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“The Rebel Flesh” Review (SPOILERS, I Guess)

I think we’ve been spoiled by Moffat two-parters lately.  He has a way of making each episode feel like a separate story, with its own ebbs and flows, while still contributing to the greater narrative.  Part one of this year’s non-Moffat two parter, Matthew Graham’s “The Rebel Flesh,” suffered from what I like to call “setup-itis.” The central ideas and performances were quite strong, and the creepiness factor was way up there, but it felt like they were just setting the board for the next episode. Is that a bad thing? Or is the Moffat way not the way it should be done?

“The Rebel Flesh” begins the way a lot of Doctor Who stories do, with a small group of workers doing some strange task we’ve never heard of in a familiar yet alien location.  This show’s been doing blue-collar-in-space long before Ridley Scott.  In this case, the small crew is working in a factory housed in a castle on a remote island wherein they have to pump a valuable but highly corrosive acid to the mainland. Valuable acid? How valuable can acid be? It’s so corrosive, in fact, that they’ve been forced to create disposable clones of themselves out of a self-replicating fluid called Flesh, which they control mentally through an external matrix-thing.  We’re shown at the beginning that these doppelgangers, or gangers, are so disposable that they can push each other into vats of acid and not really bat an eye.

As one has grown to expect from years of science fiction reading/viewing, clones are not a good thing.  Before too long a “solar tsunami” causes havoc on the island, and the gangers become infused with the workers’ memories and emotions.  They believe they are the workers, while the workers believe that the gangers are merely copies.  This speaks to one of sci-fi’s oldest tropes, which is questioning what it means to be human.  It also brings up a very real fear, which is loss of identity.  It’s easy to see why each side is so fearful and quick to attack the other; they each want to be validated as real.  Imagine having decades of memories and feelings but knowing that you aren’t actually the one who had them, then imagine having an artificial being that looks like you claiming to be you. Both are fairly terrifying.

This episode set up quite a lot of interesting ideas, but that’s just how it felt, like a setup.  I felt the same way last year with the Chris Chibnall two-parter, “The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood.”  The first episode put all the characters in place, but nothing really happened until the second (though in the case of “Cold Blood,” nothing really happened there either).  Typically, I suppose, this is the way two-part stories have existed in television drama forever, with the second part just continuing and wrapping up the tension introduced in the first part.  Shows like “Law & Order” often treat “to-be-continued”s in this way and I usually never think anything about it, save going “Aw, man, now I have to wait a week.”

We Whovians, however, have been spoiled (if that’s the right word) with the two-part stories written by Steven Moffat.  Each episode of the three two-parters he’s written since taking over the show has felt like a separate story, merely heading toward a common goal.  So much happens in each episode and there are large tonal shifts between them that they can almost be considered separate stories. “The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone” was the most straight forward of his lot and even they were quite different, even down to the setting and pace.

Regardless, about the episode at hand: For the most part, I enjoyed “The Rebel Flesh.”  The idea is intriguing, and the execution of that idea was handled well. The direction by Julian Simpson was a little flat for my liking; you have this inherently creepy location, a castle-factory, and the whole thing is lit with like shaky work lights. When the power goes out in the story, there was a chance to have some eerie mood lighting, but it was just kind of dim and grey.  That’s my preference, of course, being the huge fan of Film Noir and 50s sci-fi/horror that I am.

The supporting characters were just okay, though the performances were strong.  The opening scene was nice, because we started to get to know the workers a little bit, but pretty much, once the Doctor showed up, it was only Cleaves and Jen we got to know at all.  There was even a crew member who showed up, “Dicken,” I’m told his name is, who I didn’t even know existed and then, suddenly, there he is.  So one episode has a character disappear without explanation and another has one appear without explanation.  Can we blame the Time War for that, too? Also, why is it always the leader in these situations who goes ape and overreacts? Flying off the handle is not generally considered a worthwhile skill for leading a parade let alone a highly dangerous and expensive operation. And I don’t mean to bring this up again, but why would ANYONE need a highly corrosive acid? That don’t make no sense.

Probably my favorite bit of the episode was Rory. He’s broken ranks of being just Amy’s lapdog/protector and branched out to help artificial women.  Rory would be compassionate, given he has 2000 years of plastic memories floating around his brain.  It’s also nice to see him not just heel when Amy tells him to.  He’s a good character and a good companion, and for me has kind of outshone Amy since “Pandorica Opens.”  Also, he didn’t die or almost die or appear to have died this week at all, though I was scared when he lunged at a taser-happy Cleaves.

The episode ends with a ganger version of the Doctor, which is a pretty cool idea, though one I saw coming from early on.  The Doctor also seemed to know what was happening with the Flesh, but didn’t have time to explain.  I bet this has something to do with the Sontarans, given that they are a clone race and the anti-acid suits the gangers wear look an awful lot like Sontaran outfits.  I’d be surprised if they aren’t at least name checked in the next episode.  Also next time, we’re supposedly going to get a lot more knowledge about Eye-Patch Lady, which is good because I’m kind of tired of seeing her for a second at a time.  I think, much like Amy is apparently in a state of being pregnant and not pregnant, I think she is also both in a hospital and not in a hospital somewhere. Schrodinger’s Amy.

I think my incoherent rambling about this episode speaks for itself: I need to see part two before I make my full decision.  I am, however, quite excited for it.

Here’s the next time trailer and accompanying clips for “The Almost People.”



-Kanderson is a genuine human who likes TWITTER followers

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  1. HK says:

    By the way, SPOILERS on the Doctor Who BBC( page, so if you don’t want some pretty major spoilers, don’t look there. Dang nab-it.

  2. HK says:

    I just got caught up with this season so far. Whew, everything’s been great, except the Black Spot…let’s slide that under the rug for now.

    Anyways, Kanderson, your reviews and writing are spectacular. I’m also enjoying the comments, and don’t have much to add except that I think the eye-patch woman is the one that delivers Amy’s baby. There was a comment she made when she popped up in the Black Spot episode (oops, yup, just brought it up) that I can’t remember exactly, but that with her other comments makes me believe she is somehow involved in the delivery.

  3. Jackie says:

    @Alice “And … what about the sneezing???? No show has someone sneeze, in such a way as to be interrupting from the dialog, TWO TIMES, for no reason!!!!” My guess is that it will be important in distinguishing the Gangers from the originals.

  4. Jackie says:

    @Hils “and also that he knew that he could stop what was happening. Even though it seemed like they were pulled to the island accidentally by the tsunami.” Perhaps it is the Doc’s way of trying to accept that the Tardis takes him to the places where he needs to be?

  5. James Collinge says:

    On the Sontaran front, I’ve heard a few theories about this story tying in to the Sontarans but here’s my own:

    In the same way that RTD created a brand new race of “Cybermen” in his era, so that he could use them without being unnecessarily hindered by decades of continuity, perhaps Moffat wanted Graham to do something similar for the Sontarans and that lead to the genesis of The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People.

  6. Hils says:

    Up till now, I was just thinking the Doctor was Amy-scanning out of worry. But it finally occurred to me that he might also feel responsible for the shifting results. She did tell him she was afraid she’d have a baby with “Time Head.” And I might not be correct, but she’s the first possibly-pregnant companion, right? Would he know of possible side effects? I think he must have some theory — it’s not really his style to be worried about the unknown.

    Which leads me to a second observation: I also think he’s been working unusually hard to keep her (and Rory by extension — poor Rory. And YES, so glad he got more meaty stuff in this episode.) out of trouble — beyond the usual “don’t wander off.” From what I remember companions are only locked in the TARDIS or sent away when the Doctor has top secret Time Lord Stuff going on or he’s in love with them and the planet’s about to explode. But he locked Amy and Rory up last episode and tried to drop them off for fish and chips at the beginning of this one. I can’t help but feel like this is tied together.

    Also, did anyone else catch that the Doctor knew where they were? He said something like “I think this is it. We’re here,” and also that he knew that he could stop what was happening. Even though it seemed like they were pulled to the island accidentally by the tsunami.

  7. Chuck says:

    Even if it is not the real Geoff Peterson.

  8. Chuck says:

    Can I just say I am proud to be part of a collective that includes Geoffrey Peterson.

  9. Monkeynaut says:

    I agree with @Pete that the gooey-Doctor being killed by the astronaut is too obvious, but you never know. I *am* interested to see how the shoe-switch turns out.

    My guess on the sneezing is that maybe the virus goes War of the Worlds on the gangers, or it goes The Fly and disrupts their DNA?

    Having the doctor look at Amy’s pregnancy scan, having Amy say she’s worried about the doctor dying, and having Eye-patch slide a hatch closed once every episode is a pretty piss-poor excuse for a seasonal story arc in my opinion. They just get shoe-horned into each script where there’s a five-second gap.

    @Sarah P, Mark Gatiss?!! Really?! Enh, different strokes for different folks. But, really?!

  10. Pete says:

    Nope. Not buying it.

    Moff wants us to think that Gooey-Doc is the one who gets killed. Just like he wanted us to think that somehow “The Doctor’s Wife” referred to Ms. Song. He’s very good at anticipating groupthink and planting seeds that we will run with.

    My own personal thought is that the fake plastic Doctor will mostly be on the good guy’s side with maybe some false betrayal in order to infiltrate the Ken-and-Barbie set. At the end he will somehow sacrifice himself in order to set things right.

    Having said that and having read the synopsis of episode 7. Holy shit guys!

  11. Tim says:

    Oh fer cryin’ out lo- guess I didn’t read clearly enough. Nevermind….. :\

  12. Tim says:

    Seeing the eye-patch lady a ‘second’ time? I do believe it’s the third time. She was in the pirate ship as well.

  13. Nathaniel H. says:

    @Scott S – Nope, I’m a proud live viewer of Doctor Who. I don’t want to wait a single minute longer than I have to to see the new episodes!

    Great discussion, everyone! I love this little Nerdist community.

  14. Sawyer says:

    I do believe Max is onto something with the theory of the ganger Doctor being the one we saw dying in the season premiere.

  15. Jeremy says:

    I bet the ‘humans’ are actually just previous gangers themselves, who killed the real humans generations ago. Somehow the Flesh itself is sentient, and has a plan to take over.

  16. Sarah P says:

    I would love to see more of badass, plastic 2000-year-old Rory coming through but he did say in Impossible Astronaut that he only remembers it fuzzily, like it flits in and out of his memory (side effect of not having “really” happened anymore I guess) . This makes sense to me, although I am glad it shows through occasionally. And he is definitely stronger than last series in any case.

    — I agree with everyone about the annoying lighting/color grading this series. Can we have some sunshine, please??

    — I wouldn’t worry too much about Moffat’s priorities where Sherlock is concerned. It’s only three episodes and he’s only writing one of them, so I don’t think he’s being dragged away from DW too too much. However, I do wish the show in general would have his and/or Mark Gatiss’s name on more scripts since they’re geniuses.

    — @Max you’re brilliant! I hope it is plastic Doctor who dies because that’s been a huge weight on my mind.

  17. Scott S says:

    Doesn’t everyone DVR the show and watch it later, anyway? Why does it matter if it’s a long weekend, we’re just more likely to watch it on Monday then.

    Can you imagine watching the original series, when it first aired, when each story could be from two to ten episodes, and you had to wait a week between? And the first minute or so was rehashing the end of the last episode?

  18. Dustin says:

    @ adela – I too am a little disappointed that they seem to be ignoring the fact that Rory used to be plastic. They should really bring the fact that he has 2000 years of memory in to make him a stronger character. I also agree with you and others that this is the precursory technology that led to the Sontaran tech.

    @Moni – I’m not quite sure either but I postulate that it may be that Amy is quite a bit more powerful/important than is currently expressed; she did blink existence back into being after all. In my opinion she may have the ability to control certain parts of reality and the pregnant/not pregnant thing is based on her uncertainty of her desire to have a baby. This is of course just wild speculation, which is why Doctor Who is so great; it always keeps you guessing.

    @ GuanoLad – I don’t think that was meant to be part of a story arc but simply to demonstrate the effects of the rift.

  19. GuanoLad says:

    Speaking of “The Hungry Earth,” they still haven’t resolved the “Oh, I can see us over there on the hill” sequence. What’s up with that?

  20. Adi says:

    I notice all the creepy FX moments were lifted from Japanese supernatural horror movies. Might as well steal from the best.

  21. Moni says:

    I liked it okay, but you’re right, it was all setup. I’m not sure what THE FUCK is going on with Amy, but I think that too. She has to be giving birth somewhere.

    Also, GANGER!Doctor freaks me out.

  22. adela says:

    I agree with most of you that it was a solid, standard set-up episode, but nothing too exciting; although I can’t wait for the next one. I am surprised that Rory having been plastic for so long wasn’t really even mentioned. I really wanted him to tell the ganger ‘I understand’ as a slight nod to the fans; maybe next episode. Also this Flesh stuff is pretty much exactly what was used on Martha Jones before, even down to her needing to be in a control rig. The one difference there was that, even though Martha was in the rig, that clone was in control/made independent decisions.

  23. AmandaM says:

    @Dustin – EXACTLY where my head was going with that too, and makes a great big pile of sense.

    Agree with Kyle on the “Hungry Earth/Cold Blood” feeling of this episode. Similar themes, similar look, similar action (or non-action as it were). Second viewing was better than the first, but seriously, I have a rant:

    I wish Steven Moffat would choose which show he wants to commit to: Sherlock or Doctor Who. This is a global, first-rate show with fans who expect a lot out of 13 episodes each year and the Christmas Special. After reading RTD’s book “The Writer’s Tale”, I can understand how much it takes to get one episode of a first-rate drama out the door; even if you’re not as neurotic as RTD, it would still take serious effort, almost every day. Look what happened to Aaron Sorkin when he was the sole writer of “The West Wing” – coke and shrooms became his best friends. What I’m saying is that being the head writer and showrunner on both Sherlock and Who result in choices needing to be made about writing and production, and I’m finding that every time we are exposed to a different writer/director (Toby Haynes is clearly the stand-out director of Series 5 and 6), the quality of the show loses some of its luster.

    Even if this is part of the bigger arc in that the Flesh Doctor is the one we saw get shot be the astronaut, the episodes around that event needing to happen seem to be second-rate. I mean, second-rate for Who is still first-rate television in most places, but fan expectations are very high and that needs to be recognized. You can’t have episodes like this one and “Black Spot” and expect fans to just eat it up like “The Doctor’s Wife” and “Pandorica/Big Bang”. Even the “Confidential” was boring.

    On the BBCA/Space showing the next two episodes a week behind: This is such a tone-deaf decision that is out of touch with the fan base. Fans will watch it when it’s on – every episode is an EVENT. Being concerned about ratings in May (the sweeps period?) is cynical at best and will hurt ratings for the June showings because fans like me and my kid are just going to stream it online the moment it becomes available like we do with “Confidential” each week. Execs at BBCA really need to start understanding the North American fans and the global nature of this show. This also makes me think of Australia/NZ being a week or two behind – they should just show it on Sunday nights there instead of Saturday nights and everything would sort out.

    Looking forward to next week? Meh. I want to see if the theory plays out and want to know more about eye-patch woman, but otherwise, I could care less about the other gangers.

  24. Dustin says:

    @Max – **POSSIBLE SPOILER** You have simultaneously just angered me and made me feel very relieved at the same time. I’m angry because it makes perfect sense and now I feel it is a little spoiled. Obviously The Doctor could never kill himself or his duplicate in the next episode. They will have to part ways both alive at the end agreeing to stay out of each others way until the duplicate is eventually killed 200 years later by the astronaut. I’m relieved because now that this is a likely outcome, it eliminates the huge writing black whole that I thought had been created, the one that says Matt Smith will have to be The Doctor for the next 200 years since that was the incarnation that eventually dies. Maybe we’re both wrong, but it seems likely.

  25. Dean says:

    If the gangers are supposed to be expendable and die frequently it probably pays to be desensitised. Hence the refusal to consider them actual people, which is what causes the friction.

    I liked this episode anyway. As more generic Doctor Who I think it was a damn sight better than Curse of the Black Spot.

  26. Yup I would have to agree, but we need to remember that this single story will lead into something bigger….. In your pants!

  27. Nathaniel H. says:

    I’ll comment on the ratings last, since it’s sort of a mini-rant, but first I have to say I thought this episode was awesome!

    You’re so right, Kyle, about so many Doctor Who episodes beginning like this one, and yet they’re still so awesome we enjoy them completely. As for the gangers, I agree with Liz that the first thing I’d say is “awesome, I want to chat!” The real question is what I’d do if I found out I WAS the ganger. They’re the ones that have a right to be a little angry, whereas, at least for me, I’d probably go “oh, hey, that’s cool” from the real-me end.

    And on that note, the Doctor ganger, who is as much the Doctor as the Doctor is, better be on his side next week! He’ll need to be arguing for peace, too, or I’ll be calling BS on the whole script!

    And now, the skip-a-week rant:

    I do think it’s lame that BBCA is skipping a week for a holiday most nerds won’t be even thinking about, except that maybe they get a day off… they do realize the reason they’re getting such stellar ratings is that Americans don’t have to wait weeks to watch the episodes legally, right? I’m expecting a large drop for the last two episodes. But who knows, maybe I’m wrong.

  28. Max says:

    Does anyone else think that maybe it was the ganger doctor that got killed at the beginning of the season?

  29. SB says:

    @ Ethan:
    BBC America decided on the Memorial Day hiatus because so many people in the U.S. will be out of the house doing Memorial Day things and not watching television. Moffat had nothing to do with this.

  30. Liz says:

    I just don’t really understand why all of the workers were so upset with the gangers. I mean, so everyone now has a clone. Violence and trying to kill said clone would not be my first reaction. I would wanna talk to myself. You could at least try some multiplicity stuff first. That’d be pretty cool, admit it.

  31. Tom says:

    Great, I really hate the Orange and Teal movement in motion picture color correction. Once I was informed of its existence, I see nothing but, especially in movie posters. I had not picked up on it happening in Doctor Who (Despite on how orange-y the Tardis looks this season) but now I will see nothing but.

  32. Lisa G says:

    “Schrodinger’s Amy” — AHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAH!!!!

    Yeah, the setups were a little too setup-y. The sneezing, the Doctor’s shoes, the TARDIS sinking — it’s not difficult to integrate such setups with some kind of a payoff in Part.1. I loved this ep — especially Matt Smith’s performance — but more than once I shouted, “ARG! Why didn’t they…..” at my TV.

    However, the “eerie mood lighting” of this entire season is really getting on my nerves. There’s WAY too much color correction going on. It makes the episodes look low-budget to me. There are more colors in the universe than just blues and oranges!!

  33. Gabriel says:

    This episode did surprise me in one way. The Doctor had made such a big deal out of the missing hour that I had thought that everyone was going to be a doppleganger including the Doctor and companions wihtout realizing it. I thought he would go to the Tardis to find it missing and then everyone would freak, running around desperate followed by a slow degeneration because they weren’t being occupied by the “real” people. I wonder if this will be the origin story for the Nestene Collective of living plastic?

  34. Alice says:

    And … what about the sneezing???? No show has someone sneeze, in such a way as to be interrupting from the dialog, TWO TIMES, for no reason!!!!

  35. Noomi says:

    I agree with your rambling – a bit too much set up in some ways. But I did enjoy the eipsode – hard not to enjoy Doctor Who! Also, I kind of got the feeling that there is something more about Rory in this episode…Aside from just ‘breaking rank’. Curious to see how that plays out. Or perhaps it wont at all and I am just reading far too much into things.

  36. Ethan says:

    So a British television show is not showing the episode on Saturday due to an American holiday?

    Damn it, Moffat.