Saturday, 21 May 2011

DOCTOR WHO, 6.5 – "The Rebel Flesh"

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Matthew Graham (Life On Mars, Ashes To Ashes) wrote the execrable "Fear Her" from series 2--a nadir in Doctor Who's revival--so I was relieved "The Rebel Flesh" was an altogether more satisfying and competent episode. That said, it was unexceptional work, following the show's unspoken story-template in such a way that boredom threatened to get a foothold. As a piece of sci-fi, it was merely dressing up an over-familiar situation regarding sentient duplicates, so I had a tough time warming to it...

After the TARDIS was snared by a solar tsunami, The Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) found themselves crash-landing on Earth in the 22nd-century, on the grounds of a monastery/factory where the four human inhabitants are mining acid and, consequently, download their consciousness into the wax-like bodies of doppelgangers (referred to as "Gangers") when handling the corrosive material. Unfortunately, after the solar storm causes a major power outage (shades of Frankenstein), everyone woke up to find their Gangers have all achieved sentience and are demanding to be treated as human beings.

I can't really get enthused about "The Rebel Flesh." It most definitely wasn't a bad episode, but it was so typical of Doctor Who in its laziest form that I found it hard to care about anything going on, and slightly resented the fact another hour's going to be swallowed up resolving this story next week. That's irritating enough with a 13-episode run, but knowing we're only getting seven episodes before a summer hiatus exacerbates things. I'd have preferred a few more standalone stories, particularly as there was nothing here grand enough to justify the extra time.

Tolerances will vary, but I've had my fill of stories where beings gain sentience and demand to be treated as regular humans. It's a staple of sci-fi, but not an idea that ever gets tackled in a very fresh or original way. "The Rebel Flesh" trod a familiar path in how everyone reacted to their impostors, with only The Doctor able to take a step back and view the dilemma with no bias. There was also something slightly confusing about this episode, perhaps because of the amount of people running around similar corridors wearing identical orange boiler suits. A combination of that, and my ambivalence to the unfolding story, led to me occasionally losing track of who's a Ganger and who's a human--and it didn't feel like this was always intentional, with potential for Thing-style paranoia mostly falling by the wayside. And why do these Gangers believe they're undeniably human if they have the ability to contort their bodies, Tex Avery-style?

It was ultimately a lot of running around (when isn't it?), pausing for breath to talk about the obvious issues regarding the Gangers' desire to be treated as people, with the TARDIS taken out of the equation as an escape route (swallowed by an acid pit), and a cliffhanger ending anyone with half a brain could see coming a mile off, as "the Flesh" copied The Doctor himself. Incidentally, did anyone else have trouble noticing much of a difference between Matt Smith and his waxen equivalent?

It was also the kind of episode where there's so much exposition to impart that the characters are reduced to very basic shells--Jimmy the Scotsman (Mark Bonnar), snarky northerner Buzzer (Marshall Lancaster), cute Jennifer (Sarah Smart), stern Foreman Cleaves (Raquel Cassidy)--and the situation they were facing was just a variant of many stories we've seen on Doctor Who before. I was reminded of "The Waters Of Mars", mostly. These two-part stories need a story with considerable depth, or a concept that's overflowing with imagination to justify the time spent on them, but I don't think either was true of "The Rebel Flesh". It was nice to focus on Rory as the main companion, rather than watch him play sidekick to Amy, as he grew to identify with Ganger-Jennifer's plight, but there wasn't much else holding my attention beyond some impressive make-up (owing a debt to Star Trek's Odo) and good location work that made excellent use of Cardiff Castle, Caerphilly Castle, Neath Abbey and St. Donat's Castle.

Overall, I didn't dislike "The Rebel Flesh", but I just didn't respond to it--beyond enjoying the production design and visuals. The story just didn't go anywhere unexpected or especially imaginative, and I don't get the feeling the concluding part will retroactively improve this episode. I'm also still confused about why these Gangers are required if the humans wear suits to protect them from the acid, and it was a terrible shame all of the guests stars were uniformly dull in underwritten roles. There's really no excuse for that, when you remember how "The Waters Of Mars" did a much better job with a much bigger crew.


  • Raquel Cassidy starred alongside Matt Smith in the political drama Party Animals.
  • Marshall Lancaster starred as Chris Skelton in Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes, which were co-created by this episode's writer Matthew Graham.
written by Matthew Graham / directed by Julian Simpson / 21 May 2011 / BBC One

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