Season 32, Episode 5 – The Rebel Flesh, by Matthew Graham

May 27, 2011

A decent return to form to open the mid-season two-parter, after Neil Gaiman’s brave-but-clumsy attempt at psycho-surrealism. Although it had a few moments that caused me to roll my eyes, the prevailing attitude in this old-skool base-under-siege storyline was thankfully not silliness. To its credit, the current season has had the courage to stick to its guns and continue its dark vein, and with The Rebel Flesh, we have a tale that focuses on the themes of paranoia, terror, prejudice and arrogance. It doesn’t handle any of them with ground-breaking sophistication or depth, but it resists most of the opportunities to lodge the tongue in the cheek, and so sudden ill-timed moments of twee ‘humour’ are in a tiny minority here.

The only one that really jarred was the Doctor’s bloody awful pretence of doing a northern accent. It was ill-timed, served no purpose other than to slow down the storyline at a critical moment, and stands at stark odds with the Tenth Doctor’s equally tiresome “Don’t-do-that-no-seriously-don’t-do-that!” stance when his companions tried to mimic other accents. This is a shame, as it completely ruined a well-developed moment of friction and confrontation between the humans and their doppelgangers.

The scenario is not madly interesting in itself. Duplicate people wanting their freedom, and even to replace the originals, has been a staple of sci-fi and horror for so long it amounts to a cliché. Even the considerable effort that the script goes to to make the ‘Gangers sympathetic victims rather than insidious monsters is hardly new. But it all happens in such a well-cooked atmosphere of unease and mutual suspicion that it seems not to matter very much.

Jennifer introduces an angle that had genuinely not occurred to me until this point, which is that a threat to Amy and Rory’s marriage might come from the opposite direction to the ones that have emerged to this point. Up until now, Rory has been the one feeling threatened, inadequate, fighting a torrid but successful battle to keep the heart of the girl of his dreams, whose head had been turned more than once. Now Rory is the one who finds a new object of affection in the shape of a vulnerable girl who takes an immediate shine to him. Although Amy makes commendable efforts not to become jealous when she sees him comforting Jennifer, she is still visibly shaken and hurt by the sight. That Rory quickly becomes very protective toward the replicate-Jennifer, and even taking enormous risks to help her, suggests that his head has now been turned as well.

None of this is to say that Jennifer is an interesting character. On the contrary, she is the kind of dreary, helpless-female-Dr-Who-character that Jo Grant and Peri Brown used to epitomise in different ways; confused by everything around her, sporadically inassertive, all wrapped up in whiny self-pity, and always in need of help and comfort from the big male. Given her greater drive and authority, I’d argue the duplicate Jennifer is more interesting and worthy of greater respect.

The duplicates might show evidence of sharing the memories of the originals, but it’s noticeable that they don’t necessarily share all the same personality traits. As  I say, Jennifer’s duplicate is more assertive and aggressive, more authoritative. Cleaves’ duplicate appears more peaceable and less bigoted or arrogant than the original. Buzzer’s duplicate seems less clumsy but more emotionally vulnerable. With this in mind, while the ‘Gangers can fairly claim they have a right to life, their claim to being the people they are duplicated from is not true. Biologically and genetically they may make such a claim, but philosophically they are different people.

This episode reverses the trend of The Doctor’s Wife, in that the performances from the regulars are largely excellent, whereas the guest actors are a bit too soap-ish and folksy. Sarah Smart, who seems to have a resemblance to Janet Ellis, starts poorly, but improves without ever rising to real heights. Raquel Cassidy is a bit too self-consciously stony-hearted as Cleaves, perhaps underlining that the character isn’t anything very meaty (the stereotype of the arrogant, reckless, “no-one-may-question-me” corporate-scientist-leader), and Marshall Lancaster seems unsure about how to play Buzzer, as his sneezing fits appear to be the only characteristic to get hold of. Mark Bonnar is predictably good as Jimmy, but then he also has a stronger role to play i.e. his characters are the ones who find a bond of common ground.

Matt Smith is much better here than in his misfortunate detour into emo-ham in The Doctor’s Wife. His acting as the ‘Ganger Doctor seemed exceptionally sinister without being in any way different from the Doctor’s usual behaviour, which is a neat trick if you can do it. Karen Gillan does what she does best (facial acting to die for), and Arthur Darvill once again shows his real versatility, varying between the clumsy, inassertive follower and a protective, confident near-rebel, without any impression of inconsistency.

It’s an interesting rather than thrilling cliffhanger, but it’s certainly engaging enough to demand the audience keep watching. But at the same time, I do get the worrying impression that most of the plot-life has already been used up, and so there’s a real danger that part two will be yet another let-down. I hope not of course, but I fear there’ll be a lot of treading-of-water in part 2.

Promising, if not madly deep or original, and full of dark atmosphere and refreshingly little silliness.  I’ll give it an 8 out of 10, though not by much.

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