Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People

As we move through this Series the tent pole episodes get bigger and more exciting - a trend that continues through Series Seven all the way up to the unimaginable Day of the Doctor itself. It's a good thing, a great thing - except that the episodes in between can seem less interesting. Can be overlooked. Might even be seen as getting in the way.

"Do we have to watch this one?" moaned the boys, and I must confess that I wasn't terribly eager to plough through a dull grey two-parter about dull grey people. But, no, that's not the way. We are watching everything, in order. No matter what. And thank goodness because this is a cracking good story, much deserving of a repeat viewing.

It's not flashy or full of unexpected cameos, the events are not earth-shatteringly momentous. But The Rebel Flesh is proper, traditional, bread-and-butter Doctor Who. A good old base-under-siege, with an industrial setting, ingeniously realised using the castles of South Wales to give it a cold and distinctive feel, almost monastic: cold stone walls, wintry grey light, tunnels and shadows and big heavy doors. It's got a good cast too, playing all sorts of different versions of themselves. Sarah Smart's Jennifers are sweet, snivelling, scheming and monstrous. Mark Bonnar is excellent as the tortured would/would-not-be father Jimmy, a good man forced to pretend he isn't, and him off of Life on Mars (Marshall Lancaster) does a lot with a rather unrewarding part, making Buzzer one of those recognisable co-workers who just wants to get it done and go home. The leader, Cleaves, is the sublime Raquel Cassidy, who (with help from a fine range of wry, slightly embittered expressions) shows us a pair of hard and brittle women who know themselves, and therefore each other, a little too well.

Not too many whizzy spaceships or dinosaurs here, just a compelling story, proper human interest drama, that deals with prejudice, labels and the limits of our compassion by putting ordinary people into an extraordinary situation. The use of the lead characters in this story is also very interesting. They all get something to do, something that changes them and changes how we see them.

Rory, it might appear, has gone back to his old tricks of flapping about and being useless, aimlessly trudging after Jennifer and getting into trouble as a result. But that isn't what's happening. The new, more confident, more capable Rory is now able to do the things he was trying to achieve before. He cares, he can't help it: he's a nurse and he has to help if he can. In this case this means winning some space from Amy so that he go off on his own to try and find Jennifer. Yes, she tricks him into trapping his friends in a room full of acid, but here the weakness of Rory's naivety is much less important than the strength of character he needs to act on his compassion.

Meanwhile the Doctor and Amy play a little game - or rather the Doctors decide to toy with Amy. This is a fascinating little plot: two Doctors, one of whom (we might initially presume) is a wrong 'un, but who both turn out to be the genuine article, confront Amy's (and, let's face it, our) prejudices. But really Amy has herself been a Flesh duplicate all along, and it is perhaps this that leads one of the Doctors (the one she thinks is fake) to get furiously cross with her. Or it may be the fact that Amy has just accidentally told the Doctor about Lake Silencio that makes him lose his rag. Either way, it's a strange and unsettling moment, and all the more so on a repeat viewing when it seems certain that the Doctor in question is the real deal. On the other hand, the way the two Doctors pal around ("They're like Thompson and Thomson," said William, "only clever!") and cooperate with each other is so engaging that it sort of restores your faith in the world, and it is genuinely sad when one of them has to go. He really does enjoy his own company these days and this bodes well for the fun-factor of the Smith/Tennant relationship in The Day of the Doctor too.

The twist at the end - and it's a good one, to be fair - does suddenly propel us back into the ongoing swirl of mystery that is Series Six's arc and slap bang into the very next tent pole, a mid-season finale no less. That's all very exciting and important, but I'm glad we got this story first: amazingly it's the last two-parter to date and, in comparison with this slow and thoughtful adventure, everything will seem just a little more frantic from now on.


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