Given a three out of four hit rate so far this season, and especially having the unenviable task of following up the impeccable Doctor’s Wife, The Rebel Flesh perhaps suffers a little from not being an event episode. Rather, this is dependable, nuts and bolts Doctor Who, immediately relatable to precursors like The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit or The Doctor’s Daughter, from the grotty-future production design on up.
Fortunately, despite a slow and somewhat infodump-heavy opening, Matthew Graham’s second contribution to the series avoids the schematic seen-it-all-before pitfalls of stories like (most recently) The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. Karma-tempting overconfidence in scientific advances is hardly fresh territory, while having the Doctor wrestle with humanity’s potential for inhumanity is become something of a shopworn subgenre in itself – but at least the script attempts to engage with the resulting questions of what it is to be human.
The ever-present threat of acid might be a bit naff, but there is enough interest at large to balance the tropes this story deals in, no matter how familiar they may be. As the action gives way to a lower-key creepiness – in keeping with season six’s increased gothicism – Graham steers the story away from the action end of the Doctor Who spectrum into more engaging territory. The ganger head on a snaking neck – sort of an early-evening take in Cronenberg’s The Thing – is pretty freaky, but it does feel there’s still a lot of untapped potential for clammy who’s-who paranoia which isn’t entirely satisfied in this instalment.
Certainly, this isn’t an episode without flaws – again, the preceding story plays against it; by comparison, this more straight down the line sort of story can’t help but feeling naggingly unsatisfying. Similarly, in launching the series with a story that matches or outdoes the complexity and relatively serious dramatic register previously built up over several episodes in previous seasons, it’s a slight disappointment to regress (as in The Curse of the Black Spot) to a lighter, less character-driven approach.
It’s notable in fact that the more, uh, jobbing writers often fail to capture the regulars so effortlessly. Especially when it comes to the Doctor, unlike when written by Moffat or Gaiman, there is a risk of his becoming a collection of traits and wisecracks rather than a living, breathing interpretation – despite Matt Smith’s continued dedication to the character.
Perhaps it’s too harsh to see The Rebel Flesh as anything other than a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin return to the age-old base under siege format (albeit under siege from within). There are elements which strike on first viewing at least as unconvincing or a little unfortunate: a solar storm? Uh-huh. And pumping acid? From… where, exactly?; the slightly sitcom-ish suddenly-messy TARDIS interior; the-woman-from-Teachers‘ abruptly changeable character; the two-parter tendency to stretch out a story over double the usual length, rather than sustaining the single-parters’ pace for twice as long; Muse.
At least we’re given a setting rocking the inherently memorable collision of ancient and technological which has been working since, say, The Ice Warriors‘ combination of country mansion and pop-art catsuits. And, at least they didn’t miss the ganger-Doctor boat; we haven’t had a Doctor-double since… well, okay, since Journey’s End. But you can never have too many Doctors.
First instalments are always hard to come to any definite conclusions about without seeing where the concluding part will take the story. In this case it seems likely that, whether or not The Almost People lives up to its barnstorming Next Episode trailer, as long as the ending isn’t fudge à la the aforementioned Silurian debacle, the slight clumsiness of this episode’s structure will become more forgiveable and create a solid addition to an already extremely strong run.
It will also be particularly fascinating to see where the cracks between Amy and Rory are leading…
Neil Clarke writes the Doctor Who reviews page ‘Shall We Destroy?’: http://shallwedestroy.blogspot.com/