Sunday, 19 October 2014
Doctor Who: Flatline (Episode Review)
After the smashing success of Mummy on the Orient Express last week, any episode following up that title was likely going to be left in its shadow. That's sadly the case here, as Flatline is a great episode with a truly creepy premise, but fails to quite equal last week's outing.
Returning to contemporary Earth, Clara and the Doctor immediately run into a problem. Not only is the TARDIS far more off course than usual, landing in Bristol, but the two soon find there are far bigger problems they face. The TARDIS is being drained of its energy from an outside force, shrinking its exterior dimensions and leaving the Doctor trapped within. With Clara investigating outside forces, she must find just what is tampering with the machine and causing the disappearances of so many of the city's residents. Unfortunately for them both, foe they face is a far less material villain than either realises.
The story's greatest strengths are immediately obvious and can be put down to three things: The pacing, the villain and the writer's use of Clara. All three are what make the story truly stand out, and above all this is an example of how to do each truly right.
Going through each in turn, the story keeps up with the same sort of pacing and rapid (but not breakneck) deliver we've come to expect of the show, but it exemplifies how less can sometimes be more. For example, the teaser in question is a few scant seconds long. It lasts just long enough to show something truly creepy and disturbing to hook the audience in, and then goes right to the credits. Nothing drawn out, nothing overdone, but it's more than enough to truly be effective. This goes for more or less the entire episode, it only stays with ideas for as long as it has to. It never spends too long on any one thing, but the script goes just long enough to make full use of an idea before moving on. This gives it a real sense of energy and keeps propelling events onwards, without making quite the same mistakes which plagued the previous era.
The villain meanwhile is the type of antagonist which Doctor Who has been extremely proficient at creating without wheeling out the same tired old tropes. They're an unknowable enemy which can hide in plane sight, can quietly murder people with few ever seeing them and creepily warp time-space itself about them. While little can really be said without spoiling the best moments, every reveal hits hard and the episode presents a very frightening new idea for this enemy. One which could be as effective as the Weeping Angels in the right hands. While they only show true power on a few occasions, it relays their true power an menace, and the group only stays alive thanks to sheer intelligence and ingenuity. Mostly due to Clara this time rather than the Doctor per-say.
While the Doctor himself does have influence over events and assists them, he's working with limited resources and a confined space, with Clara ultimately saving the day. However, this is a rare occasion where it's shown why she's a good companion. Rather than trying to force her into being the single most important person ever to have traveled with him via overblown reasons, the story uses her intelligence, quick thinking and attitude instead. Qualities which have made many fan-favourites work in the past, as opposed to having someone save every single last Doctor ever to have existed all at the same time. She really does come into her own here, and this is a story which should be used as a guideline on how to write the character rather than many past tales.
While the episode does have many strengths beyond this, they ultimately hinge upon these three points overall. There is an exceptionally tense scene in a house infiltrated by the aliens, but the reason it works is thanks to the aliens' unnerving abilities and the solution used to escape alive. The story frequently falls back on these elements, but it tries to use them in different ways whenever it does, which again keeps things feeling fresh and exciting.
The humour is present to help balance out the horror element of the story, but it's reserved to controlled bursts. Both Jamie Mathieson's script and the direction of Douglas Mackinnon played off well against one another, especially in this regard. Much of the humour itself is put down to more background visual gags than anything else (well, besides Capaldi's ever fantastic lines), and there's the clear sense that each side knew what the other would attempt to be doing. Moments with the shrinking TARDIS in particular stand out well and are balanced against the truly terrifying scenes of the aliens gaining more power.
The only one or two real missteps either comes from when the script seems to be trying to replicate the smug overdose of humour which has failed in past stories (which is thankfully rare) or when the story has to carry over elements of the series' arcs. The sudden inclusion of Danny's relationship with Clara and Missy's nebulous "I'M HERE AND DOING SOMETHING!" moments are tacked on to say the least. Having no bearing upon the story, they're thrown in with little to no impact, only to be forgotten again a short while later. It's becoming a real problem with many stories and these elements have done more harm than actually added anything of real worth.
This isn't to say that the story doesn't have a few problems in of itself though. In particular, the tale suffers from a surprisingly weak supporting cast and dull location. Set in modern times, the latter is not too surprising but its attempts to blend the outlandish aliens with conventional suberbs doesn't quite work. Even when moving down into the dingier and more industrial areas, it just seems like a story set in environments we've witnessed done far better in past tales.
This might have been fine, but the supporting characters here are just as unremarkable. None of the actors are bad per-say, but there's no time spent to really break them into the story or give them memorable backgrounds. Each effectively walks into the tale, stays until the end, and then leaves again. You'd be lucky to remember a single one's name and they leave very little impact by the end, something not helped when the script tries to make them seem important. Some suffer from spontaneous responses, driving the story onwards by sheer idiocy at times, and it barely skirts past completely destroying suspension of disbelief the tale at times. This is something of a trend with this writer unfortunately, as anyone who remembers how Cold War began can attest.
Perhaps the single biggest point which can harm the tale however is that this lack of real establishment at points makes some solutions seem like huge deus ex machinas. The sudden revelation that the TARDIS has a form of siege mode which could have been useful in a thousand and one other stories sticks out like a sore thumb. The same goes for how the aliens are defeated and how easily some characters just accept the arrival of aliens, time travelers and the like with few to no questions. It can be hard to accept at times and the story does seem to rush through the initial astonishment or even the questions people would naturally have. Combined with the sheer lack of answers in many places when it comes to the aliens, some viewers might walk away with this one with a few understandable gripes.
Flatline is far from a bad story, mixed certainly but with far more good than bad, and well worth watching. For all its flaws the story does work out well and fixes enough running problems this series to stand up on its own. That said, positioned next to Mummy on the Orient Express, the real concern is that this might suffer the fate of The Masque of Mandragora - Overshadowed because it was unfortunate enough to stand next to a giant. If you get the time watch it. If not save it for next week, as In the Forest of the Night looks like it's going to be a painful one.