Tuesday, 21 June 2011


Written by Matthew Graham, directed by Julian Simpson, 2011
You can find a version of my review of The Rebel Flesh here, on Kasterborous.
Tempting though it is to simply write “Shit sandwich” in lieu of a proper review, fanboy completism compels me to give it an at least slightly less desultory shot than that.
There’s nothing wrong with these two episodes – well, there is; they’re lazy and inconsistent and poorly developed, but Doctor Who’s been knocking out stories like this since… forever, so it feels a bit churlish to get the claws out. The thing that gets me is that, as showrunner, Steven Moffat can’t fail to be acutely aware of which stories in any given run are going to be the flabby also-rans that no-one’ll bother to rewatch on the DVD boxset. Maybe it’s necessary to throw the audience a bone and deliver some unreconstructed running-around-in-corridors, but… I don’t really by that that should be part of the programme’s structure, or that the series wouldn’t be improved if, as far as possible, it never let its ambition slip as low as this.
Okay, so, given a three out of four hit rate so far this season, and especially having the unenviable task of following up the impeccable Doctor's Wife, The Rebel Flesh suffers from not being an event episode. But then, I’m dubious about the mentality that says ‘event stories’ are fantastically important – I mean, using that phrase to describe the openers and finales where the narrative big-guns are cracked out. But then, title aside, The Doctor’s Wife isn’t easy to pigeonhole as an event episode in that way: no season-long plot strands come together, there’s no revelations about anyone’s character or origins… But it feels special just because it’s not only hugely imaginatiove, but well enough written to do justice to those ideas.

Even accepting the idea that dependable, nuts-and-bolts Doctor Who is desirable, what does this story have to work with? Karma-tempting overconfidence in scientific advances is hardly fresh territory, while having the Doctor wrestle with humanity's potential for inhumanity is becoming something of a shop-worn subgenre in itself – although, in fairness, at least the script attempts to engage with the resulting questions of what it is to be human. Throwing in the ever-present threat of acid is hardly the narrative flourish that might’ve redeemed matters.

In the interests of not being a totally unremitting bastard for a thousand words, Matthew Graham’s second contribution to the series may be unlikely to win many accolades, but despite a slow and somewhat infodump-heavy opening, it at least avoids the schematic seen-it-all-before pitfalls of stories like (most recently) The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. It’s not even the worst story of the season – curseoftheblackspot, cough cough. As the action gives way to a more low-key creepiness – in keeping with season six's increased gothicism – Graham steers the story away from the action end of the Doctor Who spectrum into more engaging territory. The ganger head on a snaking neck – sort of an early-evening take on Cronenberg's version of The Thing – is pretty freaky, but it does feel there's still a lot of untapped potential for clammy who's-who paranoia which isn't entirely satisfied in the first instalment.

Unfortunately, I think any goodwill this territory might’ve clawed back is fairly comprehensibly squandered by The Almost People, which fails utterly to do anything interesting with the story. Again, The Doctor’s Wife plays against it; by comparison, this more straight down the line narrative can't help but feeling naggingly unsatisfying. Similarly, in launching the series with a story that matches or outdoes the complexity and relatively serious dramatic register previously built up over several episodes in previous seasons, it's a slight disappointment to regress (as in The Curse of the Black Spot) to a lighter, less character-driven approach. It's notable also that the more, uh, jobbing writers often fail to capture the regulars so effortlessly. Especially when it comes to the Doctor, unlike when written by Moffat or Gaiman, there is a risk of his becoming a collection of traits and wisecracks rather than a living, breathing interpretation – despite Matt Smith's continued dedication to the character.

Okay, I feel a bit back spewing so much scorn. Perhaps it is too harsh to see The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People as anything other than a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin return to the age-old base under siege format (albeit under siege from within). There are elements which strike on first viewing at least as unconvincing or a little unfortunate: a solar storm? Uh-huh. And pumping acid? From... where, exactly?; the slightly sitcom-ish suddenly-messy TARDIS interior; the-woman-from-Teachers’ abruptly changeable character (surely in a story lazy with doppelgangers, well sketched out characterisation is something of a must?); the two-parter tendency to stretch out a story over double the usual length, rather than sustaining the single-parters’ pace for twice as long; Muse. At least we're given a setting rocking the inherently memorable collision of ancient and technological which has been working since, say, The Ice Warriors’ combination of country mansion and pop-art catsuits. And, at least they didn't miss the ganger-Doctor boat; we haven't had a Doctor-double since... well, okay, since Journey's End. But you can never have too many Doctors. 

But then you get the dispiritingly raft of schematic plot points that you can’t help but see coming from a mile off. Male Guest Character #1’s despicably saccharine son; painfully contrived Noble Self-Sacrifices so as to prune the narrative loose ends, rather than resolving it through organic storytelling (and conveniently leaving no doubles) so as to prune the narrative loose ends, rather than resolving it through organic storytelling (and conveniently leaving no doubles – you can’t tell me there REALLY was no alternative to both ganger-Teachers-woman and ganger-Doctor sacrificing themselves?!). And don’t forget to throw in an arbitrary eleventh-hour monster! (Speaking of which - is anyone else feeling withdrawal for full-blooded slavering monsters this season? Even the Silents were genteel enough to wear suits.)
Add to that some Castrovalva-style impressions of past Doctors’ catchphrases (the naffest kind of ‘kiss to the past’) and another example of this series’ repeated insistence on solving everything with numerous guest characters trooping into the TARDIS (I mean, I know Moffat has a chubby for the Davison era, but didn’t everyone hate that back then?), and you get an exceedingly disillusioned viewer.
And then, as if that weren’t enough, even more laughably - riddle me ree, but doesn’t the Doctor’s out-of-hand liquefication of Amy’s ganger negate the WHOLE BASTARD PREMISE of the story, which just shows what pointless posturing all its ‘we’re equally valid too’ bollocks was. Squirm your way out of that one, Graham.
It’s even more galling that the lacklustre entirety of these two parts exist only to facilitate its final scene. I didn’t see the ganger-Amy revelation coming… well, before the coda, anyway… but the prior hour and a half of mediocrity numbed my ability to care somewhat. And, as natal body horror cliffhangers go, nothing can or ever will beat the fully-grown head of Udo Kier being born at the conclusion of the first series of Lars von Trier’s diabolically brilliant The Kingdom.
…But, having said all that, my seven-year-old niece appreciatively dubbed The Rebel Flesh “the scariest one ever,” so what do I know?

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