5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE REBEL FLESH/THE ALMOST PEOPLE
It’s often said that there are no new ideas in fiction. Actually, we don’t think that’s true at all. But if you did want to argue for the proposition, a great place to start would be with these two episodes.
Matthew Graham’s previous work for Who is Fear Her. Not, you might say, Doctor Who’s most shining hour. In it, he recycles the plots of a string of SF shows too long to list. His other SF work, if you’re not counting Life On Mars/Ashes to Ashes, is The Last Train, a clone of every post-apocalyptic show ever made. Seeing any pattern here?
And Steven Moffat is the enabler. Avatars, he said, apparently. Really? asked Matthew. Like the movie? Surely not. No, no, said Steven. Like The Thing. It’ll be great.
It is not great.
There’s nothing wrong with using an idea somebody’s used before. Didn’t seem to do Shakespeare any harm, after all. And there are lots of examples of successfully reworking material to put a fresh and interesting spin on it.
However, what has to be kept in mind when you’re drawing from a busy well is that that part, the fresh and interesting part, isn’t a nice to have. It’s compulsory. Otherwise you end up with a tired retread of something someone else did a lot better before you. And that’s just what’s happened in The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People.
Although Moffat mentioned The Thing, and there are elements of the pod people genre in here, it’s really much more of a Frankenstein story. It didn’t help The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People’s cause that we recently trooped along to the movies to see the National Theatre’s broadcast of their production of Frankenstein. (Which we did because we love high culture, not at all because we all fancy Benedict Cumberbatch.) The production is pretty faithful to the Mary Shelley original, and it reminded us of what a bang-up job she did. The predicament of the monster, longing to be inside society but shunned by it. The ethical and philosophical question of what it means to be human and to be not human. It’s all there.
So if you’re going to riff on this theme, you’d better bring something more to it than Mary Shelley managed. After all, you’ve had almost two centuries to improve on it.
And that’s the problem. These episodes reproduce the main elements and themes of Frankenstein. They also throw in a grab bag of stuff we’ve seen over and over again from SF in general (the whole of Blade Runner, the Tom Riker story in Star Trek, the creation of the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, etc etc) and from Doctor Who itself (base under siege, of course, duplicate Doctors, people made out of plasticky stuff, Lazarus Experiment-alike monster, so many we can’t count them). There isn’t a single new idea we can find in here, and worse, there isn’t a single new spin on one either. Does this pass the better-than-Shelley test? Not even slightly.
It gets worse. What they do do, they do badly.
There are two ways you can go with Frankenstein stories: pity-us-we’re-human-not-monsters, and OK-we’re-monsters-but-you-made-us-do-it. You can use both, and probably should. Shelley did. But when you do, you have to make the swings between the different states at least vaguely credible. And that’s what’s missing from these episodes. One minute it’s all heartstringy, if you tickle us do we not laugh, if you cut us do we not leak splodgy white goo, and the next, it’s all homicidal mania. And the only reason for the mood swings is plot expedience.
It’s a shame, because it starts really well. The island looks like it’s going to be fun, and the teaser, with the casual melting of a colleague, is genuinely intriguing. The TARDIS crew bits are on good form, too, with the Doctor clearly bent on getting rid of Amy and Rory sharpish to do something mysterious and the monastery and Amy kissing Rory’s finger better (bless) and the snowglobe (love a snowglobe). As ever, they’re where they need to be (”Accident? Yes, an accident”) although in typical Moffatesque fashion we’re not going to find out why for nearly an hour and a half.
Then the almost people turn up, and again, for a while it’s great, with a cracking turn from Raquel Cassidy as Cleaves and, of course, a reliably blistering performance from Matt Smith. (Watch him lower his voice and say “You know which one”, then raise his eyebrows. Niiiiiiice.)
A solar storm comes along, the scientific accuracy of which we’re not going to bother to debate, although we do wonder why nobody but the Doctor seems to know anything about it (we can predict them now, let alone in The Future). Cleaves decides not to unplug anything, which is a good decision only to a plot writer, and then there is some really effective freaky stuff as CleavesGanger screams in the storm. And unfortunately, one-third of the way through the first episode, that’s where it all turns to acid-infested custard.
The Doctor comes round, spots Cleaves and says “You’re out of your harness!” Oh dear. There’s no reason at all for him to assume it’s her and not her Ganger other than to misdirect the audience, but since it’s even clumsier than shouting “Look over there!” it has the opposite effect.
Then the endless switcheroo kicks in. Poor traumatised we’re one-of-you Gangers, all pleading and reminiscences, give way to kill-all-humans Evil Gangers and then back again. So what do they want us to think about the Gangers? Are we supposed to feel pity for them? Or fear them as violent freaks? The answer is both, but not in a good, complex way. Rather, like we said, it depends solely on which is more expedient to the plot at the time. And that’s why this fails.
What’s more, it’s one long cliché. The guy who fondly reminisces about his child, only to end up biting the big one. “This is war”. “I am not a monster!” “It’s us or them”. Sigh.
There is one interesting line of inquiry in here trying to get out about Rory’s attraction to somebody who finds him useful. Unfortunately, it gets smothered under the weight of randomness and of too much egg in the pudding (“You used my name! You used my name! Thank you!”), ending up going nowhere. There were opportunities here to look at whether there’s another dimension to Rory’s sympathy for JennyGanger, given his history as an Auton, but if it’s implicit, it’s so much so that it’s invisible. They even let Amy’s comment “Mediaeval expert, are you?” just lie there. Boo.
Episode two kicks off with a turn from the Doctor more entertaining in its weirdness than anything else. Why does he misquote the First Doctor? And why does Matt Smith speak the other Doctors’ lines except for the ones for which they dubbed in Tom Baker and David Tennant? Huh? (It was a shock, but in the case of Tom, at least, a bloody good one. We squealed to hear our two favourite Doctors in the same room.)
Just in case we hadn’t got the idea (is it really that hard to grasp?), we have another go-round with the Doctor on how they’re both real. And Amy grabs the opportunity to spill the secret she’s been dying to tell for ages. Why she would do such a thing, we have absolutely no idea. Yes, she doesn’t think it’s THE Doctor, but what’s her guarantee that he won’t go straight in and tell the other one? Mad.
Despite the Doctor insisting he and his Ganger are the same, Amy knows better. A few rounds of this and you’d have to be watching in Swahili with no subtitles not to guess that the Ganger is the actual Doctor and vice versa. And in case we hadn’t had enough of the vexed identity crisis question, they run the same thing with Rory and his pair of plastic twins. (Sorry, we’re not meant to know at this point that they actually are both Gangers, but it's such an obvious twist there was no other possibility. Why Jennifer would want to create another one of herself, not to mention how she did it without the help of a handy passing solar storm, we have no idea, but hey, let’s not let logic get in the way.)
Cleaves cunningly guesses her human counterpart’s password (because of course you would never pick something you know is totally atypical for you in that situation) and Jennifer actually says “Who are the real monsters?”. Also, whose idea was the wall of eyes? Take them out and shoot them. Immediately.
Then Rory, instead of just saying that they’ve been leaving piles of Flesh around quietly festering, agrees to a crazy deception involving secret tunnels. Really, Rory. If you’re so partial to simpering females who can’t open a bottle of ketchup without appealing to a manly man, why did you fall for Amy in the first place? What could have been an interesting character piece for Rory falls instead into his usual pattern of weakness.
Meanwhile, Jennifer gets loonier by the second, which would be OK (well, not really) if it made any sense, but it doesn’t. Join the revolution? The others won’t stand a chance? What are a handful of Gangers going to do against the entire human population? It’s not as if the ones on the mainland are slaves: they have no self will, so again without another handy solar storm it’s going to be a rather tiny revolution.
Then, after some horrible adorable-tyke stuff that seems to go on for ever, blessedly Cleaves says “I’ve had it with this. What’s the point of this ridiculous war?” Well said, that woman. And the dying Dad passes the torch to his Ganger. Cue sniffles all round and We’re All The Same After All. We’d hoped it would all be over by this stage, but they’re not finished with the silly CGI yet. Nor are they finished with the I know it’s really you, Doctor, from Amy.
And then at last it really is over, and we get to the only three minutes in the whole episode that are worth a damn. We refuse to do the speculation thing, but all we can say is we like this immensely, it makes sense with everything we’ve seen, and we’re looking forward to the next bit. One note: does the Doctor, after all he’s said about the Gangers, act callously in melting Amy’s Ganger? We don’t think so. Plenty of evidence is planted in there for us to conclude that these Gangers, early in the tech as they are and before Cleaves tells them of the problems, are very different from Amy’s and that therefore the material of Amy’s Ganger is devoid of sentience. (Although we admit that “I’ll be as humane as I can” does introduce a note of doubt.)
It’s tricky to do material that’s been used over and over before and still make it work. Alas, this barely even tries. The plot lurches randomly around; the twists are signalled for miles; the male characters are interchangeable; it’s a cliché from beginning to end. It’s a crying shame: there was a great opportunity for a tautly controlled psychological drama here, especially for Rory, and it’s utterly squandered. Can we melt it and start again?
MORAL: Double, double, toil and trouble.
You know, psychic paper’s just not as annoying when the Eleventh Doctor uses it.
CYLONS IS GOLDEN
That scene where JennyGanger sits up with a gasp after being Gangerised is such a direct lift from Battlestar Galactica that we’re going to be charitable and call it a homage.
YOU’VE GOT AN HONEST FACE
You’d think that after they discover Cleaves is a Ganger the others would immediately suspect each other, but no.
Although beautifully delivered by Sarah Smart, the “I remember my childhood” speech is exactly the same as the one in Victory Of The Daleks.
GET INTO THE GROOVE
Rory’s following JennyGanger, see, and he’s also been following AmyGanger all along. That’s a parallel, that is.
IN THE FLESH
Remember how Amy has constantly been saying in this series how she was there when the Doctor describes some exploit? Aha! Sneaky.
I MIGHT WANT SOME KETCHUP
Why doesn’t JennyGanger kill Rory when she’s finished with him?
I POKED ONE, IT WAS DEFINITELY DEAD
Naturally, as New Zealanders we’re Flight Of The Conchords fans, and “The Humans Are Dead” kept scrolling through our brains while we were watching this. Particularly the lines “We used poisonous gases/ And we poisoned their asses”.