-Dr. River Song
Yeah, okay — there’s a lot of padding here. Lots of chasing about or debating the morality of armed conflict from the relative safety of a fortified room, when we know that this is all just killing time until Something Big happens. Matthew Graham took a lot of heat for writing “Fear Her,” which is not actually a terrible episode. I rather liked that the monster of that particular week turned out not be a horrible monster; the episode was imaginative and nonsensical. Perhaps not very tight, but memorable. Maybe the backlash against that episode is what persuaded Graham to dig deep into Who history and come up with a story that… is strongly reminiscent of the Silurian stories from Pertwee and Smith’s respective first seasons. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t really looking forward to a two-parter of the Doctor running around crying, “Why can’t we all just get along?!” That never works out for him. (“Doctor’s Daughter,” anyone?) The brilliance of the “The Rebel Flesh” and “The Almost People” is that its moral probing is augmented by that delicious twist at the end of the first episode: the Doctor finding himself literally on both sides of the divide, which an emotional stake in whether or not the characters around him buy into his self-righteous sermons. On top of all that, the entire thing leads up to yet another stunning twist that underlines and undercuts the (often literal) hand-wringing that preceded it.
You know going into this whole thing that most of the cast is cannon fodder. The guy with the kid ends up dead, with his clone taking his place. Anyone who’s watched stories of this kind could predict that. It was also inevitable that the “sweet kid” would turn out to be the most bloodthirsty villainess. What I liked most about this moral/political dimension of the story is that while it took the typical potshots at corporate exploitation of disposable “almost humans” (I kept looking for a Weyland-Yutani brand on the walls) it also provided some withering insight into the bloodlust of radical rebellion. A just grievance can lead to heinous means and unjust ends. For this reason, I liked the Flesh as the “monsters” for the week. Owing an obvious debt to the makeup of Deep Space Nine’s Odo, it was easy for the “Almost People” to turn on a dime from being unsettling to being sympathetic. Even if Graham laid it on a bit thick, the dramatic conflict here was more compelling than the one in “The Hungry Earth.” Anchoring this is the TARDIS crew. Rory, the nurse, overcomes his prejudice more easily than Amy, who displays a shocking callousness toward Flesh Doctor. (Ironically, natch, given her own Fleshly nature.)
Then there’s the Doctor. Oh yes, the Doctor. Rarely do we see him genuinely empathize with anyone. Here, he really can’t avoid it. The very idea that he tested both himself and the people around him by a simple shoe-switch is a typical bit of his gamesmanship. Frankly, I don’t think the appearance of Flesh Doctor was an accident. If the Doctor came to that planet with the express purpose of studying an early incarnation of the Flesh, he had to have known that he could conceivably create another version of himself. We see him return to the chapel in “The Rebel Flesh” and zap the Flesh vat with his screwdriver. On first glance, it seems he’s just taking another scan. Upon reflection, it seems clear that he was starting the generation process for his clone. Two Doctors are better than one, and while it was a hoot to see how in love with himself he is, it was also a bit disturbing to realize that they were working in concert the entire time to resolve this conflict — peaceably if possible, with force if necessary. If anything, Flesh Doctor stayed behind the perish primarily because he realized how big of a temptation it would be to run a long game on the entire universe. After all, he could literally be in two places at once. The possibilities boggle the mind, and he’s been courting his dark side all season. Better to nip that Machiavellian impulse in the bud.
Which brings us to the final moments of the story. Throughout the season, Moffat and his writers have shown sharp instincts for where to place that woman with the metal eyepatch for maximum effect. The moment in “Rebel Flesh” where Amy opens the empty room only to find Metal Eyepatch creeped me right out, as did Eyepatch’s appearance in a crowded room in “Almost People.” Not only does it seem that the Doctor already knew what was going on with Eyepatch (a midwife!), but he seems to have gathered that he is fencing against the sword of Damocles. That’s why they were on that planet to begin with — the solar tsunami was a pretext. The Doctor wanted to confirm his suspicions about Amy (rather, “Amy”) and to obtain the information he needs to find an liberate her. You can see that he Knows in some of the hard stares he gives Amy throughout the episode. Which means that this whole thing is part of some Plan. Which is why the moment that he dissolves her Flesh form is so. Damn. Cold.
Throughout the entire story, the Doctor consistently asserted that the Flesh had every right to live as the humans; that they had equal worth, equal value, and that the entire universe needed to see how wrong it was for the Flesh to be used as nothing more than bio-engineered forklifts. Yet what’s the first thing he does when he gets back in the TARDIS?
He murders the Flesh.
I’m sure he had his reasons. Maybe, for timey-wimey, technobabbly reasons, he can only track her if she’s in her actual body. Maybe he can use the dissolved Flesh for it. Who knows? The point is that, if he was planning on this contingency all along, then every time he pressured the humans and their Flesh counterparts to work together, he was applying a gross double-standard. Don’t get me wrong: I love it when the Doctor is sketchy. And things like this definitely make him more complicated and interesting. But it does not endear him to me. I suspect that Moffat is going somewhere with this whole thematic strand, and I can’t wait. But the fact that the Doctor liberates Amy’s consciousness just in time for her to realize the full horror of her situation is unbelievably callous toward both the Flesh counterpart and to Amy. The moral gravity of situation reaches its enlightened conclusion only to be torn apart by the Doctor himself. He must be very angry indeed, to do something that is, in my opinion, morally wrong.
Part of me wonders if this is the sort of frisson that takes place in the writers’ meetings at DW Central. Do Graham and Moffat have genuinely different conceptions of the Doctor and the ethics of the Who universe? Is that ending something that Moffat dictated must come at the end of a story that was mostly all Graham’s? These are questions I suppose could be answered by reading/watching more interviews, but I’m also savvy to the fact that promotional videos or interviews might not give the straight dope. That’s the kind of stuff that comes to light on the 30th anniversary retrospectives. It fascinates me that the Doctor is simultaneously the most humane and the most ruthless man in the cosmos. I don’t think I’d ever want to travel with him, and I’d be terrified if he ever dashed into my life. But I would sleep more soundly knowing that he was out there, bouncing from star to star, doing his thing. That in itself is a chilling thought, and it’s a scary reminder of the kind of cognitive dissonance that we maintain in our daily lives between the things we believe to be right and the things we believe to be necessary.
Do we want the return of a kinder, gentler Doctor? I’m not sure. It would be nice if he could be just as clever and scheming without being… well, a cold-blooded killer. I’m rather worried that we’re seeing the Doctor’s dark side only as part of an elaborate, long-term plan to show the Doctor how wrong it is to have a dark side. That was more RTD’s speed. I love that Moffat has created a series plan that has important components in episodes that initially seem like filler, but turn out later to be integral to the overarching storyline. I love that the episodes have demanded a little more out of me as a viewer, and I love that this Doctor is as sketchy as his classic-era forbears. I don’t want those elements to go away. I would rather have a Doctor who is questionable than a Doctor who is always capital-R Righteous. Given his godlike powers (he’s immortal, he can travel anywhere in time and space, and he’s smart enough to manipulate the histories of any number of planets), it seems more fitting that we should mostly be inclined to root for him, but also to maintain a healthy fear. Rory and Amy trust the Doctor, but they’re not as smitten (at least, not anymore) with the kind of fanservicey worship that afflicted Rose and Martha. They’re more like Sarah Jane, after Sarah Jane left the Doctor, grew up, and found her own path. She loves him, she admires him, and she still needs him… but she’s her own person, and she understands that the Doctor, for all his virtues, is still an alien intelligence with whom the kind of connection we humans crave is nearly impossible.
Moffat, so far, seems to get that. He’s running with it, and it is a race to behold. Wherever the race ends, I’m pretty sure that it is going to be a most fantastic photo finish. ☕