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 Text – the 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.