Let’s face it; last week’s “The Rebel Flesh” wasn’t exactly the best opening episode to a two-part Doctor Who double-feature ever, although it wasn’t without its charms. Maybe it was my fault for getting a bit excited about hearing that it would be written by Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes series co-creator Matthew Graham. Or maybe it’s my fault for assuming there would be more to the intriguing concept of a living material that could replicate – and assume – the identify of anyone it comes into contact with. Industrial-grade extraterrestrial ooze meets self-aware consciousness certainly sounded like a lot of fun on paper; it’s just a shame things never really got cooking.
Which is why I’m so happy to say that The Almost People completely redeems an otherwise flat first-part with an exhilarating second, making it one of the season’s best (so far). Gone are much of the last week’s embarrassing computer-generated silliness and backdrops, and gone also is the emphasis on having our heroes embark on yet another monster-chase. Having established the appearance of conscious “gangers” (short for doppelgangers) of the acid factor’s crew now on the hunt to replace their human counterparts, it’s up to the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan), and factory crew members Cleaves (Raquel Cassidy), Jimmy (Mark Bonnar), Buzzer (Marshall Lancaster), and Adam (Edmond Moulton) to fend them off while holed up in a spare room. Oh, did I forget to mention that the Doctor has his very own ganger (also Matt Smith) as well, as two Time Lords are more fun than one.
Meanwhile, Rory (Arthur Darville) has been tracking Jennifer (Sarah Smart) as she makes her way back to the others humans while her own ganger has become blood-thirstier than ever. It’s at this point that things become less about pure survival and more about justification, as we learn the fate of those decommissioned Flesh gangers no longer of service, which leads to their existentially questioning their place in the universe. Hereon in its classic Who rationalizing, in that we’re led to believe these so-called monsters aren’t quite as monstrous as we first thought, even managing to pack in a good amount of the old switcheroo for those who’ve been paying close attention.
Watching the two Doctors (both Matt Smith) play off one-another with childlike delight was a real treat, and I must say that the clever resolution of their doubling-up took me by surprise, especially given the post-resolution resolution that leads directly into next week’s epic-looking mid-season finale. Focusing on the duality of the human/ganger couplings was also handled better here, as we’re led to believe that self-realized gangers have less to do with their current predicament than we might have expected, and the shape-shifting ooze called The Flesh may not be the willing sludge humans have mistaken it for. The final solution probably comes a bit easier than it should, but considering this is the second part of a story that probably could have been just as comfortable in a single episode it could have been worse.
As I mentioned above, one of the biggest (and perhaps shallowest) reasons for this episode’s superiority is the almost complete lack of CG special-effects, as those that do appear have been largely relegated to small and less consequential parts. Instead, we get mostly practical make-up and other prosthetics that look and ‘feel’ better than crappy computer-generated garbage ever could. Even Jennifer’s horrid monster-thing (i.e. snake-lady from last week) adaptation looks a lot better here, though it’s still pretty bad. But even this is a small blip in an otherwise thrilling and often tense game of survival, and I’m betting that even lapsed Who fans will be willing to forgive a single SyFy Channel-looking reject for the greater good. I know I am.
And bravo for whoever thought to end things the way they did, which not only helps put the often-seen Eye Patch Lady (Frances Barber) in context, but inserts the single most interesting concept of the season so far. I wouldn’t dare spoil what this is or how it might relate to past – and future – episodes, but let’s just say it does its job. It’s details like this that help make The Almost People not only one of this season’s best, but a rousing Who adventure on its own…even if it is just a concluding episode to a so-so opener. Get ready, boys and girls, because there’s only one final episode before the series takes a break for a few months, and something tells me they’re going to leave things on one hell of a cliffhanger. Bring on “A Good Man Goes to War”, and the excruciating wait that’s sure to follow.