After 51 years it's hard for DOCTOR WHO to come up with fresh ways to deliver an episode. The revival's been active 9 years alone, and there are plenty of occasions when an episode feels like an amalgam of recent hits. "Flatline" impressed me because it was a fundamentally typical hour (with a vague similarity to the atrocious "Fear Her"), but a handful of creative differences helped set it apart from every other episode.
"Flatline" would have been a good episode with The Doctor involved outside of the TARDIS, I don't doubt it... but it became a great one because of his absence in the real world. Clara had to assume his role (even declaring herself a "doctor") and relished the chance to wield a sonic screwdriver and shove psychic paper into people's faces. It was a very entertaining subversion of their roles; with The Doctor only able to give Clara advice via earpiece, marginalised as a passenger needing her protection because the TARDIS was being drained of energy by the week's villain
And what a fantastic new enemy! An enigmatic species, later referred to as 'The Boneless', who exist in two dimensions and have the power to transform three-dimensional objects into flat representations. The missing people of Bristol have all been turned into ostensible graffiti (ironically, their own street mural), and The Doctor wasn't even sure if the aliens are aware of the damage they're causing. Doctor Who is awash with slow-moving monsters in masks, which gets tiring, so it was wonderful to have a villain that was more imaginative and visually interesting. The effects team did an incredible job showing our world being 'warped' flat, and I especially loved the sequences where The Boneless achieved three-dimensional "bodies" (appearing as staccato living oil paintings of their 'flattened' victims).
Overall, "Flatline" was an unexpected joy brimming with invention, sparkling performances, excellent special effects, and winning comedy. The sequence where The Doctor had to "Addams Family" himself to safety, by scuttling his TARDIS off a train track using his own fingers through its tiny door, was a stroke of visual genius. I was deflated by writer Jamie Mathieson's "Mummy on the Orient Express" after a promising start last week, but his immediate follow-up was a wonderful episode that turned a fun idea (killer graffiti!) into something special by tweaking the show's format so expertly. I only wish Doctor Who was this experimental more often.
- You may recognise guest-star Jovian Wade from E4's teen drama Youngsters, and Christopher Fairbank from Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. Or maybe from his small role in this summer's Guardians of the Galaxy.
- Missy (Michelle Gomez) made a memorable but brief appearance. Her only dialogue ("Clara, my Clara. I chose well") suggests Clara's either in cahoots with Missy, or was positioned as The Doctor's companion by Missy all along.
- The idea behind this episode was apparently commissioned by Steven Moffat after Jamie Mathieson drew him a simple picture. Presumably of The Doctor's enormous face beyond the open TARDIS doors, or his hand transforming it into a blue crab?