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Doctor Who Recap: Season 6, Episode 5, “The Rebel Flesh”

Last week’s mix of Lovecraftian horror and ancient romance is followed up with a harder-edged, industrial sci-fi thriller.




Doctor Who Recap: Season 6, Episode 5, The Rebel Flesh
Photo: BBC

With one of those tonal shifts so characteristic of Doctor Who, last week’s mix of Lovecraftian horror and ancient romance is followed up with a harder-edged, industrial sci-fi thriller. “The Rebel Flesh” kicks off a two-part story which in several ways is reminiscent of last year’s Silurian episodes (“The Hungry Earth” and “Cold Blood”), which I found rather lacking, but tells a much more interesting and complex story. Once again, the Doctor finds himself in the role of mediator between two hostile groups, but this tale of doppelgangers and questions of identity has far more immediacy—and the Doctor ends up having a very personal stake in the outcome.

One similarity this episode shares with “The Hungry Earth” is the way the teaser is devoted entirely to setting out the world in which the story is set, before our regular characters arrive. We are on a small island in the 22nd century, in a factory crewed by a handful of workers, where a highly dangerous but valuable acid is being extracted from the earth and pumped to the mainland (for reasons never specified). There’s an industrial accident as one of the men, Buzzer (Marshall Lancaster) inadvertently falls into a vat of the acid thanks to a bit of horsing around from one of his co-workers, Jennifer (Sarah Smart). But instead of being horrified, his colleagues are quite unmoved as he begins to dissolve in front of them (“Sorry, Buzz—my bad”), more annoyed about the loss of one of their protective suits. Things begin to become clearer when an identical, undamaged Buzzer appears and jokingly remonstrates with them—the loss of “that body” to the acid was nothing more than an inconvenience. “Oh, lighten up. It’s not like anyone was hurt,” he says—and we cut to a shot of an agonized face disappearing beneath the surface of the acid.

It’s a nicely dark, intriguing opening, which is all to the good since writer Matthew Graham’s previous involvement with Doctor Who was somewhat inauspicious. He contributed “Fear Her” for the first David Tennant season in 2006—and to the extent that there is such a thing as a consensus in Doctor Who fandom, that episode is generally considered to be one of the poorest in the history of the series. A cheap, budget-saving exercise hastily written to fill a slot left by an abandoned Stephen Fry script, its dull contemporary suburban setting and weak guest performances did it no favors. I was hoping that this time around, Graham would be able to come up with a story much more worthy of the creator of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes—two of my favorite series of the past few years—and he certainly did so.

Meanwhile, it’s leisure time aboard the TARDIS—the console room seems more like the local pub back in Leadworth with music blaring over the speakers, while Rory (Arthur Darvill) and Amy (Karen Gillan) are playing darts. The Doctor (Matt Smith) is fretting once again over the TARDIS’s scan of Amy which (as first seen at the end of “Day of the Moon”) keeps switching between showing her pregnant and not pregnant. He clearly wants to go off on his own to investigate this, but his attempt to get them to leave for a while is foiled when a “solar tsunami” suddenly strikes the TARDIS and forces them down onto the island.

Exploring outside, they find that the factory is actually housed inside an ancient monastery. It’s a neat idea that gives an impressive scale to the exterior scenes (filmed using several castles in South Wales) and provides long stone corridors and unusual, gloomy interior chambers that are more striking and evocative than the usual industrial plant setting for a story of this kind. As with all of the episodes of this season so far, the design work is excellent.

They are soon confronted by the workers, who treat them with understandable wariness, particularly the leader, Cleaves (Raquel Cassidy). The old Doctor Who series presented many stories in settings like this—an isolated scientific or technical station with a hard-nosed boss suspicious of strangers—and this situation would often result in the Doctor and his friends being captured and getting locked up for the best part of an episode. In the faster-paced modern series he simply whips out his psychic paper and passes himself off as a meteorological expert, warning them that the full force of the solar storm is yet to come. (Rather cutely, he uses a pocket snowglobe as a timer to somehow tell him when the storm will arrive.)

At this point it’s necessary to fill the audience in fully on what’s going on, and Graham resorts to a rather clumsy info-dump to get the exposition across. For no clear reason, Cleaves gives the Doctor and his friends a lecture on their whole operation—in particular, the concept and use of “the Flesh.” This large vat of white goo is actually “fully programmable matter” which can be formed into an exact doppelganger of a living being. The real humans can control their “ganger” duplicates through a special harness, and use them to perform the hazardous work with the acid, since—as we saw—if one of the duplicate bodies gets damaged or destroyed, no one cares. A new ganger is created for Jennifer, and the effects are excellently done as a dead-white, unnaturally smooth face emerges from the goo before the body forms and stabilizes into a perfect copy of the real woman.

The Doctor: “Well, I can see why you keep it in a church—the miracle of life.”
Buzzer: “No need to get poncy—it’s just gunge.”

The Doctor is immediately alert to the wider implications which neither Cleaves nor any of her colleagues seem to have considered. To Cleaves, operating the Flesh is no different than operating a forklift truck; even its ability to grow and its learning to “replicate itself at a cellular level” causes her to rank it no higher than moss on the scale of living things. But when the Doctor scans the Flesh with his sonic screwdriver, he gets a surprise—“It was like…for a moment there, it was scanning me!”—and he seems to be drawn into touching it.

The Doctor: “How can you be so blinkered? It’s alive, so alive. You’re piling your lives, your personalities, directly into it.”

The full force of the solar storm finally strikes the monastery (with some impressive CGI effects—although I couldn’t help thinking that this is either a very small, precisely targeted storm, or else the rest of the planet is in a lot of trouble). The factory is damaged; the pipes fracture and start leaking acid everywhere, causing the TARDIS to start sinking into the ground. Electricity arcs through the harnesses holding the workers, and into the doppelgangers. It’s a moment where the story steps away from sci-fi and starts borrowing from the Frankenstein mythos—lightning bringing life to artificially made creatures.

As everyone recovers from being knocked out, they slowly realize that the situation has entirely changed: the gangers are now independent entities. The metaphysical questions of identity which had previously been ignored now come to the forefront in an excellent scene in the crew’s living quarters, which they find the gangers have ransacked, searching for something:

Jimmy: “Searching for what?”
The Doctor: “Confirmation. They need to know their memories are real.”
Buzzer: “Oh, so they’ve got flaming memories now?”
The Doctor: “They feel compelled to connect to their lives.”
Cleaves: “Their stolen lives.”
The Doctor: “No, bequeathed. You gave them this. … You gave them your lives. Human lives are amazing. Are you surprised they walked off with them?”

Matt Smith excels at showing the Doctor taking charge of the group, especially when he reveals that Cleaves is actually the doppelganger version using a neat trick with a microwaved plate of food. Interestingly, the Cleaves duplicate appears not to realize her own nature until the Doctor exposes it—but as soon as he does, she runs off to find the other gangers as the original humans turn hostile and paranoid, their thoughts immediately turning to self-defense.

Another strand of the story gives some good material to Karen Gillan and particularly Arthur Darvill, by putting some pressure on the relationship between Amy and Rory. Rory goes to help Jennifer after the trauma of the storm, and is clearly somewhat attracted by her “damsel in distress” personality. There’s a witty acknowledgement of the fact that Rory has had so many deaths—both apparent and real—since about halfway through last season:

Jennifer: “I thought I was going to die.”
Rory: “Welcome to my world.”

He escorts Jennifer to a bathroom to recover—where she is revealed to also be the ganger version, bizarrely transforming for a moment into a snake-bodied creature and lunging at Rory before escaping. (The rather unconvincing CGI of this sequence reminded me of the equally odd Prisoner Zero back in “The Eleventh Hour.”) Rory, though, in contrast to all the other humans in the story, accepts her as a person needing help, and goes in search of her. It’s never spelled out directly—perhaps it should have been—but the fact that Rory has direct experience of being the same kind of “imposter,” thanks to his two thousand years spent in Auton form in “The Big Bang”, is probably a big part of the reason he connects so strongly to the gangers. He eventually finds Jennifer studying a photograph of her original and contemplating her memories. When he addresses her by her name, she kisses him (“Amy’s a lucky girl”), which leads to a brief moment of humor as Rory basks in the unaccustomed adulation. When they meet up with Amy and the other humans again, he stands up for her (“She needs protecting… Nobody touches her!”).

Meanwhile, the Doctor encounters the gangers and persuades them to come with him, leading to the climactic confrontation scene between the humans and the gangers. This is excellently directed by Julian Simpson, keeping the camera work fluid and natural even though it must have been tricky to shoot with several pairs of characters being duplicates. The Doctor lays out the dilemma that the gangers have been “hard-wired” by the storm, and now have to be treated as real people:

The Doctor: “We’re not talking about an accident that needs to be mopped up. We are talking about sacred life, do you understand?”

Just as in last year’s Silurian story, the Doctor attempts to find common ground between two potentially hostile factions, and at first there seems to be some hope of success—Jimmy (Mark Bonnar) and his ganger bond over their shared memories of his son’s birthday, and Cleaves’ duplicate appears to be rather more open-minded than her original. But then (and this part really did seem to be a little too reminiscent of “Cold Blood”) the original Cleaves comes in with some kind of taser device that she has constructed—“Oh great. You see, that is just so typically me,” says her duplicate—and kills the duplicate Buzzer (“They’re monsters, mistakes. They have to be destroyed”).

The gangers run off as any hope of trust between the two groups is destroyed. Both groups decide it’s a case of “us and them”although, interestingly, the doppelgänger Jennifer’s fear leads her to become the most belligerent of the gangers and take over the leadership of the group from Cleaves. “If we want to live, then it’s time to go to war.” The Doctor and the humans barricade themselves in as the gangers approach—except for Rory, who hears a scream from Jennifer and goes off in search of her, much to Amy’s distress.

Earlier, the real Jennifer had limped into the Flesh chamber, only to encounter a mysterious unseen figure (“Trust me”). I’m not sure why the episode tries to make a big mystery of who this is—the signposts are pretty clearly laid out, and as expected, the cliffhanger arrives with the reveal of a doppelgänger of the Doctor stepping out of the shadows.

I am very interested to see where the story goes from here. Matthew Graham has managed to set up an interesting scenario which doesn’t seem amenable to a pat resolution. Even if the current hostility between the two groups can be resolved, there is still the issue of what will ultimately become of the gangers—how can two copies of the same person share one life? And the duplicate Doctor raises a whole host of questions. Just how different is he from the real thing? Is the Flesh actually capable of replicating a Time Lord’s physiology—regeneration and all? And given that we saw the Doctor die (or so we thought) back at the start of “The Impossible Astronaut”, this development could obviously be vital to the season arc plot.

Which ties in to a whole separate strand of the story which I didn’t mention above—just how much did the Doctor know ahead of time? There are several instances where the Doctor seems to cryptically indicate that he knows more than he’s telling. For example, when he, Amy and Rory are first exploring after they land at the monastery, the following exchange occurs:

The Doctor: “I think we’re here. This is it.”
Rory: “Doctor, what are you talking about? We’ve never been here before.”
Amy: “We came here by accident.”
The Doctor: “Accident?!” (beat) “Yes, I know. Accident.”

When he first encounters the Flesh, he mutters to himself, “And there you are.” Later, on his way to find the TARDIS, he seems to deliberately go back and sonic the Flesh in its tank—which seems to kick off the creation of the doppelgänger Doctor. When he first encounters the Cleaves duplicate, he says, “This is early Flesh, the early stages of the technology. So much yet to learn.”

Jimmy: “You seem to know something about the Flesh.”
Amy: “Do you? Doctor?”
(The Doctor looks at her, but doesn’t want to answer.)
Jimmy: “You know, weatherman. Why are you really here?”
The Doctor: “I have to talk to them. I can fix this.”

Bearing in mind how the Doctor initially wanted to be on his own, without Amy and Rory, I’m wondering just to what extent he’s following an agenda we are not aware of at this point. The season arc plot has been in the background for some time now, but it looks like it’s finally coming to the boil. I’m looking forward to seeing how it all ties together.

Next Week: With impeccable timing, BBC America will not be showing a new episode on the Memorial Day weekend, so the story will conclude in two weeks, with “The Almost People.”

Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Admittedly it’s a thin link, but “Vengeance on Varos,” starring Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant, contains (I think) the only other occasion in Doctor Who history where someone falls into a vat of acid. Fortunately, it’s also a good story in its own right, and well worth checking out.

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