the inevitable Rachel in Blade Runner style photograph scene

TV On Monday, Adam Curtis’s new documentary series, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace begins and in the past few weeks he’s written several column and given a few interviews previewing his new thesis which is that rather us controlling machines, machines control us. Or as Grace Dent so expertly describes today in her review of the first episode, when we sit at a computer, because of the several dozen applications which are open and which we’ve signed up to, we’re no longer in charge of our own destiny, we’re simply becoming components in a system and we’re all employed voluntary or otherwise to keep that system stable.

Anyone who’s worked in a call centre or indeed anything with some form of customer service element can relate and it’s a grim berth. In a sense, by creating social media accounts, be they of the updating or blogging variety or something graphical in Second Life, creating an actual avatar, what we’re doing is making the job of auditing just that bit easier (Google, after all, works by tracking the popularity of a website through the number of links we've made). But more than that, some of us, especially those of us who’ve been blogging for nearly ten years and effectively bringing some kind of order to both the web and the real world in linear reverse dated fashion, might wonder about the extent to which we’re no longer ourselves and have simply become a reflection of the machine.

As the brilliant 90s Guardian book alt.culture, pointed out, its subject, Generation X was demographically unique because advertisers couldn’t sell them products, the media-savvy part of their brain cynically broke through the message so that people only bought that which they really needed not what the advertiser tried in vain to convince them that they needed. I wore a polyester blue jacket, over tie-dyed shirt, odd socks and turned up jeans. I ate chicken in breadcrumbs with instant noodles. I didn’t drink. "I was an individual!" I laughed smugly, as I visited Morrisons every week and bought one of their fresh pizzas because they looked good in the advert.

Fifteen years later, I picked up a copy of Stuff White People Like and discovered that in fact, such barriers had been broken down and all of the things I thought made me an individual, like enjoying Wes Anderson films, acoustic covers, drinking bottles of water and threatening to move to Canada (or France in my case) were also enjoyed by a great many people. The obvious extension of that paranoia is that the reason I like hating corporations, self-deprecating humour, platonic friendships and public transportation that is not a bus is because the internet told me to, oh so subtly, through the articles read, the people friended, word of mouth.

The obvious extension of that then is that we’ve all essentially become gangers. Not specifically, we all still have something related to our own personalities and our own memories of having to wait for the damned bus only for it to packed in the morning and not being able to get a seat, but like the gangers we’ve become an extension of the machine which controls us and when we go off-line, a never occasion for those of us employing mobile technology but nevertheless, we’re carrying all of the elements of the subject that we’ve copied around with us, potentially unaware of what’s happened to us until it’s been pointed out to us, either by a Time Lord or reading books like Stuff White People Like.

What I’ve had to deal with having made this realisation is whether it matters, whether like the Joe Pantoliano nasty in The Matrix, we should really care that the steak that we’re chewing is synthetic or as in that case doesn’t exist as a physical object if it tastes so good. If I enjoy Wes Anderson films, yes, even The Darjeeling Company, should it matter that even if despite being an artist he’s still working for a coportationcreating the kinds of films that people like me like so that people like me will pay money to see them even if we wouldn’t seen dead at Vampires Suck which was also produced by a different part of the same studio for a different audience.

Ultimately, like the gangers once they’ve gotten over the shock of realising that they aren’t the person who remembers that morning’s breakfast but something else, probably not, because you ultimately have two choices. Embrace your pseudo-individuality but fight with every bone in your body or braincells in your head to retain something for yourself hoping against hope that the something you’re retaining for yourself isn’t also a reflection of the machine. Or go insane. I’ve chosen the former (not that these seven paragraphs are admittedly much proof) and wonder how many other people spent the morning reading the introduction to the Arden Shakespeare’s third series edition of Troilus and Cressida. For fun.

But what those seven paragraphs also demonstrate is that despite Moffat consciously coming up with the idea of ripping off Avatar, as explained in this interview, writer Matthew Graham’s approach to not going away and doing that is working at a higher thematic level than his previous disaster Fear Her. There were no “Not you too, Bob” moments here in what was a gripping forty-five minutes of drama, which, despite having a whiff of last year’s stodgy Silurian two-parter in terms of the human approach to trying to deal with something you don’t understand leading to war (electrocute it) , had enough dark corners and questions about the human psyche to keep us glued.

Perhapssurprisingly of all, it’s also to the most “traditional” bit of Who since the show came back. We say this quite often, but consider how the episode begins with a lengthy prologue scene without the TARDIS crew leading to a console room scene featuring some unrelated games, the ship bouncing into the adventure via some special cataclysm, only for the crew to effectively be captured by some relatively two dimensional human contractors and heralded towards the moral dilemma at the heart of the story. Look also at how once Auton, once copied himself Rory disobeys the Doctor and the human leader is revealed to be a ganger at about twenty-two and half minutes into the episode. Scream...

Remove the physical contact and you have a story from the Davison era with better lighting. You could also argue, given how Smith seems to be at his most Troughton here, that it’s one of those Davison era stories which consciously apes Season Five, Warriors of the Deep and Frontios and its ilk though directed by someone whose previous experience is Spooks rather than Juliet Bravo. You could further add that some elements of the Doctor’s behaviour especially the veiled references to having seen the ganger technology or even having been to this island before, and not telling Amy everything have about them the sinister mystery of McCoy.

You would not have seen anything like this in the Russell T Davies era. The Impossible Planet comes close, but that stopped off for chats about the Doctor and Rose being stuck there and trying to make a life together. Even with the TARDIS steeped in acid, there’s no question of that. The Doctor is just trying to fix the problem at hand, Rory’s gladding about after some local skirt and Amy’s generally left to ask for some exposition, screech, and also look good in a skirt and glad about too after her husband. Like I said, without the physical contact, in the classic scenario she’s basically Tegan or Polly, he’s Turlough or Ben. Or whoever.

It’s the kind of story which picks one thought, one idea and goes with that. Unlike the existential crises of clone Martha in The Poison Sky or the human Doctor in Journey’s End or the enslavement of the Ood which were just one element of a story with multiple strands, this so far, give or take Rory’s wandering eye, has decided to keep to that single notion, albeit with the requisite reminders of the ongoing storylines. Graham’s script also needs us to believe in this pseudo-science; the cloning tank in The Sontaran Stratagem was just a thing required to do another thing so that another thing would happen. The Rebel Flesh is also about the thing and what the thing does.

And it just works. That lighting does help, taking full advantage of the stonework in the atmospheric locations to create shadows for both sides to hide from us and each other, eavesdropping when necessary. These multiple tourist attractions were perfectly chosen right down to the fitted bathroom and provided an incongruous place to have an acid works (cf, Euro Sea Gas in Fury of from the Deep for comparison) and some relatively advanced cloning technology. The make-up for the gangers too is beautifully realised, recalling the Gelfling puppets in The Dark Crystal, faces that aren’t quite human yet somehow sympathetic, quite rightly given the title of the next episode, “The Almost People”.

Superb performance too. It’s difficult to single anyone out at this early stage with just two episodes, sorry one episode, gone, but Mark Bonnar’s reaction to himself (or his character) dealing with the same emotional connection to his son and indeed the emoting of the emotional connection to his son was especially poignant and along with the inevitable Rachel in Blade Runner style photograph scene for Sarah Smart chemically explained to us what was at stake for the gangers just as it did for the speck of humanity on this rock. Raquel Cassidy was well Raquel Cassidy, and great to finally have some kind of Party Animals reunion.

There were many great moments, not least the shoes, which is one of the funniest single shot gags since Eccleston's reaction to hearing Margaret Blain taking the window route in Boomtown. Yes it is. I also adored those opening console room scenes, which like a K9 chess games or Romana costume change offer a glimpse into what it’s like to exist on the TARDIS between adventures, that travellers in the forth dimension need to take a break sometimes. These television spaces can never be the same as the ones in the Eighth Doctor novels, big enough to store a mini or house a butterfly collection, but they underscore that this isn’t just an intergalactic taxi but also a home.

Yet having written all of this, I can’t help the nagging suspicion that with all it's trad era trappings, that like The Darjeeling Company, The Rebel Flesh has been deliberately created to confirm to us old school fans that it is the same old show just in case the opening two parter suggests something else. The fans who remember the unusual face like Cactus Tom in Meglos, might have read Nick Wallace’s leighth-era novel Fear Itself which also dealt with the concept of avatars and that all I’ve done in writing this review and mentioning those things is fallen into the trap Curtis warns us about codifying everything and creating order. But somehow, I don’t care.

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