Doctor Who: The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People ★★

Flesh doppelgangers turn on their human masters in an anaemic drama with a shock ending

212
2.0 out of 5 star rating

Story 217

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Series 6 – Episodes 5 & 6

“You haven’t been here for a long, long time” – the Doctor

First UK transmissions
Saturday 21 May 2011
Saturday 28 May 2011

Storyline
In the midst of a solar storm, the Tardis arrives on an island in the 22nd century. An old monastery is now the base for a skeleton mining crew who are pumping acid back to the mainland. This dangerous task is largely conducted by doppelgangers, or Gangers, composed from a gloopy liquid, “programmable matter” called Flesh. The Gangers gain a higher consciousness and rebel against their oppressors. A Flesh version of the Doctor is created, as the monstrous Ganger of crew member Jennifer goes on the rampage. The Time Lord tries to establish peace between the humans and Gangers. Back in the Tardis, to Rory’s horror, he reveals that Amy has been a Flesh duplicate for a long time. She dissolves and the real Amy wakes up elsewhere on the point of giving birth – and the wicked eye-patched woman urges her to “Puuush!”

Production
November 2010 to April 2011 at Cardiff Castle; Caerphilly Castle; Neath Abbey; Chepstow Castle; Atlantic College, Llantwit Major; Welsh National Assembly Building, Cardiff; Fillcare, Llantrisant; Upper Boat Studios

Cast
The Doctor – Matt Smith
Amy Pond – Karen Gillan
Rory Williams – Arthur Darvill
Jimmy – Mark Bonnar
Buzzer – Marshall Lancaster
Jennifer – Sarah Smart
Cleaves – Raquel Cassidy
Dicken – Leon Vickers
Eye patch lady – Frances Barber
Adam – Edmond Moulton

Crew
Writer – Matthew Graham
Director – Julian Simpson
Producer – Marcus Wilson
Designer – Michael Pickwoad
Music – Murray Gold
Executive producers – Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger, Beth Willis

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
OK, first up: a bonus point for getting Dusty Springfield into Doctor Who. Love it! And so eerie, too, as You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me echoes through that 13th-century monastery cum 22nd-century acid factory.

I must admit, though, I approached Matthew Graham’s latest script with trepidation, willing it to improve upon his only other effort for Who – the 2006 stinker, Fear Her. This was the only story I judged dire enough to award just one out of five stars in RT’s Doctor Who 2005–2010 book. It also came eighth from bottom in Doctor Who Magazine’s 2009 poll of every transmitted story.

Surely Matthew Graham, the creative force behind the fervently lauded Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes (we’ll skate over his abortive Bonekickers), could come up with something better for Doctor Who..?

Well, The Rebel Flesh has got meat on its bones. It presents an intriguing moral dilemma (the Gangers’ right to life) and sparks of originality – to me, at least: I’m not clued up on all things sci-fi.

My colleague, Mark Braxton, spotted that the clones and their vat of “living flesh” are reminiscent of the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica. The vat reminded me only of Kenneth Williams’s demise in Carry On Screaming: “Frying tonight!”

Foreman Cleaves tells us that the Flesh is “fully programmable matter”, which can “replicate a living organism down to the hair on its chinny chin chin – even clothes”. Memories, too. Well, that’s handy, if hard to swallow.

But whether they’re real humans or Gangers, none of Graham’s characters are showing many life signs yet. Raquel Cassidy, Mark Bonnar and Marshall Lancaster are scrabbling over the morsels of characterisation on offer.

Sarah Smart is marginally sympathetic as Jennifer, or even her Ganger, whose elongated bonce can burst through a bog door – a tame rendition of the body horror in John Carpenter’s The Thing, which should nonetheless freak out tiny viewers.

On the plus side, The Rebel Flesh is moodily shot, verging on nightmarish, a sensation enhanced towards the end by Murray Gold’s throbbing score. Yet somehow it fails to enthral. The fault may lie somewhere between the clarity of the editing and the sound mix.

I don’t need to be hit over the head with detail but important explanations shouldn’t be gabbled or obfuscated with music and sound fx. The script has several toe-curlers: Jennifer’s “Sorry, Buzz. My bad”; Cleaves’s unsubtle bellyache while ferreting in her locker; and Matt Smith being lumbered with the sort of exuberant tosh David Tennant often had to spout.

The second episode, The Almost People, ends on a startling cliffhanger/shock-reveal as doppelganger Amy and the check shirt she’s worn in every episode are finally exposed. Dissolved on the floor of the Tardis. How many viewers saw that one coming? Well, I had my suspicions for some time. In fact, ever since Amy’s fluctuating positive/negative pregnancy scans, our first glimpse of “eye-patch lady” Frances Barber and whatever the Silence were doing with Amy back in Day of the Moon.

Those suspicions were confirmed in The Rebel Flesh when, about 25 minutes into the drama, Amy and Jimmy press the Doctor about his foreknowledge of the Flesh. If you missed it, go back and study the sustained, pained look the Time Lord gives his companion. And, then of course c18mins into The Almost People he scans Amy’s backside oh-so-surreptitiously with his sonic screwdriver.

Poor Amy, though. And poor Rory – couldn’t the guy tell? They’ve presumably been bunking up in more ways than one in the Tardis sleeping quarters, yet even he hadn’t clocked she wasn’t the full Pond. That’s some artificial technology. Buyers at Ann Summers would surely be clamouring for tips from the company behind the “living flesh”…

You may be questioning points of logic in the second episode. The Doctor takes the survivors into the police box and announces, “The energy from the Tardis will stabilise the Gangers for good. They’re people now.” Great, but why doesn’t this benefaction extend to the more advanced duplicate of Amy?

Perhaps you’re aghast that, having shown such sympathy with the plight of the Gangers, the Doctor can so callously dissolve the duplicate Amy. She’s displayed no animosity and has been at his side for months. Matt Smith’s gabbled line (I had to replay it five times) is: “Given what we’ve learnt, I’ll be as humane as I can, but I need to do this.” Crucially, he can speak to the real Amy through her double: “You haven’t been here for a long, long time.” This duplicate has a quite different connection to her real self than the Gangers do to theirs.

But these are minor points to wrestle with in a largely polished production. Filming the double Doctors must have been a logistical chore, but it’s seamless. And the message “Who are the real monsters?” comes through loud and clear. The Gangers, too rightly, are rebelling against virtual slavery and eventual purgatory.

The amorphous mass of whimpering flesh, discarded in a corner of the monastery, has to be one of the most disturbing images ever on teatime telly. As Ganger Jen explains, they’ve been “left to rot, fully conscious. Imagine what kind of hell they’re in.”

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Similarly nightmarish is our final image of the real Amy – awake at last, locked in a tank, far from friends and told by the midwife from hell (Frances Barber) to “Puuuuuush!” out her baby. No wonder Karen Gillan lets out such a heartrending scream. Classic cliffhanger.