James Willetts reviews the twists and turns of ‘The Almost People’. Let us know what you think in the comments below. Don’t forget to download our commentary!
Cliffhangers seems to be the Doctor Who stock in trade these days, being dropped into episodes whether they make sense or not. Gone are the days when a cliffhanger ending meant an impending disaster to be resolved though, because these are more about setting up the next episode.
I’ve got mixed feelings about this week’s episode. On the one hand, I wasn’t at all a fan. It felt more like a slight miss than a big one and it never felt like a total disaster along the lines of ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’. It’s a big drop off from the greatness of the last few episodes. Yet at the same time this episode lives on unfairly thanks to another game-changing coda, presumably written by Moffat, that undoes much of what we thought we knew about the series so far and completely rewrites the Doctor’s motivation for this two-parter.
Let’s start with ‘The Almost People’s primary plot. My principal complaint is that it felt too big, as though there wasn’t time to stop and explain. In past double-parters too much has been set up in the first episode. ‘The Almost People’ certainly can’t use that as an excuse as ‘The Rebel Flesh’ was a lovely set up that didn’t overindulge itself in introducing too many threads. Whilst there was certainly enough to follow up, the first part had never really felt overloaded or cluttered. But here we introduce the idea of what happens to surplus Flesh, the transfer of memories from the different gangers, the evolution of the Flesh, a revolution, a second Doctor who may or may not be evil, how Amy reacts to that, while also finding time for Rory’s sidequest.
It really felt like there was a story that Matthew Graham wanted to tell, and one he had to. The story he had to tell was about the growing battle lines between the two sides and how they resolved that – a continuation of last episode. A fairly simple storyline, but one that had enough to expand it. With plotlines including the second Doctor, Rory alone with the Flesh-Jenny, and the two sides trying to outmanoeuvre one another and escape, there was plenty to be getting on with.
So it’s a bit weird that he introduces so much else, and it’s here that we begin to see another story that Graham wants to tell. As well as the run-around stuff there’s an attempt at making this something deeper. And, in exactly the same way as the episodes about Ood slavery or the Silurians last season, it’s when this more ‘issues’ based story creeps in that we get some problems.
Whenever Doctor Who tries to tackle a moral quandary you know it’s going to be a bit crap. It always reminds me of the cinematic mess Crash, a film that’s long on screen and short on subtlety. Crash teaches us that racism is bad by showing how bad racism is. A worthy theme, sure, but not one that Crash really convinces on. If you really think that your racism is ok, you’re unlikely to be swayed by a made-for-TV quality message movie. If you’re against racism – well, you’re also unlikely to be swayed, or even interested.
That’s the problem with any story that wants to teach us an “important lesson” – in this case that clones are people too. I don’t care. I DO NOT CARE. I get your point, the clone is the same, no-one accepts him even though he is truly human. Yes, sometimes his face goes a bit puffy and he looks like he may be made of yoghurt. Yes, we did actually make him out of what appears to be a vat of plaster of paris, but deep down, where it counts, he’s still human. Accept him. Love him.
And so on, and so on. For two entire episodes.
The worst part is that, after 90 minutes, I’ve still not seen any evidence that the ganger people are as legitimately human as the originals, which is a huge weakness. That’s not to say that I don’t think that they are human, or have rights, or shouldn’t be saved from being melted down – they just aren’t the same people. I’m not sure that even Graham thinks this, judging by the way he keeps on having to remind us that they’re real people even in the face of their abject failure to demonstrate it.
‘The Almost People’ is, at its heart, a deeply unpleasant story in which a bunch of people are actively horrible to one another. Both sides are seeking their own survival, certainly, but they’re just as eager to kill one another. This is an episode that wants to examine xenophobia and identity and what it means to be human.
But it shouldn’t be telling that story. The focus of the story should be on what each side does, not what it feels, or whether it feels at all.
Maybe I’m being a little bit hypocritical here. One of my big complaints in recent weeks has been the way in which genocide has been the preferred option for survival. Sometimes wiping out the enemy might be the only option – you can’t negotiate with a Dalek or a Weeping Angel. But genocide shouldn’t be the default solution for every enemy the way it has been, and it shouldn’t be something to ignore the way it has been.
So maybe this is the story I deserve to get, where the Doctor tries to prevent the casual slaughter of two groups of people who absolutely fail to demonstrate just why they should be kept alive. The Doctor doesn’t just resort to killing the Flesh and leaving.
Let’s remove the sci-fi from this story for a moment shall we? This is all about a militarised work program that uses slaves to carry out dangerous jobs. When those slaves rebel the masters decide to kill them, with their leader murdering one of the slaves*. The two sides separate and attempt to wipe the other out, before both eventually realising that they can live with one another. The one slave who doesn’t agree (and the only one who is shown to actually fully grasp what has happened to the slaves**) continues to fight before being killed off in a heroic sacrifice.
That’s just a horrible story (which doesn’t make it a bad one) and no one comes out of it well. Both sides are guilty of murder, with the humans refusing to even accept that the Flesh are ‘alive’. Where it does fall apart is that there are no consequences – their actions have no impact. The Leader never expresses remorse for murdering a ganger, it’s never suggested she should think about it again. She becomes more sympathetic, true, but is never held to account for her earlier action.
This is never really picked up on. Whilst Jenny grows steadily more unhinged and ‘evil’ the rest of the Flesh go along with her wacky scheme to kill everyone and start a revolution, until they change their mind and decide not to.
The key point that comes through here is that revenge doesn’t work, and that violence only begets violence. But there’s no reason for them to decide this. No futility of war, no realisation that violence is wrong, just that violence is unsuccessful. There’s no growth to this realisation, it’s thrust in there because that’s the way the story has to go. There wasn’t any narrative of why the two sides reached conclusions, why they change their objectives. They swing wildly from side to side depending on where in the story we are, without any regard for reasons or character.
It’s wanting to be a little bit too Battlestar Galactica to be honest; themes of identity and what it means to be human are thrown around all over the place. The problem is it’s not as clever as Galactica. Instead it’s reduced down to ‘who’s the real monster here?’ style musing (from Jenny, a woman who later unhinges her jaw to consume the flesh of the living, just to demonstrate that she isn’t the monster).
The leader is revealed to have a blood clot on her brain, which I guess excuses the fact that last episode she killed a man. She is virtually the only character who has anything approaching development, and there’s an attempt to explain why she’s so unsympathetic which doesn’t really work.
Jenny, meanwhile, goes from mad to worse, sticking eyes on the walls and generally demonstrating why people might think she was the monster. When the key to your plan involves making and then melting a clone to trick someone into boiling their friends alive, you’re probably the bad guy. When your entire motivation is not allowing gangers to be killed as they’re real people, and you actually kill one of them, you’ve lost the moral high ground.
More importantly Amy turns a little bit xenophobic, completely forgetting everything that was said by the Doctor before his Flesh-double appears. In all fairness to her it isn’t helped by the fact that the Flesh-Doctor is a little bit creepy. It’s an interesting tack to make the audience think he might be a little bit evil, and undermines what we’ve been told all along – that these are the same people. Was Jenny always evil; or is that the Flesh? If it’s the latter, then surely they are no longer the same people. If the former it’s hard to feel sorry for Jenny.
There are some good bits though. The Doctor going through his old personalities is nice, even if it meant little to me. The fact that Flesh-Leader would know the code word was predictable but real. Jenny fighting herself to win Rory over was ridiculous but again felt like something that she would do***.
These bits got overwhelmed in a sea of general rubbishness however and so the real talking point of this episode is the final twist, and the sting that Amy hasn’t been Amy for a “long time”. It’s not the ending I had expected, that’s for certain, and it raises a lot more questions than it answers, but it does begin to set up next week’s mid-season finale episode, when hopefully the on-going threads will be brought together.
At the very least we now know that the unpregnancy is on, that Madame Kovarian (Eye Patch Lady) is a midwife, and that Amy is giving birth to something next week. It’s also clear that the Doctor has known about this for a while, which begs the question of why he’s taken this long to deal with it and just how much he knew about the Flesh before they arrived on the island.
We still don’t know how this ties into the Silence, the Doctor’s death, the regenerating child or River Song. The big question for me though is this: Amy first saw Madame Kovarian in ‘Day of the Moon’ in the children’s home when she was told she was dreaming. This was well before she got grabbed by the Silence, so how long has she been Flesh for?
*Conveniently, by the end the Flesh and originals have died off in such a way that there is only one of each left. So we end up with two gangers and two humans left alive but no duplicates. Out of the original group Jenny, the axe-crazy ganger died, as did the man who’s name I can’t remember who abandoned the Doctor. Female-leader zapped one ganger to death and the Dad got melted by acid. The thing is, there’s no reason why some of these people die other than that they have to. They’re killed off because to have two of them at the end would be inconvenient. This is never clearer than with the death of the Flesh-Doctor and Flesh-Leader, who disintegrate themselves despite the fact that the real Doctor could have disintegrated Jenny with no risk to himself. That whole heroic-sacrifice was totally unnecessary – except to remove the doubles.
**Jenny is a hugely peculiar character. We never get to spend any time with the real Jenny, and instead spend it all with the Flesh-Jenny who, it quickly becomes clear, is absolutely mental and should have been melted down as quickly as possible. So how much of this is down to her being Flesh, and how much of it is just Jenny? The Doctor shows some personality change but in both cases it seems to be down to the fact that they can perceive the past destruction of the previous gangers. This is just one of the many times at which it becomes clear that the Flesh are not actually human; if you have memories from other Flesh distinct from your human form and if you can become a shiny CGI lizard dog monster, you’re undermining your own claims of humanity.
***I’ve been reading the Guardian coverage of Jon Ronson’s new book on identifying psychopaths recently and it’s funny how many of the boxes Jenny ticks.