The Cinematography of The Rebel Flesh: Part One

It took a few years for Matthew Graham to be welcomed back to Doctor Who after his previous effort, Fear Her (2006) received less than positive reviews from fandom. When he did return, for the two-part adventure, The Rebel Flesh/ The Almost People (2011), it was under a new showrunner – Steven Moffat – and very much added to the story arc of Series 6.

The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) arrive at St. John’s Monastery in the 22nd Century, an acid-mining facility struck by a solar tsunami. And the three have a bit of a problem with duplicates, as their very morals are pushed to their limits.

Directed by Julian Simpson (Spooks; New Tricks), The Rebel Flesh remains a gorgeous-looking instalment in the Matt Smith era.

We start with a stunning shot of the monastery, on its own island to give a sense of isolation. Simpson quickly cuts from this wide landscape into the heart of the factory. The contrasts of light and dark work especially well, as does the paralleling of the camera movement: first zooming towards the castle, then, separated by a moment of shadowy stillness, the lighting up of a corridor. It immediately feels very much like we’re going into the belly of the beast.

Our first example of church-like lighting. Both episodes of this two-part story use this technique throughout, but it never lessens its effect.

Jimmy (Mark Bonnar) turning off the lights as the Flesh Buzzer (Marshall Lancaster) dies immediately feels brutal. Already this story is relying on allusions to enlightenment.

The big reveal: Buzzer’s somehow alive! The beat only really hits its mark, however, if you’ve been paying enough attention from the get-go. Otherwise, you’re relying on Lancaster’s voice to guess he’s the same bloke as the one who was in the acid-suit.

An especially nasty and effective shot leading into the titles. Kudos to the VFX team for even making the acid bubble through Buzzer’s mouth. Even the smoke is horrific: there’s not a great deal of difference between the corrosive effects of this smoke, and acid rain (which would be used in The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe).

Straight after the title sequence, we’re met with Simpson’s very unusual shots of the TARDIS interior. This console room was first seen in The Eleventh Hour (2010), so audiences were familiar with its look. Julian’s attempts to mix it up a bit work beautifully – it initially appears to be a Deep Focus panning shot, where everything’s in focus; the TARDIS, being well-established, is a great set for these to take place because the detail’s all already there. No extra work is needed by the production staff.

Except additional thought is put in. The TARDIS is littered with bits and bobs not normally seen: What’s especially nice is the domestication of the TARDIS. Clothes are strewn everywhere, there’s what seems to be a Pot Noodle (or a similar brand) on the stairs), and, as the Deep Focus turns to a Close-up of Rory, we see they’re playing darts. Supermassive Black Hole by Muse also plays, giving it a surreal alien quality.

The domestication shows how much they’re at home here, of course. How much they trust the Doctor. It’s a perfect contrast to the ending of The Almost People.

Gorgeous shift in focus here. In some ways, it reflects the themes of The God Complex, with the Doctor on a higher platform, literally and figuratively, from his companions; his detachment from the concerns of his friends (who’s winning at darts), juxtaposed with the scheming of a Time Lord.

(Add in some anxiety: don’t throw the dart, Amy! You’ll hit Roranicus Pondicus!)

Of course, it also reminds viewers of Series 6’s arc so far: Amy’s pregnancy. As if we could forget: the scanner reading had been seen in Day of the Moon, The Curse of the Black Spot, and The Doctor’s Wife. Still, it gives us a clue that the Doctor’s about to do something about his suspicions when he becomes a hive of activity and plots to get rid of Amy and Rory for a while.

Lots of shaky camera footage, plenty of material out of focus, spliced with the scanner’s warning – altogether, an ideally chaotic sequence as the TARDIS embroils itself in the solar tsunami. It’s the perfect set-up for the “text book landing”.

The TARDIS skimming through the solar storm is one of the most stunning bits of CGI in Doctor Who. And there’s something about it that feels like a forerunner to the title sequence introduced in The Bells of Saint John (2013).

When the Time-Space Ship lands, we get this lovely shot that demonstrates how imminent the storm is. It’s a very real threat – but also looks like a sunset you’d want to get your camera ready for.

We also now know where the cockerel is in comparison to the ground, foreshadowing the sense of threat for the Doctor as he tries to reach it.

The acid-mining facility was actually a composite of five different places, with filming carried out largely in November and December 2010, with some further material for this episode recorded between 3rd and 5th January 2011 after the crew’s festive break. The Almost People was filmed at the same time, stretching to a sixth location – the Senedd Building, Cardiff, doubling as the mainland Morpeth Jetson headquarters – on 7th January.

This shot is of Caerphilly Castle, which the cast were partially familiar with as it had been used for some parts of The Vampires of Venice (2010).

As we enter the monastery, there’s a lovely moment where a pigeon flies through the expanse. It’s a great bit of grounding, reminding anyone who’s ever visited a castle of the feel of isolation and scale; how clever that a simple bird can link our present to this proposed 22nd Century.

We then get a brief shot of the Doctor, Amy, and finally Rory making their way inside, as viewed through this hole in the brickwork. Aside from foreshadowing a similar shot later on, it adds the layer of intrigue – like someone is watching.

The harnesses are nicely reminiscent of the one Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) was strapped into for The Sonataran Stratagem/ The Poison Sky (2008).

Every time we see the Chapel, filmed at Neath Abbey, Swansea, the lighting suggests religious connotations – fitting, as the Doctor comments later on, that it’s kept in a church: “Miracle of life”

The bubbling effect neatly alludes that there’s something living in that vat… except the rug is slightly pulled from beneath us. The living thing isn’t in the vat; it is the vat.

Again, notice the spotlight illuminating the centre of the Flesh, as if from a higher being.

Whether a conscious decision or not, while the Doctor is mulling it all over, it also looks like he’s praying.

And here’s our first proper shot of the whole cast together.

Eww.

It’s a pretty disturbing image, especially as the Doctor struggles to pull away. This is also the first time we see the string-like veins running through the Flesh.

One of my favourite things about this episode is how Jennifer Lucas (Sarah Smart) can’t reach the finger-holes, but she tries anyway. Later on, we see that, actually, none of them can reach that far – testament to the fact that the future isn’t perfect. The harnesses must be designed, to some degree, for comfort (for the brief moments before and after turning into Gangers), and yet it looks so torturous.

Superbly clever CGI as the Ganger Jennifer is created. We’re there for her whole life, in fact: this is the birth of the Ganger that will go on to create havoc and turn into a monster.

Those veins falling into place really belongs in a horror movie. Bravo to Doctor Who for doing something designed to scare everyone, not just the youngsters.

Here’s a comparison between the storyboard and the filmed version of Ganger Jennifer waking up. Julian crops closer than originally planned, and quickly cuts for the reaction of the cast, which heightens the shock.

Can we have a moment to appreciate this CGI? Just beautiful.

Look at all the detail they put into these scenes. Bizarrely, this is the first time I’ve noticed the meteorites, despite them adding so much to the shot; further ones can be seen as the Doctor climbs up to the cockerel.

It’s intercut with damage inside the factory, plus acid affecting the (admittedly mucky) TARDIS.

Matt Smith did most of this himself, but regular Stunt Performer, Gordon Seed (Amy’s Choice; Vincent and the Doctor) performed the main fall. This is spliced with Matt falling onto a crash-mat (Simpson’s sharp cutting makes this absolutely seamless).

This whole section is one of my favourite sequences in Series 6. Aside from the stunning CGI, the direction is top-notch, and punctuated perfectly by Murray Gold’s music, which goes from chaotic to a contemplative melody.

They also time the Doctor’s waking up with a lightning strike and thunder clap. Expertly done.

And the cock-a-doodle-doo is gone. Lovely transition of colours here.

Yes, the solar storm is just easing off. It gives the immediate impression that it’s been going on for minutes, but the Doctor soon reckons the Earth’s been afflicted by the tsunami for an hour or so.

Rory’s line here always struck me as a bit odd: “Oh. Or for want of a better word… Owww.” It’s a rare instance where it sounds like scripted dialogue, not a genuine reaction.

Let’s all applaud Buzzer’s apt t-shirt here: “FEEL THE BURN”.

And Jimmy is exposed as a hipster. Nice to know humans in about 100 years’ time still pine for the past and use vinyl records.

This isn’t something you’ll have noticed straight away… and actually, you might miss it on subsequent rewatches too.

The level of thought and care that goes into this wonderful show is sublime. To drum into your subconscious that this is a workplace, on the walls, you can see a Cleaning Rota, Fire Evacuation plans, Acid Pipe Layout map, and regulations about working with acid – to name just a few neat details. The Morpeth Jetson logo is also plastered everywhere.

The cards act as a reminder that the seat currently occupied by the Doctor was, presumably minutes beforehand, sat in by Ganger Buzzer. Those transfer of skills from human to Flesh is a good idea, but you can’t help but feel it would’ve worked better if we’d seen normal Buzzer doing it in his spare time before now.

Then again, we’ve not seen them in their spare time.

Dicken (Leon Vickers) isn’t given a great deal to do, sadly. We don’t really know much about him, except that he has a persistent sneeze.

Why? On first viewing, those sneezes seem pointless, certainly after finishing The Almost People too. There appears to be two main reasons though: the first is a red herring. Some viewers will figure the narrative turns into The War of the Worlds and the Gangers are killed off by a cold. Does the Flesh take on illnesses? The Ganger Cleaves (Raquel Cassidy) has the same brain tumour, but we’ve not seen them actually display signs of a cold.

And that’s the second reason Dicken sneezes a lot. Because his Ganger doesn’t. It’s a deceptively clever (yet simple) way to alert you which one’s human and which isn’t.

Look at the top visible cards and compare to earlier. They’ve changed. A little production error there that you can use to impress family, friends, and complete strangers walking in the street.

Another creepy bit. Jennifer literally loses a bit of herself. Her sanity, perhaps?

The sink, too, somewhat resembles the surgical bowl used in The Long Game (2005) to catch Adam’s, uhm, cubed vomit. There is something clinical about the toilets, so the cleaners must’ve been in recently. Or their Gangers spruced the joint up.

The idea of this is horrific, but fans are typically split as to whether this is good CGI or terrible. While I don’t think it achieves what it set out to do, I don’t think any distortions of the human body will look 100% correct anyway, purely because they’re trying to make it look strange.

Still, I’m sure it scared enough people out there to justify this scene’s existence.

And that’s it for now. But don’t worry; we’re only halfway through The Rebel Flesh: there’s plenty of gorgeous direction still to come. Part 2 is coming to the DWC over the weekend.