5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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New Who writers. Doncha love ‘em?
It’s not to say that it’s impossible for writers to keep pulling amazing ideas out of the hat year after year. Not easy, but not impossible. And it’s not to say new Who writers are always better than seasoned ones, either. However, what you get with new Who writers is often something special. Because of Doctor Who’s longevity, what a writer produces in their first episodes is often something they’ve been turning over in their minds for years. Something they’ve been convinced since forever would make a totally kickarse Doctor Who episode.
We have no idea if this was the case for Jamie Mathieson with Flatline, or whether he came up with it at 2 a.m. two days before deadline, but we know which way we’re betting.. Either way, it’s a keeper.
Steven Moffat is ever-keen to force on us his theory that Doctor Who is a fairy tale, but he was, is and always will be wrong. Doctor Who is science fiction. And it succeeds best when the SF in an episode goes right to its heart. This is that episode.
Given that the Doctor tools around the universe in a vehicle called Time And Relative Dimension In Space, it’s surprising how little anyone ever uses the “Relative Dimension” part as a story idea. It’s not the first time we’ve seen 2D characters, of course: they did it in Fear Her, where the clever and innovative drawn characters were by far the best thing in a poorly-conceived and hopelessly underfunded episode.
However, it’s the first time we’ve seen 2D like this, and it’s spectacular. From the super-creepy beginning to the slithering rugs to the dimensional zombies, it’s simply gorgeous eye candy.
And the Boneless (The what? Sorry, Doctor, that’s just dumb) aren’t the only way they’re twiddling with dimensions either. We've seen a titchy TARDIS before, and a shrinking TARDIS too, but this is a decidedly new take and we love it. All of it is wonderful, but we’re particularly enchanted by the way it allows the Doctor to pass stuff to Clara and, y’know, point at stuff. So very, very cute. And speaking of cute, how about that siege mode TARDIS? Yes, it does look a little too much like a mini-Pandorica, but it’s completely adorable and we all want one for Christmas.
We also like the way the teensification of the TARDIS forces the Doctor and Clara into roles different from what we’re used to. There’s been a lot of criticism this season of the way Clara has been stepping a little too far into the Doctor’s shoes, some of which has been from us, but the way it’s done here doesn’t jar the way some of what we’ve already seen has. Instead of Clara overtaking the Doctor, it feels more like he’s enabling her to step up and deal with stuff herself using what she’s learned from him. She does a good job of it: we particularly like the headband speech, which is both Doctorly and Clara-ly at the same time. But she couldn’t have done all that without the Doctor, either directly or indirectly, and that’s how it should be.
There’s also some great character work in here. The interaction between the Doctor and Clara is the absolute star: the two of them have never worked better together in terms of playing off each other. Peter Capaldi is, obviously, excellent, and Clara brings a lovely humanity to what could be a smartartsy part. As Dr Clara, she gets her own Companion Of The Week, and he’s great: likeable and distinctly lacking in the annoyance factor that’s plagued too many pseudocompanions lately.
And there’s also some terrific writing. “These readings are very, um, ishy.” “Local knowledge is leaving! ” “Sorry, did you just say shrink ray?” Nice.
It all adds up to forty-odd minutes of a Who that’s original and entertaining. As a result, it’s approximately five squillion light years better than anything else we’ve seen so far this season, including Mathieson’s previous creditable effort Mummy On The Orient Express.
However. Is it a classic? Nope. There are too many things wrong with it for that.
Those lovely monsters, for a start. They might look fantastic, and they might have scared the bejeezus out of us before the credits, but after that, while they’re still pretty as heck we stopped finding them scary. Part of that’s because Find Earth Inhabitants, Kill Earth Inhabitants is such a weary trope. And part of it’s because we have no idea what they’re up to. We know they tried to make a plot point out of that by having the Doctor give them the benefit of the doubt as long as possible before blasting their skinny arses back to the Pancake Dimension, but that doesn’t work. Without a visible evil plan, they’re just boringly repetitive killing machines.
And there’s so much handwaving in here it must have cooled the set down by ten degrees. How are the aliens slurping people up? How are they flattening stuff out, or popping stuff back for that matter? How are they sneaking up to the TARDIS and half-inching its dimensions? How does the Doctor boot them home again? We don’t have to know all of these things, but it’s nice when they make a little effort. (Like when the Doctor explains he’s changed the TARDIS’s weight so Clara can pick it up, for example.) Otherwise, it’s hard to get really involved, because there’s nothing to get involved in. It kinds of kills the plot, too, because there’s no logic in it, only more convenient handwaving when appropriate. The shields are failing! The aliens have developed the ability to re-3D things! The aliens are fooled by a painted door they didn’t flatten in the first place! Why? Because reasons!
They obviously think the emotional aspects, like the sheer peril to the characters, are enough to drag us in, but for us at least, that’s not enough. When what the enemy’s doing and how they’re doing it is completely opaque and varies at random, we don’t care as much as we should, especially when they disappear at the end as unknowable as when they arrived.
Then there are the other characters. Yes, Rigsy is good, but as for oo-arr meanie Fenton, dear God. What a waste of acting veteran Christopher Fairbank. It’s grumpiness all the way down, without a single counterbalancing point to make him more than a caricature. We thought it was the Boneless who were supposed to be two-dimensional.
As for the other characters, other than the instantly appealing PC Forrest, as a result of lack of time they’re all utterly interchangeable and couldn’t be more obvious red-shirt extras if they had phaser burns on their foreheads. We couldn’t even keep track of how many there were so had no idea how many were still to receive the ironing treatment until they were suddenly all gone.
As for the Doctor’s big This-Plane-Is-Protected Moment, we sure it gave many people the chills, but that kind of grandstanding from the Doctor leaves us as cold as a polar bear on skates. If anybody can sell that stuff, Peter Capaldi can, but we’d really rather he didn’t have to. It’s kind of undignified.
It’s got a lot of wonderful things right with it, including a breathtaking monster. And in this season in particular we’re grateful it’s so watchable. But the flaws for us drop it down from great to very good.
SLIPPING THROUGH YOUR FINGERS
The Thing thing is cute, but a cheat. The Doctor initially drags the TARDIS more than a TARDIS-length off the railway track, but in the next shot when it falls sideways onto the track it’s much closer.
This siege mode seems to have some rather unusual properties. In particular, it’s had a little go at the Doctor’s hair, which is much shorter and stays that way until they get back outside. (We prefer it like that, so go Siege Mode Protection And Barbering Enterprises Inc.)
PASS THE SPATULA
Why are they talking about ramming the blockage in the tunnel with a train when the thing they’re supposed to be ramming only looks like shadows on the wall? It’s not going to get anywhere near them.