THIS EPISODE TAKES PLACE
AFTER THE AUDIO BOOK "THE EYE OF THE JUNGLE" AND DIRECTLY PRIOR TO THE
EPISODE "THE ALMOST PEOPLE."
'THE COMPLETE SIXTH SERIES' BLU-RAY DVD
LIKELY TO BE RELEASED IN NOVEMBER 2011.
A solar tsunami liberates doppel-gangers from their human 'originals' in
a futuristic factory. Can the Doctor, AMY
AND RORY prevent A civil war?
21ST MAY 2011
(45-MINUTE EPISODE, PART 1 OF 2)
Being a devotee of Matthew Graham’s matchless series Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, I was very excited indeed to hear that a second Doctor Who story from him was in the offing, and one twice the length of his first at that. The reported doppelganger premise appealed to me too, as in Graham’s hands it promised horror of an unusually thoughtful kind, as opposed to terror for terror’s sake.
The Rebel Flesh’s cold pre-title sequence is marvellously executed, setting the stall for the pasty-grey tale that is to follow. The acid factory workers’ laissez-faire attitude towards their colleague’s death, and how this builds towards the reveal that the dead man was in fact a doppelganger being operated by remote control, instantly slaps the viewer around the face with one of the key moral issues to be broached, and does so in suitably chilling fashion. Are these doppelgangers simply disposable machines made of “the Flesh”, or are they each unique beings in their own right, unconsciously enslaved by those who gave them life?
“Insane. And it’s about to get even more insanerer.”
However, matters aren’t even that straightforward. When a solar tsunami strikes, the acid factory’s operatives are knocked out cold, the Doctor and his companions along with them. They wake some time later to find that their “Gangers” have stolen their lives, believing themselves to be the people whose faces they wear and whose memories they have. The question is no longer one of simple sentience; it’s something altogether more profound. What makes me me? And if you’re the sum of my experiences in an exact replica of my physical form, then are you me too? Are you my son’s father? My wife’s husband?
Some beautifully reflective scenes ensue in which the workers and Gangers wrestle with their identities, the audience’s only real clue as to which is which the Gangers’ intermittent regressions to their harrowing Flesh-faces. The impressive cast, which includes Graham’s protégé Marshall Lancaster (Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes’ Detective Constable Chris Skelton), each give thoroughly persuasive performances, taking in every emotional state from repugnance to fear to outright denial.
“Why don’t you stand back and let us impress you?”
The stand out performers for me are Matt Smith’s former Party Animals co-star Raquel Cassidy, who plays the factory’s very matter-of-fact manager, Cleaves (and, of course, her Ganger); and Sarah Smart, who is truly terrifying as the tortured Jennifers. The Jennifers’ vulnerability also has the startling side-effect of bringing out Rory’s machismo (which thanks to Amy’s innate dominance normally lays quiescent under a rock), giving rise to a peculiar love triangle (or should that be square?) that leaves the viewer as flabbergasted as poor Amy. Was Rory’s two-millennia vigil all for nought? Or is he just keen to show his woman that he can be as impressive as the Time Lord that she incessantly fawns over?
Of course, matters draw inexorably towards the cloning of the Doctor, who might as well have been introduced with a flashing exclamation mark above his head saying “That’s right - I’m the one that gets shot by the astronaut!” Hopefully Steven Moffat won’t be so obvious in his inevitable Impossible Astronaut retcon, and the Doctor’s Ganger is just Graham’s way of presenting the Doctor with an adversary capable of matching him, but if that’s the case then the Doctor’s Ganger is the reddest herring that I’ve ever seen.
“We can work this out. Trust me - I’m the Doctor.”
Yet for all its intrigue, fear, cleverness and philosophical grace, The Rebel Flesh has a brace of complementary flaws that there’s no getting away from. Graham’s narrative crawls along at a pace so slug-gish that one wonders how the production team could justify allotting Neil Gaiman a mere fifty minutes for his crazily-kinetic Doctor’s Wife, and it does so devoid of any prominent visual stimulation. I realise that this year Moffat’s motif is “dark, darker, darkest”, but if that means making location shoots look like they’ve been filmed in a studio on the most meagre of budgets, then I’m worried about what the rest of the season has in store. Paying homage to the classic series is one thing; intentionally replicating its less laudable traits is quite another.
I’m sure that had it been condensed into a single episode, The Rebel Flesh could have been a fast, furious and possibly inspiring episode, but as it is it just doesn’t sustain itself over its forty-minute runtime. For the second time in three weeks, I’ve actually been bored watching an episode of Doctor Who – something that, for better or worse, didn’t happen once under Russell T Davies’ sensational Saturday night stewardship.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2011
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Matthew Graham’s second script for Doctor Who is far different to his first, the unfairly maligned Fear Her. While the 2006 episode was a primary-coloured, child-friendly affair, The Rebel Flesh provides a solid, languidly-paced, rather old-fashioned approach to the series, while at the same time pushing the envelope with some very chilling visuals for a family show.
In many ways, this episode has the feel of a typical Troughton story; an isolated base, a small cast of characters, an inhuman enemy and a good dose of paranoia all go towards evoking the feel of that era, much as last year’s ‘traditionalist’ two-parter The Hungry Earth evoked Pertwee’s tenure. A Troughtonesque approach suits Matt Smith’s Doctor better, however, and he is at his most Troughton-like here. He stumbles in to a critical situation, faking credentials in order to gain trust, before asserting his control through a façade of amiability and professorial eccentricity. It’s the eleventh Doctor at his most old-school, his slightly posh voice and emphatic delivery contrasting with the northern tones of the factory contractors (imagine the Christopher Eccleston Doctor in this episode… whatever planet Smith’s Doctor is from, it does not have a north). That said, I can’t imagine the second Doctor working at the TARDIS console while Jamie and Zoe played darts and listened to Muse.
“Interesting you refer to them as ‘it’, but you call a glorified cattle prod ‘she’...”
The setting and cast compliment each other to create a believable situation with credible characters. The use of an abandoned monastery is a nice alternative to the bog-standard factory environment we might otherwise have got; it’s easy to imagine old buildings being requisitioned like this for prosaic uses in an ever more populous future. In effect, we still get miles of dingy, grey corridors, but they’re a little more atmospheric than most. It’s the cast that really bring the setting to life; they feel like a real team in a real workplace, living with the ‘almost friends’ relationship of long-term work colleagues. Marshall Lancaster delivers his tried-and-tested likeable northerner persona, not unlike his role as Chris Skelton in Graham’s Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, but provides a little more edge to Buzzer as the situation worsens. Mark Bonner is charismatic and sympathetic as Jimmy, just wanting to get home in time for his son’s birthday. We sadly don’t get to see too much of Leon Vickers’s character, Dicken. He’s a bit of background shape here, not doing much more than sneeze, but hopefully we’ll see more of him in the second episode.
It’s Sarah Smart and Raquel Cassidy who lead the guest cast, both perfect in their roles. Cassidy is subtle in what could have been a one-note performance, making leader Cleaves more than just a hard-nosed authoritarian. The Ganger Cleaves is immediately less sure of herself, more vulnerable, losing her grip on authority, while the original Cleaves’ aggressive side comes more and more to the fore. Both versions of the character are recognisably the same, yet clearly developing in different directions. Sarah Smart is perfect as Jennifer and her Ganger. Providing a credible love interest for Rory (Arthur Darvill is also at his absolute best here), and finally giving Amy a reason to get jealous for a change, she’s vulnerable but never weak. The Ganger Jennifer, seemingly taking on the more aggressive tendencies as Cleaves' duplicate sits back, sees her give a excellent performance, effortlessly switching from almost impossibly sweet to shockingly inhuman.
“My name is Jennifer Lucas. I’m not a factory part. I had toast for my breakfast.”
It’s the Ganger concept that makes the episode more than just a run-of-the-mill 60s retread. The concept of human replicants is hardly new to sci-fi, but is used creatively here. It’s an interesting view of the future, an aspect of the 22nd century that we’ve not seen before, but the Doctor clearly has, as he speaks as though he’s walked into a pivotal point in human history. What’s up with the Sun, we may ask, as solar spikes threaten a factory on Earth? Perhaps this sees the first indication of the solar flares that will devastate the Earth in the millennia to come in Who’s future. Of course, the solar activity is really there to create a potential extra threat and a way of freeing the Gangers from their controllers. By giving the Gangers fully realised copies of their originals’ identities, the episode raises intriguing questions about identity and humanity. The Gangers aren’t merely twins or copies, but are exactly the same as their originals, at least up to the point that they realise their inhuman nature.
Right from the outset, this episode gained comparisons to The Thing, John Carpenter’s seminal 1980s body-horror feature, and one of my favourite sci-fi films. While it could never compete with the movie’s visuals - there’s no way that level of unpleasantness could be allowed in the show - it makes a fair stab at it. There are some truly arresting visuals in The Rebel Flesh, from the screaming, melting face in the opening sequence, to the Ganger Cleaves’ twisting neck. Best of all is Jennifer Ganger’s extending neck, slithering out from the toilet cubicle. It’s perhaps not the most convincing visual effect that the series has ever provided, but it’s creepily effectivenonetheless, evoking The Thing’s famous snake-necked spider-human sequence and even Japanese folklore (Rokuro-kubi is a traditional spirit that appears as a beautiful woman, until it extends its neck out to impossible lengths, following its victim around at night). The Thing is evoked even on the philosophical side; I’d often wondered, when watching the film, if a human duplicate would actually be aware of their nature, before they reverted to monstrous form under threat? If they were perfect copies, wouldn’t they feel just as human as their victims? The Gangers flicker between perfect human features and pearly-skinned, unfinished faces. Somehow both sympathetic and extremely disquieting, they occupy the Uncanny Valley that the most disturbing Doctor Who aliens inhabit - the Autons, the Cybermen, the gasmask zombies, the clockwork robots. Creatures whose similarity to humans is their most frightening aspect. Almost people.
“Just let us live!”
There’s a point of view that two species competing for the same niche will inevi-tably be in direct opposition, up until the point of extinction for one of the said species. So when two individuals are competing for exactly the same life, the results are hardly going to be construct-ive. Who has the rights to the original’s life? Does Jimmy’s Ganger get the right to go home and raise his son as his own? Of course, despite the Doctor’s best efforts, peace was never going to be the easy option. Both sides are human (more or less), and react equally badly to the threat of the other. Fear leads to anger and then to violence, on both sides.
Naturally, the Doctor has only gone and made things more complicated, by getting himself copied. Like a true scientist, he couldn’t resist sticking his finger into the vat of raw Flesh, and slowly but surely, a Doctor Ganger was created. How the Doctor will react to facing another version of himself (albeit not for the first time), and how the Flesh will react to this wholly alien biology, are interesting dilemmas for next week. Much like last year’s The Hungry Earth, the gently paced opener sets up a tense situation for the conclusion to resolve. With the conflict between human and Ganger heading towards open warfare, two Doctors at large and the TARDIS inaccessible, The Rebel Flesh paves the way for an excellent second part, should it build on the strengths of the first, ramp up to a more urgent tempo, and keep those arresting visuals coming.
Copyright © Daniel Tessier 2011
Daniel Tessier has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Unless otherwise stated, all images on this site are copyrighted to the BBC and are used solely for promotional purposes.
‘Doctor Who’ is copyright © by the BBC. No copyright infringement is intended.