Dr Who S6 Ep5 – The Rebel Flesh

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Note: contains some spoilers, although I’ve tried to conceal them for the most part!

Due to other commitments this week, this is a rather late review; but I wouldn’t want anyone to think that my lack of a timely review for this weeks episode should be in any way construed as a lack of enthusiasm for it.

Far from it. In terms of atmosphere, interesting premise, excellent cast and overall great script, this was as good as anything Doctor Who has done of late. It’s also utterly different from anything Doctor Who has done of late: after the massively complex, deeply layered and intricately constructed opening two parter, together with the fun pirate romp (your mileage may vary on the ‘fun’ part) and the magical Neil Gaiman entry, this couldn’t possibly have been more different.

For one thing: it was slow. Now, that could be taken as an insult or a criticism, so let me assure you that I mean anything but an insult. It’s just that as I was watching, I was aware that not all that much had happened; and that was giving me time to absorb the story, and to think through some of the serious points being made (both important plot points, and equally important sociological points for the real world.) How nice to have a chance to watch a piece of TV that gives me time to absorb it and contemplate, rather than something that pummels you with its cleverness (no matter how much we might like that!) or tries to hide its script problems with raw pace (a few RTD scripts come to mind there.)

The slowness also allows the story to build a fantastically creepy atmosphere of claustrophobic dread, aided immeasurably by the decision to film much of it on location at various castles and monasteries that gave it such a unique feeling. But if this is to happen – if “slow” is to lead to “effective, creepy atmosphere” – then it can only happen with a good script and moreover a highly effective direction. Fortunately this episode had both in Matthew Graham and Julian Simpson respectively.

There’s an interesting comparison to be made between this two-parter and the season five episodes “The Hungry Earth”/”Cold Blood”, which was also deliberately slow-paced, and also shot in some some potentially very effective locations (caves, in that case.) Unfortunately, after a decent and fairly effective first part, that episode petered out into a story that felt like watching a particularly turgid council meeting and wasted almost every opportunity to create something special – one example of how “slow” really can end up being a pejorative.

I’m trusting this two-parter not to end up fumbling the second part – I have no reason to believe it will, it seems in very assured hands. There’s criticisms you can make of it, such as:

  • it’s not exactly original and is very much showing its roots (The Thing and Name of the Rose are acknowledged by the writer) – but then, some of the best Doctor Who stories of all time during the Tom Baker era came from this sort of Who-reimagining of classic stories like Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde;
  • some of the guest characters are chronically underwritten or given some really clichéd broad strokes to work with (such as Jimmy’s memories of his son) – but it succeeds by some clever casting of the likes of Raquel Cassidy, Mark Bonnar, Marshall Lancaster and Sarah Smart who immediately and very effectively bring something of their previous screen personas to the part;
  • Rory’s sudden spark of independence instead of trotting after Amy all the time is out of character – but how good to see it, and lovely to see Arthur Darvill have some more meaty material work with at last rather than just as comedy relief. Plus, he didn’t die for once!
  • And really, it was always going to end with that cliffhanger from the moment that the Doctor poked and prodded the pool of milk. Consequently so much of what preceded it felt like treading water waiting for the big reveal to happen. But when it did … Boy, was it worth it.

When I watched “The Impossible Astronaut”/”Day of the Moon”, I thought to myself that this is what a Doctor Who feature film would look like. Then along came “The Doctor’s Wife” and that was so gorgeously directed and photographed that it put many a Hollywood film to shame. But now I’m convinced that this is the perfect paradigm for a Doctor Who film – it felt like a motion picture from the get-go, and any doubts were dispelled by the “Next Time” trailer which was the best they’ve ever done. You could put that on as a trailer in a movie theatre and have them lining up around the block to see the film next week in no time.

We only have to remember to switch on our TV sets. Although sadly Americans and Canadians will have to restrain themselves for an extra week before getting to see it. Don’t worry, we’ll tease you mercilessly about it in the meantime.

4 thoughts on “Dr Who S6 Ep5 – The Rebel Flesh

    Mark Cockram said:
    May 29, 2011 at 8:26 am

    You summed it up very well. I really liked Raquel Cassidy in Teachers, and it was a joy to see her again in this.

    I’m still thinking about The Almost People, and I might have to watch it again before I give my verdict. The comparison with the Silurian two parter is a good one, and I think I prefer these two stories over The Hungry Earth & Cold Blood.

    andrewlewin responded:
    June 6, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    I didn’t see “Teachers” and didn’t realise she was in that. However, I did see her in a great political drama called “Party Animals” which she was great in. She played the MP and one of her researchers was a really weird, scatty bloke who stole the show. Name of Matt Smith. Wonder what happened to him … (It was fun to see them together again, positions reversed, she being the guest star now on his show!)

    The similarly with the Silurian two-parter was only heightened by the fact that both had out of the blue, WTF codas at the end. I agree, though, I much preferred this to “Hungry Earth/Cold Blood” by some way.

    Mark Cockram said:
    June 6, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    We have Party Animals on DVD it’s great, and a good showcase for the talents of Matt Smith.

    andrewlewin responded:
    June 6, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    Happily I’d seen the series at the time. As I recall, the name “Matt Smith” started to get mentioned about 16 hours before the 11th Doctor was unveiled and I wondered who the hell it might be, went to IMDB, saw the Party Animals credit, figured out who he’d been in the series … and absolutely knew that this was the guy. It was immediately obviously that it was perfect casting, from that one role alone.

    A must see for any Dr Who fans who want to see where #11 came from!

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