Now that is how you make a monster episode.

There was some discussion in the comment section on last week’s review about how this season has used its monsters; in short, I argued that it doesn’t really matter that the giant moon baby or the Foretold make sense, because neither is the true focus of the episode. They are there to act as thematic support for the story of the Doctor and Clara’s ever-evolving relationship, and so those creatures matter only as much as they help underscore the character beats and the emotional storytelling. How much Doctor Who should be judged as a monster of the week show is not a new debate, particularly since the show’s return in 2005: You can pretty much predict whether someone thinks “Father’s Day” is classic or clunker based on if they consider the Reapers adversaries or afterthoughts. And really, it’s been awhile since the show made its monsters a central focus of an episode, and even longer when you eliminate returning foes from consideration: think Rusty in “Into The Dalek,” the clockwork androids in “Deep Breath,” the Cybermen in “Nightmare In Silver,” and Grand Marshal Skaldak in “Cold War.” That makes tonight’s “Flatline” the first story since—honestly, I’m not even sure, but it might be “The Rebel Flesh”/“The Almost People,” which aired more than three years ago—to make a genuine priority of exploring its monsters.

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I’m struggling to think of Doctor Who monsters that are quite so completely alien as this episode’s two-dimensional monsters; a closer parallel might be something like the mysterious, subspace-dwelling abductors from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Schisms,” as those were nearly incomprehensible foes of similarly ambiguous intent, at least until it became completely clear they were up to no good. Jamie Mathieson’s second Doctor Who script in as many weeks manages the clever trick of making the invaders unnerving, even terrifying while still preserving some uncertainty about their true intentions. This is the great boon of creatures that exist so completely beyond our frame of reference. They can commit the most horrendous, unconscionable of acts, like reducing poor PC Forrest to a diagram of a nervous system, but it’s still possible that their transgressions are misunderstandings, honest scientific inquiries that unwittingly use sapient beings as their subjects. Even at the climax, the Doctor finds himself compelled to admit that he can’t know for certain what the aliens’ true intentions are, as the vast gulf in understanding means he and Clara can only guess at their precise nefarious motive, assuming that said motive even is nefarious in the first place. But even if there is an innocent explanation for all this—however unlikely said explanation might be—their actions have established their role, and it has forced the Doctor into his.

Douglas Mackinnon directed this episode, and “Flatline” reaffirms his status as one of Doctor Who’s finest, most atmospheric directors. Just this season, he previously helmed “Listen” and “Time Heist”—the former is an already brilliant tale elevated by Mackinnon’s firm grasp on the twisty storytelling, while the latter is a fairly thin narrative that benefits from every bit of visual flair he can bring to it—and his other efforts include the excellent “Cold War” and “The Power Of Three.” Mackinnon and the rest of the production team face some serious challenges in making this episode’s fantastical elements believable and, in a few cases, not completely risible—at least, not so utterly ridiculous on their face that they overwhelm the actual jokes. The tiny TARDIS and the glimpses of a regular-sized Doctor within definitely aren’t meant to be taken completely seriously, but the shots have to be just plausible enough that Peter Capaldi can sell the situation as an affront to the Doctor’s dignity, rather than to the show’s in general. The two-dimensional creatures are particularly well realized, and Mackinnon is smart to not push his luck and to keep the creatures in darkened medium shot as much as possible. These are monsters that remain effective for as long as the audience members can’t properly fix their eyes on them, and “Flatline” understands that.

There’s a real temptation in discussing this episode to compare it to the second season’s “Fear Her”—a temptation I already long since gave into, if you read the subhead—and it’s a comparison that benefits tonight’s episode in just about every respect. The precise reasoning behind the killer drawings is different, but both stories feature literally two-dimensional antagonists. Also, both episodes are also set on drab council estates, except the Doctor Who of 2014 is far better than its 2006 counterpart at making boring locations look interesting, something that’s helped by the decision to take the story into the tunnels. Even before that, though, “Flatline” is clever in how it lets Clara move through the space; after the TARDIS-bound Doctor gives one of several aggrieved cries about how impossible the situation, the story cuts to Clara walking through a gray day on an anonymous Bristol estate. On a show often criticized for its oppressive soundtrack, the fact that the music cuts out for even five seconds makes for a significant, if not deafening silence. This is such a small thing, but it’s moments like that that allow real life to seep into Doctor Who’s proud unreality. Whereas the London estate in “Fear Her” was just nondescript—it was boring because the episode never bothered to define it clearly—the Bristol of “Flatline” evokes that all too relatable sense of a gray, sleepy Sunday.

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Again, this sense doesn’t last long, and the presence of Clara and the Doctor soon proves overwhelming, but the key here is that the writing and direction of “Flatline” create a sense of reality in which the story can operate. After a pair of terrific but bonkers episodes like “Kill The Moon” and “Mummy On The Orient Express,” that return to normalcy is essential, and the episode gains an odd power from how crushingly ordinary the underlying situation is. That relatability also helps cover some of the patchiness in the episode’s characterization: There really isn’t that much to Rigsy or Fenton when you get right down to it, and the other community service workers verge on glorified extra territory. Thinly sketched supporting characters have been a bit of a recurring issue this season. Mathieson’s previous effort “Mummy On The Orient Express” had a decent core of guest characters, but the episode appeared uninterested in exploring the huge cohort of scientists it had just revealed. The even better comparison here might be “Time Heist,” which did little right with its portrayal of Psi and Saibra beyond casting two ridiculously charming actors to play them. In the case of “Flatline,” Rigsy and Fenton are archetypes, not necessarily even possessed of as many dimensions as their alien antagonists. But the archetypes are familiar enough, and Joivan Wade and Christopher Fairbank do strong enough work, that the audience can read in a depth of character that isn’t necessarily there in the original script.

The reason this thin characterization doesn’t detract too much from the finished episode is that this is the fourth straight episode to keep the focus squarely on the Doctor and Clara’s relationship. This is where the most crucial parallel with “Fear Her” comes to the fore. As I noted in my retrospective review, that episode functioned as a kind of graduation ceremony for Rose Tyler, as the 10th Doctor’s extended absence meant that it was up to her to save the day. “Fear Her” never quite comes out and says it, but Rose slides into the Doctor’s role in that episode, and it’s a natural fit, given her immense growth as a person and, more worryingly, her increased detachment from humanity. That story thread is easily the most successful aspect of “Fear Her,” and “Flatline” returns to that territory in a big way, and indeed in far more explicit terms. Clara openly—and cheekily—declares herself the Doctor, and the episode offers the latest deconstruction of what it means to be the Doctor and what it means to be the companion. This episode pulls off the trick pioneered by “The Girl Who Waited” of doing a technical Doctor-light episode while still having the Doctor present for most of the episode; the secret is just to keep Peter Capaldi in the TARDIS for as much of the episode as possible.

While “The Girl Who Waited” used that logistical necessity to isolate the Doctor from his companions, forcing him to rely on his increasingly hollow words with little recourse to his natural charisma, “Flatline” is more content to recast the Doctor in the role of observer and adviser. This season was possibly a little hesitant at the outset to embrace Peter Capaldi’s comedic chops, both to better establish him as a darker incarnation and to allow some distance from his iconic work on The Thick Of It. But the Doctor is a one-liner machine in “Flatline,” as the script marries this incarnation’s usual aloofness with the mounting impotence of his situation to great comic effect. And the Doctor’s isolation isn’t just played for laughs, as the script has the Doctor lay out for Clara the underlying dynamics of so many Doctor Who crises: A disorganized group will find itself a leader, and she must ensure she emerges in charge. Her whispered promise that she’s the only one who can get the men out of this mess is enough to give the Doctor chills, never mind Fenton.

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Indeed, the Doctor’s physical absence also allows Clara to come into her own in a way we’ve never really seen before on the show. (Well, we did see whatever it was she did in “The Name Of The Doctor.” Never really felt before, then.) I was optimistic at the start of the season that a new Doctor and a recharged creative team would do good things for Clara, but this reclamation project really has succeeded beyond even my most optimistic projections. Clara’s best moment comes late in the episode, in which she tries to figure out what the Doctor would do in this situation, then realizes the only thing that matters is what she is going to do. The fact that her plan to trick the monsters relies on a lesson the Doctor taught her—always turn your enemy’s powers against them—doesn’t detract from the independence she demonstrates there. This isn’t a question of rejecting the Doctor and what he has shown for her, but rather a recognition that she cannot define her actions solely in terms of him, a lesson I’m not sure Clara could have learned while the Doctor still had floppy hair and a bowtie.

And yet the end of the episode finds Clara once more demanding the Doctor’s explicit approval, and he proves oddly reticent on this point. “Flatline” doesn’t quite land its final point here. The big idea appears to turn on the “goodness” of Clara’s actions here, and that the same qualities that make her a fine substitute for the Doctor do not make her a good person. That point certainly tracks with arguments made throughout this season, but it’s hard to drill down to what Clara does here that sit so far outside her usual, more straightforwardly good behavior. Her ultimate plan to defeat the Boneless doesn’t put anyone at unnecessary risk, or at least at not greater risk than they already were in; I suppose she could have told the three survivors to run away while she faced the aliens alone, but that’s a nuanced point the episode doesn’t come close to teasing out. There’s no particular moment here where she manipulates or uses people in ways like the Doctor has this season, and her most Doctor-ish moment might well be when she saves Rigsy from an unnecessary self-sacrifice. Sure, she gives him a little crap for his pointless gesture toward heroism, but that feels ancillary to any evaluation of the goodness of her actions.

I suspect the point that “Flatline” is trying to make here is rather subtler, and it’s best underlined by Fenton’s callous pronouncement that this operation was like a brushfire, where the intention was to save the forest at the expense of a few trees—particularly when most of those trees were scum, in Fenton’s reckoning. The Doctor does push back sharply against Fenton, showing a level of concern for the lives of individuals that had largely been absent this year. Is it that we have underestimated the complexity of the Doctor’s morality? Does he still care about all the little people, even if he mostly now expresses it in terms of a big-picture concern for the greater good? Or is he just overcompensated when presented with Fenton’s particularly vile articulation of a perspective he has espoused more than once this year? I don’t know the answer to that, and if “Flatline” does, it doesn’t really share it very clearly. Perhaps we must return to the idea from “Into The Dalek” that Clara is the Doctor’s carer: It’s her job to care about each individual death, for the Doctor’s perspective does not allow him to, and the Doctor is disquieted by Clara’s sense of playful triumph when so many innocents have died.

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Maybe. It’s a possibility, certainly. After a pair of episodes that I’ll readily admit I rate so highly in large part because of the clarity of character they show in their final scenes—Clara’s rebuke of the Doctor in “Kill The Moon,” the Doctor’s explanation of himself to Clara in “Mummy On The Orient Express”—it’s a little disappointing to have “Flatline” throw around so many intriguing ideas about the Doctor and Clara and then not quite come away with a coherent final point. Still, these are some high-level missteps we’re talking about, and this episode’s issues aren’t enough to undercut its considerable strengths. This episode isn’t quite the equal of its immediate predecessors, but it’s a genuinely eerie monster episode that offers laughs, character insight, and gloriously daft ideas in a way that only Doctor Who can.

The show is on a hot streak we haven’t seen in a long, long time; you’d probably have to go back to the seasons-spanning stretch from “Vincent And The Doctor” to “Day Of The Moon” to find a sustained run of strong episodes that surpasses what this season has strung together. Indeed, with a little distance, both “Into The Dalek” and “Robot Of Sherwood” look better than they did originally, so that really only “Deep Breath” (and maybe “Time Heist”) stands as a clunker, and even there the weak bits are those that feel like holdovers of the previous era. “Flatline” isn’t perfect, but it underlines just how great the 12th Doctor and Clara have been for each other, and how great their pairing has been for the show, if for no other reason than their complex relationship has forced the show to be thoughtful in a way it hasn’t in quite some time.

Stray observations:

  • “Flatline” also finds a clever way to pick up the Danny thread, however briefly. It’s a very nice touch to have the Doctor recognize Clara has been lying to her … and then reveal he really doesn’t care, because lying is a vital survival skill. Of course, it’s also a very bad habit, and it sure feels like we’re headed for the Doctor and Clara facing up to the consequences of all their bad habits.
  • Speaking of which, Missy is back! Feel free to speculate, because I’ve got nothing. Well, other than I’d be quite surprised if Gus from “Mummy On The Orient Express” isn’t connected to what’s going on there, though I suppose it’s possible Gus is a multi-season mystery. Sorry, is that too mundane to count as speculation? Fine, Gus is the Rani, and so is … oh, let’s say Rigsy.
  • Favorite dumb but adorable miniaturized TARDIS gag? The Addams Family riff is hard to top, but I like the relatively understated subtlety of a surprised Clara pulling a huge mallet out of her bag.

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