Monday, October 20, 2014

Goofy Turns Creepy In “Flatline!”

The Good: Some good lines, Excellent general concept, Decent performances, Some good character moments for Clara
The Bad: Erratic special effects, Concept only works without thinking about it (little explanation in the work)
The Basics: An erratic season of Doctor Who continues with the fun, but conceptually flawed “Flatline.”

Yesterday was Bacon Day in my house. That’s not a euphemism for anything weird; the local grocery store discounted seventeen pounds of bacon to half price, so my wife and I bought it all up and I spent the entire day cooking bacon (my home remains saturated with the scent!). While I was cooking bacon for the day, my wife was trying to get in the mood for the new Doctor Who specials that were just added to Netflix (thank you, Netflix, for ruining my big holiday gift to my wife! Grumble!) by rewatching episodes from David Tennant’s tenure as the Doctor. She chose the “fourth” season, which featured The Doctor and Donna Noble . . . and frequent appearances by Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler on monitors shouting for The Doctor, unheard. So, before we watched the new episode of Doctor Who, “Flatline,” I found myself having an epiphany about what is wrong with the current season of the show:

I don’t care.

Seriously, I love Peter Capaldi as The Doctor and some of the stories this season have been interesting, but rewatching the fourth season, I realized that what is missing from the current season is something to tie the episodes together that is actually compelling. Rewatching the fourth season, I recall being hooked on the episodes, looking for Rose to pop up and wondering what she was so desperately trying to tell The Doctor. The current season does not have that. Fans might point to the occasional end-of-the-episode scenes that feature Missy, but where that plotline and “Paradise” are going is not clear or compelling. Is Doctor Who going to do something clever, like bring back “The Doctor’s Daughter” in an alternate regeneration? Is the Doctor Who universe actually going to end? Is The Doctor ever going to bother resuming his search for Gallifrey? Probably not, so the season is just meandering toward the point where the BBC publicity department has admitted that Clara’s Jenna Coleman will be departing the show. “Flatline,” like several of the other episodes of the current season, ends with a Missy scene that seems to add an element of menace to the background plot of the current season, but like so much of the rest of the current season, it falls a bit flat. The a-plot in “Flatline” is creepy and compelling enough; the serialized element makes it feel like the show is stretching for a purpose.

On its own, though, “Flatline” is actually fairly good, both as an episode of Doctor Who and television in general.

After a random man, who is calling for help on the telephone, ends up flattened and in the wall of his apartment, The Doctor and Clara arrive close to where they intended. The Doctor is delivering Clara back to moments after they just left, but instead of being near Clara’s home, the pair arrives in Bristol. The Doctor and Clara are alarmed to discover that the TARDIS’s spatial system is malfunctioning; the TARDIS appears to have shrunk! Exploring Bristol, Clara discovers a number of people have recently disappeared and murals around the area have popped up commemorating them. When the TARDIS “shrinks” again, with the Doctor inside, he passes his sonic screwdriver and psychic paper off to Clara and sets her on the task of figuring out what is affecting the TARDIS.

With the help of the local graffiti artist, Rigsy, Clara begins investigating the disappearances. Seeing the flat of the last man to go missing and with the help of a police officer who is promptly killed, Clara and The Doctor deduce that murals being found on walls are the missing people in one form or another. The Doctor attempts to communicate with entities. Given that they are two-dimensional and from another universe, communicating becomes a chore, a task which proves futile as the entities begin to erupt into three-dimensions and terrorize Clara and the local community works workers in the subway.

“Flatline” is creepy and cool, with generally good special effects and some neat concepts. Unfortunately, it only truly works when one does not think about the episode or the entities in it. Rather smartly, “Flatline” makes a point of illustrating how the two-dimensional beings would perceive us (beings in three-dimensions). The Doctor and Clara see a mural of footprints and tire tracks and that makes perfect sense; those representations are exactly how beings on a flat surface would perceive our universe without any depth. But the moment that the show starts to build a real “creep out” factor, all sensibility goes out the window. The murals of people in the subway walls are a cool concept, but cannot work for two-dimensional beings. Unless the entities from the two-dimensional universe were on the walls and their victims ran into the walls, they would not have the concept or ability to “camouflage” themselves on the wall. To put it another way; if you were on the floor looking up and flattening people through their feet, how would you have any conception of how to project their backs onto a flat wall?!

In a similar fashion, “Flatline” does not even imply the abilities that the entities from the two-dimensional universe suddenly possess. The invaders in “Flatline” are, the Doctor theorizes, studying us. They are two-dimensional and suddenly conceive of a third dimension. They are suddenly able to manifest themselves as three-dimensional beings. This is a clever ability, rendered well as a neat special effect, but it makes no rational sense. The closest analogy here would be the impossibility of moving differently on the moon; I can understand that gravitational forces on the moon affect my body differently requiring me to move differently on the moon in order to get my body where I intend to go. Just because I understand that would not suddenly enable me to, for example, teleport around the moon using only my mind (or any set of muscles I now possess). If the two-dimensional beings could suddenly conceive of three dimensions, they would still have to evolve or develop a technology that would allow them to transform into three dimensions.

Why, then, do I actually find myself enjoying and recommending “Flatline?” The first is that, despite the problems, “Flatline” tells a good story where the monsters are monsters. Like the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Schisms” (reviewed here!) where extradimensional beings are experimenting on the crew of the Enterprise, the search for knowledge does not mean that the adversaries do not understand what they are doing. Not all scientists are ethical ones and the two-dimensional beings are aware of their destructive nature and are simplistic enough to revel in it.

At the other end of the spectrum, “Flatline” succeeds because Clara steps up in The Doctor’s absence. There is an unlikable quality to Clara, the way she continues to lie to Danny Pink (The Doctor might not like soldiers, but Danny Pink is actually presented in a pretty likable way) about her travels with The Doctor, at the outset of the episode. Clara has to think fast and lead in a way that The Doctor usually does, with minimal help from The Doctor. The arc for Clara is compelling and well-executed.

In fact, more than the Missy scene in “Flatline,” the Clara arc in the episode saves the episode and alludes to the potential that remains for the season. “Flatline” is a conceptual sequel to “Into The Dalek” (reviewed here!). “Into The Dalek” had a miniaturization ray (referenced frequently in this episode) and a Dalek who referred to The Doctor as a “good Dalek;” “Flatline” features dimensional changes and Clara evolving into a “good Doctor” (largely by abandoning her likable qualities). That parallel quality saves “Flatline” from being a generic and unsatisfying “creature of the week” episode.

Jenna Coleman steps up as Clara in “Flatline” and she becomes a credible leader. In the absence of The Doctor’s constant aid, Clara steps up and Coleman makes the transition believable. Coleman is able to emote at key moments, creating the perception that the wheels are turning in Clara’s head and that sells the evolution of the character who is deceptively more experienced than the actress appears.

Ultimately, “Flatline” is good for the effects and character aspects, even if the creatures writer Jamie Mathieson creates for the episode fall apart under any scrutiny.

For other works with Christopher Fairbank, please check out my reviews of:
Guardians Of The Galaxy
Jack The Giant Slayer
Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
The Fifth Element
Alien 3

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Eighth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor here!


For other Doctor Who episode and season reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page where the episodes are organized from best to worst!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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