The Almost People
28 May 2011
In the near future, the Doctor and his companions are trapped in an ancient castle as a series of acid leaks transforms it from a mining facility to a death trap. As a small group of clones grown from a mysterious substance called ‘the flesh’ gain sentience, they demand the lives of their source material, the mining crew. The humans not only refuse to coexist with their clones, they seek to have them destroyed. The Doctor must not only steer a hostile situation to a peaceful resolution, he also has to resolve a large problem involving his companion Amy Pond. This could get tricky.
NOTE: Firstly, allow me to warn my US-based readers that this article contains spoilers. Doctor Who was not shown in America this week due to it being situated at the beginning of Memorial Day weekend. What that has to do with Doctor Who, I have no idea, but it made sense to BBC America to remove the latest episode from their programming. Of course I found a way to view the episode late last night and have been mulling it over this morning.
The short review is that it is an excellent continuation of an already fine adventure that introduces some clever notions, plenty of action and feels like a two-parter rather than the usual one parter split in half that I am used to from the BBC Wales program. We are in for plenty of shocks for the mid-series cliff-hanger and thankfully many of the plot threads seem to be getting tied up neatly without any of the disappointment that I feared.
The long review is below and contains, as already stated, SPOILERS.
The Almost People opens with one of those moments that will have fans of the new series no doubt scratching their heads and looking online for guidance and fans of the classic series bugging out their eyes. Last year’s series held several nods to the classic program revolving around the First Doctor played by William Hartnell. From the Doctor’s out of date library card to the TARDIS presenting an image of the white-haired incarnation as a depiction of the youthful Eleventh Doctor’s identity. It was a nice gesture to fans who had feared that the program had grown so far from its roots that it was never going to acknowledge them aside from the obligatory appearance of past monsters. It was also used well when a depressed Doctor sat slumped by young Amy Pond’s bedside telling her a story about an old man who ran away from home with a magic box (Moffat’s condensed view of the program as a fairy tale).
This episode features a clone based on the Doctor struggle to adapt to the various incarnations from the Doctor’s past, featuring a line of dialog from ‘An Unearthly Child:‘One day we will get back. Yes, one day’ a shout out to the fans doting on David Tennant ‘No let it go, we’ve moved on!’ and a full-on dubbed line of dialog from Tom Baker. It happened so fast that it was equally charming and terrifying, ending with the clone screaming in pain from the no doubt maddening assault of memories. The Doctor-ganger isn’t just a gimmick, he’s a key element to the story and Matthew Graham brilliantly utilizes the character in telling the story he began in the Rebel Flesh.
The ganger revolution led by the furious ganger based on wallflower Jennifer is made all the more complicated by a series of acid leaks spread throughout the castle (why are they mining acid, anyhow? What a lousy job) mixing with the aged mortar and stone to create a choking mist. The Doctor is more than happy to work with his clone in solving the problem and the pair seem to get along famously, despite the obvious unease the ganger causes in the mining crew and Amy. As the clone develops its own name, John Smith, he is assaulted with angry sentiments, especially from Amy who backs up her hostility by saying that ‘there can be only one.’ The Doctor ganger becomes morose, posing an angry and bitter attitude toward the others, even his fellow gangers.
Convinced that it’s up to him to expel the xenophobic sentiments, the Doctor places his ganger in a very important position of seeking a solution to their problems and watches from the sidelines… again, much to the shock and horror of the others. He doesn’t appear to be operating on all cylinders, as it were. The ‘real’ Doctor’s best idea to deal with an impending acid explosion is to simply place a lid over it and hold it down hard.
Rory, meanwhile, is attempting to help Jennifer whom he has grown fond of and developed a sympathetic relationship with. As visitors to this blog far more intelligent than I have pointed out, this hints not only to his background as a nurse but especially to his past as an Auton. It is clear that Rory not only feels some kind of connection with Jennifer, he needsto feel it as well. This plot point really sheds some light on the loneliness that Rory must feel from his experience. Of course I don’t understand how he retained the knowledge and experience of the Auton, but never mind.
I have noted this previously, but I am quite fond of Rory. I love comedic ‘sad sack’ characters when they are done right and this is a good example. Rory is neither brilliant nor brave, nor is he resourceful… but he has lots of heart and determination. In this case, that gets him into lots of trouble. Arthur Darvill injects Rory with some lovely moments of drama and levity (the scene where he assures Jennifer that he is a strong bloke). Sadly, Rory is manipulated into assisting the ganger Jennifer in her war against the humans, causing the acid cannisters to overheat and explode… I decided not to dwell too much on that point.
When Rory is shown a mass of discarded flesh that is still sentient, he decides that he has to put things right. He is led along to the eventual betrayal of his friends with the best of intentions, fueled by witnessing the horrific treatment of the gangers. By the time he realizes that he’s been had, it’s too late. The ganger Jennifer has roped him into her private war against the humans. Surprisingly the war is cut short by the ‘ganger’ Doctor appealing to the humanity of the gangers. A cleverly placed phone call to Jimmy’s son on his fifth birthday convinces the ganger that he can’t just take over the ‘real’ Jimmy’s life.
It’s an emotional appeal to the viewer including a cute kid in his pajamas… but it worked for me. It may just be because I too am a father.
The gangers come to the realization that their ‘war’ is unwinnable. Unfortunately, by the time the realize this, the death toll has become quite high (but conveniently even as it leaves only one of each version of almost every characters sans Jennifer and Buzzer). Without an army, Jennifer finally goes berserk and morphs into a crazy CGi mess looking more at home in a Japanese horror flick.
In the ensuing carnage, the TARDIS crew vacates the exploding acid bath, leaving the ganger Doctor and ganger Cleaves behind to face the music (a bit odd, that. I mean, why not try to save them?). The Doctor reveals to Amy that he is actually what she thought was the John Smith ganger. It became clear early on that the Doctor and his ganger were wearing different shoes. What Amy didn’t know was that the Doctor threw her off the scent by switching footwear with his clone early on and watching how he was treated. This partly explains what we as the viewer thought was the clone’s angry behavior… but there’s more.
After dropping off Cleaves and the ganger of Dicken (who really had nothing to do at all) to plead their case for better treatment of the gangers, the TARDIS crew finds that they are in for a shock. In last week’s episode, the Doctor indicated that he had some errand or other to take care of and wanted to get Amy and Rory out of his hair. That point was dropped away as the adventure progressed, but when he is finally alone with his companions, he reveals that he had good reason to ‘see the flesh in its earlier stages’ so that he could understand it.
Throughout the previous stories, the Doctor has been scanning Amy and watching a pregnancy scan (hey, that’s what the TARDIS says it is) flicker between positive and negative. When Amy starts experiencing what the Doctor calls contractions, Rory is confused but the Doctor is just plain angry. He reveals that for some time what they thought was Amy was actually a ganger masquerading as the plucky Scots gal. He then destroys it with a blast from his sonic screwdriver and viewers finally understand why they were seeing images of what has been called ‘the eyepatch lady’ all series long.
The ganger version of Amy has been receiving scattered transmissions of the real Amy’s experiences in a holding cell. Finally conscious, Amy finds that she is about to give birth. A small peephole door opens up above her and the ‘eyepatch lady’ urges her to push (this was hinted at earlier by the ganger Doctor). Very chilling and exciting all at once.
The sixth series of Doctor Who has been consistent but to be honest, somewhat underwhelming overall in my opinion. I find that the quality has been solid but perhaps it is the change in tone that I find jarring. The previous stories were far too gimmick-driven for my taste but The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People actually felt like a solid adventure with purpose and identity all its own. I’m excited to see where all of this goes, but I cannot hide my fear that it will blow up in Moffat’s face. He has a lot riding on a story that promises to close out the River Song story and tie into the 200 year gap in the Doctor’s life as well as his death and explain why Rory keeps dying (he has indicated that the repeated Rory deaths is intentional).
That’s a lot and it from the trailer it has all the earmarks of a kitchen sink finale involving Cybermen, Silurians, Sontarans and plenty of shouting. I’m not a fan of this approach but Moffat has not disappointed me yet. I still contend that the BBC Wales version of Doctor Who is operating on a false premise that the program is an explosive emotionally charged run-around with wacky science fiction that makes no sense and a young leading cast (I had a similar reaction to the JJ Abrams Star Trek film). But within the confines of that basis, Moffat is doing a bang-up job. I just hope that he can maintain his pacing and not over-reach himself.
For you readers who found this story too horrifying and disturbing, just think that maybe the Jennifer ganger made it back to the mainland after all, just in time for Jimmy’s son’s party!
Next time: A Good Man Goes to War