ME: OK Johnny. The Rebel Flesh etc, right?
JOHNNY: Sure thing. Let’s go.
As The Verve once sang, “I’m a million different people from one day to the next.” Which version of you is reading this? The relaxing at home version? The commuting from work version? The killing time when you should be doing other things version?
The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People has something to say about the creation of different versions of ourselves. In this story, the versions are made out of a programmable goop called flesh. But anyone who’s active on social media creates digital versions of themselves all the time. What, after all, is Johnny Spandrell, if not my own digital avatar? (Hopefully he won’t take gluey white form and run amok trying to kill me with acid) (JOHNNY: Ha ha ha. No, of course not.)
What, then, of the two versions we get of the Doctor (a thoughtful Matt Smith) here? I don’t mean his Time Lord and Ganger versions, but the two very different versions we get in relation to the rights of these duplicated almost people. The Gangers are normally the plug, play and throw away copies of Morpeth-Jetsan’s crew of acid farmers, but have been brought to independent life by a Frankenstein-esque lightning bolt to a conducting rod atop a spooky old castle. For most of this story, the Doctor argues for their right to live – that they are legitimate, sentient beings. (JOHNNY: Too right!)
But at the end of the story, the Doctor reveals that companion Amy (Karen Gillan) is also a flesh avatar. This one, he can’t suffer to live, so he liquifies her with his sonic screwdriver. Why one rule for them and another for her? Perhaps in order to rescue the real Amy, he can’t allow a potential spy on board the TARDIS (JOHNNY: so drop her off somewhere safe and secure, whydonttya?). Or perhaps as the 22nd century Gangers represent the genesis of this technology, he needs to ensure the timeline which eventually leads to Ganger Amy stays intact. (JOHNNY: Pah! Timey wimey whippet shit!)
Ganger Amy’s transformation into a puddle is further bad news for Rory (Arthur Darvill), on what has already been a trying day at the office. Throughout this adventure, he was duped into a friendship with Ganger Jennifer (Sarah Smart), who turned out to be the only truly bloodthirsty one among them. He spent a long time trying to be the sympathetic voice for these synthetic people, but that girl gone done him wrong, by turning out to be a bad ‘un all along. Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t speak up for Ganger Amy when the time comes, in the same way he tried to for Jen. (JOHNNY: Hey, who gets the unfortunate job of having to mop faux Amy up off the TARDIS floor? Bet the Doctor wishes there was a handy Ganger hanging around now!)
Of the other factory workers, the most interesting is boss woman Miranda Cleaves (Raquel Cassidy). Cleaves is the one who starts the trouble with the Gangers when she electrocutes one on impulse. But she and her Ganger are the ones who quickly realise that any conflict between the two identical teams is useless. They stop warmongering and settle into a wry commentary on events. When the original Cleaves runs into the room with the electrocuting whatsit, her Ganger looks wearily at her and sighs: “You see, that is just so typically me.” (JOHNNY: Well. when you’re reduced this quickly to quoting Britney Spears songs, you know the game must be up.)
It’s an early indicator that Cleaves is too sensible to pursue a battle with the human originals for long. When Ganger Jen is on the warpath, Ganger Cleaves simply can’t be bothered with it anymore, particularly once she’s learned that she’s picked up her original self’s brain tumor. She realises the empty rhetoric of “us and them” as the tired refrain of those on a path to self-destruction. “I’ve had it with this,” she declares, at a late stage in the story when we’d normally be expecting tensions to escalate again. “What’s the point in this ridiculous war?” It’s particularly shrewd characterisation. Anyone who’s smart enough to rise to a leadership position isn’t going to embark on some murderous campaign. If this story is a homage to all those base under siege epics of the Troughton era, then it’s clever enough to avoid those stories’ most illogical trope. (JOHNNY: Yup. Those base commanders were nearly always batshit crazy. Who put them in charge?)
The fact that Cleaves, Jimmy (Mark Bonnar) and Dicken (Leon Vickers) all turn out to have sensible, fair-minded Gangers also helps avoid another potential plot snare. Why are so many doubles in sci-fi stories evil? Why should perfectly reasonable, pleasant people produce duplicates who are up to no good? Again, I’d like to think wee Johnny Spandrell is as decent a fella as me, and if he did turn out to be a psychopathic monster, what would that say about me? (JOHNNY: Y’know what? I bet you’d turn out to be the monster. You’d be forever getting me to run errands, clean up the place and tap out a weekly blog post, while you sat back and ate chips or something. I might murder you just because you were being an arse!)
What, for instance, does it say about Jen? Why is it that among the Morpeth-Jetsan team, she’s the only one whose Ganger goes postal? It’s a slight narrative misstep that we don’t find out why the process treats her differently to everyone else. The only hint of latent violence we get from her is when she playfully pushes Ganger Buzzer (Marshall Lancaster) into a vat of acid, so perhaps that’s meant to indicate her hidden, darker side. But what a dark side it must be, because unlike her colleagues, she turns into (as Ganger Cleaves says) the stuff of nightmares; head on a tentacle, clinging to the ceiling. She’s so broken inside she mutates into the sort of gallumphing hybrid monster we thought we’d seen the back of after The Lazarus Experiment. (JOHNNY: Oh, must you? I’d blocked that out!)
This story is not just saying that our self-created avatars are eventually going to reach the point that they’ll want equal rights. It’s also saying, be careful about creating them in the first place. This cloning stuff never works out well. But there’s also the idea that artificial intelligence is eventually going to outthink us, partially because it knows us so well. It’s a fear as old as Frankenstein; that when we start playing God by creating new versions of ourselves, we’ll create much more trouble than we bargained for.
Meanwhile, if Johnny turns on me, I’ll be sure to let you know. Why here he comes now with a *argh gurgle choke bleargh….* (JOHNNY: Don’t worry. I was always the brains of this operation.)
ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: when the Doctor answers the holocall from Jimmy’s son, he does so with a hearty “Hello Adam!”, not as the subtitles insist, “Hello Madame!” That would be weird.
LINK TO The Sun Makers: corporate behemoths.
NEXT TIME… Like a model, only with talking and thinking. We drop The Pilot.