Dear reader, it is a privilege to announce that I have witnessed perhaps the best story of the Matt Smith era so far. But enough about "The Doctor's Wife" (snare roll, cymbal crash; muted applause) - we're here to pick through "The Rebel Flesh" b/w "The Almost People", a mid-season two-parter with a much-vaunted cliffhanger ending.
Ah, the mid-season two-parter - a staple of the series since its return, along with the token historical, the season-long story arc and Daleks by the dozen. Historically, though, the odds are against it actually being any good. Let's look at the evidence: the unwelcome arrival of RTD's pet project the Slitheen, the underwhelming introduction of Trigger's Cybermen, bloody Daleks in bloody Manhatten, the single worst piece of acting in history from two soldiers in "The Sontaran Strategem" and the neutering of the Weeping Angel threat, featuring a side order of Alex Kingston. Now there's a highlight reel to make your eyes bleed.
|Little did she know her tango was about to be prematurely ended by an oil drum..|
Encouragingly, though, the only returning villain this year was writer Matthew "Life On Mars" Graham, co-creator of the aforementioned time-shift cop romp that made us all love the glorious Seventies again. Sadly, Doctor Who mavens may remember him as Matthew "Fear Her" Graham, the man responsible for a Season 2 lowlight so unappealing that it gives "Love And Monsters" a run for the wooden spoon and whose pathetically weak characters completely unbalanced the corresponding Top Trumps deck.
With some trepidation, then, we step in to the TARDIS, which Rory seems to be turning into a pub, what with The Muses on the jukebox and the dartboard and all. But before he can measure up for some hand pumps and organise a tasting trip, a solar tsunami (ouch - too soon) sends them on a non-stop ride to ADVENTURE!!!... Or at least some mild peril and Dusty Springfield.
Their destination is a 22nd century mining concern, where the northern working classes of the future are grafting away at t'acid face by proxy, with the 'help' of The Flesh, a sort of intelligent matter that can clone anything, clothes and all - which is handy when you've blown the series' budget on the ridiculous concept of a mid-season finale and you can't afford any new togs for your actors. From here on in it's predictability a go go, as another solar tsunami (still too soon) gives the clones independence, a series of delightful bigotry-based misunderstandings and electric slayings sends everyone tribal and we're left with a tense us vs. them setup that hits all the expected dramatic notes.
So, let's start by accentuating the positives here - and as it turns out, for all the aforementioned predictability, there's a lot to admire here. The cast are pretty solid, with the heavy lifting falling on Sarah Smart, who gives a great performance as Jennifer and her various Gangers, and the always game Arthur Darvill, whose often-sidelined Rory finally gets a chance to showcase his nurse powers and hold a mirror up to the Doctor-Amy relationship. Their scenes together represent the high points of these episodes, from a dramatic standpoint at least. Raquel Cassidy plays Cleaves with the right amount of steel and Mark Bonnar plays off himself with some panache, whilst Marshall Lancaster stays well within his comfort zone - not that that's such a bad thing.
The setting is visually pleasing; grimy, cold, damp and remote, it reeks of hard work, isolation and deprivation. The concepts are big, encompassing slavery, identity, bigotry and integration. There are some charming nods to previous doctors and time for a little light-heartedness in the two Doctors' competitive showing-off, which could have seemed awkwardly shoehorned in but doesn't distract from the flow of the story. Even Murray Gold put in a less disruptive performance than usual, largely keeping things simple with some passable horror stings to support the on-screen tension.
Aaaand now, the moment you've all been waiting for: the bad stuff. Foremost amongst this is the writer's seeming unwillingness to let the audience come to their own conclusions about the moral dilemma at the core of the episode. All the evidence is laid out before us, largely through Rory's excellent intera_ctions with Jennifer's gooey replica, progressing later to Amy's less nuanced hostility towards the plastic Doctor. Yet the point is rammed home with metronomic regularity and depressing transparency, to the extent that a character actually shouts "WHO ARE THE REAL MONSTERS???" at one point, like we can't be trusted to sympathise with the Gangers' plight.
This is perhaps not the way to treat an audience who, theoretically at least, have sat through the first two episodes of the series, which were pretty damn fine but also blisteringly disorientating, plus "The Doctor's Wife", which despite being more self-contained still managed to tackle some big questions without shouting the answers at you. Oh, and the pirate one, which had pirates in.
Secondly, a word on cliffhangers. The ending of part one was heavily signposted from the word go, leading to a dissatisfying pay-off. Why would you introduce the concept of The Flesh, then NOT have The Doctor cloned? It's the most interesting thing you can do with it! As for the end of part two, as nice as it is to have some motion in what seems to be the season arc, it does seem like this whole two-parter has been offered up as a sacrifice to the larger story. We can now see why the introduction of The Flesh is important to the arc as a whole, but if that was the main point, why waste two episodes on it when one and a later explanation would have done just as well?
And finally tonight, we come to the Gangers themselves. They are one hell of a scary concept in and of themselves, playing on a myriad of human fears from body horror to identity theft. The whole nose-free bit I could abide, from a purely selfish perspective of confusion avoidance, but turning Jennifer into a monster is pointless, from her Plastic Man stretchy punch to Kabal's fatality from "Mortal Kombat 3" and her gruesome final fate: looking like a reject from "The Lazarus Experiment". The effects probably cost a packet, looked bad and just simply didn't need to happen. Still, I’d guess it ate up some time on "Confidential", and in the end, that's what really counts.
Overall then, there went about one and half hours of throwaway entertainment which will seemingly only be remembered for its last few minutes. Still, as mid-season two-parters go, it's nowhere near as bad as "Daleks In Manhatten", so this writer is thankful for small mercies. Next up there's hi-jinks with an American comedy legend, as "John Goodman Goes To War!"