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“Flatline” is Doctor Who at the top of its game.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of Doctor Who or not: this week’s episode, “Flatline,” is just plain good sci-fi. After a season with a lot of material that’s felt like a retread of showrunner Steven Moffat’s greatest hits, it’s great to land on an episode that takes us somewhere that feels completely new. The star of the episode is an all-new monster with some thoroughly unique — and thoroughly creepy — visuals. (Really, the art department deserves some major kudos for bringing the episode’s unusual concept to life.)

But the monster of the week, no matter how unique, can’t push aside great moments with both The Doctor and Clara, with Clara forced to take on the role of The Doctor after he’s trapped in the TARDIS. The resulting episode has great visuals, more than a few laughs, and some real chills, and Peter Capaldi finally getting a proper “Doctor” speech, which the series somehow hasn’t gotten around to giving him yet.

So if you haven’t watched it yet… what are you still doing here? “Flatline” is a must-see for fans. You can see new episodes of Doctor Who on Saturday nights on BBC America — though cord-cutters will have to pick up the current season on iTunes or Amazon Instant. If you want to catch up on earlier seasons, they can be found on both Netflix and Hulu.

To get you up to speed for this episode, in the last episode we saw:

  • The Doctor and Clara going on a farewell trip for one last hurrah before she leaves for good. It’s a trip on the Orient Express, which is a space train.
  • The trip quickly turns into an adventure as people on the train start dying, picked off by the mythical creature The Foretold. (What is it with this show and the definite article?)
  • The Doctor displayed his now-trademark disregard for the deaths of others, focusing instead on solving the week’s mystery… but when he does save someone after telling Clara there was no hope, she asks if he only pretends to be heartless.
  • Though Clara (and the audience) don’t get a firm answer on that question, the suggestion that The Doctor still is doing his best to save people even when he doesn’t always manage is enough to convince Clara to keep traveling with him.

Now, on to the latest episode: “Flatline.” Spoilers follow!

The episode starts out harmlessly enough, with the Doctor taking Clara home. Clara hasn’t told Danny that she’s continuing to travel with The Doctor and she’s also lying to The Doctor about Danny being fine with their adventures. It’s hard to see why Clara’s bothering with this juggling act since Danny’s clearly too smart to fall for Clara’s really terrible lies, it starts to fall apart when Danny calls her at an inopportune time. “Does it even count as lying if you do it for somebody’s own good?” Clara asks. Yes, Clara, it does, especially since Danny has already confronted you about being honest with him. This really can’t end well.

However, the question of Danny is derailed when the TARDIS veers off course and lands in Bristol. While these days The Doctor is shown as mostly in control of the TARDIS, this setup is reminiscent of countless episodes of classic Who in which the week’s adventure only occurred because the TARDIS didn’t land where intended — and when the TARDIS is steering, it has a keen nose for trouble. It turns out people have been disappearing in town — including some genuine locked-door mysteries, which piques The Doctor’s interest — but more than that, the TARDIS has shrunk. “This is huge!” The Doctor enthuses while walking around a chest-high TARDIS… and of course they can’t go anywhere until they figure out what’s wrong.

But the real twist comes a bit later, after the TARDIS shrinks again — now toy-sized — trapping The Doctor inside. This means Clara needs to be his eyes and ears for the episode, and he passes her the sonic screwdriver and the psychic paper through the TARDIS door to arm her for her investigation. (There’s an Alice in Wonderland quality to the tiny TARDIS — especially when The Doctor is talking to Clara or passing her things through the door — which adds to the episode’s great visuals.) Clara tucks the TARDIS in her purse and spends most of the episode wondering what The Doctor would do in her situation — at times mimicking him (calling herself Doctor Oswald) and at other times openly mocking him… but, for the most part, it’s fun to watch Clara investigating while the Doctor’s stuck on his own, only able to offer color commentary to Clara through an earpiece.

But as the episode’s stakes rise, the laughs become fewer and further between. The monster of the week — which The Doctor dubs The Boneless — is determined to be something from beyond the known universe that only exists in two dimensions. When it attacks, it turns its victims into 2D “art” of a sort, which explains graffiti around town of the missing people. When attacking, the creature appears almost like a liquid — but really just a flat color moving across walls or floors — and when it reaches its target, they, too, become two dimensional, turning into a seeming splatter of paint on the walls. As the creatures learn more about their environment, they manage to turn themselves into blocky 3D representations based off of the people they’ve attacked — and whether they’re in 2D or 3D, they’re thoroughly frightening as they hunt down Clara and the group she’s fallen in with. The Boneless turn people into 2D paintings without warning… and sometimes the group only notices when they see the now-2D person from the wrong angle. Creepy.

This is where The Doctor and Clara’s role reversal gets really interesting. As the group is put in greater and greater danger, Clara finds herself having to make some difficult choices. What does she tell them? How does she help them? The Doctor tries to talk her through it, suggesting how to take leadership of the group and how people with hope tend to fight harder to survive. This gives Clara — and us — a first-hand look at the hard choices The Doctor has to make… and it means The Doctor, too, has to confront how he acts around others. (“So that’s what I sound like?”)

While many episodes put both The Doctor and Clara at risk, it’s rare that you actually feel there’s a danger: with The Doctor often acting over-confident, it’s hard to think that they won’t make it. But here, with The Doctor on his own there are moments when he clearly doesn’t think he’s going to make it, going so far as to try to encourage Clara she can save the group without him when he thinks the (tiny) TARDIS is about to be hit by a train to giving a dramatic goodbye speech when life support in the TARDIS starts failing. “You made a mighty fine Doctor,” he tells Clara without being sure she can hear him… and anyone watching would have to agree, because being in charge is something she manages extremely well (aside from constantly bungling things with Danny). And, after seeing this version of The Doctor be thoroughly uncaring this season, it’s good to see that he’s not entirely immune from feeling and fear.

But since we already know we have another episode next week, things work out in the end: Clara manages to recharge the TARDIS’s energy banks and, back at full size, the TARDIS pushes the The Boneless away from the group with a force field before The Doctor strides out and gives a speech we’ve come to expect from his other incarnations: saying that this plane is protected and they’re not welcome here.

Matt Smith and David Tennant both had that speech in their very first episodes… but with Peter Capaldi, we’ve waited until episode 9 to get a real sense that he cared about saving people. This was a great episode, but it feels like we should have gotten to this point a lot sooner — preferably without spending the first half of the season seeing how much the audience could grow to dislike the main character. The story arc of Clara distrusting and then learning to trust this new Doctor has driven some truly great — and also well overdue — character development for Clara, but it’s taken far too long for it to get to the good stuff (i.e. this episode).

Of course the episode ends with a twist that suggests Clara might not be what she seems… but we’ll have to wait and see just what Moffat has in store for us there.

Bottom Line: “Flatline” isn’t just a great Doctor Who story, it’s a great hour of innovative science fiction. The episode’s thoroughly strange story is backed up by compellingly creepy visuals — no bubble wrap monsters here — that make it a treat, both narratively and visually.

Recommendation: “Flatline” is the best episode of season 8 so far. Whether you’ve been keeping up with the season or not, you should watch it.

[rating=4.5]

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