Series 6, Episode 5: The Rebel Flesh

“You gave them your lives. Human lives are amazing. Are you surprised they walked off with them?”

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OK – a slightly less “rapturous” review this week. (Note to future self – there was a big deal about a Californian televangelist nutter predicting the Rapture on Saturday – it didn’t happen, hence still being here to write this). Maybe I was still reeling from how much I loved last week’s episode, maybe it’s because I was stuck watching it on a tiny 4:3 TV in a dull hotel for work, maybe it’s because writer Matthew Graham’s last Who story, Fear Her, was less than impressive. But I didn’t find this as great as I know a lot of other fans did.

Not that it was in any way bad, mind – in fact, this was waaay better than the aforementioned Fear Her, in which the awestruck voice of Huw Edwards caused stomachs to turn with his depiction of the Olympic flame – “it’s a flame of hope now, of love…” And with his other writer’s hat on, Matthew Graham seriously impressed me with his cop/time travel crossovers, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. The Rebel Flesh wasn’t as good as those, but it was miles ahead of Fear Her. And yet, it left me curiously unmoved.

In the spirit of positivity caused by the apocalypse fail, let’s start with what was good. To begin with, this was very much a trad Who story in the mould of the Troughton ‘base under siege’ staples – an isolated scientific installation where things go wrong, help is not forthcoming, and the Doctor and co can’t just leave. Actually, that latter point has been an impressive factor in recent episodes. Like the 60s stories, you can’t just yell at the screen, “get in the TARDIS and leave then!”, because the TARDIS has been removed/destroyed/possessed, or in this case, buried in an acid-corroded hole.

Unfortunately, that does bring me to the first of my negative points. This is indeed an impressively realised future installation, a 13th century monastery used to mine acid. But I don’t recall there being any explanation of why 22nd century Earth would particularly want acid. It’s plainly important, hence the urgency over getting the operation up and running again, but why? Either an important bit of exposition was buried under Murray Gold’s music, or some useful lines from an earlier draft were deleted and not replaced. For that matter, how can you mine acid? I know I’m no scientist, so I may be talking through my hat here, but my hazy memories of O level science don’t include vast untapped pools of subterranean corrosives.  For a start, wouldn’t they end up corroding their way to the depths of the planet before losing their potency? And while I’m on the subject, what the heck is a “solar tsunami”?

Still, nobody’s ever accused Doctor Who of being scientifically accurate. However much that niggled at me, it did make for an impressively dangerous scenario, and an island surrounded by acid instantly called to mind 1964 story The Keys of Marinus. Which made me realise I was thinking too much.

But some thought was definitely required. The central thrust of the plot is not a new idea – we’ve created artificial life, and we’re using it to do the dirty jobs, and it may, or may not, be conscious of its own existence/purpose/duplication. These themes are familiar from Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner and any number of Philip K Dick and Harlan Ellison stories. But familiarity doesn’t dull their potency – these are big philosophical concepts, and exactly the sort of thing science fiction is good at dealing with.

And to give Graham his due, the script is dealing with them well. The artificial Flesh, and the (doppel)Gangers are a well-realised concept, given some interesting dialogue about the nature of identity when they separate from their human progenitors. A good cast helps – it was nice to see Marshall Lancaster from Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, again giving his patented Manchester everybloke (though why were the acid mine’s crew all Northern? Just so the Doctor could get that rather forced “Ee by gum” gag?). And I’m always glad to see Raquel Cassidy, who I’ve liked since her stint in Teachers, and it was amusing to think that she was being reunited with her Parliamentary researcher from Party Animals – one Matt Smith. But this time, he was in charge!

So, a good concept, a good cast, and some interesting philosophical dialogue – always a Doctor Who strength. Why, then, wasn’t it more engaging for me?

Mainly, I think, it was the plotting. Given the concept, there were no surprises here. It was obvious that the Flesh would become an independent life form. It was obvious that we’d be wondering which version of the characters was real (“Kill us both, Spock!”). And it was obvious, as in similar stories where the ‘monsters’ are just misunderstood (I’m looking at you, every Silurian story), that one of the human characters would, through fear and ignorance, instigate an avoidable conflict.

Some strong direction almost avoided the predictability – this was done very tensely, and even when a plot point was obvious, as with Jennifer’s toilet transformation, it was handled well. Julian Simpson pulled a lot of tricks out of the bag, despite an apparently meagre budget, to make this very suspenseful; the split screen work was impressive, and the Gangers’ make up interestingly scary for the tots. But ultimately, the predictability of the plotting was never going to be something you could hide. That said, it addressed the same plot miles better than Chris Chibnall’s disappointing Silurian two parter last year.

The regulars were as good as ever though. I’m really loving the dynamic of the three person TARDIS team this year, it’s so refreshing after RTD’s determined ‘one Doctor, one companion who fancies him’ staple. There’s obviously something being set up with Amy and Rory; the emphasis on their nice, loving relationship in previous episodes seems to be setting them up for a fall. And we may be seeing the genesis of that here, as Rory gets to play the hero searching for Jennifer – someone he seems to have fallen for in both human and Ganger form. It’s nice to see Amy looking discomfited that, for once, she’s not the dominant one in the relationship; and Karen Gillan has played that rather well.

Arc watch – apart from establishing that our heroes like Muse (Supermassive Black Hole is one of my favourites too), the Doctor is still puzzling over Schrodinger’s baby, and Eyepatch Lady makes another brief appearance. The Ganger Doctor could, of course, be the one we saw killed in the first episode – but that’s far, far too obvious, I think. Some have theorised that the frequent deaths of Rory (none this week, amazingly) are the Universe’s way of compensating for the fact that he should be dead, and Amy brought him back. So if he’s the father, his position in space/time is far from secure, hence the ‘positive/negative’ pregnancy indecision. Incidentally, that medical scanner in the console seems a little convenient – it could have come in useful in any number of disease oriented stories, notably The Invisible Enemy. Perhaps the Doctor didn’t want to reveal that he’d been peeking inside his companions’ bodies…

So, some interesting ideas but, for me, a formulaic and predictable plot. Far from a bad episode though, and as the first of a two-parter, much hinges on the conclusion. What are these mysterious hints the Doctor has been dropping regarding his knowledge of the Flesh as “primitive technology”? And will we find out more about the implications an intelligent, self-aware slave race could have for this future society? Next week’s conclusion could raise this from being an interesting idea with dull execution into something rather more. Here’s hoping…