Doctor Who Recap: Physical Graffiti

Doctor Who
Doctor Who
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Editor’s Rating

Honest to Pete, it’d be nice if this season could deliver just one truly awful installment so as a recapper I could have a little fun tearing into the show for a week. (Somewhere out there someone’s saying, “Dude, you had your chance with 'Robot of Sherwood,' and you blew it.”) “Flatline” continues this unexpectedly wonderful season of Doctor Who by delivering an alien threat unlike anything the series has ever showcased. It simultaneously harkens back to Tom Baker’s swan song, “Logopolis,” in which the TARDIS shrank with the Doctor inside.

The episode demands attention from its opening sequence. A man places an emergency call, frantically babbling about “they” being “everywhere,” only to disappear mid-sentence and reappear as a smeared painting on the wall behind where he was standing. The way the camera moves and tilts to reveal his face is like one of those street paintings that only comes into focus when you see it from a certain angle. Sure enough, “Flatline” centers on an alien invasion from a two-dimensional universe, and in ours their deadly handiwork ends up looking like street art — a bizarrely weird idea worthy of Moffat himself but dreamed up by Jamie Mathieson, who also penned last week’s outing.

Soon enough we’re in the TARDIS with the Doctor taking Clara home, when she notices that the interior door has somehow gotten much smaller. Upon the pair exiting, it’s revealed that it’s the exterior that’s been reduced in size. Oh, and much to Clara’s annoyance, they’re in Bristol, where she heads out to investigate while the Doctor squeezes back into the TARDIS to do his own poking around.

Enter Rigsy (Joivan Wade), a young street artist doing community service for his “crimes.” It’s something of a banner moment when Doctor Who finds itself championing what’s considered a criminal eyesore by so many. I must confess that “Flatline” even made this writer look at graffiti in a different light, and I don’t mean horrifically (though there is that). Most striking is that moment at the start when deplorable old codger Fenton (Christopher Fairbank) hands Rigsy a paintbrush dipped in white and orders the kid to erase his own signature. The look on his face says it all: For Rigsy it isn’t vandalism, it is self-expression. “Flatline” champions that creativity, especially as Rigsy’s skills end up playing a big part in saving the day, if not the entire planet.

From Rigsy, Clara learns of the local disappearances, which she deduces must be tied to the shrinking TARDIS, which upon her return is reduced to the size of any number of knickknacks available from Amazon. On the inside the dimensions remain stable. (This is in marked contrast to “Logopolis,” in which the interior dimensions suffered along with the exterior.) “Flatline” has a frelling field day with the diminutive police box and the full-size Doctor trapped inside, hauled around in Clara’s purse, with one priceless sight gag after another. The bit where he passes her the sledgehammer is slyly underplayed; on the flip side, there’s the over-the-top bit on the train tracks inspired — literally, within the narrative — by Thing from The Addams Family. “Flatline” combines its horror and humor as effectively as Doctor Who has ever done, all wrapped up in a thrilling adventure, like some grand comic-book scenario that’s come to life and leaped off the inked, colored, and printed page.

Taking the Doctor largely out of commission is a smart move at this point in the season, as Clara must effectively become the Doctor — acting as he would act, thinking as he would think, understanding for the first time what it means to hold the position of universal protector and the burden of responsibility that comes with it. To hammer the point home, the Doctor hands over the psychic paper and the sonic screwdriver, and she introduces herself as “The Doctor … Oswald. But you can call me Clara” to Rigsy, who serves as her companion. (Every Doctor must have a companion.) It’s tempting to call foul on the Doctor using tech to conveniently see what Clara sees, thus also aiding her. Should she have been entirely on her own for the episode? I think not. Above all else, it was imperative that the Doctor witness Clara’s deft handling of these events and for her to know that he knows she can keep a cool head, lead, and prevail in an unusual scenario like this.

There’s some pretty trippy shit going on in “Flatline.” People turn into murals. A door handle ceases to exist. Carpet and wallpaper come to life and absorb humans. Someone’s nervous system becomes at one with a wall, looking like the board game Operation. A sofa actually melts. The Doctor finally deduces that the aliens come from a universe with only two dimensions. “It’s long been theorized, of course,” the Doctor explains, “but no one could go there and prove its existence without a heck of a diet!”

In order to enter our universe, the aliens leech power from the TARDIS, hence the shrinkage. Though murals of the dead come to eerie life, the Doctor isn’t even certain that the aliens are malevolent in nature. He surmises that they could be trying to communicate the only way they know how. “They may not even know they’re hurting us,” the Doctor says. After attempting communication, the horrific deaths of George and Al (that giant hand — whoa!) prove their intentions irrelevant.

The aliens master the art of three dimensions at the top of act three, and the episode shifts into its own sci-fantasy, LSD-inspired riff on The Walking Dead. The Doctor is unreachable (and quite possibly freezing to death) due to having put the TARDIS into siege mode, and Clara is left to make the big decisions. The sequence with Clara, Rigsy, and the headband all aboard the speeding train adds nothing substantial to the adventure except, well, adventure. Clara spots the lost TARDIS looking like Clive Barker’s Lament Configuration. Don’t look too closely at the mechanics of Clara’s final brilliant strategy because they may not hold up under intense scrutiny, yet the sequence made for a hell of a climax, allowing the Doctor and his TARDIS to reenter the story line with gusto and panache. He delivers one of those classic fire-and-brimstone Doctor sermons, of the likes that we’ve not really heard from this new Doctor: “You are monsters! That is the role you seem determined to play, and so it seems that I must play mine: the Man That Stops the Monsters!” Naming them the Boneless, he sends the aliens back from where they came, though hopefully not for good, because these cats are ripe for recurring-villain material.

At the close of “Flatline,” the two leads understand one another better than ever before, and the gaps in communication are closing … for them. For Danny and Clara, however, it remains a chasm. The Doctor is aware of her subterfuge but seems only mildly concerned, at one point announcing, “Congratulations! Lying is a vital survival skill … and a terrible habit.” Danny can’t possibly be as in the dark as he appears. How could he not see through her lies during the hanging chair incident? Did she have to answer the phone in that moment? Does she want to get caught?

Odds and Ends

  • The episode ends with a Missy moment in which she’s seen watching over Clara on her heavenly iPad, and she insidiously declares, “Clara. My Clara. I have chosen well.” Yet again we’re given precious little information outside of apparent confirmation that it was indeed Missy who placed the phone call all the way back in “The Bells of St. John.” While I am interested to see where all of this is going in the upcoming two-part finale, it’s hardly the driving force of the season (it’s more of a dangling carrot), and Doctor Who is at its best when it’s about the journey, not the destination. Generally, these scenes have felt more intrusive than they’ve felt “right.”
  • Clara: “I am the one chance you’ve got of staying alive. That’s who I am.”
  • Last week I praised the BBC publicity machine for keeping Clara’s participation in the episode a big secret. This week I want to take them to task for giving too much away ahead of time, especially the shrinking TARDIS.
  • The Doctor: “Could you not just let me enjoy this moment of not knowing something? I mean, it happens so rarely.”
  • The aliens from a universe with only two dimensions are somewhat reminiscent of the eighth-dimension concepts from Buckaroo Banzai.
  • The train engineer: “Is this official? Because I’ve always wanted to ram something.”
  • Still giggling at the Doctor’s self-satisfaction over his “2Dis” gag.
  • The Doctor: “This is just embarrassing. I’m from the race that built the TARDIS. Dimensions are kind of our thing.”
  • Between this week and last, Jamie Mathieson, please come back and write for Doctor Who as often as the Moff will have you.
  • The Doctor: “They’re wearing the dead like camouflage!”