In many ways, Matthew Graham’s “The Rebel Flesh” represents the classic template for the “new” Doctor Who. Earthbound but not contemporary (22nd Century, in this case). A philosophical debate driven by humanity’s stupidity. A lot of speechifyin’ by The Doctor about said stupidity. And everyone trapped in an isolated place being stalked – library, spacecraft, island… They really love to strand everyone for some reason.
Sometimes it works better than others, and fortunately Graham (Life on Mars) is a strong enough writer to turn this very boilerplate “Who” premise into a largely successful and entertaining episode. This time around, The Doctor and Team end up on an island – off Scotland, maybe? – where sits an abandoned monastery. The strains of Dusty Springfield clue us in that this isn’t medieval times, though – it’s the 22nd Century (talk about staying power!). And the monastery is being used as a staging area for a commercial operation to transport some sort of super-acid to the mainland. this, they’re using the newest thing – a kind of “blank slate” liquid flesh that can take on the physical form and even the memories and personality of the crew. That way, they can safely sit in stasis while the “‘Gangers” do the dangerous work.
As Picard’s sister-in-law said, this is a very old argument. And you probably guessed right away what was going to happen. An electrical surge from a solar storm gives the ‘Gangers a turbo-charge, and boom – they can suddenly exist independently of their “real” counterparts. That leaves us with quite the moral, ethical and indeed practical dilemma – the latter after the leader of the humans kills one of the ‘Gangers, foiling the Doctor’s efforts to manage a peaceful coexistence. That’s another things we’ve seen play out on “Who”, over and over.
So again, there’s really nothing too fresh about any of this. But despite all that, it’s pretty entertaining. The writing is crisp, the dialogue sharp, and the familiar premise presented with enough dexterity to grab some emotional buy-in from at least this viewer. There are a few twists – for one, Rory being so sympathetic to the plight of the ‘Gangers that he not only joins the Doctor in refusing to kill them, but even abandons Amy in an attempt to protect one of them, Jennifer. This seems to create quite a lot of tension between Rory and Amy, which is quite understandable. Also quite understandable is Rory’s sympathetic take – above and beyond the fact that he’s generally a nice guy, he also happens not to be human himself if you recall. I can certainly see why he feels their pain.
As Part I ends the local crew, The Doctor and Amy have barricaded themselves in the chapel against the now angry and aggressive ‘Gangers. But Rory is still outside, trying to find Jennifer. Worse yet, there’s someone else in the chapel – The Doctor’s ‘Ganger. Now how did that happen – when he stuck his hand into the pool of flesh, maybe? We also catch a few glimpses of the dominatrix who’s been tormenting Amy intermittently, though no clues as to just what the significance is -or that of the “Positive/Negative” pregnancy test the TARDIS keeps giving her. Another trend in this new incarnation of “Who” – they love to place the assistants at the center of the running plot.