Season 32 Episode 6 – The Almost People, by Matthew Graham

May 31, 2011

Review by Martin Odoni

Let’s start at the beginning shall we? They could hardly have made Matt Smith’s double more obvious, during the moment when the ‘Ganger Doctor is grabbing the original Doctor by the lapels, without dying his hair bright ginger. The back of the double’s head is almost completely different from Smith’s. For heaven’s sake, BBC Wales, try a bit harder will you?

To the episode itself, hmm hmm. I was extremely impressed with it on first viewing, and indeed on subsequent sittings it still has points going for it. But I have to say that the flaws in it become a lot more noticeable too. In particular, The Almost People displays an occasional tendency to throw in a sudden plot-twist, as if to say, “Hah! Bet you weren’t expecting that, were you?” No, we certainly weren’t, chiefly because one or two of the twists stop the story making any sense.

The main one is the revelation that the Doctor and his duplicate swapped places. It shames Amy for her prejudices in a delicious manner, but it also suddenly makes the prior behaviour of the other ‘Gangers very difficult to fathom. They invite what they think is the Doctor’s ‘Ganger to join them. They weren’t there when the Doctor’s duplicate first showed up, so the only way they could realise he might have been a ‘Ganger is if they could in some way ‘sense’ something about him, almost on a genetic level. But if it then turns out that he isn’t the ‘Ganger after all, but the original, well where did they get the idea from? And how do they manage to make exactly the same mistake Amy was making all along? And how can the original Doctor sense the torment of the Flesh more keenly than the ‘Ganger can?

I know he’s never going to challenge the leader-board on Mastermind, but this episode really does Rory no favours at all. It’s nice to see him getting a pro-active role for the first time in a long while, but in the event, the activities he gets make him look like a love-sick cretin. How much of a fool does he have to be to go along with everything Jennifer’s ‘Ganger tells him? Providing muscle to help turn the wheel is one thing, but does it really never cross his mind to ask why she needs him to place his hand on the palm-reader? Not realising how easy it would be for the Flesh to emulate a burn is also pretty thick. I’m sorry, like I say, Rory’s no intellectual heavyweight, but he’s not that stupid.

Some of the guest-acting is, again, terrible. Sarah Smart in particular, who was dodgy enough in the first episode, is just awful when playing Jennifer’s ‘Ganger. The face she pulls before she attacks Buzzer looks so over-the-top it’s embarrassing, while the moment when she snaps her fingers, points, and tells the Doctor to “Join the Revolution” is so corny and stagey I winced. Her whole ‘descent-into-revenge-driven-psycho’ arc is not at all believable. Raquel Cassidy is again wooden as both incarnations of Cleaves, although her performance is mitigated somewhat by how inconsistently her role is characterised in the script. She was a cold-blooded murderer at the end of the previous episode, ruthlessly gunning down one of the ‘Gangers for no reason at all bar her own paranoia. This detail seems to be totally overlooked and forgotten in episode 2, as she and her ‘Ganger almost take on the role of reluctant warriors trying to keep the conflict from getting any further out of hand. But then the original still instructs Buzzer to attack (what she thinks is) the Doctor’s ‘Ganger, and the duplicate still invites the Doctor to change sides with talk of “you’re one of us”. Indeed, the script can never make up its mind whether Cleaves is supposed to be sympathetic or cynical. The male guests are also uninspired – Marshall Lancaster is a complete plank as Buzzer – except again Mark Bonnar is quite impressive when he has fatherly moments to act out.

The regulars on the other hand produce perhaps their best work of the year to date. Matt Smith is tremendous in a dual role that calls on him to portray many characteristics. The torment of the Doctor’s ‘Ganger as it struggles with past-regenerations interfering with his present form is superb. Look closely at his eyes while he’s at the throat of the original, and the anguish and terror will make you flinch, right up there with the very best eye-work that Karen Gillan has done. Smith does the quirky, wittering eccentricity of the Doctor with his usual aplomb, and it makes appearing alongside himself very engaging where it might easily have been irritating. He also shows great hurt and resentment at Amy’s apparent rejection of the ‘Ganger, and desperation and anger in the scene when he nearly attacks her; a moment disturbingly reminiscent of the Sixth Doctor trying to throttle Peri. At the end, when ordering Rory to stand away from Amy, his authority is both fierce and sinister. Time and again, Karen Gillan once more shows her great talent for portraying fear, but reveals equal skill for playing a stubborn bigot. Arthur Darvill maintains his usual fine standard, especially in the scene when he confronts Jennifer’s ‘Ganger about tricking him, though by now he may be forgiven if he feels his efforts are wasted on scripts that give him so little reward.

This episode really is swimming in superfluous backward references. “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow,” from Jon Pertwee. “Would you like a jelly baby?” from Tom Baker (that scene is very reminiscent of Peter Davison’s debut in Castrovalva, when the Fifth Doctor went around impersonating his earlier selves). “No let it go, we’ve-we’ve moved on!!!” he screams in a noticeable parody of David Tennant. “Where’s my Daddy?” asks Adam, loudly echoing, “Are you my mummy?” The Doctor is “John Smith”. The TARDIS is “reliable” and “sexy” once more. Yes, I share the continuity thrill other long-time viewers get, but I still don’t think it’s a good idea for the series to play that card so strongly. The more continuity-dependent the series becomes, the more danger there is of it alienating people who have never seen older stories. (Should just mention that at a lot of moments in this episode, Matt Smith really does look like Peter Davison at his dazed best. Keep an eye out for them.)

The ending is not too clever. Cleaves again has a fundamental personality change and turns into a hardcore pacifist again to scupper Jennifer-‘Ganger’s plans. Exactly how Jennifer-‘Ganger turns into the giant animal isn’t very clear; if she’s able to do that, why didn’t she just do so hours earlier? The TARDIS’ energy ‘just happens’ to be exactly what is needed to make the ‘Gangers become real people, and the Doctor ‘just happens’ to have a cure for blood-clots on the brain tucked away in the TARDIS console? Handy. (Not that the blood clot really has any significant role to play in the story.)

Re-set button city. Give me a break…

But the story is not a write-off by any means. It has many good and valid things to say about the twin follies of prejudice and paranoia, as well as their causes and how inseparable they are. And the startling ending has more than a tinge of clever irony to it, given that Amy, who has spent most of the episode giving one of the Doctors the cold shoulder for supposedly being a ‘Ganger, turns out herself to be a ‘Ganger. When exactly did Amy become duplicated? Where is the original and when did she become cut off from Rory and the Doctor? Might it even have been before she met the Doctor? (It must have been before meeting the Silence as that was when she first saw the Eye-patch lady.) The ominous, bleak tones of the season are again sustained and enhanced by the gloomy, cold visuals, and the chilling atmosphere of danger and unsure perceptions started in The Doctor’s Wife has been carried over. The setting of a castle for a factory is very neat for adding to the ‘haunted house’ scenario, and there is a consistent undercurrent of foreboding. In short, even if it’s not all that intelligent, it remains genuinely dark and scary, and it always resists the option to be wilfully silly. Its most powerful redeeming feature is that it tries to be a drama, and largely succeeds in doing so. A flawed drama, perhaps, but exciting and never a farce.

The episode also gets fresh points for demonstrating this season’s willingness to break formula. In previous seasons of NuWho, the story arc, such as it is, has usually been made up of a long string of repeated references thrown into most episodes, none of which have ever actually developed or explored the idea at its heart in any detail. Furthermore, the string has only ever culminated at the end of the season. In this case, the string of hints has culminated at the midway point of the season instead, which is another breath of fresh air.

In the end unfortunately, a little like The Doctor’s Wife, the episode is far too deeply flawed for me to rate it higher than a 6 out of 10, even though I can’t deny that I would have liked to. The two-parter averages out at a respectable 7.

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