REVIEW: Doctor Who - "The Rebel Flesh"


Hmmm…an interesting first installment in a two-part story arc last night on Doctor Who!  The episode, “The Rebel Flesh”, was written by Matthew Graham, who also wrote the thought-provoking Series Two episode “Fear Her” (with Ten and Rose saving a girl from an alien possession during the 2012 Olympics in London). There was a lot happening in “The Rebel Flesh”: references to online avatars, the literal personification of identity crises, and an overarching commentary about modern industry.

Sound like heavy stuff? Well, it was tempered by a smattering of the character quirks we love, and made me pretty excited for next week’s “The Almost People”! Read on for my full, spoiler-free review and my ranking out of four stars - There’s a lot to analyze in this episode, so let’s get started, shall we?

The episode opens in an isolated monastery on an island in the 22nd century, which has been repurposed as a factory pumping out corrosive acid. The liquid is so dangerous that the workers use advanced avatars called doppelgangers, or just “gangers” when working around it. These are carbon copies of the employees made using a programmable flesh substance; the workers lie in controller machines and transfer their consciousnesses into their gangers. If the ganger is destroyed, they can start fresh in a new one.

The Doctor, Amy and Rory end up here upon weathering a mild solar storm, and after finding out what is going on in the monastery, they endure a larger solar tsunami that cripples the factory and breaks the workers’ connections to their gangers. The gangers are now separate, independent versions of their controllers, and they escape into the factory, struggling with their newfound identities. The Doctor and his companions must try to reconcile the two groups in an effort to keep the humans and the gangers from killing each other.

I won’t say any more about the plot, but let’s dive into what we have so far. The fact that the episode takes place in a monastery is actually more significant than it may seem. Medieval monasteries were where some of the first copies of books were made. Monks would sit in seclusion for weeks as they hand-copied texts from memory, both to help preserve ancient works and to prove their dedication. This can be linked back to the episode in how the factory workers make copies of themselves to allow their work to continue. Their memories and lives are transferred to the new bodies. It’s a cool science-fiction twist on an old tradition of scholarship, giving the episode some historical depth.

Since a factory has taken over a monastery and is being used to process dangerous pollutants, we make the immediate connection between the story and environmentalism. I didn’t feel as though Matthew Graham was beating us over the head with it, thankfully; it was another cultural touchstone in the same vein as the monastery reference. This “future version of a polluted planet” idea reminded me of a similarly-themed Series Three episode, “Gridlock” which imagined a New New York with endless traffic jams and commuters taking years to get anywhere. It’s good that Graham didn’t belabour us with the message – we get the connection and move on with the story.

I’m sure people will want to make the comparison between this episode and James Cameron’s Avatar. We have industrial workers using living, controllable proxies to carry out their work, and the humanity of the gangers is brought into question. Are the newly independent gangers really people? Do they have a right to enjoy the copied lives of their former controllers? There was a scene where the gangers confront their former controllers for the first time, and through some emotional writing and clever editing, I was easily sold on the actors playing multiple versions of themselves.

The theme seems a bit overused of late (maybe due to the press surrounding Second Life and the media blitz for the Avatar film), but it’s nice to see Doctor Who’s take on it all. Since we all work daily on updating our digital lives, “The Rebel Flesh” queries what would happen if our other selves broke away and claimed the memories put into them as their own. As I mentioned in my comments on “The Impossible Astronaut”, sci-fi works best when it takes contemporary issues and imagines them on a larger, sometimes intergalactic, scale – and that speculative type of thinking is evident in this episode.

The Doctor indulges in his fascination in humans, and the general nature of humanity, in “The Rebel Flesh” – something I always look forward to. It’s a subtle way of reminding the audience that he is an alien and experienced in negotiating quarrels between other races. It almost feels like the Doctor is conducting a massive experiment with these factory workers, challenging them to accept that the gangers have gained humanity. It’s another example of the Doctor trying to bring out the best in humans – a great theme in the show as a whole, and employed effectively here.

The visual design of the gangers and their name connotes certain ideas, too. Physically, they look like malformed humans, and recall all the old Frankenstein movies and the debate over humanity in the original novel. The medieval appearance of the monastery combined with the solar lightning solidifies this connection (“It’s Alive! ALIVE!). The name “doppelganger” refers to the superstition that everyone has a carbon copy, a doppelganger – and if a person meets their copy, they will drop dead – foreshadowing for part two, perhaps?

In terms of character work, this episode backed off a bit from the kind of moments we had in episodes one, two and four in this series, but I was happy to see Rory stay a strong member of the team. While the comedic bits with the Doctor weren’t very numerous, he had a few good one-liners that made me chuckle. Still no definitive answers on the “Amy pregnancy” subplot, and to be honest, I am getting a bit impatient with these once-off glimpses of the indecisive scanner and the eyepatch lady. I hope they can address this more fully soon – I’m sure the payoff will be good when they do.

“The Rebel Flesh” gets three stars out of four for maintaining the momentum of the series and giving us a lot of good thematic material to chew on. It only loses a few points for those “stalling” references to the pregnancy side-story, but it has whetted my interest for next week!

What did you think of the episode? Are you stoked for next week, or would you like to see them “get on with it” and start in on the juicy answers? Leave your comments below and share the review with other Whovians!