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New Who 6.6: The Almost People

I watched this on Saturday at my parents' house, but then also rewatched the whole two-parter after I'd returned to Leeds, so that I could judge it as a whole and reassess some its earlier parts in the light of later revelations. So this review will go back over The Rebel Flesh to some extent, as well as covering The Almost People. After all, as I said last week, The Rebel Flesh was very hard to judge in and of itself.

That Ending and the build-up to it

Obviously the main reason I wanted to rewatch the whole story was so that I could see how it had or hadn't built up effectively to That Ending. Having done so, my opinion is that the ending wasn't deliberately conceived to completely overturn the moral weight the rest of the story, but that the way that the two were spliced together was so badly botched that that was nevertheless the overwhelming effect.

Personally, the ending didn't come as a huge surprise to me, because parrot_knight had very impressively predicted it the previous week. But I think it was that, rather than good writing, which allowed me not to be too bothered by seeing the Doctor destroying ganger-Amy, and Rory accepting it, after two whole episodes in which we'd got used to gangers who were entirely autonomous people (thanks to the solar storm-strike). I didn't need much time to grasp that Amy was a ganger, and instead had the spare mental capacity to process the Doctor's statement that he "needed enough information to block the signal to the Flesh", and realise that this meant Amy's ganger did not have its own independent Amy-consciousness, but was merely being 'driven' by her while she was held prisoner somewhere else.

Which was all fine and dandy for me - but obviously whichever of Matthew Graham or Steven Moffat was primarily responsible for that scene should not have been writing something which was so morally unclear that viewers could only grasp what the characters' motivations were meant to be if they already knew the Massive Plot Twist Which Changes Everything in advance. The whole emotional trajectory of the previous two episodes had taken us to a place where we assumed that the destruction of any ganger was a bad thing, and I think rather more explicit dialogue about the difference between Amy's ganger and the ones we'd just got used to was needed. I'm not surprised that a lot of people instantly reacted very badly to what the Doctor appeared to be doing.

Besides, even if we do grasp that Amy's ganger is still being driven by human-Amy, rather than having a separate, autonomous Amy-consciousness, it has also been made very clear that this 'early' version of the Flesh also has an independent sentience all of its own. It isn't simply a blank template - the Doctor feels its consciousness in his mind the very first time he examines it; Jennifer reports that the eyes of gangers continue to ask 'why?' even after the links with the humans who were using them have been severed; and the discarded ganger-Jennifers also clearly have a consciousness which is presumably no longer hers (as they were created before the solar storm-strike, so Jennifer's consciousness should have been cleanly decoupled from them when they became damaged.

Even on a rewatch, then, the Doctor's treatment of ganger-Amy at the end of The Almost People seems unforgivable in the light of all this. We see him just leaving the vacated Flesh to splash all over the TARDIS floor, which doesn't seem very Doctorish. But again, I think this is largely a case of bad writing. After all, we've been told that this is an early version of the Flesh, and we've also just seen the Doctor urging Cleaves and Dicken as they go into the Morpeth Jetsan press conference, "Make them understand what they're doing to the Flesh. Make it stop." So it is entirely possible that that particular moral dilemma is somehow fixed by the time Amy's ganger is created in some later timeline. But again, this needs to be made much more explicit if it is going to play effectively with the majority of viewers. I'm all for subtlety, and little cues and passing references which you only pick up with the benefit of hindsight, but something with the emotional significance of this scene - potentially completely rewriting our understanding of all three of the regular TARDIS crew - really needs to be handled rather more carefully than this was.

From Matthew Graham, of course, I wouldn't be too surprised to see such botching. It's certainly what Fear Her would give us to expect. From Steven Moffat, I'm a little more disappointed. It has been said elsewhere that his moral compass needs re-calibrating, and I know I was driven to rage and despair by some of the messages he appeared to be promulgating in Forest of the Dead. But he is at least usually a very tidy writer, very well aware of the interplay between one scene and another, and the impact which even tiny details can have when they are mulled over by the audience. Perhaps that is the problem, though? Perhaps he has got so wrapped up in relying on people to pick up tiny details, that he has lost sight of the need to make the emotionally important things crystal clear at the same time?

I know not everyone loves Russell T. Davies, but there's one thing I think we can be pretty sure of about him as a writer. He would have made a scene in which the Doctor had to destroy what we thought until seconds before was an ordinary human companion really work emotionally. There would have been tears, swelling music from Murray Gold, dramatic lighting, and a complete pause in all other action while the emotional resonances of the scene were worked through (or, if you're feeling less charitable, 'milked for all they were worth'). I'm pretty sure we would have heard the phrase "I'm so sorry". It isn't quite fair to say that the Doctor does nothing to try to comfort or reassure Amy in the Graham / Moffat version of the scene, since he does say something to the effect that she shouldn't be scared, as they are coming for her. But I believe that either of Russell's Doctors would properly have explained to Amy (and, of course, the audience) exactly what was actually happening, and promised emphatically that it would all be OK. Moffat's Eleven did no such thing - and unless that turns out to be a first step on a terrible and tragic character trajectory for him next week (which it may well do), then I think that's a problem.

Anyway, obviously that's the main issue everyone has been talking about since the episode aired, but there are a few other things which struck me about either or both episodes.

Other observations on The Rebel Flesh

One is the possible resonances of ganger-Buzzer's fall into the acid pool in the first story's pre-credits sequence. I didn't register its significance at the time, but in the light of the ending of The Almost People it suddenly sparked off all kinds of resonances with the Sixth Doctor's infamous acid bath scene from Vengeance on Varos. A story which ends with us all wondering how the Doctor can appear to be murdering his own companion also begins with someone accidentally being knocked into a pool of acid? That's got to be significant - especially given how very continuity-literate Moffat has proved himself to be.

It makes me think the reference might even have been intended as a deliberate comment on the ending - a challenge to the viewer. It's like Moffat (through Graham) is saying "Hey guys - get ready for me to serve you up a scene which will spark every bit as much controversy as the Sixth Doctor and the acid bath!" If so, it's possible that the ending is more deliberately ambiguous than I've given credit for in my commentary above. But I still hold that there are some types of scene which badly need not to be ambiguous - and just because Six's acid bath scene is too ambiguous for its own good, that doesn't mean it is a good idea to replicate it.

Talking of the acid, I'm still very unclear as to why they are mining it in this story. I really thought that I must have just missed the exposition of this on the first watch, but I hadn't. The rewatch proved that it is never discussed, and we are apparently just supposed to take this rather bizarre behaviour as read. I do think it's rather clever to set a story which takes place in the 22nd century in a historic building, though. This is a very nice side-step around the problem of zeerust, and I take my hat off to whoever had the idea.

Meanwhile, the scene in which the Doctor babbles away to Buzzer along the lines of "I'll go to the foot of our stairs! Eee bah, bah gum - or not..." cries out for comparison with "Yo ho ho - or does nobody actually say that?" in The Curse of the Black Spot. It's another example of the Eleventh Doctor trying all too hard to mimic contemporary idioms, in exactly the way the the Tenth Doctor warned his companions away from - an observation which I owe entirely to the very perceptive qatsi. Is this just meant to be a character-quirk - a way of differentiating the two Doctors' rather different approaches to the situations which they find themselves in? Or is it meant to be indicative of one of Eleven's deficiencies in comparison to Ten - that he is so hopelessly removed from humanity that his attempts to 'fit in' with human beings can slip into insensitive parody rather than real connection? Neither the pirates nor Buzzer seemed very impressed, anyway.

Other observations on The Almost People

Turning to The Almost People, the main reason I wanted to rewatch this was the Doctor's revelation near to the end of the episode that Amy has got the original and ganger versions of the Doctor mixed up. Here, the real Doctor, whom Amy thinks is a ganger, explains that he isn't, and hasn't been all along - that he and the ganger Doctor swapped shoes in order to test her reaction to both of them. So I wanted to see when they might have done that, and how the scenes in which Amy rejects what she thinks is the ganger Doctor read in the knowledge that he's actually the original.

After rewatching, I'm pretty sure that he really means it about 'all along' - I think the Doctors swap shoes while everyone is focusing on the besieged chapel door, so that they have done so before they even point out that their shoes are different. If this is right, then the scenes between Amy and both Doctors are absolutely heart-breaking. What appeared on first watch to be the ganger Doctor feeling hurt because Amy is rejecting him is actually the original Doctor feeling hurt because he is discovering how prejudiced she is capable of being - and that is a lot harder to see. It also means that Amy explicitly tells the original Doctor (thinking he's the ganger) that she has seen his death - news to which he shows absolutely no sign of surprise whatsoever. I actually think it is worth rewatching the second episode at least for this reason alone - even if you found the story a bit pants in other ways.

Meanwhile, I felt that the characterisation of Rory was rather off in this episode. Surely after the Jennifer-fight, he should be angry with what he thinks is the human Jennifer for killing the entirely autonomous ganger-Jennifer, with whom he has become so emotionally involved? Instead, though, he seemed to move on and accept it unsettlingly quickly. Also, why doesn't he see through the surviving Jennifer's blatant trick to get him to put his hand on the security recognition panel, and realise that she can't be human either? I had thought rather more of Rory than both of these events suggested, and I am generally rather disappointed to see his character being eroded by a weak writer.

Finally, what about those rather prominent and gratuitous red balloons in the 'happy ending' scene between Jimmy and his son? Two possible resonances struck me here. One is with the little girl who walks around with a similar balloon in Human Nature / The Family of Blood. That could simply be Moffat lovingly stroking his back-catalogue, or it could convey a more active significance - for example, evoking another story in which people who appear to be ordinary human beings actually aren't. The other is with the song, '99 Red Balloons'. Given that this is actually about a war-machine (mistakenly) springing into action against an alien threat, it seems to me that it could very well be a visual reference to the subject matter of the coming two-parter.

The coming two-parter

Talking of that, obviously all sorts of exciting prequels and trailers have now popped up on the BBC's official site, so I think the general trajectory of the story is pretty clear. But there are just two things in The Almost People I want to note which are clearly pointers for it.

1. When the Doctor and others have been trapped by Rory and ganger-Jennifer in the acid mine-shaft room, he angrily bashes on the door and shouts (amongst other things) "Roricus Pondicus!" - i.e. Rory's Roman soldier name. This is only the last in a long line of references to Rory as a Roman which have been bubbling all season, and of course we know from the prequels that Rory is going to be appearing in Roman costume in the next story. But I'm just noting it down because this is obviously being flagged up pretty hard, so it is probably going to have some particular plot significance in the mid-season two-parter.

2. One of the last things ganger-Doctor (I think - could have got confused) says to Amy is "Push, Amy - but only when she tells you to". So it's not just that he knows prisoner-Amy is pregnant and about to go into labour - the use of 'she' there also very much suggests that he knows who is holding her.

All to be revealed in a scant 24 hours - woot!

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( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 3rd, 2011 08:14 pm (UTC)
The most articulate argument yet concerning the mishandling of the disintegration of ganger-Amy. Thank you. I wasn't bothered by the jellification of Amy, because I'd anticipated the rationalisation, but even though there will apparently be some sort of explanation tomorrow, the drama of the situation could have been brought out more, together with an explanation as to why the Doctor has to do this *now*.

Doctor Who has a script executive, a script editor and a script supervisor, but none of them seem to have the job of reminding the Imperator scriptorum that he is mortal. Some reference to being caught between two options - letting Amy's captors know that the Doctor knows by dissolving the Amy ganger immediately, or else risking the Amy ganger possibly relaying information about the Doctor's rescue efforts back to the kidnappers - might have been an option.
Jun. 3rd, 2011 08:27 pm (UTC)
Aw, cheers! Mind you, it becomes easier to write a detailed and dispassionate review of a scene like that nearly a week after it has aired, when the emotional impact has dissipated and you've had time to digest other people's views on the matter. I am standing on the shoulders of giants to a quite significant extent...

And absolutely dead right about ganger-Amy as a conduit through which prisoner-Amy's captors could spy on the Doctor's rescue attempt! That is exactly the sort of techno-babble which Doctor Who has always done so well to carry its audience through scenes in which the Doctor appears to be doing inexplicable or even immoral things. Maybe that's what we'll get tomorrow - but I really could have done with some of it here.
Jun. 4th, 2011 10:00 am (UTC)
Hmmm that link on moffets moral compus left me with two thoughts.

Firstly there ignoring the key moral aspect of that christmas story 'your half way out of the dark' that the dr could not simply destroy the bad guy because he saw some good in him.

Secondly the dr has always turned up - solved what ever the problem was - and buggered off leaving wider implications to solve them selves. That is his character. So to pick him on that one episode seems odd.

Sorry -!it was the first Christmas episode I'd ever liked.

To me it was clear - post events - that ganger Amy was just a conduit - a prison for real Amy - because she saw the lady the link had to be two way. And if she was about to give birth the doctor had to break her out of that prison in order for her to be able to deal with giving birth.
Jun. 4th, 2011 10:01 am (UTC)
I have no idea why that was done as a reply to somebody - it was meant to be just a general comment:
Jun. 3rd, 2011 08:31 pm (UTC)
To be fair to "fear her" he had just two and a half days to write it. I share your assessment of the treatment of !Amy though.
Jun. 3rd, 2011 08:39 pm (UTC)
Really? I didn't know that. That does make quite a difference, actually - enough that I'm now prepared to say it is quite impressive in that light. It would also explain why he managed to do so much better on Life on Mars. Oh, well, anyway - the fact remains that someone screwed up on the ending to this story.
Jun. 3rd, 2011 09:13 pm (UTC)
Just as Ten relied too hard on being the Lonely God - and then got shot down by Adelaide for playing God, Eleven relies too much on his reputation and telling people he will sort things out because he's the DOCTOR and that's what he does. People have to trust him because he is the Doctor, not because his words or actions say he's definitely going to be able to fix it - in fact, often he has no plan, and is open about that.

So he will get shot down for saying that his reputation precedes him by being the Doctor not being enough. We've already seen hints of that in e.g. The Beast Below, when Amy had the solution, the Doctor got it wrong, and when he was overly pleased at there being two of him in The Almost People because he is THAT arrogant. Eleven has to learn that his reputation is not enough. He has to do things, be there, make people feel better in the here and now. He's calling in a lot of debts in tomorrow's episode, and as with the Pandorica it relies on the tales told about him. His reputation once more. River in the trailer - "he will rise further than ever and he will fall further".

That's a long-winded way of saying that quite apart from Moff's tendency to keep away from overt sentimentality, and to trust the audience to pick things up too much (and then have to fix it with a recap of all the clues in the finale, judging by last year) it's deliberate that Eleven is crap at reassuring people. Rory, in particular, does not believe in the way Amy does that the Doctor will always win.
Jun. 3rd, 2011 10:19 pm (UTC)
'We see him just leaving the vacated Flesh to splash all over the TARDIS floor, which doesn't seem very Doctorish'

It seems quite doctorish to me - I've never seen him with a mop and bucket let alone a duster cleaning up after making a mess ;-)
Jun. 3rd, 2011 11:00 pm (UTC)
the use of 'she' there also very much suggests that he knows who is holding her.

I seem to recall that amy had mentioned at some point seeing the face looking through the window hasn't she? So that might be how the doctor knew it was a she... I can't quote you when though...
Jun. 4th, 2011 07:36 am (UTC)
Just rewatched final scene to clarify. He says he needed to learn enough to block the "signal to the flesh...the signal to you". That implies to me that he sees the signal is primarily an inward one animating ganger amy (but obviously such a signal would be two way and allow possibility of eavesdropping). The animating consciousness behind the ganger must be amy because otherwise the shoe test makes no sense and it must be real time linked to amy because otherwise the "leak" of info from real amy made no sense.

I thought initially that the doctor had shut the signal off but the ganger amy retained consciousness. However another (and better) alternative from a rewatch is that the shutting down of the signal was in itself sufficient to destroy ganger amy which had minimal independent consciousness and this is what he does with his sonic screwdriver. This would explain hus comment "given everything we've learned I will be as humane as i can". The following action is not killing a consciousness but shutting down a signal remotely animating flesh.

The "science" of the story as I understood it wasn't after all supposed to imply that every ganger was always a fully conscious duplicate but that they sometimes could become so. So I do think it is off to assign full moral agency to any portion of the flesh that had ever animated a person (and indeed that was not suggested). However, it was explicit that it sometimes could be and hence a moral grey area. (Dealing with consciousness in potentia rather than consciousness per se).

I imagine the next story will begin with a "mop up" of the ending of this one (pardon pun) including technobabble "why i have not just killed an amy". That would have made a dramatically unsatisfying ending to the previous episode.

Edited at 2011-06-04 08:09 am (UTC)
Jun. 4th, 2011 08:50 am (UTC)
Oh I am afraid your forest of the dead link is broken - missing an l on the end I think.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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