As you’ve no doubt noticed, BBC America has given this new season of Doctor Who a promotional push in the U.S. like no season before it. I pass at least two prominent Who billboards on my usual commute to work and friends have started to ask me where they might best start watching. I usually tell them either to go back to the Eccleston season and start from there or check out the fifth season, since the beginning of the Moffatt/Smith era provides a pretty good point of entry. (That’s no slight against Tennant, whose work I love. But by the time he joins a lot of wheels are already spinning.) But, honestly, I could just as easily steer them toward something like “The Rebel Flesh.” Not because it’s a great episode; I think it’s just a pretty good episode. But it’s certainly a representative episode that would show new viewers what Who’s all about.
For starters, it takes place, as many episodes do, in a familiar setting that’s just a little off. The episode opens on some workers going about their business while tending to a vat of acid. When some horseplay sends one of them tumbling into the vat, everyone’s response is weirdly blasé. “It’s not like anyone was ‘urt,” one says, and that’s correct. More or less. It turns out that the workers can treat injuries so casually because they’re not risking their own bodies at all, simply manipulated a kind of synthetic flesh that does the dangerous vat work for them.
It’s not that simple, though. First-time viewers might not necessarily see the dreadful implications of the scenario right away, but veterans surely will. If there’s one theme Doctor Who returns to again and again, it’s that life is precious, freedom a birthright, and those who exploit either are doing wrong. Even if they’re doing it unwittingly, as seems to be the case here. The Doctor picks up on this immediately, not long after the TARDIS arrives to the accompaniment of a Dusty Springfield song. (“My mom’s a massive fan of Dusty Springfield.” “Who isn’t?” Truer words…) What’s more, he seems to have some familiarity with The Flesh, the victims/villains of “The Rebel Flesh” (and its upcoming follow-up “The Almost People.”) Everyone involved seems arrogant that the “fully programmable matter” might not always be content to do their bidding. But it doesn’t take long for events to prove them wrong.
This is, in essence, a pretty familiar rebel robot story, albeit with gooier antagonists than most. In fact, the poor/scary Gangers frequently reminded me of the Replicants from Blade Runner. Having developed consciousnesses, they seem puzzled, then angry, that anyone would want try to deny them full rights as living beings. But, familiar or not, it’s an atmospheric, well-played (if a tad draggy) installment. I particularly liked Rory’s interactions with the Flesh version of Jennifer (Sarah Smart). In fact, if there’s any element this season that’s surprised me it’s the way it’s made Rory seem essential to the show. Where he could have been dead weight or a device to defuse any sexual tension between Amy and The Doctor, he’s been well used all year, and Arthur Darvill has risen to the challenge. (Even if, as some commenters have pointed out, he dies with an almost Kenny-like frequency).
So, given that we only have half a story, there’s less to talk about than usual, so I don’t want to draw this out just for the sake of drawing it out. And if I have a complaint with “The Rebel Flesh,” it’s that it truly feels like half a story in the way the best Doctor Who two-parters don’t. It’s not a bad half, however, and there’s plenty of intriguing strands for next week. Like, just how does The Doctor know what’s up before anyone else? And does it have anything to do with the Ganger Doctor who shows up at the end? (That disembodied mouth is a pretty haunting image, right?) Then there’s the long game the season’s been playing. Who is that creepy woman Amy keeps seeing? And does it have anything to do with Amy’s maybe pregnancy? No doubt we’ll find out some of the answers soon, and the rest in time.
• But not too soon. See you in two weeks, since BBC America has announced Doctor Who won’t be airing Memorial Day weekend, putting it out of sync with the U.K. schedule for the first time this year.
• The Gangers look a bit like Odo from Deep Space Nine, don’t they.
• Matthew Graham wrote this week's episode, and next week's. He also wrote "Fear Her," the second-season episode set during the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics in London.
• “Yes. It’s insane. And it’s about to get even more insanerer.”