Just in Time: Mr. Harvey Gangs Up on "Who"

DOCTOR WHO – Series 6 Episode 5
“The Rebel Flesh”

A review by Timothy Harvey

 

My apologies for the delay on the review of the first episode in these two-parter folks… life sometimes gets in the way. I shall endeavor to make it up to you this weekend, by having a non-spoiler review for “The Almost People” up by Sunday. “But wait”, you say,”how is this making it up?” Ah, because due to the Memorial Day weekend, BBC America will not be broadcasting “The Almost People” this weekend, causing a week delay between the British broadcasts and the American ones for the remainder of this half of the season. I’ll be screening the episodes the same time the British do, so I’ll have info for you ahead of the BBC America, but will be keeping the spoiler reviews timed to the stateside broadcasts, so as not to take away any of the fun of watching the good Doctor’s adventures for yourselves.

So! On to “The Rebel Flesh”.

 

Spoiler Free. Ish.

Two men and a woman in protective suits move through the dark corridors of a vast building, ending in a room with a giant acid vat. When one of the men is accidentally knocked in, the others react with an odd lack of concern, and indeed, the man in the acid doesn’t seem to be all that upset that he’s melting. Moments later, the man who melted meets the others in a hallway, joking about getting workmen’s comp.

When a massive solar storm sends the TARDIS and it’s crew into an emergency landing on a future earth, answers are quick to come: The government has developed a synthetic material that imitates human life called The Flesh, which is used to create copies of people for use in extremely dangerous work environments. These doppelgangers, or Gangers as the workers call them, are perfect copies of the humans “piloting” them… and we all know what happens when people start making copies of themselves. Add energy surges from the solar storms into the equation, and something echoing Frankenstein and Carpenter’s The Thing emerges. As the tension and the danger rises, so is the question of what it means to be human, and as we know, humans can be a violent species…

A spoiler here of a sort, but a poorly kept one, so I’m not too worried: The workers at the acid factory are duplicated, and their Ganger copies find themselves with lifetimes of memories and real questions about their place in the world, with their originals none too happy about having copies of themselves running about. The escalating conflict between the two catches the TARDIS crew in the crossfire as the Doctor tries to keep the humans from killing the Gangers as monsters, and the Gangers from killing the humans so they can have true lives of their own, while Rory’s kind nature makes him reach out to comfort Jennifer, one of the Gangers who is keenly aware of both her nature as a copy, as well as her clear memories and emotions of being the “real” Jennifer.

With the Gangers asking questions of existence and fighting for theirs, and their scientific origins, the influence of Frankenstein is increased by the setting of the story in an ancient monastery converted to a factory. The shapeshifting nature of the Gangers and the question of identity draws on The Thing heavily, and indeed, the production team has made it  clear that Carpenter’s film was a significant influence. The rather Gothic story harkens back to some of the Fourth Doctor’s episodes, and in a good way, and credit must be given to the excellent production design of this episode. The monastery is suitably spooky and the Flesh vat is rather disturbing, and aside from one particularly dodgy cgi shot, the effects work is excellent, especially the Ganger makeup. Just different enough to be disturbing.

Those of you familiar with the original British series of “Life On Mars” will appreciate the writing of Matthew Graham, and here he goes a long way to make up for “Fear Her”, a frankly rather disappointing episode from Tennant’s run. He gives us some really chilling themes to play with here and while this episode doesn’t move terribly fast, it builds more and more to the inevitable clash between the original workers and their Flesh formed duplicates. That does make the entire episode feel a lot like setup for the second part, but that can often be the case with two-parters, and if the “The Also People” pays off on this buildup, then it’ll all work. If not…

Our workers here are fleshed out (oh dear, there may be some unintentional punning here) decently, although with 5 characters and their duplicates plus the TARDIS crew each one gets only a moment here and there, with one’s defining characteristic seeming only to be that he has a cold. Their leader Cleaves, played nicely by Raquel Cassidy, is a broadly drawn corporate baddy, but once her copy is held up against her, some additional depths start to emerge. The original and copy that become the driving force of the story is Sarah Smart’s Jennifer, who as the human original disappears from much of the story as her Ganger copy gives voice to the trauma of being aware of being a created thing and yet feeling real. Her scene where she tells Rory about childhood memories that she has of a childhood she can’t have experienced is both sad and a little creepy. Both Cleaves and Jennifer have really interesting moments comparing the originals to the copies, raising some intriguing questions that hopefully will be answered in “The Almost People”.

Arthur Darvill get’s some good screen time here, as Rory moves front and center as he reacts to Ganger Jennifer’s pain and confusion. Rory can often get pushed to the back of our trio, and no one would debate that Amy is the more forceful of the couple, but he’s has been through a lot in the last season and a half, and here he asserts himself in a very understandable manner. It’s nice to see him stand up to Amy a bit, and we also get a moment where he alludes to the series tendency to give us a Rory death scene every couple of episodes.

Amy is more reactive this time around, not surprising really, with Rory taking more of a center stage, but it’s the little moments where Karen Gillan makes it all work. From teasing Rory while playing darts, to acknowledging his empathy to Jennifer and insisting on staying with the Doctor when he tries to go off to do… something… on his own, while she may not have the screen time as other episodes, she makes the most of the moments she has. Her love for the Doctor, her love for her husband inform all of the decisions she makes here, and again we see how this TARDIS crew has become a family.

Oh the Doctor… with Rory and the workers and their Ganger copies being the bulk of the narrative, it’s actually a fairly Doctor-light episode, at least in terms of screen time. In terms of the overall story though, the Doctor clearly knows much much more than he’s admitting here, and his almost desperate need to find a peaceful solution to the situation is obviously because of that. While he insists that they arrived at the monastery by accident, it’s quickly clear that isn’t likely to be the truth. Interestingly, the Doctor speaks of the Gangers as having souls and “sacred life”, a much more mystical or even religious tone as opposed to his usual scientific explanations, which again makes one wonder what he’s not telling his friends.

And then there’s the cliffhanger ending…

All in all, “The Rebel Flesh” is a good episode that suffers only from being the first part of the story being told here, and following the wonderful “The Doctor’s Wife”. Since neither of those are particularly fair reasons to judge it too harshly, and the story and characters are quite good, the real question will be can “The Almost People” give us the payoff we have so nicely been set up with here?

 

And here’s a preview of episode 6: “The Almost People”

[“Doctor Who” on the BBC web site]   [“Doctor Who” on BBC America]

[all photos: BBCAmerica]

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Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

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