Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Rebel Flesh: Watch The Way He Shuffles His Feet

'In a word ... "Ow!"'

Since Doctor Who returned to the BBC - in positive triumph - in 2005 there have been (before today, anyway) seventy eight episodes of the new series. Seventy seven of them - to a greater or lesser degree - yer actual Keith Telly Topping has found something to greatly enjoy about. The sole exception was an episode from the 2006 series called Fear Her. It had some nice ideas in it, sure, but elements of the episode just flat out didn't work. And, combined with what was clearly a rushed production - the script was a last-minute replacement for one (allegedly written by Stephen Fry) which had fallen though - meant that it was, ultimately, a flop. The hole where the rain got in, basically. And, when watched again today with the benefit of hindsight and, you know, lager, it remains, alas, a thorough stinker. That was a shame as the author of the episode was Matthew Graham, who'd previously written for This Life, [spooks], Hustle and The Last Train and had co-created two of the finest British Telefantsy series of the last couple of decades, Life on Mars and its spin-off Ashes to Ashes. Mind you, he also worked on Bonekickers so let us not get carried away with the lauding. Even the best of us have the odd off-days. Matt is a superb dialogue writer, as his previous work has demonstrated, so Fear Her - with its often clunky lines and embarrassingly faux-naïf exposition (I'm thinking, chiefly, of poor old Huw Edwards's bit about the Olympic torch here) appeared to be a massive lost opportunity. Thus, the announcement that Matt was to be write a two-parter of Matt Smith's second series whilst greeted less-than-enthusiastically in some of the darker and more lice-ridden corners of fandom, was welcomed at From The North. And, this blogger is very glad that he did because, frankly, you don't get many chances in life to say 'I told you so.' And, when you do, you've got to grab on to them with both hands. The Rebel Flesh is Matt Graham doing something that many Doctor Who fans have wanted somebody to do for a while now. Create a proper, Troughtonesque, dark, sinister, claustrophobic base-under-siege story. The series' first since The Waters of Mars eighteen months ago. It's a vaguely old fashioned conceit, with a moral dilemma (or two) at its core and a surprisingly straightforward 'fight for survival' storyline. Effectively, it's a Twenty First Century reworking of something like The Wheel in Space or Doctor Who And The Silurians - humanity facing an enemy of, more or less, its own making. Behold, the miracle of the creation. And, thereafter, a wish to kill the unlike. A caustic, rather pointed essay on xenophobia and a horror story about evil doppelgangers all rolled into one. Sharp.
The Rebel Flesh begins with a long corridor shot of three characters waking towards the camera. Ten seconds in and the helmet of one of these characters - played by the great Marshall Lancaster - wobbles alarmingly as he walks; something which doesn't seem to bother the costumes of his two colleagues. Briefly, the audience wonders if Chris Skelton has wandered in from the final episode of Ashes to Ashes and whether he's going to trip over his own feet next. Mercifully, this doesn't happen and we get a rather funny little sequence in which At Home With The Braithwaite's Sarah Smart accidentally causes the 'death' of Marshall's character, Buzzer. All of which, frankly, seems to be a bit of a waste of your main guest star. And, just as the audience are probably thinking exactly that, Buzzer steps from the shadows and delivers a potential advertising tagline that, curiously, Injury Lawyers 4-U never got around to using: 'I could get compensation, I've seen the holo-ads. "Had an accident in the workplace?" Yeah, I have as it goes. I melted!' In the TARDIS, meanwhile, where the Doctor - for reasons only known to himself - is playing 'Supermassive Black Hole' by Muse very loudly and Rory is showing off his Eric Bristow-style darters prowess on the oche, we get a look at the domestics of the current TARDIS arrangement. That is until a 'solar tsunami' hovers into view like a ... big wavey thing and The Doctor asks 'who wants fish and chips?' in an echo of the end of The End of the World. Rather apt considering today's (non)-events, is it not? Since Rory's 'tummy is going funny' an emergency - 'textbook' - landing is called for (well, once the 'assume the position' malarkey is out of the way, at least). 'Behold, a cockerel! I love a cockerel!' notes The Doctor as the TARDIS has landed at what appears to be an old abandoned monastery. A further example of the old girl taking the Doctor where he needs to go rather than where he wants to, it would seem. Ah, but is it? Rory, doubts Amy's assertion that they've 'gone all medieval' since he can hear his mom's favourite, Dusty Springfield. And, sure enough, 'You Don't Have To Say You Love Me' is, blaring out of them there cloisters. Much better than Muse, frankly.

The basic plot of the story is pretty much sorted within the next few minutes: The second wave of the solar tsunami liberates a group of slave clones - doppelgangers - from their human 'originals' in a futuristic factory within the old monastery. Can the Doctor prevent all-out civil war? There's some metaphor present - I've seen fan reviews which have characterised the episode as some kind of a pro-life comment on abortion (highly unlikely, I'd've thought). And others which have described undercurrents of an ethical debate on the morality of genetic engineering. That latter aspect perhaps may have been on Graham's mind when he wrote it. But, to be honest, The Rebel Flesh is merely the latest in a long series of Doctor Who stories in which The Doctor champions the emergence of new humanoid life (a couple of random examples from recent series would include things like New Earth and The Doctor's Daughter). 'They're pumping something nasty off this island to the mainland,' The Doctor is able to inform his friends within seconds of their arrival. Followed by a brief observation that everyone's a massive fan of Dusty Springfield. True. He then takes the opportunity to indulge Amy in a race to 'satisfy our rabid curiosity.' Amy suspects that The Doctor has been here before (something she voices again, more forcefully,  before the episode concludes). Rory burns his hand on some - non-lethal - acid and then an intruder alert goes off. Loudly. 'There are people coming. Well, almost,' The Doctor notes. 'Almost coming?' asks Amy. 'Almost people.' Good line. 'I'm telling you, when something runs towards you, it's never for a nice reason,' Rory adds helpfully. Another good line. Are you sure this is the chap who wrote Fear Her? Amy wants to know whether these 'almost people' are 'prisoners, or meditating, or what?' 'At the moment, they fall into the "Or what?" category.' In a very Patrick Troughton-like sequence, The Doctor and his friends quickly meet the Gangers (and their human counterparts) and bluff their way through an explanation of what they are doing in a high-grade military facility with the use of outrageous claims about being from the Meteorological Department and some psychic paper. 'Alright weatherman, your ID checks out,' the facility's foreman, Cleaves (a nicely cold performance by Raquel Cassidy) notes. 'If there's another solar storm what are you going to do, hand out sunblock?' The factory's 'critical system', it seems, is 'the government's worst-kept secret. The Flesh,' which can replicate a living organism. The Doctor's attempts to communicate with The Flesh are cut short by an abrupt outburst from Cleaves. 'Don't fiddle with the money, Doctor,' she chastises. Big business allied with scientific experimentation versus environmental and humanistic concerns. Again, this is Doctor Who doing what Doctor Who has done so many times over years - The Green Death, Fury From The Deep, Inferno, Terror of the Zygons. Who are the real monsters?

The Doctor's poetic declaration concerning 'the miracle of life' as Jennifer's latest Ganger is created brings an unimpressed response from Buzzer: 'No need to get poncy, it's just gunge.' Then, the solar storm hits in a marvellous pyrotechnic display for special effects. 'I've got to get to that cockerel before all hell breaks loose! I never thought I'd have to say that again.' And then, it all goes to hell in a hand basket. For pretty much everyone. The Doctor gets a nasty shock - quite literally - and wakes up to find that he's in the middle of The Clone Wars. 'I've seen whole worlds turned inside out in an hour. A lot can happen in an hour.' Rory develops a strong attachment to the terrified Jennifer who confesses how scared she was when the storm hit. 'I couldn't get out of my harness, I thought I was going to die,' she says. 'Welcome to my world,' he replies, sympathetically. The Gangers, however, have gone walkabout - animated by the storm in a nice little nod to Frankenstein. The rest of the episode, basically, involves a series of shocking little character moments as nothing, and no one, is quite what they seem. 'Scared, disorientated, struggling to come to terms with an entire life in their heads,' as The Doctor puts it. In places it becomes a bit talky, admittedly, although the Rory and Jennifer sequences are a clever mixture of the touching and the terrifying. 'My name is Jennifer Lucas. I'm not a factory part!' It's a good episode for Rory, actually - he gets to display a bit more of his new-found bravery, plenty of his already well-established inherent decency, and - for once - he doesn't die. Bonus.

'I don't know what they are now but, they ain't us.' Graham's plot mixes small, incidental, at times almost twatty personal details about childhood memories and characterisation with some really big concept ideas about sentience (a carry-over from the last episode and something of a running theme this year), causality, ethics and morality. And, again, fear of the unalike. Not just a recurring theme this season but, for most of the last forty eight years, that one. 'You poured in your personalities, emotions, traits, memories, secrets, everything. You gave them your lives. Human lives are amazing. Are you surprised they walked off with them?' 'This circus has gone on long enough,' says the Cleaves-Ganger at one point but, in fact, it's got another episode to go next week. Which is good because if the dialogue is as splendid as 'You're no weatherman. Why are you really here?' then this blogger wants to see more. Amy has another curious encounter with the observation-window-eyepatch-woman and Rory listens to the Jennifer-Ganger's achingly sad 'little girl lost in red wellies' speech as she struggles to assert her, or rather, someone else's identity. 'Where's the real Jennifer?' asks Rory, ignoring her compliments about his 'kind' eyes. 'I am Jennifer Lucas! I'm not a monster. I am me.' The Doctor finds the TARDIS has sunk in an acid pool (that's no way to treat a lady - poor old Idris), loses his shoes and then tries to broker a peace accord between the parties: 'We have two choices. The first is to tear each other apart - not my favourite. The second is to knuckle down and work together.' But, that plan goes out of the window when Cleaves kills the Buzzer-Ganger with the chilling line: 'If it's war, it's war.'

The Rebel Flesh is not a simple morality tale, it has a depth and a balance that the series has often grappled with in the past but, all to often, found just that bit too difficult a fully contain within twenty five or forty five minute episodes. As the Gruniad reviewer notes, 'This Matthew Graham episode set in a grimy industrial future' is 'classy, stylish and nicely unsettling,' a critical summation of all good Doctor Who. It resembles several early Jon Pertwee era stories - notably The Ambassadors of Death - in so openly straddling a barbed-wire fence of human (and non-human) intolerance. That there's time for humour (The Doctor's 'lots of planets have a North' ethos having slipped, in just two regenerations, into 'eee-baaa'y-gum' stereotyping, for one example) is an added bonus. There's also, it would seem, a time for issues of trust and blame to be discussed. And, there will, no doubt, be more of those next week. Then, there's a cliffhanger which is summed up in one of the episode's best lines: 'Yes, it's insane. And, it's about to get even more insanerer. Is that a word?'
'Correct in every respect, Pond. It's frightening, unexpected, frankly a total and utter splattering mess on the carpet. But I am certain - one hundred per cent certain - that we can work this out. Trust me, I'm The Doctor.' Matthew, about Fear Her. You are forgiven, all right?

And so to Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day. Crank up the wall of sound, Phil.

1 comment:

Carl said...

What a cliffhanger!! That is all.