Fear Her ranked 240 out of 241 in the last Doctor Who Magazine poll of all the Doctor Who stories, having – in spite of being directed by the otherwise well-regarded Euros Lyn and bring written by Life on Mars co-creator and TV Writer of the then Moment Matthew Graham – become a watchword for poor Doctor Who (in fact, the only story considered by the magazine’s readership to be worse than Fear Her was the Sixth Doctor’s almost universally poorly regarded debut The Twin Dilemma). From the moment the TARDIS turned up in not quite its usual fashion, to the potentially misinterpreted alien presence spiriting the inhabitants of a housing estate away into another dimension, Flatline had the potential to be another Fear Her; a great director, a writer who has proved himself, a story that doesn’t quite click. Fortunately the highs are much loftier than those of that Series 2 story, and the lows nothing like as subterranean. Flatline is, however, perhaps the first episode of Series 8 to underperform on its expectations – and while that’s no mean feat, and while even the least successful episodes under Steven Moffat’s regime have been nothing less than beautiful visually and fascinating in many other respects besides, it does mean that the run of overachieving stories has come to an end. Not living up to those artificially boosted expectations does not make Flatline a failure, however. Fear Her can rest easy in that respect.
Other than the disappointing ‘zap ‘em with the sonic’ solution, there were two main problems with Flatline. The first is something that Euros Lyn would have found familiar from The Idiot’s Lantern; the second is a little more fundamental.
This being the Doctor-lite episode (after last week’s excursion which sidelined Clara), Peter Capaldi was restricted almost to a single set and just the one day’s filming, and while this is very cleverly written into the script not to make it too apparent that the Doctor was absent during most of the shoot, what it does mean is that most of Capaldi’s material was videoed in isolation – and it shows. Just as Maureen Lipman failed to convince when acting basically against herself in The Idiot’s Lantern, so Capaldi’s performance fails to connect with any of the others around it. Given the circumstance, he makes a decent fist of what he’s given to do, but unfortunately it feels like he’s performing in an entirely different production to the rest of the cast.
The other problem with Flatline is an extension of this disconnect, inasmuch as that for all the great ideas presented in the script and for all that Douglas Mackinnon’s direction is once again exemplary, for once the production hasn’t seemed able to keep pace with the story. The Doctor Who team are becoming legendary for making episodes that compete with some of the best that cinema has to offer, and all on a television budget – and in a running time of 45 minutes. But despite some astonishing moments, this week their ambitions were thwarted. The odd thing is, Flatline doesn’t seem, on the face of it, an overly ambitious episode. And the areas in which it disappoints are as often as not the quiet character moments, rather than the expensive effects-heavy ones. None of the characters really ever earn our respect or trust, for example, even the Banksy wannabe, so it’s difficult to care when they find themselves being picked off and difficult to feel any relief for the ones who survive, and in recent weeks Doctor Who has done a very fine job of engaging you with the guest characters. We’re also struggling to be sold on the “Boneless” and their rapid development, which again is something that 45 minutes of television has playing against it but that other episodes this series would have dealt with invisibly. And when Clara seeks confirmation from the Doctor that she’s done a good job at the end of the story, in spite of his having just told her she has, it feels unnecessarily needy from a character we know is capable of better. This might well be an indication that Clara’s downfall is the underlying thrust of the series, but it feels heavy-handed on this occasion.
Having said all that, Flatline absolutely excels in other areas, and if Jenna Coleman hadn’t already proved her worth to the series this year, then she absolutely does so here. Her performance this week is always commanding and on occasion sublime, and the scene in which she introduces herself as “the Doctor” to Rigsy is delightful. Perhaps it’s the screen chemistry she shares with Peter Capaldi that is of necessity missing this week and that has made the episode feel a touch unfulfilling. Capaldi himself, in spite of earlier comments, is never anything less than an electric presence, and the scenes in which he interacts with Clara and others – particularly those in which he performs a “Thing” – are both unnerving and comical to an extraordinary degree.
Probably the greatest test of whether Flatline is ultimately a success is the strength of the central conceit and the ability of director Mackinnon to bring it to the screen without making it seem silly, and on both those counts the episode must be judged a triumph. There aren’t many Doctor Who stories that conceive of finding new ways to deal with the idea of an alien invasion, and yet Jamie Mathieson has found not only that, but has worked through his idea to arrive at some pretty creepy and visually exciting ways to exploit it – aided and abetted by Mackinnon, who has managed (along with a superlative effects team) to turn those ideas into a series of powerful and sinister images. When Matt Burdock’s character Al is taken by a giant hand, a less confident production might have dipped into CBeebies territory; instead the scene is exhilarating, shocking and frightening all at once. The ultimate realisation of the Boneless’ three-dimensional form could again have been ridiculous, and once again Mackinnon and the effects team have created something memorable and unnerving. Indeed in spite of the problems outlined earlier, Flatline has a finely judged tone and pace that for most viewers will elevate it to among the best of Series 8, perfectly in keeping with what has come so far.
Fear Her was a disappointing story that probably wasn’t quite as bad as its reputation suggests, with some interesting ideas and a couple of exceptional ones hidden behind its incoherent and sub-standard exterior. Flatline, by contrast, is an episode with some exceptional ideas and some extraordinary execution, that thanks to a few inconsistencies falls a little short of the excellence that Series 8 has offered thus far. It might be a disappointment, but it’s not much of one, and Fear Her’s reputation as the worst story since Doctor Who’s 2005 return is safe for a while yet.
Next up, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Doctor Who style!
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