6.5 & 6.6 – “The Rebel Flesh”/”The Almost People”
In an old, isolated monastery, there’s a factory pumping out dangerous acid. It’s too dangerous for people to work on so the facility’s crew have “gangers”; disposable avatars created from programmable matter. After The Doctor, Amy and Rory arrive, a solar storm gives the “gangers” sentience and independence. Do the “real” crew members have the right to destroy their manufactured counterparts?
What is the self? Are we just a bunch of chemical and electrical reactions that come together to give us the illusion of personality or is there an intrinsic self within us – maybe not the immortal soul of the Bible but perhaps some form of hard-coded sentience that is us and us alone?
“The Rebel Flesh”/”The Almost People” is a relatively rare foray into serious science fiction i.e. extrapolating from present technology in order to pass comment and question the issues of today and the nature of humanity. It asks a whole load of lofty questions; can personality be copied? Are workers just commodities? The fate of “gangers” could be an allegory of sweatshop workers in the Third World. Worked almost to death in the worst conditions with little or no reward, they are human beings yet industry churns through these poor souls like they are just parts of a machine.
The set-up is a dark slice of black comedy as Buzzer is left to dissolve, with only a disgruntled whine from him and an ironic laugh from his colleagues. It’s a tough industrial setting populated by, on the surface, tough industrial types. The exception is Jennifer (Sarah Smart) who is clearly less comfortable than the others about using a ganger body. In charge is the no-nonsense Cleaves, played by Raquel Cassidy as a leader who isn’t going to take The Doctor’s crap. Marshall Lancaster’s Buzzer is only in it for him while Mark Bonnar’s Jimmy is a tough guy with a heart. Leon Vickers as Dicken loses out somewhat. He has hardly any lines, spends his time running around with the others but only seems to be there so that there’s one more survivor at the end.
Apart from Dicken, the rest of the supporting cast is strongly written and performed (to be fair to Vickers, there’s nothing to indicate he’s a poor actor, he simply doesn’t have any material). When their “gangers” gain independence, they get a chance to play two characters. Writer Matthew Graham does a great job with the counterpart crew; they are not just a bunch of monsters, but are the same personalities thrown into a more desperate situation. The regulars get some good material too. Rory, in particular, gets to play hero for once, defying orders to look after Jennifer (not the best idea in hindsight). Amy shows her loyalty and love for The Doctor, refusing to recognise (despite The Doctor’s insistence) the ganger Doctor as a viable version. Smith, as always (we always say as always), produces the goods even when having to portray two Doctors. He is surprisingly but effectively restrained here, with far less of the usual hand twirling and hair flicking. Smith shows how caring The Doctor can be; he may love humanity but he is also appalled at humanity’s all too frequent fear of the proverbial “other”, even setting Amy up to challenge her prejudices.
There’s a lot of chasing around. It has similarities to “The Time Of Angels”, with our heroes being chased/forced into ever more desperate circumstances, but lacks it’s fluid pace and the “gangers” are nowhere near as lethal as Weeping Angels. It’s also comparable to the inferior “The Hungry Earth” – again The Doctor is trying to broker peace between hostile humans and desperate “others”, but “The Rebel Flesh”/”The Almost People” easily has a far more satisfying conclusion than “The Hungry Earth” as there is recognition of the abuse of the “gangers” as well as their right to life.
Then there’s the cliffhanger. It is a beauty. The explanation of Amy’s positive/negative pregnancy test is somewhat neat. Her dissolution is suitably shocking, as are the horrifying circumstances she then finds herself in.
There’s nothing really wrong with this one. It isn’t terribly original but the sets, the writing and the cast are all strong and, for once, there are actually some larger issues to ponder. A fleshy 8/10.
Written and edited by Richard Barnes