One doesn’t often see dado panel wallpapering. Not nowadays. A sort of cummerbund for a room, I last remember it being used in the 1990s on Changing Rooms, when Graham Wynne would advocate it as an almost effortless way to ‘funk up’ a living space. A quick Wynne, if you like.
Graham was the master of the “oh you!” eye-roll, so I hope his optics were oscillating with sufficient sauciness when Flatline opened by showing some poor bloke being squished into one such strip, becoming something akin to a wall stencil. It was only when the camera moved to just the right position that foreshortening worked its magic on his stretched out features and we could recognise the sad hairy Bristolian captured forever in a frozen scream. Most peculiar.
With its deliberately utilitarian setting, urban spikiness and (very) high concept baddies, Jamie Mathieson’s second story for this year’s run of Doctor Who isn’t quite as easy to love as the plush and pleasing Mummy On the Orient Express, but it outstrips it in terms of imaginativeness.
The concept of the Boneless (one of those species whose name is heard so fleetingly, it will only ever be spoken by those of us who’ve completed the accompanying reading) is truly one of the most inventive and alien in the history of Doctor Who. This is a two-dimensional race, tentatively trying to explore the third, who remain completely unrelatable for most of the adventure. We first experience them in overpoweringly odd forms, as fluid wallpaper and liquid carpeting. In this guise they refuse to be anthropomorphised, so it’s all up for grabs, to the point that the Doctor has to wonder, “Do they know they’re hurting us?” They cede a little, though, to the demands of the drama, wherein things have to made understandable – satisfying – for we viewers, ultimately adopting a zombie-like appearance that conforms more to the requirement for a ‘proper’ baddie. Along the way there, though, they demonstrate other, equally creative qualities.
Their dispatching of poor old George, of “looks like your number’s up, George!” ignominy, is their best trick of all, even beating the demise of the pre-titles man. It seems like the Community Payback worker has been frozen on the spot, until the camera – and Clara – glides left and the parallax effect kicks in to reveal his flattened form draped down the brickwork and over a crate. It’s a fine optical illusion, like a clever piece of street art. What was Mathieson’s thought-process in putting this all together? Not to take away from the writer’s prodigious imaginings, but surely words alone couldn’t summon up such visuals? Maybe we should be talking to director Douglas MacKinnon. Maybe we should be sitting in on the tone meeting. It feels like the product of a clever collaboration, different specialities coming to together to evolve a moment into something truly special.
It also feels like forces are gathering again around the Doctor. There’s still some kind of mandate at work regarding just what sort of character he’s giving us. Following last week’s instance of rapprochement, I’d hoped the Time Lord had worked through his hang-ups about his own morality and was ready to get back to adventuring, albeit in that slightly chilly fashion this persona has adopted. Seems I was wrong.
Although he’s given a big speech late on, branding himself “the man that stops the monsters” (personal preference, but I always bristle when the Doctor labels anything a monster), it’s at the end of the adventure we discover, actually, he’s still nursing some anxieties. “I was the Doctor and I did good,” says Clara, trying to prompt some sort of commendation from her friend. “You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara,” concedes the Time Lord, but then adds this qualifier: “Goodness had nothing to do with it.” What does this actually mean? Is our hero really stickling over the rumination that to be the Doctor is to somehow eschew goodness? If so, that’s an argument I think he’s only having with himself. It’s maybe the kind of thing that happens when you get to the end of your original regenerative cycle and realise there’s a whole new one ahead. Midlife crisis.
As we know, production pressures resulted in the Doctor being confined to the TARDIS for most of the story (Peter Capaldi busy with Mummy issues while this one was filming). However, this doesn’t unsettle proceedings at all. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to imply our hero is dispensable, it’s rather the opposite. Mathieson’s script cleverly contrives to keep the Time Lord omnipresent throughout, with plenty of scenes of our leading man killing it on his own inside the ship, and, of course, by having Clara deputise for him. That’s another gift for Jenna Coleman who – as everybody is saying – continues in terrific form. Forgive me for drawing on the phraseology of Louis Walsh, but she totally owns it when she declares, “I’m the Doctor,” and gives the sonic screwdriver a characteristic flick. Unlike Mr Walsh’s charges, though, this isn’t someone delivering a bland cover version. This is Clara going native. Last week there was discussion about life on board the TARDIS being a compulsion. I think she’s increasingly succumbing to that and beginning to find Danny an impediment to the wide-open freedom that time-travel presents. Like most addicts, she’s a liar. While evading death in a swing seat (another interior design innovation from way back when) she brazens it out on the phone with her boyfriend, who seems to be getting clingier the more she withholds from him. Before the tale is over, she’s coolly rejecting Danny’s calls, brutally opting for an ‘I’m in a meeting’ auto-text reply. Looking at their relationship from her perspective – this story is all about perspectives – it’s starting to appear stifling. Too small to contain her…
Which allows us to segue into the sublime sight of the teeny TARDIS. Once more, Mathieson’s script suggests superb imagery. First we have the Doctor’s face and limbs poking out of the Dapol-sized police box, then The Addams Family homage (possibly the moment of the series so far), before things get really Looney Tunes with Rigsy painting a fake door to fool the baddies. One half-expects Road Runner to screech beep-beeping through the portal, shortly pursued by Wile E Coyote who concusses himself on the stone. And, actually, when you come to think of it, the jerry-rigged ‘2-DIS’ device does smack a little of the Acme Corporation’s output.
Yes, imaginative. That’s the finding from our own little tone meeting on Flatline. The plain, urban environment – with its scrubland and underpasses – still feels almost as alien a locale for the show as the moon, and that’s a good novelty. Additionally, it lends the story an unusual feeling of smallness. Granted, last week the Doctor was on the Orient Express – literally smaller – but that was in space, with a mysterious baddy computer and an aeons-old alien menace. All of the galaxy felt swept up in that. Here, it’s a happening that’s bottled within one neighbourhood in Bristol. And in the context of the show’s long history, the usage of West Country accents to denote something other than a comedy tinker is almost equally as innovate, and certainly a very welcome additional shade.
If I am left slightly grasping at the end it’s because I’m not quite sure what it’s all been about. Yes, a brilliant rattle of the sabre for Clara. Certainly, a fascinating and visually stunning exploration into the idea of a completely different life form (and what other show could give us that?). I guess, if the phrase hadn’t been so poisoned in the 1980s, I’d probably end up calling this one ‘oddball’. Slightly more concept than content, but a completely new dimension for Doctor Who.