Matthew Graham’s Doctor Who: Fear Him?

May 23, 2011
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Series six seems to be shaping up into a tussle between ‘Rad’ and ‘Trad’ tendencies. If it’s showrunner Moffat or fanservice Gaiman, then we get something a little more radical. Otherwise, it’s back to “good old-fashioned runaround” and “far more traditional” Doctor Who. This week it’s Avatar-meets-The-Thing in castles around South Wales.

And for Who fans steeped in discourses of authorship, it’s a scary episode. Yes, it’s the return of Matthew Graham, the Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes co-creator, but also the writer of 2006’s ‘Fear Her’, frequently voted the least-loved story of modern Doctor Who. The obvious critical question is this: which Matthew Graham do we get here? The LoM and A2A scribe? Or the ‘Fear Her’ and Bonekickers doppelganger? For Graham’s author-function is itself unstable and fractured – far from guaranteeing consistency and classification, as Foucault has it, here is a gothic author-function which has been doubled and self-divided by fan debate. Quite unlike Foucauldian theory, it fails to secure authorial identity and value, instead collapsing into Jekyll-and-Hyde instability. Usually author-functions work discursively to secure audience responses: “trust me”, they say, “I’m the Author.” But trust becomes an issue in relation to any unstable author-function, as audiences wonder whether a writer’s tale will be worth their while.

Trust is also a major theme here, with Graham cliffhangering adroitly on words we feel we’ve heard a thousand times before, but never in quite this way: “trust me, I’m the Doctor”. Doctor Who: The Unfolding Textthe first academic book on Classic Who – argued that the show’s Time Lord villains were doppelgangers for the Doctor; constructions of the alien set against his connotative humanity (Tulloch and Alvarado 1983:138). But ‘The Rebel Flesh’ rebels against programmatic versions of “us” and “them”, suggesting with posthumanist verve that originals and copies are equally worthy.

Despite pilfering a key image from The Exorcist, there are no obvious demons here. It is the less-than-subtly named Cleaves (Raquel Cassidy) who ultimately cleaves workers and their gangers into two warring groups, each threatening that it’s “us and them now”. Running these two scenes side-by-side pushes the audience to read them as mirror images. The real doppelganger here isn’t the gangers at all – it is, rather, the process through which each group fears the other. Somebody’s “us” is always somebody else’s “them” – violence is mimetic even when there’s no hero or villain, no original or copy.

Given Graham’s gothic author-function, ‘The Rebel Flesh’ polarises into pop-cultural poetics and ham-fisted moments. In the former camp: music is beautifully used as a mnemonic object, and as a repository of self (an effect somewhat blunted by cliched recourse to a childhood photo). The TARDIS is going to have to become inaccessible somehow, and Graham has fun with this narrative requirement, just as he played games with the TARDIS in ‘Fear Her’. And there’s a highly knowing attempt to rework Frankensteinian tropes by substituting a solar storm for lightning as life’s spark.

However, in the camp of less-than-successful moments are the following: didn’t anyone consider that, for the pre-credits sequence to work, you needed to see a close-up of Buzzer’s avatar clearly, visor up? Is the bluff blokiness of the TARDIS-as-pub, complete with sound system and dartboard, not a touch out of character for Doctor Who? And much of this episode fails to transcend its Blade Runner-esque source material. ‘What does it mean to be human?’ seems to have become a reductive shorthand for science fiction – an alibi assumed to make SF ‘acceptable’ in the eyes of critics and mainstream audiences just as long as the genre can be pinned to this ‘big’, ‘philosophical’ question. And we know that this is “serious” stuff with philosophical import because Cleaves says she’ll debate philosophy with the Doctor over a pint (bluff blokiness creeping incongruously into this character voice as well as into the TARDIS).

As well as giving the episode a Northern accent, Graham ups the author-function ante by penning the first ever Doctor Who story whose entire setting can be construed as an authorial in-joke, or even as product placement. This monastic production hails from one half of Monastic Productions, the indie owned by Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah. Take a look at their themed website: clips from ‘The Rebel Flesh’ will fit right in with Monastic’s sacred branding. World-building as an almost business card; it’s an audacious approach to the commerce of TV authorship.

‘The Rebel Flesh’ is Doctor Who not to be sneezed at; while self-consciously advertising Graham’s production company, it also promotes how “philosophical” it is – here’s a text that keeps wanting to shout “hello subtext!” until its depths are all rendered as surface showiness. It does succeed in posing one terrific question, though: if original and copy have the same memories and experiences, then how will a ‘ganger’ Doctor behave? Will our Time Lord protagonist, alone together, be immune from the logic of “us and them”? A twinned Doctor surely promises to defuse the threat posed by gothic doubles, rather than delivering Manichean groans…

Matthew Graham may have a disrupted, non-unified author-function (hero to some in the TV industry; a villain to some fans) but this episode critiques the logic of ‘hero’ versus ‘villain’, arguing for resolution and reunification. It wants our trust. And yet, like Graham’s gothic author-function, ‘The Rebel Flesh’ remains self-divided, continually rebelling against itself. The narrative says one thing thematically – the only monster is she who sees monsters (Cleaves) – whilst visuals constantly scream the very opposite: look at the scary monsters, see how they are misshapen, blobby, neck-twisting, super-elastic Things. Fear them.


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2 Responses to “ Matthew Graham’s Doctor Who: Fear Him? ”

  1. Derek Kompare on May 24, 2011 at 9:31 AM

    Intriguing take on this episode. I think you’ve nailed Graham’s author-function here, which is also of course resonant with LoM/AtoA, i.e., what/who is “real”? There’s also the constant generic (both culturally and industrially speaking) dichotomy of “talk” vs. “action,” one of fiction’s original “us” vs. “them” constructions. While we could certainly envision an episode where the scene in the dining hall goes on and on and on, and the concept of doubling explored more fully, this is Doctor Who, and stuff has to go zip, bang, kaboom, and VWORP before too long. Accordingly, I not only forgive the knowing nods to all sorts of influences; I embrace them.

    While it clearly has a “new Who” core, this story also felt to me like some lost Holmes and Boucher confection circa 1976-77, with a classic creepy setting, truly disturbing monsters, fairly unpleasant guest characters, and an oddly reckless, know-it-all Doctor. And that’s a good thing! In the original, though, the Doctor lost his scarf to the acid, Sarah was the one consoling Jennifer, and the Gangers all had a lovely orangey CSO glow around them.

    As for the console room becoming a pub, it’s clear the Doctor’s not quite comfortable with it, and is only indulging Amy and Rory to keep them entertained (or more precisely, distracted from his concerned probing of Amy’s uterus). That is, it is clearly “out of character,” as you put it. The Doctor hasn’t been truly blokey since “Doomsday,” and for good reason. Compare the Doctor giddy about seeing Ian Dury with Rose in “Tooth and Claw” with this one frowning at the console while his companions relax. He just gets into (more) trouble if he gets too close.

  2. Matt Hills on May 25, 2011 at 5:32 AM

    Thanks, Derek, I agree there’s definitely an ‘old school’ Holmes or Boucher feeling to this story. I still find it hard to believe that no-one in the production office raised an eyebrow or two about one half of Monastic Productions using a monastery as his (unlikely) story setting, though! And on the subject of TARDIS-as-pub, I must admit I read the Doctor’s unease as being more about his concern for Amy rather than the recreational activities. But equally, I’ve now seen fan readings arguing that this sequence carries textual authenticity, as it harks back to the Hartnell era and a sense of the Ship as a real living space. So for some highly intratextual readers, the scene is very much a marker of ‘real’ Who rather than something at all out of character — a case of Time and Relative Decodings in Space! I’m also a little troubled by Amy’s pregnancy — having spent S5 making the companion’s life/background a narrative problem, Moffat promptly repeats the device in S6. I can’t help but feel that Amy’s character may be better served by her not continually acting as an arc cipher?