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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

DOCTOR WHO Barely Avoids "Flatline" This Season


TV Review: ‘Doctor Who’ – ‘Flatline’

Article first published as TV Review: 'Doctor Who' - 'The 48' on Blogcritics.

In last night’s episode of Doctor Who (BBC America), “Flatline,” the TARDIS begins shrinking and draining of power. Clara (Jenna Coleman) gets out to investigate, but The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) stays in, soon becoming trapped in a box that fits in Clara’s purse. This means, though The Doctor offers a bit of help, Clara must take on his normal role in the crisis at hand, involving the invasion of two-dimensional beings that are killing human beings, whether intentionally or not.

“Flatline” does not feel out of character for Clara because she steps up on a regular basis. While the crutch of The Doctor may be sort of gone here, she is on her own enough in other episodes that this isn’t all that novel a concept to see again. I like the idea presented, that Clara must become like The Doctor, but because of who she is, the execution is not all that impressive, as it doesn’t change her much, if any.

At least, that is, until the end of the hour. Saving the day, Clara takes a moment to gloat that she’s a good Doctor. The Doctor says she is an excellent Doctor, but not necessarily a good one. This echoes the debate playing out throughout this season as to whether The Doctor is good or not. It’s hard to know exactly the meaning of the dialogue in this scene, but there are many things to consider. Does The Doctor not see himself as good? Is he afraid that by forcing Clara to act like him this week, he’s making her take on the worst parts of him? Is his judgment of her related to the way she’s been lying to Danny (Samuel Anderson) about quitting her adventures, something The Doctor clearly does not approve of?

Strange, too, how we see Missy (Michelle Gomez) crowing over ‘picking’ Clara. Did she arrange for Clara to meet The Doctor in the first place? If so, there are a lot of implications to explore, given Clara’s importance, more so than any Companion in memory, to Doctor Who. She saves every incarnation of The Doctor and the entire universe itself. Why is Missy shown to be proud here, at a comparably small moment, rather than during the bigger ones? Does this scene mean something else entirely that just isn’t obvious in the presentation of this episode?

The Doctor himself is a bit uneven in “Flatline.” For most of the episode, he’s the same as he’s been in previous weeks of Doctor Who, a bit too callous and uncaring. Then, at the climax, he steps out triumphantly to expel the aliens and declares Earth under his protection, making a heroic speech. At first glance, this is an inspiring moment for him, but upon further reflection, it feels unearned. What has he done, really, besides the obvious and necessary? He’s still not The Doctor fans love, and has not been since the latest incarnation takes over; still a broken man who needs mending.

I know I’m complaining a bit about character inconsistencies, but “Flatline” is certainly a better episode than last week’s, and highly enjoyable. The guest cast may be a bit weak and flat, 3-D beings more so than the literally flat monsters, but the pacing is solid and the story builds suspense appropriately. There is a mystery that unfolds quite naturally, and the writing makes us think about who the aliens are and what their motivations could be. It’s an examination of a new species with a different framework from our own, and paired with some intense running and clever problem solving, it’s a pretty good hour. Plus, the sacrifice of a noble headband is quite moving.

The special effects are also mostly amazing. There are some weird things when the TARDIS first goes small (not to mention, why doesn’t it keep shrinking at a regular rate?), but the tiny TARDIS is cool and the creatures are really well designed. It’s easy to imagine what we’re seeing is exactly how a 2-D life form might manifest in three dimensions, not yet understanding the concept enough. The folding in of the art and graffiti is neat, and the design of “Flatline” leaves much to be revisited and appreciated.

With only one week left before the big, two-part finale, I’m still not confident this will all come together as well as it has in the past, but I’m getting excited to be done with the mundane cases and see what this season has been about. Will it make year eight worth it, or will the conclusion be as disappointing as certain weeks have been recently? And will River Song finally make a long-overdue appearance?

Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America.

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