It can feel as though you’re writing in something of a vaccuum when reviewing Doctor Who from preview copies (sounds paradoxical; it isn’t). But that’s not altogether a bad thing. As a rule-of-thumb, this year I’ve ensured my pieces were all written before an episode transmitted – so I could be certain the response therein was my own. However, this strategy does mean that sometimes you’re trying to second guess a general reaction.
My feeling was that the ending of Matthew Graham’s two-parter would kick up a bit of a furore. But it didn’t. And likewise, my review itself… I thought it might prove controversial as it’s probably one of the most negative pieces about the current series ever published by DWM. But, as far as I’m aware, it didn’t. That’s okay. I honestly wasn’t posturing. It was simply my response.
This is from DWM #436.
(Incidentally, I was certain fans would be up in arms about a certain death in this year’s series finale – still nothing. What do I know?)
The preview disc for The Almost People is now crunching to a stop. It’s the only noise that can be heard, because that is going to take some processing.
And… Oh boy.
Amy, pregnant, with legs akimbo and “ready to pop”. Frances Barber – she of the eye-patch and trowelled-on make-up – leering above her. The camera panning towards what’s about to become the business end of Ms Pond. A genuinely horrible scream, and Doctor Who has unexpectedly regenerated into Rosemary’s Baby. Is this the greatest ever cliffhanger? Or the most ill-judged? Certainly the show’s first-ever gynaecological-based outro (don’t be silly, Terror of the Vervoids doesn’t count). And definitely the most shocking. Good grief, we’re fixating on it above Tom Baker and David Tennant making vocal cameos. TOM BAKER! DAVID TENNANT!
Well, whatever this episode ending is, it’s unforgettable TV.
That DVD arrived with a nice note from Steven Moffat addressed to all journalists on preview duty: “I hope you enjoy this episode of Doctor Who – but you should know, there’s a surprise in it. I’m not telling you what or when – just that it’s coming… can we ask you to keep our secrets?”
Surprises, secrets, shocks and upsets. That’s what the show has been about so far this year.
Like 2007’s Utopia (the one where the Master comes back), The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People by Matthew Graham is destined to be defined by a one-line synopsis that discards 95 per cent of what we saw on screen. From hereon in, it’s the one where we discover Amy’s a duplicate and the real Pond is imprisoned and giving birth.
What a crazy show Doctor Who has become. Can you imagine trying to bring a new viewer up to speed? We have a Doctor who’ll die in 200 years time; Rory, who both was and wasn’t an ageless Auton who waited two millennia for his girlfriend to keep a date; and Amy herself, who we now know hasn’t been herself since… probably that business with the Silence. Or is it the Silents? Damn. Even that isn’t clear.
Constants are in flux, and it’s all up for grabs. This is both discomfiting and exciting.
But that’s the bigger picture. Let’s focus on Graham’s story, which by contrast is comprehensively cogent. Old school, even, and despite the impressive opening shot of the monastery-cum-factory, inside it sometimes seems like a bunch of actors on a school trip to a pretty castle making their own fun. Stacks of running around. Okay, that’s a mite unfair, because certain sequences – particularly in the second episode – are wonderfully dark and scary. But for much of the time, director Julian Simpson has his cast playing out scenes like they’re standing for roll call.
Maybe that’s the curse of having a quintet of supporting characters, all of whom we’re expected to get to know. The script works hard on that: Buzzer builds pyramids out of cards, Jennifer got lost on the moors as a little girl, Scottish Jimmy is a dad, Boss Lady has a blood clot in her brain and Cockney Bloke is suffering from the snuffles (although top marks for not then hinging the script on an inappropriate sneeze). But for this viewer, it didn’t quite work and I found it hard to care for most of ‘em, in both human and Ganger iterations.
Incidentally, did that only rankle with me? Or was the whole ‘Ganger’ business a bit annoying? Just call them clones! The notion of naming them anything but results in a needless synonym that hangs heavy in the dialogue.
Another weight comes from the huge dollops of learning dished up throughout. There’s an interesting parable about civil rights threaded through the story, but it’s wrenched from the subtext with dislocating vigour when Jen grandstands: “Who are the real monsters?” Likewise, Amy’s punning pay-off to the doppelganger Doctor: “You’re twice the man I thought you were.” Okay, okay! We get it.
Maybe I wouldn’t be so harsh if these life lessons had been consistently played throughout. Sometimes it works very well. When it comes to Amy’s mistrust of the John Smith Doctor, that whole thing is teased out effectively and it’s a useful lesson to see the companion – the audience’s own avatar, if we’re really over-thinking it – being flawed and reactionary. It makes us consider our own preconceptions… Although, I’m a little discombobulated with the revelation it was the real Time Lord, after all, who slammed Amy up against a wall. A proper apology would be nice you know, Doctor.
Jen’s trajectory also works. Sarah Smart is immediately likeable in the role, and we quickly peg her as one of the goodies. But, although it’s initially by stealth, her progression towards becoming a full wig-out The Thing-style monster never wavers. It’s really shocking – even if it’s never really clear why her final transformation occurs. Well, other than the requirement to serve up a big monster for the finale.
However, for all the “us and them” stuff between the staff and their photocopies, loyalties elsewhere seem to flip hither and thither – particularly the Raquel Cassidy twins who are more motivationally challenged than K9 over cobbles. It’s revealing her main storyline – that blood clot – is dispensed with in a ferociously silly fashion, with the Doctor producing a test tube of clot-busting gloop. What next? Sonic-ing cancer? This is in dubious taste.
But I have an even more fundamental grumble. Since 1965’s Galaxy 4, Doctor Who has periodically presented us with tales of angels versus demons, wherein the ones with the pointy horns turn out to have the good hearts. It’s a fine message, the old “don’t judge a book by its cover” homily. But here we’re actually being taught to mistrust those who look different, as the subjugated Gangers revert to their Flesh forms whenever they consider making a move against their masters. Sure, it’s scarier that way, but it’s not right. Look at the weird people! They’re bad!
All this cogitating has diverted me from some of the triumphs of The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People. I’ve given the dialogue a bit of a kicking, but at times it is positively golden. “Don’t fiddle with money, Doctor” just feels like something somebody would say. Likewise Buzzer, with his demystifying line about The Flesh: “No need to get poncy, it’s just gunge”.
Moments like these ground the story in a reality that helps makes some of the images, particularly of the second episode, truly haunting by contrast. Simple things like the duplicate Doctor just screaming and screaming – that’s super-scary. While the literal and needless The Walls Haves Eyes moment is barking mad, but in all the right ways. Then there’s the final, twisted CGI form of Jen, which calls back to The Gatiss-osaurous in The Lazarus Experiment… although, funnily enough, Jen’s actually scarier when she simply sprouts a massive gob to gobble up poor Buzzer. Bits like that are well-executed examples of body horror, and you can imagine 1970s Who schlockmeister Philip Hinchcliffe nodding along and happily fantasising about how nowadays he might turn a man into a bug.
But it’s how it all ends that truly disappoints. The logic of those final scenes, where two people are required to hold a door closed – unless, of course, one of them wants a break to have a deep and meaningful with Amy. It’s just a complete mess. I’ve watched this bit back several times, and I still can’t understand why everyone doesn’t just peg it into the TARDIS and leave Monster-Jen to the explosion. It’s almost as if Matthew Graham has assumed that, as well as providing a spurious monster for the finale, he also has to lay on some noble self-sacrificing.
Finally it’s into the TARDIS for that horribly chilly and misjudged exchange between the Doctor and Amy’s duplicate. Having spent the last 90 minutes as an advocate for the Gangers’ rights to life, the Time Lord is now prepared to zap one, and with little regard for poor Amy, who’s trapped inside and “properly frightened”. However, that’s just the start of her troubles.
Leaving sci-fi body horrors behind, we’re then faced with the intimate terrors of a young woman who’s stranded far from home, insensible with fear and a baby on the way. Such a harrowing image, it’s almost everything that lingers from the story.
Poor, poor Amy. She deserves better than this. “Oh boy” doesn’t come close. I can’t believe Doctor Who would do this to her. Quick, get me next week’s episode! I’m ready to pop.