A question that often emerges whenever a new Doctor is to be chosen is when will we see a female incarnation and, if we did, what would she be like? Flatline gives us a possible answer to this perennial question, as, with Capaldi inconveniently indisposed, Clara has to take the Doctor’s place and devise a plan to save the people of Bristol from an imperceptible foe.
Having overshot London by about 100 miles, the Doctor and Clara arrive in present day Bristol, which has recently suffered a spate of mysterious disappearances, the victim’s of which have been seemingly memorialised in graffiti on a concrete underpass.
After a sluggish opening as the Doctor and Clara try to worm their way into the mystery, the story quickly picks up the pace and it’s not long before the duo are separated – the Doctor trapped in a rapidly shrinking TARDIS, leaving Clara to step into the Time Lord’s Doc Martins and team up with a community service crew to defeat an invading horde of inter-dimensional beings.
One of the overarching themes this year has been Clara’s difficulty in understanding the Doctor’s cold, desensitised attitude to human life and this episode tackles that issue head on by arming Clara with the sonic screwdriver and psychic paper – and even her own companion in the form of sweet, mischievous graffiti artist Rigsy (Joivan Wade) – and giving her the chance to finally see what it’s like to be the Doctor.
As it turns out it isn’t quite as simple as it looks from the sidelines and Clara immediately reverts to ripping pages from the Doctor’s rule book – lying to her followers to give them hope and make them more compliant, and shrugging off any loss of life as a necessary evil for the greater good.
Coleman, as she has all series, is exceptional throughout, trying to remain calm and in control as she’s dragged further out of her depth and understandably losing her perspective as the pressure mounts.
The role reversal also has a revelatory effect on the Doctor. He may be sidelined for the majority of the episode, but Capaldi is a constant presence, barking orders Clara via an earpiece, a device that also gives him a unique perspective to experience how his actions are perceived by others.
Capaldi’s incarnation has spent much of this series mulling his own morality, constantly asking if he is a good man, and the hopelessly unsettled and disappointed expression he pulls as he watches his companion’s triumphant gloating – despite a hefty loss of life – suggests he may have finally found an answer. As he later tells Clara: being an exceptional Doctor has nothing to do with goodness.
Flatline is the second consecutive episode to be written by Jamie Mathieson, who must surely become a regular on the writing staff after delivering another strong story. Mathieson strikes the perfect tone here, balancing humour with scares by playing the role reversal for comedy while delivering another formidable monster.
It seems the writer has a knack for creating spooky antagonists, and while the nameless monsters in this episode lack the initial fright-factor of the Foretold – due to some decisively unsubtle stalking and shonky CGI – once they’re fully realised in all their warped, sinewy glory they become truly terrifying and help to ratchet up the tension in the final act.
It’s disappointing, then, that the climax is far too easy as the Doctor conveniently pops up, eyes and eyebrows ablaze with vengeance, to banish the monsters back from whence they came, ridding Clara of the chance to finish saving the day.
On the whole, though, Flatline is a thoroughly entertaining sci-fi adventure that matches monster movie thrills with thematic weight and continues to build anticipation as we draw ever closer to the impending series finale.
Next week on Doctor Who… Wolves, tigers and a giant fireball are the primary antagonists for the Doctor and his companion as a forest springs up in the middle of London. Is this the end of days for humanity, as we know it? Probably not, but it looks like a lot of fun.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: Flatline on BBC iPlayer