Doctor Who Recap S6x05: The Rebel Flesh
Warning: Of course there are spoilers.
What does it mean to be human? What defines us as real? When does our capacity for science and technology outstrip our ability to use it responsibly? These are questions humanity has been asking since the industrial revolution, most pointedly in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Matthew Graham has taken these questions and asked them through the lens of Doctor Who. What if we had the ability to not only create life, but we chose to create life imbued with our memories, personalities, lives? What if those lives became disconnected from our will? What then?
“The Rebel Flesh” opens in a factory, well, a 13th century monastery that’s now a 22nd century factory. Workers going about their routine in what is clearly a dangerous environment. It’s when one of them is tipped into a vat of acid, that things become very strange. No rescue attempt, no fear, and nothing but a matter-of-fact attitude from any of them. When Jennifer and Jimmy are later confronted by an unharmed Buzzer, it’s clear that what we see is not what we get.
Inside the TARDIS, the Doctor continues scanning Amy and is troubled by the ambiguous result on her mysterious yes/no pregnancy. Then a solar tsunami lands Team TARDIS where they need to be, as always.
The psychic paper, (which hasn’t seen a lot of use in Eleven’s tenure,) establishes their bona fides and gets them where The Flesh is kept. This is the raw material the workers’ doppelgangers, the gangers, are made from. There’s an air of dirty secrets, slave labor, and when the Doctor gets a hint that the Flesh might not simply be a vat of goo, but sentient. . . it’s frightening for more than one reason.
The threat of destruction by the solar tsunami leads to something that just might be worse: a power surge that, like Frankenstein, brings the Flesh to life.
What makes us real? What defines that unique state of having a self? What if that were stolen?
There are shades of The Thing and Invasion of The Body Snatchers, as well as Frankenstein, in the story. The othering of the duplicates by the humans, and vice versa, becomes the driving force of the episode’s third act, and is very much a set-up for the second half of this two-parter. This is an obvious trope. Graham subverts it by showing us the confusion and struggle of the titular Rebel Flesh. Graham’s script also brings Rory Williams front and center by drawing on everything we already know about the character, and making it matter.
In the fifth series, Rory was cast adrift as de facto leader above-ground in “The Hungry Earth/In Cold Blood”. In “The Rebel Flesh”, he’s the voice of, as the Doctor exhorted in those episodes, “. . .The best of humanity.” The empathy and sheer will behind Rory’s efforts to help the gangers, are impressive without being cliched heroism. Time and again in this series, we’ve seen demonstrations of the fact that Rory is a nurse. Taking charge of a bemused Canton, caring for a dying Idris, and now, refusing to let Cleaves harm the gangers and dashing off in search of Jennifer’s frightened ganger – Rory’s tougher than he looks. It’s also a reminder that Rory once had to struggle with being a Nestene duplicate, and perhaps has a better perspective on what being human/not human feels like. “I know that she’s afraid, and she needs help,” is all the explanation Rory gives Amy, for his defense of the Jennifer-ganger. Arthur Darvill has consistently brought a gut-wrenchingly simple humanity to his portrayal of Rory, and in the sixth series, that humanity shines.
When the humans, Amy and the Doctor are confronted by a ganger of the Doctor as they’re barricaded in the chapel, the frights are ratcheted up even further. “Trust me, I’m the Doctor,” coming from the rubbery, white-and-veiny aspect of unstabilized Flesh, is frankly terrifying. It also raises some interesting questions about the death of the Doctor in “The Impossible Astronaut”, and perhaps Schroedinger’s Baby and the perceived many-deaths-of-Rory-Williams have a point, after all.
I was disappointed that Karen Gillan wasn’t given much to work with in this episode, other than playing Amy’s twinge of jealousy over Rory and Jennifer’s interactions. Matt Smith seems to be playing the Doctor here as a man with too many secrets, describing the Flesh as, “Early technology,” and finding humanity’s treatment of life that they don’t value a tragic disappointment. It can be difficult to parse the individual episodes of a multi-parter – initial impressions are often flipped as the denouement unfolds.
I’m hoping that the final two episodes before the mid-series break, “The Almost People” and “A Good Man Goes To War”, will give the audience a bit more solid ground for speculation on the unfolding of the rest of the arc. Right now, I’m split down the middle on two theories that I can’t reconcile. Yet.
Note: due to BBC America’s underestimation of the Whovian fanbase, US audiences will not get to see The Almost People, until June 4th. There will be a marathon on Memorial Day Weekend, check your local listings.
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