Good Doctor Who stories are like trains. You wait through six half-baked nonsensical plots and then finally two come along only a week apart. Yes, it’s true I did that joke last week, but it seems fitting when the same writer has been responsible for both of the season’s best episodes so far.
Flatline is the second best only in the sense that it follows Mummy On The OrientExpress, but in all other respects I think it’s even better. It’s clever, creepy, tense, amusing, entertaining and wonderfully inventive. And by clever, I actually mean clever and not liable to be pulled apart if left alone with a kitten for less than five seconds.
If you can count the flaws and plot holes on the fingers of one hand, you know it’s a good un. With Flatline, I have fingers to spare.
When the Doctor says ‘they’re using the dead as camouflage’, I did hmm a little, it occurring immediately to me that if you’re in the walls the best camouflage is looking like a wall. And while Clara’s idea of using the picture is ingenious (and I use that term less freely than many seem disposed to throw the word ‘genius’ at any passing Who episode), I did wonder if 2-dimensional creatures that had recently perfected the art of converting things to 3D would keep at it for quite so long when they realised it wasn’t working. Wouldn’t they stop and think something was fishy?
But those questions are tiddlers in the Doctor Who logic pond.
While Mummy’s passenger list included a lot of extras who were little more than set-dressing, here we see victims becoming part of the scenery in a more fatal sense and the CGI is used to dramatic and very memorable effect. One or two characters could have used an extra dimension or so, notably the train driver who struck me as a bit lacking. But others are well drawn and even if the community work supervisor has a mind of narrower gauge than any model railway, it’s not as though there aren’t people like that in the world and the story gets good mileage from his lack of imagination. It’s as useful in its own way as Riggsy’s artistic skills.
A note on Riggsy: he exhibits more personality and charisma than the all-too-regular Danny Pink. So let’s hope Danny turns out to be the Master or somebody and Riggsy can step in as replacement male companion contender. His readiness for self-sacrifice is wonderfully comical (it’s earnest, but we know it’s not going to happen) and to see him saved from the fate of many a supporting DW character before him by a hairband is a superb touch.
Referred to as a Doctor-lite story by some, even though Clara takes the reins – and the sonic screwdriver and psychic paper – I nevertheless felt the Doctor was right there throughout, at the heart of things and it’s a neat trick to have him inside the shrinking TARDIS and almost granted the equivalent perspective of an out of body experience, watching himself at work as Clara loads up Doctor-emulator Vista and runs with it. Much as the author takes his central premise and runs with that, milking loads of great material out of it and not skimming on detail.
The Addams Family TARDIS is just one stand-out example of the inventiveness on display and we’re treated to all sorts of inter-dimensional visual play, with the Doctor handing items to Clara from a Dungeons & Dragons-style Handbag Of Holding. The graffiti people are fantastically well-realised and the ‘body art’ – a nervous system and a magnified mural of human skin – as evidence of the flatlanders’ work is inspired. The shambling, 3D zombies they become as they attempt to invade our world and pursue Clara and co through the tunnels is very effective and not too far from some of the figures you might find stalking you through a Resident Evil game. Put me in mind of some of the fractured dream elements of Shinji Mikami's The Evil Within (minus the excessive gore!), so I’d be surprised if this episode didn’t give young kids nightmares. Let’s hope.
And even the use of a suspended bubble seat in a room with walls and floor come alive is a clever piece of situational construction. Yes, it’s built in and you guess it’s going to be used but it’s a simple touch that provides an opportunity for some hastily improvised use of the environment to escape a seemingly unstoppable foe. The sort of thing I’d prefer to see more of than handy waves of the get-out-of-jail-free screwdriver.
Jenna Coleman really shines as Clara in her Doctorish role, enjoying herself immensely – of course! – but also given an insight into the burdens and responsibilities that come with the job. In essence, it’s a neat switcheroo body-swap episode without the actual swapping of bodies.
And as if that wasn’t enough, here’s the icing on the cake: there’s this whole question that the flatlanders aren’t monsters and are merely misunderstood. Or rather, they’re only striving to understand the 3D world, trying to communicate. “Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change?” says the Doctor. Well, no, as a matter of fact that would be par for the course. What is a refreshing change is that they turn out to be monsters. Nice one. Thank you for that.
If Mathieson gets to write more Doctor Who next year, Moffat may have to apply his script-editing skills to start inserting gaping plot holes and logic failures to bring his stories in line with the rest. Or alternatively, here's a shocking idea, have himself and the rest raise their game accordingly.
Assuming he doesn’t do that, future stories from this writer may as well come branded with a simple advertising slogan: