|You, um, might want to get a doctor to look at that.|
It’s May 21st, 2011. Bruno Mars is at number one with “The Lazy Song,” which is unseated after a week by Pitbull and several other artists with “Give Me Everything.” Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, David Guetta, and LMFAO also chart. In news, the EU agrees to a bailout for Portugal, Ratko Mladi? is arrested in Serbia, Queen Elizabeth II makes the first monarchal visit to Ireland in a century, Oprah Winfrey’s talk show goes off the air, and Herman Cain declares that he’s running for President.
On television, meanwhile, it’s The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People. Perhaps first and foremost, this is the story that seems to have scared the production team off of two-parters for a while. It is in many ways easy to see why. Despite a very strong first episode cliffhanger, both halves of this feel overly long. This is mostly due to specific problems introduced by Matthew Graham – instead of using the extra space to better develop characters, he simply goes overboard with numerous flatly developed characters (quick, name a single character trait of Dicken’s. Actually, being able to remember which one Dicken is counts). Instead of elaborating or developing his various themes, he just repeats them over and over again, endlessly reiterating, for instance, the bit about the eyes. Significantly emphasized things don’t even end up mattering – Cleaves acquires headaches in the second episode that are stressed a bunch, contribute nothing, and then cleared away with a miracle cure at the end of the episode. It’s bizarre and disjointed and ultimately rather unsatisfying.
But in many ways it’s not the particulars of why this doesn’t quite work that are most significant. It’s sufficient to note that they just don’t. Yet again. This isn’t unique to two-parters – it’s not as though the one-part episodes in any given season are devoid of crap. But there is a reasonable sense that the two-parters are prone to faltering for some reason or another. The reasons differ, but they seem to flounder when they’re not season finales. Moffat, in particular, has put a lot of effort into figuring out how to make the two-parter work, saying in more than one commentary that he believes the trick is to have the second episode begin in a markedly different place than the first one leaves off.
Certainly The Almost People attempts that, devoting its second episode to the existence of a Ganger Doctor, but in doing so it reveals the potential problem with the approach, which is that it ends up feeling like the real premise of the story doesn’t show up until the halfway mark. This isn’t helped by the fact that the basic version of the premise – the Gangers getting loose – takes a third of an episode to get established. It is in many ways the same problem that plagues a lot of episode ones in the classic series: the gravity of the cliffhanger often distorts the storytelling.
But it’s not like this is the only problem two-parters have. For whatever reason, the new series has not been consistently great about recognizing what concepts deserve ninety minutes of exploration and what ones don’t. Implicit in the idea of a two parter is that there’s a certain degree of importance – they’re tacitly the big episodes. Which sort of works when they highlight big name monsters, but even there one has the sense that the two-parter is just there to justify the expense of creating a bunch of Silurian or Sontaran costumes as opposed to because there was a compelling ninety minute story to be told.
And so this marks the point where this trick is simply removed from Doctor Who’s toolbox, at least for the time being. I mean, I’m not going to be shocked to discover that the next season finale is a two-parter, but the business-as-usual two-parter seems to be for the time being properly dead. It’s worth reflecting, then, on whether this is a good thing or not. As mentioned, it’s not as though the two-parter covered itself in glory over its five-and-a-half year run, but on the other hand, when it worked, it worked well. And it does mark a real shift away from the classic series model, where the cliffhanger was a fundamental unit of how the show worked.
This story is nostalgic in other ways as well, though: it’s flagrantly based around the old Patrick Troughton-era base under siege format. This is true right down to the high concept setting, although that’s also where things begin to break down. When the Troughton era’s base under siege mania was at the height of its tedium, one of the biggest problems became the sense that stories were just being generated by a sort of mix-and-match set. But nothing in it felt quite as strangely incongruous as an acid-mining monastery. The reason is simple enough – the new series’ fondness for location shoots means that shooting around a castle is both cheap and nice looking. But the problem is that the monastery is such a diffuse setting that it never really works. The fact that they’re suturing together a half dozen or so castles to create it and the fact that they just keep tacking new rooms on as the plot necessitates it doesn’t help either, but the problems with the base go deeper than that.
Which is a pity, because other parts of this are really genuinely good ideas. So much of the base under siege subgenre is based on paranoia about the boundary between the inside and outside. And the Gangers push this boundary interestingly, given that they are by their nature a transgression against it. They are simultaneously the very definition of “inside,” and yet they’re also expressly framed as monstrous, such that the tension is not merely “how are we going to keep the monsters out,” but rather “wait a moment, what is and isn’t a monster anyway?”
Or, at least, it tries. The problem is that ultimately, it still ends up siding with the humans. The basic fact that the Gangers have to do double duty as “they’re people the same as us” and “they’re monstrous” undermines things. On a fundamental level, there’s a real problem with the fact that the only outright villain the story has is a Ganger. It’s the usual problem that stories of this sort have – on the one hand, The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People wants to sympathize utterly with the Ganger’s cause, and on the other it wants to make sure it shuts down the possibility that their oppression justifies any sort of revolutionary act. And so the entrenched structures of power – the humans – are ultimately given priority. This is implicit even in the structure of the plot – the Doctor defaults to spending his time with the humans, and while he pushes them to save the Gangers as well, the result is still a story in which saving the humans appears to be the primary goal. Even the title is working against the Gangers, relegating them to the status of “almost” people.
So what we have is a story that’s trying to smartly update the old base under siege story, but that ultimately just reaffirms its underlying paranoia and ethos while muddling about without doing much of anything. The only thing that really, properly works is the Ganger Doctor, and I’ll give credit to the “the Doctors were switched all along” idea, although an episode that demands to be rewatched in order for its best features (namely the subtlety of Smith’s acting) to be visible is perhaps a bit of a problem. But the real problem is how utterly timid the resolution to the cliffhanger is. Introducing a second Doctor just to have him flawlessly and seamlessly ally with the regular Doctor is a pathetic excuse for a plot twist.
For proof of concept, just imagine an alternate version of the story in which the Ganger Doctor and the regular Doctor, despite both being good guys, fall on opposite sides because the Ganger Doctor is slightly more disturbed and moved by the agony of the Gangers and thus ends up in actual conflict. You’d have had a story that actually interrogates the underlying bias that says that oppressed populations should attempt assimilation and politely ask their oppressors to maybe stop killing them so much – one where the moral center of the show is actually split. But instead we get both versions of the Doctor acting in perfect and tedious unity.
Part of this is the underlying plot thread that the Doctor is here in order to investigate the Flesh because of Amy. Which means all the actual concerns of the story are ultimately sublimated to the “we had to learn about the Flesh” plot. Which is the other rather frustrating thing about this story – it’s ultimately an eighty-eight minute tease for the setup for the next episode. The final scene is so utterly horrifying and upsetting that it overshadows everything else in the story.
What’s puzzling about this, as has been pointed out by many a commenter, is that the melting down of Amy’s Ganger is a terribly unsatisfying resolution for a story that’s spent the bulk of two episodes stressing how Gangers are people too and how decommissioning them is awful. Yes, there’s an explanation to be had about how Amy wasn’t a proper Ganger or whatever, but it’s still a jarring transition. But that’s ultimately overlooked, because the entire story is just there to lead to a shocking twist in the epilogue.
It’s not that the twist doesn’t work in its own right – I’m quite partial to A Good Man Goes to War, in fact. But there’s something immensely frustrating and a bit cynical about doing a two-part story that ultimately just leads up to a barely related cliffhanger. Much about Season Six is a shaggy dog story, but in many ways this is the most flagrant and annoying example. Much like Matthew Graham’s other contribution to Doctor Who, this is a story that ultimately fails to add up to anything – iconography in search of a purpose. As with Fear Her, there are numerous interesting things that could have been done with this story and this concept. But none of them actually were.