Jamie Mathieson’s second transmitted story is, in many ways, better than his first. While Mummy on the Orient Express was content to be a comfort blanket of an episode (in a good way), harking back to the programme’s past glories, Flatline tries to push the boundaries a bit. Writing a Doctor Who story about geometry is fairly unusual, with only Castrovalva attempting anything remotely similar. While the Davison story’s reach exceeded its grasp somewhat, with the special effects of the day not quite good enough to depict the world as an M. C. Escher painting, here the episode more or less manages to provide what it set out to depict, albeit with some imagination needed (not necessarily a bad thing). The concept of a two dimensional race of aliens is thought-provoking and might have led to children approaching maths lessons at school in a more positive state of mind, which can only be a good thing.
The only flaw is common to a lot of new Doctor Who: between the initial mystery and the sentimental conclusion, there isn’t a lot of time for much else. Clara explores the strange goings on in a Bristol council estate, but once the Doctor realises what is happening, a cynic might say that there is just a lot of running before the Doctor does something inexplicable. That’s somewhat unfair, as Clara and Rigsy do something clever and unexpected, but intelligible to the audience, to restore the TARDIS (unlike the Doctor’s subsequent Magic Thing to send the Boneless back to their own universe). Still, as I noted in a previous review, there isn’t enough time here for the kind of gradual plot development that can give a story weight.
It’s unfair to penalise Flatline for a problem common to much of new Who and, if we’re being brutally honest, to much of the original series too (which might have had plenty of time to fill with gradual plot and character development, but often padded it out with running up and down corridors, just like here). Flatline‘s problem, if you want to call it a problem, is that the initial set up is so unusual and interesting that resorting to adventure fiction/Doctor Who clichés can’t help but disappoint just a little, at least on subsequent viewing. It just leaves us wondering how the boundaries might have been pushed that little bit further in the second half. With more time and money, could we have seen a 2D Doctor passing into the Boneless’ universe – perhaps as animation? Or would that be a step too far? We’ll never know, but I think that, perversely, this criticism is actually a proof that the story mostly succeeded in providing some thoughtful ideas in an science fantasy adventure story setting. To be fair, Mathieson wrote a lengthy character development scene to add some weight to the second half, but it was cut for timing reasons (he has put some script extracts up online here).
There seems to be an unwritten law of new Who that the story that comes bottom of the Doctor Who Magazine season poll is always one that I quite liked. The Long Game, Fear Her, The Beast Below… and now In the Forest of the Night. It’s no more scientifically plausible than Kill the Moon, but tries to get away with it with a fairy tale atmosphere. To be honest, the direction is only fitfully up to the task; more of the jerky camerawork and vivid colours of the opening sequence might have helped.
It’s a story where the trees speak, where children know more than adults, where the furious, fearful and tongue-tied turn out to be gifted and talented after all, where the mentally ill are merely tuned to a different channel, where the Doctor is saved by Clara, where there really are happy endings. A story where the only monsters are animals escaped from the zoo (the second story this season to have no real antagonist, which is a record). It’s a story where Little Red Riding Hood can get lost in the forest and be saved from the wolf by a tiger and be saved from the tiger by a maths teacher. It’s a story where everyone lives and everyone comes home for tea, even the missing sister we hadn’t actually seen.
Doctor Who has always put the outcasts centre stage, back to the first episode, when Susan Foreman knew too much history and science and not enough about real life. From companions like Zoe and Adric, to guest characters like Cordo and Susie Q, it’s the people on the outside who have the answers, or are at least asking the right questions. Yet somehow this seemed to get lost a bit in the new series, especially under Russell T Davies. But here the outsiders are given a chance to shine. (Don’t discontinue your psych meds without ask your doctor, though.)
It’s not going to be a story to everyone’s taste. As with the Williams era, if your preference is for scares, death and ‘adult’ perspectives, you’re probably find this trivial, silly, childish even. But it says a lot about Steven Moffat’s time as showrunner that even in his most inconsistent season, he was able to give such diversity. It’s also the only story where the Clara/Danny storyline doesn’t make me roll my eyes.
“Be less scared, be more trusting.”