It is therefore a relief that this episode was a triumph. Not (yet) reaching the heights of ‘The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon’ or ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ but slightly better than ‘Curse of the Black Spot’.
This shouldn’t have been a big surprise. Matthew Graham is clearly a good writer, as shown by his work on ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes.’ Even ‘Fear Her’ had some positive parts, noticeably the emotional resonance of a lonely child and her fear of her abusive father.
It is this same area in which ‘The Rebel Flesh’ is strongest. At it’s core it is a story about identity. It is a theme that science fiction likes to explore time and time again, from ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ to ‘Blade Runner’ to the recent series of ‘Battlestar Galatica.’
At this point the question isn’t ‘Who is a Ganger?’ but ‘Is a Ganger a person?’ That may change later but the drama of this first episode was whether these duplicates of the real crew actual people or monsters?
Coupled with that is the question of if humanity can ever use a proxy to perform tasks. Whether it be using robots, Ood or artificially grown people is it ever more than a form of slavery?
The opening perfectly demonstrates this. When Buzzer’s ganger falls into a vat of acid, thanks in no small part to Jennifer, they treat it as a minor inconvenience, rather than a tragedy. At most Jimmy complains about the loss of an expensive acid resistant suit. Only in the last shot do we see the agonised face of the ganger melting into the acid.
The Doctor has always believed that all life is precious and it is clear he believes it is morally wrong to create life to act as a tool. No surprise then he is mind melding with tubs of goo and giving speeches about eggs in jelly. This puts him at odds with the crew who clearly put a lower value on the life of a ganger.
The pacing of the story is slower, but in a deliberate way. There is an uneasy sense of anticipation. We know that the Gangers and humans are going to be turn against each other, even before the storm, and so does the Doctor.
From the hints given so far the Doctor seems to know the events that are about to happen. It is something akin to his behaviour in ‘Waters of Mars’ or ‘The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood.’ He is fighting the inevitable.
Matt Smith puts in a twitchy, paranoid performance for this episode. The warmth and confidence of the previous episodes has been replaced with awkward silences, fidgeting and sideway glances. Something about this is making the Doctor uncomfortable. He isn’t telling his companions everything leading us to doubt whether we can trust him.
This helps create the mood for the whole episode. The humans are afraid of their duplicates, an incident on the Isle of Sheppey providing a cautionary tale of a rogue Ganger killing his operator.
In return the Ganger question their own existence. They remember everything the original does, they have the same thoughts. As copies they are all too aware that they won’t be treated as real people and may even be destroyed.
Thankfully both sides aren’t instantly hostile towards each other, instead only one member in each camp is a bad egg. On the human side Miranda is determined to regain control, even if it means electrocuting people with her makeshift cattle prod.
While Miranda’s ganger is almost serene about what is happening it is the quiet Jennifer’s ganger who prompts the others to go to war. In her scene with Rory she reminisced about being lost as a child and imagining she had a stronger twin. Does she now view herself as this more confident duplicate?
I think we can sympathise with both camps. Particularly effective is the scene between Jimmy and his ganger, both claiming the son as their own. From the ganger perspective how could anyone tell you the child you love and remember being born isn’t yours? Equally how terrible would it feel to hear a mistake of science tell you that your son is his?
The supporting cast do a great job of selling the situation. They are convincing as every day people, even if the situation is bizarre. Raquel Cassidy is able to show both sides of Foreman Miranda in her twin roles, Mark Bonnair is likeable and level headed as Jimmy and the ever reliable Marshall Lancaster brings all the naivety and uncertainty that he displayed as DC Chris Skelton in ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes.’
Special mention should be made of Sarah Smart as Jennifer. She has the difficult task of eliciting both sympathy and fear from the audience. There was the danger that she could have come across as whiny or needy but her agony over finding out she isn’t human is convincing, enough to make us believe that Rory would be protective of her.
This is quite a character development for Rory. For the first time here is someone who needs him. Jennifer isn’t as strong as Amy and it is clearly a new experience for him, to have a woman turn to him for comfort.
There is also the fact that he has been in a similar situation when he was an auton, fighting against his preprogramed killer instinct. He knows what it is like to doubt who you are, despite the memories in your head.
At this point I don’t think that Rory is in love with Jennifer. He feels protective towards her and angry that Amy would dismiss her as less than human. For once he is standing his ground and doing what he believes is right.
The smaller, unspoken moments in this episode are great and speak volumes. Amy’s surprise when she sees Rory comforting Jennifer and her approving, but cautious, nod indicates that she is both worried and proud of Rory.
Similarly in a later scene Rory is shocked to find Jennifer is holding his hand, with Amy watching in the background. He tries to get Jennifer to release him but her hold remains fast.
The setting of an ancient monastery turned into an acid pumping station is brilliantly done, thanks to clever location work combining several castles and ruins into one place. It feels isolated, ancient and otherworldly.
I’m not a huge fan of Murray Gold’s work (he can be a little bombastic) but I found that his music heightened the drama of this episode. Particularly the distorted theme he provided the marching gangers, highlighting their malfunctioning nature.
Not everything worked. It seems a bit strange that this episode was set on 22nd century Earth. A solar tsunami is lighting up the sky and causing earthquakes yet it is treat as a natural occurrence for our world.
Similarly the idea that acid is being mined and piped to the main land doesn’t ring true. I’m not aware of any such mining or a particular need for acid as a natural resource. It seems a very alien practice for Earth.
Still, this does add to the off kilter feel for this episode. It is like our world but different.
The worst moment was probably the Jennifer ganger stretching her neck through the toilet door like a snake. The effect wasn’t convincing nor added anything to the horror of the situation. In the end it came of as a little silly.
This was the only low point for the special effects. The design of the gangers was simple but effective, giving them a different shade of skin and softer features. They were both strangely beautiful and offputtingly half formed.
The cliff hanger ended not on the imminent peril of one of the cast but the revelation that there is Doctor ganger. Demonstrating the advantages of the ganger design he was recognisable but deeply uncomfortable to look at, especially with his little smile at the end.
What will the presence of this double mean? In theory he should be just as benevolent as the original but the real Doctor’s reaction suggests that this is not a good development. It will be interesting to see how this develops.
So far this is turning out to be the best season of Who yet.