What is a ‘gang’? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a ‘gang’ could mean anything from the manner in which you walk, a river-bed, a flight of stairs or even “a group or band of people who go around together, or associate with one another regularly”. With all that keenly in mind, I’d like to announce that, following the recent relationship wobbles that have been going on in the hotly-watched new series of Doctor Who, the river-bed is back together, happy as a lamb who pranced into an old piratical treasure cove. Now whether or not two people can make a flight of stairs is certainly a matter for further debate. Just, y’know, not here. This is the forum where I blather and blither about all things recently ‘Who’-related, specifically episode nine: ‘Flatline’. Oh good God that rhymes. I hope it doesn’t happen all the time…s.
Have you ever noticed that despite the whole mission statement of Doctor Who, adventures in time and space, there’s a heck of a lot of focus on that former notion, but not so much the latter? How do you really make a buckle-swashing adventure based on space? I know Doctor Who has dabbled with the idea before, but in this episode, ‘Flatline’, we get a bloody novel spin on the idea of adventures ‘in’ space. And when I say ‘novel’ I mean ‘unsettlingly terrifying, even more than that teleporting mummy from last week by a good furlong’. It’s also the Clara Oswald show this week, so please feel free to set off your especially-set-aside fireworks to show your appreciation. Whoosh. Bang. Applause.
This episode opens with The Doctor trying to get Clara back home, but ending up in a series of council estates in Bristol, with the TARDIS somehow even smaller on the outside than it is usually. Mystery reeks around every corner and there’s this group of community-service-types forced to repaint over some haunting graffiti of people who have suspiciously vanished. The Doctor makes for his TARDIS, only for it to shrink to adorable-toy size and trap him inside leaving Clara on her own-some lone-some with genial young offender-slash-graffiti artist Rigsy. It’s up to her (with The Doctor communicating through a whizzy little ear piece) to solve a series of locked room mysteries, figure out what’s caused the TARDIS to shrink so much and get back in time for tea. I assume there’ll be tea.
So Clara has taken on the persona of ‘Doctor Oswald’ and is acting as a sort of sassier surrogate Doctor in order to basically do what The Doctor would do if he was able to walk around freely from his teeny-tiny little time machine. As you might expect, this freedom gives Clara the chance to do things her way, or the way she’d prefer The Doctor to do them at least, and Jenna Coleman holds that down like nobody’s business.
So, armed with psychic paper and the sonic screwdriver, ‘Doctor Oswald’, Rigsy and a local bobby (that’s the po-lice, in case you aren’t familiar with daft English nomenclature) check out the home of the latest disappearance, finding only a strange mural of a desert on the wall. They begin inspecting things, with The Doctor suggesting that they examine the walls on an idea posited by Rigsy. The lowly copper checks out another room by themselves only to get absorbed by the floor, which ‘Doctor Oswald’ and Rigsy check out for themselves, only to find no trace of our poor police and a strange new mural on the wall. A mural of the human nervous system. Then things get messed up.
All the surfaces start to run and bleed into one another, like an army of flat and distorted snakes worming towards ill purpose. Clara and Rigsy leap onto a conveniently-placed hanging chair and make a dashing escape through the nearest window before the room is consumed in, well, WHATEVER was going on, all the while laughing away platitudes at an unexpected phone call from one Danny Pink. Oh Clara, this new plan of lying to the people closest to you isn’t going so well now, is it?
Rigsy and Clara make it back to the other community-service-types, only for the murals they’re painting over to come to life and chase after them through the industrial underbelly of Bristol. The Doctor is obviously impressed with this discovery of a being that exists in only two dimensions, and theorizes that they’re only trying to figure out what is to be in three. Surely they don’t mean any harm? After an attempt at communicating using the power of maths (fanfare), things go even more sour and the remaining two painters, Rigsy and Clara head into the train tunnels for an escape route. All the while, the TARDIS’ energy is being sapped by these fell boogins, with The Doctor scrabbling for an idea as to how to stop them.
The gang’s journey in the tunnels is unexpectedly extended when they find their way out has been made 2D. Cue a massive hand made of stone pulling another disposable gang member away and everything goes that bit more nuts.
Now, I haven’t mentioned the principal creatures of this episode in that great an amount of detail yet, so it’s at this junction that I really feel I should. These things that exist in only two dimensions, who are later dubbed ‘The Boneless’, are quite frankly stupefying creepy. A massive accolade must go to the effects team behind this episode, for not only are The Boneless’ initial hard-to-see-colour-bleeding-worm effect unquestionably unnerving, not only is the sudden discovery of someone’s death by a slight change in perspective akin to an anamorphic painting distressing, but once The Boneless have discovered that sought-after third dimension they become the stuff of nightmares: shuddering distorted mock-ups of people that scramble after our remaining troupe down darkened train tunnels. Heavens to Murgatroyd, Doctor Who, don’t you want children to sleep ever again?
The Doctor throws together a device that should un-flatten the door handle, but in doing so accidentally allows The Boneless to siphon more power from the TARDIS, causing it to fall form Clara’s bag onto an active railway. The Doctor puts the TARDIS into siege mode to save it from the oncoming train, but in doing so means he doesn’t have the power to unshrink it or even communicate with Clara. Bugger.
Rigsy tries to buy the gang some time to come up with a plan by driving a train at The Boneless, but is saved from stupid self-sacrifice by Clara and a handy hair band. Now with a bemused but scared train conductor in their little crew, Clara comes up with a plan. Using Rigsy’s graffiti skills, they mock up a fake door and lure The Boneless into trying to make it solid again, when in fact they’re putting their power straight into the TARDIS, fully charging it back up to the point where The Doctor can swoop in like a blue, oblong eagle, give a damn fine quotable speech and save all the days.
I must say, this was probably the best, most intense Doctor Who episode this series has had. I mean, it had everything: creepy bad ‘uns, brilliant effects work, solid secondary characters, top-drawer acting faces, the best use of visuals the show has seen in who-knows-how-long (you dare tell me seeing a teeny TARDIS didn’t amuse), the whole damn shebang! Yes there are some niggles over Clara’s dumb plan to lie to everyone about everyone, but that took such a back-seat to the fantastic bits of this episode that it might as well have been duct-taped to the rear license plate of the car behind.
More of this please.