The Rebel Flesh (Doctor Who series 6, episode 5)

[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]

“We have met the enemy, and they are ours” — General William Henry Harrison.

“We have met the enemy and he is us” — Walt Kelly.

The Rebel Flesh is old-school base-under-siege Doctor Who.  But this time, the enemy is us.


Yes, the enemy is us.  The bad guys are the same people as the good guys.  Not in the mundane figurative sense that we all erect barriers against ourselves and work against our own self-interest, but in the distinctively Whovian literal sense that the bad guys are duplicates of the good guys — such perfect duplicates that you can’t tell who’s who.

That is, you can’t tell who’s a duplicate and who’s real.

And you can’t who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy.  Not even if you know who’s a duplicate.

This ambiguity is ground that we’ve trodden before, and less than a year ago: in the Silurian two-parter The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, it was made very clear that the Silurians were not merely Bad Guys (although their species certainly included some).  They were people, albeit non-human ones; and the same is obviously true of the duplicates in The Rebel Flesh, even before the Doctor spells it out.  And also as in Series 5’s Silurian story, it’s an angry woman acting alone who spoils the chance of the peace that Doctor is trying to broker by killing one of the apparent enemy.  The difference is that last time around, she was angry because she was frightened — because she’d lost her son and was out of control.  But this time, the villain of the piece, Cleaves, is angry mostly because her authority has been challenged — because she can’t bear the idea of not being in control.  Her anger is as much towards the Doctor as towards the duplicates.

Is the character name Cleaves telling us something?  “Cleave” is an interesting word — one that has two opposite meanings.  An axe can cleave a skull, dividing it in two; but a bride can cleave to her husband, joining the two into one.  Early in the episode, the “real” Cleaves, like the other staff of the base, is split in two — one real person, one duplicate; could it be that she will somehow be reintegrated with her duplicate by the end?  Or am I reading too much into a name?

I am, aren’t I?

The Doctor’s reaction to the killing is telling, and emblematic of the differences between the previous regime and the current one.  David Tennant, in the Russell T. Davies era, would have been filled with righteous anger — he’d have gone shouty and square-mouthed and given a long speech about the uniqueness and dignity of all life.  There is some of that in Smith’s reaction, for sure, but the overwhelming impression is very different: it’s of shock, horror, disappointment and plain sadness.  When he shouts, it’s not because he’s declaiming from a soapbox, but because he’s taken by surprise at how terribly disappointing people can be and how catastrophic the consequences are.

At moments like this, you forget that the Doctor is played by someone only 28 years old; he looks like a very, very old man.

My son Daniel, on watching this episode, mentioned how much more it hurts when one of his teachers is disappointed in him than when one is angry.  It’s a different and deeper hurt.  Playing the Doctor’s reaction this way is very effective, and lends gravity to a scene that otherwise is perhaps a little hackneyed.

And yet, and yet …

Fiona pointed out that in this episode, for the first time, we see Matt Smith looking like he’s acting.  Not in this killing sequence, but at the various times when he’s wacky.  When he’s being The Wacky Doctor.

Is it a failure of acting?  I doubt that suddenly, now, after eighteen pitch-perfect episodes, Smith has fallen off the narrow path.  I think the Doctor is acting.  He’s trying too hard to be his normal self, to avoid thinking about Amy’s pregnancy, to keep his own mind off knowing that the three people he trusts most are keeping a great and terrible secret from him.  We’re used to seeing this Doctor either in control of the situation, or cheerfully unconcerned that he isn’t.  But now the mask is beginning to slip; we’re seeing the cracks.  He’s worried, and ovecompensating.

Speaking of acting, can I just give a shout-out to Arthur Davill’s superbly consistent and nuanced portrayal of Rory?  He does this week in, week out, absolutely convincing every time, and gently funny.  My favourite moment this week: the TARDIS has just landed, the Doctor runs enthusiastically into the monastery and Amy runs after him; there is a momentary pause before Rory follows, and when he does it’s a strangely reluctant run.  It’s extraordinary that he can get such complexity into so simple an act as running, but it gave me the impression that he was trying to appear to be running more enthusiastically than he actually felt.  He’s a pro.

The one place where I felt this episode really let itself down was the brief moment when Jen’s duplicate emerged in snake-like form:

It’s not just that the effect wasn’t convincing; it’s that it was the wrong effect.  The story doesn’t want or need to go there — we don’t need weird body-shaping powers for the duplicates.  The thing about them that makes them interesting is that they are people — precisely not that they are monsters.  (Thankfully this section was very short, and not repeated.)

In the end, the episode turns on the original people’s conviction that they are real, and that the duplicates are not.  (Though part of me wonders whether in the end, all the people will discover that they are duplicates, and that the real real people are all safely on the mainland, far from the acid factory.)  But in essentials, the originals and duplicates are the same: they are indistinguishable physically, and they share the same memories: they are perfect and complete enough copies that a duplicate can believe it’s an original.  (This is why the snake-neck moment was such a mis-step — the episode needs to be emphasising how similar duplicates are to originals, not inventing new differences).

So what does the originals’ conviction of superiority rest on?  Just that they were there first?  That’s thin.  Then, presumably, on how they came to be — by being grown in a womb rather than in a vat.  Stated baldly, that is also pretty unconvincing.  It seems inevitable that there will be an original-and-duplicate reconciliation in The Almost People; the question is how it will be brought about, and whether it can avoid cliches such as a duplicate saving the life of his original.

I leave you with a speculation on where Part 2 might be going.  The duplicates may feel like they are half auton, half Silurian, but I think they may turn out to be related to a completely different Who beast.  Check out this silhouetted shot from very early in the episode, before we’ve met any of the people:

When I first saw this, my gut reaction was: Sontarans.

Was I just misreading the shot, or was that planted deliberately as a resonance, a clue?  There are other reasons to suspect there might be a connection.  We know that the Sontarans are a clone race, that they are grown in vats.  We know from a couple of throwaway remarks that the Doctor has not only seen this technology before, but is familiar with a more advanced version of it.  Could we be seeing the Sontaran origin story?

Oh, and finally — almost forgot — here’s your sushi:


12 responses to “The Rebel Flesh (Doctor Who series 6, episode 5)

  1. WyrdestGeek

    My thoughts on the episode: I liked it, but I felt like the story over-reached the available special effects budget. It’s not that I really care about the special effects in a story, but just like any other element/aspect (e.g. costuming, writing, incidental music, sound fx) of a modern TV production, it’s absence can cause a glaring/jarring Suspension-Of-Disbelief Failure. This leads me to also criticize the same scene you did–the bathroom one with the telescoping head. I agree it didn’t seem to fit the rest of the story. That scene and a few others with the Flesh people had the additional problem of too many jump cuts where the effect is not on before the cut, then is on after the cut. I mean I know you can’t afford the money or time to show a morph from normalcy to weird-shapeness every time, but it makes sense to do it once or twice in the beginning so that the change gets established in the viewer’s mind. After that, jump cuts save both valuable time and money.

    I felt the episode also ran a little on the slow side. (This is sometimes a problem with the two parters–more story than would fit in one episode, but not really quite enough to fill out two full episodes.) My teenage children also found the Flesh Doctor part predictable (I didn’t figure it out until the Flesh said “Trust me.”)

    Could Flesh Doctor be the way Doctor gets around being dead at the end of this series? I think it will be. Even if the newly made Flesh Doc gets killed in next week’s adventure, that wouldn’t preclude the non-Flesh Doctor from going back and getting another copy of himself in between adventures.

    Re: the Sontarans idea: I guess that’s totally plausible. Actually there was once a Doctor Who RPG (there’s at least two Doctor Who RPGs–the one I’m referring to here was simple named “The Doctor Who Role Playing Game”) and in the source material for that game they laid out backstories for a few different bad guys including the Sontarans. They said there was a scientist guy named Sontar (or something like that). And he had that megalomaniac problem so common in DW. He created a cloning technology. He used it to clone himself a lot. The clones weren’t all the same. In Brave New World fashion factors like intelligence, loyalty, cunning, and free will were all tweaked so that soldiers of different ranks would behave appropriately to that rank.

    But the RPG isn’t canon so there’s no reason we can’t have a different origin story for them. My only gripe about that would be I don’t really want the Sontarans to be some accidentally human made creation.

    Anyway: overall, I liked the episode, but it felt rushed in some places and slow in others. Rory is interesting. I agree: the actor manages to do a lot whilest being given only a little. Also: it makes sense Rory would befriend Flesh Jen–Rory knows what it’s like to be made of plastic after all.

    Re sushi: I have to say, I’m not a big fan of fish cooked or otherwise, but I really dig the sushi pictures in a reassuringly non-sequitur kind of way.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  2. My favorite part about this episode was the setting. The acid plant is a magnificent fusion of religious, military, and agricultural aesthetic, not to mention the simple elegance of the golden weathervane against a setting which is otherwise spartan and industrial.

    The one thing that really irks me is the appearance of the Flesh-clones. It reminds me too much of Waters of Mars. I’m not looking for more Stretch Armstrong bathroom action, but I hope the second half of this arc plays up the “goop factor” of the Flesh.

    The most exciting thing about this story is that we’ll get to see how the Smith’s Doctor deals with Cleaves (both Cleaveses, in fact) as compared to Tennant’s Doctor versus General Cobb in The Doctor’s Daughter. Unfortunately, I predict that Cleaves will take a back seat to the clone-Doctor and that this will play out much closer to the Dream Lord episode, with the Doctor’s hands tied and a heroic act of Amy’s or Rory’s (plus a generous spoonful of deus ex machina) saving the day.

  3. I really liked the moment the doctor says “What are you doing down there??” to the almost completely dissolved tardis. He says it like you would say “Stop being daft you silly” to a playful child. Then his boots melt.

  4. Oliver Townshend

    They look like living plastic to me…

  5. WyrdestGeek, you’re right about the reason for the bond between between Rory and Jen, I hadn’t spotted that. And, yes, the existence of a duplicate Doctor is indeed one way to get around the fact of the Doctor’s death earlier — amazingly, a thought that hadn’t occurred to me. BTW, what does “Furry cows moo and decompress.” mean?

    Dan, I agree that the setting worked well. I wasn’t until I assembled the screen-captures for this post that I realised what a very consistent palette the episode used, but looking back I think that contributed to the growing sense of claustrophobia (which it just now occurs to me should be defined as “the fear of Father Christmas”). As to how things get worked out in the second half : there are a lot of different possibilities — not just differences of detail but differences in the very type of episode. My fingers are crossed that we’ll see no more monstering, but I fear that we will, otherwise Jen’s single moment of snakiness would seem all the more out of place.

    By the way, I always avoid reading other people’s reviews before writing my own, but I was interested to see this morning that I’m not the only person to have made the Sontaran connection. Over on Who Spam, whatyoucanovercome put together an interesting set of visual comparisons that make me more confident that the similarities are not just coincidence.

  6. WyrdestGeek

    The cool creepy faces of the Flesh folk looks a little familiar to me. It looks to be the same process they use for Lord Voldemort’s snake face.

    Mike Taylor: And speaking of Harry Potter–the simplest way to explain the furry cows thing is to say that my petronus against dementors is a big, furry cow. Sometimes the cow explodes (decompresses) for no adequately explored reason. Other times you launch the cow at the dementor. (“Fetchez La Vache.”) Both are effective means of countering depression. Throwing a cow is always funny. Well okay, maybe it’s not funny for the cow, but you’re only supposed to use cartoon cows or ASPCE-approved movie stunt cows so no one really gets hurt.

    It’s also my signature. Search the sentence with quotes on Google and see. :-)

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  7. CAUTION!!!
    This is an extremely spoileriffic comment.

    If the creatures (gangers) can change shape, then why didn’t Jennifer become something more deadly than a flying snake thing earlier when she punches Rory? She could have become a scorpion. Or maybe a nuke?

    Why are the gangers terrified? Is it because they keep getting burnt in acid and destroyed painfully then brought back to life or is it just because they’re unstable?

    This time the woman with the eye-patch in the wall was in a completely empty room, like she had it all to herself. Why is that? I didn’t think that anyone except Amy even knew that she was there.

    Trust me. I’m not the doctor.

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