“I am the one chance you’ve got of staying alive. That’s who I am.”
On writing duties for the second week in a row, Doctor Who newbie Jamie Mathieson is on a roll, producing yet another excellent episode after last week’s Mummy on the Orient Express. Presumably serving as this year’s ‘Doctor-lite’ episode, Flatline boasted an imaginative and scary monster of the week concept, some well-fleshed out guest characters, and most interestingly, thrust Clara into the spotlight as a Doctor-substitute, allowing the script to examine (and gently poke fun at) the Doctor’s usual method of operation.
The Doctor may have been reduced (literally in fact) to an advisory role in the plot, but for a ‘Doctor-lite’ episode, he still had plenty to do. Peter Capaldi continued to develop the character, moving him ever-closer to sympathy and likeability after the initial shock of his abrasive new personality. Though he’s still referring to humans as “pudding brains” (which rings less true after his lionising of them in Kill the Moon), and greeting the (unhearing) Rigsy with “hello, barely sentient local”, he shows his underlying compassion and sympathy throughout. Visibly disgusted by probation worker Fenton’s comparison of the situation to containing a brushfire, he snarled, “these were people, not trees!”
And his heroic declaration that “this plane is protected!” was an obvious callback to Tennant’s “it is defended!” Though this time, his assertion that this was a ‘role’ he was forced into after giving the 2-D invaders every chance – “the man who stops the monsters” – gave the heroic declamation a lot more nuance. That whole premise, that this is a role he plays only when forced into it by the “monsters” playing their ‘role’, is an interesting one in light of the frequent moral dilemmas the show’s been presenting us with this year. In keeping with his refusal to make the “bad choice” in Kill the Moon (and Genesis of the Daleks for that matter), it shows a man trying very hard to absolve himself of responsibility for a hard decision. It’s as if his ‘role’ is predetermined, and once triggered, it’s a role he has no choice but to play. It was a seemingly throwaway line that has huge implications about the fallibility of the show’s hero (at least, if you want to read it that way).
Also interesting was the softening of his usual peremptorily curt treatment of Clara. Forced into taking on the “Doctor” role herself, Clara unsurprisingly coped admirably – and this time she didn’t feel the need to shout at the Doctor for putting her in that position, since he plainly had no say in the matter. The conceit allowed Jenna Coleman to once again step up as a substitute lead, and demonstrated her gift for comedy again as she needled the unseen Doctor by parodying his style (“Lie to them, give them hope – isn’t that what you usually do?”). Capaldi’s reaction to that line was also marvellous – a hesitant, grudging admission that that’s exactly what he does.
That theme of the Doctor lying has been seemingly an ongoing obsession of this era of the show, and it was significant that the Doctor gave Clara more grudging respect when he realised how well she’d lied to him too, about Danny’s acceptance of her travels. Did it make her a ‘better Doctor’ because she was so good at it? As the man himself commented, “lying is a vital survival skill. It’s also a terrible habit.” And in keeping with the seeming trend of painting the hero in darker hues, his response to Clara’s insistence that she’d been a “good Doctor” was immensely telling – “You were an exceptional Doctor. ‘Goodness’ had nothing to do with it.”
With all that inbuilt navel-gazing, Flatline could easily have been an exercise in fannish self-indulgence. But Mathieson cleverly kept it mostly to the background, using it to enrich a suspenseful story that, like his tenure on Being Human, cleverly balanced between humour and horror. The Bristol setting was a welcome change (and also where Being Human was, initially, set), and genuinely had a different feel to the usual faux-London we see on contemporary Earth. And, as with Mummy on the Orient Express, we got a larger than usual cast of guest characters, all of whom were given some degree of depth – no easy trick in a 45 minute episode that also has to tell a well-paced story and delve into the hero’s insecurities.
Aside from ill-fated, conscience stricken copper PC Forrest (a nice Bristol-accented turn from Jessica Hayles), and avuncular train driver Bill (James Quinn), most of the characters were from the Community Service group. It seemed such an obvious callback to Misfits that I found myself checking back on Jamie Mathieson’s past credits to see if he’d written any of that; but no, he didn’t. Nevertheless, here as there, the “community payback scum” were a colourful variety of characters, all given a degree of sympathy; with the interesting exception of probation worker Fenton (a typically nasty performance from the rather typecast Christopher Fairbank).
Usually, in a story like this, such an unlikeable character will be included either to give the audience satisfaction at his inevitable death, or to learn a humanising lesson. Fenton, in an unusual turn towards realism, did neither. He survived, and was just as unlikeable as before, having learned nothing. No wonder the Doctor ended up muttering, “maybe the wrong people survived”, though it’s hard to imagine his predecessors saying that.
The most prominent of the guest characters was of course graffiti artist Rigsy, cast in the ‘companion’ role to Clara’s ‘Doctor’. Joivan Wade was great in the part, with his reaction to Clara’s off the wall chatter about shrink rays which made her seem as weird as the Doctor (“this is the ‘scaring off’ I was talking about!”). Rigsy too got to skewer a trad Who narrative trope – the guest character who heroically sacrifices himself to save the day – in the genuinely hilarious sequence on the train, as Clara revealed that her headband was probably a better sacrifice to keep the dead man’s handle running.
That juxtaposition of humour and horror, always so evident in Being Human, was on display here with some genuinely imaginative concepts. We’ve seen the TARDIS shrunk before, of course, in Logopolis; but we didn’t get a furious Doctor peering through the tiny doors shouting “stop laughing, this isn’t funny!” (it really was). But later, the “Addams Family” solution to moving the TARDIS off the train line was both funny and suspenseful. There was never really any doubt that the Doctor would manage it, so kudos to director Douglas MacKinnon for keeping our hearts in our mouths anyway.
The direction was, in fact, excellent throughout, and never more so than in the realisation of 2-D invaders, “the Boneless”. Initially seeming reminiscent of the animated drawings from the execrable Fear Her, they were actually a far more interesting visualisation of an old sci-fi idea – creatures from a universe with a different set of dimensions to our own, and near-incomprehensible to us as a result.
That fear of what we don’t understand was cleverly played on throughout, with the Doctor patiently, and increasingly desperately, hoping that the deaths they caused were out of misunderstanding rather than malice. It was a change to the recent trend of ‘innocent monsters’ that they actually were genuinely bad – which made them all the more terrifying. They were bad enough when only two-dimensional, with the death of PC Forrest being a really nasty scene, but even worse when they worked out how to become “3-D”, while “wearing the dead like camouflage”. It sounds nasty, and it looked it too, with those misphasing monstrosities still recognisable as the shimmering remnants of the creatures’ victims. And the moment when the giant stone ‘hand’ surged out of the dark tunnel to drag away poor Al (Casualty’s Matt Bardock) was a proper horror film ‘jump’ (and what was that white void he seemed to be fading into, I wonder?)
Clara’s ultimate solution to the problem, with no help from the Doctor, was both ingenious and perfectly in keeping with the script’s internal logic. If the Boneless can pour out dimensional energy to make a 2-D thing 3-D, that energy would be wasted when the 2-D thing was never 3-D in the first place; wasted, that was, unless it could be poured into the energy-starved TARDIS to restore it to its usual dimensions. I must admit, once that had happened, I wasn’t too clear on exactly how the Doctor ‘banished’ the invaders back to their own universe – surely it needed more than giving them a name? But then, he had already said that he knew a way of doing that, so perhaps it was a result of his waving the sonic around.
This was a textbook example of how to write an almost perfectly structured Doctor Who episode in the modern format. Introduce mystery and humour; deepen mystery; investigate; add a touch of horror; ramp up the pace for some jeopardy and build towards a clever resolution. All the while including development of the season’s ongoing themes and arcs – how is Clara going to explain her lies to Danny, and just why has Missy ‘chosen’ her?
I have to say, Jamie Mathieson’s two eps, along with Moffat’s Listen, have been easily the standouts of this season for me. On this basis, I really hope to see more from him next season. As a diehard Being Human fan, it’s interesting for me that that show’s alumni have written some cracking Who eps; in fact, Being Human creator Toby Whithouse would be my favourite to replace Moffat as showrunner if/when he goes. If he does, I’d say more Mathieson scripts will definitely be forthcoming!