The Bells Of Saint John
Series Seven, Episode Six
Doctor Who's back! And we're getting more than just five episodes and a Christmas Special! Fortunately, I'm not remotely bitter about the sharp decrease in Doctor Who reaching our screens these days. Nope, not me.
Anyway, kicking off this momentous (as in oh-well-at-least-there's-slightly-more-of-it-this-year) anniversary year is The Bells Of Saint John, which despite being mid-way through a series feels like one of Russell T Davies' series-openers. It's frothy, likeable enough, not much going on upstairs.
The plot revolves around Wi-Fi, downloads and typing. It's all very modern, with Sherlock-style graphics and lines like "Did you just hack me?" in between social media namechecks, but it's perhaps a teensy bit over-excited about the internet, apparently hoping for gasps of horror at the mere mention of Wi-Fi, and whoops of glee at a climax that amounts to the bad guys hitting "Undo".
Hey, it's great when Doctor Who can take something everyday and turn it sinister, but it doesn't always work. For me, no doubt for others, Wi-Fi and the internet are handy, functional but-not-actually-interesting parts of daily life. The same goes for laptops, typing, downloads and Facebook. Sometimes, just because you recognise a thing doesn't mean it'll make good drama, and no amount of Murray Gold horn-blaring and on-screen graphics can make typing exciting to watch.
|"Hey, the loading bar's gone down!"|
An alien gobbling people's minds via a snazzy human envoy is two parts Idiot's Lantern, one Partners In Crime. (And let's just say Silence In The Library again for good measure.) Popping between timezones (here the modern day and the 13th Century) is just standard Steven-Moffat-showing-off-for-no-reason. We've seen London landmarks too many times to count, and when it turns out we're dealing with the same baddie as in the previous episode, well, doesn't that just take the biscuit? (And now you mention it, Jammie Dodgers and fezzes make yet another appearance. Must we charactarise Matt Smith's fabulous Doctor by numbers?) For an episode all about modern innovation, it's a bit light on new stuff.
In between all the hipster references and loading bars, there's very little human angle to what's going on, which no doubt explains the clumsy info-dump at the start. A random extra tells us that people are clicking a dodgy Wi-Fi provider and their minds are being downloaded. (We later discover it's all being added to the Great Intelligence, which makes sense until you realise it's increasing some people's intelligence in order to make them compatible. Huh?) Something's wrong with your script when you have to invent someone to deliver the information directly to camera. But if he didn't, would any of this really seem to matter?
No one gets hurt or seems remotely concerned about this stuff – even when they're possessed by the evil Miss Kislet, in a not-too-shabby twist on the bad-guy monologue, they don't know about it afterwards. There are deaths, but they're all off-screen and we don't feel any of them. It's all just a bit easy; persuading the nasty people to stop what they're doing, for example, takes little more than a tap of an iPad. Thrilling ain't the word. (That goes double for when the action slows down so badly, the Doctor has time to get changed.)
|"Release them!" "No!" *presses button* "Okay!"|
And big surprise, Matt Smith is very good, although with his new Willy Wonka costume and flying motorbike we're certainly leaning more towards whimsy than gravitas. Hey ho: there's a great gag about bicycles, and the Doctor's "young people" mime is hilarious. Smith still gets the occasional really good inflection in there, such as a brilliantly delivered "Sorry, what?" when Clara offers to solve a problem he can't, and the inevitable showdown with villainness Celia Imrie. She's good too, but there's nothing for her to do besides wander round an office looking at people's computer screens. (Oh well. Her fate, at the hands of The Great Bored Looking Richard E. Grant, is chillingly memorable.)
At the end of the day, The Bells Of Saint John is really here to introduce the new companion. So never mind all that whiz-bang techie stuff: it's Meet Clara Oswald, Take #3. Not the same Clara Oswald we met last time, or the one before (or is it? No, stop now! Don't you ever learn?), but in all important aspects it's the same girl. Setting aside tedious questions of what's going on here, what do we know about her?
She's feisty, flirty, sarcastic. (So quite a bit like Every Moffat Female, then.) She doesn't fancy the Doctor! (Although she makes enough references to that sort of thing to suggest it's on her mind.) She's really bad with computers, until some plot happens, and then she's really good with computers. (That's kind of the Random Word Generator approach to character development, but oh well.) She also, erm, wants to travel? Which puts her in the same boat as roughly 98% of the Doctor's companions. What else?
From the makers of River Who.
Like Amy, another companion we never really got to know despite reams of plotty muchness, the Doctor scoops Clara up because he can sense this mystery around her. So we've had that already. With Amy, however, there also came a sense of obligation from affecting her life in terrible ways; a kinship from meeting her right after he regenerated; and she had an equally understandable fascination with him in both cases. That bit helps. It's certainly "different" having a companion who can take or leave the Doctor, which seems to be Clara's "thing" if there is one, but why take him, then?
There are whiffs of more going on here, particularly the Doctor's urge to protect her. The bit where he parks outside her house and refuses to budge is an obvious highlight, and hopefully a sign of genuine friendship to come. But so far, he's doing all this because he wants to find out what happens next. On that score, I've simply been disappointed too often to share his curiosity. All that nonsense with River, and Amy, and Rory's mysterious many-deaths-for-no-reason? Sorry, but fool me once...