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BBC1. 8.25pm. 18.10.14.
Written by Jamie Mathieson
Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
Like ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’, also by new Who writer Jamie Mathieson, ‘Flatline’ reminded me in various respects of other Doctor Who stories. First of all the TARDIS, with the Doctor trapped inside, is shrunk in size due to some process of “dimensional leaching” – a plot device that saw service in the (now largely forgotten) William Hartnell serial ‘Planet of Giants’. Clara finds herself investigating a series of mysterious disappearances on a run-down council estate where the authorities seem not to care – reminiscent of the last Sylvester McCoy serial ‘Survival’. An escape through a railway tunnel recalled the recently-rediscovered Patrick Troughton classic ‘The Web of Fear’. There was even an element of ‘The Three Doctors’ with Capaldi, from inside the TARDIS, trying to orchestrate the action on the ground. From new Who, meanwhile, we had the zombie-like human/alien hybrids from ‘Amy’s Choice’, while the motif of people trapped inside graffiti murals was a more nightmarish twist on a plot device previously used in ‘Love & Monsters’ and ‘Fear Her’.
None of this is to say that ‘Flatline’ was in any way derivative. The monsters of the week were a race of two-dimensional creatures from another dimension whose attempts to enter into our world are responsible for the dimensional instability that shrinks the TARDIS. There would have been a time when the very concept of two-dimensional monsters in Doctor Who would have seemed either to be self-parodic or tempting the ridicule of critics – rather like Roger Moore posing as his own wax dummy in The Man With the Golden Gun or commissioning a group called Garbage to perform the title song of The World Is Not Enough. But that was not the case here: this was another imaginative episode of a series that has refused to play by many of the rules of new Who season-mapping. That’s a theme I will return to, probably, for the concluding two-parter.
In certain respects ‘Flatline’ was a mid/late-season filler: an episode designed to be produced on a lower budget (hence no expensive sets or overly elaborate special effects) before we move into the build-up to the season’s finale. Yet it also had some fine moments. The Doctor’s description of himself as “the man that stops the monsters” finally gave Peter Capaldi his Big Speech moment to match Christopher Eccleston’s “Oncoming Storm”, David Tennant’s “That’s what kind of man I am” and Matt Smith’s “This planet is protected”. Like Tennant and Smith it was directed as a parting salvo at a defeated foe: ‘Flatline’ had briefly held out the possibility that the aliens might not have harmful intent before revealing them to be nasties all along. More ‘The Claws of Axos’ than ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ in that regard.
I’ve suggested before that Douglas Mackinnon is the new series’ equivalent of Douglas Camfield: a director able to deliver well-paced and exciting stories that build tension and include their full share of macabre thrills. If only Camfield had been able to draw upon the resources and visual effects of new Who! Two images stand out for me in this episode. One was the Terminator 2-style effect of unwitting victims being enveloped and ‘swallowed’ by the floor. The other was the alien/human hybrids emerging from the walls with all the creepy horror of the Clay People from Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. It would not surprise me if some of these images proved a little too frightening for younger Who fans. Indeed this series has been the most horrific – in its concepts as well as its content – since Doctor Who returned in 2005. Certainly the content of this episode justified the later time slot, though I remain concerned that starting around 8.30 pm is really too late for Doctor Who.
James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, second edition, I. B.Tauris, 2013.