Saturday, 21 May 2011

Welcome To My World: Doctor Who review


DOCTOR WHO: 'The Rebel Flesh' 

Doctor Who two-parters often struggle to justify their story's extended length, perhaps because the stakes are rarely much higher than in standalone episodes. It's difficult to get excited about seeing the world or a group of people put under threat in a cliffhanger when it can feel like the same thing has been happening since 1963.

The second of last season's two-parters tried to circumvent this problem by shifting the stakes from being about a grand threat to the moral and philosophical implications of failure, adding a splash of ambiguity to the usually black-and-white good guys/monsters division. 'The Rebel Flesh' shared a lot in common with the Silurian serial by Chris Chibnall, both positive and negative, and ended on a cliffhanger that was one of the series' more successful in its modern regeneration. In contrast to Neil Gaiman's 'The Doctor's Wife' last week, which took a lot of things we are familiar with and shone a new light on them, 'The Rebel Flesh' tried to go somewhere a little different but fell back too often on the series' more overused clich├ęs.

I appreciated how much time was spent trying to convey that the 'gangers' were identical in thought to their human originals and even willing to go to the negotiating table before resorting to violence, which was instead instigated from the human side. (With the character's ganger ruefully reflecting that it was 'so like her' to act out in such a way). As serious as the incident that divided the two camps was, the reaction felt a bit too extreme to be convincing. After all, it was only one person who acted out - and again, her ganger understood why she did - despite everyone else seemingly willing enough to work out some sort of truce. Having them all then decide that there was no choice but to wipe the other side out seemed quite a leap. It was an effective touch to have the language of both faction leader's speeches mirror each other, a reminder of how these are basically groups fighting themselves, but even if trying to make a point about how quickly people resort to the worst reaction when scared and under pressure, it was too sudden and dramatically convenient to convince.

I'm also getting sick of how often the series throws out the word 'war' to raise the stakes when there's no need. At the point the story we left the story, it was a conflict involving around ten people. (Though the numbers on one side have the potential to drastically increase). Talking about 'going to war' didn't just sound like the series once again resorting to an overused soundbite, but was completely ridiculous and unrealistic for such a situation. It would have been better had the leaders of each faction spoken about the need to fight in self-defence, reinforcing how blinkered each side's perspective was.

Though the episode wanted to build up a sense of moral complexity surrounding the gangers and the implications of them developing sentient existence, it also wanted to make sure that they were suitably monstrous that we'd still be rooting for the human side when push came to shove. Establishing that sense of 'otherness' meant going beyond the inherent creepiness of facing a version of yourself who is scared and possibly dangerous to giving them silly superpowers, such as being able to fully turn their heads in Exorcist style or completely transform the shape of their bodies and launch Stretch Armstrong punches, contradicting earlier suggestions that they were essentially nothing more powerful than manufactured clones. Their 'melted' facial appearance was already doing the same job of differentiating them from the humans, and to much more unsettling effect, without resorting to over-the-top theatrics.

There was also some question as to why they needed to have memories and personality programmed into them when their primary function was to act as puppets. While this might have been a consequence of someone taking control of them, the episode suggested it was all pre-set beforehand. The dilemma at the heart of the episode became more difficult to engage with when such questions were left open, making the thematic conflict seem more a feat of engineering by the writer than a natural consequence of the situation. 

It would have also helped to have a clearer sense of who each character was: for sure, we got a short argument about whether the human or the ganger deserved to go to a son's birthday party, but personality-wise, everyone apart from Cleaves, whose refusal to accept the gangers' equality is a fairly standard trope and only served to move the story on, was a blank page. It's a small detail, but one which could have made the gangers more threatening and sympathetic at the same time, had the people they were based on not seemed like such placeholders.

'The Rebel Flesh' ended up treading too much of the same ground with last year's Silurian two-parter. Both stories' drama hinged on whether two races with claims on the same territory (last year it was the Earth, this time it was each individual's lives) would be able to see that their similarities could bring them together rather than force them apart and consequently, the episode never felt entirely new or surprising. Even certain motifs, such as both stories taking place in variations on a mining site (here draining subterranean acid rather than literally digging), appeared to repeat themselves.

This wasn't a bad episode so much as one which always felt one step away from achieving what it set out to. Though I praised Matt Smith last week, Arthur Darvill did the strongest work of the three leads this time, aided by Rory being made more central to the plot than his usual position as the comic relief who dies a lot. His relationship with the ganger Jennifer might be instrumental in bringing the two sides together and I appreciated how writer Matthew Graham resisted from creating jealous conflict between him and Amy. It's clear how much the two trust each other, allowing Rory to embrace his position as the most empathetic of the three travellers without worrying that he'll have a scowling wife to look forward to come the adventure's end. The only piece of character writing to annoy me this week was that shouldn't the Doctor, in all his seven-hundred-odd years, know to say 'disoriented' rather than 'disorientated'?

The setting, in Caerphilly Castle, looked great and the blend of futuristic technology with its old stone walls vibed well with the themes of the episode. The acid protection suits were a touch too reminiscent of the Apollo spacesuits from 'Impossible Astronaut' and 'Day of the Moon', but were used as tools to establish the gangers' tactical advantage rather than being a part of their image as the monsters of the week. The solar flare effects were obviously fake, but put some colour into an episode that was otherwise quite visually subdued.

Whilst probably a consequence of setting the stage for bigger things to come in the story's second half, the slower pace made a welcome change from the madcap to-and-fro of other episodes this season, establishing a Frankenstein-esque atmosphere and giving the themes time to sink in without being drowned out by non-stop movement. The cliffhanger, though a touch predictable from the moment the Doctor placed his hand in the vat of 'flesh', was welcome in being more story-oriented than the usual isolated moment of peril to be resolved at the beginning of next week. The existence of a Doctor-ganger makes the situation more personal for the TARDIS crew and raises a host of new questions about how similar to the Doctor he really is, whether he will choose to ally himself with his fellow gangers, as well as bringing up all those 'last of the Timelords' questions that never fail to coax out the Doctor's vulnerable side. Whisper it, but might we also now know who died on the lakeside in 'Impossible Astronaut'?

'The Rebel Flesh' could have done with being a bit more thrilling and a bit more original, but its ambition raised it above generic fare like 'Curse of the Black Spot' and helped it to stay interesting despite certain misjudgments. The story's success will be defined by how its second part handles tonight's set-up and whether it can differentiate itself from the conclusion of last year's Silurian episodes, which this episode mirrored a little too clearly. 'Doctor's Wife' apart, it has been an underwhelming start to the season and with only two episodes to go before the summer break, fingers crossed that 'The Almost People' (if nothing else, these two episodes have brilliantly evocative names) can establish itself as more than just a clone of what we've seen before.

BEST MOMENT: A new way for the TARDIS to be put out of action, also resulting in the Doctor going a bit John McClane.


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