The thing that I liked most about the recent two-parter The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, by Matthew Graham, is that it has a surprising amount of depth and subtlety in a story that’s otherwise pretty plain. On one level, the story works as one of the most traditional Doctor Who narratives in the series. You have a base under siege, you have the Doctor barging in just as things run amok. You have monsters, you have bullheaded captains, and you have your standard companions-in-peril.
But there is more to these episodes than meets the eye. The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People force viewers to question the nature of humanity. Are we, in the end, monsters? And are we, as monsters, human? And just when you think that you have a decent stand-alone story, the season superplot intervenes, forcing you to realize that Steven Moffat has been in the background, planning things out meticulously.
There is a lot of good here to look at. The acting and directing are on par, the script works well, and there is a fair amount of craft that goes on under the surface. Blink and you’ll miss it.
A full spoilery review occurs after this break.
The Doctor, Amy and Rory head to Earth around the 22nd century, and get caught up in a “solar tsunami”. After a rough landing, they find they’ve materialized on a remote Scottish island currently occupied by workers (with accents to match) who have taken over an old castle to mine extremely potent acid under the ground.
Okay, acid under the ground? Solar tsunami? Matthew Graham just throws these elements in here, and they’re bound to give the viewers pause. Can acid be mined this way? It sort of reminds me of the soldiers mining for poisons in the classic series story The Curse of Fenric, and to me that makes me want to shout “don’t do that, guys!” at the television set. However, the acid is really a prop — a convenient device put there to provide peril. Likewise the solar storms that are afflicting the castle (and probably a fair chunk of the northern hemisphere) are a prop — a convenient device put there to advance the plot along. Here, at least, there’s some precedent within the series, however. If you’ll remember The Beast Below, Starship UK was on the run from the solar storms which ravaged Earth in the 29th century. Perhaps they’re starting here.
Early in the first episode, writer Matthew Graham sets up his pins in rather obvious fashion. The workers are able to stand around nonchalantly as one of their members accidentally slips and falls into a vat of acid, dissolving away in seconds, only to show up again outside the room, mildly put out. The workers, you see, have access to this new biotechnology called “the flesh”, which allows them to create “gangers” (short for “dopplegangers”). By strapping themselves into machines which put them to sleep, their bodies can be replicated (right down to the clothes, as this is a family program) and re-replicated as many times as they need. These gangers can then run around under their owners’ control, get injured in any number of ways, and it doesn’t matter. It’s a perfect system for stopping workplace injury.
Except, that it isn’t. When the Doctor and company arrive, the Doctor flashes his psychic paper to get admitted as an inspector. He challenges the foreman, Miranda Cleaves, to take him to the machine that she’s most concerned about, and she takes him right to the flesh. Something is not quite right, but they’re managing just fine, honest. The Doctor warns them that things could get more not-quite-right in a few minutes as the next solar storm hits, but Cleaves brushes him off. As the workers slip into their ganger machines and wait out the storm in ganger form, the Doctor tries to cut off the castle’s electricity in order to prevent a surge. He fails, is shocked, and blacks out for about an hour. When he comes to, he finds the human workers waking up in their ganger control machines… and the gangers still up and walking about. The surge has given the gangers independent life. They are each absolutely certain that they are the person that used to control them from the machine. Each of the workers has now got an instant twin sibling.
Of course things go downhill from there.
So, who’s who and what’s what? The gangers have every single memory and experience of their human counterparts. They feel within themselves a human soul, but they instinctively know that human law will tend to bias against the individual who can turn his head 360 degrees. They know that their human twins will want their exclusive individuality back. They know it’s a fight. As for the humans, they start whispering dark tales of gangers run amok. It’s extremely disconcerting to see themselves staring back at themselves in the form of a ganger. They instinctively know that the gangers will want to protect what they’ve gained. They also know it’s a fight. And the only thing standing between them is the Doctor, begging each side to aspire to their better natures. With both sides knowing what the other is like, however, neither are optimistic.
It’s a Mexican standoff in philosophical form, and there’s plenty of acid about to use as a weapon. You just know that things are going to go south. What you don’t expect, however, is when the flesh latches on to the Doctor’s personality, and creates a copy of him in ganger form. Can the Doctor live up to his own ideals?
In spite of Matthew Graham’s explicit setting up of the pins early in this story, there are a number of subtle touches, here. Director Julian Simpson has a brilliant bit where ganger Jenny proclaims her humanity. While in her white-skinned, half-formed form, she beats at her chest, and with each beat, her skin flashes to flesh. That impressed me. And I could not help but be moved by the intellectual conundrum on offer. How would I feel if I suddenly grew a twin brother? And yet I cannot help but feel for the gangers who are no more monsters than their originals are. It’s no surprise to me that Rory would show such sympathy towards Jenny, even after she displays her extra ganger abilities. Even though they don’t drive this point home, it makes sense: Rory knows what it’s like to be a duplicate, having been one for nearly two-thousand years.
And the Doctor does live up to his ideals. In The Almost People, the scenes of him and his ganger finishing each other’s sentences is just brilliant, and it shows more than any other statement that the gangers are not inherently monstrous. If there are flaws in their personalities, the reason for it strikes much closer to home.
It’s a point that’s so subtly made, it’s easy to miss. I missed it myself, until Cameron made me aware of it. I initially thought that, when Jenny succumbed and became ganger monster, it was because her personality was weaker than her other workers. Throughout the story, she’d been criticizing herself for being “weak and scared”. Aha! I thought. She has less of a hold on herself than her colleagues, and so the resentment the Flesh felt at being used and discarded rose up in her.
I wasn’t wholly satisfied with the explanation, as it made the Flesh into a negative force, but Cameron corrected me. The scary and wonderful thing about the gangers is that their copy of their human personalities is so perfect that everything is stored up inside, including and especially those traits of our personality that we keep hidden under the surface. Ganger Cleaves is copied so well, she knows exactly how her human counterpart will react, but she starts showing a more cynical, insecure outlook that allows Ganger Jenny to initially take the lead in the ganger response. Why? Because that’s how the human Cleaves is on the inside. For all her bluster and all her ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ attitude, that’s just put on to cover over her own deeper insecurities.
And Jenny? She spent much of the episode being meek and timid and the butt of her co-workers’ casual disdain. She’s probably been like this all her life, and as a result, within that meek and timid personality has built up a deep, deep store of resentment. When that resentment realizes that her body now has the power to act out on that resentment and do some real damage, it embraces that chance. The monster that the ganger Jenny is has nothing to do with any personality trait within the flesh itself, but in the fact that Jenny herself wasn’t too stable to begin with, and was given just the right push to drive her to insanity.
I am able to enjoy this story on an intellectual level, and in terms of the acting, directing and the dialogue, I find the two episodes are up to the standard established by the rest of the season. I do have to give points off to the fairly deliberate and obvious way that writer Matthew Graham sets up the plot and keeps it going, but that’s a minor complaint. This is a strong entry into the season and a strong stand-alone story. And then the season superplot intrudes.
It’s a shock, but it’s been prepared for throughout the season, what with that mysterious face that has appeared to Amy ever since Day of the Moon. It kicks the story into the mid-season finale and Amy delivers one of the most terrifying screams in the series’ history. Say what you will about Steven Moffat, but he knows how to do his cliffhangers. I know I’ll be tuning in next week.