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Doctor Who: The Almost People (Review)

“How can you both be real?”

“Because we are.”

– Amy & the Doctor

Hm. That was a vast improvement on last week. And I say that as someone who enjoyed last week’s episode a lot more than most. It’s very formulaic Doctor Who, with the team running around gothic corridors (“a maze,” as the Doctor describes it) and bright lights fleshing, while continuing the series’ key theme: as a race, humans can be absolutely horrible… but sometimes, just sometimes, absolutely brilliant. Throw in a fairly substantial cliffhanger and larger elements from the season-long mythos, and you end up with an episode that feels like it’s filled to the top. Not everything’s golden, and not everything gels, but it works consistently enough to make for entertaining tea-time telly.

Doppel!Doctor!

In hindsight, last week seems even more like empty set-up. There’s so much going on here, with so much energy and va-va-voom, that one can’t help but feel the weight might have been more evenly distributed across the two episodes. Although the reveal of the almost!Doctor made for a pretty nifty cliffhanger, perhaps the two-parter might have moved a bit more fluidly if it had served as an act break in the first part.

Indeed, it’s the interaction of the two versions of the Doctor which made the episode as much fun as it was. Between this and The Doctor’s Wife, it seems like the character is getting to spend quite a bit of time this season with his long-term companions. Despite the fact that we typically see him with a human companion, there’s no denying that the character has probably spent hundreds of years travelling with just himself and the TARDIS (to the point where it doesn’t seem odd to see the character mumble exposition to himself), so it really feels quite good to give him a chance to literally talk with himself.

Eye see you...

Matt Smith relishes the opportunity to play the Doctor’s perfect match, and the direction handles the transition between the two versions of the character perfectly. In particular, one imagines that the dialogue timing must have almost been more difficult than the practical special effects. I love that Matt Smith actually has chemistry with himself, and it’s just as wonderfully warmly self-congratulatory as one might imagine. “I’m starting to get a sense of how impressive it is to hang out with me,” he observes at one point as he starts finishing his own sentences. They work so well together I wouldn’t have minded a season with the Doctor as his own companion. Maybe Sexy the TARDIS can join in.

Along the way, there’s opportunity for some lovely continuity references. I especially liked hearing Matt Smith utter lines like “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!” and “would you like a jelly baby?” while undergoing his own identity crisis. Even if the entire episode had consisted of a conversation (or banter) between the Doctor and himself, it would have made for wonderful evening viewing. For better or worse, there was an entire episode built around it, though.

Keeping a lid on the situation...

By the way, I am actually torn by the “twist” revelation at the end of the episode. I’d been expecting Matthew Graham to pull a trick like that – to make the audience question what is “real” and “fake” when we can’t trust the “original” as a point of reference. In fact, at one point during the episode, I was almost expecting the show’s influence to shift from Avatar to Moon – with the revelation that everyone on the base was a ganger. So the Doctor swapping shoes was a clever little plot development, and one which underscored the themes of identity a lot clearer than anything in the first episode.

On the other hand, I found Amy’s reaction to be just a little over-the-top and melodramatic. I found it fascinating that she had none of the sense of empathy that defined Rory. Not that Rory came out of the episode any better, with his empathy devolving into soft spongy spinelessness (was he really going to let Amy die?). “Being almost the Doctor is pretty impressive,” Amy tells what she believes to the ganger at one point, in a hugely condescending moment. The genuinely surprising twist at the end of the episode perhaps makes me look back a bit more fondly at that scene, as something resembling insecurity. Still, the Rory bits were just a little bit cringeworthy.

Maybe they should screen their gangers better?

By the way, I do like the fact that the show is honest enough to acknowledge that almost!Doctor being the one to die in Utah would be a fairly obvious twist and a nice way out of that first episode. Amy fairly candidly suggests the idea, which works remarkably well in context – it underscores the fact that almost!Doctor is just as expendable to her as any of the gangers are to the staff working at the facility. It might have been a more powerful moment if we hadn’t been subjected to an earlier scene where she argues he’s not a person. It would have perhaps been a bit more subtle had Amy seemed to accept this almost!Doctor as a person in his own right, only to be relieved that he might die in the place of her Doctor – thus illustrating that she is as prejudiced and flawed as the rest of the humans, even if she isn’t foaming at the mouth about it.

That said, I did like the fact that Adam essentially ended up with his almost!Dad, which was a nice way to follow through on the show’s themes. Although I imagine there will be quite a few awkward moments when he dies years later, reverting to a pile of plastic goo. I wonder, though, about the morality of this finale. Does the replacement, for example, owe Adam (or Adam’s mother) an explanation of who and what he is? While it’s unfair for him to be treated like a second-class citizen, and he has the original’s consent, to what extent do the concerns of the family he’s joining apply? You might argue that it doesn’t matter, but – if family is built on trust – it does raise some interesting dilemmas. Still, I admire the episode for having the courage to follow through on that.

One of the Gang?

I actually found the location work quite impressive. As virtually everyone has shrewdly pointed out, the idea of mining acid in a monastery is arguably one of the most non-sensical plot elements in the history of a franchise that features genocidal pepper pots and that crazy flying moth thingy. I bought into it, to be honest, suspending my disbelief, and I found that the corridors and buildings actually worked remarkably well. It’s the same suspension of disbelief that allows me to accept the rather convenient last-second recovery of the TARDIS. As I said last week, this definitely feels like a conscious callback to the gothic vibe of producer Philip Hinchcliffe, but I think it works.

There were some awkward moments. I actually really liked the crazy flesh monster at the end of the episode, as something that was accomplished relatively well. However, the scene where doppel!Jen attacks her co-worker by stretching and dislocating her jaw seemed a little bit too cheesy for its own good. I kept thinking it might be an awkward moment to get lockjaw.

The hunter's pray?

The revelations about the flesh were clever and smart. And, despite the episode’s relatively straightforward ethical point, I kinda dug the traditional values it suggested. The show has always been about how special humanity is, at it’s very core – not something especially as a result of our DNA or our species, but because of that ethereal “humanity.” I love the Doctor effectively manipulating one of the gangers into “an act of humanity.” The show’s notion that humans are capable of unspeakably horrible things (the pool of gangers was a really harrowing little illustration of that), but have genuine goodness deep down inside, is something I’ve always liked. It’s a moral philosophy that is refreshingly optimistic in these overly cynical times.

And then there’s the cliffhanger. I really want this to go well. I guess we know why Amy was seeing the eyepatch lady, at any rate. I’m not entirely convinced the making a myth arc such a strong part of the show is a good idea. There’s something very fundamentally appealing about how the show’s central character just sort of stumbles into situations and makes them better. There’s no premeditation, no planning, no real list of wrongs to right. He just lands somewhere, finds an injustice and fixes it.

Jen Gen 2?

It seems wrong that he had a very clear plan for this trip from the outset, and that the adventure as a whole is just something of a subset of a much more serious threat to be faced. Perhaps it’s not too different from the plans and schemes the Seventh Doctor used to hatch, playing the long game with his foes and manipulating his companion to put her where he wanted, but it never really felt like any trip that he took was diminished by this. The Doctor’s plans make this entire adventure feel more like a pit-stop, like an extended scene from the start of a season finale.

Still, I’m looking forward to the mid-seasonal finale. As I remarked at the start of the year, it’s nice to shake things up a bit – and Doctor Who is a franchise that should never feel too comfortable. Last year demonstrated that Moffat could plan and manage a season-long arc, but I can’t help but feel that the condensing of the same level of mythology into half the episodes has overwhelmed some of what he was trying to do. But I guess we’ll know next week.

Something screwy's going on here...

Still, I enjoyed it for what it was. Ultimately, it was a very typical episode, with a rather clever little hook. It just ended up making last week’s first part feel even more padded than it was.

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12 Responses

  1. This was, indeed, much improved over last week’s episode. Now seeing the purpose of the visit, I’m actually a bit more forgiving of last week’s episode though as you mention, it is rather padded.

    Since Amy has been Flesh-Amy since the first episode of this series (as I understand it), then I tend to think that it is still possible for there to be another Flesh-Doctor. Yes, killing the Flesh-Doctor in this episode makes people think, “Oh. So they aren’t going for the obvious fix” but considering there were two Flesh-Jen’s in this episode, why not two Flesh-Doctor’s?

    • Yep, I was thinking that myself. And I am actually counting on him coming back, if only because it would take the edge off a genuinely heartbreaking ending. I always imagine if the Doctor ever dies, it’s going to be like that. staring down a horrible foe with a companion by his side. But I think the purpose of his visit kinda undemrined the episode, taking away from the delightful randomness of his journeys.

  2. Yep, a definite improvement on last week’s episode. I do get the feeling that the Flesh Doctor’ll be back though.

  3. Yes, this was much better than last week’s episode.

    I, too, was disappointed in Rory. He led the others into a trap! Why not tell them what was up right away. His reaction to locking them in was very mild. Amy needs to re-examine her faith in him. Some strange development is in store or Rory.

    As for the TARDIS dropping in like that, well, she chooses the best place to materialize. She finally admitted this in the episode “The Doctor’s Wife”. The Doctor said: “You don’t always take me where I want to go.” She said: “But I always took you where you needed to be.”

    The TARDIS did exactly the same thing in “The Satan Pit”. Don’t forget that the TARDIS’s mind is four dimensional, and she can choose the safest spot to land, including one that will be most propitious later on – one which involves her sinking into a cavern or catacomb where the Doctor WILL BE later. The 3rd doctor made some reference to this ability in “The Planet of the Spiders”. Faced with the hopeless task of finding Sarah Jane, who could be anywhere on the planet, the Doctor said, “Don’t forget, the TARDIS isn’t a machine. She is a living thing. She will take me where I need to go.”

    The mind of the TARDIS can see all the convolutions of space time, spinning in infinity. Just looking into it gave Rose the ability to teleport and make Daleks disappear with a thought, and would have killed her eventually.

    I believe much of the Doctor’s luck comes from the TARDIS landing just at the right place and time to maximize his chances.

    However, for dramatic reasons, I definitely do not really think there should be more than one deus ex machina (ex Tardisa) per season.

    As for this season, my personal ranking would be like this:

    1. The impossible Astronaut
    2. The Day of the Moon
    3. The Almost People
    4. The Doctor’s Wife
    5. The Rebel Flesh
    6. The Black Spot

    5 and 6 disappointed.

    • Yep, I accept it as a convenient coincidence that the TARDIS arrived (actually, I’m one of the ten or so people on the planet who love The Satan Pit, because that two-parter was my first “live” episode). And, as you said, her non-linear awareness kinda helps explain it, even if it is (as you also remarked) an ex machina ending.

      I’m curious though? You rank this higher than The Doctor’s Wife? I’d agree with your ranking, but would move The Doctor’s Wife to the first place, and maybe swap the Day of Moon two-parter around.

      • Ah I absolutely loved The Satan Pit. This episode was really good too. One thing that sort of confused me was the Doctor switch at the end. I might have missed a line or something, but how was the ganger Doctor the real Doctor all along? When did they switch shoes?

      • I think the time they swapped was implied to be while they were behind the console. That was around the time Amy first displayed her prejudice, and also the time when their shoes would have been hidden from eveerybody.

  4. Something special coming soon from Moffat this series, I’m certain. With so many unanswered questions and conspiracy theorists posting their views across blogs and forums around the world, don’t you just get the impression that this next episode has something up its sleeve that not many people will expect? Either way, I’m excited.

  5. It bothered NOBODY else that after all the “Gangers-are-people” business for two episode, he splatted FleshAmy with the sonic without a second thought? And Rory let him??

    • It’s a good point, but I don’t think it’s any different that his genocide at the start of the season. Or his pacifism as a rule. If you get in his way, you’ll be sorry – despite his philosophical observations about your right to exist.

      I do think though, that the Amy double had not demonstrated any sign of consciousness, and he “splatted” her (great word!) in such a way that she wasn’t going to end up conscious to suffer like those dummies in the basement of the facility. But, yes, a very mixed message.

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