BBCHD - 21 May 2011 - 6.45pm
Let's face it, Matthew Graham's Fear Her didn't exactly set the world on fire back in June 2006. So, while it is great that he gets another chance to write for the series I'm sure a number of fans were holding their collective breaths about the The Rebel Flesh, the first installment of his latest two part story for Doctor Who, and hoping for something bolder and better. Fortunately, Graham really gets his teeth into this script, perhaps to such a degree that this really does feel like a base-under-siege 'trad' Who story more than any of the episodes in the last two years, especially with Matt Smith in glorious Troughton mode. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and it makes a very welcome change from the rest of the episodes transmitted so far. As his sophomore engagement with the series, The Rebel Flesh certainly turns out to be a far better Doctor Who story than Graham's 2006 effort, perhaps by dint of its association with a number of classic Who tropes and is certainly one of the most explicit explorations of that central theme in the series: otherness.
Graham gradually shifts your empathy to the programmed clones
Jimmy and Jennifer standing idly by and worrying about the loss of an expensive suit as Buzzer inadvertently falls into a pool of acid ("nice going twinkle toes") is enough to immediately set off some alarm bells that what we're seeing isn't quite what it seems. When Buzzer reappears in the corridor after seemingly meeting his end in a vat of acid, and Graham uses his complaining about the accident as a cheeky nod to all those accident compensation adverts that pretty much pay for daytime telly, then those bells are positively ringing off the wall. One of the neater accomplishments of the episode is how Graham gradually shifts your empathy to the programmed clones and reveals the humans in the story are actually the monsters. As Buzzer nonchalantly dismisses the loss of the duplicate with his mordant, "Oh, lighten up. It's not like anyone was hurt" we see his counterpart's face dissolve into the acid, a mask of pain suggesting that these copies actually do have some sensitivity to their own demise.
When a solar tsunami drives the TARDIS to Earth in the 22nd century, it's the cue for a Frankenstein-like thunderstorm that brings the spark of life to the programmed doppelgangers and after an hour's blackout, the Doctor and the factory crew, led by foreman Miranda Cleaves (Rachel Cassidy brilliant as a thoroughly unforgiving factory boss) discover that no one is quite who they seem to be. The story then develops into a treatise on the Shelleyian ideas of taking responsibility for your creations as well as an enquiry into the nature of identity.
"men and women melt into forms other than their known physical selves or into hideous liquescence"
Here, we see how this anxious situation is created in the relationship between Rory and the doppelganger of Jennifer, how her distress at discovering that she is merely a copy of the original motivates Rory as her protector. The monastery is also a parodic environment. A religious place used by humans to worship their creator-God is turned into a factory where programmable flesh, given the creative spark of autonomous reasoning, is a symbol of science without conscience, dehumanising industrialisation ("don't fiddle with the money, Doctor") and social revolution. The Doctor succinctly sums up the flesh's accommodation as a quasi-religious birthplace in, "Well I can see why you keep it in the church. Miracle of life."
The figure of the doppelganger itself is, of course, a significant trope in Gothic literature and here it again serves its purpose in Graham's story with the cloned creatures named 'gangers' as a nod to our own fears about 'the other' that imitates us or resembles us, but yet in our perception is not quite human enough and thus destabilises our own sense of self. When the now sentient and independent gangers confront their human counterparts in the story, the key theme of identity anxiety and the duality of the self is realised. Linda Dryden, in The Modern Gothic Novel and Literary Doubles, sees the doppelgangers of modern Gothic horror as symbolic of the "slippage of identity" and the "fragmentation of the self" where "identities merge" and "men and women melt into forms other than their known physical selves or into hideous liquescence".
Certainly we see that happening throughout the episode in the creation of the ganger of Jennifer and, post-blackout, the supposedly human versions of Jennifer and Cleaves are revealed to be gangers and we observe their bodies undergo disruption and change as they struggle to assume human identities. Graham's visions of bodies twisting into impossible forms or physical acts, where Cleaves eerily turns her head completely around on her shoulders or Jennifer disturbingly stretches her head on a long flexible neck (and screeches "Just...let...us..live!") offers both a visual nod to Regan's head turning shenanigans in The Exorcist and to the body horror and identity anxiety of John Carpenter's The Thing. That should get the tots behind the sofa this week.
"there are people coming… almost people"
The Doctor again explains the ramifications of this to Cleaves, "You gave them this. You put in your personalities, emotions, traits, memories, secrets, everything. You gave them your lives. Human lives."
From the top of the episode there is also talk of "identical twins" and it is wittily if powerfully explored in one of the best scenes, where Cleaves confronts her replicated self only to discover it has a rebellious nature of its own, demanding "this circus has gone on long enough." She immediately isolates her double as that staple of science fiction horror - the evil twin - by confirming, "Oh great. You see that is just so typically me." It's a black moment of self-reflection that is carried through to Cleaves later threatening the gangers with the electric probe and her double turning the self-haunting tables with "We always have to take charge, don't we Miranda? Even when we don't really know what the hell is going on."
This brings us to the ethics of such bioengineering, a dilemma that takes us back to the laboratory of Wells's Island of Doctor Moreau, the alienation suffered by an artificially created labour force which has its roots in Karel Capek's R.U.R in 1922 and the mechanically produced human beings of Huxley's Brave New World where duplication results in an anonymity of the kind that the human characters here project onto the gangers as a denial of their possession of selfhood. The Rebel Flesh therefore reflects our own troubles about the ethics of biological engineering in a society shaped by rapid changes in technology and science. In microcosm this depicts how such a society would or would not cope with the presence of artificially created humans, who would most certainly demand rights of their own and then also challenges the notion of who we are. Ironically, these themes touch on that opening scene in the TARDIS where the Doctor is still puzzling over that other genetic anomaly, Amy's quantum pregnancy.
What's interesting here is that the Doctor obviously has previous experience with this programmable flesh and knows immediately what kind of trouble the facility is about to offer him and his companions. The 'accidental' landing on the island doesn't feel quite so haphazard when Amy questions him about it and suggests the Doctor is not so innocent about the events that will transpire. When the intruder alarm is triggered, he confirms that "that there are people coming… almost people" and suggests that he has knowledge of the gangers or the flesh. Later, this accidental arrival is further questioned when the Doctor demands to see the factory's critical systems and is clearly indicating to Cleaves that he specifically wants to see the flesh, the presence of which he is certainly already aware of. He also acutely understands the nature of the flesh after he scans it and physically comes into contact with it, the bond pre-empting not only the story's cliffhanger encounter with the flesh-Doctor but also underlining the sub-plot involving Rory and Jennifer.
The scenes between Arthur Darvill and Sarah Smart are quite touching, especially when Jennifer insists, in response to Rory's kindness, that she is the real Jennifer and "not a factory part" and the one who "had toast for my breakfast" and "wrote a letter to my mum." That his empathy for her also introduces an element of abeyance into his loyalty to Amy is also a welcome development of the character and, after his multiple deaths in the series, I loved his acknowledgment of her fear of death with his quip, "welcome to my world."
Matt Smith is in fine form, endearing in those little bits of business with the cockerel shaped solar collector, having to replace his shoes after his own pair are munched by acid ("Has anybody got a pair of shoes I can borrow? Size ten. But I should warn you, I have very wide feet") and suitably stern while warning Cleaves and her crew about the dangers of the solar storm and the consequences of life given to the gangers. It all culminates in that unnerving climax in the chapel with the flesh-Doctor where Smith subtly emphasises the differences in his performance to sell the concept very effectively to the audience and yet imbues the cheery salve of "Trust me, I'm the Doctor" with a nightmarish dimension. Thinking back to the moment of when the Doctor sneaks back into the factory area and sonics the flesh, you also wonder what his motivation was in creating the duplicate of himself.
Director Julian Simpson clearly loved the various locations and takes every opportunity to weave the camera in and out of rooms, to peep through holes and crevices. As the storm rages, his camera moves and editing pay a little homage to all those creation sequences in film versions of Frankenstein, particularly of the Universal and Hammer varieties, even down to the Doctor as 'mad scientist' swathed in electrical energy as he attempts to switch off the solar collector. Later, Simpson slowly generates a feeling of rising panic and claustrophobia, the atmosphere thickening with the fumes from the leaking acid after the storm damage to the facility, as the gangers vow to usurp their masters. His vision is supported by some great locations as well as the effective make-ups for the gangers, their half-formed demeanor possessing the requisite visceral quality that evokes both revulsion and pity. There is also some rather wonderful 'old skool' scoring from Murray Gold, especially the mid-1980s musical stylings over the cliffhanger.
Overall, an intriguing opening to the story that plants some interesting questions about how much the Doctor already knows about the flesh, provides some welcome definition to the character of Rory and explores our enduring concerns with science and technology and the creations they introduce into our world. Oh, and the bloody Eye Patch Lady turns up again.
For more on Series 5, including all the expanded reviews from 2010, try my book Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens - Exploring the Worlds of the Eleventh Doctor published by Classic TV Press and also available on Amazon.