Spoilers! More spoilers!
Tell you what, I won’t start this review by saying “well at least it wasn’t ’Fear Her’.”
True, Matthew Graham wrote what is often considered the all-time low point since the series’ return. But all jobbing writers have off days. And besides, as we all know by now, he was bounced into speed-writing that script when an intended episode by Stephen Fry fell through. (Only because Fry was temporarily unavailable for rewrites. Let’s hope it re-surfaces someday.)
This, conversely, seems to have been planned to fill the slot of ‘traditional two-parter,’ previously staffed by the episodes popularly known as “that bloody Sontarans two-parter” and “that bloody Silurians two-parter.” These are usually scheduled half-way through a season, presumably intended as a kind of hand-hold, a central pillar to keep aboard all those trad fans who feared things were getting much too modern.
...and indeed we get a ‘classic’ base-under-siege scenario and a plot that borrows liberally from ’The Thing’, (the original ’Thing From Another World’ of course a big influence on the Second Doctor era), Duncan Jones’ ’Moon,’, the Cylons from the “reimagined” ’Battlestar Galactica’, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and that old stalwart ’Frankenstein’.
That last example probably sets the tone of the episode more than any other, which actually works out pretty well. The Gothic fits the show like an old velvet jacket, it feels fitting for them to be running round the corridors of a dimly lit monastery. Inevitably it means science is cast as an anti-religion, with coffin-like objects for the humans to climb in, and a kind of font for the clones (dubbed ‘Gangers’) to appear from. (The latter part an almost complete steal from ’Battlestar’, but what else is new?)
Given this shopping list of ingredients, it may be appropriate that it’s a story about clones who often appear semi-shaped. It’s a rough approximation of a script, in the semblance of form but forever slipping back into some pile of protoplasmic ooze. Many of the twists are too predictable, even for a show such as this. (Did anyone not foresee the ‘ganger’ Doctor appearing, or the two then switching roles? And why do the Gangers take him for one of them, when at that point they’ve no reason to believe there is a Doctor copy?)
Several story elements just kind of sit there, expecting to be accepted. Was it ever explained why they were mining and exporting the acid to the mainland? “Gee, something highly corrosive and toxic – thanks guys!” (Of course it’s there so the humans can ‘dissolve’ in death like the gangers do, but would it hurt to have an explanation internal to the story?)
And as with that bloody Silurians two-parter, there were set-ups which went precisely nowhere. When one crew member starts sneezing, we assume he’ll either pass the Gangers a virus which kills them, or claim to be one of them only for a sneeze to give him away. As it happens, he just sneezes a bit. (Maybe the actor actually had a cold and they just left it in...)
And yet at times there were signs of imagination, even moments which worked well. It was as if the actual Matthew Graham was intermittently wresting the controls from his ganger, and saving the script from being a simulacrum of itself. It even manages a fresh take on the alien imposter theme.
The central premise succeeds in being more than the aggregate of its influences. The Gangers are not id-figures but genuine clones, perfect copies of us - they think and act just as we do. Our most precious illusion, that we are at our core a unique individual, is violated. (Graham has commented: “it’s a Frankenstein’s monster tale and complexities that comes out of the story are moral and social complexities rather than timey whimey stuff.”)
Admittedly this is interesting only in some abstract philosophical fashion. It’s not like one of those science fiction stories which acts as a metaphor for the real world, for slavery, the extraction of wage labour or some such. (And it’s another thing which makes no internal sense. In the future why don’t they just use robots for dangerous work? That’s what we’re already doing in the present, after all!) But it’s dramatically effective. When the scene is with the humans you side with them, but as soon as it switches to the gangers you find that so do your allegiances.
Graham also pulls a nice switch, in making two Gangers opposites, or shadow selves. The human site boss, Miranda, is a battleaxe who immediately sets about seeing the sentient Gangers decommissioned. Jennifer, meanwhile, is little more than a damsel in distress. But with the Gangers their roles are reversed, Miranda is philosophical and fatalistic while Jennifer becomes the ruthless decision maker. (She even makes a speech about being lost as a child, and imagining another self who is strong and decisive.) Admittedly this is yet another element which goes unexplained, but dramatically speaking was quite the right decision.
Reviewing the first episode, Mike Taylor takes issue with a scene where Jennifer shapeshifts in (appropriately enough) a toilet: “It’s not just that the effect wasn’t convincing; it’s that it was the wrong effect. The story doesn’t want or need to go there — we don’t need weird body-shaping powers for the duplicates. The thing about them that makes them interesting is that they are people — precisely not that they are monsters.”
...then in the second part this is compounded by yet another grievous logic-lapse. As Jennifer’s megalomania worsens, the other Gangers desert her for the humans. At which point she turns into a huge rampant monster, whose terrifying menace is only exceeded by its poor quality CGI. Yet the other Gangers seem to entirely lack the ability to respond in kind, despite being made from the same pliable stuff.
And while we’re at it, there’s repeated suggestions that the Flesh (the putty from which the Gangers are formed) is sentient. (The Doctor claims it scans him, and it goes on to make a copy of him without anyone asking it to.) Yet this seems at odds with the notion that the Gangers were given life by accident, by a freak Frankenstein storm, and so are as thrust into events as the humans.
Okay, they can’t be bothered to work this stuff through so we’ll have to do it for them. Imagine that, unknown to both humans and Gangers, the Flesh is somehow sentient. To manipulate the Gangers into doing it’s bidding, it takes the form of their weakest member. (Who then becomes the strongest. It’s like ironic, gettit?) But its string-pulling fails and they side with the humans. At which point it abandons its Jennifer disguise and rears up in its true monster nature. (Incidentally, I would still have cut the toilet scene. The only sign of shapeshifting in the first episode would have been the later neck-twisting, shot in a quick blink-and-you-miss-it moment.)
You don’t really expect things to end by resolving the age-old philosophical question of what constitutes self, in fact you kind of figure there’ll be a monster and a big explosion. But there is something egregious in the way it ends up in such a pile-up of get-outs. First, fate conspires so that some humans and some Gangers survive, but no actual duplicates. Then it turns out the Tardis is handily kitted out to cure both ‘Gangeritis’ and the blood clot which Miranda suffers from.
There’s also something rather incoherent and dissatisfying about the cliffhanger we’re then served. Not over where any of it is going, of that only the Lord and Moffat know. (Though frankly I’m starting to have doubts about Moffat.) But how it fits with the episode we’ve just watched. Even if Amy is somehow a Ganger, and has been since before the episode started, how come the Doctor simply dissolves her? Hasn’t he spent the last hour and a half convincing us that the Gangers are a sentient life form, that to dispose of them is murder and all the rest of it?
Despite all the lapses and failings, there was enough good stuff to keep you watching. In the best trad two-parter so far, it pulled together some of the appealing elements from the old show and spread something more challenging (albeit thinly) on top. It’s just a shame it couldn’t have delivered a little more on its promise. In fact it seemed less a throwback than a typical episode for this season; a bunch of stuff slung together, some of which is quite appealing in itself. I’ve been tempted to call it ’The Almost Episode’ but perhaps we’ll end up using that description for the whole season.