You may never look at murals the same way. “Flatline” is here to remind you that while two dimensions may seem harmless to the average three-dimensional being… there are many possibilities for what lies beyond our senses.
The Doctor is trying to get Clara home, but finds his readings off. The door to the TARDIS has shrunk; the TARDIS is smaller on the outside. Clara gets out to investigate and comes back to find it even smaller; the Doctor can no longer get out. He gives her the sonic screwdriver and an earpiece so he can speak to her and sees what she sees. They’re in Bristol, and people have been disappearing from an estate with no trace. A teen named Rigsy, who is doing community service for graffiti, meets Clara and offers to help with her investigation; she tells him that her name is the Doctor.
The two consult a police constable, who acknowledges that he police have done very little to help with the disappearances. She later gets sucked up by the ground in one of the missing people’s flats. The Doctor finally puts it together when he sees the PC’s nervous system on the wall; the things causing these vanishings are creatures from a two-dimensional plane of existence, and they’re trying to learn about us. Clara and Rigsy barely escaped being “studied” themselves, and an ill-timed phone call from Danny lets him know that Clara is still with the Doctor. It also lets the Doctor know that Clara lied about Danny being alright with their continued travels.
Rigsy gets in trouble with his community service supervisor, Fenton, for being late from lunch. The graffiti that they’re painting over now looks like a memorial for the victims, but turns out to be the creatures. Clara clears them all out of the area and directs them to a warehouse, then the underground stations. The Doctor tells her that she must establish herself as their leader. Clara tries to give everyone hope that they’ll survive because she knows that’s what the Doctor does to keep people limber. They lose more of their party until there’s only Rigsy and Fenton left. The two dimensional aliens are beginning to emerge in three dimensions, and they keep draining power from the TARDIS. They have the ability to make 3D aspects 2D, and switch them back again, which they do with door handles, etc. Fenton makes Clara drop it onto train tracks, and the Doctor only manages to survive by putting the TARDIS in siege mode, which drains the rest of the ship’s power. He tells Clara that he’s not sure she’ll hear him, but he thinks she made an excellent Doctor. He’s running out of life support.
Clara tries to get a train conductor to ram through the creatures ahead, but that plan doesn’t work. (Rigsy seems willing to give his life for it, but Clara prevents him with the clever use of her headband.) Instead, she takes the crew to an old underground office, and has Rigsy make a painting on the back of a poster that looks like a doorway. She assumes that the creatures will try to make the door handle 3D, not realizing that it’s fake, and that the power they use will siphon back into the TARDIS. It works and the Doctor is able to send the creatures back where they came from. Later, we see Missy looking at Clara on a tablet, and saying that she “chose well.”
There are a lot of things to love about this episode. Frankly, while Who can sometimes get lost in its own complexities, this was a great example of how to juggle those complexities and give multiple stories their due.
At the forefront, we have a continuation of Clara’s journey in studying how the Doctor operates. In “Kill the Moon” he forced her to make a single, terrible decision, in “Mummy on the Orient Express” he confessed that his usual heroics were often not the result of foresight and planning. In this sojourn, Clara gets the opportunity to try out his role herself and see how it suits. Her chance to be “Doctor for a Day” provides her with a deeper working knowledge of why he does what he does. And slowly, we are watching Clara come around to the Doctor’s manner of doing things; she doesn’t always like what is required of her as she leads the group, but by the end of her journey, she feels she has done well.
The Doctor is less pleased with Clara’s giddiness over gliding into the role because he is still struggling with his question from the start of the season—whether or not he is truly a good man. We do see him step into his old shoes here; he charges in at the end of the adventure as “the man who stops the monsters,” giving one of his speechy-speeches with gusto. And he seems content with that title, but is still unwilling to think that makes him good.
Which in turn explains his unwillingness to praise Clara for doing so well in his position. It says a lot about the Doctor-Companion dynamic, right there; the Doctor doesn’t mind being the man who makes tough choices, but he doesn’t want the same for the people who travel with him. Clara calling that rapport into question is forcing him to confront the dynamic at a depth that he’s never managed before. While there have been companions who were allowed to make big choices on their own, or along with him, this is the first time someone has done it with the intention of “getting him.” It’s a navel-gaze that must seem like torture for a man who deliberately moves quickly to avoid exactly that thing.
It’s pretty damned impressive how the show has chosen to handle class issues in this season so far, and while a larger rumination is certainly needed, this episode served as a microcosm for what we’ve been seeing of late. Rigsy’s character is one who could h stereotyped by media for his race and his economic standing. But the episode doesn’t even glance at those stereotypes, instead establishing right off the bat that he’s a thoughtful, kind-hearted kid who lives in a community that gets passed over by the people in power. PC Forrest admits straight out to Clara that the cops haven’t been able to investigate these disappearances as well as they should because the “top brass” is hoping the problem will just go away. These are people living on council estates, as Rose Tyler did. The majority of them are quite poor, and many of them are people of color. And they are being ignored.
The story also makes a point of stating in no uncertain terms that graffiti is an artistic form. While this is no news to people who have been calling it such for decades, it’s an important distinction that is proved in the episode through Rigsy’s talent. The kid walks away from that ordeal realizing that his art has very real and measurable power (and then phones his mum because he’s a dear). And while some might be aggravated at the lack of character development given to his opposer, Fenton, it’s not really needed here. Some people really are unforgivably nasty bigots who won’t see the err of their ways. Sometimes they need to be shown that way, and we need to see them proven wrong. (Though it might have been nice to see the Doctor or Clara go off on him just once. It is interesting that similar to the finale of “Voyage of the Damned,” the Doctor has to own up to the fact that sometimes, the worst sort of people survive these adventures, and it’s not really his right to pass judgement on them.) The point here was not giving the privileged person a lesson—it was to encourage the underprivileged person to pursue their passions and recognize their worth.
As to the monsters of the episode, I’ve always loved the idea of tackling an alien race that lives outside three dimensions, and this was certainly a fun way to try it out. I’m not sure how soundly the episode handled the science of that, but it was played out with a creativity that I found very refreshing. It’s also a little heartbreaking to watch the Doctor and Clara desperately hold out in the hope that these aliens are peaceful and attempting to communicate. And the fact that we actually never find out their intentions does mean that a reprise is possible—and maybe next time they’ll be nice? One can hope.
Side note: I studied in Bristol for a year and there were no underground trains. I know they are building a system currently, but… still not sure that makes sense?
As for the tiny TARDIS (I will cop to cosplaying as Rose once with the toy version and using that exact premise as explanation), we have seen the ship get smaller on the outside once before, in “Logopolis.” Also, the TARDIS in siege mode was interestingly designed. It looked a bit like the Pandorica. Or a Jedi holocron. …What? That would be cool!
Of course, Clara has some explaining to do after shrugging Danny off at the end. So that will likely play out in the following episodes. And what about Missy’s mysterious utterance there at the end? It was actually a nice tease because it could mean any number of things. Is this part of Clara’s role as the woman who has appeared throughout the Doctor’s timeline? Is she being secretly manipulated by Missy in some way? Is Clara just the right kind of companion for whatever big kablooie Missy is planning?