Grading "Flatline" on a curve
"[...] I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author." — J.R.R. Tolkien, Forward to The Lord of the Rings
|The Doctor celebrates prematurely. Screenshot from "Flatline". Doctor Who copyright © 2014 BBC.|
Speaking of the purposed domination of the author, "Flatline" is a pretty egregious example of a writer telling his audience how his story should be interpreted. A rather stark turnaround from the previous episode — credited to the very same Jamie Mathieson — which was happy to leave interpretations up to "the thought and experience of [viewer]."
Also a turnaround: where "Mummy on the Orient Express" was a badly-directed episode redeemed by a strong script, "Flatline" is a considerably weaker story mostly redeemed by (mostly — see poll, below left) very good direction.
"Flatline" includes some genuinely funny comic dialogue, a genuinely science fictional menace and — yet another turnaround — a companion forced to take the lead in the Doctor's absence. As we will see, only the first of these elements is not badly undercut by the story's progress.
First, the alien menace. Once again we are on earth, and once again humanity is threatened by a monster from beyond. In this case, from another plane of existence entirely, a two-dimensional plane. It's not a new idea (it's been kicking around at least since 1884), but it's still an intriguing concept, something the Doctor explicitly acknowledges.
Maybe they don't even know they're hurting people, he suggests. "I really hope that. It'd make a nice change, wouldn't it?"
Yes. Yes it would. But we never learn anything about the bad guys, except that they understand the concept of mathematics and (and others have pointed out) and Arabic notation). We get no insights into what it might be like to exist in two dimensions, what it is like to transition to a third, nor why in the world (as it were) of a two-dimensional society would want to conquer its 3-D counterpart.
Fun with polls!
Bad Camera-Work or Bad CGI?
Hands up, if you thought that strangely unreal-looking train was deliberate! And those who thought it inept CGI? Me, I thought the special effects were mostly pretty good, so it was probably deliberate — only, I haven't the slightest idea of what that intention might have been. What do you think?
Nope, what we have is another monster-hunt. A monster-hunt, and a conclusion in which the Doctor (falsely, so far as we've been shown) declares he has done all he could to communicate. In a really long-winded nod to Ten's declaration that Earth "is defended!" near the end of "The Christmas Invasion" Twelve declaims,
"I tried to talk. I want you to remember that. I tried to reach out. I tried to understand you, but I think that you understand us perfectly. And I think that you just don't care. And I don't know whether you are here to invade, infiltrate, or just replace us, but I don't suppose it really matters now. You are monsters! That is the role that you seem determined to play, so it seems that I must play mine! The man that stops the monsters."
In point of fact, so far as the mere viewer has seen, the Doctor has done almost nothing of the kind. He spent the bulk of the episode bickering with Clara while coaching her through her first leadership test while, presumably, desperately trying to embiggen the exterior of the Tardis. But there we have it: the Doctor says he tried to talk and understand, so it must be true. A couple of math failures and it's clobberin' time!
(If this proves to be part of some grand and credible story about the Doctor's arrogance or impulsiveness between now and the end of episode 12, I will repent. Abjectly and in public. Or at least, in public.)
As for the hunt itself, the Doctor is trapped in the Tardis, unable to escape its ensmallened exterior. Some very funny visual jokes accompany the conceit, from Clara carrying the Tardis about in her pocket to the Adams Family moment, for two. And who among us hasn't wanted to be able to manifest a full-sized sledge-hammer from the infinite depths of our coat pocket?
Indeed, humour is the one area in which this episode excels. Visual to verbal to character-based, the jokes are funny but never detract from the story's tension. And there's a good deal of tension on the first go-round, thanks to the slick, rapid-fire direction of Douglas Mackinnon.
The story, though? Not so good. Not bad, but derivative and no improvement on its predecessor.
Leaving aside the Flatland concept wasted on a generic monster-hunt, the main story is Clara's: The Companion on her own, forced to take the Doctor's place. Except, but for a very brief time, Clara isn't really on her own; she's being coached. The Doctor can see through her eyes and mansplain directly into her ear. For example, as Clara finds herself on the run in company of a small band of "civilians", he tells her,
"Clara. This is a vital stage. This little group is currently confused and and disorientated, but pretty soon a leader is going to emerge. You need to make sure that leader is you."
"I'm on it," quoth our Doctor for the Day, in case we still don't get it. And the chase is on, CGI monsters in morphing pursuit.
If you're hear echoes of the 10th Doctor story, "The Satan Pit" in that brief préçis, so did I. In fact, I queued up the latter, intending just a quick scan to confirm my memories.
Though "The Satan Pit" is the second of a two-part serial, even without re-watching "The Impossible Planet", my quick scan became a full re-watch. It is a complex story, with a really scary monster (that talks! that plays mind-games!), with other monsters that aren't but are, and with twice the supporting cast of "Flatline". There is also humour and there are even tears (at least from this viewer), because these were real people while I watched, even the redshirts.
Yet I did not neglect the parallel I came to find: how that story dealt with Rose, the Companion, taking control in the Doctor's absence.
As in "Flatline", the Doctor is trapped; but in "The Satan Pit", the Doctor is also mostly incommunicado. Rose is on her own, no Doctor to hold her hand. When her "confused and and disorientated" group is frozen in panic, waiting for a leader to emerge, no one tells Rose (or us) that it must be her. Rose sizes up the situation and she acts.
|Whither the Tardis now? Screenshot from "Flatline". Doctor Who copyright © 2014 by the BBC.|
With no directly relevant skills, she makes herself de facto captain. She asks questions, makes suggestions and barks orders; she cajoles, she mocks, she admires; whatever it takes to get the experts to do their jobs.
It's a minor masterpiece of characterization, telling the story of an apprentice coming into her own ahead of schedule, discovering she's learned far more than she thought she had.
"Flatline" seems to want to tell a similar story, but undercuts its own theme by keeping the Doctor so present. Sure, Clara was a "good Doctor", but her accomplishments would have been a lot more impressive if she hadn't had her guru's voice in her ear (and helpful fingers in her pocket) through most of the story.
"Flatline" is an entertaining romp, and those who have managed to believe in Clara Oswald will either be further intrigued or enraged by the apparent acceleration of her compulsive lying habit.
Graded against most of the stories we've had in recent years, it fares quite well. But if we raise the bar a little and compare it with some of the best of the revived Doctor Who, "Flatline" falls far short.