Wednesday, 1 June 2011

DOCTOR WHO – The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People Spoiler Zone

Scanners indicate… Look, you did read the title right?

Fittingly enough, this assortment of ill judged ramblings will be in two parts just like its subject. Firstly we’ll weigh up the episodes themselves and then move on the realm of wild speculation regarding its possible implications for this Saturday’s mid season finale and the wider story arc.

So then, what of the story itself? Well firstly, and most flippantly, I do have a problem with the two parter format in new Who and that is this – what the hell do we call the story as a whole? Although individual episodes having their own title is a nice return to the naming conventions of the days of the First Doctor, in returning to this, it also sees the rebirth of the long running fan headache of what are these stories actually called. And there are no Target Book adaptations these days to help out either! Mind you, these paperback archives of the old shows sometimes confused matters further – I would be at all surprised if in a parallel universe where they are still being produced, the tome for this brace of episodes is entitled Doctor Who And The Acid Factory

…Which actually isn’t a bad moniker for this adventure, considering its mind bending twists and turns. For besides delivering two top class cliff-hangers that gets fan theorising engines blowing gaskets left, right and centre, this story made excellent use of that old genre favourite, the doppelganger. The usual fun and games of such tales was much in evidence here – keeping track of when characters were the originals or their Flesh doubles – and with some rather neat swerves thrown in. But it was also refreshing that Matthew Graham’s script didn’t take the easy, expected route of having the Gangers be purely evil twins.

Now the moral dilemma is a classic Doctor Who plot element, providing the backbone for such classics as Genesis of the Daleks and The Silurians. However this two parter rather neatly delivered two for the price of one, with both the humans and the Gangers debating the ethics of their planned actions. And not only did this nicely mirror the wider themes of duality in the script but also led to some interesting reversals of opinion. For example, while in the first part it looked like that crew leader Cleaves (Raquel Cassidy) was going to be the usual hard headed aggressor that blows any chance of a peaceful solution (a common trope in classic base-under-siege stories) , the second showed both versions of her revising their stance.

And we had some great performances to back up the script, with the afore mentioned Ms. Cassidy and Michael Bonnar as Jimmy bringing wonderfully played subtle nuances to their roles. And the regular performed very well – Arthur Davril in particular was wonderful in this outing. Again we see that beneath his klutziness, there is a brave and noble man. He’s equally committed to doing the right thing, but is not afraid to question or even call out the Doctor on his decisions. I’ve really warmed to Rory this series, and this adventure definitely had me tipping into a genuine love for the character.

Karen Gillan was on top form too; it was nice to see her get plenty of solid dramatic meat to get her teeth into. Obviously this script itself required her to deliver more than just screaming, sarcasm and a lot of leg, but it was the little touches she brought to the performance that show off her talents. For example, I loved the way that when she was finally reunited with Rory, she hugged him passionately and then gave him a little playful punch which clearly said ‘that’s for running off and locking us in a crypt, stupid…but I’m still awfully proud of you!’

Of course there was a brilliant performance from Matt Smith. It was a real delight to see two Doctors playing off each other – not just double the now typical excellence but a chance to see a wider than usual range of emotions from the character. But it was also a relief that the Ganger Doctor plot strand didn’t head down the evil double route. Aside from the fact that the bad twin plot has been done to death, I think it was important for the second Doctor to remain clearly on the side of good in a story that was potentially very frightening for younger viewers. Now much has been said about how this series is a lot more frightening for children, but the great thing about the show is that despite how terrifying the monsters are – and indeed they were rather horrible and creepy in this adventure – there is always the guarantee that the Doctor will be bright and funny and save the day. And so it was very appropriate to have the dark scariness leavened with two versions of our favourite Time Lord running about and having a ball together.

But the real star turn for me was Sarah Smart as the real villain of the piece Jenn, impressively delivered both touching innocence and psychotic revenge. And again the script was very deft in making sure that even when she had turned to the darkness, we could still understand the reasons for her actions – this wasn’t just simple hostility or cardboard evil but the result of a mind broken by the burdens of shared pain and the knowledge of real injustices.

While the first episode would remind sci-fi fans of John Carpenter’s The Thing, the second part, although there would still be a similar ‘who is friend and who is foe’ dynamic at work, the overall thrust became more reminiscent of Moon, with the reveal of the discarded Flesh pile. However rather than cookie cutter evil corporation antics at work, it was very pleasing to see that the whole sorry situation was born out of that usual source of misfortune, human ignorance – no one had realised that the Flesh was capable of memory and independent sentience.

Now I will admit that I did have some slight concerns throughout both episodes that possibly this story would just morph into a Doctor Who remake of either of the two classic movies referenced above. However as it turned out, Graham’s tale resolutely forged its own path, which while exploring similar territory asked different questions and brought its own revelations.

It also was a winning fusion of new and old Who. Aside from the cheeky nods to the show’s past – both overt like the sampling of previous incarnations in the Ganger Doctor’s stabilising scene, and subtle like the record player in an ancient monastery (that’s a wink to the Hartnell story The Time Meddler ) - this outing featured a classic serial structure and top quality corridor action, allowing the story to breath and develop and deliver some distinctly old school thrills. But at the same time, its character depth, crafty plotting and emotional punch showcase the best elements of the reborn series.

This is an adventure of many different levels and the more I consider its well crafted layers the more I like it. For besides having an impressive amount of character depth, it also ties in nicely to the on-going themes of memory and identity that have been running throughout both this and the last series. Apologies if this all sounds a little too much like bringing pretentious literary criticism into a Who review but clearly as well as a stronger story arc, the Moffat tenure has seen the introduction of proper recurring themes – if the RTD years had a not so subtle ‘humans are great’ subtext, now we have adventures that are linked by an exploration of how the stories we tell ourselves - the narratives formed by our memories - define both who we are and the worlds we inhabit.

However as I stated in the spoiler free review of the The Almost People, the trouble for this story is that all of the above will be somewhat overlooked thanks to the revelations and implications for the rest of the season.

But before we start mucking about with these intriguing titbits and possible clues, allow me to properly answer a question posed in the afore mentioned spoiler-free write up . So then, to swiftly recap, I wondered whether Moffat and Graham were pulling a similar manoeuvre to the end of Series 3, where a seemingly stand alone episode, Utopia was in fact the first part of a three part finale.

Now if you’d checked the official Doctor Who website or encountered more spoiler happy news feeds, you’d have seen the return of the Sontarans and the Silurians announced for A Good Man Goes To War and talk of The Almost People containing an epic cliff-hanger.

And if you did, hands up who thought that this episode would be largely unconnected with the rest of the on-going story and just feature a surprise appearance from this pair of old enemies at the end. You know the kind of thing – a completely tacked on epilogue with them popping up waving jazz hands.

Thankfully though, that wasn’t the case. But at the same time, this adventure isn’t just the unofficial parts one and two of a closing trilogy either. Largely the story can stand on its own, but at the same time once you get the end and discover that Amy has been replaced by a Ganger, you find that a lot of what the Doctor(s) say and do in this adventure has a wider relevance; he’s not just working out the details needed to solve the immediate situation but studying the properties of the Flesh.

Again this is rather neat plotting. For a start, it’s far more elegant than the story arc linkage in Graham’s last outing Fear Her which lazily closed with the Doctor intoning “There’s a storm coming”. Instead we have a story that works in it’s own right but also builds up the momentum of the on-going story line, and weighted I think just right. There’s enough to get regular viewers excited (something of an understatement there) but not enough to alienate the causal audience. Indeed for the latter, I suspect the way this one unfolded will have many tuning in again next week and going back to catch up on what has come before. In other words, it’s a real demonstration of having your cake and eating it.

So then what potential hints do we have in here? Well, to begin with there is the Ganger Doctor. At the end of The Rebel Flesh, the obvious conclusion was that the man who we saw killed by the Impossible Astronaut was the Flesh double. However seemingly, this ‘spare’ is promptly taken off the board at the end of The Almost People with the Almost Doctor/John Smith dissolving.

However is it really that simple? Remember that Jenn’s descent into villainy comes because she can remember her previous incarnation and their painful decommissioning, and more importantly, the original Doctor explicitly says to his counterpart that the Flesh has memory and there might be a way to return.

But there’s more… If you watch very closely, as I did, you will notice there is something fishing going on with the sonic screwdriver. We see the original surreptitiously chuck over the trusted multi-purpose tool to Smith. However later on, when they are trapped facing rising acid, the ‘real’ Time Lord has it back… Now this isn’t a case of him having two in his famously capacious pockets, because he needs to give it back to Smith to destroy the Jenn-Beast at the finale.

Now this has been flagged up as a continuity error. And an obvious explanation is that there is a missing scene where they pass the sonic but honestly it’s hard to see when this could occur. But I suspect there’s something more sinister at work, for in the last series there was a similar supposed continuity cock-up. In Flesh And Stone the Doctor regains his jacket for a scene. Of course, now we know that this wasn’t a production assistant losing track of props, but a Doctor from the future rewinding through his time line. So then I suspect there something similar going on here and possibly there is more than one duplicate of the Doctor strolling around in this story…
…After all, now seemingly the Doctor knows that Amy has seen him die in the future – note his remark about “being invited” when Smith is facing his doom holding the door.

Of course there are many more questions raised in this story. How long ago was Amy replaced? Well, the obvious point would be in the “3 months later” gap at the beginning of Day of the Moon - well, I did say in the spoiler piece for that episode, we would be returning to that section of missing time, didn’t I?

More puzzling, does the Doctor have an idea who the Eye Patch Lady actually is? Him saying to Amy “push but only when she tells you too” and the fact he seems familiar with the future use of Flesh technology, seems to indicate he knows something more than he’s letting on.

Finally then, let’s round off with some speculation as to how the Sontarans and Silurians are going to figure in A Good Man Goes To War. Firstly, we should note that as I discovered here, the Silurians were aware Amy is pregnant, it’s not too surprising they are going to figure in the next episode.

Now on the subject of Amy’s pregnancy, considering that in Amy’s Choice she is dreaming of future where she is with child, it would suggest that subconsciously she was aware she had conceived. And furthermore, as she had been reunited with Rory in the previous episode (The Vampires of Venice) and we got the potential love triangle dealt with, I suspect it was during *ahem* the post fish-battering celebrations that conception occurred.

But what of the Sontarans? Well, firstly these fearsome alien warmongers are a clone race, and in The Sontaran Stratagem/ The Poison Sky we did see them using their technology to duplicate humans. Is the Flesh something back engineered from the cloning devices left behind? After all, UNIT and Torchwood are known to seize such alien tech and tinker with it, not to mention independent collectors like Henry Van Statten. And furthermore, the acid proof suits look suspiciously similar in design to Sontaran battle armour…

Of course with Cybermen and River Song returning too, all of the above might not be relevant and it’s just the Alliance of Famous Monsters having another pop at the Doctor…

 …But that seems far too simple! One thing is sure though – whatever happens you can bet Moffat’s got something up those sleeves that no one has seen coming yet!

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