“The Rebel Flesh” Review (SPOILERS, I Guess)
By Kyle Anderson on May 23, 2011
I think we’ve been spoiled by Moffat two-parters lately. He has a way of making each episode feel like a separate story, with its own ebbs and flows, while still contributing to the greater narrative. Part one of this year’s non-Moffat two parter, Matthew Graham’s “The Rebel Flesh,” suffered from what I like to call “setup-itis.” The central ideas and performances were quite strong, and the creepiness factor was way up there, but it felt like they were just setting the board for the next episode. Is that a bad thing? Or is the Moffat way not the way it should be done?
“The Rebel Flesh” begins the way a lot of Doctor Who stories do, with a small group of workers doing some strange task we’ve never heard of in a familiar yet alien location. This show’s been doing blue-collar-in-space long before Ridley Scott. In this case, the small crew is working in a factory housed in a castle on a remote island wherein they have to pump a valuable but highly corrosive acid to the mainland. Valuable acid? How valuable can acid be? It’s so corrosive, in fact, that they’ve been forced to create disposable clones of themselves out of a self-replicating fluid called Flesh, which they control mentally through an external matrix-thing. We’re shown at the beginning that these doppelgangers, or gangers, are so disposable that they can push each other into vats of acid and not really bat an eye.
As one has grown to expect from years of science fiction reading/viewing, clones are not a good thing. Before too long a “solar tsunami” causes havoc on the island, and the gangers become infused with the workers’ memories and emotions. They believe they are the workers, while the workers believe that the gangers are merely copies. This speaks to one of sci-fi’s oldest tropes, which is questioning what it means to be human. It also brings up a very real fear, which is loss of identity. It’s easy to see why each side is so fearful and quick to attack the other; they each want to be validated as real. Imagine having decades of memories and feelings but knowing that you aren’t actually the one who had them, then imagine having an artificial being that looks like you claiming to be you. Both are fairly terrifying.
This episode set up quite a lot of interesting ideas, but that’s just how it felt, like a setup. I felt the same way last year with the Chris Chibnall two-parter, “The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood.” The first episode put all the characters in place, but nothing really happened until the second (though in the case of “Cold Blood,” nothing really happened there either). Typically, I suppose, this is the way two-part stories have existed in television drama forever, with the second part just continuing and wrapping up the tension introduced in the first part. Shows like “Law & Order” often treat “to-be-continued”s in this way and I usually never think anything about it, save going “Aw, man, now I have to wait a week.”
We Whovians, however, have been spoiled (if that’s the right word) with the two-part stories written by Steven Moffat. Each episode of the three two-parters he’s written since taking over the show has felt like a separate story, merely heading toward a common goal. So much happens in each episode and there are large tonal shifts between them that they can almost be considered separate stories. “The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone” was the most straight forward of his lot and even they were quite different, even down to the setting and pace.
Regardless, about the episode at hand: For the most part, I enjoyed “The Rebel Flesh.” The idea is intriguing, and the execution of that idea was handled well. The direction by Julian Simpson was a little flat for my liking; you have this inherently creepy location, a castle-factory, and the whole thing is lit with like shaky work lights. When the power goes out in the story, there was a chance to have some eerie mood lighting, but it was just kind of dim and grey. That’s my preference, of course, being the huge fan of Film Noir and 50s sci-fi/horror that I am.
The supporting characters were just okay, though the performances were strong. The opening scene was nice, because we started to get to know the workers a little bit, but pretty much, once the Doctor showed up, it was only Cleaves and Jen we got to know at all. There was even a crew member who showed up, “Dicken,” I’m told his name is, who I didn’t even know existed and then, suddenly, there he is. So one episode has a character disappear without explanation and another has one appear without explanation. Can we blame the Time War for that, too? Also, why is it always the leader in these situations who goes ape and overreacts? Flying off the handle is not generally considered a worthwhile skill for leading a parade let alone a highly dangerous and expensive operation. And I don’t mean to bring this up again, but why would ANYONE need a highly corrosive acid? That don’t make no sense.
Probably my favorite bit of the episode was Rory. He’s broken ranks of being just Amy’s lapdog/protector and branched out to help artificial women. Rory would be compassionate, given he has 2000 years of plastic memories floating around his brain. It’s also nice to see him not just heel when Amy tells him to. He’s a good character and a good companion, and for me has kind of outshone Amy since “Pandorica Opens.” Also, he didn’t die or almost die or appear to have died this week at all, though I was scared when he lunged at a taser-happy Cleaves.
The episode ends with a ganger version of the Doctor, which is a pretty cool idea, though one I saw coming from early on. The Doctor also seemed to know what was happening with the Flesh, but didn’t have time to explain. I bet this has something to do with the Sontarans, given that they are a clone race and the anti-acid suits the gangers wear look an awful lot like Sontaran outfits. I’d be surprised if they aren’t at least name checked in the next episode. Also next time, we’re supposedly going to get a lot more knowledge about Eye-Patch Lady, which is good because I’m kind of tired of seeing her for a second at a time. I think, much like Amy is apparently in a state of being pregnant and not pregnant, I think she is also both in a hospital and not in a hospital somewhere. Schrodinger’s Amy.
I think my incoherent rambling about this episode speaks for itself: I need to see part two before I make my full decision. I am, however, quite excited for it.
Here’s the next time trailer and accompanying clips for “The Almost People.”
-Kanderson is a genuine human who likes TWITTER followers