30/03/13 “The Bells of St John”
“Monks are not cool.”–The Doctor
YES, THEY ARE, DOCTOR. YES, THEY ARE.
Has it been that long since I wrote a Doctor Who review? Evidently I was too tired and annoyed by “The Snowmen” to actually write about it (though having watched it a second time just last night, I realized I was a bit harsh and hasty regarding it). “The Bells of St John” reminded me simultaneously of the breathy and purely unanticipated excitement of “The Eleventh Hour” and my annoyance with the Moffat Bag’o’Tropes ™.
I have to admit in all honesty I did not think I was watching Doctor Who during the teaser. Certainly since last series (or the first half of this series? I’m confused) Doctor Who has gotten incredibly slick-looking (no doubt the expense of this justifying the way the series is being produced, though I feel a bit cautious as it seems to be losing slightly its own distinctive look and becoming more mainstream in its quest to appear flawlessly HD—leading perhaps a new viewer to wonder if the Doctor Who universe is related to the Sherlock one in more ways than simply the fact of its current creative mastermind). The new title sequence/theme tune feels more psychedelic than the fan video to “I’m So Excited” (the Dalek version). And I didn’t express before that I hate the TARDIS redesign. I suppose every time you change something on Doctor Who you will have someone who hates it and someone who loves it, and it generally happens in equal measure to me. I suppose the day I stop watching would be if all the changes were negative, but despite some head-shaking moments, I confess I smiled and even laughed a couple times here.
I’m not sure why I get my hopes up when the title tells us stuff like we’re in Cumbria 1207 . . . I should know by now that historical teasers are the name of the game, and proper historical adventures are reserved only for twee Christmastide. (I am sticking to the belief that “A Town Called Mercy” maybe wasn’t on Earth, at least our Earth, and besides, it was a Western . . . watching it the second time, I feel the Western setting could have been dispensed with entirely and it wouldn’t have really changed the story. It was just the backdrop for another morality play. Which is fine.) Nevertheless, the teasing is thrown at us slavering long-time obsessive fans in rapid succession: the Abbot seems to be a reference to “The Massacre,” the Mad Monk surely to the Headless Monks, and the setting in itself brings tantalizing echoes of “The Time Meddler.” I would have loved watching this episode-that-never-was, of the Doctor pursuing some kind of a monastic solitude with obvious parallels (in his mind as much as ours) to the Meddling Monk—if he couldn’t sit for two hours in “The Power of Three,” what would prompt him to settle down in the 13th century?! (Also, the fact that he’s told the monks about “the woman twice dead” and that he’s creepily got a bit of a shrine to Clara/Oswin à la the Gerard Butler Phantom of the Opera is bizarre. I’m still intensely bothered by who the female artist was supposed to be painting the Doctor in the nude in Restoration London, and further bothered by the fact the Doctor is suddenly an artist in oils when I think most people were still using egg tempera?)
I enjoyed the scene in the Cumbrian wilderness, though the Doctor is much less careful than the Meddling Monk in concealing his anachronistic technology, even letting the befuddled brothers watch him answer a telephone. (It did occur to me, as it no doubt occurred to everyone else, when the episode title was announced, that it had something to do with the St John’s Ambulance.) I won’t say too much about the Doctor answering the phone in the Police Telephone Box though it was established, I believe, way back in “The Empty Child” that the phone is not supposed to be functional anyway—if the Empty Child can get through, I’m sure there’s some kind of explanation for Clara/Oswin being able to get through. It is, after all, “a helpline,” and that’s something we have to accept if we accept New Who (it annoyed me from “Rose” but I have mostly gotten over it).
There is further intertextual creepiness given that Clara/Oswin is reading a children’s book called Summer Falls by Amelia Williams—Moffat must expect that we have been watching since last year as I’m not sure I would have picked that up so readily if I hadn’t just re-watched “The Angels Take Manhattan.” Will casual viewers pick it up? Will they care? Will it matter? Clara/Oswin is cute here, not quite as fast-talking-annoying as Oswin in “Asylum of the Daleks” and not quite as fast-talking-clever as Clara in “The Snowmen.” Season openers (though technically this isn’t one) often tackle the most current, pop culture, in-yo-face threat that can be presented for teatime family viewing (I’m looking at you, “Smith and Jones,” “Partners in Crime”), and the Moffat Bag’o’Tropes ™ chooses another familiar and accessible point of mundane terror: the Internet. The sleek and sinister office full of young, hip operatives brings to mind Torchwood: Miracle Day more than “Army of Ghosts,” though Celia Imrie’s corporate power tyke Kinzler channels Mrs Wormwood from The Sarah Jane Adventures. It’s from this sinister takeover group that we learn that Clara/Oswin “is clever, but has no computer skills.” Indeed, Clara/Oswin’s ineptitude with WiFi mirrors that of many of us, though those with marginally better skills will roll eyes and/or laugh (though surely most longtime fans sniffed out she would soon be gaining massive mad skillz in the course of the episode, else how would she become Oswin?).
In my race to get to the corporate culture skewering going on, I forgot to mention Clara/Oswin the present-day nanny. I’m sure there’s more to the fact that Clara in 1895 had a similar career to Clara in 2013 (?), which will be revealed all in good time. However, may I register one tiny nugget of disappointment? My first thought was, “oh, Clara/Oswin is the babysitter.” My second thought was, “Oh, I missed something! She’s actually that man’s wife/girlfriend and the girl is her step-daughter, despite the age similarities.” However, the first instinctive response was (we assume) correct; the second thought would have been messier and perhaps too difficult to condone for the audience, but it strikes me that not since Ace have we had a companion running away from a real broken home (Rose had elements of problem-home, as did Donna, while Amy’s almost Disney-like lack of parents was also magicked away—we think?—when the Crack was sealed shut).
“We’re uploading too many people too quickly.” When Kinzler announces “it’s like immortality,” I feel sure another the Moffat Bag’o’Tropes ™ is coming along, and indeed it does, shortly, as the girl (Summer?) from the book appears and is revealed to be a “walking Wi Fi bay station,” ie a Node from “Silence in the Library.” That was a fascinating story, not without its problems, but it’s clearly an abiding interest for Moffat, this erasure of human souls into databases. Can I just ask how common it is for people to have video systems outside their front doors? What does Clara’s charge’s father do for a living? He must be loaded with £££.
The Doctor, having left 1207 (sniff, sniff) for the TARDIS in order to change from his habit into a fez (while rooting through a bin of clothes, rather than a wardrobe—another sniff, sniff) changes into “sensible clothes,” in time to see that Clara/Oswin has been downloaded or uploaded into a network cloud by the Wi Fi/Node-thing. Determined to get her back, he challenges the bureaucracy in the (London-based) office with technical skills not seen since “The Eleventh Hour” (I want to play a really “Long Game” and find out that MЧth actually means something). Having beaten the nasties at their own game, the Doctor puts comatose Clara/Oswin to bed, proving his bedside manner has improved vastly since . . . well . . . since, ever. He leaves her some jammie dodgers and proceeds to go through her stuff (at least she didn’t have her underwear drying on a line like Martha did)! He finds a retro-looking book called 101 Places to See (1 – 0 – 1 = a reference to 11?), and Clara/Oswin appears to be the third Moffat heroine to have a deep-seated connection to the Doctor in childhood. The Doctor, in another girl’s bedroom. Yikes.
The Doctor decides that the source for the Wi Fi/Nodes might be a “living sentient computer” (for some reason I was thinking “The War Machines,” though it turned out I wasn’t far off!). “Is it like a snogging booth?” Clara/Oswin asks of the TARDIS, not at all sure she wants to go into it with the Doctor—it’s only exploding lights and “active camouflage” that encourages her to go in (with mug of tea she promptly spills everywhere). I admit I smiled twice in this sequence: Kinzler’s second-in-command said, “We can’t always pass it [mass upload] off as a riot.” And then the Doctor materialized on a plane (!) in a rip-roaring scene that had the exhilaration of “The Eleventh Hour” (and surely the Fifth Doctor was eating his heart out). The Doctor declares that he’s now “1,000 years old,” and I smiled again when the Doctor drove a motorcycle out of the TARDIS. I wasn’t so much inspired by “The Idiot’s Lantern” as I was by the TV Movie! Oh, and I smiled again when the second-in-command spotted the TARDIS dematerializing on photos and said to be sure it was the same police box, “Earl’s Court was an embarrassment.” (Can you just see future Doctor Who nerds writing their episode guides of thousands of pages elucidating all these references to our grandchildren?) I have to confess that the Eleventh Doctor and Clara/Oswin speeding through London (on a sunny day—when was that?) seemed very Pertwee to me. I’m sure Pertwee would have loved some of the brassiness of this episode.
It’s all about the coffees! Rory wandered off to get coffees in “The Angels Take Manhattan” and look what happened to him—now the Doctor goes off to get coffee (in a location that looks a bit like the British Library) and that’s when all his troubles start. Clearly it’s part of the well-founded Vast Toffee initiative to promote British tea drinking. The Doctor’s berating of Kinzler as she explains the human victims are free-range food as “obscene” might be a bit of overkill, but not in light of what we learn later. I have to admire the Doctor’s (and the program’s) audaciousness to drive the Doctor up the Shard and break through a window. Certainly it feels like Doctor Who for 20-year-olds and under—do you think?—with all the corporate suits’ downfall being the fact that they unwisely reveal information on Facebook, Twitter, Beebo, etc., while at work. Now I think Moffat’s running circles around the old “capture and escape” runaround that characterized (Pertwee) Doctor Who. Loads of clones and simulacra in the Moffat Bag’o’Tropes ™, don’t you think?
The Doctor succeeds, not only in getting Clara/Oswin’s soul back, but the souls of all the people uploaded. (Methinks the United Kingdom will foot a huge bill for therapy for the likes of Kinzler.) Everybody lives! And in a so-obvious-but-I-missed-it reveal, the entity in charge of all these shenanigans is the Great Intelligence of (“The Web of Fear” fame) now voiced (and, er, faced) by Richard E. Grant, Dr. Simeon from “The Snowmen.” How’s THAT for continuity?! “Tomorrow” Clara/Oswin “might say yes” to the Doctor’s offer of travel through the universe; Martha was convinced by some cheap tricks, as was Rose, come to think of it. For Amy and Clara in 1895 it was apparently the sex appeal.
For all the nitpicking, there have been some great twists in Doctor Who of the last three years, so I look forward to finding out the fate of Clara/Oswin and if the Great Intelligence is the source of “Silence will fall.” What about Summer?