Doctor Who #874: The Rebel Flesh

"You poured in your personalities, emotions, traits, memories, secrets, everything. You gave them your lives. Human lives are amazing. Are you surprised they walked off with them?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired May 21 2011.

IN THIS ONE... A solar storm above a Medieval monastery causes "Gangers", body doubles made of "Flesh", to walk off and revolt.

REVIEW: Though Matthew Graham's two-parter is entirely overshadowed by the twist/revelation in Part 2's final moments, I think there's a lot to recommend before it happens. The whole idea of the Flesh is a great one. Not only is it useful for the greater arc (to make us believe it's the Doctor's out, but spoiler, it's what's going on with Amy), but it's also a metaphor for one of Doctor Who's stock plots and ethical lessons. This isn't the first time the Doctor has tried to make humanity play nice with "the alien", but that alien has never been so... human! It's easy to dismiss the Silurians and Sea Devils, but the Flesh are exact copies of the acid-mining crew. Or they can be. There's still some body horror stuff here, strange transformations and a reversion to gooeyness, but these false humans have all the memories and emotions of the originals. By fighting the alien, you're fighting yourself. We're all one, in the Doctor's ethos. In fact, it's sometimes quite difficult to know who is Flesh and who isn't, or if they might all be Flesh since before the TARDISeers ever showed up and it's all a big fake-out! Certainly, there are recent (unstable) duplicates, but are the originals actually originals? The episode makes you doubt everything and everyone.

When we spend time with known "Gangers", the episode takes on an existential tone. If their memories and feelings are real, do they have a real claim to the original's life? How traumatic would it be to find out you were really a Ganger, despite thinking of yourself as the original person? This will be explored further in The Almost People, but Sarah Smart gives a performance we can empathize with as Jennifer Lucas. Nurse Rory too, by the looks of it. To some, it looks like he's infatuated with her, but that wouldn't be like him at all. The look he gives Amy early on reveals, I think, that he's just trying to comfort a woman in pain, which is right up his alley. I like how he's grown a backbone and can now wave away Amy's arguments and impose his will on her. It's always been Amy on top, but there's a more equal partnership there, coming out of his accumulation of experience both as the Centurion and aboard the TARDIS. And of course, our bonding with Jennifer through him means it's all the creepier when she becomes an antagonist preaching violence for survival's sake.

While the themes are quite strong, there are still some odd things about the set-up. We're in the future, but the location is a 13th-century monastery. It just about works given the themes of creation and resurrection, and provides a Gothic environment that lends power to the horror, but it still seems like they're forcing a square peg into the round hole they had. The crew is mining highly corrosive acid? That's weird too. And the whole solar storm deal... On an alien planet (filled with acid), it might have been acceptable as a method of screwing with tech, but on Earth? What kind of weather event is this? Everything seems to point to an entirely different (alien/high-tech) location, not Earth. I've also got a bit of trouble with Rory spontaneously calling the sleeping (plumbed) crew "almost people". I thought it might be a Dusty Springfield reference he'd had on his mind because of the music, but my research hasn't  turned up anything. Just sounds a little precious, then.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Despite the strangeness of the set-up, a Gothic and existential horror piece that can only get freakier.


Anonymous said...

Rory was great because he's always great, it's a law of nature. But I feel there was a missed opportunity for Rory to say something along the lines of, "if I were, say, made out of plastic, would I be any less me?" This is right up Rory's alley.

Of course, if Rory made that argument, Amy would have less grounds to be all distrustful with a side order of minor twist ending. So maybe Rory should have made the comment to one of the gangers.

Siskoid said...

Great point!

I would have liked that too. It's only there in subtext, but deserved to be, uhm, text.

Brian said...

When I saw Rory leading the way to empathize with the Gangers, I also really expected to see a callback to his memories as a plastic Auton (which we've seen has survived -- at least the centurion part*)

*I often wondered if the body horror trauma of remembering that body which he may not have any longer had post-Big Bang was suppressed or just not talked about -- either way, the events here should have had some reference to them.

Siskoid said...

He did remember it. It's mentioned in The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon. He says it's like a door he can open, so he remembers his plastic existence only if he chooses to.


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