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"Us And Them," Doctor Who, "The Rebel Flesh”

By C. Robert Dimitri | TV Reviews | May 23, 2011 | Comments ()


doctor-who-rebel-flesh-creature.jpg

"Oh, Rory. Rory! Always with the Rory!"

On Earth in the 22nd century, Jennifer, Buzzer, and Jimmy wear heavy protective gear and proceed down a dark hallway to a room, where they investigate the status of a vat of acid. Jennifer playfully nudges Buzzer, who falls into the acid. The three of them - including the dying Buzzer - calmly dismiss this as falling under the cost of doing business, with the annoyance of a destroyed costly suit and the accompanying paperwork. Back in the hallway, another Buzzer reappears, even as his other form dissolves away in the vat.

On the TARDIS, The Doctor continues to worry over Amy and her paradoxical pregnancy status. He is intent on dropping Rory and her off for fish and chips while he tends to a brief solo mission, presumably related to solving the mystery of Amy's womb. However, a disruptive solar storm interrupts their trip and sends them in for a rough landing at an island thirteenth century monastery. The sound of Dusty Springfield music emanating from within informs them that they are well beyond the thirteenth century. The Doctor examines rifts in the ground caused by the solar storm, which reveal piping used to transport the acid we saw earlier.

They investigate the interior of the monastery and are halted with suspicion by the three we met earlier, as well as Dicken and Miranda, who is in charge of this monastery-turned-factory. Oddly, they have sleeping copies of themselves strapped into harnesses on the walls. As we find out, the bodies in the harnesses are the original people, while the ones interacting with The Doctor, Amy, and Rory are copies controlled from those harnesses. (Think The Matrix without the virtual reality.) The Doctor uses the old psychic paper trick to pass himself off as a meteorologist sent to help protect them from the solar storm, which is due to send more damage their way.

Miranda takes them to another vat; this one is full of the flesh that composes their copies. She explains that this material used to create their organic doppelgangers - exact copies in every way, except for the fact that they must be controlled from the harnesses - was deemed necessary to safely mine the acid. The cost of creating a new flesh copy is minimal compared to the safety risks of the facility for an actual human being.

The Doctor curiously examines the flesh vat, touches the contents, and mentally communes with it. He lets them know that this organic material is much more than they realize. The Doctor offers to take them safely away on the TARDIS to avoid the incoming solar storm. Miranda ignores his warning and insists that the doppelgangers (or "gangers") remain at work outputting the acid to the mainland. He insists they at least take some measures to buffer against the damage, but this is to no avail.

The Doctor rushes to the solar weather vane that powers the factory in an attempt to protect everyone, but he is too late. The storm knocks him from the tower and leaves him unconscious. Inside the factory, the storm also leaves Rory and Amy unconscious. The flesh of the gangers reacts to the storm in a foreboding way, as the flesh of their faces transforms into grotesque distortions.

The eight regain their bearings and regroup inside the monastery, where they discover that the gangers have acquired some measure of agency as an effect of the storm and have gone on the loose without control from the harnesses. Miranda and her crew are shocked by this unprecedented development and speculate that these gangers could not be stable on their own. In the hour while everyone was unconscious, the gangers have been exploring the monastery and struggling with the entire life and memories in their heads.

Jennifer is not feeling well, and Rory escorts her to the restroom, where we discover that she is not Jennifer at all but the unstable Jennifer-ganger with flesh dripping from her face. With talents akin to Reed Richards' Mr. Fantastic - i.e., a stretching elastic arm and neck - she punches Rory and asks him to let the gangers live. Rory runs away from this monstrous form.

Back in the common room where the crew has congregated, they discuss protecting themselves, and The Doctor points out that if they are not violent then their genetic copies should not be violent either. The Doctor then reveals that the Miranda in the room with them is Miranda-ganger. Her disorientation as a copy in the storm made her unsure of how much time had passed, and her nerve endings were slow to identify the temperature of a plate right out of the microwave that The Doctor hands her. Miranda-ganger is upset to learn that she is not the original Miranda, and with her face unstable she runs from the room upset.

The Doctor, Amy, and Jimmy investigate the disappearance of Rory and Jennifer, and evidence in the bathroom leads them to conclude that Rory was with Jennifer-ganger and not Jennifer. Jimmy and Amy realize that The Doctor knows more about the nature of the flesh than he previously indicated, and The Doctor sidesteps the issue but insists that he can help the gangers, who are simply scared and angry. Amy runs off on her own to find Rory without the protection of an acid suit, while The Doctor goes back to fetch the TARDIS, which is a much safer mode of transport through the monastery corridors made dangerous by the leaking, sun-storm damaged acid pipes of the facility.

Jimmy doubts The Doctor's plan to fetch the TARDIS.

"You're never going to get your vehicle in here."
"I'm a great parker."

Rory reunites with Jennifer-ganger, who is struggling with the nature of what she is and the memories of Jennifer. He comforts her, and she asks him to help her. She noticed his kind eyes when he landed, and Rory feels honor-bound to protect her.

Before going to the TARDIS, The Doctor returns to the flesh vat and signals it with the sonic screwdriver. After he leaves the room, a mouth forms on the flesh pool's surface and says, "Trust me." Outside, the TARDIS has sunk into the acid-ravaged soil, and The Doctor is unable to access it, as the acid eats through his shoes.

Gangers Miranda, Jimmy, Buzzer, and Dicken congregate and express that they have the advantage over their counterparts, as they have hoarded the acid protection suits.

After another strange encounter with metallic eye patch lady peeping at her from a disappearing slot in the wall, Amy finds Rory and Jennifer-ganger. Buzzer and Dicken are there as well, and Rory tells the three of them that no one is to hurt Jennifer-ganger. Amy is skeptical of the safety of trusting the gangers, or perhaps she is simply jealous.

In the common room, The Doctor gathers everyone together, having asked the gangers to focus on maintaining their unstable flesh faces in their non-frightening assigned human forms. The only people missing from the conference are Miranda and Jennifer (the originals). The Doctor lectures them that they are all sacred life and should work together to escape the facility. Jimmy and Jimmy-ganger immediately raise a problem, as both of them miss the same home and family.

Still, The Doctor might have been able to resolve this "right odd mess," if the real Miranda did not burst in wielding a 40,000 volt probe and threatening to "decommission" the monstrous mistakes. Buzzer-ganger rushes her, and she kills him. The Doctor is appalled, and the remaining gangers run away. Miranda convinces her crew that it's "us and them" now, even as Jennifer-ganger uses the same verbiage to motivate the ganger group back in the room where they have stowed the acid suits.

The Doctor scolds Miranda for crossing this terrible line of murder, but he seeks her council on the most fortifiable room in the monastery. Her answer is the chapel; it has thick walls and only one entrance. In the halls Jennifer-ganger threateningly stalks the real Jennifer, and Rory runs to save her in response to a scream, although who knows which of the two he would protect if forced to make a choice. The Doctor, Amy, Miranda, Jimmy, Buzzer, and Dicken lock themselves in the chapel and block the door, as the acid-suit-wearing gangers advance on their position.

"Yes, it's insane, and it's about to get even more insanerer," The Doctor tells Amy.

Emerging from the shadows in the chapel is a flesh copy of The Doctor, asking them to trust him.

***********

I entered this episode with pessimism, as its writer, Matthew Graham (co-creator of Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes), earlier penned "Fear Her," which was far from my favorite episode of new Who. A slow start and the cheesy effects of stretchy Jennifer-ganger did not encourage me, but by the end I found myself very invested in this story.

In science fiction exploration of the value of manufactured life and the morality associated with cloning is well-covered territory. "The Rebel Flesh" makes the material fresh, though, with the aid of Matt Smith's guiding performance and the effective juxtaposition between the acid miners and their flesh counterparts. The question of what precisely qualifies as "life" and what comprises an individual's identity has always fascinated me, and the concept of meeting a copy of oneself opens the door to direct questions of not only self-reflection but also self-loathing and the resulting conflict.

Rather than a near-death for Rory this week (there is always part two, though, to satisfy that motif), we had a joke about it:

"I thought I was going to die."
Rory: "Welcome to my world."

The Doctor behaves mysteriously throughout the episode. He uses a snow globe to measure the sun-storm. (O.k., that's typical Doctor eccentricity.) He implies that their stop at the factory is not an accident. In conjunction with that purpose that he does not fully reveal to his companions, he seems to enter this particular adventure with foreknowledge of the manufactured flesh life forms, which he is immediately inclined to protect and research.

The creation of The Doctor's own copy is spurred by his own conscious action, which leaves me wondering if perhaps he intends Doctor-ganger to play a role in his own death that we witnessed in the season opener. (That is assuming that The Doctor knows more about his future than Amy and Rory realize.) Is The Doctor-ganger a true Time Lord in the full biological sense? Whether he is or not, certainly The Doctor would respect him as a sacred life form based on his dialogue in this episode, which I think implies The Doctor would not create Doctor-ganger with the sole intention of destroying him. Of course, if one of them is required to play the role of noble martyr and they are both the same organism in all respects, perhaps The Doctor knows that Doctor-ganger is just as willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the universe as he is. Conceivably, they could flip a coin.

That is just my speculation. Perhaps Doctor-ganger will not survive past the end of the next episode. I look forward to the conclusion of this adventure in "The Almost People."

I shall return to brief you on that tale, my fellow Whovians, although it appears that might not happen for two weeks instead of one, as BBC America has foolishly opted to skip Memorial Day weekend and fall a week behind the British broadcast, which would delay the midseason cliffhanger of episode seven as well. If you have depended upon BBC America to watch Doctor Who this season, I encourage you to complain to them as I have. It couldn't hurt.

C. Robert Dimitri had a Doctor Who nightmare this past weekend. Amy Pond disappeared in it, and she was presumed dead at the hands of some killer that left disturbing graffiti on the walls. He awoke distraught. He completely intended the title of this column to give you Pink Floyd earworm.







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