Doctor Who series 6 episode 5: The Rebel Flesh

Matthew Graham returns to Who with the most traditional story of the season.

 

3 and a half stars

 

 

Air date: UK: 21 May, 2011, BBC One

 

The Rebel Flesh is a great title. As well being supremely evocative, as the episode unfolds it emerges as a distillation of the story's content: a man made substance that can replicate humans down to the last detail and rebels against its masters.

 

Matthew Graham's second script for the show, as well as being a vast improvement on Fear Her, has a rich pedigree. If the plot of this episode seems familiar – a machine malfunction knocks out the crew of an industrial facility who wake up to a conflict with copies of themselves – it's because it recalls Duncan Jones' 2009 film, Moon, in which lone astral miner, Sam Rockwell, faced the same dilemma. There's nothing wrong with this kind of homage, as Doctor Who has always referenced and twisted other popular culture into unexpected directions.

 

And if you want a source closer to home, the crew of a dangerous, industrial complex trapped with a synthetic workforce they believe can never go rogue has its most obvious Doctor Who antecedent in The Robots Of Death (1977). The story is definitely there in the script's DNA, as Buzzer (Marshall Lancaster) replays a similar scene from it when he describes the possibly apocryphal incident of a (dopple) Ganger going berserk and killing its controller; in Robots, Chub told the tale of a Voc therapist dismembering its client. The Gangers' mutiny is also spoken of as a "revolution," and the robot rebellion from 1977 was described in identical terms.

 

Gangers in Doctor Who: The Rebel Flesh

 

The 21st century take on the earlier scenario, results in an existential, base-under-siege story: the trapped humans (led by the "just not capable of being bad" Raquel Cassidy) are literally under siege from themselves in the worst case of schizophrenia ever recorded. The story asks the question, "Just because you think you're real, are you the definite article?" and questions the prejudice that arises from that. It's a sophisticated and thought-provoking premise, and it's commendable to see a family-orientated programme in 2011 asking questions like this in a TV landscape replete with superficial and disposable fare (step forward, The Only Way Is Essex).

 

Medieval culture was also preoccupied with the idea that everyone had a soul – which made them human and therefore authentic – so the delightfully realised, antiquarian aesthetic of the production design complements the philosophical themes of the script perfectly: the bleakly functional refinery is based in a 13th century monastery, and the workers' bronze survival suits resemble ancient armour, enhanced by the barbaric-looking pikestaffs they carry. One of the best things about this series has been the production design courtesy of Michael Pickwoad (happily escaped from the lamentable 2009 remake of The Prisoner) who here, at the top of his game, creates an entirely consistent, gritty world. The actors' breath appearing in shot also helps to emphasise how harsh and unforgiving this environment is.

 

The medieval mise en scene continues with imagery that could have graced the canvases of Hieronymus Bosch, an influential painter whose compositions often showed a nightmarish distortion of the human body ('The Garden of Earthly Delights' is the best known example). The stunning image of the Ganger- Jennifer's head threatening Rory at the end of a serpentine neck – in a grimy toilet, too – is, arguably, the most disturbing sequence in the whole history of Doctor Who. I'd go so far as to say it was far too strong for children, but no-one seems to have complained so perhaps I'm wrong.

 

As the Troughton base-under-siege format is also very obviously lurking in the story's genetics, it's fitting that here we have a more secretive eleventh Doctor. As well as his lyrical compassion for the Gangers – "Human lives are amazing. No wonder they walked off with them" – there's the hint he knows more about the Flesh than he's saying, and his ambiguous looks at Amy and mystifying instruction to her to "breathe" suggest a tantalising connection between the two. As usual, Matt Smith rises to the occasion effortlessly. And under the capable hands of newcomer director Michael Simpson, the tension builds through scenes of corridors full of leaking acid, thunder rumbling ominously overhead and vengeful Gangers marching to war into a cliffhanger guaranteed to have the audience tuning in next week.

 

However inventive and ground breaking this story is, though, a plus point is deducted for the inclusion of Super Massive Black Hole on the soundtrack. Do Rory and Amy look like they listen to Muse? On the other hand…

 

Rob Fairclough

 

 

Doctor Who: The Rebel Flesh
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