Sunday, May 22, 2011

"The Rebel Flesh"

"It was like a boring episode of the Classic series," argues one of my esteemed colleagues in Doctor Who fandom, and that's a pretty concise summation of this first part. The good points are that it actually has a bit of a science fiction concept for once, which we haven't really seen this series, that the Doctor has been toned down a bit again, that Rory gets plenty of time to shine and that it takes itself seriously enough to not seem self-parodying, unlike other recent episodes. The bad points are that the science fiction concept is far from fresh or innovative, that the plot is rather predictable, safe and quite slow at points, that the secondary characters and the setting are not amazingly well developed, that Amy is clumsily sidelined and that the general scenario is one we've seen in New Who two-parters many times before.
I'll start with the bad points, I suppose, in an effort to end the review on a positive note. I suppose to people who go into the show just expecting silly run-arounds and broadly-drawn emotionality the idea of replicants receiving identities must seem a pretty novel one but to any sci-fi audience worth its salt it all seems terribly old hat. Didn't Blade Runner do this? Didn't Star Trek do this? Indeed, didn't Doctor Who do this during the Classic series? "Spearhead from Space", anyone? Maybe it's been too long since these ideas were refreshed, and that makes their presence here seem more reasonable, but at the same time there's not much in the way of discussion here. The Doctor and Rory think the Gangers deserve to live, Amy and the orange jumpsuit cyphers are pretty iffy about them, and that's about it. It's not really presented in a very challenging way. Compare this to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? where killing androids, living things with their own identities, can be a way of life, and a profitable one at that, where they aren't seen as living things in need of protection or monsters but rather are completely denied their subjectivity by society who sees them as objects. We get the idea that the Gangers are tools or vehicles but it's never really played up in a challenging way. Maybe if one of the Gangers had casually been killed by Cleaves after the Solar Storm and the rest of the human crew didn't bat an eyelid it would have been more effective. Perhaps then the Doctor could have sided with the Gangers and they had to fight or negotiate their way out or something, I don't know. But no, instead, after a lot of faffing around in the middle where nothing really happens, Cleaves kills Ganger Buzzer and everyone's very shocked and the Gangers and the humans decide to 'go to war' or something which all sounds implausibly melodramatic from these stoic Northern and Scottish people. This sets up the showdown for next episode where presumably the humans and the Gangers will slowly be killed off through a number of encounters and so on. This effectively encapsulates my second bad point too, that the plot is safe and familiar. They had a chance to do something new here and they didn't. It'd be nice to see these clones try to integrate into society or something for once. The middle drags a lot as well, and while the opening is rather brisk and nice and the ending is reasonably pacey there seem to be large chunks in the middle of the episode where it mostly just has various characters wandering around not doing very much. Is it worth noting that the writer of this episode was Matthew Graham, who also wrote "Fear Her"? This isn't nearly as padded out but you can still feel those heavy areas where the characters seem to be twiddling their thumbs a bit.
This neatly segues into my discussion of the characters introduced for this episode. Jennifer's the token wet fish, Buzzer and Jimmy are the belligerent dudes, Cleaves is the textbook ruthless leader and Dicken's only character trait is quite literally that he occasionally sneezes. Now we do get some insight into Jennifer through the ganger but she's so mopey and desperate and pleading that she's more annoying than anything and she just feels like the arbitrary sympathy character until she turns nasty at the end. Hopefully that's developed properly in the next episode. Cleaves reminded me of Thawn from "The Power of Kroll" for some reason because she seems to hate the Gangers for basically no reason and is a motiveless authority-based antagonist. It's also amusing to watch the scenes where every time it cuts back to her she seems to have her mouth twisted into a different position of distaste. On the other hand the commentary by Ganger Cleaves on her human version are rather intriguing and we could have used some more of that, just as it would have been effective to have actually shown the search being conducted by Jimmy and Ganger Jimmy together. As I've said Dicken seems to be there solely for the sake of an extra body although I imagine the sneezing will play a role in the next episode and Marshall Lancaster, one of the best performers from Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, is rather wasted in the inconsequential role of Buzzer. He just comes across as a stereotypical money-grubbing slightly grumpy Northern bloke. The characters just aren't very lively and it reinforces the bland, grey atmosphere of the setting, although I'm not sure if it was intentional. I suppose ordinary people just aren't very interesting. Speaking of the setting, though, as I've said it's not very well developed either. We know we're on an island somewhere and seemingly in the nearish future but apart from that it's all pretty vague and it gives a rather unpleasant sense of absence. What's the acid for? Why are 'solar tsunamis' happening? How was the Flesh technology developed? I would argue that all this dreariness and vagueness in character and setting is meant to reinforce the themes of identity becoming a grey area and so on but I think that would be drawing far too long a bow; what's more likely is that we just don't have an amazingly strong script.
This brings me to our main trio. The obvious star of this episode is meant to be Rory, and it shows. Arthur Darvill does compassion well - he knows what it's like to be an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. He also knows what it's like to be a facsimile of himself, having been an auton. His performance is incredibly naturalistic, and he gets some very funny and endearing moments which have been denied to him in previous episodes. It's really the solution to what I've been talking about in earlier reviews this series. Here a companion is being given a proper role, not just being a plot device or a source of cheap gags. You'd think I'd be overjoyed with this, but they fumbled it a good deal in dealing with Amy. She's barely present in the episode, with what seems like a handful of lines and virtually no involvement in the plot, spending most of her time just looking for Rory. It also becomes implausible to think that Rory would go running off to help a Ganger and ditch his wife when he's been so uxorious in the past, and unless this is some fresh character development, and while it's nice to see him not being clingy, it seems like a very inelegant way of playing up his role. They seem to be struggling with making the husband/wife companion dynamic work. It's a step in the right direction but they really need to be doing this with both Amy and Rory.
What about the Doctor? Well as I mentioned he's been reined back a bit in this one, and you can tell that it's when the silliness has been toned down a tad and the eccentricity's less arbitrary that Matt Smith really gets his time to shine again. His character in this one is much more consistent with last series and his commanding presence and great endowment of the Doctor with inner strength and conviction are once again evident. He does get to be funny, true, but the humour's been toned down to an appropriate notch and there's a bit more gravitas. The pointless rambling and rapid-fire hand-wavey explanations are gone and it all feels much more true to the Eleventh Doctor we came to know last series. I hope he sticks around. I also hope they use this Ganger Doctor well, although honestly, who didn't see that one coming?
Overall the lack of flippancy and silliness benefits this episode a great deal compared to recent offerings but at times it seems to overstep the mark a bit too far and it can feel a little dry and stale. It captures some of last series' sincerity but could have been a bit more interesting. These stumbles don't stop it from being a step in the right direction, but the rather noticeable change in tone does tend to reinforce the wobbliness of this series. Moffat had better have something amazing waiting in the Doctor's apparently-fatal future...

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.