Tony Fyler looks beneath the surface.
You could hardly get two more diametrically opposite Doctor Who stories than Mummy On The Orient Express and Flatline.
Nevertheless, when they hit the screen, the pair announced Jamie Mathieson as one of the most innovative new voices to be allowed to write a Who script in the last five years, and for the most part, they both delivered something fresh, standing as series high points, and giving those who had yet to be convinced of the Capaldi interpretation of the Doctor their first cast-iron hope that things would be all right after all. Let’s see if the two-dimensional terror of Flatline stands up to the ultimate test – the cold, hard light of hindsight.
Writing a story that does the Third Doctor trick of bringing creepy aliens into our everyday lives is one thing. Anybody can technically do that. Writing that sort of story and making actually scary takes a rare kind of genius. The kind of genius that Robert Holmes displayed when his shop window dummies crashed through windows and stalked down shoppers. The kind of genius it took to take the Yeti out of Tibet and put them in the shadowy, uncertain world of the London Underground.
The kind of genius Jamie Mathieson showed with Flatline.
The pre-credits sequence, viewed after a year, is still crisp, the idea simple, the execution both genuinely scary and a summation of what the threat will turn out to be – there’s a man on the phone, terrified, whispering, reporting that he knows what’s responsible for a crime. We’ve been so blind, he says. They’re all around us. And then – wham! He’s gone, struck down by an unseen assailant. There’s a sudden stain on his wall, and the camera pans to let us view it from a different angle, and there he is – trapped, screaming, and thin as a layer of paint.
The economy there is positively breathtaking. It’s a sit-up-and-take-notice beginning, that engages, informs and scares the bejesus out of viewers. And yes, with a year of hindsight and knowing what’s to come, it’s still brilliant. It shows you the world you’re going to be in for the next 45 minutes, it gives you an exciting incident, and it gets its curiosity-hooks in deep, making you need to know what’s going on.
The weird thing in hindsight is that before it aired, the ‘shrinking Tardis’ was widely shown, the idea being that Flatline might be another comedy episode, like Robot of Sherwood. After all, Peter Capaldi climbing out of the shrunken Tardis is an inherently comical image. And there’s definitely comedy in Flatline – Mathieson doesn’t neglect the duty of modern Who to deliver balance between the dramatic and comedic elements. But Flatline is very much skewed towards the scares. Arriving in Bristol and investigating any oddness in the area that could account for the shrinking Tardis, Clara quickly enlists the help of local graffiti artist Rigsy (played in a naturalistic vein by Joivan Wade), discovering a mural of people with their faces turned to the wall – a remembrance of people who’ve gone recently missing. When the two investigate the flat of the latest man to go missing and the police lend their help, the nature of the threat is gloriously telegraphed over the shoulder of the PC Forrest as the walls seem to ripple with invisible worms. That’s a genuinely shudderworthy moment, and as the floor succumbs to the same kind of ripple and she’s turned into just a picture of a flattened-out nervous system on the wall, the body horror of the threat is doubly underlined. Granted, there’s what with a year’s hindsight feels like one of the few dodgy effects shots immediately after it, as the sofa is flattened, but the sofa flattening effect is a minor niggle. When Clara and Rigsy go back to his community service work, two things happen – the mural reveal, and Fenton coming into his own. If you look at what makes Flatline realistic as a contemporary story, Joivan Wade’s performance is responsible for half the job. Christopher Fairbank’s performance as Fenton carries the other half – he’s the avatar of low-imagination social reaction, thinking of graffiti artists as scum and council estate tenants as welfare cases. He’s actually the distillation of everything unpleasant in the human spirit, and his refusal to meekly accept Clara’s authority when everyone else is doing so makes him by far the standout character in the drama. Even when confronted with the figures on the wall turning round and killing one of his colleagues (a sequence that still works as well today as, say, the first emergence from the sea of the Sea Devils), Fenton is the voice of weary cynicism. The fact that he not only survives to the end, but is actually right about the hostile intentions of the Boneless, in spite of the Doctor and Clara going the hippy, wider-universe route of hoping they’re just trying to communicate.
There are elements that you can point at to say Flatline is simultaneously overwritten and underwritten – overwritten in terms of the whole ‘Doctor Clara’ thing, which almost feels like an unnecessary experiment, at least inasmuch as it’s foregrounded and referred to – a Doctor-Lite episode by necessity has to shift the focus elsewhere, and there have been some cracking Doctor-Lite episodes in the history of New Who – Blink, Turn Left etc – but possibly the ‘Companion As Doctor’ story was overplayed in Series 8, and it’s particularly noticeable here because everyone keeps referring to it. Underwritten because beyond Clara and the Doctor, Rigsy and Fenton, most of the other characters are simple, (ironically two-dimensional) monster-fodder, to the point where none of the names are especially memorable, beyond being ‘that bloke’ who got killed by the Boneless at ‘that point.’ With a year of hindsight, there’s a certain ‘deus ex machina’ quality to the whole ‘2Dis’ thing too, which at the time of broadcast was less noticeable because the pace carried us along with questions. Once you know the answers, the palate becomes slightly less forgiving of MacGuffinery.
Visually, the story’s still very exciting though, the Boneless having a range of creepy effects to bring them to life. A year on, they look very much scary forebears of the ghosts from Under The Lake/Before The Flood, and that’s no bad thing – if you imagine how they’d have been rendered in Classic Who, you can be grateful for the advances in visual effects and budgets that allow Mathieson’s imagination to be rendered so effectively as it is here. And in terms of the story’s balance and message, in a series where the key question was ‘Am I a good man?’ it advances the arc in terms of showing that Clara is becoming practiced in the Doctor’s methodology, even to a point that slightly shocked him. The story shows us that he values her, and that she’s quite capable of doing her Impossible Girl thing and saving the Doctor even when to all intents and purposes he’s given up hope of rescue. Finally, there’s that uncomfortable dividing line when he tells her she was an excellent Doctor – but that goodness had nothing to do with it. It’s a weird warning, but one that actually feels more relevant a year on as our Doctor breaks rules for Clara left, right and centre than it did in Series 8, the ‘good man’ denouement of which was ultimately a little shrugworthy and lacking in impact.
And then there’s that speech.
The Doctor’s speech to the Boneless, the speech of a man almost desperate to believe there’s good in the universe, but let badly down by these two-dimensional brats intent on destroying us all. It’s the first moment in Series 8 since Deep Breath when the Doctor feels strong enough to definitively tell us who he is, rather than asking us to reassure him of his goodness. He is the man who stops the monsters, and we punch the air to hear him say as much – for all his existential angst, it’s Jamie Mathieson’s script that gives us the Twelfth Doctor reassuring us that he’s still the Doctor we know and love. It’s a moment we grasp with both hands in a series that rarely lets us be certain of anything so elemental.
Ultimately, of Jamie Mathieson’s two stories in Series 8, Mummy On The Orient Express is an almost flawless example of the one-off murder mystery story in space, that if anything has improved with a year’s maturing. Flatline arguably had the harder job, bringing scares to contemporary, cynical Earth in a Doctor-Lite format. While it’s slightly less effective a year later when you know what’s going to happen and you have the breathing space to ask questions as you go along, it still more than stands up as a highlight of Series 8, and a thrilling example of the Earth-based alien peril story, updated to still deliver genuine scares in the jaded 21st century.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk