I don’t tend to write ultra-critical articles on this site, as while negative reviews can be fun to write, and entertaining to read, they’re not often useful for this site’s M.O. of trying to understand what a Doctor Who story is doing, and discussing the wider ideas and concepts raised by the things said story does. Redemptive readings, or positive reviews, are, in my experience, much more useful for saying something of substance about a piece of media. But there is clearly a place, and a value, in negative criticism. We can’t pretend that all media is good, and trying to understand why bad media fails, outside of sensationalism and clickbaity headlines, is often a necessary, if genuinely tricky, process. And I think “The Almost People/ The Rebel Flesh” is an example of a story where the failures are worth trying to understand. It’s a story that, given my preferred type of Doctor Who, I could easily dismiss as being uninteresting and worthless because it’s a traditionalist base under siege. But traditionalist Doctor Who still has a worldview that’s worth exploring and understanding, and can be entertaining and good television when done right (see Tibere’s excellent article on “Into the Dalek”). And for what it’s worth, I think the themes of “The Almost People/ The Rebel Flesh” are genuinely worth unpacking, particularly because the way the story fails to communicate those themes lead to interesting things to say about the worldview it conveys. So this article is not going to be an “Oh my god, this story SUCKS, the characters are one dimensional and the dialogue’s LAME” type of piece, although there will be some of that. Instead, it’s intended to be my fumbling attempt to explain why the last two-part story Doctor Who that aired for three years failed to communicate the ideas I believe the production team were aiming to communicate, and instead ended up expressing some more, and here I’m going to use a word that can stir up some angry feelings in certain people, problematic sentiments in its failure.
So, with that introduction out of the way, let’s discuss the missed opportunities of “The Almost People/ The Rebel Flesh”.
Hey, There’s Actually Some Good Stuff Going on in this Story
To properly understand why “The Almost People/ The Rebel Flesh” is such a disappointing Doctor Who Story, it is first useful to establish what the episodes get right. Most of this can be found in “The Rebel Flesh“, which on the whole is a pretty good episode. The characters (save for Dicken*) are reasonably well fleshed out, and for the most part “The Rebel Flesh” approaches the moral dilemma with genuine nuance. The acting’s mostly strong, there’s some lovely dialogue (“I’ve got to get to the cockrel before all Hell breaks loose! I never thought I’d have to say that again”), and Murray Gold’s score is a good one, with a lovely old fashioned feel to it. And on the subject of music, I like the use of pop music in the story too: the brief flashes of Muse and Dusty Springfield mark it out as a very Matthew Graham script, given the similarly prominent role music plays in “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes”.
The moral dilemma surrounding the ganger’s autonomy and humanity is particularly nicely explored through the Moffat era’s running theme of memory: the gangers are real, autonomous beings because their memories are real, because they feel them in a definite sense, even if they didn’t experience them in the traditional way. The complexity and messiness of our memories and experiences, and how this messiness shapes who we are, remains at the heart of the Moffat era.
And each of the guest cast (who actually get some measure of characterisation, sorry Dicken) get moments that explore the connection between memory: Buzzer remembers being taught how to stack cards by his grandfather, and so does his ganger, Jennifer’s ganger shares her memories of being lost on the moors, and in doing so, reclaims her humanity and wins Rory’s trust. Jimmy’s story in particular is genuinely touching, and the best expression of this theme: he connects with his human self over their shared memories, but this also leads to the central conflict of the story. The gangers want to live, but they also want the same lives their human selves have, because those lives are also their lives. And the conflict is only resolved when ganger Jimmy takes over from the dying Jimmy, to ensure that their child can still have a father. The ganger Jimmy is only truly able to live when his human self dies.
The complications of shared identity also inform the conflict between the humans and their gangers in interesting ways: ganger Cleaves instinctively understands of her other self’s strategies and thought processes, seeing the fruitlessness of fighting her former self in a physical struggle, but also knowing the passcode she would choose, being able to divert the rescue team as a result. The issue of the humans and gangers’ shared identity is also used neatly to pose the question underlying the conflict, when the Doctor asks Jimmy the following question:
“DOCTOR: Are you a violent man Jimmy?
DOCTOR: Then why would your Ganger be?”
Jimmy doesn’t consider himself a violent person, so if his ganger shares his personality, it stands to reason that ganger Jimmy isn’t violent either. But the humans and gangers do come into conflict, posing an interesting idea about the nature of violence: perhaps violence and non-violence are not constant character traits, part of the immutable self we are “deep down”: but words that describe the way we come to act when we are scared, confused, and angry.
Why does everyone Side With the Humans Again? Problems with the Story’s Approach to Moral Complexity and Prejudice
For all the interesting questions the story poses, it starts to crumble with the, ” Us and Them” scene, which sets up the story’s descent into a much more simplistic morality than the questions the episodes are asking need, and the story’s attempts at complexity become as tame as Ganger Jen’s way too on-the nose “Who are the real monsters?”. Really, the “Us and them” sequence at the end of “The Rebel Flesh” is basically the song “Savages” from Pocahontas. It’s rubbish “ooh look, reverse racism” nonsense here, too.
And here, I’m going to go on a tangent and talk about why “Savages” is an awful song with a stupid attempt at complexity, so that I can talk properly about what I mean when I say that that song is rubbish “reverse racism” nonsense, just as that line’s framing of the conflict between the humans and the Gangers is. The song starts out with the colonists singing about how the natives before battle, before claiming they are “savages, barely even human”. Then, a big twist comes in the second verse, when we see the natives singing about the English colonists as they prepare for battle, making sweeping generalisations about them, before leading into a chorus where they declare that said colonists are “savages, barely even human”. The frames both the colonists attitude towards the natives and the natives’ attitude towards the colonists as equally prejudiced, two sides of the same coin, even though it’s the colonists who’ve come to kill the natives and plunder their land. The “us and them” sequence does the same thing: two scenes, back to back, frame the gangers as being equally culpable as, and just as prejudiced as, the humans. Even though it’s the human characters who have iniated all of the conflict and exploited all of the gangers so far, we’re led to read the story as saying that “both sides are just as bad as each other”.
And frankly, why do none of the Doctor and the human characters go “f**k you, Cleaves, you started a conflict when there was no need to”, instead just siding with her straight away? I get both “sides” splitting into factions because that’s how prejudice works: people side with what they know, even if it’s not the right thing to do, when they’re faced with a complex moral situation. But I feel like one of the crew should be at least get angry with Cleaves – the way they just side with her feels like them doing that because the plot needs them to. Yeah, the Doctor gets his “He had a heart, and you stopped it!” protest, which is a great moment: the show rarely expresses the horror of murder, of what it means to take a life, in such a powerful way, but then he decides to help defend the humans because well, that’s what he always does, even though the gangers are the ones who are blameless (literally, they haven’t done anything to the humans yet) at this point in the story.
And on the subject of “What the hell is going on with the character’s attitudes in this story?”, my word, Amy’s racist to Ganger Doctor, and the gangers in general. “You’re twice the man I thought you were” is a lovely touching moment, but really, she’s prejudiced towards all the gangers in this story, the most notable moment being her refusal to help ganger Jen when Rory reveals that he found the non human Jen in need of help. And while it could be interesting for the story to not make all the regulars have a sympathetic attitude towards the gangers, and show some prejudice themselves, it feels incredibly out of character for a companion who is usually compassionate towards hurting people.
Continuing on the way the story depicts the regulars, I’m still not sure what on Earth to make of Rory’s crush on Jen. It feels like the show’s trying to complicate his devotion to Amy a little bit, make their relationship one where she isn’t the only one who screws up. And also explore the idea of him liking having someone feed his ego a little bit, make him feel good about himself. But it feels like the show’s afraid of going anywhere with the plot line, because, well, infidelity plots are just awkward when done this way in Doctor Who, so it feels like the show’s trying to touch on those themes while being careful to never go over the line of having Rory actually cheat on Amy. So it all just ends up feeling… weird.
That said, Rory easily has the most moral attitude towards the gangers out of any of the main characters in the story. He doesn’t take the Doctor’s approach of spouting platitudes. He doesn’t share Amy’s prejudiced reaction. He just tries to help the people who are scared and need help. But even Rory seems more concerned about human Jen than Ganger Jen, even though Ganger Jen is the one he talked to, and spent time getting to know, and so even his wonderful line “I know she’s scared, and needs our help”, becomes another example of the story’s failure to satisfyingly examine the nature of the humans’ prejudice towards the gangers. Instead, they reveal the default biases of the show: no matter who we know better, and whose motivations we spend more time understanding, the episodes default to caring most about the human characters.
The frustratration of the show’s easy default towards the moral issues raised by the central conflict and the existence of the gangers is further emphasized by one of the ostensible strengths of “The Almost People”: the scenes between The Doctor and his ganger. While these scenes do have some fun multi-Doctor banter, and I do think the strength of this material was important in convincing Moffat that a Multi Doctor story was the way to go for the fiftieth anniversary, there’s a sense that them instantly getting on and working together was the least interesting direction the story could have taken. A story where the ganger Doctor pushes back against the Doctor for instinctively siding with the humans when they’re blatantly to blame for he conflict would have been more interesting, I think, and been a more nuanced take on the story’s themes.
Plus, there’s the whole mess of the Doctor and the Ganger Doctor switching shoes. Firstly, it means that when what we believe to be the ganger Doctor expresses distress at Amy not acknowledging him as the Doctor, it is in fact the original Doctor expressing this sentiment, not out of genuine distress, but as an act: what could be a moment that uses the protagonist to express the story’s key themes becomes something empty, part oof the Doctor elaborate game. It also means the original Doctor is the one who seems so much more affected when he starts to connect to the flesh, while the ganger Doctor claims to only feel a trace of that connection. The obvious explanation is that the ganger Doctor does feel the connection more profoundly, but the real Doctor pretends to feel the connection more to make the others believe he’s the ganger Doctor. But that means it’s the original Doctor shoving Amy against a wall and shouting at her, and later in the episode, pushing Rory and shouting at him. Which… ugh. Not cool. This is consistent with the increasingly manipulative nature of Eleven, who is presumably doing all of this as part of his plan to appeal to ganger Jimmy’s humanity to help save everyone (he has by this point placed his advance call to Jimmy’s son), but here it feels muddled, lacking in clarity about what it’s trying to do, and as a result, the ugliness of the Doctor’s actions go basically unacknowledged and uncritiqued.
The Bit Where the Story Loses Any Hope of Redeeming Itself
The growing dissatisfaction at the story’s failure to properly explore the complex moral issues it raises are compounded by details like Ganger Jen’s ability to grow into a terrifying superpowered monster, which almost works as an unnerving and creepy shock when Jen attacks Rory in the bathroom, in spite of ultimately being let down by Doctor Who’s CGI not being good enough. But it’s quite clear that they should have placed more emphasis on the prosthetics which are actually quite good and unsettling, especially when we get to the conclusion and
OHMYGOD, SHE’S A GIANT CGI THING, WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT IT LOOKS SO RUBBISH AND IT’S A UNECESSARY WAY OF FORCING A BIG CONCLUSION THAT THE STORY HASN’T EARNED WHYWHYWHY-
*Your ScarvesandCelery has stopped working. Turn off and on again to reboot.*
*Tibere walks in and turns Scarves off and on again*
Sorry, everything went a bit fuzzy for a moment there. Back now.
The Season Arc, and the Complete Undermining of any attempt the story had at Having Morals
The story arc is, in a way, quite well integrated into the story, giving a reason for the the TARDIS crew to go to the monastery in the first place. And it leads to some lovely, genuinely intriguing moments in the form of the the hints in “The Rebel Flesh” that tease the Doctor’s ulterior motives for coming to the monastery. But ultimately, it detracts from the story in many notable ways.
The whole tease that the Ganger Doctor might survive, for example, is ultimately unfollowed up on, feels cheap, something that is solely there to serve the misdirection as to how the Doctor will cheat his death.
And of course, the worst failure of the intrusion of the series arc on the run comes in the form of the cliffhanger which massively undermine the point the story’s trying to make about the Flesh not being disposable. You can see the ways the story tries to get around the Doctor splatting flesh Amy – the Doctor says this is “early technology” for the flesh, which implies that Amy’s ganger is more sophisticated, so isn’t alive in the way these gangers are, but that’s blatantly a cheat when you have the Doctor saying unambiguously that the flesh, even before the solar storm, is profoundly and absolutely alive.
And what does the story do to try and justify ignoring everything the preceding two episodes have to say about the nature of the Flesh? “Given what we’ve learnt, I’ll try to be as humane as I can”, the Doctor tells Amy (a line that really removes any sense Amy’s felsh avatar has no sentience beyond her own). It’s not good enough. There’s no good reason, narratively or thematically, to justify killing flesh Amy here (and given everything the story’s told us about the flesh, I can’t read that line as I’m clearly supposed to, the Doctor merely “cutting off the phone line” to real Amy, as Moffat put it in the Doctor Who Confidential following “The Almost People” – he’s killing a being he story has told us is alive). This episode, and potentially “A Good Man Goes to War” could have been really interesting if Ganger Amy had been treated as her own living entity by the series, and used in the next episode as part of her human self’s rescue. I’m certain that would have been a better story to tell.
And that’s “The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People”. A story with plenty of good bits than nonetheless avoids all the complexities, nuances, and interesting ideas it could have pursued to be so much more, because it was more convenient to avoid those interesting ideas.
Really, there are few ways for a Doctor Who story to be so disappointing.
(*) What’s really frustrating about Dicken’s lack of characterisation is the visible easy fix: Dicken really wasn’t needed in this story. Put him and Buzzer together, you’ve got room in the story for a whole character, whereas as it is, they’re both noticeably less developed than the rest of the guest cast.