Doctor Who, Eleven For Eleven: The Rebel Flesh

“You gave them this. You poured in your personalities, emotions, traits, memories, secrets, everything. You gave them your lives. Human lives are amazing. You’re surprised they walked off with them?”

A lot of people were terribly worried about this episode due to its pedigree. Thankfully, while “The Rebel Flesh” may be a bit of bog standard Doctor Who, by no means is it another “Fear Her,” writer Matthew Graham’s 2006 episode about an insufferable little girl with a temper, a hilariously bad “scary” voice, and scribble-drawings that ran around as monsters and also could imprison people — or, I think that’s what the episode was about; Tennant’s first season, “School Reunion” aside, isn’t one I’ve revisited much, and honestly, even if I was going to, chances are good I’d skip “Fear Her.” While I might have forgotten the plot, I do remember kind of hating it. I know I’m not alone in this; in the 2009 Doctor Who Magazine poll ranking every single Doctor Who story ever, “Fear Her” was in the bottom ten, the lowest ranked modern episode of the series. It was a full forty places below the next highest modern episode, the divisive “Love and Monsters” from the same season.

(As an aside, how is it that the Fourth Doctor and Romana come off as people I’d love to run into on their travels through time and space while the Tenth Doctor and Rose come off as two people I’d love to slap if I ran into them? Shouldn’t the Time Lord and the human come off as less insufferably smug than a pair of Time Lords and their laser-firing robot dog?)

While this one, the first installment of Graham’s 2011 two-parter, may come off like a bit of Who-by-numbers, it’s perfectly competent, and while the setting may feel a bit Troughton (an isolated operation run by confident professionals that needs defending from a psuedo-human threat — no, that’s not “The Moonbase” or “Fury From The Deep” at all) what I find interesting is there’s a hint of the Seventh Doctor in our hero’s behavior this week. More below, along with spoilers out the wazoo.

11. Starting at the end: the cliffhanger is played all creepy, but is telegraphed from about minute, what, ten and a half? It’s terribly obvious. Also obvious: there will be a moment in the next episode that hinges on the Doctor’s footwear. One last thing: is this the “out” for the season opener, and does this explain why the absence of the TARDIS in the opener isn’t really a big deal (even though River should have treated it as such)?

10. I love how we’re introduced to the TARDIS crew in this episode: darts in the console room, modern music blaring, trash and discarded clothes all over one of the staircases, Amy and Rory basically being normal despite the fact that they’re living in an alien time machine. It’s very Hartnell-era by way of the 21st century, now that I think about it, and it feels right for these two. The Doctor clearly lets them make themselves at home here, even when it’s really his home (slash-closest-companion) and he’s busy trying to work out one of the season arc’s biggest dilemmas.

9. The Doctor is keeping more secrets than just the pregnancy that is and isn’t there; he steered the TARDIS to this precise time and place, he’s seen the Flesh before — in the future, it seems — and he’s clearly trying to make something right. Is this a self-imposed “Genesis of the Daleks” situation, trying to prevent a race from being born full of hate and turning into a scourge on the galaxy?

8. In terms of formula “The Rebel Flesh” also brings to mind last year’s “The Hungry Earth”/”Cold Blood,” the last time the Doctor tried (and failed) to play peacemaker between two sides bent on exterminating one another. In the earlier story it was also a woman with an electric weapon who destroyed all hope for peace. Funny that.

7. While it certainly helps with the creep-factor, I think it rather harms the Gangers’ case that they keep reverting back to squishy putty form. As the Doctor suggests to them, it makes them rather less sympathetic if they look like monsters. And indeed, while they’ve got all their progenitors’ memories and personalities, suddenly when they’re in their unrefined shapes they start hissing like monsters and talking like villains. It’s enough to make me think Amy is right, that we don’t know enough and that perhaps the Doctor is on a fool’s errand. (Well, he certainly is, but on the surface it appears to be all operation head Cleaves’s fault.) Maybe it’s not that the Gangers are having a hard time maintaining their duplicate forms; perhaps they’re more comfortable in skins that are uniquely theirs. After all, from the glimpse we get it appears that the one Cleaves kills stays “defined” when dead. I guess we’ll learn more next week.

6. Rory’s sympathy for Ganger-Jennifer could certainly stem totally from his personality; he’s a genuinely caring person, a nurse by trade. However, he’s also uniquely equipped to understand her plight. Remember that at the end of last season he, too, was a doppelganger of sorts: a plastic Auton in Roman Centurion form with Rory’s face, memories, and personality. For some reason he remembers all that. Seeing someone else in much the same boat, he obviously wants to help. And lord, Arthur Darvill plays Rory’s sympathy brilliantly. He really gets to shine in this one. For whatever faults this series has had so far, it’s given the three regulars a lot of great moments.

5. I wonder if we’ll actually find out what in the blazes the Doctor’s doing with that snow globe — ala the Doctor examining the glass of water in “The Beast Below” — or if it’s going to remain just an odd bit of Doctor business understood only by the slightly daft Time Lord.

4. Rewatching the opening I’m struck by how well considered the costuming and props are given the environment; the acid protection suits look sort of like space suits, but more like leather armor, and the crew are equipped with sci-fi spears. Given that the acid pumping operation is run out of a 13th century monastery, it all looks just right. And while there’s some slightly direction and editing — the final moment of the pre-credit sequence is totally missing the impact its looking for — I can’t fault how beautifully shot the episode is. Some amount of visual effects work probably should be credited as well, for the spectacular skies during the solar flares, but even the parts without obvious effects look stunning.

3. Looks like the psychic paper is back in working order; I honestly thought we’d seen the last of it. Sure, it serves its purpose here, granting the Doctor and his companions access to the base so we can hit the ground running, but in a series of Doctor Who that’s thus far been something of its own beast while also of a kind with the original series, it feels a bit out of place.

2. I want to say it’s strange how blase the Doctor is about the situation the TARDIS is in, sunken into acid-soaked ground, but given how many centuries of adventuring he’s been through where he’s been separated from the TARDIS because of this, that, or the other thing, I guess it makes sense that he sees this as a minor setback.

1. The best thing about this episode is the way Graham writes the title character. Unflappable in the face of danger, infinitely quotable, optimistic, full of righteous anger and grim-faced disappointment in humanity — looking over those words, if you’re familiar with Sylvester McCoy’s take on the character, you can probably see why I saw a bit of him in Graham’s writing and Smith’s performance this week. It wouldn’t have come off as well as it does, of course, without Smith giving it his own spin and delivering a stellar performance as always, but the lines and moments Graham delivered are the real standout to me. The too-sharp villain turns, obvious cliffhanger, and lack of anything for Amy to really do are all gross deficiencies in the script, but in terms of entertainment value they’re all offset by how damned well Graham gets the Doctor and how many fantastic quotable lines he gives him. There were stretches in this episode I really didn’t want to watch a second time, but not a one of them had the Doctor in it. Given the events of the cliffhanger, I think there aren’t going to be as many of those stretches next week …