‘The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People’ by Matthew Graham uses science fiction to explore ethical questions. In such plots there isn’t a clear villain, nor is the answer obvious. They can be very useful to explore just how the characters think just as the Doctor uses Amy to see how humans react to gangers.
The question usually boils down to ‘do we have the right?’ Just because science allows us to do something should we? It is a difficult question and while science can benefit us we must also be ready to deal with the consequences.
In this story the issue is that humanity have created artificial slaves. From the perspective of the miners the Flesh is just a remote unit, something that can create a duplicate of the miners but isn’t truly alive.
They believe that the lightening storm is responsible for the Flesh malfunctioning and gaining sentience, something that has apparently happened before, but it is eventually revealed that it always had some form of awareness, capable of feeling the pain of each ganger’s death.
It is this point that makes the Doctor decide that using the gangers is wrong, that causing any form of life to suffer can’t be tolerated. We can only speculate what his view would be if the gangers weren’t self-aware, if they were entirely synthetic.
Science fiction has explored this theme with robots as well. In ‘Battlestar Galatica’ the cylons rebel from their human masters, unhappy with their status as servants. Although they too begin using their own kind in a similar manner, lobotomising some cylons to keep them loyal to the superior models.
In ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ the rights of holograms were explored. Even a computer simulation of a living, thinking person was shown to be deserving of the same freedom as an actual person.
Returning to Doctor Who ‘New Earth’ showed that a hospital run by the Sisters of Plentidue were using Flesh (possibly the same material as in ‘The Rebel Flesh’) to grow artificial people to be infected with diseases in order to find cures.
In that story the Doctor releases and cures the infected. The ending suggests that they will be treated as real people and the medical practice will no longer be tolerated. One can only wonder at what medical advances were lost because of this interference and whether Flesh could be grown with out a fully developed brain, a kind of mindless meat puppet to be tested.
The message here seems clear. That creating life, in any form, brings responsibility. It’s unethical to create anything that has awareness and place them in chains. This means humanity must forever do its own dirty work.
When creating a scenario based on an ethical issue you’ll ideally need to have two or more parties, representing the opposing views. If you wish the player characters to come to their own conclusion neither side should obviously be the villain.
Each side should have its pros and cons. This allows reasoned argument between the sides, the player characters having to decide how much weight to give each point. They may begin with one point of view and be swayed to the other,
This, in itself, won’t lead to an exciting adventure. Things need to happen rather than just endless arguments back and fore. In ‘The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People’ the humans and the gangers are put in conflict, with both sides killing members of the other, escalating the tension.
This can lead the player characters picking sides. Amy’s loyalties lie with the humans and she is even suspicious of the Doctor-ganger (or at least who she thinks is the ganger) while Rory has a better understanding of being an artificial being after briefly being an auton, siding with them until they start threatening to kill the humans.
One of the reason this two part Doctor Who story works well is that the humans and the gangers aren’t faceless or even just copies of each other. They have personalities, a plight that we can emphasise with.
Rory bonds with the Jenny-ganger, letting the audience feel her pain as she knows she isn’t the original but still feels like at person due to the memories she retains. Jimmy is unwilling to let his ganger claim to be the father of his child and who can blame him?
Jenny eventually does becomes the monster of the story but we can still see that having one or more people who we understand on an emotional level raises the issue above just an intellectual exercise. The outcome will affect peoples lives.
This should come about naturally and it can be interesting if the player characters end up on different sides, affecting their relationships. As outsiders the player characters are also best positioned to act as mediators, finding a middle ground for all parties.
It is understandable that there will be some losers whatever the outcome. Quite a few people have died by the end of ‘The Almost People.’ This shouldn’t be seen as a failure by the players. Those deaths provide motivation to make sure that their sacrifice will mean something.
Not that the Doctor hasn’t turned a blind eye to ethical questions before. He himself realises that he ignored the Oods slavery in ‘Planet of the Ood’ , was unconcerned with the synthetic beings in ‘The Robots of Death’ and was happy to send miniature clone versions of himself and Leela to their death in ‘The Invisible Enemy.’
What this illustrates is that ethical questions shouldn’t prevent fun adventures. Later the player character can come to question his actions or be called out on his hypocrisy but it needn’t take focus from that particular story or prevent the player characters from carrying out a plan.