The artistic challenge that this series has faced, more than any other in New Who, is the tension between producing strong stand-alone narratives and building on the themes that will feed into the narrative arc as a whole.
The Rebel Flesh wasn’t a particularly impressive episode viewed in isolation (though it’s not entirely fair to judge it by the first half alone). The whole set-up in the acid mine was unconvincing, even by DW standards. What organisation would go to the trouble of setting up complex cloning technology to protect its workers and then foul up on basic safety protocols like burying pipes and having spare suits accessible? And the solar storm…far too Frankenstein-derivative, and wouldn’t the TARDIS have the tech to take such phenomena in its/her stride?
Matthew Graham is good at writing the everyday banter and chit-chat among people working together – very important in a police-procedural show like Life on Mars. He struggles, though, with getting complicated SF concepts across clearly. I wouldn’t have been able to figure out what was happening in the first few minutes without reading publicity/spoilers, and that’s bad storytelling. For all his faults, and he had many, I think RTD would have insisted on sharpening up those first scenes.
And once the clones start walking, the interest is not so much in what they are saying as the questions that come up – and how they tie in to the rest of the series narrative, both the present one and further back, deep into the history of DW. What makes us human, and makes each of us unique? Our bodies? No, because they can be cloned, and in the Doctor’s case changed, and it’s still him. Or is it? Would a Doctor cloned by the Flesh actually be any different from one grown from a body part, with the "same memories, same thoughts, everything", or his next regeneration or even the temporal clone that you could encounter by going back and meeting him earlier in his personal timeline? What makes the Doctor the Doctor? I hope there’ll be more of that next week.
The reality that any civilization with sufficiently advanced tech could clone the Doctor has hung over the narrative for as long as I can remember. I’m sure that the uncertainties of this series, whether the Eleven we see walking around is behaving in a way that identifies him as the real Doctor, or not, are feeding into our reactions as we observe him with his companions. His lack of emotional involvement with them is something quite new, even by the standards of classic Who. He is retreating more and more into dictatorial mode, actually locking them up and infantalising them rather than involving them in his travels. Compare his clumsy attempts to drop them off for chips with Ten and Rose arriving on the space station in TIP and literally laughing in the face of danger. and the contrast becomes telling. The question remains – how atypical would the Doctor’s behaviour have to be before we felt that the software of his personality was irredeemably corrupted? Suppose he started enjoying shoot-outs? Wait a minute…
Just as last week’s episode gave us Inception-style boxes within boxes and dreams within dreams, this week there are multiple layers of uncertainty surrounding the Doctor’s identity. He may already be a clone of the Doctor that died in TIA. Or – and notice the way he woke up after the solar storm and we’ve no idea what really happened, or how long he was unconscious – the Doctor we saw in this episode may be a clone of the one presently locked up in the TARDIS. And then there’s the cliffhanger clone. It’s becoming a house of mirrors, a labyrinth similar to the TARDIS corridors last week for Rory and Amy.
Coming around to Rory’s relationship with Jennifer, I felt that came out of nowhere and wasn’t entirely convincing, which always makes me wonder if that’s the bit that the showrunner has asked the writer to splice into the plot. If so, it makes a lot of sense. We need to start thinking about how Rory would actually react to the very real possibility of a cloned Amy. I agree with that it’s looking more and more as if that’s where we’re going. It raises some fascinating issues. Arguably, Rory is a clone himself of sorts. He’s partly a plastic person. How can anyone over 2000 years old be a normal human being? And if he accepts his own identity, as he is now, then what happens if he’s faced with two Amys – the real and the fake? Can he make that distinction in any way that doesn’t deny his own humanity? Could he kill the "false" Amy, or let anyone else do it without avenging her? How could you choose?
And if she’s pregnant or a mother by then, it adds whole new layers of complexity to the situation. Whose child is it? Has she cheated on him? Or, if she isn’t the "real Amy", can she regard herself as exclusively Rory’s partner in any case? Suppose it turns out that the original Amy has been locked up ever since DOTM having a baby? If our experiences form our identity, then Rory would have far more in common with the woman he’s been travelling with than the one who has gone through an alien pregnancy he didn’t witness.
I’ve mentioned the Pond vs River dichotomy before, and I’m not alone (see this review on The Doctor’s WIfe by ). One definition of any kind of life and development would be that it has to move – forwards ideally, though with time-travellers there may be exceptions. Stasis is unhealthy, it leads to decay. But the Doctor seems to be very much stuck at the moment. He’s no longer too traumatised to function, as Nine was, or over-identifying with humans to deny his inner alien like Ten, but has he managed to move on to the next stage of his life or is his body leaving his soul behind? Time Lords stuck in little boxes – what a metaphor Gaiman came up with there! And wasn’t that what killed them, in the end, their inability to adapt, keeping Gallifrey in a permanent statis of observing rather than affecting history? It’s a tragic irony that this Doctor, the ultimate traveller with the ultimate vehicle, is emotionally so cautious that he’s in danger of becoming a dead Time Lord walking. We’ve seen mobiles and mirrors in almost every episode, a metaphor that was particularly richly explored in CotBS. But why is this? Why is he locking up his companions now, using them as mirrors rather than as mobile helpers, with the power to enrich his inner life? Is it because his not the real Doctor, or is it just a phase he’s going through?
So, once again, an apparently straightforward and rather dull story has layers or meaning when it’s viewed in context – but I do have some overall concerns, and one is that SM is too much the big-sweep showrunner, content to wave through substandard work as long as his entire series, in retrospect, is recongised as an integrated work of art. As it might well be. Even the "they keep killing Rory" joke is feeding into the identiy question – are we sure he’s alive as we would understand it anyway? Are we sure about anything?