Story No. 271 The Boneless
Production Code Series 8, Episode 9
Dates October 18, 2014

With Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Written by Jamie Matheson Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: With the Doctor trapped in the TARDIS, Clara must investigate suspicious graffiti.


"You are monsters!" by Donna Bratley 20/4/18

Isn't this a novelty? A monster that's nasty for the sake of being nasty. Not misunderstood; not misguided or in need of redemption. Just plain, old-fashioned evil. This Jamie Mathieson gets it, doesn't he?

The shrinking TARDIS is such a brilliant idea I'm amazed nobody came up with it earlier. Siege mode is a cracking new addition, beautifully executed. I want a Gallifreyan Rubik's cube now!

Overall Flatline takes a concept I shouldn't like - putting the companion squarely in the leading role - and turns it into a winner. Clara fancies herself as the Doctor's equal, not his assistant - and she's definitely not his carer. She has some of the tools for the job: the guts, quick wits and the instinctive compassion. What she still needs - and where Flatline succeeds so well - is the Doctor around, nudging her along the right lines in using them.

I'm no fan of "Doctor-lite" stories - I'm old-fashioned enough to believe the Doctor is the heart of the show and his companions should always be secondary - so I had my doubts based on pre-publicity. I needn't have worried.

He may be carried in Clara's handbag for much of the time, but the Doctor remains a formidable presence, leading the investigation and figuring out precisely how to beat the invaders. His problem is needing someone else to enable him to do it. That's where Clara comes into her own.

Her understanding of his hurried "good news and bad news" announcement triggers a truly Doctor-worthy plan; even solo, she contributes a very bright idea that leads to one of the funniest scenes of the series. The image of the Doctor's fingers propelling the greatest spaceship in television history off the railway track will stay with me for a long time. Add in Capaldi's mad little jazz-hands dad dance after, and you have a scene of pure genius.

It's unusual to see the broad underlying character arcs of the series play out so overtly in a single story, but it works. The Doctor, for all his brusque candour, feels every individual death as a personal failure - witness his words at the end of the previous episode when he recalls the ones he couldn't save. Accepting you can't perform miracles isn't the same as liking the fact - he's not remotely smug about saving Maisie Pitt, for instance - and he is fully, even painfully, aware that doing what's brutally necessary is right rather than laudable. Clara, placed in the active role as opposed to watching from the sideline, shows a startling lack of self-awareness.

As she briskly tells the stricken community payback gang to "Forget Stan - your friend's gone" is she really any different from the Doctor, miniaturised inside a Dalek and concentrating his efforts not on the already doomed but the living? In her self-satisfied reflections on saving the world - being an exceptional Doctor - does she spare a moment to contemplate Stan, George and Al? Or is she just too pleased with herself to be "good"?

One of the criticisms levelled at the character of Clara is her "Little Miss Perfect" air. Talk about taking someone at their own estimation! Flatline is one among many episodes to expose the discrepancy between Clara's self-image and a rather more unkind reality.

Her ego is comparable to the Doctor's but he at least is never blind to his flaws - rather the opposite. Lying, he observes in a wonderfully world-weary moment, is both a crucial survival skill and "a terrible habit". Contrast that unflinching self-awareness with Clara's egocentric musing over whether "for their own good" lying to someone is somehow justifiable. What right she has to adjudicate in anyone else's place - be it Danny's or the Doctor's - is never mentioned. She's a proper little hypocrite, Miss Oswald. Much like most of the human race in assessing its own faults really. Relatable and likeable don't have to be the same thing...

Beyond the wider morality play Flatline tells a cracking good horror story and features some of the most frightening CGI of recent times. PC Forrest's death is particularly gruesome, and the Boneless are a masterpiece. It's a pity the Doctor's naming of them is all but drowned by a blare of Murray Gold bombast - generally I haven't found his interventions this abrasive during the Capaldi era, probably because I'm engaged by the characters again, but he's given full rein in that moment: it really needed to be toned down in the edit. Monsters that learn by dissection, adapt and don't have any other motivation than being monstrous... I like it.

The supporting cast work well enough for cannon fodder: only Rigsy really matters, and Jovian Wade makes him endearingly innocent for all his street-smart facade. It's a mark of his potential as a "proper" companion that I'm sorry to see him return to normality and not hopping aboard the TARDIS for at least a couple of adventures.

That in itself might be a gift. Flatline is the first episode to explicitly declare that travelling with the Doctor might not always improve a person, and while part of me rebels against that (isn't the whole point that companions learn from the Doctor to be braver, stronger and generally more than they thought they could be?), I can't deny it's a fascinating twist that could only work with an incarnation less sure of his own heroism than his best friend is.

Witty, intriguing, scary and working on multiple different levels, Flatline is one of my favourite Series 8 instalments. It also confirms Jamie Mathieson as the best new addition to the writing roster since Mr Moffat himself during Series 1.

As with actors playing the lead role, there are writers who tick "my" Doctor Who boxes and those who don't. (Chris Chibnall, ominously for the future, fits into the latter category.) With Moffat, Mathieson and Capaldi all around at once I've got a dream team for three successive series, and thank goodness for modern technology: I'll still savour stories like Flatline long after they've all moved on.