[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.
MORE SPOILERS FOLLOW
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: