Dr. Moo reverses the jelly baby of the neutron flow.
It’s hard for Doctor Who to find a new idea to tell a story about, so when a fresh idea does come along I’m all for it. At 48 years old that was only getting more and more difficult, so when we saw that the next two episodes, forming a two-part story, were being written by Matthew Graham – the man responsible for Fear Her – it was understandable that we should be panicking.
The story opens when the Doctor, Amy and Rory discover a crew of people who use something called The Flesh to create doppelgangers to venture into dangerous environments where their human counterparts can’t safely go. The attitude the humans show towards these so-called “gangers” is unsettling from the word go, when we see one of these gangers die in acid after a playfight goes wrong and the crew are more upset about losing the saftey suit than losing this living breathing person. They see their gangers as disposable, something they can replace easily, but it’s not long before we see that these gangers are still capable of suffering. With that we viewers are hooked.
We spend most of the first episode getting to know who these people are and Graham takes the opportunity to flesh out (ho-ho!) the society and characters. Then there’s a lightning strike that, by means of Scientific Liberty, allows these gangers to develop sentience and rebel against the way the humans mistreat them, and now we’ve got ourselves a story!
The idea of doppelgangers turning against their makers is nothing new or original on paper but Graham finds something new to do with it. Usually these stories just focus on the (admittedly terrifying) concept of these evil clones of doom trying to conquer the world and all that jazz, but this story avoids this tired cliché and turns it on its head. He gives the gangers their own separate-yet-recognisable personalities, their own thoughts and their own motives. While their ringleader attempts to turn them against their human likenesses, you get the impression that they don’t really want to do any harm unless they absolutely have no choice. They’re not human but they have all the thoughts and feelings that go with it.
What this new and different plot device allows is for The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People to become a strong story of ethics and morals with a tough question being asked: gangers have all the thoughts, feelings and memories of a human but should we treat them as such? This question is raised in a number of interesting ways but the most effective are when we see one of the crew and his ganger both love his son and the way Amy treats the Doctor and his ganger differently, while the differences between Rory’s pro-ganger stance and Amy’s anti-ganger stance lets us get a decent look at both sides of the argument. It also allows for Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan to give Rory and Amy some more depth, not that either had been lacking before but it is still welcome and both actors get to give us a real showcase of their skill as performers.
This ethical and moral dilemma gives the story power and makes it stand out. It also makes it engaging and helps it to hold your interest throughout. The two-parts allow the story the chance to play out slowly, which means it's given time to establish the setting and give the characters their backstories and motivations. While the plot could be told faster and thus be reduced to one episode it would lose its power and suffer as a result. Running at roughly 90 minutes, it feels like a four-part story from the classic run, but one made with modern production values – you don’t need me to tell you that this is a good thing, do you?
Despite these modern production values the effects still feel “classic” with the gooeyness of the gangers occasionally showing up and looking like a bunch of schoolkids playing with Photoshop. However, I think this is the point! These effects are supposed to look like that because of The Flesh’s gooey nature coming through so credit where it’s due for working these daft-looking effects into the context of the story.
Where I can’t let the effects team off is in the final scenes as everyone escapes the facility with one of the evil gangers, their ringleader, giving chase after turning into some crappy CGI monster. It feels a bit like Graham realised he hadn’t found a way to dispose of the Doctor’s ganger yet or to get the characters to leave and so he just gave them all a token monster to run away from. It doesn’t feel like he’s cheating but it does feel, to me at least, like it cheapens everything that came before. Just take a look at it in the screengrab below and see for yourself:
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! It was all going so well up ‘til then! Thankfully the actors involved do manage to convince opposite it, so that stands to their collective credit.
The story itself does still stand up as a whole (if we disregard that end bit) and one of the best reasons for this lies in the twists. The reveal of the Doctor’s ganger as the first episode draws to a close is one such moment and Matt Smith gives a showcase of his acting ability in the dual role this gives him, even channeling several of the Doctor’s previous incarnations. Another great twist is when the Doctor reveals that he and his ganger have swapped places so it was the real Doctor on the receiving end of Amy’s prejudice… and so it was he who heard about his death on the beach, not the ganger. That’s advanced the story arc a bit then!
In fact the biggest twist of the lot, and one of Doctor Who’s greatest ever cliffhangers to boot, comes right at the end, and this too advances the arc. When we learn that Amy’s actually been a ganger for the entire season up to this point (Her anti-ganger stance throughout the story suddenly takes on a whole new dimension in hindsight!). It comes completely out of nowhere yet makes complete sense. Suddenly her continual sightings of Kovarian and the Doctor’s failure to identify whether she’s pregnant or not make sense, and it even gives a reason for why the Doctor’s gone there: he’s figured it out and wants to investigate The Flesh for himself. When the story’s opening has him telling Amy and Rory to wait behind we were curious why, now we know. It sets up the events of the incredible A Good Man Goes To War in such a way that it demands you tune in the following week to see what could possibly come next. As cliffhangers go it has got to be one of Doctor Who’s finest.
Why series six was split at all is a mystery to me but if it had to happen why couldn’t the split have been here? Imagine having to wait all summer long after THIS one!
All in all I think The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People holds up better than popular consensus would have it. The contributions to the season arc work as well as they should, while the story itself also works as a standalone adventure, save for the final twist. As well as that it manages to be Doctor Who at its best: exciting, tense, thought provoking and well acted with some great twists thrown in for good measure; the only thing it didn’t need is that CGI monster at the end. It’s a shame that this adventure is not thought of as a modern classic because it certainly deserves to be counted as one. Go watch it again today.
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The
Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the
latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.