Following on the heels of the previous week’s already-classic “The Doctor’s Wife,” DOCTOR WHO viewers faced “The Rebel Flesh,” another competent, workmanlike episode in the classic-series vein of “The Curse of the Black Spot”; “Rebel Flesh” is a story that, like its pirate predecessor, suffered from being something of a “non-arc” story. It is not writer Matthew Graham’s fault that this story doesn’t resolve the “Who killed the Doctor” umbrella story, so I hope Graham’s second whack at WHO (he also penned the infamous “Fear Her” story from Series 2, also known as “the one where the Doctor lights the Olympic flame.”) can be judged on its own fine merits.
I will admit I am impatient myself to find out what will happen to the Doctor and River and how Amy’s pregnancy will figure into the story. And to finally learn what the Silents are really up to. (All that Sturm und Drang to obtain a spacesuit for a little girl to go walkabout? Yeah, pull the other one, Steven Moffat!) I guess this is why the-powers-that-be do not usually open a season with an epic tale that feels like a finale: It not only sets the bar for the season to come unattainably high; that heightened sense of anticipation cannot be maintained for the balance of the season. And it is unfair for fans to expect that. All we should be demanding is a fine, entertaining story. And that is what “The Rebel Flesh” is. In fact, it’s comfort food, in a way – the Doctor defending a base under siege. Look how popular “The Waters of Mars” proved to be with that formula…
This story began on an old-school noted with a rough landing thanks to a massive solar storm. (Although, in light of last week’s reveal that the TARDIS has been taking the Doctor where he needs to go, just how unplanned was this landing?) Alighting upon Earth in the 32nd century, the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) hear Dusty Springfield music and discover a pipe carrying acid from an old monastery. Quickly captured (again, very old school), the Doctor uses his psychic paper and some fast-talking to get to the bottom of what’s happening: The monastery is a converted acid-pumping plant staffed by a tiny crew – Cleaves (Raquel Cassidy), Jennifer (Sarah Smart) Buzzer (Marshall Lancaster), Jimmy (Mark Bonnar) and Dicken (Leon Vickers) – who use cloned bodies to work the dangerous factory. The doppelgangers – or “Gangers” – are produced as needed from a vat of “Flesh,” which is a “fully-programmable matter,” and manipulated by the original person in a control harness. The Doctor insists the Flesh is more than merely alive; it’s possibly sentient. The plant is about to be hit by more solar storms, and the Doctor is very worried – with good reason, as it turns out. When the storm hits, acid pipes break, the power is knocked out, and everyone ends up unconscious. The Gangers are supposed to shut down, but this time they didn’t. The Doctor theorizes that the Gangers “woke up” on their own, possessing all the memories and life experiences that the workers had downloaded into them, so the Gangers are bound to be confused. And so are the people, because the Jen and Cleaves in their midst prove to be the Ganger versions of the women – and not entirely stable.
While GangerJen and Amy went in search of a missing Rory, the Doctor set out for the TARDIS, only to find it sinking into acid-softened ground; acid that would have claimed the Doctor had he not slipped out of his boots in the nick of time. GangerCleaves regrouped with the other Gangers, who had stolen acid-proof environment suits, allowing them to move freely, and “strike at will.” Eventually, Rory and GangerJen found Amy, and then met up with Buzzer and Jimmy. The Doctor led the Gangers to the originals, where he explained that the Gangers are not mere copies; they are becoming people with souls – what he called “sacred life.” They were interrupted by Cleaves wielding an electrical prod. She kills GangerBuzzer before Rory can disarm her. The Gangers flee, and both sides declare war. The Doctor, Amy and the originals head back to the chapel, but Rory insists on searching for the real Jennifer – who was jumped by GangerJen. Holing up in the chapel, the Doctor and his allies hear a familiar voice: the Doctor’s! Out of the shadows strides a Flesh being that looks like the Time Lord. “Trust me,” he says, casually, “I’m the Doctor.”
“To be continued” indeed! This story ended with a dramatic cliff-hanger – although one not hard to anticipate, if you recall the lips forming in the vat of Flesh and muttering “Trust me…” The makeup gave Smith just the right mixture of familiarity and creepiness as the GangerDoctor (DoppelDoctor?). The makeup overall was quite effective at realizing the Gangers, however, the visual effects were very weak in this story. The early swooping camera movements over the water toward the monastery did not feel like a real helicopter shot, and later, the “Jennifer’s head on a tentacle” monster was particularly poor. By conjuring an image of John Carpenter’s The Thing, the effects team made themselves look bad in comparison.
Actually, I have been rather disappointed by a lot of the VFX in this season so far. We’re not back to the bad old days of an inflatable Mara or trash bag Myrka, but Series 6 is definitely lacking compared to, say, Series 4. In fact, there is a distinct feeling of budget consciousness this year. The TARDIS console room is magnificent, but it makes me want to see more of the TARDIS. The numbing banality of the corridors seen in “The Doctor’s Wife” may fit in with the lackluster halls of the classic-series TARDIS, but I expected more. When will we see Amy and Rory’s room (presumably lacking bunk beds), or what the wardrobe looks like now? And another swimming pool was lost before fans could see it! This penny-pinching does affect the story. Wasn’t it silly to see Amy and Rory playing darts in the control room? Surely there is someplace else to hang that board. In the days of the classic series, when there was no budget, it was understandable to pile everything into one room, but nowadays, there’s no excuse for obvious scrimping that takes a viewer out of the story. Same thing with putting the acid factory in a “converted monastery” and staffing it with just five people: using some inexpensive location and not hiring extras (or using VFX to create, say, 10 of each Ganger to work the acid pipes) makes the production look cheap.
The story, however, was fairly rich in characterization, particularly Cassidy’s pragmatic and predictable Cleaves, and Smart’s emotional Jen. Cleaves perfectly encapsulated the prevalent casual disregard for the Gangers as mere tools when she likened operating them to driving a forklift. Of course, the ever-compassionate, ever-crusading Doctor would have none of that, but when he pointed out that living things grow, Cleaves dismissed his concern: “Moss grows; it’s no more than that.” This reflected not evil intent on the part of the factory workers, but rather ignorance. They no more expected the Flesh to be intelligent then one might expect a stapler to talk back. Amy, however, suspected that the Doctor knows something more about the Flesh. Is he thinking it the same substance used by the Sisters of Plenitude in their disease research in the second-season story “New Earth”? When the 10th Doctor and Rose encountered that Flesh on New Earth in the year 5,000,000,023, the Catkind nuns made it a policy to destroy any Flesh that showed signs of sentience. Then again, maybe the Doctor was just concealing his belief that the Flesh was sentient so as to spare Amy’s feelings, since it was obvious that Cleaves and the others saw the Flesh as no more than a tool, and were not about to give the Gangers the benefit of the doubt.
But while there was little doubt the Flesh is sentient, just how sentient is it. The copies may have all the memories of the originals, but they did not actually live those memories. GangerJimmy may have known it was little Adam’s birthday, but he didn’t raise the boy the way Jimmy did. “I am Jennifer Lucas,” GangerJen insisted. “I remember everything that happened in her entire life.” But she did not experience those things. GangerJen is not really Jen; it’s something new. I think Jen summed it up best when she declared, “I’m not a monster. I am me.” Precisely what that means, I trust we will learn next week…
In a nod to the ongoing umbrella arc, the TARDIS still could not decide if Amy is pregnant, and the Eye Patch Lady (Frances Barber) appeared, but she did not speak. Curiouser and curiouser. And, oh, Rory did not die! That’s so rare that it’s worth noting.