“How do you know this isn’t a medieval monastery?” “They’re listening to Dusty Springfield”
After last week’s episode, The Doctor’s Wife, I was fully prepared for this one to be truly awful. It’s a regular trope of the experimental, time hopping nature of the show that certain episodes just don’t fit (The Satan Pit) or just outright fail (Love and Monsters). This episode is certainly the former, but luckily not the latter.
Doctor Who is often labelled as Science Fiction, which I believe to be an appropriate genre name if you take it in the Jules Verne, Mary Shelley or H.G. Wells sense of the field. Science Fiction with a limited grasp of the scientific concepts behind them, but used for high concept rides, social commentary and thought exercises. “The Rebel Flesh” takes Who at its best, giving a consistency to the technology, without ever trying to explain it; making it believable without it needing to be possible.
The episode begins with one of my favorite scenes from the show: Three engineers, jovially checking the storage unit for a vat of particularly corrosive acid. While joking near the bubbling liquid, one of them slips in. As he is slowly disintegrated he, very calmly, tries to point out it's not his fault . As the surviving engineers leave the room, they are confronted by their dead work mate outside, understandably annoyed that they just killed him. In a scary way? Not at all. More a subdued, Northern telling off like the kind if you knocked Brian Cox’s ice-cream out of his hand.
This is the basic crux of this opener: In the future, for extreme mining and industrial work, humanity uses [Dopple]“gangers” made of a substance called “The Flesh”, an organic, reproducing liquid capable of mimicking the data assigned to it. In this case, the data is the miners themselves, who enter pods, create a ganger and psychically pilot it through the required chores, before melting back into their primarily, primordial form. They are alive but "in the same way as moss". All seems safe, if fairly immoral, but once a solar storm hits the outpost, the gangers find themselves with their creator’s memories and without needing their control.
The flesh is a brilliant concept and fits perfectly in what seems feasible in the lore. Though the science behind it is sketchy, there is a solid logic behind its use and an “Aliens” style company ethos makes the morally dubious nature of it believable. As with many of the best sci fi concepts, they use it primarily to explore underlying themes. In this case, the fear of the other and debating what constitutes a living entity.
It may sound like I’m reading too much into it, but it’s nice to see Doctor Who trying its hand at such subjects. In some ways, they have taken various influences, and blended them together to form an interesting new part: The Company is hugely reminiscent of the Alien movies, the lightning creating “abominations” is close to Frankenstein, the tension between clones and their creators are akin to everything from Ghost in the Shell to Michael Marshall Smith’s “Spares”. In many ways, it does feel like “My First Sci-Fi Horror”, but it’s original enough to appeal to older audiences and exciting enough to introduce the more serious end of the genre to the younger ones.
The sets are a little more consistent this week, and visually a lot more pleasing. Set, for some reason, in a monastery there is a brooding gothic feeling to the entire facility. A distinct lack of light and floods of acid add to the menace, and using a very creepy real location makes everything look higher budget than it has any right to.
The Flesh themselves flick between the stable form, that of their creator, and unstable where they look slightly melted; dark lines around their cheeks, small slit like noses and pale eyes. One concern I had with the notion of flesh attacking the creators was that it could have easily just been “The Doctor Versus Zombies”, but by keeping their personalities they become something far more interesting. They, and their creators, are pushed into conflict through fear and the desire to survive. By having Gangers seem so human adds an untold amount to these new creatures, leaving them like frightened T-1000s at a Lord Voldermort look-a-like competition.
Though narratively and emotionally not as satisfying as the previous episode, this episode made up for it with distinctly higher production values and, at times, being genuinely quite creepy. The new creatures have the potential to become a series staple and add to growing bestiary of the Moffat era.
There is potential continuity concern as it tonally doesn’t really fit with the usual standards of the show, being far darker, but that’s something I am okay with. Between this, the Silents and the Doctor’s Wife episode, it suggests a more distinct identity for the show outside of the sillier, pantomime fare such as “Curse of the Black Spot”. Though these may be a little scary for children, I don’t like kids so it works for me. Just have to hope that it doesn’t suffer the other trope of the series: disappointing second parts.
Continuity: Future Pirate Window Lady made an appearance again as a surprisingly effective jump moment. Rory again comments about his regular dying, so perhaps that wasn’t a crazy theory last week. The Flesh are referred to as “primitive” by the Doctor, perhaps a prototype for the Autons? Hope not, they are rubbish.
Next week: The conclusion of this story. The cliff hanger was slightly predictable, but promises to push the Doctor in new ways so should make next week very interesting.
...anyway, that’s all from me for now on A Mighty Fine Blog. Be sure to come and visit me at my own free-form ramble fest Tomato Vine Jesus. Normal service resumes next week with the Mighty Fine Ed.