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Doctor Who S8.09 Flatline Review

If last week’s mummy murder mystery marked Jamie Mathieson as a Who writer to watch, “Flatline” cements the former Being Human man as one of the show’s brightest new talents. Initial worries that the story sounded startlingly similar to notorious Tennant-era clunker “Fear Her” prove unfounded, as it’s an episode brimming with brilliant ideas, madcap concepts and moments of outlandish invention.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the tiny TARDIS. In the hands of a lesser writer it would have been glimpsed and swiftly forgotten about. But Mathieson runs with the idea of a miniaturised blue box and wrings the idea for every laugh, thrill and sight gag possible. Capaldi’s fizzog looming out like the Face of Boe? Check. Impossible, oversized items emerging from Clara’s handbag? Check. The TARDIS dragged along the floor by a hand, Thing-style, as a train approaches? You betcha. That last one in particular is a marvellous visual, a moment that inspired me to stand up and applaud in my own living room it was so superbly daft, so quietly bombastic, so Who.

Mathieson walks the treacherous tonal tightrope that Doctor Who demands of all its writers with ease here – flitting between laugh-out-loud humour and unsettling scares with the grace of a veteran scribe. It’s also an episode that, somehow, makes a virtue of trapping the Doctor in the TARDIS. After running away with most of the series so far, Clara formally steps into the spotlight, wielding the sonic and psychic paper, even asking “Does this mean I’m you now?” Though hardly the Doctor-lite story that was rumoured, it’s Clara who gets almost all the meaty material to chew on, at one point deciding to lie to those under her protection to “give them hope”. It’s a shocking moment for someone who was a hair’s breadth from leaving for good two weeks ago. If anything the Doctor seems more cut up about all the deaths by the end than she does! Jenna Coleman is superb as the “Doctor”, as she has been all year. Forget the Impossible Girl series, this is the real year of Clara.

Time Lord Trivia

Jamie Mathieson successfully pitched the idea for “Flatline” to Steven Moffat with a single drawing. We’d put good money on that being a drawing of the Doctor’s hand sticking out of the mini TARDIS.

For the bulk of the episode Capaldi feels like a supporting player, but that doesn’t mean he misses out on all the action. The Doctor’s “man that stops the monsters” monologue is a hugely rousing moment, delivered with snarling relish by Capaldi, and proves surprisingly cathartic, not only for the episode, but for the series as a whole. After six or so episodes of “misunderstood” monsters that we’re encouraged to sympathise with, how nice that the “killer graffiti” want nothing other than to suck the third dimension out of their victims, something the Doctor can fight. Whether it was their intention to kill us or not, sometimes a little bit of black and white storytelling goes a long way.

And the Boneless really are something special. Mathieson, much like Moffat, demonstrates a deft ability to paint the ordinary in a disturbing new light here, making walls and floors a fresh source of danger. The sight of PC Forrest disappearing into the ground, leaving her nervous system emblazoned on the wall behind is a moment of pure, heart-racing domestic horror, in broad daylight no less. Director Douglas Mackinnon was behind the lens for “Listen” and he proves no less adept at staging scares here. There’s also some exemplary effects work on show, including the strangely beautiful implosion of a sofa and the creatures’ final, three-dimensional stage, where they’re transformed into shambling, amorphous nightmares stalking the subway.

If there’s a problem it’s that, Rigsy aside (Joivan Wade, very good as the young offender with a heart of gold), the community service gang have “killer graffiti fodder” across their foreheads from the moment they show up. And how dumb does Danny have to be to not know exactly what Clara’s up to after that phone call? But nine episodes in there’s little question that this is one of Who’s best runs since Matt Smith’s first, and in Mathieson the show has its most promising new writer in years.

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It's Wotsisname!

Christopher Fairbank (nasty piece of work Fenton) is a veteran screen actor but you’ll recognise him most recently from Guardians Of The Galaxy, where he played the duplicitous Broker on Xandar.

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Arc Plot

Missy returns at the end, watching Clara through an iPad (bizarrely) and announcing “Clara, my Clara. I have chosen well.” What could it all mean?

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Location, Location

The exterior scenes with the shrinking TARDIS were filmed in Barry Island, home of Gavin And Stacey.

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Life Of Jamie

Wondering what Jamie Mathieson is up to next? He's the head writer on Metal Hurlant: Origins, a serialised reboot of Metal Hurlant Chronicles. He's also got an E4 pilot called ALT (about alternative universes) in the bag, though the last we heard it was supposed to air this summer...

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Best Line

The Doctor: “You really do throw your companions in at the deep end, don't ya.”

Doctor Who airs on Saturday nights on BBC One in the UK and BBC America in the US.

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