Sunday, May 29, 2011

"The Almost People"

Well, at least Matthew Graham's absolved himself of "Fear Her". This conclusion improves upon "The Rebel Flesh" in a number of important ways, although it continues to make some of the same mistakes. The character development and thematic content are improved but the story becomes pretty insubstantial and they still can't get the companion balance right. It also concludes with a cliffhanger which, while an impressive spectacle, emphasises perhaps more than ever how stealth-soapy this series has been. Nonetheless it's probably one of the best episodes so far along with its prior episode but is similarly hampered by the occasional dryness of the plot, although there's a fair bit less faffing around in this one than there is in the pevious part. It certainly fits the inconsistent and never-quite-right mood of this series pretty well.
So first of all we have a duplicate Doctor, which can be done well in situations like "Meglos" and can be done abominably badly in scenarios like "Journey's End". This one is an example of how to do a duplicate Doctor properly, and seeing Matt Smith getting to act with himself is a pretty impressive dramatic opportunity and one he fulfils with his usual aplomb. There's some weird stuff in the pointless section before the titles, however, involving a lot of needless screaming and dramatic chords from the Ganger Doctor for essentially no reason. While it's nice to hear the Fourth Doctor's voice, and to know that Tom Baker recorded that line especially, and not especially nice at all to hear the Tenth Doctor's voice, it seems pointless. He has different vocal chords. Why would his Ganger need to deal with the regenerations or whatever as well given that it's based on the Eleventh Doctor's genetic structure, which would be unique to him? It's also a bit duff that he's given the "Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow" line as a nod to the Third Doctor because while I know it's a sort of lame Who in-joke it's just a bit of a clunky and rather unsubtle reference to give. I did like the slightly misquoted First Doctor line, however. Anyway, the interactions between the two Doctors are really satisfying to watch and when it turns out that they pulled the old switcheroo on Amy, if we really want to stretch the friendship, it was reminiscent of some of the manipulations pulled by the Seventh Doctor.
What about our valiant companions, however? Well last week it was all about Rory with Amy frustratingly sidelined, so this week they bungle it yet again and make it all about Amy with virtually no Rory. It's nice to see Amy's offhand prejudice against the Gangers emphasised but Rory starts to just seem gullible. Nonetheless Amy's interactions with the Doctors are good and it presents an interesting argument in regards to how people will tend to favour what they consider truth even when the distinction is barely relevant. I did notice, however, that Amy barely interacts with the other characters at all and she seems weirdly distracted from the action, mostly just worrying around the Doctors when not looking for Rory. It's a bit of a strange incongruity and it kind of reinforces the feeling this episode has of being slightly fractured.
That notwithstanding some of the others get their time to shine. I'll deal with Jennifer first, because unfortunately she is a complete ham and cheese sandwich and all her rubbish about war and "it'll destroy them all" and all this sort of cackling-villain absurdity, coupled with that incredibly irritating accent, make her very hard to take seriously. Her motivations seem so abstract and idealistic as to be unbelievable and while it's nice to see the role of antagonist shifted to her from the increasingly grounded and ultimately rather interesting Cleaves it's done in a fairly silly way, especially when she turns into a big monster which briefly, mid-transformation, looks like the Spitter from Left 4 Dead 2. The CGI's pretty atrocious and I don't know what it was really needed for unless they realised they'd done a whole parter without any visibly-recognisable villains and panicked that having action figures of all the workers in those power-armour acid suits weren't going to sell enough on their own. Speaking of which, it looks so lame when, having marched up to the door in slow motion in their acid suits with the poles raised like standards and so on, the Gangers stop in front of the closed door, notice it's closed, don't even bother testing it, shrug their shoulder and walk off. The absurdity is reinforced when once the group inside have conveniently escaped they then manage to easily ram the door down.
Anyway, now that I've dealt with the annoying one, what about the two stiffs? First off, there was Buzzer. Who on earth made the decision to waste Marshall Lancaster in this story? Why did they throw him away on a handful of lines and no good chance to interact with a Ganger of himself? While he does get the occasional funny moment he just feels like an arbitrary thug and his presence is disappointingly limited. As for Dicken... wow. I mean seriously, this guy was completely pointless. He even loses his sneeze, his one character trait from the previous episode, and does absolutely nothing except sacrifice himself for basically no reason to slow Monster Jennifer down so that various duplicates can have a massive chin-wag at the second door. Even his Ganger is only purposeful so that Ganger Jimmy doesn't have to admit to being Flesh when they make the story public. Didn't Dicken have any reasons to want to be accepted either? His character is not developed in the slightest and his presence is virtually needless.
Jimmy, alternately, gets to do more good stuff here. It's especially good when Ganger Jimmy sees his son and decides to halt Jennifer's plan, presumably to save the "real" Jimmy, and while I think human Jimmy's death scene was dragged out a bit too much nonetheless it was good to see the fulfilment of the Ganger's claims to humanity and parenthood from the previous episode come through. Isn't it convenient, though, that the acid crisis he ran off to stop seems to just stop itself while he's cradling his primogenitor on the floor? Nonetheless it's done well and it's a good way of developing the theme of what it means to be human substantially more. It seems to have been a big thing in Moffat Who so far, with Bracewell and Auton Rory fulfilling similar roles. Cleaves is also developed much more effectively than last episode, translating smoothly from a bothersome obstacle to a much more balanced and interesting character due to her continued interactions with herself. We probably would have benefited from seeing more of that in the previous episode. It does, however, make Ganger Cleaves' sacrifice seem a bit unnecessary and I think Cleaves would have been a good character to have had return to society with a Ganger duplicate. The fact that no duplication exists at the end of the story I found to be rather frustrating and I think it would have been a much more challenging notion if they'd had at least one pair have to deal with some kind of consequences at the end.
As I said at the beginning, however, there are parts much like last episode where it can feel dry or dull, not helped by the uniform orange jumpsuits, dim lighting and dreary stone interiors, as much as I'm sure this was to an extent deliberate. The plot just isn't as snappy as it could be, and at times it cuts too often between Rory stumbling around, the humans with the Doctors and Amy, and the Gangers having repetitive discussions about survival or tapping at computer screens. I almost feel like it was a good idea which could have been done in one episode. Altogether "The Rebel Flesh" and "The Almost People" are about the length of an average four-part story of the Classic Series and while they have some reminiscent aspects in terms of atmosphere and storytelling they lack the richness and complexity of narrative which a good Classic Series story could often manage. It's probably not helped by the small but still partially underused cast and the rather limited objectives of the episode. What everyone's trying to achieve certainly seems to become very vague, abstract and slightly irrelevant by the end and when the TARDIS, and hence the end of the story, just spontaneously shows up from conveniently sinking through the right amount of acid into just the right tunnel you can't help feel like the episode has been trying to get its point across without bothering to express it through an interesting story with distinct parts. It's not helped that the whole issue of Rory's compassion and concern, which was so played up last episode, is given relatively little attention, and his feelings of betrayal or their consequences are not exactly dwelled upon with any great focus. Once again it's a tick for message and a mostly a tick for character but the story box isn't checked. A relatively neat point of comparison is, say, "The Robots of Death", which does all three of those things, or to give a more modern example, say, "The Beast Below". I think it's often in the nature of these New Series two-parters to drag a bit, and I think Moffat has the right idea where he makes stories like "The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang" and to a lesser extent "The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon" where while the story is relatively continuous the two parts are radically different. It's interesting to note with that in mind that "The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone", while a Moffat two-parter, is a bit dry and padded out like most New Series two parters tend to be.
Regardless, it's a good conclusion to the previous episode and together they form a relatively high point for this series. It's just a shame they couldn't have been a bit pacier. We're still having an awkward time of it this series and while I hope things step up I'm rather worried that at the end of the year it'll be this episode and the one prior, despite their noticeable dryness, which we'll look back on with slightly forced fondness.

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