Doctor Who “The Rebel Flesh” – TV Review

The skin we’re in


6.05
“The Rebel Flesh”

Writer: Matthew Graham
Director: Julian Simpson


THE ONE WHERE

A solar tsunami brings the Doctor, Amy and Rory to an acid pumping station, where the workers use a substance called “the Flesh” to create artificial doppelgangers (or “gangers”) who can stand in for them on dangerous jobs. Unfortunately, the copies are about to become sentient…

VERDICT
This may be a more traditional Who episode than we’ve seen so far this year, but that’s no bad thing. Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes co-creator Matthew Graham has written an episode that follows plenty of well-trodden Doctor beats, yet still manages to feel original and packed with ideas – what it lacks in Moffat-style narrative gymnastics or Gaiman-ish esoterics, it more than makes up for with its solid, old school storytelling.

Indeed, the set-up is textbook: an isolated setting; a small cast (albeit a duplicated one); a dangerous, acid-filled environment; enemies within; science turned against humanity… While all the boxes for what makes a tense sci-fi thriller are ticked off, however, what makes the episode really special is the packaging. The Flesh is an ingenious concept, and – despite the acid-pumping crew’s assertions that their gangers have no minds of their own – a piece of tech that was always bound to turn on its creators. This is science fiction, after all…

Meanwhile, the fact that the gangers have all the memories of the “parent” means they’re not just mindless (though they are occasionally faceless) clones , and raises intriguing moral questions about whether they have as much right to exist as the originals, or how you might cope with the idea that there are suddenly two of you. You certainly won’t have encountered quandaries like these earlier this evening on Don’t Scare The Hare.

The episode also looks fantastic. The abbey setting is the last place you’d expect to find a factory, and that’s why it works, blowing the cliché of a futuristic industrial setting apart immediately, and making you feel like you’re watching something new. And aside from the occasional bit of shonky CG (see below), the effects that create a spectacularly stormy sky and the shapeshifting gangers are generally brilliant. A cracking way to start a two-parter.

NITPICK
While the visual effects are generally pretty good, the shot of Jennifer’s head bursting through a toilet door on the end of a tentacle is far from convincing. To be fair, though, I’ve never seen any film/show make this kind of effect look anything approaching realistic.

INFLUENCES
Everything from Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’and The Thing’s enemies within to Blade Runner’s synthetic humans craving a life of their own – a veritable smorgasbord of top science fiction repackaged in a fresh way.

SPECULATION
What does the Doctor know about the Flesh? Where has he encountered it before? Will it evolve into something we’ve seen before? Could the ganger Doctor be the Time Lord we saw getting shot at the beginning of “The Impossible Astronaut”? And will Dicken’s cold become crucial, War Of The Worlds style? (That would be rather disappointing.)

WTF?
What precisely is Jennifer measuring when she scans the acid and gives a reading of 9.7? It can’t be pH (the traditional measure of acid strength) because as any GCSE chemistry student will tell you, anything over 7 means alkali.

DID YOU SPOT?
Eyepatch lady makes her weekly appearance through a hole in a door when Amy goes looking for Rory.

STAR TURNS
Matthew Graham brings Marshall Lancaster (DC Chris Skelton) along for the ride as Buzzer; Mark Bonnar (Jimmy) can currently be seen as murderous Detective Finney in Psychoville, and he appeared in 2009’s Paradox; Sarah Smart (Jennifer) is a stalwart of Brit TV, arguably most famous for At Home With The Braithwaites and (to kids of the ’90s) Woof!; and Raquel Cassidy (Foreman Cleaves) has had roles in Land Girls, Moving Wallpaper and Jack Dee’s Lead Balloon.

BEST LINE
Jennifer: “I thought I was going to die.”
Rory: “Welcome to my world.”

Richard Edwards