Contains spoilers for the aired episode.
It’s no secret that I’ve been enjoying this new season of Doctor Who a lot more than I did the last, as my broadly positive reviews here on Taking The Short View will attest. Viewer and fan reaction has been more divided however, and even I have to admit that there have been some fairly chunky ‘quibbles’ with each of the episodes to date. For example there were the extraordinarily wide corridors and oversized ventilation ducts in the supposedly ‘impregnable’ Bank of Karabraxos in the otherwise fun “Time Heist”; the lack of any actually interesting ‘A’ plot in “The Caretaker” to balance the banter; the industrial quantities of suspension of disbelief one had to have to hand to swallow the huge amount of bad science on display in “Kill The Moon”; and how last week’s story “Mummy On The Orient Express” was only partially successful in ramming two 30-minute stories into a single 45-minute slot.
But now we get to “Flatline”, and I find myself in a strange position – almost bereft, in fact – because here we have a story that has nothing to quibble about*. Not one discernible flaw to it at all as far as I’m concerned. What’s a reviewer to do in such a situation? I guess there’s nothing for it but to gush. I’m not used to gushing, but here goes.
For once we have a Doctor Who story that feels like it has the perfect amount of material for its running time, and which manages to deliver on all levels without feeling like a mini-anthology story in which one bit of the episode is designated to atmosphere and scares, another to relationship dramas, a moment for ethical dilemmas, some laughs and humour, and then finally some running around action to entertain the youngsters. “Flatline” still has all those components and more, but the way it puts all the pieces together results in a single coherent result that flows naturally from one phase to another, and all in an overall package that resembles the very best of Classic Who in a way more that we’ve seen in years.
“Flatline” starts with the sort of beautiful abstract high concept that even Steven Moffat would be proud of. When I studied mathematics at university, one way the lecturers got us into understanding n-dimensional spaces was to pose the question, how would creatures that were strictly two-dimensional possibly understand our world when they could only see a thin slice at a time with no concept of the whole? The answer is not far off one of the murals that appear on the walls at the home of the people who have disappeared from a housing estate in Bristol, the one showing a cross-section of various footprints. But writer Jamie Mathieson then weaponizes this academic question further by wondering what would happen if the two-dimensional beings now decided to head on out to explore and conquer this new frontier with no understanding of (or interest in) the effect this will have on people living in it – us, in other words.
From this terrific inspiration comes a story that is more purely visual than anything Doctor Who has done in years, from the irresistible sight gag of Peter Capaldi trying to climb out of the reduced Tardis to his huge face stuck inside when things get even more squeezed. The effects of the two-dimensional beings on our world are also incredibly imaginatively depicted with the ‘de-dimensionalising’ of door handles, chairs and sofas and are the sort of images that long live in the mind well after the end credits. There are some memorably chilling deaths of minor supporting characters as well – from the opening teaser, to the really scary dispatch of a young WPC, to the way that another victim is claimed and no one realises until they look at him from a slightly different angle.
All of this makes for a gripping mystery for the first half of the story, but then the two-dimensional beings manage to hack the forms of their victims – “They’re wearing the dead like camouflage,” the Doctor helpfully comments – and now we’re on the run for our lives through deserted railway tunnels from the newly formed ‘Boneless’ people, who look like old-school zombies crossed with a malevolent version of the scribbled cartoon characters from an old a-ha! pop video, executed amazingly well by a specialist CGI team. Best of all I think is the way that Clara (Jenna Coleman) thinks her way out of a seemingly impossible dead end, essentially by using the trick of painting a doorway on a big rock that Wile E Coyote tried on the Road Runner so many times. This time it actually works, because for all their rapid advances the Boneless still can’t sufficiently tell two- and three-dimensional objects apart to realise what’s happening. It’s an inspired, simple resolution to a completely brilliant story.
The fact that this is all set in conspicuously real and unglamorous locations around Bristol is also quite wonderful, as it’s been an age since we’ve had a story firmly rooted in a recognisable, contemporary UK setting. (“The Caretaker” nominally was, but that had been constrained to school classrooms and corridors which made it feel more like they’d broken out the old Grange Hill sets than anything.) Seeing proper urban wasteland areas, derelict railway stations, graffitied pedestrian underpasses – it all rooted the show firmly back in our world again, which is long overdue after years of heightened über-reality and fairytale settings. Equally it could have turned out rather dull, but not in the hands of experienced Who director Douglas Mackinnon who continues to be an excellent and safe pair of hands to helm a show.
All of this is going on while the show is continuing to do some remarkable things with the characters of the Doctor and Clara and the relationship between them – which is no mean feat since this episode is officially the ‘Doctor-lite’ outing meaning that Capaldi only had about a day’s filming on it. It’s not the first time by any means that the show has needed to ‘double-bank’ episodes for scheduling reasons – essentially, freeing up the lead actor(s) so that they can go off and work on another episode being filmed by a second crew at the same time. The first instance was back in 2006 with “Love and Monsters” which was only a qualified success: despite the noble aim of a story trying to show how a mere five seconds of knowing the Doctor can be sufficient to throw the rest of a normal person’s life into turmoil, it suffered from an overly-jokey script and a Marmite guest appearance from Peter Kay. But the second time the show needed to ‘double-bank’ they handed the writing job to Steven Moffat who came up with the sublime “Blink” where the Doctor and his companion barely appear but which says more about how the Doctor sees, thinks and plans in time as well as space as any story that had preceded it. Double-banking also gave us 2008’s “Turn Left” in which we see an alternate future where the Doctor is killed and things turn horrifically bad really quickly thereafter, which leaves us in no doubt that no matter how flawed the Doctor’s successes might be at times they’re still infinitely preferable to the alternative of him not being there to try at all.
That year also introduced the ‘Companion-lite’ story: before this, double-banking had taken both leads out for a story, but this time the leads were split up between two stories and we got a corresponding story which has the Doctor on his own. Double-banking was even easier to do when there were two companions, as in 2011 where you barely noticed episodes where either Amy or Rory were downsized for the day. That season also found a clever way of hiding the ‘Doctor-lite’ episode “The Girl Who Waited”, not that many people noticed as it seemed to have as much Matt Smith in it as any other episode thanks to shooting virtually all his scenes on his own on the Tardis standing set where you can zip through and get pages and pages recorded in a single day’s shooting. Much the same solution is used for the latest instalment “Flatline” in which the Doctor is trapped in the shrunken Tardis for virtually the entire episode, talking to himself (or more accurately to Clara) via an upgraded Bluetooth headset.
Even so, no matter how good the story is you can usually tell when an episode has been required to conform to production imperatives: even “Blink”, despite being one of the all-time best episodes of the series ever, still clearly shows its double-banking roots. Similarly, “Mummy On The Orient Express” felt a little odd until you realised that the need for it to be ‘Companion-lite’ was the reason for Clara was locked up in a boxcar chatting to a guest character for most of the episode. So what’s really strange about “Flatline” isn’t just that you don’t notice that its format is needed for scheduling reasons, it’s that the entire episode seems expressly designed to need to have the Doctor away from the main point of the action in order to work at all. If you had no double-banking considerations in play whatsoever, this is still how you’d ideally want to structure it anyway.
Having the Doctor stuck in a miniaturised Tardis gives the story some of its best moments – the apex coming when he has to ‘finger-walk’ the Tardis out of danger on a railway line in a laugh-out-loud hilarious homage to The Addams Family’s Thing. Moreover it means that Clara has to play the role of the Doctor throughout and even gets her own companion for the day to ask all the companion-y things that the script requires that companions do. In this case it’s Rigsy, a local teenager on community service for acts of gratuitous graffiti, ably played by young Joivan Wade who fits the bill very nicely. Given that this is supposed to be a Doctor-lite episode you’d think there would be a load of other characters around to take the weight off the regular cast but in fact Rigsy is the only fully developed (you could even say, fully rounded or three dimensional? Sorry) guest character in the story this week although Christopher Fairbank certainly makes a big impression as the nastiest shift supervisor in history with such an intense glare that it could surely melt through walls and a lack of imagination so total that even the psychic paper can find nothing to work with.
Clara (and Jenna Coleman) clearly relishes being out there as the Doctor-figure, although in truth she’s more like a new version of Sarah-Jane Smith than the Doctor himself. Toward the end of the story she even specifically rejects just being the Doctor’s avatar when she asks herself, “What would the Doctor do?” and quickly changes that to: “No – what am I going to do now?” However the point of the story is that in the process of playing the part and seeking the Doctor’s approval, she’s also picking up a lot of his bad habits in the process. It’s a logical extension of the way that she was forced into some key realisations into the Doctor’s seeming cold-bloodedness in “Mummy” – when she ended up being complicit in his actions for the greater good – and it seems that moment was something of a Rubicon for Clara and that her righteous meltdown at the end of “Kill The Moon” now belongs to someone very different, a younger and more naive person. And perhaps, someone who was better and more decent?
That thought certainly seems to be on the Doctor’s mind. His time in the Tardis watching on as Clara took the lead has seemingly led to two interconnected realisations. One is that he’s having a terrible corrupting effect on Clara who no longer has any compunctions on lying when it’s needed, and who barely seems to notice that several people have died right in front or her, in spite of – or perhaps even because of – her actions. This is not the unblemished, sweet Clara we used to know but the Doctorised companion version, and the Doctor doesn’t like the change he’s wrought. Moreover, he’s starting to see his own unsettling and unlikeable traits reflected back at him by the changes in Clara, all of which factors in to the question that he asked at the start of this series: “Am I a good man?” Seeing himself through the prism of Clara’s development, he’s not liking the answer he’s getting to that one. Yet ironically, at the same time the viewer are increasingly seeing a return of aspects of the familiar heroic and likeable Doctor we used to know and love, as exemplified by his speech to the Boneless at the end and his impish love of naming a key improvised gadget the “Two-dis”.
All of which shows what an impressive and well-planned journey we’ve been on with the Doctor and Clara this year. More than any other season this one had been character-led. Their relationship has arguably been the most important series arc we’ve ever had in NuWho, much more so than the flashy but distracting baubles of the past like Bad Wolf, Harold Saxon, the crack in the universe, Madame Kovarian or the impossible girl. This one actually matters and means something because it’s about people we’ve come to love. That’s why I find it hard to understand those who have seriously disliked series 8, because for me it’s been the year when the series has finally properly found its feet again for the first time since 2008. Even this year’s somewhat annoying running ‘distraction’, the recurring appearances of Missy in the Nethersphere, finally becomes properly integrated with this year’s true series arc with her brief coda at the end of the episode where she comments, “Clara. My Clara, I chose well” which gives us a chilling sense that Clara’s development is not going somewhere good at all. For once I’m actually excited and even gripped about where this series arc is going to end up taking us.
But it’s a fortnight away yet until we get to the season finale two-parter (“Dark Water”/”Death in Heaven”). Before that there’s one more outing with the highly-anticipated maiden offering from novelist Frank Cottrell Boyce in which it appears that the centre of London has become somewhat overgrown in the Doctor’s absence. With Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) also set to be properly back in the thick of it for the first time since “The Caretaker” having just been Clara’s phone buddy in the meantime, expectations are high for something truly special and even magical from “In the Forest of the Night.”
(* Hey, I finally found something in this episode to quibble about after all! That train/tram in the tunnel – really weak CGI, wasn’t it? Rather like last week’s Orient Express. It seems that Boneless aliens, lunar landscapes and giant spiders are no problem for the Doctor Who effects team these days, but don’t even think about asking for a realistic train! Yep, that’s it as far as quibbles for “Flatline” go…)
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings, with episodes repeated on Sundays on BBC Three and also available on demand on BBC iPlayer. A ten minute ‘behind the scenes’ feature is also available on the iPlayer and on the red button. Series 8 will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on November 17 2014, and series opener “Deep Breath” is already available as a standalone release.