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Published on May 30th, 2011 | by Paul Cavanagh

5

The Almost People

“Would you like a jelly baby?” In normal circumstances, hearing the Eleventh Doctor utter these oh-so-precious words would give Doctor Who fans a small thrill of delight. At the start of The Almost People, we hear the Fourth Doctor’s voice spoken by the Eleventh Doctor’s doppelganger, and it’s distinctly unnerving. This sets the tone for an episode where much of the tension is brought about by not being quite sure who is who.

Having two Doctors should be a real bonus, we should feel reassured that our hero is working with doubled genius towards a happy resolution. The Doctor is, as he explains to Amy: “an optimist. A hoper of far flung hopes, a dreamer of improbable dreams.” But only a few minutes later one of the Doctors has pinned Amy up against a wall, and is shouting in her face. Not really knowing the Doctor’s true motivation, or actually which of the two Doctors is our Doctor is distinctly unsettling. Not being able to trust the Doctor is without a doubt the most scary aspect of this story.

What else is there to truly be scared of? The physical environment just doesn’t work. The Almost People is crying out for a high-tech industrial setting, but for no good reason has been plonked in a Thirteenth Century monastery. There’s corridors aplenty to run down, with yellow flashing lights, and doors that don’t close properly. In a monastery. I just don’t buy it, and that lessens the tension considerably. Then there’s the acid. It’s being mined, and shipped out to the mainland. What for? It must be important, because it’s clearly very dangerous stuff, necessitating pseudo-humans to do the dirty work. Late on in the story we find it’s not only acid, it’s boiling acid. Blimey. Again, it’s just nonsense. The accusing eyes on the wall just looked silly. The idea of the ghastly blob of rejected gangers is truly horrible – but again, I don’t buy it. We’re told that the flesh is programmable and can be moulded easily. So it would make sense that those gangers-gone-wrong could be melted down and reshaped into usable models. Without better explanation in the script, I find myself rejecting the whole idea, which is a shame.

The character of Jennifer Lucas requires special mention here. Initially sweet and vulnerable, she becomes the monster of the episode. She cleverly fools Rory by duplicating herself, as well as cruelly taking advantage of Rory’s nursey empathy and kindness. She’s a complex character this one (not least because there’s actually three Jennifers in the story!), and a memorable Doctor Who baddie because of that complexity. I think it’s rather a shame that she mutates into a weird Lazarus Experiment-esque beastie, as she was more effective as a duplicitous, seductive pseudo-human.

Jennifer Lucas (Sarah Smart) in The Almost People
The true threat (and ironically, the catalyst for resolution) in the story is the notion of revenge. While the gangers are fighting to survive, they and the humans can easily say ‘it’s us or them’, but when Jennifer tries to convince the other gangers to start a war of vengeance, they quickly realise that peace is preferable. The Doctor is enraged by the callous disregard that the humans have had for the gangers, but he doesn’t give in to that in the same way Jennifer does. The Doctor’s faith in humanity is pivotal in this respect. His genius is in the understanding that a father’s love for his son can show the way. The phone call between ganger Jimmy and five year old Adam is one of the highlights of the episode, especially as it ends with Adam’s excited little dance when the Doctor tells the boy that his father will be coming home. Aww, bless.

The story is tied up rather too neatly at the end. It’s exceedingly convenient that the Doctor just happens to have a vial of brain tumour cure to hand, and that the TARDIS is able to convert the remaining gangers into bona-fide humans. We already know that self-sacrifice is in the remarkable Miranda’s makeup, so having her living bravely with her medical condition might have made a better ending. Or maybe I’m just a big grumpy pants.

Oh, but that cliff-hanger… I’m sure much will be written elsewhere about what’s going on, so I’ll not speculate here. But it’s a corker of a cliff-hanger and no mistake. What worries me is that we’re promised the mother of all cliff-hangers before the mid-season break. How will we bear the tension of having to wait yonks to find out what’ll happen next after we’ve watched A Good Man Goes to War? Now that’s a scary thought!

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5 Responses to The Almost People

  1. avatar 23skidoo says:

    I thought the handy vial of “brain tumor cure” was also a bit odd – but I think it was prearranged. Note the balloon appearing out of nowhere (one of the most surreal moments in the show’s long history) and the clear indication that the Doctor brought TWO sonics with him on this occasion. Never mind the fact he says outright the whole thing was a set-up. I don’t think now that having the vial was “convenient” at all – he likely put it there back when “Amy” and Rory were playing darts.

  2. avatar Paul Cavanagh says:

    You’re absolutely right 23skidoo. I’d also forgotten that the Doctor knew that ‘almost people’ were on the way at the start of The Rebel Flesh – there’s definitely something fishy going on, and the Doctor clearly had prior knowledge of at least some of the events that unfolded in this story.

  3. avatar castellanspandrell says:

    Interesting points raised in the review:

    “What else is there to truly be scared of?” – Plenty. The melted faces, the eyeballs in the walls (worked for me; didn’t find it silly at all, even though they certainly weren’t real-looking, but that was why it was scary – like something nightmarish from an early Luis Bunuel film) and the final scene in the TARDIS. The latter was a success because you could feel Amy’s fear at the Dr’s behaviour.

    The physical environment – I take your point here, Paul. I liked the setting as it added a sense of foreboding and atmosphere that we probably wouldn’t get if the story was set in a standard factory, but it doesn’t make sense that a monastery would be used for industrial purposes. Maybe it was also meant to evoke memories of Frankenstein’s castle?

    The acid – again, can’t argue with that, but it didn’t really bother me. There’s only so much explanation/background info they can put into character’s mouths without it sticking out like a sore thumb or slowing down the pace, so I just accepted that – for whatever reason – the acid was important.

    The melted gangers – I can’t recall if they say that used Flesh is reprogrammable, but if they didn’t, then obviously it isn’t and they can only mould from ‘fresh Flesh’. But then where would that come from? Presumably there isn’t a never-ending supply of the stuff. And lots of gangers must have died in the past in industrial accidents, so for there to be any of the stuff left, they’d have to reuse it. So, yes, it doesn’t add up, does it?

    -The ‘Jen’ monster; the ‘head on an elongated neck’ in the bathroom scene in pt1 didn’t work for me, but the one at the end did. Compared to the Lazarus monster or the Werewolf, it was fairly convincing, mainly because we only saw it in glimpses or blurred in the distance. Jennifer herself is one of the saddest characters ever in Who – the little girl in red wellies (note the parallels with a certain other character here) who was lost. The real one dies alone and unseen – and more or less unmourned – while her duplicate is a monster who feels the pain of the original Jennifer plus the memories of all the times it’s been decommissioned. The notion of a sweet kid becoming a monster is the most tragic thing of all – and there was no redemption for the ‘kid’ unlike in other stories.

    Overall, I thought this was special. There was a tangible sense of menace from the outset, with that shot of the island and the close up down a long dark corridor to the approaching gangers that set the tone for what is effectively a horror story. I didn’t warm to it at first, but now it’s a favourite, albeit one that I can’t imagine rewatching too many times as it is rather bleak!

  4. avatar Paul Cavanagh says:

    Thanks for your comments castellanspandrell – I really appreciate feedback, and enjoy a bit of a debate too. All in all, it looks like we broadly agree on this story – I thought it was a good ‘un too.

    I did feel that the CGI was fairly unnecessary – the ganger makeup was excellent, and spooky enough to not require any face-melting or mutants running about. But I’m sure that a lot of viewers feel rather cheated without a ‘proper’ monster. There was a really standout special effect, in The Rebel Flesh I think, where Jennifer’s face flits in an eyeblink between ‘plastic’ and ‘real’. Very effective that was.

    I wish I had been scared by the eyes. It was a good idea, but poorly executed for me. Hey-ho.

  5. avatar castellanspandrell says:

    Horses for courses and all that, eh, Mr C? :)

    It’s like they decided “She’s got to turn into a big monster at the end, otherwise it’ll be anti-climactic.” Bit obvious and perhaps unnecessary – almost shades of the K-1 robot or the Krynoid ‘needing’ to become giant – but the effect itself was freakish enough to work for me.

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