Saturday, May 21, 2011
Let's all go to a little place called 1966
With the conclusion of this episode, here we are with only two episodes to go before Doctor Who disappears from our televisions (and laptops) for the summer months. So far this series we’ve had an opening episode that for all its goodness was so dull I nearly stopped watching, a follow-up to that episode which was equally dull and an absolute shambles of writing, an episode that’s sort-of enjoyable at first but the more you think about it the more you realise the writing was an even bigger shambles than last week, and an episode so ludicrously hysteric it completely shattered any and all patience I had with NuWho. So much so I was very much inclined to give this episode a miss*.
Yet here we are, one week on, two weeks away from the end of DW for a little while, and I’ve watched it again. And do you know what? It was good. Properly good. Oh, it wasn’t the best episode of the New Series by any means. But this episode actually had a story. Or, rather, it actually knew how to tell a story. It was everything Doctor Who ought to be and some of the things it shouldn’t but that’s okay. It’s better than whatever was going on for the past four weeks.
If The Hungry Earth felt like it was left over from the days of David Tennant and last week’s episode was originally meant to have aired last year, you would be forgiven this is another episode they pulled out of the vault. Very, very deep in the vault.
I think, perhaps, that’s a big part of why I enjoyed this episode so much. Yes, it’s all very NuWho at first, but just that little inch past the shiny surface, there’s a real air of the days of Patrick Troughton here. With a bit of tweaking, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the cosmic hobo moving about this acid monastery in monochrome.
It’s a classic base under siege. Capital C Classic. In Ye Olden Days, the base under siege stories were like this. Consider The Moonbase: the TARDIS lands on the moon to find a moonbase, which, it turns out, monitors and controls all the weather on earth. Hurricanes? No problem. They’ll be redirected away from shore until they fizzle out into just a nasty rainstorm. But lo! There are Cybermen on the moon, picking off the moonbase crew and trying to sabotage the base itself!
In fact this episode calls to mind all of Kit Pedler, who was the god of base under siege and Cybermen, having written The Tenth Planet, The Moonbase, and Tomb of the Cybermen, as well as having worked on The Wheel in Space. Substitute fleshy clones for some sort of tool of the Cybermen and he very well could have written this.
Go ahead. Play with the settings on your TV. When the titles are about to start, mute it and play the Derbyshire theme.
But it’s not just the fact that you could be forgiven for thinking the recon team drummed this out of the mothballs. It’s not just that The Rebel Flesh knows how to tell a story. The story it tells is actually good. Oh, sure, someone’s going to piss and moan about the fact that the whole cloning blues thing has been done a million times but who gives a sod?
The acting, most certainly, is a vital point here. One of the best moments is when Ganger!Jennifer (Gangifer?) is seated in the locker room, questioning her identity. A bit of well-played, understated acting from Arthur Darvill really helps drive home that understands her plight. Oh, sure, she’s all goopy-fleshy and he was all-plasticy, but it doesn’t change that Rory the Roman was once, essentially, a Ganger.
Oh, and it helps that Rory didn’t die. I mean really. He died at least three times last year – more, I’m sure, but three spring to mind – and in essentially every episode so far this series. Hopefully it won’t happen next week (or, preferably, ever again) but at least this week it made for a refreshing change. When Rory went running off on his own I half-expected Gangifer to drop from the ceiling onto him instead of Jennifer. And yet, here we are, credits rolled, Rory very much alive.
Another refreshing change, also relating to Rory, is that he actually does something this week. Usually it’s Amy running off being all “Look at me; I am the cool companion” while Rory just kind of stands around sputtering until someone stabs him. Here Rory actually does something. I mean actually. Meanwhile Amy does stuff, but nothing of any real consequence except run into Frances Barber yet again. It makes sense, in a way, why the roles would be the way they are normally, to the modern television writer. Rory is the nurse. The kind, gentle, caring one. Amy is the emotionally scarred daft one. The reversal here is a good one.
The performances across the board are great. Some are, of course, better than others, but hey ho such is life. Some actors are better than others. Some people are better at making cheese than their neighbours. It was also quite nice to see Matt Smith reunited with Raquel Cassidy. Party Animals had a lot of problems but it was still quite a good show, and the relationship between Jo and Danny is definitely one of the highlights, largely because of the two actors rather than the writing. My brain far too eternally associates Marshall Lancaster with Chris Skelton, unfortunately.
The episode is bang full of implications as well. Any story about a host of clones, of course, carries with it the natural implication of not being able to trust our senses. We may think that Miranda is Miranda but no. She turns out to be a Ganger. But that all adds to more-or-less straightforwardness present on the skin of the episode. There are hints here of something more. Something not quite right. We also have the hour during which our heroes were unconscious. Riding underneath everything, there’s a bit of McCoy era to it as well; as though the TARDIS hasn’t just somehow accidentally wound up on this monastery cum factory.
It’s also nice to see that, excepting Matt Smith and Arthur Darvill, there’s not a Southerner to be found. That’s mostly just me though.
The episode isn’t perfect, but in light of the past four episodes it’s much easier to overlook the flaws of this week’s. The tension isn’t all quite there, but in addition to any flaws in the writing that can be pinned on the director, cinematographer, and the fact that cloning stories have been done to death. The cliffhanger, too, could be seen coming from centuries out, but what can you do?
All in all The Rebel Flesh isn’t the best episode of Doctor Who, but it’s still very much fantastic. Far and away the best episode of series six thus far. Who would have ever seen that coming?
*Well, that and it was written by the man who wrote Fear Her. I don’t hate Fear Her anywhere near as much as most of the online community, but it’s still overall a pretty poor episode.