Review by Mark Bousquet
“THE REBEL FLESH” – Series 6, Episode 5, Story 217a – Written by Matthew Graham; Directed by Julian Simpson – The Eleventh Doctor, Rory, and Amy end up at a monastery in the future in the midst of a solar storm. The monastery has been converted into a factory that pumps acid to the mainland. Why? Because acid is awesome. Duh. The acid is so dangerous that the workers create dopplegangers of themselves with some magic putty and then control them automatically. Then the solar storm gives all the “gangers” a life of their own. It’s all a bit tedious. Because Frankenstein Plus Cylons Plus Surrogates Could Never Fail.
Where to start?
Right. Let’s start here. THE REBEL FLESH is the first part of a two-part story, written by the guy who wrote FEAR HER, one of the very worst episodes of the relaunch. Now, he’s also the guy who co-created Life on Mars, so he’s clearly got some talent, but unfortunately not too much of the talent comes through when applied to DOCTOR WHO.
THE REBEL FLESH is almost a completely useless episode that’s never spooky enough for you to miss the fact that the story is paper thin and stretched far too wide.
The TARDIS lands at a monastery in the future to find that the workers are using dopplegangers of themselves (called “gangers”) to do all the hard work. The “real” people stay strapped in a machine and control the gangers. No one cares if they die, because they can just make a new one out of the magic goop they use but never think about.
I don’t know. If this was 1971 instead of 2011 maybe we’d be all, “Wow, man, do clones have souls?” but we’ve seen this story 8,000 times at this point. Likewise, the idea of controlling something to do the dirty work while you stay safe isn’t new, and the whole semi-human is/isn’t a monster angle has been played out, too. There’s nothing new about THE REBEL FLESH from a narrative standpoint, and when that’s the case you’ve got to execute your formula close to flawlessly to get the audience to care about it.
Rory is the most interesting part of the episode as he bonds with the ganger of Jennifer, ultimately foregoing the relative safety of barricading himself into a room with the Doctor and Amy in order to go out and try to find Human Jennifer. It’s a nice moment for Rory, who serves as the most human center of this episode, but it also points out how this episode could have been elevated to be something more. Why not make Rory the real focus of the episode? Let him do the narrating thing, or focus the show around his reaction to everything? We really haven’t gotten that for Rory, yet, and it would have been something unique for REBEL FLESH to hang its goopiness on.
The Jennifers are the sympathetic character that we get to know as the real humans all get worried and scared and wonder what to do. Jennifer is played by Sarah Smart, who was completely wonderful in a far-too-small role in the Kenneth Branaugh-starring Wallander. She’s wonderful here, too, and I’d much rather have spent the bulk of the hour with her and Rory.
REBEL FLESH could be engaging if the show had run with the idea that what we have here are two versions of the same person, but the episode only gives lip service to this idea. When Ganger Jennifer turns “evil” because the human Cleaves kills Ganger Buzzer, the “not really monsters” become actual monsters as both they and their human counterparts decide “this is war.” It’s all … very … dramatic …
Julian Simpson does his best to wring some tension and emotion out of this episode with some nice camera angles, but there’s only so much he can do because it’s just not a very interesting story. The monastery looks awesome and the special effects of the solar storm are really pretty good, but we’ve got another dark, depressing episode to sit through that never grabs me.
The big “shock” ending, which is telegraphed about as cleverly as if I told you you were going to find doughnuts inside a Dunkin Donuts, sees a Ganger Doctor. You know what would have made that an actual shock? If instead of seeing Matt Smith all gooped up we’d seen David Tennant or Peter Davison in goop. That would have been something to help you forget the tedious show you just sat through.
The episode feels very jagged, too. Things move and then they stop and then they drag and then people shout and run into the next room. It all feels like a big set-up to the next episode, which maybe will make me look back on THE REBEL FLESH with fondness and appreciation, but right now I’m incredibly unsatisfied.
Originally Published April 24, 2011