I’m not going to lie, for the last few weeks, watching Doctor Who has been a bit of a chore. It’s been up and down (but mostly down), and even the pretty good episodes have been missing that intangible element, that Doctor Who-ness that makes me love this show. It looks like Who, and sounds like Who, but it’s not Doctor Who. And then I reached “Flatline”. This is the episode I’ve been waiting for, the first episode this series that I have gotten that thrill, that little shiver of happiness that I associate with the best of Doctor Who.
It starts with the monster of the week: The Boneless. Dumb name, but that hardly matters. Their realization is everything that a Who monster should be. The two dimensional aliens that are experimenting on people, trying to discover the nature of three dimensional space are deeply unsettling—especially when they take three dimensional form. The effects are low budget CGI, but that’s something that works for the show. It’s the ideas that make things scary, something that twists the ordinary just enough that it becomes utterly terrifying. And this is a brilliant example of that. Now we have to be afraid of pictures and designs on the wall.
Of course, because this is a family show, it also needs to be fun in addition to being terrifying. In “Flatline”, the fun comes in the form of the shrinking Tardis. With The Doctor trapped inside, the presence of the 2D aliens causes it to shrink so small that Clara can carry it around in her purse. It’s silly, but in just the right way as The Doctor’s hand keeps emerging from the doors to hand things to Clara or move the Tardis, like the hand from the Adam’s family, Thing. It’s cute, funny and also ties into the anxieties created throughout the episode because The Doctor is well and truly trapped. This means that it’s up to Clara to save the day.
This throws into sharp relief just how much of my annoyances with this season are with The Doctor himself. This episode is vintage Who, except instead of The Doctor, we have Clara in his place, and he’s not really missed. It’s all about Clara. She introduces herself as Doctor Oswald and even gets her own companion. And the thing is, at this point, I kind of wish she was The Doctor. She’s smart, resourceful and, most importantly, she cares. She cares about people and discovering things and solving problems. Here, she is the one who saves the people from The Boneless. She is the one who saves The Doctor from being trapped in the tiny Tardis. The Doctor does some sci-fi mumbo jumbo to actually turn The Boneless into dust, but that moment doesn’t have a lot of resonance. His speech is a weird amalgam of the previous Doctor’s defining speeches and falls flat. It’s sad to think that the show now works better when The Doctor has been relegated to a sidekick, but that appears to be where we are at. There’s just no getting around the fact that while I still love this show, I no longer love The Doctor.
(And a side note: Moffat, this whole Missy/Heaven story arc isn’t working. Stick to the complicated timey-whimy stuff. It’s what you do best.)