Doctor Who – The Rebel Flesh – Episode review

I’ve got to admit, The Rebel Flesh has left me stumped. The TARDIS, blown off course by a solar tsumani, lands outside a medieval monastary where acid is being mined and pumped to the mainland. The work is being done by a skeleton crew through Avatar-like clones made possible by the ‘living flesh’ substance referred to by the title.

When things get struck by lightning/weird celestial storms, strange things happen. Ask Johnny 5 and the Fantastic 4. In the case of “The Flesh”, well, the strange sentient gunk takes on the thoughts, memories and feelings of the people they were intended to clone. And in a storyline that reminds me a lot of the series 5 two parter The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, the humans become the initial aggressor against a species they don’t understand and don’t hold to be ‘legitimate’ life forms.

And despite The Doctor making a sincere effort to broker a peace between the humans and their ‘Gangers, the leader of the mining operation opens up hostilities when she kills one of the gangers.

Oh, not forgetting that of course the big Gallifreyan goofball would stick his hand in the gunk and end up getting cloned himself. Those of us who’ve been speculating on this episode will have seen the Clone Doctor coming a mile off, especially with his “Trust me, I’m The Doctor” line. But though it wasn’t much of a surprise, the sight of Matt Smith with a creepy translucent mask on still gave me a shudder.

Was it scary?

It’s hard to tell if this episode was scary or simply confusing. But then, in an episode where people and their clones are running around, confusion is probably the intended effect. And that part worked.

I have an increasing problem with the amount of “vintage” Doctor Who elements that are creeping back into the series though. Last week it was the cheap “infinite [[TARDIS (Doctor Who)|TARDIS]] corridor” set. Increasingly, the background music is taking on the form of that old-school noodly music that dogged the old series. The only difference is the quality of instruments in the production – replace that with crappy synthesiser and you’re right back in the 80s.

Likewise the people hiding round corners and lurking in dark corners of the castle. It should be obvious to most watchers that there’s a conscious effort being made to throw back to the style of the classic series. I don’t like it. It’s what turned me off Doctor Who as a child, and I don’t like it on a modern TV show. Sorry.

Conceptually speaking

I admire the concept behind The Rebel Flesh though. Those of you who were reading my Who reviews last year know I loved the execution of The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood.

Again we have a story about two opposed groups either having to work together or kill each other. This time, something that humans previously thought was handy sludge turns sentient and inconveniently starts wanting to be treated with respect. What makes this so difficult for the humans in question is that they’re staring at clones of themselves who have the same memories and personalities that they do. What happens when your clone wants to come home, have dinner and play with your/his kids? Try explaining that to the wife!

Unfortunately, the execution of this concept gets muddled with all the skulking around corridors and twin confusion. Like I say, the Silurian story from last year took great pains to balance the action with the higher concept. This story needed to be much clearer: do clones have the same rights as the original life form they’re based upon? 

It’s a question that’s been asked in sci-fi before. It’s why I mentioned Johnny 5 up above – does a newly sentient robot have feelings, or a right to be treated like a human? You’ll see elements of this debate running through other shows like Caprica and Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse.

The bigger picture: what does this mean for the series arc?

Yes. Two Doctors. One original, one clone flavoured.

But you see the dilemma: it’s too overt a solution now. Would you kill off The Doctor, make a big deal about him being dead in 200 years, and then hand the viewers as obvious a solution as a clone?

Oh yeah, Mr Delaware The Third, you say you’re sure that was The Doctor’s corpse – but how do you know? That said…didn’t Moffat say he wanted The Doctor to be more incognito in future, less the notorious defender of planets and return him to a slightly more anonymous space/time traveller?

Following that line of thought, it would make sense if a clone Doctor had been burned on a funeral pyre. River Song said it was because Time Lord cells would be much sought after. But what if burning the dead clone also burned the evidence that it was a clone? And what if this ultimately is a way to fake The Doctor’s death…in the eyes of the universe?

But all the same, I find myself conflicted that such an obvious device would present itself now. Over to you lot – what did you think a) of the episode, and b) of the clone development?

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  1. Dilettante

    Personally, this is one of those areas where the Doctor’s assumption of supreme authority bugs me.* I can’t see how the factory workers have any option but to kill the clones. A sentient robot is different – while sentient, it is still its own thing. Either the Doctor has to take the flesh to a different time and universe to live entirely separate lives, or the factory workers should kill them. Its absurd to expect them to share their children or their memories with copies. 

     That rant about the philosophy of it over, I thoroughly enjoyed the episode. 🙂 Although its a little tragic to see yet another story set on Earth. Mr Davies’ lamentable disdain for ‘the Planet Zog’ appears to linger.


    *Admittedly, not nearly so much as in The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. He had no right whatsoever to set his tagalongs up as negotiators, as if they had plenipotientary power on behalf of the human race. His hubris sometimes bugs me.

  2. pirho

    Since the doctor touched the living goo, it is possible that this is where the clone will come from.  And Having not seen the whole episode yet, I think the tardis is going to somehow get cloned as well.

  3. TrueSatan

    What I found grating was the repeated misuse of the English language…The Doctor kept saying “disorientated” and there is no such word…it should be disoriented. Put simply one may orient something and can disorient it. My old English teacher would have thrown, with hellish accuracy too, a blackboard duster at me full force for less!


     Sadly this issue was, to me at least, sufficiently jarring as to knock me out of enjoying the episode and into annoyance. Wasn’t there a time when the BBC was proud to be a bastion of good English?

      1. TrueSatan

        Disorientated has become such a common misspelling in America that it is appearing in US dictionaries as being correct…it isn’t correct and Americans can’t spell…see colour for an example of same.

          1. Glopp

            Did you stop reading after the first entry?

            It seems—and from more reputable sources than—that you are defending the American over British English usage, contrary to your previous reply.

          2. sgreco1970

            bad news for both sides.

            According to the OED, disorientating is a word, and is interchangeable with disorienting -whether speaking American or British English.

          3. sgreco1970

            yes, let’s, as I realized something last night.

            The only reason Amy finally married Rory was because the Doctor never existed. Poor Rory. I wonder if he’s come to that realization.

  4. sgreco1970

    well, yeah I saw this coming a mile away -but for some reason, it suddenly didnt bother me. I think i didn’t mind it because he wasn’t a clone, per se. I rather enjoyed the notion of the programmable matter, and the avatar-like extensions of the workers. It definitely explains why future doctor didnt know the taste of wine, eh? I suppose one contrivance is as good as any other, I’ll reserve judgement until i see the execution of it all.

    Otherwise, i enjoyed the episode and didn’t actually find it confusing at all. I do like the odd spooky bit, and thought the snake-necked attack scene by jennifer in the bathroom was definitely high on the oogie-boogie meter. But I do see your point as every episode seems to be creepy, tho they did say the concept for this season is a “darker” vision. I doubt it will go on forever, nothing about this series ever does. If Im disappointed at all, its by the fact that this is a 2 part episode and yet the Idris episode wasn’t. Frankly, I could have watched her for years, i found her absolutely fascinating as a character and the actress playing her just delightful. She definitely left me wanting more.

    1. Gerard McGarry

      It definitely explains why future doctor didnt know the taste of wine, eh?

      Actually, no it doesn’t. The clones have the exact memories of the person they’re a copy of, so if The Doctor had tasted wine in the past, then the clone would remember it. Disconcertingly, the clone would also have access to a ton of other memories too. Like how to fly a TARDIS.

      The whole clone thing has me wondering though – does River think she killed The Doctor? Is the “good man” she referred to possibly the clone? I’m sure most of you know that in two episodes’ time the title of the episode is “A Good Man Goes To War”. I’m intrigued. 

  5. sgreco1970

    there are some very interesting clues here, I think there’s something to them:

    1) the young man has a curious sneeze. It can’t be a cold, because they instantly scan the Doctor and companions for “bugs,” something they seemed concerned with. It might be an allergy but, whatever it is its very conspicuous and has to have a pay off at some point. Part 2? maybe, or maybe something later on…

    2) The Doctor seems to have been there before: When they first arrive, the Doctor says something along the lines of, “this is the place,” to which Rory replies, “How can you know that? You’ve never been here before!” The Doctor then points out, as the alarm sounds, that “almost people” are coming but how can he know that yet? Sure, he could’ve been ‘reading” the Sonic Tricorder (chuckle) but I don’t think that’s quite it. Mainly because of the big one: The Doctor and Amy have a very curious chat later on wherein he’s asked what the real reason is that he’s there. He and Amy exchange very, very interesting glances. She knows he knows something he shouldn’t. And then there’s the line, “Gotta get to that cockerel before all hell breaks loose! …never thought I’d get to say that again!” Now, if that’s a quote from an old episode of DW then so be it, but it doesn’t ring any bells for me -any of you? I have the strangest feeling he is up to something deeper in this episode. Perhaps NEITHER doctor we see in this episode is the real Doctor! What if the ‘ganger Doctor steals the tardis and goes back to the beginning of the episode or something? I don’t know, can’t quite fathom how it would all work out but there is definitely something up.

    Lastly, just a comment about the ‘ganger Doctor being the Doctor we see at the start of Astronaut. If that’s all it is, its his ‘ganger and the spacesuit contains the Doctor himself who kills his ‘ganger, NONE of that required the awe inspiring secrecy, invitations in tardis blue, or the absolute emotional ravaging beset upon the companions as they witnessed the death. If that’s how this works out, I think River should slap him again, with a fist.

  6. jefft

    Second viewing and I like this a lot more.

    It gave me a chance to watch with a ‘whats really going on?’ head on.

    And my word there is a lot of series arc shoved in there. The ‘Doctor’ has clearly been there before. He steps out of the TARDIS talking about the cockerel before it has been seen by anyone. Knows that the building is a 13th century monastery before he takes 4 steps. Knows that the people coming are ‘almost people’. And knows that the flesh is early technology (of what?)

    I am wondering if this Doctor is already a ganger. And he is in a loop where he keeps coming back here and creating more Doctors. So that eventually all the ganger Doctors need to be hunted down.

    To avoid spoilers, I suspect it is likely that the big ‘Oh no’ next week may prove to be through choice rather than by force.

    Here are some more things to ponder: it is hard for them to stay in human form.. they keep flicking back and forth between states. Sound like Amy’s baby?

    The sneezing (from Confidential) seems to have been a plot device to establish a panning shot where ‘real’ human sneezes off shot.

    Keep an eye on the Doctors shoes, eh?  I think he was sampled before his shoes dissolved.

    I would expect the gangers to heroically die next episode to avoid having the Doctor and crew feel the need to kill them.

    The Doctor’s ‘as you say up North’ is a total non-sequiteur and itself could indicate he is Ganger confused. Especially as he gets both phrases wrong.

    (For the Americans here.. ‘Ill go to foot of our stairs’ is a Yorkshire expression meaning ‘I am quite surprised’  while ‘Ee By Gum’ (only one By) is a local slang version of ‘By God’ in the same way as Cripes / Crikey is a euphemism for Christ)

    Taken at face value the episode went along nicely, and despite us having seen ‘Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am’ pacing for years, the truth is that this script was paced more like a ‘normal’ show such as Spooks, or Matthew Graham’s own Life on Mars/Ashes To Ashes

    Next week we should be in ‘The Thing’ territory where we don’t know who is real and who is ganger. Who is ganger.. see what I did there? 😉


    1. sgreco1970

      First, let me explain that I’m an American (don’t run, I don’t own a gun) and have been watching British TV since I was a kid. I’ve accumulated a long list of British slang and can watch most shows with full comprehension while my counterparts look at me and ask, “what are they saying?” That said, it seems the British have more slang than America has MacDonalds and there’s always new slang to learn -and anything from Yorkshire is still an utter mystery to me. So, THANK YOU for explaining the slang jokes from this episode. That said, watching Smith’s performance these last 2 seasons, I’m not sure him getting anything wrong counts as a clue as he seems to have inherited more Troughton than he has Baker. And I’m not sure Amy’s baby is half ganger. I think, in the end, that would turn out to be a bit too tragic and I suspect the secret to the baby was at the location he was about to go at the start of the episode but was sidetracked from when the tsunami hit. However, everything else you pointed out I thoroughly agree with.

      I don’t feel Moffat and his writers always follow standard television format rules for scripts. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. There’s one golden rule in scriptwriting; don’t write anything that doesn’t further the plot. This rule does get broken a lot on the new Doctor Who this season. One example is the Amy/Rory lost on the tardis scene from The Doctor’s Wife. It could have been a 10 second scene, it could have been an hour -it didn’t matter because it didn’t actually further the plot other than “they need to get to the old control room.” But it was fun and creepy and an interesting peek into Amy’s fears about Rory so i enjoyed it. But in this episode, I felt the script was much tighter and therefore I doubt that very much happened that didn’t matter. His shoes, as you pointed out, struck me right away. It didn’t lead to very much comedy, it didn’t impact the story -so why was it there? It was a plot point and one that will matter next week. it will serve as a way to tell the two Doctors apart. The sneezing will pan out the same way, I suspect. And then there’s the matter of the Cockerel.

      I think, as you do, that he has been there before. They could both turn out to be ‘gangers. I do hope there isn’t a near infinite series of Doctor ‘gangers gadding about the universe, though and I do hope much of the notion, however much I enjoyed it, is contained to these 2 episodes. I mean, the little girl in the spacesuit could turn out to be a ‘ganger doctor who has regenerated into a little girl but I think we’d be moving into groan territory there. But if there are Doctor ‘gangers that he has to hunt down, and it was not, in fact, the Doctor we see dying on the shore that day in Arizona, then he has seriously hurt River, Amy and Rory by not telling them its not really him. I think the implications of it all would be too severe and really hope that this has a further wrinkle to it in the end.

      The episode DID have a lot packed into it, as you said, and I feel many this season have. Frankly, if I could get one sentence from my lips to Moffat’s ears it would be this: “slow down.” So many of these stories could have been 2-3 part episodes with no problem. Not that it was a favorite, but it could have been had it been paced out better, Curse of the Black Spot had some father/son material that would have mattered more had it been more fleshed out over 2 episodes. The Doctor’s Wife contained not only a wealth of Timelord lore possibilities, but had the most charming new character Doctor Who has seen since Amy Pond and I could’ve watched her for a season, let alone 2 or even 3 episodes. Part 2 of the season opener, Day of the Moon, hurriedly tied up plotlines from Astronaut that could have been made a meal of over 3 or even 4 episodes. Take your time, slow down, don’t rush through plot after plot. These are great stories that each could have been a season of the old Doctor Who and are now flashing by in 46 minutes apiece.

      As a side note, about the Doctor’s Wife -I don’t think its a coincidence that there is a “river” clue there. My original theory was that River was the TARDIS spirit embodied. Turns out we DID see it embodied but it was Idris. However, before she vaporized back into the box, she said “the only water in the forest is the river.” This could still lead to our favorite other theory, that River is Pond all grown up. We’ll have to see how it all works out but she could actually be the TARDIS somehow -or even A TARDIS. We know dozens of Time Lords died on House’s “planet,” as did dozens of their TARDISes -and what became of their TARDIS spirits? I’m grateful that they established a Time Lord can regenerate into a woman sometimes -its my secret hope that the next Doctor regeneration is into a woman for another Doctor Who first.

      Ok, Jefft and one final question, also about slang. In the Doctor’s Wife, when Idris says they have exactly 3 minutes to get somewhere and she starts to dash out, but is stopped by the pain of her organs beginning to fail, she address the Doctor by a different name -or maybe a slang word? I think its important if its not slang, but if it is its a word I don’t know. She asks, “——, how long do these bodies last?” The first word, that she clearly uses to refer to him, is…raffy? Laffy? Lovie? wtf is she saying? lol any help on this one would be appreciated. It could just be an expletive like, “blimey, how long do these bodies last,” but it doesn’t feel like it, it feels like she’s referring to him. If its not slang, is it a clue to his real name? Looking forward to some insight on this.

      My favorite line from The Doctor’s Wife: “I’m the TARDIS!”   “No, you’re not, you’re a bitey, mad lady!”

      1. jefft

        She says ‘ long do these bodies last?’

        Just to get an idea of how long she’s got..


        I just remembered another ‘why did the Doctor say that?’ thing in The Rebel Flesh.

        He describes the facility as Army based, and they deny it. Wonder if it will turn out to be next week?

        1. sgreco1970

          *sigh* and here I thought I’d found something. Thanks for clearing that up tho.

          Ok yes, tho, what was with the Army thing? maybe it was just a device to get them to admit who was really backing them. Maybe they’re army and don’t even realize it, employed by a company that is secretly funded by the army. We’ll find out, I spose.

          1. jefft

            >>Keep an eye on the Doctors shoes, eh?  I think he was sampled before his shoes dissolved.<<

            ..I said..

            But I just saw a clip from next episode and they actually show both Doctors side by side, and they both have the ‘standard’ Docs boots on. So there are at least 3 Doctors in part 2??

          2. sgreco1970

            not all preview clips end up in episodes, we’ll have to wait and see. I’d be shocked if those shoes, and that sneeze, didn’t end up as relevant plot devices but one can never know.

            one thing’s for sure, tho, the doctor knew to be there, knew what was about to happen and knew about the flesh -somehow.

          3. jefft

            Closer look at that clip and (why is it always so ruddy DARK???) it does appear that the shoes are different.

            They make a point of it.

            From what I hear of tomorrow’s end game,… actually, no, I’ll keep it til it airs. If what I heard was right, I’d rather unknow it. Just so it can be a surprise. 

  7. Dilettante

    I don’t see why the sneeze the man has can’t be a cold. When they said ‘scan for bugs’ I thought they meant bugs in the sense of slang for concealed surveillance equipment, which given it was a top secret facility made much more sense.

  8. Dilettante

    Probably to identify him from his clone, I imagine there will be a significant moment where the Doctor tells everyone to be quiet, turns to the chap and asks him, as the sinister music plays, why he hasn’t sneezed in a while. Then clone attack.

  9. sgreco1970

    seems you folks over there are the lucky ones. here in the US, we will not be getting the next chapter of Rebel flesh but instead the season begins its reruns from Impossible Astronaut on.

    1. jefft

      Slight feeling of ‘the shoe is on the other foot’ here, then.

      Many US shows pause here because of Superbowl there, which gets a bit frustrating.

      Theres some interesting information on “Life, Doctor Who and Combom”  you might want to know about.

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