Spoiler Warning: If you haven’t seen these episodes yet, River Song would disapprove of your reading any further. I’m pretty much going to spoil every spoilable part of the story.
I haven’t seen a lot of classic Who. I’ve seen a reasonable amount, though, and I have read the excellent discussions of the Troughton era so far over at The TARDIS Eruditorum. And so, when I watched The Rebel Flesh, it was pretty clearly not just a base under siege story, but an homage to Troughton. And it does the base under siege in new Who style fantastically. And the thing that new Who does well consistently is to take a very personal, human story and make it feel epic. Or, occasionally, to take a very epic story and make it feel personal and human. Here what we have is mostly the former.
The story manages to make us empathize alternately with the humans, who are callous in their treatment of the gangers, and the gangers, who want to kill their human counterparts and replace them. Playing a character and an almost-but-not-quite-identical version of that character is an impressive feat, and all of the actors in this story are up to the task.
Rory continues to grow on me, as he has been steadily since he came back to life as a Roman. Arthur Darvill’s performance here is superb; he’s grown as an actor noticeably throughout his stay on the show. More impressive, though, is Matt Smith’s performance. I’ve said before that he is a great Doctor, but simply not as good an actor as Tennant. While I stand by that generally, in this episode he delivers an amazing performance. In particular, the scene where he speaks on behalf of the flesh, getting angry at Amy and begging not to be asked to die again was chilling. It recalled Eccleston’s screaming at the Dalek in Dalek, and was wonderfully delivered.
There were only a few weak points in the story. Foremost was the absolutely atrocious child actor brought in near the end of The Almost People. It was actively hard to suspend my disbelief and accept that this kid was Jimmy’s son, and it was the one moment that really pulled me out of the narrative. The other weakness the story had was a general sprawling feeling in its pacing; it felt a bit less focused than the rest of this season has. But this wasn’t a serious issue by any means. The emotional content of the episode carried it through the rough patches.
But now, let’s talk about what everyone wants to talk about - the reveals.The first reveal - that the Doctors had switched places, and thus Amy had told the Doctor of his impending death, was fantastic, even if it was a bit predictable. More importantly, it didn’t seem to surprise him - either he was too committed to pretending to be a ganger to let his surprise show, or he already knew about his death on the beach. Either way, that suggests that the Doctor knows more than he has let on. And, as I’ll explore below, he definitely seems to have a plan.
So, the second reveal was totally unexpected. I absolutely didn’t see it coming, at least, and anyone who says they did is probably lying, or has stolen Moffat’s production notes. To recap: the Amy travelling with the Doctor and Rory has been a Flesh copy since (presumably) her capture in the orphanage in Day of the Moon. What’s more, the Doctor already knows, and has probably known for a while. Throughout the episode he tells Amy things that suggest this: to ignore Eye Patch Lady, to ‘breathe’, and ‘to push, but only when she tells you’. What’s more, the reason he came to the monastery in the first place was to learn enough about the Flesh to sever its connection to Amy as humanely as possible.
This suggests he has known that Amy wasn’t human since he first scanned her and learned about her pregnancy in Day of the Moon. He also seems to know more about her present situation than he has any right to. The question that remains is why he chose this moment to make this move. The only reason I see that he would have waited before making this move is that he didn’t want to tip the Silence off that he had seen through their ruse. So why tip them off now? I suppose it is possible that he has not had time; if this season has occurred with no significant gaps, this is the first story since Amy was replaced in which the TARDIS has landed intentionally; in both episodes between Day of the Moon and this story, the TARDIS was trapped in some way.
The other possibility is that he knows something has changed; perhaps the fact that Amy’s pregnancy is nearly over is relevant. Or perhaps the Doctor possesses (or has inferred) some knowledge that the viewers lack. In general, we have seen a lot of scenarios from Moffat’s Doctor that are reminiscent of the seventh Doctor stories where the Doctor shows up at a location with a plan fully hatched, or even already underway. I suspect we will see more of this trend with the series 6 arc itself.
Edit: Phil had some corrections to mention about my chronology:
The switch has to be before the orphanage. She sees eyepatch lady before being captured in the orphanage. Since the implication is that eyepatch lady has been looking in at Amy’s actual body and Amy’s mind just conflated the image into one, the switch must happen in the three month gap between Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon, or in the gap between A Christmas Carol and The Impossible Astronaut.
Rewatching Impossible Astronaut, I am of the view that it happens between seasons. I think the Doctor knows when she steps into the TARDIS. Look both at the look he gives after her as she goes under the floor of the TARDIS and at how he approaches her getting him to trust her - asking if someone is making her say that, and demanding she swear “on something that matters” to get her to show that she’s really Amelia, not just some Amy impersonator.
Good points! I totally mixed the whole sequence of events in Day of the Moon up in my head. So, how long has Amy been FleshAmy? We could suppose that she’s definitely been Flesh for the entirety of Series 6.
This, of course, leads me to ask: assuming the Silence is behind Amy’s kidnapping, why also steal FleshAmy? If the Silence knew Amy was flesh, why would they go to so much trouble to kidnap her, and scare her, and, well, all the rest of the things she went through in the series opener?
One possibility is that Eye Patch Lady isn’t working with the Silence, and the Silence didn’t know Amy was really FleshAmy. They may have wanted Amy for reasons related to her pregnancy, and then been confused when they found she wasn’t pregnant. In other words, the Doctor and the Silence may have a common enemy here. Is this a strong possibility? Not really. but it’s interesting.
That paragraph actually led me to theorize that we know roughly when the swap happened - FleshAmy must have been created before Amy became pregnant, and the swap happened shortly after Amy realized she was pregnant. Otherwise, FleshAmy would have been pregnant as well. Unless the Silence kidnapped FleshAmy to extract, deliver, or kill the FleshTimeHead.