22 October 2014

TV: Flatline

Flatline is certainly an interesting episode. It explores a lot of territory not covered before in Doctor Who, not something that can often be said about a show in its fifty-first year. Jamie Mathieson crafts a tale of realism and the extraordinary in a way no other writer quite has. For all the window dressing (as excellent as it is) this episode really concerns itself with the Doctor and Clara's relationship, continuing the introspection that seems to be the remit for the second half of the series.

We begin, as no story has before, in Bristol. I'd like to think this was some kind of tribute to some of the more prominent members of Doctor Who fandom - Clayton Hickman, Tom Spilsbury and the dear Paul Spragg for example - who herald from the region, but somehow I doubt it. I was convinced Night Terrors was set in Bristol, but checking again, it looks like it was just filmed there. There's a similar setup and contrast present at the heart of this episode as in the Matt Smith story though. This Doctor is authoritative, a long game player and here we're shown what happens when he's out of his depth.

The sharply-dressed Doctor, with his clean edges and stark clothing, stands out instantly among the gravel and graffiti of the old train station in the same way the bow tie-wielding Smith incarnation was at once out of place on the council estate. This is probably where the similarities end though, thankfully, and what follows from Mathieson and MacKinnon are forty minutes where Jenna Coleman plays the Doctor. Throughout this episode, I was continually reminded of a video game. With the Doctor out of the action and present mostly through timely instructions to the main character, I was put very much in mind of creations such as Attack of the Graske or the Adventure Games from the Smith era. It was an effective way for the Doctor to feature without requiring many filming hours for Capaldi, but I personally did really miss him being a more central part of the story, especially the week after Mummy on the Orient Express, in which he was unquestionably integral.

And so with her usual pupil absent, Clara recruits a replacement in the form of Joivan Wade's Rigsy. I did quite like this character, as much for the way he was played as how he was written. By charting his journey across the episode from down-on-his-luck self-confessed no-hoper to optimistic member of society, we see the effect the Doctor can have on people - even when she's a woman. I was glad that his skill as an artist became fundamental to the resolution (or so we were led to believe - more on this later) as it justified his inclusion not only to the audience but also to the character himself. Learning self-worth can one of life's hardest lessons, and so if the Doctor and Clara helped him on that journey in any way then that's enough of a victory for me.

If Rigsy wasn't likeable enough, this aspect of his personality is exemplified when juxtaposed with Christopher Fairbank's bastard of a character. Fenton is rude, anti-social and hard on those around him. These are qualities that could be attributed to the Twelfth Doctor, but Fairbank  rightly doesn't play it with the soft edge often present in Capaldi's performance. Fenton is world-weary, and pissed off with modern society. In short, he hates the world and wants it to know. The line from the Doctor at the end that "maybe the wrong people survived" does of course evoke his predecessor David Tennant in Voyage of the Damned, but it is an entirely justified comment. Although, I believe it made the strongest story to keep Fenton alive and kicking throughout, this is a line that he would probably concede with. Having said that, I didn't feel like we got to know any of the other supporting characters well enough to state that they would be favourable to Fenton.

As to the actual plot of this ninth episode - making this the longest continuous run of episodes since June 2010 - I was impressed but as already mentioned, I couldn't help feeling it took a bit of a back seat compared to the character drama. This is no bad thing, whatsoever. Across the ninety minutes he's contributed to Series 8, Mathieson has proved his skill with humans and their relationships more than adequately. The Boneless are a fantastic idea, and very well executed. The structure of this episode is faultless, and I couldn't pick any holes in its integrity. The writing was absolutely spot-on for the vast, vast majority of this story. 

The only place I felt the scripting was lacking was in the conclusion - a similarity with last week's episode; if anywhere, it's here. I totally agree that Rigsy's talent should have been displayed at the climax, and I really liked the way this was done, but if we examine events more closely, it's harder to see quite how his actions "saved the world" directly, as the Doctor makes note of in the final scene. The Boneless pour their dimensional energy into the TARDIS, allowing it to resize and power up, whatever - fine. But then when the Doctor arrives for his big confrontational scene, all he goes is grab the sonic from Clara and zap all the Boneless away into nothingness. I fail to see how the Doctor saved the day at all; there was nothing he did in this moment that no-one else could have done. For this reason, the climax left me a bit flat (hoho). I understand that he was guiding Clara throughout the episode, but then at the most crucial stage, when she's left to fend for herself, she comes up with the cleverest idea any of any protagonist in the whole episode. It's not a major point, as this wasn't where the emphasis of the episode was for me at all, but I thought I ought to note that such a tidy and easy resolution could arise from the same writer as the justly much-lauded climactic scene in Mummy on the Orient Express.

Douglas MacKinnon contributes to the TV show for the final time this year in magnificent style. Having read a few articles about the creation of the stunning visual effects Flatline boasted, I'm even more impressed by the tireless dedication of the BBC Wales team. When do they sleep? This looked gorgeous from the off, and more than any other episode of Series 8 so far, this felt like a mini-movie to me. It wasn't quite staged as such, but the camera tricks employed (the wipe fades, the irregular reaction shots) reminded me of the big screen look, and in particular Terence Young's style, although why or how I couldn't tell you. I think a lot of the success of this episode is owed to MacKinnon. If you think about it, the setup of the story does have a few holes (where's everyone else? why are the Boneless only invading Bristol? etc.) but the direction glosses over these, to sweep you along into a rip-roaring adventure, mixed with a good old fashioned character drama. I don't think the visuals of this episode can ever be questioned, and I loved the mini TARDIS. It reminded me so much of the model used in the early years of the program, it was brilliant. One little point I did have though is that it looked like the train would have cleared it when the TARDIS was on its side on the tracks. Nevertheless, a hugely enjoyable sequence, if not least for Peter Capaldi's dancing.

Which brings me onto the big man himself. Capaldi seems very settled in the lead role now, and some of the post-regeneration angsty hysteria so widely proclaimed by Steven Moffat has thankfully now dispersed. I think what we have at the moment is the perfect Doctor for Capaldi to play; confrontational, uncaring of social graces, but all with a soft core and a wry smile. If this is the direction we're going to be going in for the rest of the Twelfth Doctor's tenure, colour me impressed. A lot of the rubbish from Deep Breath and Listen is gone - I only hope it doesn't return in a couple of weeks once Moffat's back at the helm solo. Capaldi can't justifiably be criticised any more though. Sure, his take on it might not be your cup of tea, but there's no denying the skill of the man.

Jenna Coleman seems to relish the opportunity to front an episode. Clara has never been one to be fazed or daunted by unfamiliar situations and in this vein she happily takes the events in her stride here. Though she's encouraged by the Doctor to lead the group, she hardly needs any encouragement. Ms Oswald isn't what many would call a natural born leader, but she nonetheless seizes the role with both hands. And to gibe credit where it's due, she does pretty well. Whilst she's not my favourite companion due to the incredibility and detachment associated with her, there's no question she's more capable than many of the Doctor's friends over the years - most from the seventies and eighties included, as well as Adam Bonehead Mitchell. Coleman again gives a great performance, but for once I did feel she could have reigned it in a little. 

To conclude, I did think was a fantastic episode. Like The Caretaker, I don't think it will go down as a modern classic (not for me at any rate) but it is still immensely enjoyable. I think Mathieson scored highest with his first script, and although he did well with the scenario imposed upon him for last week's episode, I can't help but feel the story he was involved with from conception is far stronger. There are lots of little issues that niggle me somewhat (such as Clara answering her phone whilst in mortal danger, and then hanging up later so she can chat to the Doctor) but overall this works. The moment with Missy (I think we can all be sure that's short for The Mister by now, no?) betrays dark times to come between the Doctor and Clara, but here the relationship is examined by both swapping roles to some extent. The Doctor might compare being physically trapped in the TARDIS to being mentally stunted as Clara, for example. The analogies are rife through Flatline's duration, but it's best enjoyed just as an adventure, of horror and wonder. Just a quick note to say I thought the grading on this was excellent too. A superb addition to a confident, strong series.

In a Nutshell: It's two for two with Jamie Mathieson, and Douglas MacKinnon is on his usual good form. A falteringly strong episode.

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