Monday, 20 October 2014

Time And (Very) Relative Dimensions

Doctor Who
Series Eight, Episode Nine

BOOM!  Best episode in ages.  Thank you, Jamie Mathieson.

As you may have noticed, I haven't been loving Series Eight.  There's the occasional good episode, apart-from-all-the-dodgy-bits, and the Doctor's great when they're not trying too hard to make him unpalatable, but for me, it always feels like a fight to like it.  They're obviously doing a thing this year, and it may go somewhere brilliant, but I haven't been having the best of times waiting for them to get there.

Then along comes Flatline to remind me that, yes, I do love this programme, and that's why I keep watching it.  Case in point: I missed it on first transmission, so I had to watch it on my phone.  On a bus.  On a Sunday morning.  And it was still brilliant.

Okay, so the TARDIS is shrinking because the 2D guys are "leeching
its dimensions".  How much of this is the Doctor's fault for landing?
For sale: can of worms, unopened.
What's so great about Flatline?  Top of the list, ideas.  As in this week, there are some.  The TARDIS mistakenly arrives in Bristol (dramatic chord!), where it begins to shrink.  Just the outside, obviously – the Doctor explains that it's always the same size on the inside, and that the exterior is a heck of a lot lighter than it should be.  Yay!  Science, and figuring out how stuff works!  But seriously, the shrinking TARDIS is a dead simple idea, and one of the most striking images you'll see in Doctor Who.  The sight of Peter Capaldi gingerly struggling in and out of a tiny wooden prop is going to be a GIF in my head for a while.  No doubt it's all over Tumblr.

Anyway, the reason it's shrinking, and this week's problem that needs solving, is a race of two-dimensional beings trying to make their mark on our three-dimensional world.  That's... actually quite novel.  I mean, Fear Her did something similar, but this time, there's a budget and a decent script!  It's a challenge for the special effects department, but they excel themselves at killing off the (very) minor characters, either by turning them into murals or melting them into carpets.  The whole thing has that eerie ring of Playground Horror, which the best Moffat-era monsters – mainly the Weeping Angels – tap into.  It's The Floor Is Lava, and Your Posters Are Coming To Get You.  Sweet dreams.

Are they evil?  Here comes another plus point: the Doctor doesn't know, and even though they're killing people, he won't make any assumptions.  He's met some pretty weird aliens with funny ways of saying "hello", so he's keeping an open mind.  A wider perspective is a great way to remind us that he's an alien, and that he's been around the block.  In a nutshell, it's good Doctoring.  Peter Capaldi spends much of the episode stuck in the TARDIS, which shrinks to the size of the one on my bookcase, but it's no Doctor-lite.  There's loads for him to do, starting with some of that Learning And Growing that's rather overdue this year.

The simplest way to examine a character is to hold a mirror in front of them.  Trapped in the TARDIS, the Doctor must leave all the meeting and greeting to Clara, who wastes no time in pricking a bit of his pomposity.  (This could have been very irritating.  Thankfully, it's hilarious.)  She also shows him that she's been paying attention.  In order to be the Doctor, or be like the Doctor, you need to inspire confidence in those around you; give them hope; know your enemy, and use their powers against them.  There is a bit more to it – and I don't mean the sonic screwdriver and the psychic paper, although these days they are a big part of it – but Clara covers the bases well enough.  And people quite like her for it.

The Doctor looks on, puzzled that she hasn't "scared them off", as he probably would have.  When she talks rather callously about human lives, he says "Is that what I sound like?"  And when he meets one of the survivors at the end, a hateful old misanthrope who's about as welcome as a blocked loo, there's a definite feeling of: don't be like that.  Character-wise, Flatline is a rescue mission.  His optimism, in the face of apparently murderous aliens, feels like another part of that.

Magic haircut!
Arr, TV shooting schedules be a harsh mistress.
And it's not all about him.  Clara's Doctoring is almost good enough to fudge the Doctor out of the picture completely.  She can't do the bottom line, actual-solve-the-problem stuff, like sending the creatures back to their dimension, or re-3D-ifying flat objects; that's up to him, creating magic solutions without any explanation whatsoever.  (That's a bit annoying, to be honest.)  But she does figure out how to fix the TARDIS, and when it's about to get hit by a train, it's Clara who has the bright idea about how to save it.  Later, she's determined to make the Doctor admit that she makes a good Doctor as well, and he does.

Now, they're not really overstepping the mark here – this is all within the realm of stuff Clara has learned, and Jenna Coleman is at her most watchable and fun doing it.  It's great fun to put her in this situation.  But it does tiptoe close enough to "problematic" to make me... nervous.  She's not the Doctor.  If she can be, and if anyone can be with the right accoutrements and tone of voice, then we don't actually need him any more, and that's a big fat Red Alert! for Doctor Who.  I know the people making it think Clara is awesome sauce, just like they did with River Song, and they may be right, but I hope they keep that in perspective.

I'm heading for the wobbliest bit of the episode, so I might as well get it over with: right at the end, the Doctor tells Clara that "being good" had nothing to do with being the Doctor.  Maybe it's just me, but this felt like he hasn't learned much after all.  "Being good" is one of the Doctor's primary motivators.  Didn't he just say he was "the man who stops the monsters", and that he's there to protect everyone?  (Copyright: The Christmas Invasion.)  What is that, exactly, if not a big slab of Being A Good Person?  Okay, so Clara is currently better at being "good" than he is, such as refusing to let a person sacrifice his life when there could be another way to achieve his goal, or taking an interest in people.  It's part of the "thing" they're doing this year – is the Doctor "good", or isn't he?  But since that's a yes, in great big neon capital letters of obvious, I wish they'd just let it go.  Especially in an episode where he seems to be learning in the exact opposite direction.  See also, his knee-jerk response to Danny's phone-call.  "Is that PE?  Go and talk to soldier boy."  Oh FFS, are we still on this?  Moments after he speaks to a horrible old man who doesn't have enough respect for others?  It's characterisation whiplash.  Annoying, annoying, annoying.

Also annoying?  A recurring trend in Series Eight where the Doctor realises something a while into the episode that's already completely obvious.  "We've found the missing people!  They're on the walls!"  Wow, what a totally amazing deduction 20 minutes in.  However, eagle-eyed (or simply awake) viewers will have figured this out before the opening credits.  See also, the enormous blow-up of some human skin, that isn't a picture of the desert at all.  Well, yeah, since it looks like human skin, and not like a desert.  Huh?

Scroll up... yes, I definitely said I loved this episode.  Looking at the rest of it, then, and not the ending, or the questionable deductions, or the Doctor's magic solutions: yep!  Loved it.  The monsters are terrifying, but even better, interesting.  (At least in practise.  Okay, fine, in the end they're boringly out to kill all humans and their powers evolve at the speed of contrivance.  But I liked the overall idea.)  The Doctor is on really great form.  Clara, well, I may question the level of Doctorliness she's packing at the moment, in terms of what ominous direction it could take us in, but she's certainly fun to watch.  If it wasn't for her, we might not have the Doctor's Addams Family-esque escape route, which is simply one of the most delightful moments in Doctor Who, ever.  (As is his little victory dance afterwards.)

In the end, they can't resist raining on the parade (and oh look, another arc hint – nope, still don't care), and apparently, neither can I.  But Flatline is still enormously entertaining and at its best, satisfying.  There's enough good to outweigh the bad, which okay, fine, is also still there.  Damn it!


  1. Are they still doing any of the "promised land" stuff, or has that quietly gone away? I didn't notice anything in this episode, as if it's an idea that's quietly been shelved...

    1. It's the last bit of the episode. Missy talking ominously to herself, looking at Clara on her iPad. Her, uh, Heaven iPad.

  2. With the "good" thing, we weren't sure if he was talking about himself, like you say, or whether he meant Clara and it was a reference to the Missy thing and Clara being ??? secretly evil. Perhaps we just wanted it to be the latter so it was more interesting.

    Clara does scare them off a bit though, doesn't she? That's what "Local knowledge is leaving!" is about. (That whole thing is a bit of a fudge, come to think about it. The theory that the missing guy has been miniaturised sends Rigsy edging for the door, but meeting an alien through the doors of a tiny police box doesn't? We're not sure the Doctor's traditional reality displacement field stretches that far.) We don't see what you're seeing here, as when she gets 'em all in line and starts leading away, she's doing exactly what he told her to do, and he doesn't seem surprised by that.