Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Raquel Cassidy, Marshall Lancaster, Mark Bonnar ~ Writer: Matthew Graham ~ Director:Julian Simpson ~ Year: 2011
The Low-Down: Showing that the deeply traditional base-under-siege Doctor Who story ain’t always as easy as it looks, The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People make up a potentially interesting two-parter that’s let down by some major pacing problems and misconceived villains, although is ultimately saved from total mediocrity by some interesting concepts, Matt Smith being brilliant, and one hell of an ending.
What’s it About?: Running into a solar tsunami, the TARDIS ends up making a sudden landing at an industrial station on a future Earth, where a dangerous acid is being mined with the aid of ‘Gangers’ – artificial duplicates of the mining crew, used in dangerous environments and casually disposed of when broken. However, when a second solar wave hits, the Flesh that makes the Gangers becomes self-aware, and it’s up to the Doctor to prevent the situation spiralling into bloodshed, especially when one Ganger starts preaching revolution…
The Story: (WARNING: As with most of my Doctor Who reviews, the following contains a hefty load of spoilers…)
It was never going to be easy following The Doctor’s Wife – which was not perfect, but did feature the kind of fast-paced inventiveness that Who does really well – and as I said in my last review, Matthew Graham wouldn’t have been my first choice to follow up Neil Gaiman, especially after the less-than-impressive S2 episode Fear Her. Well, the resulting two parter is definitely a much stronger story than that infamously weak episode, and also holds together better and more consistently than last year’s Silurian-themed two parter The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood… but it also shows that out of all the reactions Who should be aiming for, the very worst is a middling kind of ‘meh’.
This isn’t a story that thrives on the shock of the new – whether it’s a fresh take on an old Who enemy, or an odd, attention-grabbing twist we haven’t seen before – and in fact, up until the deeply surprising final two minutes, it’s engaginglyy played but very rarely surprising. We’ve seen this kind of story done plenty of times before, ever since S2’s The Satan Pit, but there isn’t enough pace or invention to distract us, while the plot also manages to echo S4’s Planet of the Ood (with the unfair exploitation of a race that yearns to be free) and especially the S5 Silurian two-parter, directly throwing humanity up against a dark mirror and showing what happens when we’re confronted with our own natures.
The central concept of the story – the Gangers themselves – is an interesting one, and the way the story deals with political subtexts is sometimes very effective (even if it’s also a little bit too subtle for its own good). Trouble is, we’ve seen Ganger-like duplicates before, and the fact is that they (and the twist of a Ganger version of the Doctor) aren’t quite strong enough a concept to hang a whole 90 minutes of television on.
While much of the character-based drama is well-played, it simply isn’t quite gripping enough, and it’s hard not to think how much stronger and focussed the story could have been if it had been a single episode. Added to this, you’ve got the slightly murky approach to the Gangers themselves – the potential was there for a ‘who’s the double?’ tension-fest in the manner of The Thing (which does seem to have been the initial intention), and in certain ways its good that they do try and explore the different levels of the Gangers, ultimately proving themselves to be just as worthy (and as flawed) as the humans.
The problem is that this doesn’t make for very dynamic bad guys – a necessity for Doctor Who to work – and it also undercuts the story’s tension. With large chunks of the plot involving various characters regularly switching sides (making it worryingly reminiscent of the 1970s Who story Colony in Space, much of which consists of miners and colonists capturing and recapturing each other ad nauseum), it’s like the story never quite catches fire. There are some excellent lines, and yet there are also some deeply clunky ones, and the lack of scale (with the perspective of the story completely confined to the Island monastery) meaning that the threat never quite feels big enough.
Given this, it’s a surprise how much of the story does motor along in an entertaining way. Despite the lax pacing, the direction pulls out plenty of atmosphere, the performances are largely strong (aside from a couple of exceptions, including an especially unconvincing child actor), and Matt Smith once again proves that he’s one of the most gleefully eccentric actors ever to get his hands on the role of the Doctor. Emerging from the TARDIS and exclaiming “Behold, a cockerel!”, he’s a delightfully kooky presence who brightens up even the less exciting scenes, while there’s also some nice nuances and depth given to Amy and Rory’s relationship (although I suspect some dialogue about Rory’s reasons for being able to sympathise with the Ganger Jen – thanks to his 2000-year-old experience as an Auton duplicate – may have been cut, and would have helped a lot).
Both episodes, despite their flaws (and a couple of especially weak CG shots), have more genuine invention and cleverness than The Curse of the Black Spot, although they’ve also got their fair share of logic errors as well (like exactly why it was necessary for the Ganger Doctor to sacrifice himself (other than to tie up a plot end), and where exactly did the second sonic screwdriver come from?). Ultimately, it’s an episode that’s a little too busy exploring the human condition to deliver the kind of adventurous scariness that Who does so well (and which The Doctor’s Wife pulled off with aplomb). A medium episode of Doctor Who is still good fun – it just has the danger of possibly not sticking in the memory, which is something you can’t say about most RTD episodes (even if they were sometimes only memorable for being extremely bad…)
Some of these problems (especially the ones of scale) are obviously down to money. The cuts in the show’s production budget were relatively obvious last year, and the gap between the blockbusting episodes and the smaller-scale stories does seem to becoming a little more extreme in Season 6 (with this being the second story this year to revolve around a small number of characters trapped in a relatively confined environment – and from the looks of things, there’s at least a couple more to come).
The end result is that the storytelling needs to get sharper and more imaginative to compensate, and while the budget could only stretch to a handful of shots of the surprisingly nasty Japanese horror-style mutant Jen Ganger in the climax of the episode, I can’t help feeling that this two-parter would have been much more gripping – and a hell of a lot more fun – if they’d eased off on exploring the human condition and just given us a cracking ‘The Thing’-style monster story.
However, while there is a lot of online grumbling about this initial slate of episodes (One thing Doctor Who fans never run out of is things to complain about), it’s worth remembering that last year had its own fair share of middling or not hugely impressive episodes. S6’s strike rate isn’t as initially strong as S5 – but then, I just end up looking at the major quality wobbles in the first seven episodes of S2 (excepting The Girl in the Fireplace, of course), and remind myself that creative teams are allowed to stumble a bit from time to time, and can sometimes take a while to truly get to grips with how difficult Who can be to pull off.
Some of this grumbling is, of course, because of the intricate story arc (and, simply, that Moffat is comitting the cardinal Who sin of – shock, horror! – attempting something that’s new and ambitious and not like what’s gone before), but the arc elements actually play into The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People rather well. We have the fact that the Doctor now knows more detail about his death in The Impossible Astronaut, there’s the slightly over-fast line that states we possibly may not have seen the last of the Ganger version of the Doctor…
…and there’s the ending.
Curiously enough, the last-minute revelation that Amy has been a Ganger duplicate for months (potentially since the appearence of the Silence in the White House bathroom?) is another mirroring of the Silurian two-parter and its sudden execution of Rory, although at least this feels a lot less tacked on and a far more organic part of the plot. The slightly hazy morality of the scene in question – the fact that we’ve spent the whole story establishing that Gangers should be treated humanely, and the Doctor essentially kills Amy’s non-self-aware Ganger – only really hits once the episode is over and you’ve had a chance to think about it (rather like the pregnant dream-suicide in Amy’s Choice). It’s still a magnificent twist, though, as well as a fantastically disturbing one, and it does raise the stakes massively for next week’s mid-season finale.
It’s also a natural evolution of Who storytelling – going from simply having something like ‘Bad Wolf’ turn up (and jerry-rigging a slightly convoluted explanation at the end of the season), to experimenting with full-on arcs that demand a lot of attention. There are potential risks involved; I think some of the episodes in this half of the series could have been stronger, and I’m also hoping that enough explanations are coming next week for this to feel genuinely satisfying – but I’m not about to start bitching about Moffat daring to do his own thing and approach the show with some serious ambition. I just feel like sometimes his cerebral approach doesn’t always suit the material, and that tonally S6 should possibly have had a little bit more fun upfront, and a little less dark and spooky character-driven soul searching.
The Verdict: A two-parter that does entertain but mostly leaves the needle firmly stuck on ‘average’, The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People is really just the latest in a long line of trad-Who two parters that didn’t quite come off (from Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel to Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, and even The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky). It does, however, set the scene for next week’s mid-season cliffhanger, and certainly has me hoping Moffat is going to have something seriously big to deliver in ‘A Good Man Goes to War’…
Previous Doctor Who Season 6 Reviews:
S6 E04 – ‘The Doctor’s Wife’
S6 E03 – ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’
S6 E02 – ‘Day of the Moon’
S6 E01 – ‘The Impossible Astronaut’