Sunday, May 22, 2011

Doctor Who - Season 6, Episode 5: "The Rebel Flesh"

"Please, trust me. I'm the Doctor." - the Doctor

This season of Doctor Who has gotten a lot of mileage out of trust issues and the ways in which appearances can be deceiving. As to the latter, so far, we've had the memory-manipulating Silence, a Siren who was really a sick bay, and a distress signal used as a Time Lord lure. And as to the former, well, let's not forget that this season began with the Doctor's friends covering up his death, and with the Doctor hiding valuable info about Amy's indeterminate pregnancy.

"The Rebel Flesh" plays with both deceptive appearances and matters of trust. It begins with a scene in which a man non-chalantly melts in a vat of acid, only to reappear elsewhere and declare, "It's not like anyone was hurt," and ends with a duplicate Doctor—a Doctorganger, if you will—asking us to trust him. You see, this episode is all about a form of "fully programmable matter" called The Flesh. The Flesh has the ability to recreate living beings, who are then controlled, Avatar-style, and made to do dangerous work in an acid pumping plant. That is, until a giant "solar tsunami" strikes the plant and makes like Frankenstein's lightning, animating the "Gangers" and giving them autonomy. But are they "alive?" The Doctor thinks so, but the plant's workers aren't so sure.

On the whole, I like the way the episode plays with this notion. Are the Gangers equal with the people on whom they're based? If they have all the same memories and feelings, how are they any different? Isn't it possible that our own memories are just as fictional and implanted, too? Should we judge the Gangers by their creepy, Voldemort-esque appearance, or might that be misleading? The violent, paranoid humans, particularly the foreman Cleaves, don't seem any more appealing than their "scared, angry" doubles. Rory manages to have a go at protecting and helping the duplicate Jennifer—perhaps due to the memories he still carries from his 2000 years as an "almost person" Auton?—and, for her part, the double seems relatively decent (Dhalsim-style punches aside).

But this is also an area where the episode runs into trouble with some inconsistent and unbelievable characterization. Cleaves in particular seems cartoonish and over-the-top with her work-first megalomania and dismissive treatment of the Gangers, which is reminiscent of the way humans treated the Ood in earlier episodes. And the variable attitudes the Gangers themselves display, while not entirely implausible, do cause some viewer frustration. One moment they appear to be plotting something, the next they're placing their faith in the Doctor. Even Flesh Jennifer seems to take a heel turn at the episode's conclusion. Is this inconsistency just due to the "real" humans' natural duplicity, reflected back by their doubles? For the most part, I didn't find this interpretation, or either side's level of hostility to be justified by Matthew Graham's script.

Now, one of the most common jokes about Doctor Who, one which has even been referenced on the show, is that it's just a lot of running up and down corridors. Tonight's episode features a fair amount of corridor running, much of it redundant, obscured by shadows, or for unclear purposes. When done in the service of adding to the episode's atmosphere, this is fine. But when the corridor-running too-closely resembles moving gamepieces around a board, calling attention to the episode's structure, it gets a bit tiresome. And, perhaps due to being the first half of a two-part episode, much of "The Rebel Flesh" feels like piece-moving, and very little of it is surprising if you've ever seen Battlestar Galactica or any other show or movie where "almost people" and regular people debate rights and inspire mutual mistrust.

That doesn't mean it's not an engaging episode. This season's darker palette is again on display, and episode director Julian Simpson uses it to fine effect to make the monastery where the plant is housed a scary place. I've noticed that the Moffat era has lost some of the gloss of the Russell T. Davies period, which allows these locales to remain menacing rather than a glowy "TV menacing." We get quite a few funny lines, and a more central role for Rory, for once, including a nice bit of heroism where he tackles and disarms the unhinged Cleaves. The question of trust hanging over all of this, including whether or not we can essentially trust ourselves (or our doubles) is also quite interesting.

But "The Rebel Flesh" is more concerned with tossing threads out than with knitting them together, and feels less like the first half of a two-parter than the first half of a slightly-overstretched single episode. We'll have to wait and see how things pan out in two weeks (I know! I thought BBCAmerica would stick to the UK schedule, too, but I guess they needed Memorial Day weekend off).

Notes and Quotes

  • There are a few hints in the episode that the Doctor might have seen all this, or at least a similar scenario, before, especially when he calls the Flesh "early technology." Is this the genesis of the Autons, perhaps? Adipose? I don't know of any other fleshy pseudo-human villains from the original series, so maybe some research is in order.
  • A line basically written to be quoted: "I've gotta get to that cockerel before all hell breaks loose... I never thought I'd have to say that again!"
    • Similarly: "Yes it's insane, but it's about to get even more insanerer. Is that a word?"
  • Another appearance from Eyepatch Woman, who again shows up in an impossible sliding window just long enough to confuse Amy. Wonder when we'll find out what she's doing...
  • Matt Smith's idiosyncratic line readings continue to bring life to even prosaic-seeming lines. The man can flat-out act.
  • Faux-Cleaves on Real Cleaves's hostility: "You see, that is just so typically me."
  • The music in tonight's episode stands out, especially the Twilight Zone-style stuff when Jenny's Ganger is being made. Great use of the 11th Doctor's theme, as well.
  • So sayeth the Doctorganger: "Correct in every respect, Pond. It's frightening, unexpected, frankly a total, utter, splattering mess on the carpet."
  • I keep forgetting to criticize BBCAmerica for continuing to use the new pre-credit sequence that makes the show seem hokier and Amy Pond–centric. I get that they're really courting the US audience, but enough's enough... that's just not what the show's about!
We'll see you back here in two weeks for "The Almost People," unless I somehow manage to see it before then—unlikely, but one never knows!

1 comment:

  1. There are a few hints in the episode that the Doctor might have seen all this, or at least a similar scenario, before, especially when he calls the Flesh "early technology." Is this the genesis of the Autons, perhaps? Adipose? I don't know of any other fleshy pseudo-human villains from the original series, so maybe some research is in order.

    He's talking about the cat hospital episode, where they have a shite load of grown infected humans. The cat lady says 'theyre just flesh, not true life' The doctor ends up freeing the flesh there. That was a few decades ago in the doctors perspective.