Airdate: October 18, 2014
Written by: Jamie Mathieson
Directed by: Douglas MacKinnon
The Story So Far: With powerful dimensional forces locking the Doctor inside the TARDIS, Clara finds herself alone in Bristol, relentless pursued by paper-thin monsters, and armed with only three things for company: a youth graffiti artist, a grumpy old civil servant, and a collectible-sized miniature TARDIS.
For the second lowest-rated episode ever of the revived Doctor Who series, this one seems to have been immensely popular with fandom at large. It’s another strong showing for Jamie Mathieson, but perhaps not quite as awesome as the previous week’s story.
1. Arc of Infinity (revisited)
But first, a reconsideration of whether or not this season’s arc has been as minimal as I described last week. Others of you have had quite different ideas. James Bow, at the bottom of his review of the past two episodes, finds several concepts from Mummy on the Orient Express (including yet another soldier left over from a forgotten war, and Gus himself) which potentially tie in with the overarching season themes of “the promised land” and Missy. He chalks this up to subtlety on the writers’ part. I hadn’t even noticed. I’m hoping he’s correct, and that there’s a lot more substance to this season’s over-arching themes than I’ve yet given it credit for.
2. “Roughly to the size of an inch”
For the first time in a while, we get an episode, in Flatline, which is not overtly a remake of or an homage to a particular Classic Series story or era… except for the fact that the dimensional forces of the Boneless cause the TARDIS to be shrunk down to the size of a toy. Fans of the Classic Series have seen that happen twice before.
In 1964’s Planet of Giants, the TARDIS doors open in mid-flight — the ship was prone to scary malfunctions at that early date, when the Doctor hadn’t quite learned how to operate the thing yet. The ship then lands in contemporary England, but it’s been shrunk down to an inch in size. Thus, both the TARDIS and its crew spent the rest of the serial in miniature. Flatline doesn’t quite go to that length (or, should I say, height?); the TARDIS exterior shrinks, but the Doctor remains full size within the interior dimensions.
3. “At last, I’ve cut you down to size! Ahahahahahaha!”
The other instance of a shrinking TARDIS served as a key plot point in 1981’s Logopolis, the Fourth Doctor’s final story. Eagle-eared fans will remember that a minor line of dialogue from Part Three of that adventure resurfaced (almost certainly intentionally) in Kill the Moon. This homage is far more overt.
In Logopolis, the Doctor, realizing that a regenerated Master is on his tail, brings the TARDIS to the titular planet of wizened mathematicians, hoping that the science of using mathematical calculations to restructure matter, might be applied to repairing the TARDIS’ chameleon circuit. Except that the Master, having already guessed what counter-move the Doctor would make (“He’s a Time Lord… in many ways, we have the same mind,” muses a powerfully moody Tom Baker), has already infiltrated the colony. Interfering with the spoken equations being used to repair the TARDIS, the Master succeeds in doing this:
You can only imagine the clever subtlety that actor Anthony Ainley employs to convey the Master’s pleasure at this turn of events …
4. “Doctor Clara”
In Flatline, Clara quickly, and with seductively sardonic self-confidence on Jenna Coleman’s part, assumes the role of the Doctor — investigating the mystery and acquiring both a pseudo-companion for the week, and a cast of rapidly-dwindling cannon-fodder for the monster of the week. The Doctor’s stranded inside the TARDIS, what with the door shrunk down roughly to the size of an inch and all, but is able to listen in through an earpiece, which also uses nano-technology to “hijack [Clara’s] optic nerve” so he can watch her progress through the TARDIS monitors. At one point, Clara picks up a clue which the Doctor had previously told her to ignore, and she turns to smirk at the Doctor, via her own reflection in a mirror. That’s stand-up-and-cheer stuff.
Throughout the rest of the episode, the trapped Doctor gives Clara a running tutorial on how to be the Doctor:
“Congratulations. Lying is a vital survival skill — and a terrible habit.”
“What do I do?” “Act normal — but get everyone out.”
“Clara, this is a vital stage. This little group is currently confused and disorientated, but pretty soon, a leader is going to emerge. You need to make sure that leader is you.”
“I just hope I can keep them all alive.” “Ha! Welcome to my world.”
[When he thinks he’s about to be flattened by an oncoming train and needs to deliver inspirational last words to Clara]: “Listen, do what you can to get those people out of there — you’re stronger than you know.”
There’s only one real problem with this, though: we’ve already seen, throughout Series 7 and 8, that Clara is the most important person in the Universe. She’s rescued or guided the Doctor at every point in his timelines, and visited his moment of origin to teach his childhood self the value of finding strength through fear. It’s a bit late for the Doctor to be giving her Hero 101 lessons …
Because she’s playing the Doctor, Clara of course instantly picks up a companion. Not because her overt heroism and bravery inspires someone to join her cause, learn to become a better person, and fight alongside her; no, Rigsy begins following her initially because he thinks she’s cute, and wants to apologize after the other members of his community service crew taunted her.
Many other commentators by now have noticed the parallels between Rigsy, the graffiti artist in Bristol, and Banksy, who 20 years ago started off as the same thing. That’s about as far as Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat allow the comparison to go, though; there’s nothing political or subversive or anarchic about Rigsy, who’s played with fresh-faced eagerness by young Joivan Wade. The Doctor initially greets him with “Hello, barely-sentient local,” and then observes, “He’s a pudding-brain — worse than that, he’s a fluorescent pudding brain.” But, by the end, Rigsy’s graffiti skills help save the TARDIS (see below), and even the Doctor predicts a bright future for the young man.
One interesting step in Rigsy’s journey: towards the end, he attempts to commit that most archetypal Doctor Who act — the noble self-sacrifice of a secondary or tertiary character, who kills himself in the name of stopping a greater danger to the main characters. This happened first in The Daleks, and then pretty regularly through Journey’s End, at which point the series, through Davros, finally pointed out the inherent flaws in such an approach. This time, Clara stop’s Rigsy’s attempted self-sacrifice by finding a way to ram a train against the Boneless without him being inside it, using her headband to override the Dead Man’s Switch. All the while, Clara mocks his efforts: “And I’d really like that headband, but I suppose I’ll just take it, will I? And every time I look at it, I’ll always remember the hero who died to save it — come on, you’re not getting off that lightly, there’s work that needs doing.”
6. Base under siege
Back in the ’60s, Doctor Who was produced inside antiquated TV studios the size of a shoe box, most typically Lime Grove Studio D, about which a character memorably complained in An Adventure in Space and Time: “You can’t do anything there — it’s smaller on the inside!” This gave rise to a format known as the “base under siege” story, in which the regulars and the principal guest stars were trapped inside some sort of scientific research facility, which took up about 80% of the studio floor space. Set against this was the alien menace of the week, usually portrayed by one guest star and three or four extras, disguised in acres of latex or PVC, operating out of their much-smaller spaceship confined to a studio corner, until they lumber across the studio to the main set and kill off most of the guest cast in the process.
Flatline as a Doctor Who story follows this formula to some extent, even though it has much more space to play with. The Boneless chase Clara, Rigsy, and Rigsy’s fellow community service mates, through power rooms and train tunnels, picking off most of the guest cast one by one until there are only three survivors at the end. Mummy on the Orient Express, a far more claustrophobic story, by the same author, did the same thing, only better.
Here, the tension of the base-under-siege format is let down by the fact that the guest stars are mostly anonymous canon-fodder; while Mummy went to great length to make its victims interesting before killing them off, Flatline doesn’t quite manage to do that. “George”‘s death scene is pretty memorable — the Boneless announce his uniform number “22”, he stands near a wall pondering that number, and he’s very quickly sucked into the wall and flattened into a two-dimensional puddle. But his death scene was the most noteworthy thing about him.
Then there’s one vaguely Jason Statham-looking guy, who I thought was gonna have a major part, but didn’t, really. The victims have no personality traits, and, in some cases, no names spoken on-screen; they’re about as two-dimensional as:
7. The Boneless.
“This explains everything — they’re from a universe with only two dimensions! And, yes, that is a thing!”
“Are we really hiding from killer graffiti?” “I agree — we’ll have to think of a better name for them than that.”
The Boneless are an interesting concept for a villain, which hasn’t been done on TV yet — two-dimensional beings with unknown motives, who do nothing but kill; the Doctor spends most of the story pondering whether they have evil intent, or whether they’re merely making an inept attempt at first contact. The Boneless are kind of a gestalt, with no distinct character or voice, and they’re portrayed mostly by:
8. Visual Effects
The visual look of this story is impressive, comic, and impossibly fake looking, at different turns. Director Douglas MacKinnon invests most of the story with a sprightly visual flair. I quite enjoy the moment where the Doctor, stranded inside the miniature TARDIS in Clara’s handbag, comes to believe that the monsters are hiding inside the walls, and passes her a sledgehammer… which Clara then pulls, in its entirety, out of that much smaller bag. The sight gag is doubly sold because there’s an oblivious police constable who’s facing the other way, and, upon turning around, barely seems to notice that Clara’s magically obtained a hammer.
The Boneless’ early attack on P.C. Forrest, through the walls and floors, is also quite impressive; the actress who plays Forrest sells this with pretty convincing death screams. I also quite like the death of the Jason Statham-looking guy; he’s standing in between Clara and the others, as a faint smudge becomes visible in the deep background, and then the smudge enlarges and resolves into a 3-D hand, which lunges forward and grabs Statham-looking, and drags him down and down and down into two dimensions.
As the story demands evolve in the second half of the story, the Boneless go from inky puddles to papier mache-esque 3D humans (think like the characters in that a-Ha video), who lurch zombie-like along train tunnels in search of Clara and her remaining companions; this is pretty graphic and effective. Less effective is the oncoming train that threatens to flatten the TARDIS; that’s not really a triumph of CGI here in 2014, and will probably look downright risible to those of you reading this 10 years later. And, as for the Doctor walking the miniature TARDIS with his bare hand, Addams Family-style… I’m sorry, but that’s just ludicrous. Most of my friends enjoyed it, but, for me… no. That’s a lot more Graham Williams than Philip Hinchcliffe …
As I noted last week, I’m starting to lose patience with the way Danny Pink’s story arc is unfolding this season. None of this is due to Samuel Anderson, who invests Danny with a lot of emotional weight and depth in what little screen time he’s been given. But, for the second week in a row, he’s shown only via a phone call; he calls Clara at an inopportune moment, as she and Rigsy are in a noisy battle with the Boneless (smashing windows, police sirens); Danny is oblivious throughout the call and still doesn’t realize (as the Doctor instantly figures out) that Clara has lied to him about leaving the TARDIS. The scene is not intrinsic to the episode’s plot, so I’m assuming this was a clumsy Steven Moffat insert and nothing to do with Jamie Mathieson.
10. Why So Serious?
The climax is pretty cool. The Boneless attempt to restore Rigsy’s graffiti of a flattened door to three dimensions, so that they can open the door, walk through it, and kill the others. But the door’s a painting, never three-dimensional to begin with, so the Boneless energy passes through harmlessly — and into the TARDIS, which quickly restores to full size and full dimensions. The Doctor straightens his shirt collar, marches through the door, makes a grandiose David Tennant-y speech about how “This plane is protected!”, and dispatches the Boneless with a thrust of his sonic screwdriver. He returns the survivors home, while Clara looks rightfully proud of herself for having steered the situation through in the Doctor’s absence. All well, good, and heart-warming ….
Until we leave the Doctor and Clara on this oddly downbeat exchange:
Clara: Admit it, I did well […] Why can’t you say it? I was the Doctor, and I was good!
The Doctor: You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara.
Clara: Thank you.
The Doctor: Goodness had nothing to do with it.
Um… what was the point of that? Reminds me of so many of the Virgin New Adventures back in the mid-1990s, where the Doctor would do something heroic to save the day, and his companions would utterly hate him for it. Does this exchange have something to do with the Doctor not seeing himself as a good man? Is he trying to cut Clara down to size, jealous, perhaps, of her almost-effortless success in his absence? Is he covering for his embarrassment about Clara having overhead him (when he thought she couldn’t hear) talking about how good she’d been? Whatever the case, it leaves something of a bitter aftertaste.
She’s back! … for all of 14 seconds. Missy’s seen watching the end of the episode on an iPad (that’s odd — the episodes usually don’t go up on iTunes until the next day), utters all of seven words (“Clara, my Clara, I have chosen well”), and then gives a sinister chuckle.
Although it’s a very brief appearance by Michelle Gomez (albeit longer than her turns in Into the Dalek and The Caretaker, mind you), the implication is pretty clear, and can only mean one thing, given the limited universe of facts that we’ve had about Clara Oswald since Season 7: Missy’s the lady in the shop who gave Clara the TARDIS phone number. Which means that Clara is unwittingly serving some purpose in the Doctor’s life purely at Missy’s direction.. What that purpose is, and why Missy put her up to it, is something that will have to wait until the two-part season finale.
Missy’s appearances this year have been nicely ambiguous — we’ve seen her doing only benign things, but Michelle Gomez manages to make them all seem sinister. So she’s clearly up to no good — unless the two-part season finale is going to be made up of two hours of Gomez and Capaldi benignly sipping tea on a porch, like that time that Itchy & Scratchy had all the violence taken out.
12. Next Time
The TARDIS lands in London, which has turned into a heavily CGI’d forest. A bunch of precocious schoolkids accompany the Doctor, Clara, and Danny. The presence of small kids in Doctor Who last season heralded The Rings of Akhaten and Nightmare in Silver. Hopefully, In the Forest of the Night will do better than that.
I had a similar reaction to the exchange between Clara and the Doctor at the end of the episode. I thought the point would be that Clara would have a better understanding of why the Doctor acts the way he does (since she has been critical of his callousness at times this season). I wondered if it maybe linked back to “Time Heist,” when we learned that the Doctor doesn’t really like to see himself too clearly. Clara did an excellent job of taking over his role, and articulated fairly well why she thought those were the actions he would take.
These are all points that came to a head, somewhat, in “Death in Heaven”. I’m sure I’ll be able to come up with a final summation of these thoughts by the time I get to writing up that one… but, as of now, I’m not quite convinced that Moffat managed to make a coherent whole of the Doctor/Clara stuff this season.
…are you there? Are you all right? Are you ever going to update this blog? 😦
Will PM you.