day-glo colours and silly monsters, but it’s actually a contender for the Third Doctor’s best story: the Doctor and Jo fight their way through an alien-filled miniaturised world designed for the viewing pleasure of the general (alien) public.

Doctor Who screens on the ABC simultaneously with the BBC, at AEST4.30am on Sundays, before a repeat at 7.40pm.

Lee Zachariah is a writer and journalist. He co-hosted the ABC2 film comedy series The Bazura Project, and is a co-presenter of film podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates. He tweets at @leezachariah