19 October 2014

TV: Flatline (Newsom)

review by Tom Newsom (Twitter | Flickr | Blog)

It’s new territory for Doctor Who, or maybe it’s a return to an old staple. After last week’s upper class art deco spaceship, the show brings us right down to earth to a council estate. In Bristol. It’s never really acknowledged a world of community service and graffiti, but the episode breezes past that and straight into a big old monster movie. It’s more Misfits than the Powell Estate, and a lot like Attack the Block. And putting aside the unique monsters and how it gets the Doctor out of the picture, Flatline is refreshingly low concept - and like most of this series, refreshingly free from the history of the series. It’s Clara on an adventure trying to beat the monsters and protect people.

It’s obvious that by separating her from the Doctor, Clara gets lots to do here. The latest in her arc plot ties up and moves forward the discord of the last episode. Their continuing relationship was left mostly ambiguous last time, and that continues this week as she takes on the traditional lead role. Her struggles to lead her team of survivors and protect them is making her get closer to understanding the Twelfth Doctor, but his noticing those changes troubles him. It’s Frank Skinner’s “this job could change a man” line writ large: is Clara lying to herself, as well as Danny and the Doctor? Or being selfish and, well, Doctor-like? However the series decides to continue it, it feels great that Clara herself is at the heart of her own story this year (if that’s not a tautology for the Impossible Girl).

Whilst Clara takes centre stage, that doesn’t mean the Doctor isn’t there: he’s in the background talking to himself and giving a snarky running commentary on it all. The writer, Jamie Mathieson, has proved he has a great sense of irony that fits in with the best that Doctor Who has to offer. The Doctor’s situation isn’t exactly played for laughs but it’s often very very funny, exploiting every visual gag it can. It’s the sort of setup which sounds bonkers on paper in a bad way, and looks bonkers on the screen in a good way. The effects are often pleasingly low budget (hands sticking out of model TARDISes, false perspective on the actual TARDIS set), clever solutions to what was no doubt a whole load of directorial headaches.

That contrasts with the ultra cool monsters the Boneless who take all sorts of forms as they try to push themselves into our world. These make for some great set-pieces, particularly a perilous moment in a living room that makes a perfect ‘playground game’ out of the episode. The rippling monster effects look absolutely beautiful, and the rest of the episode looks very stylish too, something hard to do when it’s not all space galaxies and starlight. Both the 2D and 3D incarnations of the monster are creepy, with the latter reminding me of badly sculpted toys, uncanny valley style. Like many previous episodes in the series, the sound effects make it all the more creepy.

It’s an episode that feels traditional on the surface - it’s the Doctor and Clara against scary monsters. And that’s not even a criticism, we haven’t had that sort of story in ages. But there’s plenty more to enjoy, a very new configuration of the show that does everything at once. Hilarity mixed with horror, fitted snugly into forty five minutes, which makes this an exquisite bite of Doctor Who.

many thanks to
Tom Newsom (Twitter | Flickr | Blog)

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