Written by Matthew Graham
Directed by Julian Simpson
After seeming to be knocked off course by a solar storm, The Doctor and his assistants materialize at an acid mining facility where the workers use a rather unusual system for protection against the acid.
“We have two choices. The first is to tear each other apart. Not my favorite. The second is to knuckle down and work together.”
It seems that this episode isn’t receiving universal praise. But I don’t really care because I enjoyed this episode quite a bit because a) it is a vast improvement over Graham’s
previous Who story Fear Her, and b) because this is one of the few episodes in Cymru Who to really feel like the classic era. Granted, some reviewers feel this is due to Graham including every base-under-siege element from the Troughton era rule book. But this doesn’t really bother me because it hasn’t really been seen much in Cymru Who, and because it is all in the execution. Indeed, much of what I love in this episode could be completely undermined in part two. The Almost People will prove the success or failure of the story, much like Cold Blood rather ruined The Hungry Earth. But as it stands, this is my second favorite story so far this season.
Of course, dopplegangers are nothing new in Doctor Who. Start at the beginning of the show, and you would be reasonable if you theorized that every incarnation of The Doctor would face a doppleganger at some point. The First Doctor had The Abbot of Amboise (they never really faced-off against one another, however). The Second Doctor had Salamander. The Fourth Doctor had Meglos. And even The Tenth Doctor had his meta-crisis-plot-contrivance. The first two examples were merely people who looked like The Doctor. The latter two were duplicates, shape shifting in Meglos’ case. The cliffhanger for The Rebel Flesh introduces a doppleganger for The Eleventh Doctor. And while this is rather predictable, it does start the viewer wondering if this technology with The Flesh is somehow relevant to the death of The Doctor from the season premiere. Too obvious? Perhaps, but this would be a way to have the dead Doctor not be a clone. Instead, he would be a duplicate, down to the last detail and memory. I’m inclined to doubt this purely because it is too obvious.
While dopplegangers of this sort can be found in other sci-fi shows, what I like about how it is handled here is that there the gangers are not necessarily evil. They are just scared. I think Graham and Simpson have done an excellent job of making them characters, but also allowing you to feel the fear of both sides. On the human side, there is the fear that you have an exact copy. Does that in any way diminish you? On the ganger side, you are a new life, but you would also doubt whether or not you are real. You have all these memories that are clear and distinct, but they are shared by the human version. While all this could end up with the “us vs. them” mentality that eventually destroyed Cold Blood, it is my hope that Graham has a much more clever resolution in mind, one that doesn’t undermine the material. While the progression of the story is certainly predictable and has been done before, the journey will be worth it if he does something redemptive with it, rather than destructive. I’m not sure where he will go, and that excites me because it has real potential. In the hands of a lesser writer, the gangers will become monsters, and while the humans wouldn’t be portrayed as completely noble, they would be sympathetic in the end. But Graham is better than this. He can be just as detail-oriented in his plots as Steven Moffat, but where Moffat uses time-travel as a narrative device (or as spectacle, if you will), Graham likes to tell stories more straight-forward with an emphasis on character. Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes were both shows with a central mystery, one that was rather metaphysical. And while clues were revealed along the way to help the viewer understand the resolution (not necessarily solve the mystery), what probably kept us coming back, more often than not, were the characters. Graham has done a good job of characterizing a few of the humans (yes, some of them are more of the “red shirt” variety). But person who benefits most from Graham’s character moments is Rory.
I really have enjoyed Rory due primarily to Arthur Darvill’s everyman charisma. But up to this point, he has been developed in relation to Amy. The only time, up to this point, that he has really stood on his own has been when he stayed with the Pandorica for two thousand years. But even that decision was made because of Amy. Here, Rory chooses to help Jennifer, both the ganger version and the human version. In part, he can sympathize because he knows what it feels like to be artificial. But he is also a nurse, is a caring individual, and seems to have an easier time dealing with the adventures in time and space than other companions have. Remember, Rory was nonplussed when he saw the interior of The TARDIS. Rory isn’t dumb. He sees the life that exists in the gangers and, like The Doctor, wants these two peoples to find a way to co-exist.
Rory gets the majority of the companion moments in this story. Amy doesn’t have much to do, at least not on the surface. As we have seen before, Rory has been dying, or almost dying, quite a bit this season. It is even indirectly mentioned in the script. Ever since Amy’s Choice, Amy made it clear that Rory was her man, not The Doctor. She decided that life without Rory wasn’t worth living. He died two episodes later, but he came back as an Auton. We are told that this was due in part to the effect of the crack on Amy’s mind. When The Doctor rebooted the universe, Rory returned again. This season sees Amy continually confronted with the possibility of Rory dying. I still wonder if the theme isn’t about Rory dying, but Amy’s fears. Her fear is to lose Rory. Death is an obvious way to lose him, but we also saw her grow extremely jealous when Rory was enchanted by The Siren in Curse of the Black Spot. It seems somewhat hypocritical for Amy to grow jealous when Rory’s head is turned when she has been shown to have a wandering eye herself. However, my wife pointed out that we have every evidence to think Rory has been devoted to Amy ever since they met. She has never known Rory to not love and admire her. It is possible that she has taken this devotion for granted, and The Siren may have been the first time she wasn’t the object of his affection. In those moments, she was losing him. And here, in The Rebel Flesh, Rory is choosing to help the Jennifers. He not choosing self-preservation, but trying to follow his heart and his conscience. While Amy isn’t necessarily in disagreement (although the script seems to indicate that she doesn’t entirely understand why this is important to him), she is quite frightened by the thought of him getting killed. Once more, her fears of losing Rory are manifest.
One last thing I wish to point out, which my wife pointed out to me because I didn’t notice. The director (possibly this was in the script as well) has provided clues for identifying ganger versus human. Human-Jennifer is injured and has a limp that the ganger-Jennifer doesn’t have. One human has a wedding ring on a necklace that his ganger counterpart doesn’t have. One human has a cold that his ganger version doesn’t have. This last one could be a clue to the resolution, but it may merely be an way of identifying the characters. I think this is quite clever and I love the attention to detail.