TV Well, thank fuck for that. There’s no getting around this, Flatline is brilliant. For the first time this series, well since Deep Breath probably, I laughed, proper real belly laughs and I cheered, oh how I cheered and in the middle of that I was scared, really, really scared. I had, in fact, all of the emotions you’re supposed to have when watching Doctor Who which at its best, in a television drama land full of darkness, nihilism and despair, especially in this genre lately, provides comfort and a something they cannot and which it’s seemed this series it had entirely forgotten about. That indefinable magic. So yes, thank fuck for that, this is the Doctor Who I love and this is the Doctor Who that I’ve been waiting weeks for.
Not that it got off to the most promising of starts with essentially the same teaser as Fear Her, a civilian turning two dimensional. Flatline has roughly the same premise as both that and Night Terrors and indeed some of the visuals of people disappearing in carpets and walls are spookily familiar. Plus we're in warehouses and tunnels which bespeak Who in the 80s, though much of both Resurrection of the Daleks and Attack of the Cybermen was shot in studio, director for both Matthew Robinson would have killed to have been able to do a complete shoot in real locations. For some reason, I thought momentary Christopher Fairbank had appeared in one of this two. Seems odd from this distance that he didn’t.
I always forget to mention the guest cast, wedging a paragraph in where I can, so let’s do that early for a change. Fairbank is in the Brian Glover role here, his community service supervisor pig headedly cynical right through to the moment he’s saved and beyond, a yes man who under appreciates those who he’s supposed to rehabilitating. Fairbanks does feel like an actor who should have been in classic Who, but its easy to forget now that at the moment when he would have been at that point he was already too famous for it, turning up on then megahit Bergerac in 1987 during his stint on similarly megahitted Auf Wiedersehen, Pet when our show was entirely unloved and unwatched (oddly with the same overnight ratings) (megahits aren’t what they used to be).
As Clara’s companion for the week, the fantastically named Jovian Wade (seriously parents, assuming it isn’t a stage name, well done) had all the hallmarks of an actor on his way up. Acres of back story here, underplayed, especially in that train scene and afterwards when the first person he wants to call is his mother. It’s in the script, but Wade's tone of voice fills in the blanks on someone whose had the kind of life changing event the Doctor usually brings that makes a person reconsider their position. I like that we don’t know especially why he’s desperate to throw his life away, other than perhaps to give Clara an inclining of what it’s like for the Doctor when a total stranger sacrifices themselves.
The central thrust of the episode is about putting Clara in the position of the Doctor and forcing her to make the big decisions. Again, this has overtones of Fear Her in which Rose is the Doctor’s saviour in finding the nearest energy source in order to re-ignite an alien spacecraft. But Tyler made no claims to the mantle or title, whereas Oswald utilises the power, the sonic, the psychic paper to effectively take over the position and mores to the point embolden her to make those decisions. As we saw in Nightmare in Silver, she’s a strong enough figure not to require this backing but the episode is reiterating the point about how the Doctor rubs off on his companions, though it’s strange just how much she seems to want his approval.
The one note of caution about this is in the party newsletter’s preview, writer Jamie Mathieson says, “people have asked if there will ever be a female Doctor. We have a chance to do that here…” Well, yes, sort of, but not really. She doesn’t stop being Clara, and although it shows that it’s entirely possible for a female protagonist within this format to have the authoritative conversations about hope with potential victims, it’s still the Doctor who ultimately saves the day because he apparently has to, because his name’s in the title. It’s the same reason Michelle Yeoh is rescued by Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies even though her spy character is entirely capable of it herself. It’s a trope, part of the structure of this kind of show.
I don’t necessarily agree with this statement (necessarily?), but I understand it. Of course, if you wanted to dive down the rabbit hole, it could be that we were watching Jenna Coleman’s audition to take on the role of the Doctor. My ludicrous theory is that Clara’s this Doctor’s Watcher and that the production team with Capaldi are trying to pull an Eccleston, that he’s also only signed for one season and in the Christmas special for reasons that I can’t even begin to imagine regenerates into Jenna Coleman, hello female Doctor with a Blackpool accent. They effectively merge. Hello, entirely capable new Doctor and also Jenna Coleman leaving the role of Clara.
Part of me wishes this would turn out to be true, because Jenna’s simply magnetic here, though notice how much of “the Doctor” she’s playing owes a debt to her current companion’s previous incarnation. Partly that’s do with stature, the sonic screwdriver looked massive in his hands too sometimes, but her line readings when pretending to the Doctor, consciously or not, don’t have much to do with Twelfth. Perhaps I’m imagining it, but nevertheless, if the Capaldi’s single year rumours are true, and I can’t understand why they would be given who he is and the part he’s playing, having Coleman rather than Garai take on the role wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world however ludicrous that all sounds.
But not as ludicrous as the scene in which the Doctor’s hand pulls the tiny TARDIS out of way of the oncoming train, which by quite some margin is one of the funniest scenes in the show’s history. I haven’t laughed this hard since Brian’s box watching in The Power of Three. Perhaps it’s a small objects thing. Incredible shrinking TARDISes and Time Lords are always funny from the closing moments of The Time Meddler to the miniature Master in Planet of Fire. Whereas in Logopolis we could only imagine what it must be like, now we have the ability to have the Doctor’s eye peering out of the doorway and his hand passing things out of Clara’s satchel.
The episode is also deeply scary. As in Listen and Time Heist, Douglas Mackinnon makes full use of the notion of what we can’t see, of the shadows, of the antagonist existing just out of shot. But in shot, the visuals are stunning, these extra-dimensional beings becoming walking Enya videos, figures that are almost human. In my Mummy review, I didn’t give enough credit to the terrific Mummy, but that was about giving us a new spin on something we already knew well. Flatline presents something we really haven’t seen before and in a way which I’m not sure would be suitable for kids, particularly since we know they’re reconstituted human remains in a different form. Which is a Mummy too I suppose. Oh you know what I mean.
Really great action sequences too, especially in that flat with the bubble chair. Originally designed by Eero Aarnio in 1968, you can buy a pretty good approximation from Bubble Chairs Direct it seems should you have my monthly salary available to shell out on something that is entirely impractical in any meaningful sense. The sequence itself is classic Who, contrasting the excitement of being a companion with the comparative mundanities of relationship with a bearded acrobat who also happens to teach. Notice how throughout her conversation with Pink, she gives a decent representation of the Doctor’s rule one, which she then rechristens herself to be something else later on.
None of which was as heart-pumping as the climax, the TARDIS returning to full size and deposited the Doctor in front of the monsters. Yes, the Doctor. Because he’s finally said so. For the first time since Listen, at least for me, Flatline bridges the chasm between Peter Capaldi’s performance and the character whose been on our screens for fifty years. There he is, warning the monsters about what he’s about to do, sonic outstretched, our plane of existence defended, shouting his name. I cheered, oh how I cheered. “There he is!” I gesticulated at the screen, “There he is!” You can see it in Capaldi’s eyes too I think, that feeling that the cloak finally fits, that he’s earned the right to have that stance, in front of these fiends, and say those words.
Not just in that moment, throughout. The Doctor vs Clara dynamic which we all loved in the restaurant scene in Deep Breath and throughout Listen returned. Suddenly when he’s talking about the places he’s been, the things he’s seen, we believe it. He dances, I mean, he dances, that giddy dance which is sure to overtake the Picard "full of win" gif in Buzzfeed listacles in moments of pure happiness. Plus, in the closing moments, he’s clearly very shaken by the loss of life and Clara’s apparent lack of mournfulness, as though he’s noticed his own callousness has rubbed off on her.
Recently I’ve taken the advice of one of those Buzzfeed listacles, which I can’t actually find to link to now, that one is often well served by moments in the day without purposeful stimulus and so I’ve simply been sitting and thinking on the short bus journey to work. It’s during one of those journeys I began to rationalise the Doctor’s behaviour this series thusly: now that he’s at the beginning of what seems like a whole new regenerative cycle, he’s tragically, psychologically reset in some regards so that everything he’s learned about living within humanity has gone so that he’s essentially back in early Hartnell mode when brandishing a rock seemed like a good idea. What we’ve been watching is him getting back into the swing of things.
Not that I think this has necessarily been a great idea, especially since it’s not really been explained in the series and it’s only really something I thought about while looking out of the window onto Princes Avenue. His continued nickname for Danny, PE, remains problematic for all the reasons GKW describes in his review of The Caretaker in DWM and makes an unwelcome return here as does “pudding brains” and the trend of treating most humans interpersonally as though they’re Countess Scarlioni. Nevertheless Flatline sees him at his most Doctorish yet and, thanks to the needs of his lighter shooting schedule spending enough time in the TARDIS that it’s finally beginning to feel like his space.
Frankly, about the only thing that would have improved this episode would have been Muyta, Keisha and Siobhan turning up in person to sing their identically titled song or at least have it playing on the soundtrack. Even the Missy tease is properly intriguing for a change. Did she choose Clara? When she says, my Clara, what could that possibly mean? She was the woman in the shop? It can’t be parental. Tied back somehow into her being the impossible girl? Sleeper assassin? Well, and indeed then. The fact that I’m bothering to speculate says something too. Three episodes to go, two Moffats but first a Frank Cottrell Boyce. The trees in the trailer are fascinating. Are we about to see a nightmare in East London?