“In a universe so huge and bizarre, we should not be so quick to judge.”
On paper, Flatline looks good*.
The Doctor, aiming for Coal Hill School, ends up landing the TARDIS 170 miles away, in Bristol. This being a not uncommon occurrence for our itinerant time traveller (Eleven, certainly, never ended up where – or when – he wanted to), we are not at first overly perturbed. Until we discover that the door of the TARDIS has, in a shot reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland (in which spirit much of the episode, one feels, is written), inexplicably shrunk to about two-thirds its usual size. And when our travellers clamber out of the miniaturised door, they find that the TARDIS itself has been similarly miniaturised.
It is, as Clara points out, rather sweet. And also quite bad, apparently. Make that Bad with a capital B, because when the Doctor has run off and done some wittering and lever-pulling, he announces that all the external dimensions are leaking away. Or something. Later, we discover that creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions (or similar, anyway) are scoping out humanity by playing around with the dimensions we know and love, manifesting themselves as 2D paintings, turning 3D objects into 2D ones (particularly nasty when the 3D object in question is a human being) and generally making a nuisance of themselves. And Clara must Defeat Them, All on Her Own, because they are Evil and Not Interested in Negotiation.
I’m not even going to try and think about whether any of that makes any sense, because I think my brain might explode. But it’s a promising concept – how scary would it be if you couldn’t even trust the walls to shield you? Frankly, it all sounds fascinatingly dystopic, in a Utopia kind of way. (That’s the Channel 4 drama, not the work of philosophy.) And, certainly, the story has plenty of places to go. With the Doctor trapped in a rapidly shrinking TARDIS, will Clara be able to take on his metaphorical mantle, as well as his literal sonic screwdriver and psychic paper, to Save the World and, more specifically, a bunch of community-service miscreants in the wrong place at the wrong time? What’s it like for her to be the Doctor for once? What does art mean to these two-dimensional creatures? (We first encounter them, incidentally, through the auspices of a young graffitti artist, which is another interesting possible line of enquiry.) What can they tell us about what our world means to us, how we understand it through our own perceptual limitations?
In the hands of a writer like China Mieville, one feels, this could potentially open up whole novels of exploration.
But this is Doctor Who, and our head writer is Stephen Moffat, so of course this wealth of possibility goes untapped. Having set up such an interesting conceit, episode writer Jamie Mathieson goes on to develop a fairly standard storyline of mild jeopardy, sentimental speeches and DIY ingenuity.
There’s nothing technically wrong with the episode; like last week’s offering, also written by Mathieson, there are no glaringly obvious plotholes and not too many Unlikely Coincidences. It’s perfectly possible that the science in this is all wrong, but to be honest dimensional mathematics is hardly common knowledge. And kudos, too, for the “this plane is protected” bit, which I think is an allusion to one of Eleven’s lines: “This planet is protected!” But there are just so many other places Flatline could have gone, and didn’t.
Maybe I’m expecting too much from Doctor Who. Maybe it’s just that I’m a bit too tired to care. But my reaction to Flatline was a decided “meh”. It was OK. It was an improvement on much of this series. But it wasn’t groundbreaking.
*Yes, this is a pun. I do those now.