It has been pointed out by wiser heads than I that Doctor Who is a series capable of skyscraping highs. Episodes which leave you shaking your head in admiration, wondering if television ever gets any better than this. Off the top of my head – Revelation of the Daleks; The Caves of Androzani; Inferno; Pyramids of Mars; Blink; Vincent and the Doctor. These are the ones that really fly for me.
Conversely, it can leave you shaking your head for entirely different reasons when it plumbs such depths of incompetence that you consider trying to sue someone to get the time you spent watching added back onto your lifespan. I wonder why I wasted my life watching The Daleks Masterplan, The Chase, Time and the Rani, The Armageddon Factor, Timelash, et al.
The hardest ones to get a handle on are the workaday episodes. The ones which are neither spectacular, nor awful. By the nature of series television not every week can be superb. You’re lucky if you get a few crackers every season, and Doctor Who’s hit the spot more often than not for me recently. You’re tuning in because you love the concept, the characters – you watch because you enjoy spending time in this universe. It doesn’t have to be perfect every week (although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you log on to various forums in the seconds immediately after each episode airs).
Sometimes a perfectly competent and watchable episode of Doctor Who is just fine. For me, that’s exactly what The Rebel Flesh (Saturday, BBC1) was – beautifully made, rather fun television. Full of good bits and a few bad bits, but nothing spectacular. There’s nothing wrong with striving for the best. You’ll miss occasionally, but it’s the trying that matters. If this week wasn’t the most striking piece of television I’ve ever seen it was at the very least crammed with good stuff, even if it didn’t quite hang together as well as I hoped it would.
To be honest, given what we saw on the episode of Doctor Who Confidential afterwards I’m amazed it made it to the screen at all. Made under the most adverse of conditions during one of the coldest spells that Britain has ever seen, the production team pulled off a small miracle. You wouldn’t know to watch the actual show that anything had been amiss behind the scenes at all and I can only applaud the dedication of the people who managed to bring it all together. Any problems I had this week were very much to do with the scripting and narrative thrust of what finally made it on-screen.
It’s fair to say that Matthew Graham’s previous Doctor Who story (Fear Her) was… not universally loved. Indeed, it’s become a bit of a lazy-person’s whipping boy. It’s the one that people cite as an example of everything that’s wrong with RTD’s vision of Doctor Who (translation – it doesn’t have UNIT in it, or even remotely resembles what Doctor Who was like when the viewer was fifteen. I’m as guilty as anybody on that one – although when I was fifteen, Doctor Who was having an eighteen month rest so I tend to want it to be all breathlessness, Cricketer outfits and mouthy Australians as the nearest secure point). Personally, I could see the likes of Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel, Doomsday or Journey’s End far enough with their overwhelming smugness and insistence on hammering us over the head about things that I actually couldn’t give a tinker’s tuppeny-tit about. At the very least, Fear Her has a comedy council worker ripped bodily from the seventies iteration of The Tomorrow People, not to mention Huw News-Person being parachuted into the narrative the way Kenneth Kendall used to be when The Goodies were still on air.
Before it aired the knives seemed to be poised for this week’s episode, as if people were waiting to say “see! Told you it would be rubbish”. It wasn’t. At worst, it was a bit dull from time to time and my silly old brain had a little trouble following the narrative here and there. How many Gangers were there anyway? Are there two Jennifers wandering about, or three? If you’re going to mine acid, wouldn’t you make sure your safety precautions were a bit more effective, and isn’t it a better idea to leave yourself with a more reliable escape route from the island when things go wrong? Why was Rory hiding from Ganger Jennifer one minute, and then rushing to help her the next?
There was an awful lot of gabbling going on this week – I think this one’s going to take another viewing to try and catch what everybody was saying. It was almost as if at the read-through everyone realised that the episode might be overrunning, and rather than trim it they decided to rattle through it at breakneck speed in order to cram everything in. Very odd, and I suspect that’s where a lot of my problems stem from. I couldn’t actually hear half of what was going on.
An arresting opening, though. Our first sight of the Gangers was an elegant way to pencil in what we needed to know – the humans working here regard them as a lower form of life and don’t care what happens to them, so long as their pay packet is secure and they’re not docked for the damage of expensive bits of equipment. Even from that first sequence it’s obvious that someone’s being set up for a fall, as the Gangers have other ideas. Quite right too – if Doctor Who’s about anything, it’s that every form of life is sacred, no matter where it comes from or what form it takes. It’s just a shame that things were bogged down with endless scenes of “They’re not human, we don’t care” / “Yes, we are, and we’ll damn well make you care” dialogue. I got the message pretty early on. I just wish the characters on screen had because then everyone could have got on with something more exciting instead.
That said – you cannot whack a good old-fashioned Base-Under-Siege-With-Stressed-Commander story. Cleaves continued the fine old tradition begun way back in The Tenth Planet. I’ve always believed that Doctor Who As We Know It doesn’t really start until the scrag-end of the Hartnell years. Up until The War Machines Who doesn’t visit the present day, and it isn’t really until The Tenth Planet that the bonkers base-commanders having a really bad day at work concept begins to kick in.
You’ll have your favourites. The Moonbase, perhaps. Fury From The Deep, certainly. If you’ve recently spent several months smashing your head against a brick wall, you may favour Revenge of the Cybermen. Usually, the threat’s from the outside – the base is locked down, the humans are trapped and there’s something on the other side of the wall desperately trying to get at them. This week’s episode carried on that fine old tradition, with the rather lovely twist that here, the base is actually colonised already. It just takes people a while to wake up to the threat in their midst and for once it’s not one hundred percent certain just who the good guys are.
The thing about this particular iteration of the doppelganger plot is that since each Ganger is identical to the original in every respect, it’s difficult to really root for one against the other. Jennifer is sweet, dippy and vaguely Zooey Deschanel-esque in whichever incarnation’s on screen, with a slight pinch of Cally from the new Battlestar Galactica. Cleaves is unlikeable and tightly wound whether she’s flesh and blood or rebel flesh. Ken, Ken and Ken are interchangeable at this point, albeit beautifully played.
It’s something that tends to go unnoticed about NewWho – almost everyone is perfectly cast, right down to the tiniest role. When someone delivers a bad performance you really notice it. Yes Roger Lloyd-Pack, I’m looking at you. You’d struggle to find anyone in this who isn’t a hundred percent convincing, and I love Who for that. You don’t always get that level of dedication and it’s worth applauding.
Other nice touches this week included the Ponds taking some time out at the start while The Doctor indulges in a little Museic. It’s good to hear “Supermassive Black Hole” at any time. Ten loved a bit of Ian Dury, and it’s nice to know that our man’s taste in music continues along impeccable paths while he’s relaxing and waiting for the adventure to start.
It’s lovely to see our heroes in their off-duty moments. We know that not every moment aboard Idris – sorry, The Tardis – is breakneck and exciting, and it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes there’s nothing nicer than spending time with your mates and it’s good to see this team kicking back and relaxing for a while.
As soon as the Solar Tsunami deposits our team in the middle of a medieaval monastery, things begin to go a little awry. I’m going to be charitable and choose to believe that the reason some of the characterisation seemed a little off this week is because we’re actually watching the Ganger versions of Amy and Rory rather than the originals (in which case, where are the real versions, and just what have they been up to?) I’m also going to be charitable and suggest that they’re not going to make this big shock-gasp-reveal in the last five minutes of next week’s episode. I’ll be disappointed if they do. I’ll also quite happily eat a hat of your choice if I turn out to be completely wrong about all this by the time The Almost People plays out next week.
As it is, I’ll lay money on GangerRory running off with GangerJennifer, giving both Amys a bit of pause for thought. Amy’s pulling off a neat trick this year by appearing in almost every scene and yet seeming oddly detached. There’s something slightly off about the character so far this series. She doesn’t seem to quite the same Amy that she was last series and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. She’s got plenty to do – the subplots are piling up, what with her is-she-or-isn’t-she pregnancy, not to mention the fact that she’s being haunted by an intergalactic Chad. I don’t know, but she appears different this year. Perhaps it’s just that Rory’s slowly – and gratifyingly – beginning to assert himself.
There were huge chunks of the episode this week that were driven by Rory (and isn’t it wonderful to have the he-keeps-dying meme acknowledged and referenced within the programme itself?). Arthur Darvill and Sarah Smart’s scenes were beautifully played. As Steven Moffat comments, Rory’s probably spent his entire life up to now waiting for someone to actually show him some open and honest affection, and to lean on him a little bit. It’s no wonder he goes for it, no matter which version of Rory we’re watching.
Meanwhile, The Eleventh Doctor takes on a few characteristics of one of his predecessors. Whether you approve depends on how much Pertwee you can take, because this was a Pertwee story updated and tweaked slightly. Much given to standing stock still and delivering moralistic speeches this week, all we needed was for him to thump a random passerby and then try to cruise by on charm for it to seem like a replay of the Bionic Granddad’s most golden moments. Mind you, we got something like that last year, with the return of the Earth Reptiles two-parter, and that didn’t exactly turn out spectacularly. The jury’s still out on this one. I’ll wait until part two to finally decide just how well this particular DNA sampling of one of Doctor Who’s most beloved periods actually worked.
On the whole? Nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to leap up and down with excitement about either, but I’m not particularly bothered. Merely competent Doctor Who is several miles ahead of a lot of other television, and I’ll be quite happy to tune in next week to see what happens. As will my identical double. Wherever he may have got to. See you then.