The first half of Doctor Who’s abbreviated season six begins its two-part conclusion with this week’s opening episode The Rebel Flesh, which has the unfortunate job of following up last week’s resplendent “The Doctor’s Wife”, easily one of the best episodes in the long-running series history. BBC has opted to split season six apart and air the remaining episodes later this year, making this episode serve as one of the last before the break, which only adds more pressure to what’s been one of the most successful seasons (in terms of ratings) runs since the series was reactivated. I suppose we should have expected a bit of a downgrade after last week’s superlative – and largely singular – adventure, so it’s with a heavy heart and little surprise for me to report that its hardly the best Who you’ll see this year.
After landing on a small island on Earth sometime in the 22nd Century, our crew of Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), Rory (Arthur Darville), and the Doctor (Matt Smith) soon discover that the ancient castle before them may be hiding a secret; it turns out the entire island is actually a gigantic factory used to pump acid to the local mainland – from a safe distance. As the acid is extremely caustic (and flesh-melting), the crew of the factor use a strange fluid called The Flesh (the capitals are correct) that can shape itself into exact replicas of themselves, which can then be controlled via special link-up cradles using their minds. They call these replicas doppelgangers, gangers for short, and they’ve helped make running this dangerous operation a lot safer for everyone involved…except the gangers.
Of course, there’s a big problem threatening the whole operation – a solar tsunami is about to wreck all sorts of havoc on the solar-powered factory, and it seems the Doctor has arrived just in time to help the crew avert certain doom. Naturally, their leader, Cleaves (Raquel Cassidy), doesn’t believe a word of this strange bow-tied man’s rambles, and refuses to shut down operation. When the expected flares hit the station all hell breaks loose, and in true Frankenstein tradition, the introduction of solar flares into the goo-like Flesh materials gives rise to self-aware gangers no longer content to be mere vessels to their human masters; they want the good stuff, namely the respect and dignity that any self-respecting cognizant humanoid blob of alien goo deserves. I mean, who wouldn’t want that?
Longtime Who fans may not want to hear this, but it’s a shame the producers felt the need to inject some of the worst CG effects ever seen in a Who episode, which only serves to give it that cheap-o look you’d normally associate with a SyFy Channel show. One scene, featuring the Doctor battling outside solar flares, looks so incredibly cheesy and fake that you can practically see the greenscreen. When one character (not saying who) stretches their neck out of a toilet door in snake-like fashion, it looks so bad and amateurish you might think that you’re watching a different show. Doctor Who is a show that’s had more than its fair contributions to the world of bad television effects (especially early on), but the recent series’ have usually restrained themselves when it comes to overzealously using CG. Sadly, that isn’t the case here.
What’s most frustrating is that, as terrible as the CG and greenscreen effects are, the make-up work is absolutely top-notch, particularly on the fish-like faces of the various gangers and their dripping liquid ‘flesh’. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised to learn that it wasn’t all prosthetic work, as it seems to have been ‘assisted’ with some post-production CG filtering for enhanced coloring effects. Also, some of the practical sets (most likely filmed on-location) look positively stellar, but maybe its just me wanting to anything that wasn’t rendered.
Its easy to hate on “The Rebel Flesh” for a number of reasons, not the least was the cringe-worthy CG and overacting with some of the guest stars (Raquel Cassidy is particularly bad). It’s a story that felt cobbled together from other, better, moments of the series’ best ideas, only rushed to fit its 45-minute running time one moment, yet still drawn-out enough to lead into another. The problem is that it never feels clever enough to warrant a sequel, as what might have been truly mind-boggling sci-fi is reduced to yet another monster-chase race against time. Those not wanting River Song-like spoilers may want to stop reading now, as I’m going to detail a few of the stranger twists that never felt right to me. I was supremely disappointed when the current crew that we’d been following turned out to be the genuine article, and not the rogue band of gangers they were on the hunt for. Maybe it’s just me, but how much cooler would it have been for the ‘real’ humans to slowly realize it was they who were the gangers come-to-life.
True, this might have been a little of that underrated Schwarzenegger classic “The 6th Day”, it probably would have made more sense here, especially given how much the episode rips off James Cameron’s Avatar in both concept and execution. But I’ll take competency over originality any day of the week, and even in this area things fall apart. I’m not that familiar with director Julian Simpson’s work, but he seems to mishandle most of the episode’s key moments here, opting for quick cutaways and editing that never really lets the material breathe properly. One such moment, where we see The Flesh constructing a copy of a human, cuts away at precisely the moment you want to see; why waste time showing us crappy CG snake-heads and not show us a genuinely interesting scene where we might have been more forgiving, even if it wasn’t perfect?
This is sad as I was actually excited after hearing the episode would be writer by Matthew Graham, the co-creator of both Life On Mars and its spin-off Ashes to Ashes, two of my most obsessively-favorite shows of the past decade (which would help explain the appearance of Marshall Lancaster, who played DC Chris Skelton on both series). Even the episode’s title sounds David Bowie-ish. Just about everything feels rushed and never (forgive the pun) fleshed out properly. His characters feel like they’re only here as easy stereotypes incapable of being anything other than predictable plot-movers. You think we’ll see the tough-as-nails Cleaves (Raquel Cassidy) be as obstinate and stubborn as possible? Color me shocked and surprised when she gets her big moment in the sun.
It’s also hard to accept one a ganger’s plea that she’s “not a monster” while she’s pleading for help one moment, only to have her conveniently morph into a revenge-seeking creature on the drop of a dime the next. The snake-like head and scary voice isn’t helping convince anyone, you know. While there’s plenty of moments featuring Amy and Rory, our favorite Scottish ginger is almost relegated to a supporting role, and it’s impossible to watch Jennifer (Sarah Smart) flirt with Rory and not see a lot more of that fiery temper and jealousy flair up.
Still, The Rebel Flesh wasn’t without its moments of brilliance, and I don’t think I have to say anything about the final scene with the ganger Doctor. Special kudos to actress Sarah Smart pulling double-duty as Jennifer/Ganger Jennifer, who’s clearly working with sub-part material and still manages to make the most of it. As I mentioned above, many of the sets and physical make-up were quite good, and there’s a few classic lines thrown in there for starving Who fans to nibble on. Let’s hope many of this episode’s most pressing failings are justified with next week’s concluding “The Almost People”, as it will serve as the penultimate Who before this abbreviated season goes into hibernation for a few months.