Stars: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, Mark Bonnar, Marshall Lancaster, Sarah Smart, Raquel Cassidy, Leon Vickers
Writer: Matthew Graham
Director:  Julian Simpson
Network: BBC America, airs Saturday nights
Original Telecast: May 21, 2011

Cross a Second Doctor “base under siege” story with a dash of Seventh Doctor chess playing and some excellent atmospheric set and makeup design and you have the fifth episode of DOCTOR WHO’s Series 6, “The Rebel Flesh.” After a slightly creepy, slightly goofy pre-credits teaser and a wonderful opening TARDIS scene that shows the crew relaxing with music and darts, our heroes are drawn into a deadly solar storm and wind up at a monastery on an isolated island in Earth’s future.

A team of workers are harvesting acid for some unknown military application (which we never really learn about), but due to the life-threatening nature of the work they’re using a cloning technology with programmable flesh to create doppelgangers – or Gangers – that do the work for them. When another solar storm gives the existing Gangers independence, the Doctor tries to broker a peace but soon comes face to face with a much more personal problem.

Following some FRANKENSTEIN links in last week’s episode (like Idris’ Bride-ish style), this week sees a new form of life given individual existence by sci-fi lightning, in this case the solar storm. Set in a cathedral and also borrowing a touch of identity crisis from BLADE RUNNER, there’s a nice blend of horror and sci-fi homages in addition to the thematic links to WHO’s own past as mentioned above. But why the Seventh Doctor?

There’s an intriguing thread running through this episode that the Doctor already knows a lot more about this situation than he’s letting on, a dynamic that doesn’t play out too often in the new series. It always adds a disturbing layer to the Doctor’s behavior and it’s a welcome beat for Smith to play as he also works through the kind of peace-loving negotiations at which Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor excelled and which Smith himself employed in last year’s otherwise execrable two-part Silurian story. And that’s not the only link to that two-parter, since this story also turns on one violent woman’s decision to shoot someone and shatter a fragile peace.

Enough about that, let’s get back to the Doctor. The episode strongly suggests it’s no accident that the TARDIS arrives at this destination and that the Doctor may have planned this trip. There’s even the possibility that they’ve already been here although we haven’t yet seen the circumstances. He frequently checks a snow globe for some bizarre reason, refers to this cloning technology as “early” in a way that seems more meaningful than just his usual knowledge of future events, and at one point he even tells Amy to “breathe.” Just the Doctor being extra quirky? Or is there something going on here that will soon have greater meaning? In this kind of show, you can never tell.

Very often people try to give the first part of two-parters a critical pass – they’re there to set up the second part, they’ll say, so they’re forgivably light on plot – but I always insist that’s not fair. Every individually aired episode needs to be evaluated for its own entertainment value, and “The Rebel Flesh” proves that you can deliver a well-paced, suspenseful, intriguing story while simultaneously moving all your pieces into place for a (hopefully) action-packed finale. The guest cast is solid, the setting is suitably gothic, and the Ganger makeup design is truly superb – except for the one sequence with the somewhat laughable CGI Jennifer-snake. The Gangers are simultaneously pitiable creatures and menacing monsters, the perfect ambiguous combination in a story exploring what makes us human.

Initially I was a bit thrown by Rory’s intense concern for Jennifer given they’ve finally sorted out Amy’s character in terms of her commitment to her husband, but when you think about the fact that Rory is medically trained and very empathetic, it makes sense that he would try to care for someone experiencing profound suffering. That he risks his life for her is perhaps a bit much, but then again Amy spent most of last year showing no concern at all for the man she supposedly loved, so let’s give him a little leeway here and see how it ends up.

There are a few elements that seem to be screaming “I’ll be important next week,” including the fact that the real Doctor has lost his shoes. Want to guess how they’ll identify the Ganger Doctor then? And it’s hard to explain but somehow this story feels closer to classic DOCTOR WHO than the new series has been in some time, and in a very good way.

For those keeping score with this year’s story arc, we have another pregnancy test (how many times is the Doctor going to run the same inconclusive scan so the audience can be reminded on a weekly basis of the Big Mystery?) and another inexplicable fleeting appearance by the Eye Patch Lady (Frances Barber). I’m finding myself not caring all that much about these sledgehammer techniques; let’s just get on with adventures, please. On the other hand, I’m starting to have some eerie ideas about Amy, given the Doctor’s peculiar habit this week of staring at her whenever she asks about the cloning technology. Hmm…

Next time, BBC America takes a one-week break from airing new WHO for Memorial Day, which means the last two episodes of this half-season will air a week after their UK counterparts. US fans, try to resist falling back into those old pirating patterns. Arr!


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