Urban scrub is a recent addition to Doctor Who. For the longest time, present-day Earth was usually either a twee English village, a secret research facility or a government office. Suburbia had just barely began to creep in during the dying days of the Sylvester McCoy era, with the very last episode of the very last story of the classic era, “Survival” Episode Three, showing us the very first council flat. In that instance it was a surreal moment, the umbrella-twirling, question mark jumper-wearing Doctor looking like he had jumped out of television into an average viewer’s home. Skip forward to the revival, and council estates and tower blocks now form the backdrop of the series, and the leather-jacketed, buzz-cut haircut Doctor is much less incongruous.
Social realism dominated Russell T. Davies’ time as showrunner. Companions were your next door neighbors, who were plucked out of their normal lives and spirited away into time and space. That realism pervaded the stories too, with the man-eating wheelie bin picking up were the fabled Yeti on the loo in Tooting Bec left off. After Steven Moffat arrived and the stories began to drift away from Earth in favour of more grand-scale cosmic showdowns, the likes of the Powell Estate were replaced with the leafy environs of Leadworth.
“Flatline”, then, much like the earlier episode “Listen”, is an attempt by Moffat to return to the types of stories that re-endeared Doctor Who to the viewing public when it returned. The latter was about reviving the small-scale chiller that subverted something ordinary into the uncanny, while the former is a stab at recapturing the ‘grounded’ feel that urban scrub gave to those early, Earth-based adventures. Jamie Mathieson, who penned this episode and the previous week’s “Mummy on the Orient Express”, flips from opulence and Classic-era aesthetics back to that familiar world of grimy concrete underpasses and graffiti-covered walls.
As Clara has decided to continue the precarious balance of life with Danny and life with the Doctor, she is increasingly pressuring the Doctor to get her back home on time. However, the Doctor overshoots Shoreditch and lands in urban Bristol, and is immediately confronted with a rather pressing issue- the TARDIS exterior has shrunk, and continues to shrink until it is little bigger than the toy version. With the Doctor trapped within his rapidly disintegrating time machine, it falls to Clara to take on the mantle of the Doctor and investigate a series of mysterious disappearances with a local community service division.
One of the principal criticisms levied against the later Moffat era is that Doctor Who often slide into being ‘The Clara Show’, preoccupied with her story and development at the expense of the Doctor. In my view, “Flatline” works as a satire of this reading, with Clara walking a mile in the Doctor’s shoes and having to deal with the situations he deals with on a daily basis, in this case an incursion by two-dimensional entities into our universe. Throughout the story, Clara takes on more and more of the Doctor’s attributes, from lying to the group to give them false hope, to giving grand soliloquies about how she’s the only one who can get them out alive. By the stories end, the Doctor is forced to conclude that he might not be the best influence on Clara, and that she’s picking up things from him that he considered necessary- collateral damage, sacrifice- but aren’t necessarily good. As he says, Clara makes an admirable Doctor. She talks the talk, and even picks up a council boy with low self esteem but lot’s of potential as a companion. But it’s a grim foreshadowing of her eventual fate in “Face the Raven”.
The main adversaries in “Flatline” are entities from another universe, which exists only in two dimensions, are trying to gain shape in our world, and do this by absorbing people into the walls of the homes or tunnels, leaving nothing but a graffiti-like mark. Trying to understand the human form, a nervous system is gruesomely laid out in 2D on the wall, and a sofa is crushed into nothingness by a seeping, seething mass. It’s never revealed whether they are peaceful explorers who genuinely don’t realise they are killing people, or an alien invasion, but when they assume 3D form and become disturbing, shambling imitations of the deceased, the Doctor is forced to assume the later and dispatches them from our plane.
Of the side characters, Joivan Wade is good as Graffiti artist Rigsy, a council boy on community service under the supervision of the brilliantly unlikeable Fenton, played by Christopher Fairbank, a man with such little imagination the psychic paper won’t work on him. Throughout the story, Rigsy proves his humanity and trust in Clara, whilst Fenton snarks and is generally pessimistic in the background. In a nice contrast to the rest of the series, the Doctor is able to take the moral high ground, preaching the importance of people’s lives against the coldness of Fenton. Peter Capaldi, isolated in the TARDIS for much of the episode, puts in a hilarious and commanding performance, from his indignation of Clara usurping his identity to his dance of joy when he believes he’s maneuvered the tiny TARDIS out of the path of an oncoming train, Adams family style.
The idea behind Earth-based Doctor Who stories is that they are, in principal, easier and quicker to produce than having to construct an alien planet, space station or historical era on a set, and also have the added benefit of grounding a series that runs the very real danger of becoming too far-flung to seem believable. It’s harder to invest in the Doctor’s continuing escapades if their always in distant times and on distant worlds. But the threat of monsters lurking in the everyday has always been a more potent, visceral premise in Doctor Who, and in science-fiction as a whole. We fear the intrusion of the alien into our homes, our communities, whether that be the spectacular fiction or very human prejudice.
We don’t fear housing estates because we think graffiti monsters are hiding in the alleyways. We’re scared of the kids wearing hoodies and loitering on their bikes.