Doctor Who series 6 episode 5 review: The Rebel Flesh

A brand new two part Doctor Who adventure kicks off. And Simon wonders if there are some deeper threads lying deep underneath it…

Warning: this review contains spoilers. You can find our spoiler-free review here.

6.5 The Rebel Flesh

Had an accident in the workplace? Yeah, I have, as it goes. I’ve melted.

It feels like a while since we’ve had a relatively traditional old-style Doctor Who adventure. Given the strength of the ongoing serial elements of series 6 thus far, and the different way one of the two standalone episodes went, it feels a little bit odd to be arriving at part one of a brand new story of this ilk. And I suspect that many won’t like it for what it isn’t, especially coming hot on the heels of The Doctor’s Wife.

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Me? I liked it for what it is.

I really like the space that a two-part adventure affords writers in Doctor Who, giving them the space and time to put building blocks for their story in place. Matthew Graham, penning Doctor Who for the second time after Fear Her, takes advantage of that, although his story, particularly in the early stages, is not shy of exposition at all. And if you wanted to knock it down to its very, very bare bones, The Rebel Flesh is what happens when Doctor Who does Avatar.

Only it isn’t, really. The set-up, to a small degree, is the same. The Doctor, Amy and Rory find themselves back on Earth in the twenty-second century, as a group of workers are working with acid in a factory, which in turn, is set in an old monastery. The workers themselves, though, don’t directly deal with the acid, rather they use doppelgangers – gangers – to do the dirty and dangerous work for them.

These gangers are more than just avatar copies. They have pretty much the same feelings, memories and emotions of their human counterparts, and it takes a big solar storm for things to start going really very badly wrong. Which they do, and the story has little desire to soften it. The right call, I’d say.

And there were a few things I really liked about the gangers. The fact that they continue the rules of modern day Who by having a tangible motive for turning against their human counterparts, for starters. While every now and then, it’d be fun to see a monster whose place in the world and reasons for being, are utterly unknown (remember Russell T Davies’ Midnight?), the gangers are a more tangible threat, and will become even more so, no doubt, because we know what’s put them in a bad mood. In fact, we even get the pinpoint moment here where they turn against the humans.

They were also well realised, and their inherent instability is a welcome ingredient, too. On the downside, I thought the moment where the Jennifer’s ganger’s head popped out with the help of an elongated neck looked very daft, in an episode where otherwise the visual work was strong.

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This happened in a part of the episode where, not for the first time this series, Rory was split off to handle some of the work by himself. Given how pivotal the marriage between Amy and Rory is to the current series (not least with the storyline regarding Amy’s on/off pregnancy), it’s interesting to see just how both are being explored more and more (with Rory the main beneficiary), and I can’t help but wonder what this is all building to. That, and I wonder if Rory will die again in the next episode, too.

In fact, let’s do some Rory theories, as he’s been dying a lot.

Could it be revealed, longer term, that he was a ganger all along? Are the avatars and The Flesh being introduced for a reason? Are all of his deaths for a reason? Is the Rory we’ve been seeing not the real one? Did he actually die last series?

Back to the episode, though. Not for nothing has this story been described as influenced by The Thing. There’s an utterly isolated group of workers. There’s ultimate uncertainty over who is friend and who is foe. And there’s some strong make-up work that gives the gangers a really quite sinister edge. Credit to director Julian Simpson, too, who takes the familiar corridors of Doctor Who lore and manages to wring some fresh tension out of them.

And you have to give a tip of the hat, too, to the effects work. The Flesh effects were strong, as was the solar storm over the isolated monastery. Someone clearly had a lot of fun here, and the ante, as a result, was suitably upped.

Performance-wise, the characters weren’t massively fleshed out, but then there were two of each of them, and there’s still another episode to go. It’s Sarah Smart’s Jennifer that’s been broken out from the others, but I liked the sardonic Foreman Cleaves, as played by Raquel Cassidy. The cast, Matt Smith included, has a mighty challenge next week to properly convey two characters apiece, but they’ve proven they’re up the job here.

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As always, the first episode of a two-parter is a hard one to call, and it’s a bit like reviewing a film when it gets to the middle of its second act. Thus, inevitably, full judgement is reserved. But I will say this: I enjoyed The Rebel Flesh. I liked its old Who values, and I think it’s put some interesting strands in place for resolution next week.

I also wonder if that cliffhanger (which I suspect most saw coming, but was fun nonetheless) might have some ramifications somewhere. After all, there are now two Doctors in the world, and we saw one of them get shot right at the start of The Impossible Astronaut. Is this the show introducing a mechanism with which to deal with the overarching plot strand of the series? Or are my speculation tentacles going into overdrive?

Either way, I’m looking forward to The Almost People next week, and seeing just what mischief the gangers get up to (“they’re coming back, in a big way”). Plus, it’s effectively the penultimate episode of the current run (at least until the autumn), and the cliffhanger leading into that should be mighty interesting…

Read our review of episode 4, The Doctor’s Wife, here.