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Doctor Who: The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People

June 6, 2011

And so to Matthew Graham’s return to Doctor Who, five years after his almost universally panned ‘Fear Her’ (you remember: a flower from outer space makes drawings come to life and the Doctor carries the Olympic torch, in the most painfully low-budget Doctor Who story since the early 1980s). ‘The Rebel Flesh’/’The Almost People’ (and those two episode titles really needed swapped around) is better in almost every way than that story, but although it starts well and has some standout moments, it spends a lot of the time in confused shouting, and it’s a two-part story which only seems fitfully to remember it has to sustain ninety minutes of screentime.

Our heroes arrive at a 22nd-century factory, built inside a 13th-century monastery, during a ‘solar tsunami’ (beautiful establishing shots as the TARDIS buffets through red and gold space). Here they encounter a quintet of factory workers and their ‘Gangers’: remote-controlled, instantly-generated clones who can carry out the dangerous factory work of mining acid (and yes, I’ll come back to that in a moment). These Gangers, created out of a vaguely sentient-ish vat of something called the Flesh, are entirely dispensible and permanently replaceable — at least until the solar tsunami hits, and the Gangers start asking existential questions, and getting a lot more dangerous…

‘The Rebel Flesh’ is a great opening episode, beautiful to look at, full of scares, surprises and memorable visuals (I especially loved the acid-suited humans stomping through the stone corridors — very Sontaran-esque, making me wonder whether what the Doctor calls ‘early’ cloning technology here would eventually become a Sontaran tool). The five human guest-cast — including the very watchable Raquel Cassidy as Cleaves, Sarah Smart in the pivotal role of Jennifer, and Mark Bonnar, taking time off from stabbing people in Psychoville, as Jimmy — are swiftly and economically introduced (though Buzzer (Marshall Lancaster) and Dicken (Leon Vickers) are both very obviously second-tier characters) and the story sets off for a Frankenstein via The Thing horror-movie caper. So far, so good. It’s easy, too, to pinpoint when this all goes a bit tits-up: it’s when the Ganger Doctor, telegraphed constantly throughout the episode, steps out the shadows. Doctor Who has never been able to resist a good double-Doctor scenario, as various androids, shapeshifters and just plain old lookalikes over the years will attest, and I was glad that ‘The Almost People’ largely sidesteps and subverts the cliche of “which Doctor is the real one and which the monster”: neither is, or they both are. A big twist in the second part — the inevitable who’s-Who, but done with a bit of panache — means that Amy has unwittingly told the real Doctor (rather than the Ganger) of his impending death as seen at the start of this season; the episode’s second, series-arc-clinching twist, turns this on its head when it turns out that that was the real Doctor, but not the real Amy. Unlike some other stories with lead-ins to ‘event’ stories, this final revelation doesn’t serve to overshadow the rest of ‘The Almost People’; the problem is that the preceding forty minutes are so confused that it’s almost a relief to be thrown into an even more convoluted scenario with this cliffhanger.

It’s becoming something of a truism that the second halves of (post-2005) Doctor Who two-parters rarely live up to the first half (‘The Doctor Dances’ and ‘The Satan Pit’ more or less scrape by, I think). Anticipation versus satisfaction — or build-up verses resolution — accounts for much of this, but ‘The Almost People’s problems stem, I think, from the very muddled foundations on which it’s built. Anyone who can steel themselves to watch Doctor Who Confidential will encounter various behind-the-scenes bods declaring that such-and-such a plot device or scenario is ‘cool’ (it’s even seeped into the show itself, as Matt Smith’s thankfully rationed paeans to his bow-tie show), and ‘The Rebel Flesh’ is packed with ‘cool’ things, sure enough: the factory-monastery, the acid-mining, the Gangers’ growing sentience, the who-can-you-trust setup. Yes, these are cool — what they’re not is clever or thought-through. Take the acid, which is for some unstated and therefore deeply annoying reason being “mined”, and I use the word incorrectly, just as Matthew Graham does. At various points characters walk through it unharmed or get their shoes melted; it’s strong enough to burn through stone, but stays conveniently underground; Rory touches it but isn’t harmed, yet a splash of it eats through Jimmy’s acid suit — you know, the suit that’s meant to protect these people from the acid — and when it reaches his heart, he remains amazingly pacific despite suffering what must be one of the most agonising deaths imaginable, eaten alive by the corrosive stuff. This is acid, then, which is magical, essentially, changing properties to suit the storyline. (Comparisons: ‘Death to the Daleks’, the Peladon stories and ‘The Robots of Death’ all deal with mining in one way or another, and in each situation it’s quickly, neatly established what’s going on: mineral to stave off galactic plague, valuable trading commodity, etc.) There’s no reason the same couldn’t have been done here: as it is, the acid’s biggest contribution here is to have eaten away one of the story’s foundations.

Elsewhere, ‘The Almost People’ features chases and runarounds in a monstery whose layout we aren’t clear enough on for the distances or proximities involved to make sense: the characters simply charge back and forth from room to interchangeable room, but none of their panic communicates itself to the viewer in tension (also: this is a factory-monastery with an ‘evac[uation] tower’?!). Not without blame for this are the frequent and radical changes in characters’ behaviour and attitudes. Jennifer Ganger goes from sweet to murderous — bludgeoning hapless Rory despite his being the person most overtly sympathetic to her cause — while Cleaves goes from genocidal to conciliatory to suspicious to personable at the drop of a hat. It is rather as if someone, somewhere, has misunderstood contradictory behaviour for depth of character. This story has twice the usual running time to elaborate character and provide some depth — which we do get in Jimmy’s subplot regarding his son and his Ganger’s eventual decision — and it’s a shame it squanders it in this case.

Plus, in a frankly worrying example of my actually knowing a bit about science, I wondered, as Jennifer turned into the monster in the last few minutes, where in Croesus all the extra mass could have come from. (Oh, all right: she somehow absorbs the pile of discarded Ganger clones we saw earlier. Which haven’t reverted to ‘liquid Flesh’ as we see others do because… er… they haven’t.) And one last thing: Jennifer Ganger’s existential angst is what kicks off the whole Ganger-human-war problem, so it’s problematic that she goes off to create another Ganger of herself which will, if I’ve got this right, resent her for treating it like her inferior. I may be overthinking this.

In any case, what can’t be faulted is that the Gangers are splendidly horrid: the split-second shot [screencap at the top of this review] of their bulging, distorted faces as the lightning-storm hits is, for my money, one of the most frightening things Doctor Who has ever done. The split-second shift of Ganger to human features is well done, and the moment where, agreeing on a declaration of war against the humans, the Gangers’ faces all revert to ‘monster mode’ is stylish and striking. I’d have been terrified of these creatures when I was ten — or I’d have obsessively drawn pictures of them for weeks afterwards. I’m not sure whether her make-up is any less grotesque than the others’, but Jennifer Ganger, more than her fellows, resembles somewhat a deranged and homicidal Teletubby, with that puttyish complexion, lipless mouth, bump of a nose, and flat glassy not-quite-human eyes. She carries most of the story, but suffers slightly from having to turn into the obligatory but somewhat redundant Big Monster at the end, transmuting into a pewtery dinosaur with a humanoid face, one of those several CGI monsters which helpfully blunders into oilcans to try and convince the viewer it actually has some sort of physical presence in the scene — see also ‘The Lazarus Experiment’ and ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ (Torchwood‘s giant space manatee in ‘Meat’ is the most convincing giant beast in this category, mostly because the script sensibly doesn’t ask for it to move).

Poor Sarah Smart also gets the worst dialogue of the story, reminiscing interminably about red welly boots and — in a story which has more or less successfully avoided the clunkiness of last year’s not dissimilar Silurian story ‘The Hungry Earth’/’Cold Blood’ — wielding the sledgehammer line ‘Who are the real monsters?’, whereupon my own face briefly took on into a Ganger’s slimy lipless glower of pure malevolence. Despite what you may think, they do have a script editor on Doctor Who these days, but it feels like we’ve come quite some way from Russell T. Davies’s policy of working to script crucial scenes without actuially using the ‘telling’ words.

Unlike season opener ‘The Impossible Astronaut’/’Day of the Moon’, the framing narrative — in which, reversing the previous dynamic, the Doctor begins the story knowing an awful lot more about how it’s going to turn out than anybody else does — doesn’t interfere with the narrative. “People are on their way. Well, almost” — he knows what the Gangers are, what the Flesh is (and what it will become — he describes it as “early technology”, and the final minutes of ‘The Almost People’ helps us understand what (he knows) the developed technology will be capable of), and he deliberately activates the Flesh to create a ‘Ganger Doctor’. The whole point of this story, then, is that the Doctor is testing a theory: that the Gangers don’t (unless hit by lightning) give themselves away, that you trust them as much as you trust the ‘original’, and therefore his suspicion about Amy is corroborated by her mistaking the ersatz Doctor for the real one. What this leaves us on is a cliffhanger which has depended a little on Characters’ Convenient Stupidity (Amy only now mentions Eyepatch Lady to the Doctor) but a lot more on everything that’s been held out to us in full view for the preceding ninety minutes, prefaced with the Doctor’s essentially telling us to pay attention because it’s about to become super-important. It’s so cleverly constructed that I can almost forgive that the Ganger-human elements of ‘The Almost People’ are almost entirely window-dressing to the swoops and peaks of the ongoing story of the Doctor, Amy, Rory and the positive-negative baby.

ETA: Long-time fans may find themselves, as I do, repeatedly calling part two of this story ‘The Also People’, that being the title of Ben Aaronovitch’s Who novel of 1995. Which just goes to show muscle memory can last over a decade and a half. Frightening.

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