Sunday, 19 July 2015


Chapter The Seventh, which takes us from one 56-year-old actor playing the Doctor to another.

The Doctor continues his sabotage of Clara's relationship by dropping her off in Bristol instead of Shoreditch, then getting stuck in a shrunken TARDIS leaving her to defeat an invasion by some 2D nasties, instead of eating lunch sat on a park bench with Danny.

Flatline is one of a few in last year's batch that we decided was too scary and gruesome for our younger kids; 3-year old girl and 5-year old boy have not seen it to date, so - to avoid stirring up interest and starting arguments - I watched the Blu-Ray late on a weekday evening, when they were abed.

Seven stories into the blog, and there's been no repetition yet of any Doctor. I may have to tweak the parameters to ensure I start off with one story from each of the 12 different leading men: an only two Bakers dozen, if you will.

First-time round:
The Better Half and I had got into a pattern by the time Capaldi's first series rolled around last year: timeshift each episode, screen it on Saturday evening without the kids, gauging acceptability; then, if okay, I'd watch it again with them on Sunday.

This is never an exact science, and every child is different. So, our choices might surprise other parents. It's notable, though, that there were only five stories we deemed unsuitable from 2005 to 2013 (Blink, Midnight, The Waters of Mars, Night Terrors, Hide) but in Capaldi's first year there's already been three (Listen, Kill the Moon, and Flatline). Our lot particularly don't like too much emphasis on psychological horror tropes, such as characters creeping around a dark, lonely space waiting for something to jump out at them. Series 8 had that stuff in spades. There will be a wonderful opportunity, though, in a number of years time to catch up on all of those back-to-back over one weekend!


The killer graffiti angle is a clever high-concept twist on the standard tale of a mismatched bunch of characters getting picked off by relentless, lumbering monsters. Nicely, these monsters have to teach themselves how to lumber; before that, they kill invisibly, stuck as patterns on the walls. This also allows a new spin on the slow-reveal of the monster - at each stage, the Boneless are evolving as they become more visible to the characters and the audience. There's scope for some great effects work too: the fabrics and patterns of humdrum suburbia shifting like quicksand as they become lethal, and the mo-cap work of the jittery, not-quite-correctly-rendered corpses moving around with their distinctive gait.

Making an asset from a production limitation, Jenna Coleman as Clara gets to lead the action - Capaldi's time on this story was limited, and the majority of his scenes filmed on one set on a single day. Clara gets to use the sonic screwdriver and psychic paper, and gets her own companion in the lovable Rigsy. Coleman rises to the challenge effortlessly, and despite being separated for most of the story, Clara and the Doctor play off each other with their usual sparky chemistry.

There's a rich vein of leavening humour, with lots of 'meta' gags examining the plot of the locked room mystery, and debating aloud what to call the story's monsters and gadgets. The writer Jamie Mathieson clearly knows his genre, and must have had many influences; but, with the police box shrinking, the Doctor having to activate an emergency circuit to take the TARDIS out of play, and the cloister bell going off, one feels that someone involved in the production had the Tom Baker story Logopolis at least subconsciously in mind.

Despite being sidelined, Capaldi is having a ball playing his take on his own childhood hero. His face is a wonderful, expressive, lined thing like the surface of a moon upon which anything can be reflected back; but his whole body in performance is a wonder to behold too: he pecks about the TARDIS control room set like some sort of wading bird.

One bum note: something that really took me out of the action, despite it's being fleeting, was the Doctor referring to the Boneless as "monsters". I always thought this was a no-no, and indeed am sure I read that Russell T. Davies when he was in charge had a rule insisting that this never should happen. The Doctor should not deal in moral absolutes, and despite doing his best to keep an open mind as to the Boneless' intentions beforehand, and despite softening it a bit afterwards with "that is the role you seem determined to play" he does still say it.  In my book, he shouldn't be labelling anyone or anything a monster. There's no such thing as monsters, only monstrous actions.
Aside from having the age of their highest billed actor in common, this and The Aztecs both also see the female companion take centre stage, though Clara does this by emulating the Doctor rather than being her own person in conflict with him. Also, the TARDIS is inaccessible for much of the running time.

Deeper Thoughts:
Arcs take up space. In 21st Century Who, there has to be an overarching plot or two threading through the episodes of any season. This is par for the course in the current TV environment in which the programme is made, and - as I've commented before - wasn't unknown in the 20th century incarnation either. In Flatline, we have three plots intruding: first, the ongoing tale of Clara and Danny and how it is impacted on by - and provides counterpoint and complication to - her adventures with the Doctor. Second, the season-long analysis of the Doctor's morality: is he a good man? This is highlighted by Clara's efforts to ape him when dealing with the situation in his absence. As he summarises at the end, the Doctor is not greatly pleased by this projection of his methods: lying to people to give them false hope, having to keep the balance between saving the world while the wrong people might be getting killed, and so on. Third, there is a tease of the season's Big Bad, Missy, and her plans.

All these will come together somewhat successfully in a few episodes time for the season finale, so it's a useful investment for the season to give them house room now. But it's a mixed bag when it comes to the impacts on the story of the week. The piece is undoubtedly given extra depth by dwelling on the Doctor's morality through Clara's eyes; and, involving the companion's interpersonal relationships is always good for grounding the action and stopping it getting too far-out with its science fantasy concepts; but, Flatline is a single 45 minute episode already jumping through enough hoops separating the Doctor and Clara. Once all those other long-running plots are factored in, it just doesn't have time for the audience to get to know the non-regular characters, so we don't care that they are being picked off by the Boneless. This is its major failing.
Joivan Wade is well served as Rigsy, and Christopher Fairbank gives his all to make an impression with very few lines. But Matt Bardock is wasted, and the rest of the crew don't get much more than a line apiece. The train driver, one of the survivors, comes into the action far too late in the day. Maybe it would have been better to cut out some of the investigation material early on; after all, the audience is way ahead and already knows what's happening by the end of the pre-credits teaser. This would have meant that everyone got into the train tunnels sooner. It's not a huge issue, and I still very much enjoyed the story. But it's telling that Mathieson pulls off the trick much better second time around, getting us to care for the mismatched band getting picked off one by one (in Mummy on the Orient Express, which was shown first but written after Flatline). Was this because he had much less of those plot arcs to squeeze in? Perhaps this is a meta exploration of the Doctor's morality, in it's own way: the needs of the season outweigh the needs of the episode; but is that right? 

In Summary:
Could have been a bit flat, but was given an extra dimension.


  1. Got to disagree with you there. For me, the very definition of Doctor Who is that it's about what happens when people come face to face with monsters, and what their reaction is.

    Star Trek has aliens who you can talk to. Doctor Who has monsters, who you can't.

    1. Hey Piers! No, we do agree: that's completely correct in terms of the show, and I wouldn't want it any other way. It's just I don't think the Doctor' should ever admit it out loud, that's all - he's got to have hope each time that there will be a Star Trek solution. For some reason, without that level of denial on behalf of the lead character, it feels wrong.