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 came eighth from bottom in Doctor Who Magazine’s 2009 poll of every transmitted story. And earlier this month a survey on gallifreybase.com saw Fear Her glooping away in the spittoon of 1980s Who as third worst ever.
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 real humans or Gangers, none of Graham’s characters are showing many life signs yet. Raquel Cassidy (Mel in Lead Balloon), Mark Bonnar (currently bumping off the cast of Psychoville) and Marshall Lancaster (familiar from Graham’s other projects) 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. Expect more disturbing images next week.
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 has failed to enthral me. 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’ unsubtle bellyache while ferreting in her locker; and Matt Smith being lumbered with the sort of exuberant tosh David Tennant often had to spout.
Ah, and now my final paragraph… It’s a late rewrite. I had intended to put forward my predictions for next week’s promised big surprise – and for the wider season arc – but I’ve just watched the DVD of episode six, and guess what? I was bang on. So no spoilers here! There will be a radical turn of events, and it’s not too hard to piece together if you’ve been following closely. Anyway, check out next week’s episode and we’ll compare notes.