Doctor Who series 6 blog: The Rebel Flesh
After colliding with a solar tsunami, the Tardis crash lands on a remote corner of 22nd century Earth where a mining company are using disposable copies of their workers to complete a dangerous operation. When a storm frees the doppelgangers from their human masters, can the Doctor prevent fear taking over and the two groups destroying each other?
What's good about it?
The pre-credit sequence neatly sums up the driving premise at the heart of this episode - are the Gangers a sentient form of life or just talking goo? The casual attitudes of the miners towards the death of one of the doubles isn't cruel, they honestly don't see the Gangers as real people. So right from the start we have strong ethical questions about what defines 'life' in the sort of story that Doctor Who excels at. Philosophy for a tea-time audience.
Titles over, we launch straight into the action with the time-travellers being held at gunpoint by the mistrusting crew of miners. Once the Doctor has proved his (fake) credentials, the miners sketch out the world our friends have arrived in with some background information that gets proceedings moving along apace. This brings us to a nicely staged demonstration of what the liquid flesh is used for, which in turn gets the Doctor pretty fired up. Matt Smith does 'angry' very well and this is no exception. Also, asking the miners if they realise what the Gangers are capable of makes it pretty clear that the Doctor knows more about them than he's letting on, but more of that later!
We then hit the crux of the episode - the power surge and the blackout. From this point on the audience is not really sure who to trust - which are the Gangers and which are the 'originals'? Director Julian Simpson handles the atmosphere of mounting paranoia well and uses the isolated location to it's fullest - I mean, who doesn't find draughty old monasteries just a little bit scary? That said, writer Matthew Graham doesn't portray the Gangers as monsters, but rather very scared people who are desperate to cling on to life.
This idea of fear and identity is beautifully explored in the Blade Runner influenced scene with Rory discovering Jen looking at a photo of her human original as a child. Her adopted memories of getting lost on the moors and subsequent protestations of being the real Jennifer Lucas are very moving and deftly handled by actor Sarah Smart. Indeed the friendship between Rory and Jen is very touching and highlights how compassionate young Mr Pond is in the face of a morally ambiguous Universe. Keep up the good work Rory; you're quickly cementing a position as the best boy companion ever. As for Amy, well I think she's in big trouble. Her on and off pregnancy rears its head again, as does Eye Patch Lady. I get an uneasy feeling that once Amy is properly with child, her stalker might be making a collection ...
While his friends are tied up with their own stories, what on earth is the Doctor up to? In a blink-and-you'd-miss-it scene, he slips into the systems chamber and sonics the liquid flesh - but to what purpose? Does he know he's just cooked himself up a Ganger? And why is he being so evasive about his knowledge of this technology and how it will develop in the future? In true two-parter fashion, we have intriguing questions set up here to be resolved next week.
Tensions in the factory escalate as the episode reaches its climax. The tentative peace that had been brokered by the Doctor is shattered by the ham-fisted actions of Foreman Cleaves (a wonderfully belligerent performance by Raquel Cassidy) and the Gangers are now on the warpath. With Rory left to fend for himself in his search for Jen, the Doctor and the others take refuge in the chapel where they come face to face with a copy of the Doctor himself! An unsettling end to an exciting and thought provoking first half that leaves little hope for a happy ending next week.
What's wrong with it?
In the opening episode of a two-parter it can be difficult to tell what is an unexplained mystery and what could be a bit of shoddy plotting. For instance, what does the mining company need all that acid for? Is it some kind of weapon? A new currency? Or is melting stuff the big new fad in the 22nd century? Who knows? And why didn't the crew take more notice of the Doctor's warning about the storm? Surely they must have seen the dangers of what he was talking about? Finally, I'm not happy about Jen's switch to the dark side at the end of the episode. One minute she's weeping into Rory's shoulder, the next she's leading the Gangers to war against the humans. Come on, Jen, we know you're not the bad sort really.
The concept of borrowed and stolen identities is not a new one in Doctor Who, but rarely are the offending party shown in such a sympathetic light as they are in The Rebel Flesh. Patrick Troughton's 1967 story, The Faceless Ones has similar themes. The second Doctor and his friends arrive at Gatwick Airport to discover that young people have been going missing - the only thing that connects them is Chameleon Tours. Behind the holiday company the Doctor uncovers an alien race who is not seeking to invade the Earth, but to acquire a new physical identity. In this instance the Time Lord managed to find a peaceful solution to the Chameleons' problem, but will he be able to do the same for the Gangers?
The bottom line
'We. Are. Living!' Is this a study on the morality of artificially creating life? An exciting thriller about industrial relations gone awry? Or is it a body-horror movie set in a creepy castle? Answer: It is all of these and then some. The Rebel Flesh is a punchy episode that combines thought with action and scares, leaving the viewer hungry for next week's installment, The Almost People.