The Good: Sense of ethics, Good performances, Interesting basic concept, Rory's character
The Bad: Some ridiculous special effects, Predictable reversals, Somewhat choppy flow, Erratic characterization for The Doctor
The Basics: "The Rebel Flesh" finds The Doctor and his Companions in a situation where they are in danger from acid and their own doppelgangers!
A truly wonderful aspect of serialized television is that, when it is well-constructed, elements and episodes that initially appear as mundane or unattached to the larger arcs can be used to make big reveals and tie things together. In the sixth season of Doctor Who, there were, initially, minimal serialized elements. In fact, fans were left incredibly disappointed that, after beginning the season with the Companions and allies of The Doctor witnessing his death in "The Impossible Astronaut" (reviewed here!), The Doctor's death was left unresolved and ignored for a few episodes. The only obviously serialized element of the earth sixth season were flashes Amy had of a mysterious woman with an eye patch, telling her to remain calm. Those flashes came out of nowhere and were incongruent with the main stories for the prior few episodes. "The Rebel Flesh" is the start of a story designed to explain just what is going on.
"The Rebel Flesh" is an initially intriguing idea that raises the same fundamental questions raised in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Measure Of A Man" (reviewed here!), albeit on Doctor Who, the concept is illustrated instead of prevented. "The Rebel Flesh" is a first part of a two-parter that introduces the idea of disposable workers who are struggling to define themselves and that is clever and relevant, especially in today's world, dominated by capitalism. Unfortunately, some of that social commentary is dulled by the way the episode works to fit into the larger Doctor Who plot for the season.
Opening on an island, where three (apparent) people enter a room and one falls into a vat of acid . . . only to have, moments later, the man who is dissolving in the acid appearing fine and talking about getting worker's compensation. Aboard the TARDIS, Rory and Amy are playing darts while The Doctor continues to scan Amy, who appears to be both pregnant and not at the same time. The TARDIS is called off course to Earth, where they arrive on the island, where a 13th Century monastery is being used as part of an acid mining endeavor. Inside the monastery, The Doctor and his Companions encounter a room full of people in stasis and their alive doppelgangers who are walking around doing dangerous work.
The work site has recently survived a solar flare and The Doctor is concerned that the solar storm affected The Flesh. The Flesh is a plastic that can be used to create duplicate life forms of people who are unconscious and connected to it using a stasis control harness. The team witnesses Jennifer creating her ganger while the rest of the workers avoid The Doctor's warning that the solar storm is coming back and going to be calamitous if the work site is not prepared for it. The storm is predictably does damage to the work site; acid is all over and the gangers are now able to exist independently of the miners now that the miners are no longer in their harnesses. While Rory tries to comfort Jennifer, she turns upon him and The Doctor recognizes many of the people he is with was their ganger versions. As the gangers become fully self-aware, they begin to assert themselves and fight for autonomy.
Jennifer Lucas is one of the most interesting and well-rounded guest characters to yet appear on Doctor Who. Lucas was instantly attracted to Rory and she and her ganger version have the same memories, so "The Rebel Flesh" actually spends some time giving her a backstory to make her easy to empathize with. Rory becomes defensive of the Jennifer Lucas ganger in a way that reminds the viewer that he was originally characterized as a nurse. Rory's commitment to saving Jennifer Lucas's life makes him very compelling.
The Doctor in "The Rebel Flesh" oscillates wildly between being goofy and clever. It is interesting to see Rory start out with a stronger ethical stance than The Doctor. The Doctor's initial goofiness makes it hard to believe that he knew what is going on with Amy from the outset. The Doctor is looking into Amy at the episode's outset and his concern for her is genuine, but he does not present it as being of critical importance in "The Rebel Flesh." Instead, The Doctor is intensely worried about Amy but then abandons his concern for the Latest Goofy Adventure. And while it is familiar for the viewer to see The Doctor act as a peacekeeper in "The Rebel Flesh," the scope of the episode is so small that it is hard to take some of his intensity - when he gets around to caring about the immediate problem - seriously.
Miranda Cleaves is a painfully generic villain. She sets up a conflict between the gangers and the source humans that is incredibly inorganic. The gangers want to live and survive; the humans, led by Cleaves, suddenly become paranoid and violent against them. There is no real period of discovery in "The Rebel Flesh." Instead, the new characters suddenly turn on their gangers out of anger without actually taking the time to process what it means that the gangers are now autonomous. One key element missing from the episode is anyone pondering if the gangers can even last indefinitely when unattached to a human mind. So, Cleaves leaping to violence and anger instantly comes across as a forced conflict designed to quickly get the episode to the inevitable "us vs. them" mentality.
Throughout "The Rebel Flesh," The Doctor admonishes Amy to breathe and that ties into the serialized element of the episode. The Doctor continues to watch Amy throughout "The Rebel Flesh" and when the truth is revealed in the climax of "The Almost People," it is enough to make viewers return to "The Rebel Flesh" to watch for all of the seeded clues as to what is going on in the serialized plot.
Ultimately, "The Rebel Flesh" is a fractured episode that is a good idea, erratically-rendered, which makes for decidedly average television.
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Sixth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sophomore season of Matt Smith as The Doctor here!
For other television episodes with doppelgangers, please visit my reviews of:
"The Adversary" - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
"The Zygon Inversion" - Doctor Who
For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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