“The Almost People” is an episode with a dual function. It wraps up the story started in “The Rebel Flesh”, with the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) getting mixed up with acid miners and doppelgangers on 22nd-century Earth, but also unveils one hell of a surprise in the season’s ongoing story. The way in which this turning point of the season arc is integrated into (and arises from) the individual story of these two episodes is very satisfying—even though some of the potential inherent in the story of humans being forced to confront a group of “imitations” who are in fact just as worthy of being considered independent entities in their own right gets passed over in favor of the season arc plot.
I mentioned in my recap for the previous episode that the story bears some similarities to last season’s Silurian two-parter. Structurally, “The Almost People” shares with “Cold Blood” the way in which, once the stand-alone story is wrapped up, the overarching plot of the season moves to the foreground and takes over the climax of the episode. One of the best twists the show has ever pulled off is the revelation that the Amy Pond we have been watching for the whole season up until now was not in fact Amy, but a duplicate constructed from the ’Flesh’—the “fully programmable matter” which was shown in the last episode to be capable of being formed into doppelgänger versions of people. The real Amy—heavily pregnant and about to give birth as the episode ends—has been held captive somewhere else, and has been unknowingly controlling this “gänger” duplicate all the time.
There are a couple of reasons I found this twist so satisfyingly ingenious. The first is the way clues seeded through previous episodes were paid off. Several times we have seen the Doctor puzzling over the TARDIS scanner simultaneously showing Amy to be both pregnant and not pregnant. At the beginning of “The Rebel Flesh,” the Doctor has clearly worked out what’s going on, and takes the TARDIS to this island monastery in order to investigate the Flesh technology and find out enough to safely block the signal to the false Amy. (This is a distinct improvement on “Cold Blood,” where there was no connection between the Silurian story and the sudden appearance of the crack in the universe at the end.) Then there are the strange glimpses of a woman (credited simply as “Eye Patch Lady”) peering at Amy through what looks like a small hatchway, which Amy has experienced several times in different places. These weird manifestations led to much fan speculation about parallel universes or multiple time-streams, but the actual explanation turned out to be far more straightforward: the view from where Amy’s real body was located was simply breaking through every so often into the consciousness of her duplicate.
We don’t yet have enough information to say exactly when Amy was kidnapped and replaced with a Flesh duplicate. Obviously it has to be before the first appearance of the Eye Patch Lady, which was early in “Day of the Moon.” At the moment, I lean toward the substitution taking place during the three months when the companions were on the run at the start of that episode. However, executive producer Beth Willis, in the episode of Doctor Who Confidential accompanying “The Almost People,” stated that the false Amy has been shown throughout the entire season so far, including the first episode. This would imply that the switch probably took place during the gap between the last Christmas special and the start of the season.
A second reason to admire the ingenuity of this plot twist is that it manages to have its cake and eat it too: we have the shock of finding out that the Amy we’ve been watching for six episodes is not the real Amy, but at the same time none of the experiences we’ve seen Amy having in those episodes are invalidated—which otherwise would have been very frustrating for the audience, given the character development for Amy and Rory which occurred in them. It would have been most unfair if, say, the Amy/Rory interplay in “The Doctor’s Wife” was suddenly retconned out of existence.
However, there is a conflict between the aims of this individual story and the aims of the season arc plot which leads to an unfortunate confusion and blurring of focus. It’s absolutely necessary for the arc that the Doctor can dissolve the false Amy at the end without any ethical qualms about ending the life of a sentient being, and yet writer Matthew Graham has just spent two episodes telling a story about how Gängers Are People Too. The story does attempt to balance these cross-purposes by treating the acquisition of free will and consciousness by this particular group of gängers as a freak occurrence, a result of the solar tsunami we saw in “The Rebel Flesh.” But then it goes on to muddy the waters considerably when the main antagonist, Jennifer (Sarah Smart), shows Rory a pile of distorted Flesh apparently consisting of the remains of old, discarded gängers (“Left to rot, fully conscious. Can you imagine what kind of hell they’re in?”). Rory naturally is filled with righteous indignation and falls in with Jennifer’s plans—which unfortunately means he’s left looking rather weak through most of the episode, having been duped by the Jennifer gänger into thinking she’s the real woman. This strand of the plot almost feels like it’s wandered in from a different episode entirely, and has no real effect on the story. When Rory tells the Doctor about the Flesh-pile, he is more concerned with escaping from the room he’s in at the time; admittedly, it’s about to be filled with boiling acid, but even after escaping he shows no inclination to investigate Rory’s information. Even at the end, he leaves the human survivors with no more than a vague admonition to “make the Company understand what they’re doing to the Flesh, make them stop”—which seems an uncharacteristically restrained response to the sort of horror we saw.
Even if it’s ultimately undercut somewhat by the arc plot, the actual telling of the story still has quite a lot of tension and excitement. It’s another instance of that venerable Doctor Who staple, the “base under siege” story, with a small group of characters trapped in an isolated setting. The human crew spend the episode trying to avoid their gängers and get evacuated from the island, while the Jennifer-gänger wants the gängers to take their counterparts’ places on the evacuation flight, get back to the mainland, and start a wider human/gänger conflict. The Doctor and the humans end up trapped in a room about to be flooded with acid thanks to Rory’s entertainingly embarrassed betrayal (“Uh, Doctor, look… I’d better tell you, I haven’t been quite straight with you…”). But despite all the rushing around and the potential world-shaking implications, the story is played out more like a group of character studies, as each of the crew members—and their duplicates—respond in different ways to the situation. For example, Jimmy (Mark Bonnar) and his gänger seem the most likely to be able to come to an understanding, thanks to their shared memories of Jimmy’s son Adam—they both react with happiness to the bells which signal midnight, and the start of what will be Adam’s fifth birthday. The Doctor sets up a video call to the boy, and coolly prods the gänger Jimmy when Adam (Edmond Moulton) asks to speak to his father: “You’ll do, Jimmy. What does the other Jimmy matter now? You’re both the same dad, aren’t you?” The gänger Jimmy realizes he can’t leave his counterpart to be killed, and rushes off to save him.
Jennifer: “You tricked him into an act of weakness, Doctor.”
The Doctor: “No. I’ve helped him into an act of humanity.”
Ironically, the real Jimmy gets blasted by the acid and dies in his gänger’s arms, giving his blessing to the duplicate to take over his life (“Be a dad. You remember how”). He at least gets as happy a resolution as can be expected—effectively, Jimmy survives what would have been a fatal accident and makes it home to his son.
It’s annoying that the most provocative question arising from the whole situation—what happens if two copies of the same person have to share one life?—ends up being evaded, since the script ensures that no more than one member of each human/gänger pair survives to the end. Buzzer (Marshall Lancaster) and Dicken (Leon Vickers) are both more or less cannon fodder. Buzzer saw his duplicate die in the last episode, and here he eventually gets killed off when he runs into the gänger Jennifer. For an actor who was such a memorable part of Matthew Graham’s Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, Marshall Lancaster has disappointingly little to work with in these two episodes—his best line (“Should have been a postman, like me dad”) is almost his last. Meanwhile, the original Dicken dies in a rather perfunctory act of self-sacrifice, leaving his gänger counterpart to carry on in his place, just like Jimmy.
Most of the conflict that drives the story forward comes from the young girl, Jennifer. The body of the original Jennifer is discovered halfway through “The Almost People”; the multiple Jennifers seen in this episode are all gängers. She descends into somewhat hammy villainous speeches at times, but Sarah Smart certainly puts a lot of energy into the role. As I said above, the whole strand of the story involving the mistreatment of the Flesh is left rather undeveloped and confusing, and it’s not clear how much of Jennifer’s words about the villainy of the humans can be relied upon. She is certainly willing to go to extreme lengths to express hatred of them; we see her creating a bizarre wall of Flesh eyes, which turn to accuse the humans going past them. In the end, she becomes a literal monster, an enormous, grotesque dog-like creature with her human face stuck on the front. The CGI for this monster was much improved from the last time a similar creature appeared, in 2007’s “The Lazarus Experiment”. Although it still failed to be fully convincing in sharp close-up, the initial backlit, defocused shots of the human form stretching and distorting into the monstrous shape were creepily effective.
The head of the human crew, Miranda Cleaves, gets the most interesting character work, and Raquel Cassidy puts in a great double performance. Despite the fact that Cleaves basically set off the whole conflict last episode by killing the duplicate Buzzer, both versions of her turn out to be rather reluctant warriors. They both provide good leadership for their respective groups, and they are certainly well matched—the human Cleaves is smart enough to type a password instead of speaking it in her communication to the mainland, suspecting her counterpart to be eavesdropping, but the gänger Cleaves is able to correctly guess the password she’s chosen. Then both versions begin suffering headaches, and the Doctor discovers she has an inoperable blood clot in her brain—news which she ruefully breaks to her gänger when they come face to face (“Of all the humans in all the worlds, you had to pick the one with the clot. But hey, them’s the breaks. Welcome to the human race”). The gänger Cleaves, deciding she just wants to be left alone in peace, declines to join Jennifer’s “revolution” against the humans:
Gänger Cleaves: “I’ve had it with this. What’s the point in this ridiculous war? Look at you, Jen. You were a sweet kid. Look at you now: the stuff of nightmares. I don’t want my world populated by monsters.”
True to her word, the gänger Cleaves eventually gives her life to stop the Jennifer-monster, after which (in what was definitely the most irritating occurrence of this script’s compulsion to unnecessarily tidy away loose ends) the Doctor casually produces a bit of magic from the TARDIS that will cure the original’s blood clot.
But by far the most interesting exploration of original/gänger duality in the story is that relating to the Doctor himself. From the beginning of this episode, he reaches out and tries to help his counterpart as the gänger-Doctor takes a few minutes to stabilize—the Flesh struggles to cope with the Time Lord’s multiple lives, and he starts spouting lines and catch-phrases from the Doctor’s past incarnations. Some of these (like Jon Pertwee’s infamous “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow”) are imitated by Matt Smith, while others are actual archive sound, such as Tom Baker’s “Would you like a jelly baby?” I particularly enjoyed hearing David Tennant’s “Hello, I’m the Doctor” being immediately followed by “No, no, let it go, we’ve moved on!” Once the gänger-Doctor is fully present, the Doctor shows no sign of the fear or distrust displayed by the others towards his doppelgänger. In fact, he is delighted to have a literal equal to bounce off, and the two Doctors are soon tossing ideas back and forth and completing each other’s sentences, much to Amy’s irritation (“You know, I’m starting to get a sense of just how impressive it is to hang out with me”). The Eleventh Doctor has always tended to speak his thoughts out loud, rambling on as if having a conversation with himself, and a lot of the interaction between the two Doctors is an amusing externalization of that tendency. It’s also an impressive technical achievement; thanks to Matt Smith’s superb timing and very good work from director Julian Simpson, there was never a moment where the illusion of these two separate but identical beings was threatened.
The idea that the Doctor and his Flesh counterpart are, in fact, identical—that they deserve to be treated with complete equality—is actually quite an alien one to accept, and Amy no doubt speaks for most of the audience when she seizes on a way of distinguishing them:
Amy: “No getting away from it. One of you was here first.”
Doctor 1: “Well, OK, after the Flesh scanned me I had an accident with a puddle of acid. Now, new shoes. A situation which does not confront m’learned self, here.”
Doctor 2: “That satisfy you, Pond?”
Amy: “Don’t call me Pond, please.”
Doctor 2: “Interesting. You definitely feel more affection for him than me.”
Amy: “No, no… you’re fine and everything. But he’s… the Doctor. No offense; being almost the Doctor’s pretty damn impressive.”
Doctor 2: “Being almost the Doctor’s like being no Doctor at all. You might as well call me… Smith! John Smith!”
(Was I the only one thinking it would have been hilarious if he had said “Matt Smith” at the end there?)
Of course, one of the staple devices of a doppelgänger story is misleading either the audience or the other characters about which is which. At the end, the rug is pulled out from under Amy, as the Doctors confess they swapped shoes—they had to know whether they were truly the same, and needed Amy’s outside perspective to make sure. It’s worth watching the episode a second time once you know the truth, to see how Matthew Graham and Matt Smith maintain the ambiguity. Smith has fun giving what we think is the gänger Doctor a slightly dangerous edge, particularly when he is found by the other gängers and plays along with them (“Call me Smith”), menacing the captured Rory. His repeated non sequitur “Ring ring!” before his prearranged phone call from Adam arrives was really rather sinister.
There’s only one scene which becomes problematic after the switch is revealed, and that’s the Doctor’s attack on Amy outside the monastery. She thinks it’s the gänger Doctor, and when he suddenly seems to telepathically sense the anguish of Jennifer’s Flesh-pile and slams Amy against the wall, she is naturally alarmed and runs back inside to ’her’ Doctor. But once it becomes clear that that was actually the original Doctor, it’s never properly explained why he should have such a dangerous response to the Flesh when his counterpart does not (especially when, at the beginning of the episode, it was the gänger Doctor doing all the “Why, why, why?” emoting). However, there are a couple of other things going on in this scene, too. First, it provides the Doctor with the information that the Flesh is developing the desire to grow and divide at will—which explains Jennifer’s abilities to create extra gängers and (possibly) the pile of Flesh bodies. Also—and this may turn out to be of crucial importance—Graham (or possibly showrunner Steven Moffat) cleverly advances the season arc plot, as Amy inadvertently reveals the details of the Doctor’s death from “The Impossible Astronaut” to him, under the impression she’s talking to the gänger Doctor. The final conversation between the Doctors, as the gänger Doctor prepares to sacrifice himself to stop the Jennifer-monster, shows that the Doctor certainly took notice of what he heard:
Gänger Doctor: “Well, my death arrives, I suppose.”
The Doctor: “But this one we’re not invited to.”
Gänger Doctor: “Pardon?”
The Doctor: “Nothing… Your molecular memory can survive this, you know. It may not be the end.”
Gänger Doctor: “Yeah, well, if I turn up to nick all your biscuits then you’ll know you were right, won’t you?”
(The Doctor chuckles, and gives a final nod of acknowledgement to his other self, which is returned.)
The gänger Doctor uses the sonic screwdriver to destroy the monster, which also causes himself and the Cleaves gänger with him to dissolve. This seems to preclude the possibility that the gänger Doctor was the one who died in the season premiere, and leaves us no closer to the solution of that mystery. However, the fairly obvious hinting in the above quote suggests that we may not have seen the last of him after all…
In the end, it’s undeniable that the final three minutes, after the story proper has concluded, are the most memorable in the entire episode. In the TARDIS, all three regulars give brilliant performances as, impossibly, Amy feels herself going into labor. The Doctor finally explains that he deliberately brought them to this time and place:
The Doctor: “I needed to see the Flesh in its early days. That’s why I scanned it; that’s why we were there in the first place. … I needed enough information to block the signal to the Flesh.”
Amy: “What signal?”
The Doctor: “The signal to you.”
He hasn’t had a lot of good material in this episode, but Arthur Darvill seizes the chance to show Rory’s slowly dawning understanding as the Doctor orders him to stand away from his wife. It’s an absolutely chilling moment, as Amy is shocked and bewildered at what’s happening to her.
Amy: “Doctor, I am frightened. I am properly, properly scared.”
The Doctor: “Don’t be. Hold on. We’re coming for you, I swear it. Whatever happens, however hard, however far, we will find you.”
Amy: “I’m right here…”
The Doctor: “No, you’re not. You haven’t been here for a long, long time.”
The final, soft “Oh, no…” from Karen Gillan as the Doctor levels the sonic screwdriver at Amy is extremely telling. The whole scene is a brilliant payoff for the season arc story so far—but even as the duplicate Amy dissolves, we’re off into a new phase of the story as the real Amy suddenly wakes up in a bare white chamber with no idea where she is. The final moments, as the mysterious Eye Patch Lady looks in on her—for real, this time—and tells her to “Puuusssshhhhh,” are the stuff of nightmares.
Although the story was wrapped up a little too easily in order to make room for the arc plot, I thought this two-parter was pretty successful. The production values were again impressive, the setting and ideas were intriguing (albeit not explored as well as they could have been), and the regular cast—Matt Smith in particular—were all given great material. And the ending, with Amy’s terrified scream followed by the dreaded “TO BE CONTINUED,” launches us once again into the unknown…
Next Week: It’s the mid-season finale. River Song is back, and at least some of the outstanding questions about her will be answered when “A Good Man Goes to War.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Another occurrence of a doppelgänger for the Doctor can be found in “Meglos,” starring Tom Baker and Lalla Ward.
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