Flatline – Doctor Who’s 250th story is an outstanding, gritty tribute to Banksy

The Doctor and Clara face a dimensionally transcendental menace

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★★★★★ I don’t know about “Flatline”… this episode will forever be marked “Deadline” in my mind. The preview version hadn’t arrived in the final hours before Radio Times went to press and I was staring at a blank space on the magazine’s Saturday Choices pages, with only two lines of billing upon which to base a write-up. Then, miraculously, Flatline materialised, just under the wire. I watched it, bashed out some words, and could recommend it as RT’s Drama of the Week. Yes, I’d enjoyed it that much.

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Flatline evidently hasn’t had much money chucked at it in terms of settings, costumes and big-name guest stars. Instead, it exudes refreshing urban grit. As valid a depiction of unappreciated art as Vincent and the Doctor, it creates a hero out of Bristolian graffiti artist Rigsy – in a sly homage to Banksy (also Bristol-born). And it’s enriched by a wealth of ideas that feel original but have actually been at the core of Doctor Who since its inception.

The programme is forever exploring time and space, two components of the acronym Tardis: Time and Relative Dimension in Space (not that you need reminding). Rarely does it examine the dimensional element, beyond the bigger-on-the-inside nature of the police box. I love my Doctor Who when it is “dimensionally transcendental” – a key term first uttered by Jon Pertwee in his 1970 debut, Spearhead from Space.

The Doctor has been dimensionally challenged before – whether by “dimension” we’re talking size or other realities. Off the top of my head: the Tardis shrank in Planet of Giants (1964), Carnival of Monsters (1973) and Logopolis (1981). It jumped a dimension in time in The Space Museum (1965). The Doctor went to the Land of Fiction in The Mind Robber (1968) and a parallel Earth in Inferno (1970). In Warriors’ Gate (1981), Tom Baker’s Doctor visited a contracting void and a domain consisting of two-dimensional black-and-white images.

In Flatline, Jamie Mathieson cleverly combines the two senses of dimension in a deadly menace crossing over from a 2D plane, analysing and flattening people in our 3D world, and giving the Time Lord a major headache inside his supposedly impregnable Tardis by “leeching the external dimensions”.

You may not guess it but Flatline is this season’s Doctor-lite episode (required to fulfil a tight production schedule). Just as Mummy on the Orient Express locked Clara away from a chunk of its action, here the Time Lord is trapped in a shrunken portable police box, carried in Clara’s handbag, giving added meaning to the heinous suffix, “lite”. It’s ingenious. We have a lot of fun at the Doctor’s expense – his face at the Tardis doors, a hand passing out gadgets (and a sledgehammer) to Clara, and fingers manoeuvring the mini police box from the path of a speeding train.

Overlook his Mummy episode: Flatline (written first) is Jamie Mathieson’s actual calling card. It’s highly imaginative, playful and earthy, well matched by Douglas Mackinnon, who is clearly one of the most talented directors on the series now.

If the money has gone anywhere on screen, it’s in the art direction (take a bow Paul Spriggs and Tristan Peatfield) and visual FX (Axis and BBC Wales VFX). The “artwork” is simply superb: the muted Banksy-style subway murals of disappeared locals that come to life; the distorted death mask of the victim concealed in his wallpaper, visible only from an extreme angle (surely a homage to the hidden skull on Holbein’s Ambassadors in the National Gallery)…

There’s the dissolution of victims and furniture from their 3D state to a 2D mess on the floor; poor PC Forrest’s nervous system on the wall; hideous cartoon-monsters created from the dead; the terrifying hand lunging down the tunnel; and the flattening of the train against the tunnel wall… Startling effects – yet all vital to the narrative.

Joivan Wade gives an engaging, natural performance as Mathieson’s heroic street artist Rigsy, a gentle, misunderstood lad from a Bristol estate, written off by society and by the Doctor as a “barely sentient local”. Rigsy becomes Clara’s sidekick when she is obliged to take on the Doctor’s role.

Previous companions have been resourceful, but I can’t imagine many being given this level of independence and initiative. Clara thinks on her feet throughout Flatline, with only limited help from the Time Lord. “Doctor, what would you do now?” she mutters to herself. “No, what would I do now?” She takes charge of the council workers, and figures out how to save the Time Lord. She asks Rigsy to spray-paint a door on the back of a poster to fox the 2D/3D monsters and channel their energy into the diminished Tardis. It’s very clever of Clara, and the writer. (Anyone else want that dinky raw-state Tardis cube as a paperweight for Christmas…?)

Peter Capaldi is quite wonderful when the Doctor is sprung free and delivers his “man that stops the monsters” speech, but the ultimate triumph remains Clara’s (the marvellous Jenna Coleman). What makes it doubly effective is that the Doctor doesn’t show enough appreciation; her success is undercut by his withering “Goodness had nothing to do with it” and an unexpected dissolve to Missy: “Clara. My Clara. I have chosen well.” Oh dear, that doesn’t bode well.

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Deadline, sorry, Flatline – the 250th Doctor Who story – is my new favourite episode of the season. And may well be pushing its way into my all-time Top Ten.