A Doctor Who Story that Doesn't Need the DoctorS

People often point out that Doctor Who can do any type of story — a murder mystery, a war story, a ghost story, etc. There's really only one requirement for a good Doctor Who story: the Doctor must be crucial.

If the Doctor doesn't add something important to the story just by being there, then maybe your story just isn't a Doctor Who story. I was trying to put my finger on what bothered me about "The Rebel Flesh," and I finally decided it was the fact that the Doctor's presence adds nothing to the episode — at least, until the final moments. In fact, the whole thing would have been considerably more interesting without the Doctor.

Of course, I haven't seen part two yet, and maybe things will look differently after that. But for now, here's a first reaction to "The Rebel Flesh."

Spoilers ahead...

A Doctor Who Story that Doesn't Need the DoctorS

It's a bit hazardous to try and review the first half of a two-part story. You just have to take it on its own merits, and reserve a lot of the heavy-duty analysis for part two. (Which, for BBC America viewers at least, won't air for two long weeks.)

But as an episode on its own, "The Rebel Flesh" started out sort of promising and then quickly became a bit dull. It was the first time this season I haven't been excited, or at least diverted, by an episode. (Some people seemed a bit bored by the pirate episode, but I found it a fun bit of fluff, which is all I really expected.)

A Doctor Who Story that Doesn't Need the DoctorS

"The Rebel Flesh" had a premise that could have made for a pretty decent stand-alone science fiction story: There's a group of humans who are in a hazardous work situation, pumping out some highly corrosive acid off an island. There's a high fatality rate in this line of work, so they're happy when someone invents the "Flesh," a kind of synthetic life that can mold itself to look like anyone, and allow you to pilot it remotely. The Flesh even duplicates the clothes you're wearing, so there's no icky nudity on British TV at teatime.

So basically, it's a mixture of Surrogates and Avatar and super-rapid cloning, along the lines of "The Invisible Enemy" (which also had the "cloning with clothing" thing.) You can imagine all sorts of ways this could go wrong, including the Flesh attaining a separate sentience. (But also including people being unable to disengage their consciousness, or suffering ill effects from porting their consciousness into bodies that keep dying.) So it's not really a surprise when it does go wrong, and the Flesh copies of people, known as "Gangers," gain independent life and start wanting individual rights.

It's not a bad set-up for a story, and it allows you to ask all sorts of questions about identity, and our relationship to technology, and "Measure of a Man"-type questions about who gets to be considered a person, and so on. People have to confront their duplicates, which share all their memories, and it's hard to keep thinking of those living, feeling, thinking creatures as just tools, the equivalent of a forklift truck. Like I said, as a standalone science fiction story, it has some potential.

A Doctor Who Story that Doesn't Need the DoctorS

The problem is, in the first half at least, the Doctor contributes nothing to this story. Worse, he actually makes the story more boring, by lecturing us a lot and explaining and re-explaining stuff the story has already shown us. The Doctor's presence means that we get several redundant explanations for the same thing, and then the Doctor tells us that it's all going to go wrong, and then it does go wrong. If your goal is to slow down the story so you can make it last the full 42-odd minutes, then having an extra layer of lecturing and exposition that allows you to show and then tell — and then show again — is great. Otherwise, not so much.

Meanwhile, the episode also tries to introduce a few sources of peril besides the Gangers. There's a solar storm, which is going to do something nasty to the acid station's solar cockerel. And then there's some acid spillage after that. But the episode's heart never really seems to be in the "peril and derring do" stuff — it's much more interested in the ethical dilemma posed by the Gangers. This is the kind of story that Star Trek: The Next Generation knew how to handle.

A Doctor Who Story that Doesn't Need the DoctorS

So if episode one feels as though it's a plain old science fiction story with the Doctor shoehorned in for no good reason, there's at least a major hint in the cliffhanger that episode two will make the Doctor more important to the story. Because the Flesh has "scanned" him while he was scanning it with his sonic screwdriver, and now there's a duplicate Doctor running around. With all the Doctor's memories and whatnot — although given that we just heard a few weeks ago that a Time Lord's body is a miracle, you have to wonder if it's really an exact duplicate.

So all in all... an episode with a super interesting premise, which just never quite seemed to get off the ground in its first half. At least we got to see Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes co-creator Matthew Graham reunited with Marshall Lancaster. Oh, and Amy is still carrying Schrodinger's Zygote — and the Doctor is worried enough that he wants to drop her and Rory off at home right away. (I wonder why he would want to leave them to fend for themselves in that situation. Is the TARDIS part of the problem?)

What did you think?