Doctor Who Instants - The Rebel Flesh

The problem with Matthew Graham’s previous story `Fear Her` is that of a strong idea just not translating as a television programme and would be far more rewarding as a book or short story. `The Rebel Flesh seems to have some of the same issues though at least possesses a visual momentum to make it more watchable. With two episodes to play with, the story should be slowly paced building to a tense cliffhanger in the middle but it rattles along so quickly that one vital ingredient is missing.

For a story of this type - the familiar `base under siege from within` - to work satisfactorily the characters need to be more varied and interesting than the group we meet here. Give or take a regional accent and a certain haughtiness from Cleeves there is little to distinguish them or crucially to make us care whether they survive. You don’t need tons of back story to make this work, just a bit of light and shade, something to make them seem real. In this particular case you need something to distinguish them from their clones (apart from just weird noses) who otherwise seem faintly silly with their villainous demeanour.

Graham also flounders when translating his intriguing idea of a living Flesh soup into a convincing one. These Instants reviews will miss the odd moment but on one viewing basic facts should be shouted from the rooftops; however I missed why the five of them are faffing about in an unprotected monastery when an outfit like this should surely be in a top secret high security sort of place?  Admittedly most viewers won’t have watched as much Doctor Who as me, but within a few minutes the twists were unsurprising and the climax predictable.

To the episode’s advantage some creepy camera work and interesting cinematography make the best use of a charismatic location plus great visual fx depict the solar storm.  The story strand involving Rory’s interest in Jennifer is rather arbitrarily started but nicely played nonetheless allowing Karen Gillen to further enhance her much broader work this year.

Once the gangers started singing they had to be stopped.
Matt Smith though seems back on `Black Spot` autopilot here, the quirks that engaged last season are wearing thin now, as if he’s  shown us all his tricks too soon.  He gets too much dialogue, shoving everyone else to the sidelines as they stand about watching him and further emphasising their own lack of character. When this happened with early David Tennant episodes it was corrected- presently Smith is becoming so overbearingly dominant that it’s hard to remember anyone else from his episodes. It’s not really the actor’s fault- if Steven Moffett is so appreciative of the likes of Peter Davison and Patrick Troughton why not incorporate some of their quieter, whimsical attributes to this Doctor?

There’s no doubting the effort that went into the making of this episode - it’s atmospheric in places, quite dynamic in others but overall lacking a spark to fire it up. Hopefully part 2 can light that fuse.


  1. Once again, an episode I seemed to enjoy rather more than you did John!

    Just to deal with the ‘well defended base’ issue, I think the opening shot established this is on an isolated island, and so naturally protected. I agree there is some ambiguity about how secret all this is supposed to be. The Flesh is clearly in use in other places, including the Isle of Sheppey, which is certainly not an isolated place. However, this does not trouble me much.

    I disagree that the new characters are not well enough drawn for sympathy. Clearly, Jennifer is introduced as the one to elicit most sympathy, and we are given quite a few character notes from her past. This actually also happened for Dicken. I agree that so far, Buzzer and Jimmy are not so well drawn, but we see plenty of Cleaves – she’s just not that sympathetic! Compared to (say) the Impossible Planet, this does well enough.

    Where I think the problem identifying with the characters in peril may stem from is the fact that we are not invited to take sides here, but to see that both the initial set and the duplicates have a justified reason to exist and to have your sympathies? The initial set think their lives and families have been misappropriated. The duplicates did not ask for the life or memories they have (do any of us?). The duplicates are also being exploited terribly. While the initial controller does not feel the pain of the duplicate’s dissolution, the final shot before the intro credits suggests the duplicate still does. The invitation to question the meaning of identity is a great strength of this story, and true to the spirit of the show, the Doctor invites us to ‘love the alien’, or in this case ‘love ourselves’.

    It is a nice touch that Rory is the companion that leads us to sympathy with the duplicates. While not (yet) stated, he has a direct memory of being such a duplicate for over 2000 years, with all the memories, loves and fears of the original. Both the character and Arthur Darvill have impressed me all through this series.

    Finally, I cannot agree that Matt Smith’s portrayal was too dominant and quirky; far from being all energy and ticks this week, I thought the character was quite pensive and bookish. Clearly he knows more about this than he is letting on, and closer to the 7th Doctor than any other.

    So, on balance a strong first episode, and I hope the second pays off as well.

  2. An additional thought, which will probably seem silly in a week's time. I am not convinced that the initial crew are actually 'originals'. Perhaps I am just influenced by a certain film about a year ago!