Doctor Who complete reviews: The Rebel Flesh
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
John gives Matthew Graham another chance after the risible 'Fear Her', and almost doesn't regret it...
Initially, coming to The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, I moved the sofa forwards just a bit, so I could dive for cover – just in case. Now this wasn't in anticipation of goofy-looking plastic-headed humanoids, but because the story marked the return of Matthew Graham...
Who, if you remember (and you've probably blanked it from your living consciousness: very wise), had penned the truly wretched Fear Her , quite possibly one of the most useless Doctor Who stories ever told, and definitely the one that has the biggest Cheese Factor. What with all that “Feel the love” nonsense and a torch-bearing Idiot Doctor gurning and whooping, Fear Her has so much cheese that Wallace would want to eat it all for breakfast, dinner and tea. Cracking Rubbish, Gromit.
So the thought of Matthew Graham returning to pen another Doctor Who story was not welcomed with open arms – it's as if all that good work done for Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes had been erased from the face of the Earth. But nevertheless, The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People (or Flesh People as I'll clumsily call it) stands hovering in the doorway, like a sweaty, nervous interviewee who's just turned up with non-removable red onion soup down his shirt five minutes after the grilling was due to begin. Flesh People has had something of a mixed press among the fans – inevitably, there was always going to be something of a comedown after the superb Doctor's Wife – but the fans used the brickbats on the samey plot, some silly detours that don't make sense, and a cliffhanger that was so obviously signposted, it might as well have been painted in bright orange.
Despite all the fan hoopla, I still amazingly quite like it – it has its issues, there's no doubting that, but as a Brain-In-Fishtank bit of escapism, it's a veritable triumph.
Maybe it's also because it's the fact that Flesh People, yet again, feels like another traditional slice of Classic Who. Blimey, even the 1985 season wasn't quite as nostalgic as these last few stories, and even then that's pushing it. The overall framework is that of Base-Under-Siege, a time-honoured Mighty Trout classic formula – the TARDIS is buffeted off course by a solar tsunami to Earth in the 22nd century where a skeleton crew of humans are mining for acid in an ancient old castle/monastery. Quite why acid is meant to be valuable is anyone's guess though. It's not as if there's much of a market for acid in the first place (unless you've travelled back to 1988 to get your rocks off to D-Mob and Bomb The Bass). You can't really do much with it, unless you're wearing protective coveralls. You can't really sell it on market stalls in jam jars, unless you're a lunatic. And you certainly can't drink the stuff without it frying your insides to a crisp. So pretty stupid all round, really.
Which is why they get the next stock Doctor Who cliché to do the work – basically, the humans have devised a way to mine the acid without getting singed. Simply take advantage of a living plastic flesh (called funnily enough, The Flesh) and create a group of doppelgänger workers – and get this, the doppelgängers are called Gangers. Who would have thought it, eh? And they're far more than menial drones who just happen to look like their human counterparts – they also have the same memories as them.
The whole doppelgänger idea has, admittedly, been done to death and beyond in Who, whether it's the Chameleons in The Faceless Ones, the Zygon replicas in Terror Of The Zygons, or even Bill Filer's Come To Exxxahhhs double in The Claws Of Axos. And really they're nothing new in Flesh People – they start out as pitiful creatures before going all bad-ass and vengeful, before going back to pitiful again – The Doctor comments that: “They're scared, disorientated, struggling to come to terms with an entire life in their heads”. There's lots of co-existing dithering about in the middle portion of the story, along the lines of “Can't we all just get along?” - even the idea of two separate races trying to live together in harmony is another old cliché (a Silurian and/or Sea Devil tale is your best port of call).
"It's a positive sign that Moffat has actually allowed some scares to slot into Doctor Who again"
On top of this, we have the Hinchcliffe/Holmes template for looking to a classic book or film for inspiration. The idea of an artificially-made creature coming to life harks back to The Brain Of Morbius (which in turn harks back to Frankenstein). The most common source of inspiration for Flesh People is apparently The Thing, the seminal ickfest from 1982 (which in turn was a remake of the 1951 film, The Thing From Another World). There's a certain sense of this, particularly in the scene where Ganger Jennifer's head suddenly extends from the bathroom stall, as if it were a snake. The whole body horror concept is again, another Hinchcliffe/Holmes staple, but actually some of the scenes work quite well, and again, it's a positive sign that Moffat has actually allowed some scares to slot into Doctor Who again.
And we're still not done with Who clichés yet, since the Part One cliffhanger turns out to be – well, guess what it is, when you think about how The Doctor went too close to the vat of living Flesh for comfort. Yes, it's Evil(ish) Doctor Twin Time, and sure enough, he makes his appearance in the cliffhanger which you could see coming from as far away as the next solar system. “Trust me, I'm The Doctor,” sneers Ganger Doctor, although you'd probably gain more trust from a used car salesman. Bad Double Doctor used to crop up quite a lot back in the day, especially in the Tom Baker years, when Meglos and android doubles used to pose as the great man himself. The use of the Ganger Doctor is quite a good one, and it's a neat twist to see him react so violently to absorbing all The Doctor's memories – too much information is a bad thing, given the return of The Smith Shout, which still sounds slightly jarring. And hey, it's Who Fan Overload too, given that Ganger Doctor speaks of reversing the polarity of the Neutron Flow, Cybermats and even talks in the voices of David Tennant and Big Tom himself – rumour has it that Tom Baker actually recorded the dialogue specially for the episode (now how about a fully fledged reappearance?).
The new Ganger Doctor is a time-old variant on the Doppelgänger motif, and it's nice to see this level of trust gauged throughout the second part, especially with Amy's wary treatment of the impersonator (“Don't call me Pond,” she huffs after Ganger Doctor's used the catchphrase). She's never quite sure of how to test the water, and just when she thinks she's made some breakthrough with sussing out what to say (the chinwag over The Doctor's apparently near demise), she's on the receiving end of shoves and taunts. It's an old trick for sure, but it's well-executed, mainly thanks to another good performance from Matt Smith, who's on top form as both Doctors, injecting a quietly creepy air into the Ganger version, and still drawing on shades of Troughton for his portrayal – the big revelation at the end of the story is just the sort of quietly manipulative thing that the Second Doctor would have done.
Lots of traditional Who elements to sift through then, and also a good deal of scares and tension for the kids – the scenes of the Gangers dissolving into goo are memorably freakish, and there's an equally grim demise for hapless Jimmy, who gets a chest full of acid. The downsides are equally abundant though. Take Rory – a potentially good storyline is in the making when he starts to fall the charms of Jennifer, a woman who doesn't seem to relish shouting at him on a non-stop basis, and furthermore manages to both need Rory and empathise with him (given his past Auton experience). But the problem is, this sub-plot never comes to anything – it seems too undercooked, and what's worse is that in her own way, Ganger Jennifer still manages to get the upper hand over Rory, especially when she tricks the hapless goon into double crossing the others with a secret tunnel, the sort of easily spotted dupe that would take place in Scooby Doo.
"If the Gangers should be waging revolution against anyone, it should be against Matthew Graham for giving them all this dross to spout in the first place"
Which is a shame, since so far, this season, we've seen a much more grown-up Rory, and less of the snivelling, henpecked pain of the previous season. So just when I thought that we were getting a more well-rounded character, Flesh People goes and dumps all over this with a return to Easily Tricked And Manipulated Rory. “You created another Ganger just to trick me,” wails Rory. “You tricked me. When I found you, you were both Flesh and you tricked me into trusting you!” Wow, even the combined mights of The Only Way Is Essex could have figured this out, and that's saying something, given that between the lot of them, their brain size equates to the size of a grain of couscous.
Talking of Crazy Ganger Jennifer, the whole rebellion thing seems a bit pointless as well, and seems to be there solely to give the Gangers something worthwhile to do. “The humans will be melted, as they deserve,” hisses Ganger Jennifer. “And then the factory will be destroyed!” Which suggests that in between waging revolution on those pesky humans, Ganger Jennifer was catching up on her DVD collection of hokey black and white B-Movies. And that's just a sample of the ridiculous gibberish that the Gangers have to wallow through. “I'll take revenge on humanity with or without you!” “Who are the real monsters??!?” Even Ganger Cleaves has a convenient Damascus moment, spluttering “What's the point in this ridiculous war?” – in fact, if the Gangers should be waging revolution against anyone, it should be against Matthew Graham for giving them all this dross to spout in the first place.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, there's yet ANOTHER whey-faced brat, suggesting that Steven Moffat is really Gorgan from the Star Trek episode, And The Children Shall Lead, given the amount of times the last two seasons have included a non-stop line of kids. Aaahhh, bless, it's ickle Adam's birthday, and the little tyke wants to speak to his daddy – bit difficult, given that his chest now resembles a badly overcooked lump of bolognese. So lo and behold, Ganger Jimmy decides to step into the breach – after all, he has the same memories, and as The Doctor points out: “I've helped him into an act of humanity. Anyone else like the sound of that? Act of humanity?” Yes, I suppose I should be touched at this Ganger compassion, but it's all so twee and obvious, to the point where the Mary Poppins film resembles A Nightmare On Elm Street by comparison.
"It is a welcome 90-minute tour of tried and tested Doctor Who lines, but it's a shame that it never quite hits the heights that it could"
So the scripting's the weak link in the chain here. While it's an improvement on the execrable Fear Her, it still includes too many missed opportunities, ill-advised moments of schmaltz and too many overdone clichés. If the script had just been that tighter and less obvious, there's a chance that it might be more highly regarded. Which in a way, it deserves to be, given that this is again another very accomplished production. The film-work is impressive – old, gloomy castles are Doctor Who's meat and drink, and Julian Simpson's atmospheric camera-work at Caerphilly Castle is perfectly in tune with the sinister aspects of Graham's script. There's also another very good supporting cast. Marshall Lancaster is the other familiar Ashes To Ashes aspect, appearing here as Buzzer, Raquel Cassidy does well as Cleaves, while Sarah Smart deserves some sort of medal for making Ganger Jennifer into a believable, chilling baddie, given the terrible lines she has to wrestle with.
Overall, I quite like The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People – it's certainly an improvement on Fear Her. It's highly atmospheric at times. It's well put together, and the effects and make-up for the Gangers are spot-on. The acting's also of the highest calibre, but unfortunately, at times, these positives are overpowered by the clichéd lines, obvious scenarios and occasional cheese. It is a welcome 90-minute tour of tried and tested Doctor Who lines, but it's a shame that it never quite hits the heights that it could.
Cool cliffhanger though, and in true Second Doctor style, it turns out that The Doctor knew about the Flesh all along, because Amy is actually a Ganger herself. Whooo! Never saw that one coming, huh? Where is the real Amy? Will she give birth? And who is this ridiculous Eyepatch Woman who keeps popping up here and there, and charting new depths of ham each time she's on screen? All will be revealed in another overcooked Moffat extravaganza...
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