Thursday 23 April 2020

Story 218 - The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People

In which the Doctor attempts to divert Amy and Rory on a trip on their own. They decline to leave him, however, worried about what he might get up to on his own. The TARDIS is suddenly hit by a fierce solar storm, which is heading for Earth. The ship is caught up in its wake and arrives on an island off the English coast on which there is a ruined medieval monastery. It is the 22nd Century, and the monastery has been converted into a mining complex run by a company called Morpeth Jetsan. The five strong crew (manager Cleaves, Jennifer, Jimmy, Buzzer and Dicken) are mining for a type of extremely corrosive acid. To help them in their work they employ "Gangers" - short for doppelgangers. These are exact replicas of themselves, even having the same personality and memory, created from a viscous white substance known as Flesh. The Flesh avatars are created when the crew link themselves up to a vat of the substance. Gangers are regarded as disposable, being mere copies of real people, and many are killed carrying out the hazardous work. The avatars dissolve once the crew member disconnects from the vat. However, the solar storm has affected the equipment, and now four of the latest avatars are still active, despite being disconnected from their human counterparts.

Initially they find it difficult to maintain their human likeness - their flesh turning milky and smooth. Their bodies have a great deal more flexibility, allowing them to contort their necks and limbs. The Doctor pretends to be a weather specialist, come to warn them of further solar storm activity. He is particularly intrigued by the Flesh and scans it, before reaching out and touching it. He, Amy and Rory observe the process by which a Ganger is created when a copy of Jennifer is made. The second storm strikes, and everyone is knocked out. The mining equipment is damaged, and acid begins to spill from broken pipes all over the monastery. The TARDIS sinks into the ground as it dissolves beneath it. On waking up, the human crew and the Ganger avatars are scattered around the complex - and no-one now knows who is who. The Doctor regards the avatars as being just as real as the humans, with all the same thought processes. Cleaves and the others do not agree, seeing them as only copies - simple work units. Knowing this, the Gangers decide that they must fight for their survival. The Doctor realises that he must find a way to make peace between them.

Rory seems to take the Doctor's side in the argument, whilst Amy is opposed to it - seeing the Gangers the same way that the crew see them. She is jealous of the way that Rory has been standing up for Jennifer in particular. In the main dining room where the crew spend most of their time, they see that their belongings have been ransacked. The Doctor explains that this is merely the Gangers wanting to understand who they are. He hands Cleaves a plate straight from the microwave and notices that she does not even flinch, despite it being very hot. She is the Ganger Cleaves. The human Cleaves appears with an electric stun gun and uses it on the Buzzer avatar, killing him. The Doctor points out that the Gangers have hearts to stop. He goes to the TARDIS to find it almost completely buried, losing his shoes to acid attack at the same time. The Jennifer Ganger meanwhile attempts to get Rory on her side and he is taken in by her, not realising that she is actually far more militant than her peers. Unknown to Rory, she kills her human counterpart. Realising that an armed conflict is inevitable, with the Gangers out to avenge the death of Buzzer, the Doctor gathers the crew together in the vat room, which can be easily defended. Everyone is shocked when a familiar figure steps out of the shadows - a Flesh version of the Doctor...

The Doctor realises that at the same time he was scanning the Flesh, it was scanning him, and it has now produced a copy. This throws Amy into further confusion, as the Ganger Doctor acts exactly as the original, yet she still harbours antagonism towards them. She is further concerned as she has once again glimpsed the lady with the eye-patch observing her from a hole in the wall, which promptly disappeared. The Doctor then plays a trick on her by pretending to be his Ganger counterpart, just to see how she reacts. Amy cannot tell the difference, and comes to realise the error of her prejudice. She has also inadvertently told the Doctor about the events at Lake Silencio and the death of his future self - thinking she had been speaking to his avatar. Rory is tricked by the Jennifer Ganger into activating some equipment which sets up an overload in the acid pumping systems. Pressure will build up and destroy the pipelines. He realises too late that he has been tricked and that she is determined to lead a Ganger revolution. She had earlier come across a dumping area for discarded Gangers, and this has made her even more determined to kill the human crew members. She kills Buzzer.

Cleaves has called for a rescue craft to come and take them off the island, but her Ganger counterpart has thought of this also, and has intercepted the call so that it is the avatars who are to be picked up instead. The Doctor is finally able to make the human crew see that the Gangers are a form of life deserving of recognition as individuals after Jimmy dies trying to top the acid from escaping. A video message comes from Jimmy's son, whose birthday it is. The Ganger Jimmy responds to it, exactly as his human counterpart would have done as they had shared the same memories and emotions. This leads the Gangers and the humans to cease hostilities. Jennifer is furious with her peers, still determined to kill all humans. She begins to mutate into an animalistic new form. Everyone goes to the cellars and locks themselves in - Dicken sacrificing himself to keep Jennifer at bay. The monastery is slowly being destroyed by the acid which threatens to explode and cover the island. The Ganger versions of Cleaves and the Doctor elect to stay behind to destroy Jennifer, though it will kill them as well, as the TARDIS drops through the ceiling. The Doctor, Amy, Rory, Cleaves and the Dicken and Jimmy Gangers rush inside as the Ganger Doctor operates the sonic screwdriver to disperse their Flesh bodies. Cleaves had earlier admitted that she was suffering from an inoperable tumour, but the Doctor cures her. He takes her and Dicken to Morpeth Jetsan HQ to argue for Ganger rights, after dropping off Jimmy to be with his son on his birthday.
In the TARDIS, the Doctor has the answer he was seeking to Amy's on / off pregnancy scans. She is really a Flesh copy, the real Amy having been abducted some time ago. He had suspected this for some time, which is why he had come here in the first place. The TARDIS scanner had been reading both the Flesh version and the real one, who were psychically linked. He dissolves the avatar before a shocked Rory, vowing that he will come and find her. Elsewhere, the real Amy wakes up to find herself pregnant, with the eye-patch lady informing her she is about to give birth...

The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People was written by Matthew Graham, and was first broadcast on the 21st and 28th May 2011. Graham, creator of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, had previously contributed the underwhelming, and hugely unpopular, Fear Her for Series 2. (It was the lowest rated story of the revived series, and second lowest rated of all time, as of the DWM 50th Anniversary poll in 2014).
This story is a great improvement (not difficult) but still has a lot of problems. It's basically too long, and short of incident for a two parter. The two groups - Ganger and human - do a lot of talking about what they are going to do, but don't really get round to doing much. Only the Jessica Ganger character is interesting and moves the plot along. She's sympathetic to begin with, and you feel on her side, but then she turns into a monster - quite literally. The CGI monster version of her is extremely poorly realised. We're left with the Doctor simply trying to get two opposing factions to be nice to each other - a retread of the Silurian story in the previous season.
We also have the latest occasion of the Doctor having a duplicate - a very old idea. The cliffhanger exists purely to have the reveal of an unfinished Flesh avatar of the Doctor. There's absolutely no jeopardy, so there is nothing to resolve when the second half opens.

Much of what this story is remembered for comes in the last couple of minutes, which is surely more Moffat than Graham. The Doctor now knows about his death at Lake Silencio, and we learn that it is a Flesh Amy we have been watching for the last three stories, as well as the latter part of The Impossible Astronaut. Presumably the switch was made when Amy was abducted by the Silents in that episode. You'll recall she believed herself to be pregnant at the start of that story, but was claiming it was all a false alarm by the end. The eye-patch lady is explained, as the Flesh Amy has been getting glimpses of what the real Amy has been seeing, as Frances Barber's character has kept an eye (literally) on her.
The guest cast consists of just the five crew members and their Flesh counterparts, giving everyone two versions of the same character to play (though some of them are similar in both versions). The standout performance is Sarah Smart's Jennifer, or at least the Ganger version as the real one doesn't appear very much. As mentioned above, you really feel sorry for her and her crusade for Ganger rights, but she descends into  madness and obsession and eventually becomes a monster in more ways than one. Rory is totally taken in by her and in the hands of a lesser writer and performer this would have really annoyed - Rory coming across as stupid to believe her. But you can see why he becomes taken with her and wants to help her.
Cleaves is Raquel Cassidy. We really don't take to her at all to begin with but come to like her. Jimmy is Mark Bonnar, who is rather underused apart from the sequence where he sees his son's video message. Buzzer is Life on Mars' Marshall Lancaster (again underused), whilst Dicken is played by Leon Vickers.

Overall then, a bit of a disappointment, for the reasons given above.
Things you might like to know:
  • There is a discussion between the crew about Gangers going wrong - an earlier incident on another island. This mirrors a similar scene at the beginning of The Robots of Death, where a human crew discuss a possibly apocryphal incident involving servants going wrong.
  • Viewers in the USA had to wait an extra week between the two episodes, due to Memorial Day, to protect the ratings.
  • It is never explained just what this acid is that everyone is mining. No-one mines for acid. It seems that the substance was chosen just to add some jeopardy to an otherwise unexciting plot.
  • The curse of hindsight strikes again - why have Flesh people never been mentioned in any earlier story set after this date - or even any other story post 22nd Century since this was broadcast. Are we to assume that Cleaves and Dicken failed in their efforts at Morpeth Jetsan?
  • The Doctor asks his Ganger version to describe a Cybermat to test that he has the same memories. This foreshadows the return of the Cybermats later in the season.
  • The Ganger Doctor also speaks some lines from his previous incarnations, as he struggles to absorb so many personalities. These include "One day we will get back. Yes, one day", as spoken by the First Doctor in the very first episode; "Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow", spoken (only twice) by the Third Doctor; and "Would you like a jelly baby?", often asked by the Fourth Doctor.

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