Sunday, 29 May 2011

Yowser: Doctor Who review


TELEVISION REVIEW

DOCTOR WHO: 'The Almost People'

For the sake of any American readers, who will have to wait another week to see the conclusion of the story set up in The Rebel Flesh, I'll give a spoiler-free outline of my thoughts above the jump, then delve into the intricacies in the body of the post afterwards.

'The Almost People' did much of what its predecessor did but with a greater sense of urgency, even if the story lost track of itself in its second half and resorted to a lot of unsatisfactory shortcuts. While the Doctor Double's actions were mostly what you'd expect from a doppelganger character in this type of episode, the result being one of many twists which anyone with a passing knowledge of television writing will have probably seen coming a week ago, he was more interestingly used to raise themes of identity and how well we can ever really know someone, which paid off in an ending that was as powerful as it was surprising. Much like the season openers, 'Impossible Astronaut' and 'Day of the Moon', this episode did sometimes feel like the main plot was relegated to window dressing for the work lining up the mid-season finale, but still managed to tell a complete story which may turn out to be deceptively important. UK readers, follow the jump for discussion of where we go from here.
  
The cliffhanger is what this episode will most likely be remembered for, just as no-one particularly remembers what happened in Season three's 'Utopia' except that Derek Jacobi turned out to be The Master. The idea that the Amy we've been watching for most of this season has been a ganger leads to all sorts of questions: for one, when exactly was she taken? My bet is in 'Day of the Moon', while investigating the orphanage bedroom and noticing a Silent looking down at her from a hive, or whatever the appropriate collective noun is, on the ceiling. The next time we see her marks the first appearance of the eyepatch'd maternity nurse, meaning she can't have been taken after that point. Having checked iPlayer, the nurse's first appearance in that episode is around the 17'52 mark. The moment I believe Amy was replaced happens within the first ten seconds of the fifteenth minute.

The other pressing question will be who the child's father is. It seems unlikely to be Rory's, not only because of both characters' surprise when the Doctor revealed that Amy was pregnant, but it also would mean someone went to the trouble of capturing her for a run-of-the-mill human child. Possibly one infused with a little time-travelling artron energy, but if it was the Silents who had some part in her capture, there have been plenty of suggestions that they already have access to time travel in some form, not least the 'Lodger' TARDIS in the basement of their headquarters in Florida.

It seems more likely to have something to do with the Doctor. I'm  not suggesting things have been happening between he and Amy on the top bunk in the TARDIS bedrooms (Amy seems like a top bunk sort of girl, wouldn't you say?) but it's possible that whoever is behind this season's grand scheme has acquired a sample of Doctor DNA and used it to duff-up poor Mrs Pond, which would tie in with the regenerating girl at the end of 'Moon'. In fact, we may have already seen it happen - if the Flesh are involved, they have the imprint from which the Doctor's ganger was born. For that same reason, don't think the melting of the Doctor Double rules out the chance of a new one making an appearance at a Utah lakeside some two hundred years in the future...

Another pertinent question is who the baby/astronaut girl will turn out to be. Will Moffat throw a bone to all those fans who have joked about the Rani returned? This would make Amy indirectly responsible for 'Time & The Rani', which would be an evil twist indeed. (For the record though, Sylvester McCoy is my favourite Doctor. Yeah, deal with it: several of his stories were rubbish, but he was amazing).

Returning to the present, the revelation of the fake Amy was a cleverly played conclusion to the question running throughout the episode of what makes a person themselves. Amy (or the ganger Amy, but I'll just call her Amy since there's no need to reference the 'real' one) had to deal with the idea that there could be a second Doctor, having put all her faith in the extraordinary man for whom she waited throughout her childhood and came to love as a big brother or father figure. She's torn up by her difficulties in recognising who that man is between him and his duplicate- one or both? What would we do if faced with two identical versions of someone we love? Is there something that makes the 'original' special, even though both are the same in memory, thought and appearance? 

Many fans have accused Amy of not being much of a character outside the sassy Scot act, but this was an effectively staged reminder of how much of her identity is tied up in her relationship with the Doctor, far moreso than any other companion. (Her attempts at seduction last season could be seen as a misplaced attempt to externalise that reliance). It's not exactly the most feminist-friendly idea in the world, but does make her a more rounded character than she has been given credit for.

Let's also not forget that this is far from a one-way street: the Doctor relies just as much on his companions to validate him and his acts of intergalactic rescue. He is of course completely delighted by the idea of another him, and Matt Smith plays the banter between both Doctors with infectious delight. The Doctor has had to deal all his life with knowing there have been alternate versions of himself, which the pre-credits teaser played into by showing the ganger Doctor struggling to understand how one man could be so many men through the act of regeneration. There was oodles of fanwank thrown into the scene, including William Hartnell's final line as the First Doctor, Jon Pertwee's famous catchphrase and the voices of Tom Baker and David Tennant. It's no surprise that the Doctor was able to pick up on the ganger Amy, whereas she ended up falling for the shoe-swapping trick, which I assume happened whilst the two Docs were at work behind the console. Apart from his low-level psychic ability, if anyone's going to know how to spot someone who isn't quite themselves, it's a man who is both many and one all at the same time.

This theme reminded me of one of the most reviled episodes of The Simpsons, which I am actually quite fond of - it's probably the last episode I like before the series began its free-fall into Family Guy-esque levels of unfunny rubbish. 'The Principal and the Pauper' has Principal Skinner being outed as an imposter whose real name is Armin Tamzarian, having stolen the identity of his captured Sergeant in Vietnam to get away from his old life. (And yes, all this did happen before Mad Men hit the air). Fans reacted with predictable outrage, accusing the series of grabbing attention through an unwarranted and unjustified gimmick, yet producer Ken Keeler defended himself by saying:
This [episode] is about a community of people who like things just the way they are. Skinner's not really close to these people—you know, he's a minor character—but they get upset when someone comes in and says, 'This is not really the way things are,' and they run the messenger out of town on the rail. When the episode aired, lo and behold, a community of people who like things just the way they are got mad. It never seems to have occurred to anyone that this episode is about the people who hate it.
Simpsons at its best always challenged conventional storytelling methods and 'Principal' was the last time I felt they really pushed the boat out. Perhaps they were burned by the fans' reaction. In any case, I'll certainly be looking for how Doctor Who fans react to this similar (if smaller scale) twist, that they've been watching an alternate Amy for the past five episodes.

The self-contained elements of 'The Almost People' were less interesting and often handled with a lack of care, especially considering how strongly delivered its themes were. I liked how the gangers mirrored and anticipated their human counterparts' thinking, but the plot required Rory to act several times with unthinking stupidity (how did he not realise that he was accompanying the ganger Jennifer, or was leading his friends into an obvious trap?), the gangers' allegiances were switched with ridiculous ease (I know it was established that most of them didn't want to fight, but the birthday video call was  the worst kind of underdeveloped and over-engineered trigger) and the solution to everyone's problems literally fell right in front of them at the climax.

That's to say nothing of the unnecessary self-sacrifices and pointless appearance of the monster-ganger Jennifer, raising more confusion about exactly how human or not the gangers were. Considering that the Doctor spends most of episode defending their right to exist, he certainly executed ganger Amy without much thought. Wasn't she as much of a person as the others, or the ganger Doctor? It was those loose ends which held back an episode that otherwise had good pace, some fun back-and-forth between the two Doctors and engaging thematic depths. The first half of this season has put down some exciting groundwork for the season arc, but stumbled too frequently on telling coherent and satisfying individual stories.

BEST MOMENT: The cliffhanger raised the most questions, but the two Doctors chatting to themselves was a treat.

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