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'Doctor Who' review: 'The Rebel Flesh'

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Buzzer (MARSHALL LANCASTER) Jennifer (SARAH SMART) Jimmy (MARK BONNAR)

© BBC

The Doctor Who two-parter is a tricky beast to negotiate - fail to pack in enough ideas and you're left with what feels like one episode stretched over 90 minutes, but cram in too many themes and you can fail to do any of them real justice. From its strong pre-titles sequence onwards, 'The Rebel Flesh' strikes a satisfying balance between the humorous and the horrific.

Sent off-course by a solar storm, the Doctor, Amy and Rory arrive at what appears to be a medieval monastery and discover a mining team operating within its walls. From the get go, this episode boasts an enjoyably grim atmosphere, bolstered not only by an appealingly dark visual style, but by the strong performances of the guest cast. Lead Balloon's Raquel Cassidy has made a career out of playing cynical, sardonic characters and is perfectly suited to the role of the uncompromising Foreman Cleaves. Sarah Smart is equally impressive as the sensitive Jennifer, while Marshall Lancaster and Mark Bonnar also make strong impressions as Buzzer and Jimmy respectively. Writer Matthew Graham should also be credited for his handling of the two-part structure, using the extra breathing room that the format allows to incorporate insightful character moments and explore the episode's themes, rather than resorting to time-wasting runarounds. Only Leon Vickers as Dicken is slightly short-changed in this opening instalment, but maybe there's more to come from this character?

Jennifer (SARAH SMART)
With the set-up established, the story really kicks in 15 minutes in, as the solar storm rages and the Gangers begin to run wild. It's at this point that the episode begins to fly. The 'Who can be trusted?' theme employed here may not be wholly original, but Doctor Who has a long history of plundering from the greats, and this episode proudly wears its influences - most obviously The Thing - on its sleeve. In general, the Gangers are a well-handled threat, with impressive prosthetics and a few creepy moments combining to make them a memorable monster. Jennifer's slow transformation in the bathroom is particularly grotesque, and it's a real shame that the episode's use of CGI to portray the unique properties of the flesh is considerably less successful. The scene in which Ganger-Jennifer's head pokes out at Rory on a elongated neck, for example, is more likely to provoke laughs than chills.

Thankfully, later sequences in which Jennifer struggles with her true identity are far more successful. The character's touching scenes with Rory are a real highlight of the episode, with Arthur Darvill's companion still bringing just the right mix of humour and pathos to the show. Rory's relationship with Jennifer also showcases an interesting new side to the character, as he repeatedly defies both Amy and The Doctor to take a stand of his own.

Amy Pond (KAREN GILLAN), The Doctor (MATT SMITH)
The episode's final act bears some similarities to last year's Silurian two-parter, as the Doctor tries, ultimately in vain, to negotiate a peace between the human race and the 'monsters' of the piece. 'The Rebel Flesh' however tackles this familiar scenario far more successfully than did those 2010 episodes, taking little time in dashing all hopes of a mutual surrender - a wise move when, ultimately, we're all aware as viewers that such an alliance is unlikely to occur. Another crucial point is that, by the time of the climax, we feel we know these characters far better than we ever did the dull Silurian hordes.

And then there's the climax. After an impressive preceding 45 minutes, it's a pity that this episode ends on a damp squib of a cliffhanger. The main problem with the Ganger-Doctor reveal is that it's too clearly telegraphed throughout the episode. Savvy viewers might guess what's going to happen as soon as The Doctor first touches the flesh ten minutes in, but with the twist being obviously signposted at least twice more before episode's end ("Trust me"), it's hard to believe that any viewer wouldn't see this 'shock' ending coming a mile off.

Overall though, this is a highly enjoyable opening instalment. While not a criticism as such, it is slightly odd that it's the character of Jennifer who has taken charge of the Gangers, given Cleaves's clear authority earlier in the episode, but 'The Rebel Flesh' has impressed sufficiently that we're willing to trust in Matthew Graham's decisions. Let's just hope that 'The Almost People' can keep up the quality and form a satisfying whole.



> 'Doctor Who' poll: Rate 'The Rebel Flesh'

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