Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Rebel Flesh & The Almost People written by Matthew Graham and directed by Julian Simpson

This story in a nutshell: Somehow as bad as Fear Her…

Nutty Professor: It looks like the Doctor was about to explain everything to Amy and Rory about the consistently puzzling mediscan of her pregnancy when the TARDIS honker sounds. What irritating timing. Only during Moffat's era does he keep so many secrets like this because they have to be spilled at the appropriate time for the arcs to have a spread of twists. It makes no sense to me that he would keep his suspicions from Amy, if he really cared for her they would be working together to work this out. With so much going on and so many characters to handle Graham practically forgets about the Doctor (and Amy) in The Rebel Flesh. At times he feels like an extra in his own series and not because this is a Doctor-lite episode. That's fine, sometimes Doctor-lite episodes are the ultimate refreshment but that is only the case when the characters filling the void are worth your time (Blink, Love & Monsters, Turn Left). That most certainly is not the case here. When the Ganger Doctor tries to stabilise he starts quoting some of the most well known Doctor lines from the past as though he has been reading one of JNTs fact books from the 80s. We know what stories are in Matthew Graham's collection now. There is some cheeky chemistry between the two Doctors that Matt Smith has great fun playing against himself, it’s the only light relief in an otherwise stifling two parter. Its only when faced with his own brilliance that he realises how impressive it must be to hang out with him all the time. His anger towards Amy is shocking and as usual Smith has trouble playing rage with any great conviction. He's far too amiable a fellow.

Scots Tart: The end of this story does not greet Amy Pond warmly and yet the Doctor gave her the perfect chance to get away before they even have the chance to find out about flesh avatars. It's her own distrust of his motives (understandably since he is keeping secrets from her) that sees her turn into a puddle of milky goo. The Almost People exposes what I have been convinced of all along and that is that Amy Pond is as shallow as she appears. Whether she is a Ganger or not, she deliberately shuts out what she thinks is the fake Doctor because she believes there can be only one. She's like a child who is so certain of her facts: 'He's my Doctor! Your an imposter ner ner ne ner ner!' It’s a real wake up call when she realises she has been duped and I hope she learns from the lesson but there were too many moments where I found her as gormless, distasteful and reactionary as the rest of the guest cast. The trouble with Amy is that she thinks she knows best and she is closed minded, both of which are unlikable traits. As I've said before I only really feel for her when she is being tortured horribly...not a sign that a likeable companion has been successfully created. Otherwise I tolerate her attitude (a bit like Tegan) but I have never warmed to her.

Loyal Roman: Completing the poor use of the regulars is Rory and Graham proves what I have long suspected and that is that is without Amy to obsess over he is an entirely insubstantial person. He has no legs to stand up as character in his own right. The girl in question is Amy Pond and transferring that affection from her to Jennifer is just about the worst mistake the writer could have made. It's supposed to noble and brave for him to be the voice that defends the Gangers but falling for someone as manipulative and unconvincing as Jennifer makes him look like a total chump. Frankly they should have chewed him out over this but he seems to walk away from this defection (and change his mind on a whim) Scot free. To prove how entirely unnecessary he is to the narrative Rory vanishes from the story for the first 18 minutes of The Almost People, literally wandering the corridors aimlessly, never to be seen. Graham really needs to learn how to give his characters equal and adequate screen time. How painful is it to watch him being tricked by the Ganger Jennifer into putting his hand on the scan? Her pantomime girlishness screams of deception. Why are they continually making him look like such a numpty? How does he go from this numbskull to the caped avenger during the pre-titles sequence of the next episode? The lack of consistency with these characters is astonishing.

The Good:
· The opening shots as we drift over the sea towards the island and the sudden snapping on of the lights down the corridor promise great things. It doesn’t deliver but the promise is there.
· What would the First Doctor have said about Ian and Barbara treating the console room as a bachelor pad as Amy and Rory do here? Clothes strewn everywhere, rock music blasting through the speakers and a darts tournament! Who cares? It's nice to see the three of them having fun for a change.
· A solar tsunami is a fine new innovation and the effects look glorious as the TARDIS rides the suns waves. What really makes this scene is the ‘assume the bracing position’ promise of a spectacular crash that ends with a nervous giggle as the TARDIS touches down with beautiful stabilisation.
· Rory is right…do you know anybody who doesn’t like at least one Dusty Springfield song? I like them all. Says everything you need to know about me.
· I guess every series has doppelganger episodes and whilst its not a type of episode that usually excites me (it probably added to my apathy) at least they tried to do something fresh with the idea with the Gangers. It's insane to think that people would agree to make replicas of themselves that are expendable for dangerous work but it’s a situation in which our sympathies are automatically with the doppelgangers and that is an original approach (because nine times out of town they are usually evil counterparts). The thorny subject of the Gangers wanting to go home to their families not because they are evil copies but simply because those are lives they remember having rears its head. I really wished we could have had more intelligent discussion in that vain.
· The Ganger makeup is really effective, it's such a memorably unpleasant look and the first time I saw one of them it made me shudder.
· Did anybody else get the hints of the revelatory climax with the Doctor telling Amy to breathe? Neither did I but Emma (who watched the second episode with me) caught on and knew something was up. It's slipped in during exciting moments so you don’t really pay attention but rewards on subsequent viewings.
· There is a very clever moment where the Doctor tosses Amy against the wall and you think he is the fake Doctor railing at the real Amy when the reality is that he is the real Doctor who knows that she is a fake Amy. It's only in hindsight that you realise how smart this scene is and the whole piece could do with more of this kind of playful deception. It's just a shame that the performances don't match the intelligence of the writing at this point.
· The final revelation that the Amy we have been watching for the past six episodes is a fake and our Amy has been kidnapped and pregnant is awesomely achieved. It is so beautifully done it shits all over the rest of the story. What’s important is that it is rooted in the characters with Amy horrified that the Doctor has suddenly turned on her and Rory choosing to listen to him and back away over his wife’s please for help. The final shot of Amy screaming hysterically as she prepares to give birth is one of the most shocking in Doctor Who’s history. There is a worrying habit this season of average episodes ending with excellent cliffhanging scenes that convince you that you have watched some kind of Doctor Who masterpiece. A Good Man Goes to War is guilty of it and so is Closing Time. This is the clearest example because I finished The Almost People with goosebumps of excitement but it had absolutely nothing to do with the story that played out, it was all to do with the arc related cliffhanger. Still kudos for keeping this surprise hidden and I couldn’t wait to watch the next episode.

The Bad:
· I remember watching The Rebel Flesh with Simon and our friend Ally (a convert since the new series started and number one lover of David Tennant) and we sat through the whole thing very nonplussed. It all began with the teaser which was so messily directed you didn’t get a good look at Buzzer’s face as he melted so when he turned up again in the corridor we didn’t have a clue who he was or why he was moaning about falling into a vat of acid. Sometimes puzzling is fun (Warriors’ Gate) and at other times it is nonsensical. And this was the latter.
· Shoot me down with a DeMat Gun for saying this because it sounds ungrateful considering they have sought out a grand site in Caerphilly castle to film this story in (and if you watch the Confidential it was filmed during a bad snowfall and all the production team were punished by perishing conditions)…but I really don’t like the location work in this story. Whilst I’m sure this is a glorious old building it lends a story which is already pretty dreary a dour, miserable feel and proves unpleasant to look at after a while. Besides I’m not sure it suits the feel of the story at all, which is going for a claustrophobic ‘us versus them’ feel. It lacks a base under siege atmosphere when you can get out in the sunny courtyard and wander about in the fresh air.
· Whilst the casting on the whole is excellent in Doctor Who there is one role in this story that is so hideously miscast I couldn’t make any connection with the character whatsoever. Sarah Smart as Jennifer did absolutely nothing for me. Half the time she said her lines as though she would rather be elsewhere and the other half she was playing a particularly stiff baddie cliché. Which I guess she was. Considering she has the pivotal role of gaining the sympathies of the audience for the Gangers, that aspect of the serial flops like a fish out of water. The scenes of her wandering about the courtyard calling for Rory aren't scary, funny or tense…just weird. I found the scenes where she is telling Rory about her red welly boots painful to watch. This is clearly supposed to be the moment that we make a connection with her and realise that she is exactly the same person as the real Jennifer…and yet all I could think was how retarded she sounded. Isn't it a bit late to ask for Rory’s help after you have already turned into a massive tentacle headed monster and attacked him? What is all this donkey shit about the eyes being the last thing to go and making sure you are ask a question into them – who even talks like that? Even Troi from Star Trek TNG would shy away from dismal psychobabble like that! I cannot buy a single line that comes out of Jennifer’s mouth. Her motivations are all over the place as well, either a helpless victim or a revolutionary leader depending on what a particular scene demands of her. Probably the worst ever reading of a line in NuWho is ‘You’re one of us Doctor. Join the revolution!’ Just abysmal.
· What is it about the new series and sticking the Doctor somewhere vertiginous and assailing him with the elements? It might have been fresh in The Idiot’s Lantern (it still felt like a bland climax though) but it wore thin in Evolution of the Daleks and The Vampires of Venice and now it is positively done to death. Not the feel that were going for during the central set piece in the opening episode.
· With the threat of acid leaks (The Keys of Marinus), radiation (The Daleks) and doppelgangers (The Chase, The Android Invasion) this is basically a Terry Nation script for the 2010s and all three of them were a bit passé in the shows first three years. I was really hoping they wouldn’t go for the ‘two characters trying to convince they are the real one’ scenario much loved by Nation but Graham managed to surrender to the cliché.
· What is up with that very odd scene where the Doctor meets Cleaves after the solar tsunami? Clearly she is a Ganger but did they have signpost it that obviously by her complete personality transplant?
· Oh dear. I think the JenHead (for want of a better name) glooping her way out of the toilet on a tether of flesh and screaming ‘JUST LET US LIVE!’ is supposed to be frightening. It is absolutely hilarious, for once a CGI effect that would be perfectly in place a some godawful b-movie (Attack of the Killer Heads?). The mash up of Gangers that Rory discovers is a little better but still rather comical looking for something that should have been really distasteful and revolting to look at (check out the far more effective example in Star Trek Voyager's Scorpion). By the time we get to the eyes in the walls and Jennifer’s grotesquely hanging mouth I was in fits of laughter – the show is trying assault you with comical scares that just aren't up to the task. The Jennifer monster stalking along the corridors makes the Lazarus creature from series three look phenomenal, it gets my vote as the most embarrassing CGI creation since the show came back.
· The ‘Us or Them’ conclusion to the first episode where the two factions go to war might have been more exciting if I gave a damn about any of the characters. Making them all so unlikable means I couldn’t care less if they wipe each other out or not. I was just hoping they would hurry up and get on with it so we could move on to something a bit more engaging.
· The most signposted and obvious cliffhanger to date in the new series. Ally said there would be a doppelganger Doctor as soon as he put his hand in the fleshy goo and the numerous ‘trust me…’ moments left me with no illusion as to where this story was going. I’ve always thought that a cliffhanger should either provide a shock (which it spectacularly failed to do so here) or provide some information that kicks the next episode in a new direction. This cliffhanger has much more success with the latter but still left me thinking ‘meh.’
· The TARDIS was sinking into the ground just so it could magically fall through underground to their rescue at the last minute? Oh fuck off! A magical blood clot solution? The TARDIS being able to stabilise the Gangers permanently? This story thrives on insultingly easy answers.

The Shallow Bit: Scottish, greying, gorgeous and gently spoken – Mark Bonnar can appear in every Doctor Who story. Of the guest cast he is the only one that engages my sympathies – or at least he did until that shamefully manipulative sequence with his kid. Go and watch The Waters of Mars to see how this sort of thing can be done really effectively.

Result: Terry Nation writes a script for the 2010s full of acid leaks, doppelgangers, radiation and fake Doctors. Actually Matthew Graham wrote it but you would be forgiven for thinking that somebody associated with the shows early years had been involved because this is really old fashioned storytelling, told at an old fashioned pace. The story is crippled immediately by a lack of identifiable characters – none of the human guest cast appealed to me in the slightest so that left no hope for their Gangers. Jennifer in particular is a hopeless character, atrociously performed and characterised and dragging Rory into a dead end sub plot that makes him look more like an idiot than a hero. Had all this been condensed down into one frantic episode it might have been made to work but dragged out to an hour and a half it plays the same tricks over and over until even (naff) monster effects and (abortive) paranoia seem uninteresting. Another damaging factor is the direction and editing; some scenes that should have flowed beautifully are discordantly chopped together and there are an amazing amount of scenes with agonisingly long pauses as if they are asking us to pass judgement on how boring it all is. The last scene is a genuine shocker and is so frighteningly depicted it puts the rest of the story to shame and I really liked the way that they kept the focus on the Ganger Doctor to disguise the fact that this story was actually all about a fake Amy. The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People doesn’t pass any of the criteria that I expect from good Doctor Who; it's not funny, imaginative, scary or entertaining. It's an ugly, outdated, unpleasant story which for me proved astonishingly unlikable: 3/10


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David Pirtle said...

The only thing I didn't really care for was the last scene, so obviously we entirely disagree here.