Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day 847: Flatline
I’ve said it before, but with less that a week to go until I reach the end of this marathon, I’ll probably not get a chance to say it again; One of my favourite things about Doctor Who is that we’ve all got such wonderfully diverse takes on it. I love, sometimes, being able to say to a friend ‘I really liked [x] story’, only for them to reveal that they can’t bear it, but they’re rather fond of story [z] (that’s just an example, by the way, not necessarily *The Gunfighters*, which I actually *do* rather like), when I may not be. That diversity is what helps to keep discussions about the programme interesting, even after all this time. And it’s also the thing which makes writing the previews of these episodes a little difficult, sometimes. I try to be as objective as I can when putting down the thoughts (while also trying to remain as spoiler-free as possible), but my own likes and dislikes in relation to the series are always going to inform how I rate something. Those opinions are also always going to be informed by outside elements, too, for better or for worse.
Which brings us to Flatline. I can’t remember the specifics, but the day I sat down to watch this one had been pretty hectic. I’d been running from place to place trying to get things done, and was looking forward to getting home to a brand new episode of Doctor Who to brighten the evening. The only downside was that Flatline had been the least-appealing episode to me when I read the brief previews that Steven Moffat had written for the Radio Times right back at the start of the series. I’d already decided - several weeks earlier, that this would be the episode I liked the least from the Series Eight run. Couple that mad day with that lack of enthusiasm, and I was never going to be that enamoured with this one. Still, if doing The 50 Year Diary had taught me anything, it’s that sometimes stories you’re not expecting to find much merit in can be the greatest gems of all.
But not this one. I watched the episode play out and just felt… flat. That’s not me trying to be funny, it’s just genuinely how it left me. I’d liked the concept well enough, I suppose, and there was a lot of nice exploration of the way the Doctor operates, but overall I wasn’t keen. In the end, I summed this one up by saying;
”A vital episode for the narrative of Series 8, a chance for the regulars to shine (as always), a simple concept twisted into interesting new directions… but perhaps an episode which is less than the sum of its parts.”
And thankfully, I didn’t seem to be alone. I messaged another reviewer to say how little I’d cared for Flatline, and they replied to agree that it was by far the weakest of the season for them. Still, having been enjoying the run more than I could remember enjoying a season in ages, it was always going to have one episode that let me down. But then Saturday night rolled around, and I suddenly realised that Twitter was ablaze with posts about how that night’s Doctor Who had been the best episode of the programme in years. I briefly wondered if I’d been sent the wrong tape and had gotten the order of the episodes wrong in my head, but a quick check confirmed that, nope, it was Flatline on telly that night, and that everyone else in the world loved it. Even my friend, who’d written a luke-warm preview on their own site was singing its praises! I was baffled. For a brief half-hour, I even contemplated watching it again just to see if I’d been in a worse mood that day than I’d realised, but simply didn’t want to see it again until I had to for this marathon.
So here we are today. Three friends have text today to say ‘You’ve got Flatline tonight! Great episode!’ (or words to those effects), and i have to admit that I’ve been a little caught up in the hype. I’ve spent the afternoon genuinely looking forward to watching this episode, and reevaluating my earlier thoughts on it. But then I actually say and watched it, and I’m sorry, but it’s rubbish.
Well, no. Actually, that’s not at all fair. It’s not rubbish, by any stretch of the imagination. I’d happily choose this episode over several of the other stories I’ve encountered over the course of this project, but I simply cannot understand the love for it. It’s merely alright Doctor Who to my mind - not spectacular, but perfectly serviceable.
For me, the highlight is still in the examination of the way the Doctor operates. It’s a thread that’s been tugged at over the last few stories, but Flatline is where it’s moved centre stage - and expertly so, by moving the Doctor off to the sidelines. As ‘Doctor-lite’ stories go, this one is well handled (you certainly never feel like Capaldi is missing from the action, even if his hair does seem to go off on little breaks of its own from time to time), and it really makes the most of not having the Doctor there by placing his actions in the spotlight through Clara. She really does make an excellent Doctor, and I love the suggestion that you don’t have to be a good person to be a good Doctor - it’s very much in keeping with this incarnation’s attitude, and yet there’s something equally interesting about looking back at some of the earlier incarnations and thinking about the way they act, but with a false smile on the top of it all.
The other area that this episode is very strong at is the visuals. I can’t even begin to imagine how you go about planning to make an episode like this one, and it has to be said that the team do a great job of it. The Boneless themselves are especially well realised, and completely unlike any other Doctor Who monster we’ve ever had.
And yet, for all that, it simply doesn’t work for me, I’m afraid. I’ll admit that I’ve perhaps gotten a little more in to it today that I did on that previous viewing, but not by a massive amount, and I’m afraid that it’s going to be ending up with a score lower than a lot of people would bestow upon it…