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Doctor Who: The Rebel Flesh (Review)

I love Matthew Graham. After all, the writer who gave us Life on Mars is surely something of a British national treasure. however, his track record on Doctor Who seems just a little bit spottier, with his previous contribution being the somewhat… poorly received Fear Her way back at the end of the second season. So, perhaps giving Graham a two-parter, especially the two-parter directly before the cliffhanger before the break in the season might have seemed like a bit of a gambit. Fortunately, The Rebel Flesh is a much stronger entry than Fear Her, even if it’s not quite as spectacular as last week’s episode.

Flesh and bone?

I think part of the problem with The Rebel Flesh is that we’ve really seen something quite similar, very recently. Indeed, as the gangers and the humans split into “us and them”, I couldn’t help but be reminded of last year’s The Hungry Earth, which was another two-parter built around the idea that humans (as a species) are not very good at sharing. In that case, it was our planet. In this case, it’s our identity. Here, it was even another female human who proved to be the spark of the conflict, and Rory again seemed to be the most sensitive of the TARDIS residents to the “alien species.” In fairness, the notion of mankind’s wonderful ability to mess just about anything up has been the basis of any number of science-fiction ideas, novels, movies and television shows, but it just feels so strange to have this come less than a year after an episode so very similar in tone and theme.

Which, to be honest, is a damn shame, because the episode actually works really well otherwise. Graham has hit on a rather wonderful idea with the gangers, who are essentially cloned bodies so that humans can avoid risk or danger. There’s something almost classical about the idea (Avatar was a recent variation on the theme), no doubt helped by setting the episode in an old monastery, with lightning providing a very gothic atmosphere. It’s hard not to be reminded of the pathos of Frankenstein’s monster as one of those strange creatures pleads, “Just let us live!”

Casting some light on the matter?

Identity is a fascinating idea to play around with, and it’s one that instantly comes with a whole host of dramatic heft. “I’m not a monster,” the cloned Jennifer pleads to Rory. “I am me!” How fundamental is that, to be unable to conclusive demonstrate that you are the person you think you are? There were a lot of wonderful moments generated by the premise, especially the questions of how two different bodies might share the same life – wondering about a child’s birthday part serving as a nice catalyst. That would certainly put a new spin on the phrase “I have two daddies.”

I picked up on a strong nostalgic vibe to The Curse of the Black Spot a few weekends back, which I thought gave off a very strong Peter Davison sort of feeling. This episode feels more like something of a Tom Baker mish-mash, with a strong gothic vibe from the location work. In fact, blending future tech with the old castle helps evoke Mary Shelley’s Modern Prometheus, another tale in which mankind’s poorly-thought-out quest for scientific knowledge has deadly consequences. The the same ideas are elaborated here, as mankind inadvertently creates new life, but is singularly ill-equipped to handle the responsibility that comes with that. I particularly like the fact that, in a nod to the popular perception of the Frankenstein mythos, the creatures are seemingly animated by a bolt of lightning (well, a solar storm).

Waiting for the second episode to flesh it out?

I liked the design of the episode, with its quite surreal blend of old and new. The staff of the establishment wandering around with pikes while operating cloned bodies, the use of an old monastery as a vital acid-mining facility. Some of the elements were undeniably hokey (why is acid so important, why can we only produce it here, and the base really should have some better safety systems, including circuit breakers), but I’ve learned to accept a lot of logical leaps from the show. I do find it fascinating, however, that the Doctor seemed intent on phrasing the kind of thing that happens here in almost spiritual (or “poncy”) terms – rather than science-ing it up a notch. It seems just a tiny bit out of character to hear the character use terms like “soul” in defining an individual’s identity, given that the show was seemingly afraid to recognise Christmas as a Christian holiday.

Unfortunately, it never seems like the episode is really flowing. Perhaps it’s the use of one of the characters in order to escalate the conflict, in a highly predictable manner, or perhaps it’s the subplots flowing through the episode, like bubbles through the molten “flesh.” We’re shown wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels among the TARDIS crew, as the Doctor clearly wants the pesky kids out of his hair while he does something – and it’s abundantly clear that the trip in question was not an accident. I really appreciate the idea of season-long arcs in the show, but perhaps this one is just a little bit overwhelming – it seems to eat up quite a lot of time from the story in question here.

The way of all flesh?

Although it is fun to speculate as to why the Doctor is taking a trip there. The idea that he might want a ganger, and that the ganger is the one who lives through the adventures at the start of The Impossible Astronaut (and dies there) seems perhaps a little bit too obvious, but I’m struggling to think of any other possibility which isn’t horrible complicated. On the other hand, I am willing to stand back and be blown away, as Moffat has a track record of doing.

Still, there are nice moments in the episode. I really feel like this episode sort of lays out Rory’s role in the TARDIS dynamic. I loved that opening sequence, where the TARDIS is flying through the storm, and Rory is completely uneasy. First, he looks like he’s almost about to throw up, and then he has no idea what to do when the Doctor yells, “Assume the position!” It’s very clearly suggested that Rory is very much the outsider in this three-person team, despite the fact he’s married to Amy. It isn’t quite as strong as Mickey’s “tin dog” routine with Rose back in the second season, but it’s still there.

An acid trip?

More than that, though, the episode gives us quite a bit of time to explain why Rory belongs with Amy and the Doctor. He’s clearly the one most sensitive to the plight of the flesh, and he is the first to really come to think of Jennifer as a person. This is the first episode since he joined the crew that he has had substantial screentime, and it’s nice to see him becoming slightly more comfortable. You know you’re truly a companion when you’ll wilfully disregard the “don’t wander off” commandment in the final act of the first episode of a two-parter. I have a soft spot for Rory (“the boy who waited”), if only because he seems like he’s a lot more aware of other people than Amy is – Amy who spent her life waiting for the blue box, and Rory, who never made her choose.

I have to admit, I am just a little bit surprised that Graham didn’t build up the paranoia just a little bit more, as to who was a ganger, and who wasn’t. Perhaps it might have made the episode’s moral conundrum (what measure is a plastic man?) a little murkier, but that might not have been a bad thing. Imagine if the characters didn’t know which of them was real? It might be more interesting to phrase the central discussion in such terms that we aren’t sure which set of characters are “original” – which might serve as a heavy influence in deciding which is “real” (to the audience at least). That would be fascinating.

A ganger's paradise?

There were hints that the episode was going this way early on (with the characters being unconscious for far longer than they thought and character stumbling across one another seemingly randomly, disoriented). Indeed, perhaps there’s a wonderful stinger coming in the second part. A story like this seems to be just begging to turn audience expectations on their head. After all, as powerful as the doctor’s rhetoric might be while he talks about defining what’s “real”, it’s easy enough to point to the people who look like melted plastic and declare, “not them!”

There are other nice touches. While the teleplay isn’t quite as strong as Neil Gaiman’s tour de force last week, Graham has always demonstrated a rather wonderful and cheeky wit. The teaser at the start of this episode was actually just perfect. It was simultaneously funny, scary and mysterious – the perfect balance. I loved the line about worker’s compensation (“I’ve seen the ads!”), and also the later insistence that they staff are doing this “on the meter.” I’ve always thought that the wonderful thing about the show is that quintessentially British quality, the notion that even in the far future or the distant past, people are still people. There are some basic facts of life which remain constant, like staff costs and employer monitoring of staff.

It got under my skin...

So, all in all, actually not a bad episode. I really quite enjoyed that. The only major drawback was that we’ve really seen all this done before, and quite recently. In fairness, the show has any number of standard episode templates (“base under siege” being a popular one for the old series), but there’s a more fundamental similarity at play here. Still, it does seem better executed this time around, which is at least something. I’ll admit that – while it isn’t the strongest first-of-two-parter I’ve seen in a while – I’m quite looking forward to next week.

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14 Responses

  1. Hello Mr D: – Having read your piece, I think I’m going to have to go back and watch it again. Because I thought that it was a particularly weak episode, and yet I do trust your judgment. I can’t believe we’re so far apart here, so I’m going to assume that I’ve jumped to some misplaced conclusions 🙂

    You’re quite right to play up the success of the aspects which may or may not link to the wider arc. We know that there needs to be some way of the Doctor NOT having died at the beginning of the series, for example, which suggests that the ganger here is that Dr. And yet, as you say, that all feels far too easy.

    And the show as a who felt very much felt like Doctor Who told by numbers, and it was hard to see how an episode which involved so very little beyond a great deal of running about justified another episode. It was as if the viewer was being presented with plot-points which hadn’t yet been turned into a story. So, we have a closed environment, a small number of potential victims, a leader who behaves irrationally without any convincing reason to do so, and so on. The Tardis sinks because it clearly HAS to be put out of commission, which is fair enough, only it felt so mechanical, there’s a conflict of interest between Rory and Amy … But I never believed in any of it. It was all so very perfunctory.

    Similarly, I struggled to make sense of the core of the story itself. It seemed to consist of a few good ideas lacking a reason to exist. Why was there the dangerous substance in the middle of an old monastery in the middle of nowhere? If there was an interesting and elegant solution, which there must have been, it passed me by, which means that the story wasn’t very interesting to me. Part of that was the design. The future anachronisms really were jarring this time, such as the electricity sign. The tank which the Dr demanded to be shown was profoundly uninteresting, the stone corridors shouted ‘location’ rather than ‘set’. Even the details weren’t convincing; why, for instance, were there such a unconvincingly thin plastic pipe – just the one? – on show when the Tardis arrived?

    It was for me slow, largely predictable and often rather daft. That the acting of the show’s central trio was fine is no shock, although Amy had very little to do at all. Other members of the cast struggled with thin characters and identical purposes. Where the show was interesting was in the wider aspects you touched on so well, but the story, the episode itself; well, I love Doctor Who, but I can’t think of a single scene which I’d particularly want to watch again.

    What a miserable old thing I am. I desperately wanted to enjoy this. I’m sick of the moaning about the SM shows, and yet … well, I’m glad to note so many reasons why I ought to go back and watch it again. Your review will serve as a fine guide for me to reconsider my rash judgments.

    • In your defense, Colin, I have a history of seeming a little out of touch with the Doctor Who zeitgeist. In fact, I regard the First and Fourth seasons to be the best since the relaunch, which appears to be the exact reverse of the position held by most (I found the Second and Third far too jumbled… and I loved Donna as a companion).

      In fairness, it isn’t an exceptional episode – but I did enjoy it. I think it’s just that we sort of weigh the pros and cons a bit differently. I’ll admit the ideas were scattered through the episode rather unevenly, but I thought they were interesting enough to sustain my interest.

      I didn’t get to address the location in my review, but I sorta liked it – probably precisely for the reason you hated it. It felt very much like a “location”, as you point out, but I think it gave off a nice Castle Frankenstein sort of vibe. Indeed, it reminded me of the sort of gothic work we would have seen during the Tom Baker era.

      Which, actually, is something I kinda want to look at/talk about some time in the future when the show finishes its half-season. I’m detecting a very strong nostalgia vibe these past few episodes. In particular, The Curse of the Black Spot and The Rebel Flesh seem intended to hark back to the old series in terms of aesthetic (especially set design and location work). It’s the kind of thing that’s initially interesting, but – to be honest – runs the risk of wearing out its welcome quite quickly.

      And don’t worry. I felt exactly the way that you feel now about the pirate episode. To me, that felt like the series “by numbers.” This was more “by numbers with a nice gothic vibe and some good sci-fi ideas sprinkled into the mix.”

      Next week will be make or break time, though.

  2. I think I’ll have to watch it again as other’s seem to have a very different reaction to it to me. It just seemed ultimately incredibly weak and contrived.

    I really hope that this is a weak precursor to a great second episode but I kind of get the feeling it’s more to do with explaining elements of the overall series story arc than a story within itself.

    I came away from the previous weeks excellent episode with my biggest complaint being that in places it felt rushed and that it could have been better as a two parter. If this doesn’t improve dramatically in the next episode it will seem like a tremendous opportunity wasted rather than something gained. Unfortunately I have to say worst episode of the series so far.

    • Yep, I certainly wouldn’t have complained at a Gaiman two-parter. Maybe next year. If we’re all very good.

      I thought it this was a decent episode. Flawed, certainly, perhaps a little too traditional and formulaic. But I enjoyed it for what it was.

  3. Funny Darren, I also thought that the Doc NINE series was fantastic. Being an American, he is “my” Doctor, as he introduced me to the whole Who-niverse. I wish Eccleston had given it 3 or 4 series, and not feared the typecast. I thought seasons after were only so-so, with the exception of the Donna season, which finally allowed us to see DocTENnant with a real person rather than a love interest. The 11th Doctor has the best personality of the three, and some of the best stories, but I just don’t know where they are going with the whole thing, and the overhead story arc is taking away from the individual stories. I love the ideas of River Song, the Doctor’s Death, who’s that Astronaut, eyepatch lady,who blew up the TARDIS, etc, but I want them to get ON WITH IT…They seem to be doing LOST worse than LOST did LOST.

    • I wouldn’t go so far as to compare it to Lost, but I wonder if the mytharc might be getting a little too heavy. A “Key to Time” style season-long adventure might be good from time to time, but not if it interferes in the on-going adventures too much. Still, I trust Moffat.

      And I’m glad there’s another Eccleston fan out there. I thought I was alone all this time.

  4. Just to counter the prevailing sense of disappointment in your comments so far… I LOVED this, and thought it was easily the best episode of the series so far. What some call “derivative of the past”, I see as “harking back to the old classics”. For once in recent years we got an episode that was well-paced (not a billion whizz-bang moments crammed into 45 minutes for a change); in a beautifully atmospheric location; wittily written; with a moral, life-affirming Doctor at its centre, rather than a guy who identifies the alien “threat” and then blows it up with a raygun; loyal to the show’s past while still being bang-up-to-date 21st century drama; the best EVER episode for the horribly underused (and over-killed) Rory… I could go on. All told I think people decided to hate this even before they switched the TV on, because of lingering issues with “Fear Her”. A real shame.

    • Yep, I suspect that’s exactly where the line will be drawn on this one. One’s affection for the episode will probably be mostly based on one’s sense of old-fashioned nostalgia. For my money, this is the episode that Curse of the Black Spot was really trying to be, but couldn’t. I’m also in the camp looking forward to next week.

  5. I hadn’t realized this was going to be a 2-parter so when that became apparent, I thought, “Are you kidding? This episode is as weak as water and its a 2-parter?” Maybe it was the fact that things seem to be happening without purpose starting with the arrival on the planet and working out from there. Having some acid mining operation in a monetary screamed of cheapness rather than some elaborate story purpose. Actually, mining acid seemed rather odd because it isn’t like acids are uncommon.

    I don’t know, I just never got into this episode and nothing about it gripped me.

    • Yep, I know it makes no sense, and it’s a little cheap to use this as an excuse, but I’m going to anyway. I honestly don’t really require the details of a Doctor Who plot to hold together especially well. I think it’s a show more about ideas than plot mechinics or set-up, and I can generally ignore a ridiculous set up (acid mining? in a monastery?) if there enough good ideas behind it. This skirted close to the edge, but I think ultimately it held together.

  6. I’m one of the few that enjoyed this one, it seems. It wasn’t brilliant in comparison to ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ which quite frankly was one of the best I’ve seen in a while, but it had a wonderful eerie and Gothic feel that I thought worked well. The acting was good, the plot was.. okay, and of course throwing in the ganger at the end for The Doctor confuses me but at the same time leaves the suspense open. I’m one of those people that can watch the story-arcs develop without *needing* to know right this minute what is going on. Part of the tension and things when watching is simply the fact that Moffat is obviously building up to something spectacular in typical SM fashion. Maybe it’s just me.. but I’ve thought this series has been fantastic so far, and I for one won’t be looking forward to the gap in the television listings when we come to the break in episodes.

    • Yep, the gap’s gonna be bad. I have to admit, I’m not blown away by this year. I think last year was actually much stronger than this year has been, even taking Disco!Daleks into account.

  7. I think there must be some reason why the Doctor had to change his shoes. My feeling is that in Part 2 that may be the only way to know who the original Doctor is. The clone would be wearing the original shoes and the original would be wearing the borrowed pair.

    • I think that might be our tell, like the Coat in the Time of the Angels two-parter last year.

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