• 28th May 2011 • Review by Ben Paddon •
How many of you went into “The Rebel Flesh” with preconceptions of what the episode would be? How many of you went in with spoilers and foreknowledge and all that wonderful gubbins? I’m guessing a fair few of you – Doctor Who fans are an inquisitive lot, and it probably doesn’t help that the BBC have been a bit wobbly with spoilers this series. Meanwhile I’ve managed to stay relatively spoiler-free. With a few minor exceptions I haven’t really been exposed to much about the current series of the show prior to broadcast, in part because I haven’t been actively seeking it out, but mainly because I haven’t really had the time.
The upside is that I’m going into each episode of the show with no preconceptions or expectations, although “The Rebel Flesh” works fairly quickly to instill some preconceptions during the first ten minutes. It’s an episode that fits a familiar mould – the Doctor shows up in base where people are doing something they shouldn’t be and things go tits up. Only just when it looks like it might defy the expectations you didn’t know you had and pull the rug out from under your feet, it stops tugging and, like a Mortal Kombat player who’s forgotten how to do a Fatality, just kicks you in the shins instead.
Spoilers ahead, obviously.
It’s a promising set-up. It’s a wonderful set-up, truth be told. The pre-title sequence is simple and to-the-point, and rather nicely outlines exactly what the crux of the episode is about. Then the Doctor arrives, seemingly with some foreknowledge of the events taking place in the acid factory, but he’s not sharing. Not atypical of the Doctor, but it is atypical of the type of story we’re being told, offering some much-needed variety. That said, it does feel odd that the Doctor would keep such important information from his companions given that lives are at stake. Again, it’s not strictly speaking out of character, but I do wonder how that’s going to pay off in “The Almost People”.
Once the storm reaches the factory and the power goes down, the story slows to a snail’s pace. This is proper old-school Doctor Who pacing, the sort that makes “Genesis of the Daleks” unwatchable for much of the New Who audience, and it’s made all the more frustrating by the predictable nature of the plot progression from this point onwards. Even after things picked up again, I spent a good deal of the episode waiting for the characters to catch up with what I’d already worked out.
Then there’s the conflict, the murder, and things start moving again. Stupid people doing stupid things because they’re human – some more than others – and at that point the story gets back on track, albeit predictably so. The Gangers’ decision to turn on the humans is sudden, almost gratuitous. Yes, alright, an idiot killed one of them, and it’d be expected that at least one of them would be slightly pissed off about that, but they almost unanimously make the decision to go after the humans without much of a debate. The Gangers’ conversation may well have gone, “Look, we’re nearly at the end of the episode and we’re not particularly menacing at the moment. We should probably fix that.”
And then there’s the Ganger Doctor. From the moment the Doctor put his hand on the surface of the Flesh vat I knew what the cliffhanger would be, and yet I can’t help but wonder how it’s going to play out in the next the episode. I even wondered briefly whether the older Doctor we saw killed all the way back in “The Impossible Astronaut” could perhaps have been the Ganger Doctor, but it’s such a mind-numbingly obvious solution to that predicament (not to mention an incredibly lazy one) that I don’t see it happening.
A lot of people seem to have taken issue with Rory’s willingness to help the Ganger Jennifer, but I don’t really have much of a problem with it. It’s not difficult to see how a bloke could want to help someone who very clearly thinks highly of them. I mean, we’ve all been there, haven’t we? A girl says you have pretty eyes or that you’re “such a sweetheart”, and you can’t help but want to keep them close. It’s a psychological thing, isn’t it? We all like feeling wanted or needed in some way. Having said that, I expect Rory’s motivations run a little deeper than that – he was a plastic copy of himself for 2,000 years, after all. There may well be an affinity there.
Besides which, we’re now five episodes into the series and apart from some conspiratorial conversations between Amy and Rory and the Doctor occasionally running a sly pregnancy check on Amy to reveal that, yes, she’s still pregnant/not pregnant/pregnant/not pregnant, we haven’t really come back to the threads left dangling by “TIA”/”DotM”. That being said, I also complained this time last year when the Weeping Angels were sidelined in “Flesh and Stone” by the crack, which felt decidedly lazy at broadcast but made much more sense in the bigger picture of the series as a whole. It’s entirely possible that the Doctor’s disinterest in addressing the events of the opening story will fit into the series in a much grander manner, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, but it’s not a jigsaw, and there aren’t any pieces. Forget the jigsaw.
I’m complaining a lot about this episode, but there are some great ideas in there. The supporting characters are interesting if a little lacking in depth – the decision to make ’em Northerners certainly adds a little variety considering most Who characters these days are either Welsh or from London. And certainly I’m eagerly anticipating “The Almost People” to find out how it’s all going to play out. Right now, though, it just feels wobbly.
I half-wonder whether Amy and Rory themselves may also be Gangers, with the real Amy and Rory having been stashed away somewhere. They woke up together not too far from the Flesh vats, although they haven’t experienced any of the characteristic facial gubbins that the other Gangers have there’s every possibility that they simply don’t know that they’re not the real deal. It might go some way to explaining where that lost hour went. Or maybe it doesn’t and I’m grasping at straws.
I applaud writer Matthew Graham for attempting to do something different with a well-worn Doctor Who formula, even if it doesn’t quite work.