Doctor Who Recap: Flatline
By Edwin Davies
October 21, 2014
Alongside the strong character work and just-meta-enough commentary, this was also a really creepy and inventive episode. Like "Mummy on the Orient Express", "Flatline" was written by Jamie Mathieson and like that episode it drew on a classic work of English literature for both its title and a key element of its plot. (It was also the second episode in a row to feature some fucking awful-looking CGI trains, in case you want to start putting together a Mathieson Drinking Game for any future episodes he writes.) Here, the inspiration seems to be Edwin A. Abbott's satirical novel Flatland, in which a two-dimensional square becomes aware of the existence of a third dimension and begins to interact with its inhabitants. Rather than serving as a critique of the Victorian class system, "Flatline" uses the idea of two-dimensional creatures entering the third dimension to create some deeply creepy and unsettling images (rather than to allow the creatures to shirk their family responsibilities.). Mathieson's two-dimensional creatures interact with three-dimensional ones much as Abbott's did, but that interaction takes the form of murdering them and turning them into part of the decor.
For such a high-concept enemy, the episode does a very good job of making the creatures seem like a viable threat. The first time we see them kill is when they drag the unfortunate PC Forrest (Jessica Hayles) into the floor. Despite the potential for such an image to look cheesy, it works because it happens so suddenly. More than that, we then get to see Clara and her Companion for the episode, a graffiti artist named Rigsy (Joivan Wade) discover Forrest's nervous system emblazoned on the wall like a Tube map. That moment, and the later image of the memorial murals moving - not to mention The Doctor describing the creatures as "wearing the dead like camouflage" - are textbook examples of something that Doctor Who can do exceptionally well: using a simple image and twisting it in such a way that it becomes weird and unnerving.
Director Douglas Mackinnon also manages to make good use of the two-dimensional nature of the creatures and their mode of attack by playing with perspective; the moment when Clara realises that George, one her charges, has been taken is particularly chilling thanks to the way the camera moves ever so slightly to reveal that what looked like a three-dimensional person was actually a smear on the wall.
The ultimate resolution to the episode is a little bit of a letdown after such a strong set-up, partly because it turns the creatures from two-dimensional blobs shimmying along the floor into three-dimensional humanoids, which diminishes their otherworldliness considerably, but mainly because an episode that is so focused on Clara surviving on her wits and her experience ends with The Doctor getting out of a recharged and full-scale TARDIS and saving the day with a flick of his Sonic Screwdriver. Prior to that, we got a great scene of The Doctor, on the verge of death, praising Clara for how brilliantly she had played her part, but it still felt like an anti-climax. Having Clara ultimately make the final move that ended the crisis would have been much more meaningful, particularly in terms of their final uneasy scene together, than having The Doctor swan in at the last moment.
- Like last week, I was initially dubious about the possibility of this episode turning out particularly well, but Mathieson's script really carried the day, as did the great performances from all involved. Even the Tiny TARDIS jokes were well executed for the most part, particularly the image of The Doctor having to reach through the door and drag the TARDIS around like Thing from The Addams Family.
- The logic of how the shrinking affected The Doctor was a bit inconsistent, though. For most of the episode he is represented as a full-sized person having to look through the tiny door of the Tiny TARDIS, which you'd expect considering that the internal size of the TARDIS would not be affected by its exterior, but at one point he appeared as an actual miniature man for the purpose of convincing Rigsy that Clara wasn't crazy. Maybe he was just far away.
- So now we know that Missy is after Clara for some reason. Once again, Moffat and his writers are showing great restraint in fleshing out the details of this plot line without getting overwhelmed by it. I get the feeling that we will know just enough for the finale, which is much preferable to the narrative overload of Series 6 and 7.
- It's unclear if Danny knows that Clara is still working with The Doctor, though I'm not sure how he could mistake her jumping through a window for anything else. The trailer for next week's episode features him leading a group of school children out of the TARDIS, so presumably he either knows or will know soon enough, which raises the question of why Clara had to lie to him in the first place. My guess would be that it is all part of what makes her such an appealing target for Missy.
- One of the (awful, awful) CGI trains had the numbers A113 on its front, which is an inside joke that crops up in the work of graduates from California Institute of the Arts. It appears in every Pixar film and all the works of Brad Bird, so I can only assume that someone who worked on this episode graduated from CalArts. That or the show just decided to get super esoteric with its references this week.