Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People

One of the best things about Doctor Who is its ability to go absolutely anywhere.  With all of time and space and a character like the Doctor, you never need to see the same story twice, and can continually come up with something brand new like The Doctor's Wife.  It never has to fall into formula.

Of course, sometimes it does, anyway.  Inevitably, every era has its cliches.  William Hartnell had sci-fi revolutions, Patrick Troughton had bases under siege, Jon Pertwee had UNIT / Master stories, Tom Baker had way too many teeth, and so forth.  And that's not always a bad thing.  Troughton's era may just be one base under siege after another, but some of those include The Power of the Daleks, The Web of Fear, and Fury From the Deep.  And none of his base under siege stories are really bad.  That's the advantage of a good formula: you may get repetitive, but you won't get very many duds, either.

The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People repeat themes that New Who has gone over many, many times, most obviously with last season's Silurian episodes.  In fact, other than the monsters being semi-clones, this pretty much is the Silurian story... but with better atmosphere, dialogue, characterizations, makeup, and underlying ideas.  It certainly has its flaws, but it's a good episode in an exceptionally strong season.

The best thing about the story is Matt Smith.  Yet again, he weaves his curious magic through the dialogue, making the Doctor by turns intelligent, authoritative, compassionate, goofy, alien, and, of course, a very old man in a very young man's body.  The second half of the story throws a brilliant wrench into the tale with the Flesh Doctor.  And yes, the experience of two Matt Smiths being Doctorish is every bit as awesome as it sounds.  Smith carries the story through some very rough patches with sublime brilliance.

As for the Doctor himself... well, he's clearly in the midst of some vast plan, but we have no idea what he knows or what he's thinking.  Which is always one of my favorite modes for the Doctor to be in; we see him manipulating not only the new characters, but the companions themselves.  And, of course, we have no idea what he's up to.  The difference here is that even at the end, we only see a glimpse of what he knows and is working toward.  His final act seems oddly callous and cruel, but we're left not really knowing why he's doing what he's doing.  And, after all, he's pulled this sort of thing before.  This is the Eleventh Doctor at his edgiest and most mysterious, and it's a blast to watch.

Rory gets a very strong outing.  Being with the Doctor has pulled Rory's inner strength to the fore, and he shows tremendous bravery and compassion throughout.  He's truly heroic, even when he's being cruelly manipulated.

As for Amy, well... we'll get to that later.

The sets and lighting are incredibly atmospheric, adding a seriously creepy overlay to an already visceral and eerie story.  The Flesh-things look creepy in all the right ways, going from looking totally human to blobs to everything in between.

The Flesh is a fantastic concept.  The story has a strong moral center, but it remembers to treat it with great complexity.  It helps a lot that the characters are nicely defined and superbly played all around.  We get a real sense of who all these people are without spending a lot of time with them.

For about 75 minutes, the story rocks along, full of suspense, shocks, and humor.  Unfortunately, near the end, it gets lost.  There's a cool-looking monster at the close, but it doesn't do anything.  The climax basically consists of running down a single hallway, closing a door, and then arguing about who's going to stay being, even though it's not convincing that anyone needs to stay behind.

What's more annoying about the end is that after treating the Flesh and the idea of sort-of sort-of-not clones with a lot of thought, it goes an easy, unsatisfying route to resolution, not leaving the various moral questions unanswered so much as forgetting it asked them in the first plays.  It doesn't follow through on any of its themes or most of its characterizations.  The story ends on a whimper, rather than a bang.

... the story proper, that is.  After fizzling on its main plot, it goes into the TARDIS where the Doctor and companions discuss the previous adventure, but the Doctor suddenly gets very, very dark, and we get a pair of horrifying twists regarding Amy.  She hasn't had too much to do for most of the story, but the ending is entirely on her.

And it's a doozy of a finale.  The Almost People ends with a stunning cliffhanger... and an incredibly high note, redeeming a very flawed climax.

The great thing about Doctor Who may be that it can go absolutely anywhere, but if it does fall into business-as-usual, it's pretty forgivable if it's done well, with lots of clever ideas and creepiness and character and Doctorishness.  And this one totally pulled that off.


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  • This was written by Matthew Graham, who previously wrote the abysmal "Fear Her".  Now I'm convinced that truly was a tragic fluke.  Graham, consider yourself redeemed. 

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