The Almost People (Doctor Who series 6, episode 6)

[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.]

It’s part of the essence of Doctor Who that it drops bombshells on us.  It’s a show where things are not always as they seem, and where trying to figure out exactly what’s going on is an important part of the fun.  Back in the day, we were shocked by the revelation in The End of the World that the Time Lords were gone; we all guessed wrongly at the identity of The Doctor’s Wife; we were chilled by the sight of Daleks on our side in Victory of the Daleks.

The one constant that makes these constant twists and turns work is that the character of the Doctor himself is reliable and consistent, even as his personality changes between incarnations.  He himself is the bedrock against which all the waves of the universe break, the ground against which we evaluate the changing figures.

MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW THE BREAK

And then the Doctor killed Amy.

The Doctor.  Killed.  Amy.

She was alive; and then he shot her with the sonic screwdriver, which as it turns out is a gun; and then she wasn’t alive any more.

And whatever else happened in the episode, that is what we’ll remember.

I’m not fond of hyperbolic reviews that say things like “That wasn’t Doctor Who“, but if I were ever to write one, this would be the time.  This is not the kind of thing the Doctor does.  It just isn’t.

Yes, the Amy in question was a ganger, not the “real” Amy.  But, come on, we’ve just spent two whole episodes establishing that the ur-flesh from which gangers are made is alive; not alive like moss, but sentient.  Establishing that gangers are people, dammit.  So what can the Doctor possibly have been thinking in killing one?  Even if we say that this particular ganger did not have an independent life, and was only functioning as a prosthesis for Real Amy — it seems we are supposed to conclude this, from the sight of Real Amy waking up — what’s the urgent cause for what he did?  Even if you can persuade yourself, contra everything the Doctor told us last time, that the ganger is not “really” alive, then all the ganger-termination has achieved is to restore consciousness to “real” Amy, alone and trapped in an alien world, giving birth the baby she knows nothing about, terrified out of her wits.  If Ganger Amy truly needs to be disposed of for Original Amy to regain consciousness, why not wait until Real Amy has been found first?

There’s much more that could be said about The Almost People.  Some of it’s good, but much of it is bad, as it muffed most of the issues raised by The Rebel Flesh, treating the Gangers as plain-and-simple Bad Guys for most of the episode.  I could quibble with the stupid scene with the eyes in the wall, which didn’t connect with anything else and would have been meaningless even if the effects had been convincing.  But I’m not going to bother going there.  All of that seems an irrelevance in light of the utter lack of humanity that pervaded the whole episode.

The whole episode?  Yes, not just the coda with Amy.  Throughout, people were dropping like flies, and the Doctor seemed bizarrely unconcerned.  Even if we assume his position on the humanity of gangers had flipped 180° since last week, his completely meh response to the death of Real Jen, and near-total lack of engagement with Real Jimmy’s acid-through-the heart death scene, didn’t chime with the way I have always thought of the Doctor — far less, the way Matt Smith has always played him.  And the utter disregard for the deaths of gangers ignores the whole of last week’s episode.

So I will leave everything else unsaid this time, and leave it at that.  I’m very disappointed.  I rate this by far the most unsatisfying episode of Series 6, and below any Series 5 episode.

So now, after such an excellent start, we find ourselves relying on Moffat himself to redeem the first half of Series 6, with his mid-season finale A Good Man Goes to War.

Come on, Moff.  You can do it.

Can’t you?

Elsewhere on the web

Gavin Burrows is kinder than me, and more analytical, but more or less agrees.

Jennie Rigg is even more outraged than I am, and expands on that in a subsequent article — but commenters do propose some interesting alternative perspectives.

Update (two days later)

More thoughts on the Doctor’s behaviour in The Almost People, redux: let’s see if we can sort this out.

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29 responses to “The Almost People (Doctor Who series 6, episode 6)

  1. I tentatively agree. I wanted to like this episode, because it had real potential to explore some very complex issues, but it all pales in comparison to the shock twist at the end. Very disappointing.

    However, I loathe to condemn the Doctor’s disregard for the deaths, and killing Amy. (Yet). I *hope* and think that it has a deeper motivation. Remember what you said in last week’s review about us beginning to see cracks in the Doctor’s personality? I think he’s finally snapped. There were more hints that he’s been keeping secrets from Amy, and he gets a tantalising hint of what she’s keeping from him, and he’s broken.

    Given the anger in his voice in the trailer for next week’s episode, the Doctor looks like he really wants to destroy the people who’ve stolen Amy from him, *and* tried to trick him at the same time. And his anger is such that other things don’t matter.

    At least, I’m hoping I’ll feel that way at the end of next Saturday. If not, I’ll face the cold waters of reality and accept that this really wasn’t a very good episode.

  2. Addendum: my only other suggestion is that because real Amy was going into labour, but her Ganger wasn’t, consciousness needed to be restored to the pregnant Amy for a safe birth. If she hadn’t been in her pregnant body, giving birth could have been significantly harder. (Admittedly though, it’d be a tough one to explain away next week).

  3. Robin Jubber

    As alluded to (there were a couple of moments of foreshadowing), the Flesh from which the gangers is formed is an early prototype. It develops singular sentience in this form, but perhaps not in a later incarnation which the doctor has already encountered (or helped create). Or Mark II is gestalt, and killing a bit means nothing. Either way, destroying some of whatever Amy is made from doesn’t necessarily have the same moral implications as killing a ganger does. The doctor clearly is privy to knowledge we aren’t at this stage. Perhaps the only way to find Amy is to destroy the masking signal of her Flesh form. Perhaps she is held for evil purposes and he knows it. Saving Amy must surely rate higher than preserving her doppleganger. The Doctor saves the innocent over all others, that’s his highest calling. Let’s see where Mr. Moffat is taking this. And let’s remember that the target audience may have just been thrilled by the “oooh, she wasn’t real all along” shock fun of the ending, rather than sinking into gloom about the baroque and Kafkaesque direction of their hero’s nihilist tendencies. The little sods.

    I shall now go outside and kill myself in celebration of my geek retcon skills.

  4. The whole of the two episodes was the Doctor trying to work out what type of Flesh Amy was. Creating a duplicate, drawing attention to the different shoes, then switching the shoes, was all about seeing how Amy would react. As it happened, she sided with the “original” Doctor, even if said Doctor was in fact made of Flesh. That was all the Doctor needed to decide that Flesh Amy was purely controlled by Amy imprisoned somewhere, and wasn’t some independent sentient version of Amy which he couldn’t ever have killed.

    I suspect we’ll see some form of infodump along these lines in the next episode.

  5. Sam Kington wrote: “[Amy] sided with the “original” Doctor, even if said Doctor was in fact made of Flesh. That was all the Doctor needed to decide that Flesh Amy was purely controlled by Amy imprisoned somewhere.”

    Why? I don’t see why it follows.

  6. Surely the Flesh creates the duplicate Doctor (when it “scans” him) and he is only marginally less taken aback than anyone else.

  7. Phil Fitzmaurice

    Firstly, thank you Mike for these weekly (well, updated at least) reviews of DW. Good to see someone still tries to make a decent evaluation of the episodes rather than a short 3-paragraph review.

    Secondly, I would like to discuss my own reaction to the cliffhanger in “Almost People”. I loved it. Because it was unexpected.

    I agree it was a shocker to see the Doctor doing something so unexpected and, well, shocking. But I’m not quite sure if you interpreted the story correctly. Either that, or I failed to. One of the two.

    1. It was established that the Gangers at the “base” were the Flesh in early days. One would assume that by the time Flesh Amy was created, technology might have changed to accommodate the whole “clones are people too” thing. Speaking of which- the past 45 or so minutes were set up to convince us that these clones are people. But they were essentially clones that ran “amok”. Which brings me to my second point-

    2. The Ganger Amy is most likely just an “avatar” of sorts like the ones shown in the beginning of “Rebel Flesh”. Unlike our “monster-of-the-week”, the Amy clone is not one who has “separated” from our main heroine and had become her own person.

    3. Who knows, she might have been a spy for the “Eye Patch Lady”. We still have another episode to go before the 2 month break, so it’s most likely we’ll have some sort of answer by then.

    OK, so that’s that out of the way. I was a bit surprised you didn’t touch upon the acting as well as the story. Where the episodes lacked in story, I thought it made up for (almost) with some great acting. I thought Arthur was especially terrific as Rory. A year ago, his character was established as someone where my friends would cheer when he “died” in “Cold Blood”. By the time the Pandorica finale aired, they had grown really accustomed to him. Now, they love him. I think he’s officially established himself as his own person, rather than someone who follows Amy around. And as always, Matt was terrific. It was the only time having two Doctors on screen at once was actually entertaining, and wasn’t a complete disaster. *cough*Journey’s End*cough*

    Oh, and the guest stars were pretty decent too.

  8. While I agree there were some definite issues with the plot – it wasn’t exactly the “happy ending” the Doctor proclaimed it to be at the very least – I don’t agree that the Doctor was really hypocritical at the end.

    The ‘Amy’ that he ‘killed’ was simply a vessel for the real Amy’s consciousness; it hadn’t been transformed into an independent life-form due to some freak Frankensteinian event like those on the island. I got the impression that they were special and equal because of this event, not because they were made from the Flesh.

  9. Very good points, all. It is significant that 1.) Flesh Amy was an advanced form of flesh, not the same as the sentient gangers; 2.) evidence suggests that Flesh Amy was just a remote control vessel for Real Amy; and 3.) Flesh Amy differs from the gangers in that the gangers gained their independence “unnaturally” during the solar storm, whereas Flesh Amy has been doing her thing for a long time. Couple all of that with the ever present notion that the Doctor knows something we don’t, and I am prepared to absolve him of his actions.

    I liked the episode on the whole; it kept me on the edge of my seat. The shoe switch was a particularly nice twist. I didn’t see that coming, and it plays very nicely with both confirming that humans can’t actually tell the difference, and that Flesh Amy was really behaving like, and had the consciousness of, a human.

    Question: going on the supposition that a ganger can tell a ganger, why did the gangers accept the fake ganger Doctor?

    Alas, the story does dip back into the established sci-fi well with this two-parter. The overall moral examination of “disposable people”, (Measure of a Man, ST:TNG), the “ha ha, this main character is really one of them, and has been for several episodes” (numerous, incl. In Puratory’s Shadow, ST:DS9), the notion of an exact duplicate “you” that has all the memories, ambitions, and thoughts as you (Second Chances, ST:TNG), etc.

    No, perhaps not “alas.” There are probably only so many sci-fi stories to tell, and it’s high time that stories of the same quality and human exploration of when (IMO) Star Trek was at its prime (TNG, DS9) be expertly told to a new audience. Not that I think Trek and Who are the same animal at all, don’t write in as they say, but some stories are bound to be re-used, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

  10. Stephen Moody

    I just watched the episode again and while there are still faults i’m starting to look at the episode a little different.

    The Flesh copies of the people at the factory are more clones due to the storm with the same memories, thought and feelings and memories as the original people. The copy of Amy isn’t a clone just a host for her mind while she is being detained. The Doctor does say he went there to learn more about the Flesh so he already knows Amy isn’t real.

    There are still some major faults in the story. While i can see the Doctor is angry about Amy being abducted and is trying to save her there are some flaws in the plot. As mentioned, the Doctor tries to convince everyone the gangers are real but seems indifferent to the deaths of gangers or humans which is out of character for Matt Smith’s doctor. I’m not even going to mention Jennifer’s abilities which none of the others seem to have.

    I agree with Mike about the scene in the Tardis with the Doctor killing Amy. He knows she’s not real and has found out how to disconnect the Flesh Amy from the real one but using the sonic screwdriver to break the connection looks far too much like the doctor using a weapon. Would have been much better if he used the Tardis or some other method.

    Saying that, i am looking forward to next weeks episode to see how things pan out. It should be interesting.

  11. Paul Brown

    One thing that bugged me no end was that the sacrifice of ganger Doctor and ganger Cleave at the end was utterly unnecessary; if the sonic screwdriver could be used to “break up” the Jennifer / whatever monster (and don’t even get me started on how awful that was), then the regular Doctor could have done it with everyone else safe inside the Tardis, no-one would’ve had to stay behind to hold the door and Cleave’s little press conference could’ve been far more convincing with her and her ganger there together.

    It was obviously just a “need to write these characters out” meets “need to have a(nother) heroic sacrifice” situation. Frankly, the acting was the only thing that saved the episode at all.

    Incidentally, if anyone wants to read a much better treatment of this kind of story, check out “K’iln People” by David Brin. I love this book. Books are cool.

  12. Stephen Moody

    Listening to a podcast and they mention something interesting about the sonic screwdriver as well. There seems to be at least 2 screwdrivers. When the doctor is knocked out when he find’s Jen’s body the screwdriver is beside his head but then the other doctor is using the screwdriver to scan the acid vat.

    Continuity error or deliberate?

  13. This episode drove me up the wall because they simply couldn’t seem to treat the Flesh consistently. Used as intended, the gangers are basically remote-controlled telepresence units with no persistence independent of their operator. Then a lightning strike gives them independent existence. Okay so far… but then it starts to fall apart. gJen can duplicate herself even without a second lightning strike. The discard pile of defective gangers persist even though they were made before the lightning strike – how has no one noticed or commented on that? Why does the show appear to adopt a “ganger tech is bad and wrong even in its normal use” attitude, with the talk of rallying millions of gangers worldwide – gangers who, according to the first episode, are entirely dependent on their operators?

    Are the gangers on the island exceptions, or the rule, in the important sense of being independent beings with rights? The episode couldn’t seem to make up its mind.

    And then, Amy. Yes, the next episode may explain some of it – but as things stand, an explanation that isn’t “yup, the Doctor straight up killed someone” pretty much has to undermine the whole point of these two episodes.

    @Robin Jubber:
    “Saving Amy must surely rate higher than preserving her doppleganger. The Doctor saves the innocent over all others, that’s his highest calling.”
    Why must it? If the doppleganger is a “real”, independent entity like the gangers, why can the Doctor dismiss her life and sacrifice it to save Amy? Why is the doppleganger not also “innocent”?

    @Mike Taylor re: Sam Kingston:
    I agree; if the gangers are duplicates, of course you’d expect gAmy to react just like Amy, and that reaction doesn’t tell you anything about how they’re connected (the phantom pregnancy, on the other hand, would). The episodes repeatedly stated that the gangers are the same people with the same memories as their originals, and the differences were due to instability and to realizing their situation and trying to deal with it; gAmy appeared to be stable and completely ignorant of her nature.

    To be clear: if the first episode had established that the gangers animated by the lightning were an anomaly and posed a unique problem, but that normal gangers really were just disposable remote-controlled robots, and the second ep had stuck to that, that’d have been fine and the treatment of Amy’s ganger would be perfectly justifiable in my eyes. It’s the way the episodes kept muddying those waters that undermines it.

  14. Robin Jubber

    Hi Morgan – the Amy ganger isn’t an innocent. It isn’t alive. There wasn’t any confusion for me on that point. The Amy ganger is either a) devoid of consciousness, ie a non-lightning struck Flesh drone. or b) A small part of a gestalt entity in league with whoever has Amy trapped, and therefore broadly disposable, or a conscious but malevolent servant of whoever has Amy trapped.

    Let’s say it’s b (it isn’t, it’s a)
    The Doctor has no problem killing lifeforms who threaten the innocent, in this case, Amy. The Doctor is *not* a buddhist. He has used weapons in the past, destroyed lifeforms, planets and entire races. Previous incarnations have even used martial arts. He favours sparing innocents over aggressors. However a ganger that hasn’t been struck by lightning isn’t a lifeform. That’s the implication thus far.

    To clarify – I think the Amy ganger is not the same as the unique gangers on the island, just made of a similar, perhaps more advanced, substance. I was really surprised by the subject of this week’s review as it never struck me for a second that the Doctor. Killed. Amy. :-)

    And for further study of all the ideas presented here, including living copies of the main character who both survive and evolve, substituted crew members and massive explosions, watch Farscape. Its more fun than reading a book.

  15. “The Amy ganger is either a) devoid of consciousness, ie a non-lightning struck Flesh drone.”

    Then I don’t get who’s controlling the drone. There’s nothing set up to suggest that it’s the real Amy (who is filmed as if she wakes up in surprise when the drone is disintergrated), or that she is a human-size spying device for some malevolent hand. She pretty much acts as Amy would all the time she’s there.

  16. I can see I am going to have to make a follow-up post on this subject, if only to figure out what my own thoughts are. (“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” — E. M. Forster.)

    … but don’t let that stop you guys from thrashing out further in the comments. (Apart from anything else, you give me such interesting ideas to steal.)

  17. Robin Jubber

    er – it seems obvious that Amy ganger is being controlled, unknowingly, by Amy. It’s a pretty standard sci-fi trope. Perhaps that is a valid criticism though – could a child be expected to understand this. No idea.

    Amy occasionally sees somebody looking in through a hatch. Her bed-ridden self gets occasional flashes from her real optic nerves. Otherwise she is sure she is with the doctor, living in the Tardis. When the connection is cut, her consciousness reverts to her bed-ridden form. There was a film with a similar plot, had some guys in cool black coats doing karate. I forget the name. Amy has just taken the red pill…

  18. Wow a divisive episode indeed, I didn’t actually mind it all that much. I Think Fear Her as the worst episode since the revival is way too harsh, and I think that’s prejudiced some people (The Christmas Invasion, Age of Steel, Love & Monsters, Evolution of the Daleks, Unicorn & Wasp, Journey’s End, Planet of the Dead) all seem worse to me. That aside I’m suprised by a few things
    1) The Doctor has gotten additional screw drivers before, recently for instance at the end of Smith and Jones, at the end of Eleventh Hour, and before The Impossible Astronaut. In the Eleventh Hour we see that the Tardis can simply grow one, so I don’t see that as a problem.
    2) I’m pretty sure it’s implied that Amy is remote controlling the flesh, she sees that same woman all the time, the ganger Amy is going into labour, without actually being pregnant, and the implication that she wakes up leaves me to believe it’s pretty obivous.
    3) I didn’t actually clue in to the fact that the lesson was the gangers were self-aware at all when he kills ganger Amy at all, I still don’t quite see it. I was actually expecting another stellar review.
    4) This episode and the previous setup seemed kind of weird, in that I don’t see why people who are essentially clones would be so eager to kill eachother it always seemed a bit unnatural and forced. The ending that seems to come out of no where, with cooler heads prevailing, actually seemed to make sense to me.
    5) The worst part I thought about the ending was giving Miranda that vial to make her blod clot go away, it always made me wonder about the Doctor taking someone to a hospital in the future to cure something, and it seemed like curing her blod clot sets a bad precedence for why he doesn’t do it at other times.
    6) As for being unphased by Jens death, I’m not sure that he was that cold to it either, certainly not like at the end of Water on Mars. People die all the time without the doctor batting an eye, the Marines in Victory of the Daleks, the Clerics in the following episode. It seems as a function of writing that he cares only about those deaths for major characters. Ganger Jen was a real character, but we never see Real Jen at all except for at the beginning of the first part so it seems like she is more a Royal Marine, than Rory at the end of “In Cold Blood”.

    I’d be very much appreciative of a follow up review to this very contraversial episode.

  19. Pingback: The Almost People, redux: let’s see if we can sort this out | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  20. Martyn Casserly

    Fascinating ideas all round.

    Thought I’d throw in my tuppence on what I thought was a very interesting and revealing episode.

    I think the thing that struck me most was the subtle but, in hindsight, telling difference of how the ganger versions of Amy and the Doctor behaved. Amy was much more unsettled by and prejudice against what she thought was the fake Doctor. Even after seeing how he was actually beside himself (ahem) with joy to have another self to help out.

    The Doctor who failed to act empathetic enough when the Real Jen died was , if i remember rightly, also the ganger version. I’m guessing that these were small hints that although the real and ganger versions looked, talked, and shared the memories of each other, their actual ‘soul’ or consciences were slightly different. Possibly due to the new nature of the emotions and stimulants that the gangers were experiencing?

    With the killing of Amy I’m a bit more of the opinion that the Doctor was merely freeing the flesh from it’s captivity of holding her form. When he examines the flesh in the vat he communicates with it, knows it’s alive. this would suggest that the shapeless variant is more real than when the molecules are shaped to emulate a human. Doesn’t he say something to the fake doctor at the end about your molecular memory can survive this? Could this suggest that breaking the moulded shape of the flesh is instead just releasing the captive flesh back to it’s more natural state? Maybe Amy’s avatar will be handed back to the eye patch woman in a tub in the next episode? Put the lid on tight now Doctor.

    When the electrical storm solidifies the flesh in their human shapes this makes it their ‘real’ shape as they now have ownership over the emotions and thoughts, no longer needing the host to be strapped into the Frankensteinesque metal beds. Amy still seems linked to her ganger (suggested by her immediate awakening when the connection is severed) so maybe the Doctor’s act of violence is in fact one of mercy, freeing the captive, and thus fitting more in line with his character?

    His angry outburst at Amy is intriguing though, showing that something is definitely going on under the surface….

    More please Mr Moff.

    The ‘Eye-Wall’……yeah, that wasn’t too clever.

  21. Hi, Martyn, great to hear from you!

    It hadn’t occurred to me that Ganger Doctor might have been intentionally portrayed as less empathic than Real Doctor. It’s a neat post-hoc excuse, and it actually works reasonably well because it also goes some way to explaining the (Ganger) Doctor’s lack of reaction to the death of Real Jimmy. Since neither Doctor was actually present for the deaths of Second Ganger Jen and Real Buzzer, that leaves only the last four deaths to be accounted for: and those are arguably plot holes more than empathy failures: the sacrifices of Real Dicken, Ganger Doctor and Ganger Cleaves were all totally unnecessary. (I guess by that stage Ganger Jen had burned her bridges and had to be disposed of.)

    , but I don’t think it really flies because Real Doctor was

  22. “…because Real Doctor was”

    What’s this, a cliffhanger?

  23. “…because Real Doctor was”

    What’s this, a cliffhanger?

    Sorry, Gavin, I wasn’t deliberately being tantalising. That’s just a stray bit of text that leaked through from an earlier draft of my comment. I’d remove it, except that doing so would make your comment look meaningless.

  24. Could the doctor who gets killed during regeneration be a flesh doctor?
    Was almost hoping the flesh one survived for the above reason.
    When did the real amy disappear and the clone appear, cant recall any previous episodes this could have happened.
    The screwdriver isnt a gun per se, the sonic simply destroys the clones and i dont see any issue with the doctor removing the fake in order to rescue the original

  25. @laz:
    The Doctor that was killed can’t be a flesh Doctor, because remember the other man that gives them the petrol can says; “I can save you some time, that is most definitely the Doctor.” after Amy speculates that it’s a clone or a duplicate.. :/

  26. Pingback: A Good Man Goes to War (Doctor Who series 6, episode 7) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  27. Pingback: The Bells of Saint John (Doctor Who series 7, episode 7) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  28. So, lovely as this commentary is and much that I agree with the flaws in the programme raised, I have to say what really makes me utterly fail to cope with this episode and this entire season is the fact that Amy is kidnapped and kept pregnant, against her will and without her knowledge and this is treated just like a slight inconvenience rather than appalling abuse that is likely to seriously mess her and Rory up.

    I mean – even at the end of a good man goes to war – it’s ok that you’ve lost your child because they will grow up to be a wonderful and relatively happy, safe person. This would clearly be a consolation, but as a parent I just cannot process any reaction to this scenario that isn’t years of grieving over the massive loss of a child. Which wouldn’t make for great family telly.

  29. No argument there: this part of the plot was badly mishandled.

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