The ultimate irony of Flatline – a story about two-dimensional villains – is that it comes at a time when Doctor Who is the most three-dimensional it has been in years. The geek-heavy mythos and tonal flippancy of the Smith era have been replaced by ambiguous characterisation, rippling subtexts and a restored sense of wonder and adventure. Flatline captures this shift admirably, a story of such bracing conceptual ambition that it leaves plenty to ponder, even as today’s kids will remember it fondly as “the one with the killer graffiti”.
This is as memorably weird as Doctor Who gets, with people trapped in walls and the Doctor stuck in a tiny TARDIS, but writer Jamie Mathieson makes subject and theme cohere so well it’s virtually a ‘How to’ on writing modern Doctor Who. On the one hand, the use of dimensions as a modus operandi creates a very Moffat-esque structural conceit; on the other hand, the social metaphors might have been devised by Russell T. Davies.
See, it isn’t just the monsters who have limited dimensions. In a run-down estate in Cameron’s Britain, a bored kid might turn to graffiti to break beyond the parameters of a life that has been defined by the stunted imagination of prejudiced, ignorant powers-that-be. It’s a mark of how astute Mathieson has been that this aired just weeks after the furore about a Banksy artwork being removed from Claction-on-Sea for its political content.
It is in such lives that Doctor Who holds a real power, like graffiti in the cultural wilderness of the Saturday night TV schedules. This is a series that is genuinely dimensionally transcendent in the way it can reveal truths about the real world through surreal fantasies. And here’s the really great thing about this episode: it is an actual dissection of the process of watching Doctor Who, via the inspired gimmick of having the Doctor as the viewer.
Trapped in the TARDIS, he watches the action unfold on TV (i.e. in two dimensions), while Clara gets to play the Doctor, echoing the semiotics of audience interaction – because isn’t playing the Doctor what most of us are doing by watching his adventures? (Although these days, who wouldn’t want to play Clara, rapidly becoming one of the all-time great companions? Not since Blink has an actress had the pivotal role in a Who story, and Jenna Coleman is alive to every nuance in the script.)
The result is everything that Doctor Who could and should aim to be: clever, witty and frightening, but never too grand that it can’t doff its cap to the children with the odd moment of silliness – and how nice, in a series where the word ‘thing’ has become a catch-all replacement for a variety of ideas, that Thing from The Addams Family gets its own homage.
The only downside is that Mathieson doesn’t trust us to get how smart and self-aware the story is, and has Capaldi’s Doctor indulge in an uncharacteristic, Tennant/Smith-style moment of self-aggrandisement as “the man who stops the monsters”. Then again, he could be forgiven for being excited; he’s just watched his very first episode of Doctor Who.
Doctor Who Season 8 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. Want to keep Capaldi’s Doctor for longer? You can download Doctor Who on blinkbox and Amazon Instant Video, or on iTunes – where buying a season pass will also give you all of Doctor Who Extra.
Where can I watch Doctor Who: Season 8 on pay-per-view VOD?
Photo: BBC/Adrian Rogers