Sunday, 19 October 2014

DOCTOR WHO: FLATLINE review, 18 October 2014


Ladies and gentlemen, Doctor Who's new show runners - Jamie Mathieson and Douglas Mackinnon.

Genius. (Image: BBC)
Brilliant. Just brilliant. Where else would you see material as weird, imaginative and stimulating as this on Saturday night primetime television? Do I really need to answer that?

One of the many great things 'Flatline' does is remind you why Doctor Who is unique. Every so often a story comes along - like 'The Mind Robber' (1968), like 'Warrior's Gate' (1981), like 'Blink' (2008) - that pushes the series into the realm of the great surrealists like Lewis Carroll or Jean Cocteau. Jamie Mathieson's script did all that and more but kept the visual insanity within an everyday framework of Bristol accents, Banksy and community service. There was a whiff of the excellent Misfits (2009-13) in the latter, but 'Flatline' is in a different class all together.

I raved about 'Mummy of the Orient Express' last week and 'Flatline' proves that Mathieson's striking debut was no flash in the pan. He's easily the best writer for Peter Capaldi's Doctor and completely gets what the production team have been trying to do with the character. In the scenes of the Doctor trapped in the TARDIS on his own Capaldi is commanding, funny and mesmerising. The Twelfth Doctor has fully materialised.

There's so much to enjoy here, not least the disturbing idea of Clara being a surrogate Doctor. He face becomes noticeably harder as she does all the things he usually does - lying to people to give them hope, provoking someone for their own good, using the special abilities of the locals - and Jenna Coleman is more than up to the job, as she has been all year. A great pay off from last week, is that Clara was lying when she told the Doctor that Danny was OK with her continuing to travel with him. The student learns from the master.

Just like in 'Mummy...', Mathieson reveals a gift for creating a three dimensional supporting cast and strikingly original dialogue. Christopher Fairbank's Fenton is the kind of obnoxious jobsworth we've all met and in a single line of dialogue - 'I've always wanted to ram something' - defines a train driver's character. The consistently underrated Matt Bardock (Al) was rather wasted, but did bring his customary everyman nobility to a small role.
'Lying is a vital survival instinct and a terrible habit.'

You'd never know from the BBC2 police drama Line of Duty that Douglas Mackinnon could deliver a visual tour de force of bizarre imagery like this; he certainly gives The Prisoner (1967-8) a run for its money. I'm never going to forget the miniature TARDIS pulled along by the Doctor's crawling hand, the human nervous system smeared along a wall or the Doctor's face framed by the TARDIS doors. If the director and Mathieson aren't immediately snapped up by Hollywood on the strength of 'Flatline', they should seriously consider taking over Doctor Who if Steven Moffat's rumoured departure after this year's Christmas Special happens. They are singular, ground-breaking and truly original talents.

After the ‘exactly what it says on the tin’ title of Mathieson’s first script, ‘Flatline’ is wonderfully ambiguous. It could refer to how the aliens penetrate this dimension, the crippled TARDIS or the erosion of Clara’s humanity. Admit it, Jamie – you’ve been watching The Prisoner.

I imagine quite a few children - if they were allowed to stay up until nine o'clock - went to bed with the light on. I lay in bed Saturday night waiting for sleep and couldn't help wonder about the nature of the shifting shadows on my bedroom walls. 'Flatline' breaks 1970s producer Barry Letts' rule, after the killer doll and killer plastic flowers in 'Terror of the Autons' (1971), that children shouldn't feel threatened in their homes. Mackinnon, Mathieson and Moffat really threw that particular baby out with the bath water and I admire their artistic courage in doing so.

So what about that bombshell of an ending? Missy is clearly the 'woman in a shop' in 'The Bells of St. John' who gave Clara the Doctor's phone number. Where is this going? Whoever she is, she's been manipulating the time traveller for some time. This narrative curve ball, implying that Clara is being moulded into a ruthless clone of her mentor, is the sort of thing that has made me punch the air during Capaldi's first series. Doctor Who really is back.

I can't wait for next week's story. I love being able to say that.

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