Doctor Who – The Rebel Flesh – Review

James Willetts shares his thoughts on ‘The Rebel Flesh’ – our commentary will follow shortly is now online. Let us know what you think in the comments!

As we kick off the second of this season’s two-parters, it’s great to be able to say that this was a good episode. I feel it’s necessary because the last time we got to this point in the season, last year’s Silurian double-feature The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, I ended up giving up on what had been to that point an uneven start to the series. To say this has been the strongest New Who run ever is now surely a moot point. Further than that though, this episode means we’re now in the almost unprecedented position of having five straight episodes without a single stinker is more contentious but no less of an achievement. For the first time it feels like this is the programme that I have been waiting for Doctor Who to become.

Post-Industrial, low paid workers in peril is a recurring Doctor Who theme, as seen in Waters of Mars, 42 and The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. Matthew Graham, this week’s writer, has fortunately managed to remove the majority of what made those episodes uniformly terrible, and in their place has crafted an excellent storyline with an interesting new monster.

This is, in its own simple way, very reminiscent of a lot of other plotlines – most notably last year’s Silurian episode in pitting humanity against a second, untrustworthy species for survival. The fact that the bad guys in this episode happen to be clones does little to distinguish it from the so many that have gone before.

Let’s go from the top; we’re quickly introduced to the idea of the ‘gangers’, clones used to do something with acid, which isn’t entirely clear but mainly seems to involve dangling over giant vats of the highly corrosive paydirt. Whilst this may not be the place to start suggesting safety features for Sci-Fi settings (that would be the Death Star) one has to wonder why management didn’t just install such time, money and life saving features as railings, harnesses or even an automatic process to do whatever the workers actually do.

The main point of this is that no one cares about the gangers. There’s no physical or psychological drawback to watching yourself die, and it’s treated in a rather blasé manner, which works for the programme but doesn’t exactly warm you to these characters.

The questions of what the workers are doing, why the army would want this acid, how ceramics allow you to transport it and just why it’s getting less potent are never addressed. Instead, we’re going to the TARDIS where the Doctor is playing Muse and apparently deciding to finally investigate that unpregnancy of Amy’s until an unexpected ‘Solar Tsunami’ knocks the TARDIS into the plot of the episode.

At this point the plot that everyone wants to see explored – just what is going on with Amy – is jettisoned like so much garbage out of the back of a Star Destroyer, never to be heard from again*.

Instead, we get to go see what’s going on with the mysterious island, where the previously established ‘Solar Tsunami’ has re-enacted Frankenstein on the semi-alive gangers. This bit is lovely actually, especially the flashes of ‘Solar Lightning’ showing the flesh silently screaming. The Frankenstein parallels are obvious, and I admit that I’m a little surprised fewer people have mentioned it. At the very least it features the idea of the ‘dead’ flesh raised to life by the storm to be pursued and broken by people who don’t understand or accept it.

Instead, much has been made of the connection with ‘The Thing’ although it actually bears only a superficial resemblance to the John Carpenter classic**. There really is very little of ‘The Thing’ in this. The idea of infiltration by an unknowable foe, or that at any moment anyone could have been replaced is never addressed in quite the way I had expected. Even when people make the most ridiculous mistake (especially in splitting up, something which is even more inadvisable against a double or shapeshifter than against a serial killer), there is never any danger that one of them might be mimicked by a hostile other, or that any of them beyond the ones that are obviously out of place may have already been replaced. Much of the problem with the flesh stems from their frozen nature, unable to shapeshift they are left as only a copy of a single person. This removes the possibility of infiltration. Whilst ‘The Thing’ thrived on paranoia of who to trust, this takes the slightly different tack of seeing what happens when the duplicate begins to imagine itself the original.

Not much has been made of Rory’s past as an Auton in light of the gangers, and I admit that I now have no idea of just what is actually real about that whole thing. He was an Auton but that was rewritten, but he still remembers it, seems to be the main thrust. It’s unsurprising that he’d empathise with the rather pathetic Jennifer and her plight as an almost human. It’s more difficult to see the steps that lead him to leave safety to try and save her over staying with Amy and the Doctor, especially as he isn’t even trying to help the version of Jennifer that he has spent any time with.

The Doctor obviously knows more about this technology than he’s offered up. The idea of sentient goo able to imperfectly replicate those that touch it is a nice one, and offers up some intriguing possibilities for the future, as well as a way around the Doctors demise at the beginning of the season. We’ve been told that it isn’t a clone, but here the Doctor seems to imply that the flesh are themselves more than just a clone, possessing all the “emotions, traits, memories, secrets, everything.” If a human life is amazing, something that no flesh would give up, what more for a Time Lord?

Beyond all this is a compact, nicely plotted little tale which sets up the second part well. I’m not keen on the idea of a second Doctor, and would have preferred just a second episode standoff between the increasingly hostile humans and flesh. On the other hand it’s nice to see that, much as in the Silurian’s episode, humanity is the real monster, not the fleshy vat-grown abominations. I suspect that genocide will not be the answer to this problem, but nor will sharing the planet, just as it wasn’t last season. In both cases it’s annoying how the actions of one obviously deranged individual destabilise the peace talks. It’s at times like these that I do wish River Song was around to just blow the bad guys apart.

A few final things: is the man who keeps sneezing doing something relevant? Is the fact that the flesh are apparently fully human, with a fully human heart, a hint that a fully Time Lord-ian flesh might be able to regenerate? Just what is that goo going to become once the technology advances far enough – I like the idea of an early Nestene consciousness but really, Autons again?

And what to make of this: – the title, ‘Analysis Lessons’, is an anagram of ‘lonely assassins’ – also know as the Weeping Angels. Would it be too much of a hint that we will see them return for next season? Or could they somehow be connected to what’s currently going on?

Reviewing the first part of a two-parter feels a little weird, and this is not an episode that stands up alone in the way that ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ did. Nonetheless, it’s an exciting, engaging and more interesting episode than I had held out hope for and I am eagerly awaiting the conclusion next week. Fingers crossed the fine form we find ourselves enjoying continues…


*A little unfair, we do see the face at the window, in an empty room, and the Doctor does tell Amy to breathe at one point, rather out of the blue, which may be a delivering the baby reference, or may just be totally innocent. One of the joys of Moffat Who is just how much can be read into totally innocent phrases.

**Misfits Season 2 has a great episode with a shape shifter that is far closer to the spirit of ‘The Thing’, and like most episodes of Misfits is rather good.

2 thoughts on “Doctor Who – The Rebel Flesh – Review

  1. Waters of Mars, 42 and The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit are "uniformly terrible"? What?! 42 is rather dull, but I though you enjoyed Waters of Mars, and The Satan Pit is a really good story.

    I enjoyed The Rebel Flesh – creepy and atmospheric, if a little on the slow side.

  2. Another good piece James, and I couldn't agree more about the comparisons to last year's Silurian two-parter.

    The real question (and one I forgot to ask in the commentary) is whether we should view Series 6 as one series with an extended break, or two separate mini-series with interlinking threads. If the latter, then I suspect this two-parter will be of more significance to the long running plot that we've given it credit for so far…

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