Doctor Who: The Bells of Saint John

Doctor: 'Right then, Clara Oswald. Time to find out who you are.'

A typically frantic opening salvo from the pen of Steven Moffat. I wasn't entirely satisfied with the mostly stand-alone nature of the first half of this season, so I was chuffed to see some continuity tonight. Christmas episodes generally stand on their own—but not this year. I think I even cheered when the enemy was revealed. (Albeit discreetly and it sounding like a burp.) Doctor Who's at its best when there's a mystery to be solved, and I'm already loving the detail Moffat's slipping in. The question is: how much of it is relevant?

For example, who was the woman who gave Clara the Doctor's number? Was the brief appearance of Amy's book 'Summer Falls' a simple tip of the hat to an old companion, an important clue as to what's going on, or a clumsy advertisement for the forthcoming book? Why were the ages 16 and 23 missing from the front page of '101 Places to See'? And what was that whole leaf thing about? I'm guessing that the mystery of Clara 'Oswin' Oswald will pretty much span the rest of the season, and that by the time the show celebrates its 50th anniversary in November, we'll know who she is. For those of you who haven't heard (i.e. the dead and the terminally disinterested), David Tennant and Billie Piper have already signed up to appear, as has John Hurt. (Evolved space elephant from the planet Amerricka?) I feel a distinct twinge of excitement in my spasmy bits.

Urban, London-centric stories are generally more Russell T. Davies' forte, with Moffat usually opting for the softer, more fairy tale approach, but I thought the Moff acquitted himself admirably tonight. This was a fast paced romp across the less stenchy parts of the country's capital. It actually looked quite nice. Hardly smelly at all. Admittedly, at times the action felt a little thrown in—the crashing aeroplane sequence, for example, and the Doctor's motor assisted excursion up the side of the Shard, both felt like a throwback to the worst excesses of the RTD era (whether intentionally or not)—but this is a mid-season première (contradiction in terms though that may be), so fast paced nonsense is pretty much the order of the day. And what better way to entice a frustrated traveller such as Clara, than with a burst of high adrenaline shenanigans, mixed in with some decidedly unimpressive time travel?

There was the occasional plot contrivance. Watching people stand around slack jawed as they waited to be downloaded by the Spoonheads, instead of turning tail and giving it legs in the opposite direction as fast as their fabulous boots could carry them, felt particularly bothersome. But they more than made up for the occasional self-righteous tut with their inclusion of Jammie Dodgers, and the re-appearance of the Doctor's bow tie and fez. That makes everything better, right? Well... maybe. Initially, I wasn't overly excited about the 'WiFi soup' idea either, but when the enemy was eventually revealed as the Great Intelligence, it did made a modicum of sense. There was also a distinct whiff of 'The Idiot's Lantern' about tonight's episode, with WiFi replacing television as the stealer of the nation's souls. Thankfully, the whiff never turned into a stink.

I know they've already done 'Who is River Song?' so following it up with 'Who is Clara Oswin?' could be considered something of a retread. It really depends upon how it's handled. Similarly, Clara flirting with the Doctor felt a little familiar. We had a similar situation with Amy in season five, and to a much subtler degree, Rose back in season two. Old ground again? Probably, but while they keep hiring attractive young women as companions, and the Doctors keep getting younger and younger, I suppose it's inevitable. Give it another ten years and they'll be punching each other on the arm in a sand pit. But the Doctor and Oswin do have great chemistry. I couldn't quite work out whether the Doctor's 'Starting when?" comment was in reference to the TARDIS being a 'snog box', or a question about Oswin's intentions. Maybe both?

Not that I'm complaining. I really like Oswin, and thought Jenna did a terrific job of introducing us to her character. (For the third time!) Nice work from Celia Imrie, too. As with virtually all of Moffat's scripts, the dialogue bounced along at a rare old pace. I love the way he writes dialogue for these characters. Matt Smith fairly lapped up his lines and spat them out with gusto. He's such a physical actor: be it savouring the taste of a Jammie Dodger, pointing excitedly at a ringing phone, or licking a sycamore leaf. Some may find him a little over the top, but in the context of the lighter episodes, I enjoy the silliness. Let's not forget what it was like in days of Worzel, Tom Baker. McCoy and Tennant. They all had their bonkers moments.

A solid opener. I can't wait to start speculating on what it all means, and getting it completely wrong... as per usual.

Other Thoughts:

—Is the Great Intelligence going to be the back eight's 'big bad', or is it just another distraction? If it is back for good, I hope the writers give Richard E. Grant's character some personality this time.

—I've never seen anyone hack a computer -- or even type -- as fast as the Doctor and Oswin. And I've seen real hackers at work, too -- Trinity from The Matrix and Angelina Jolie from that film about hackers (the name of which eludes me) -- so I totally know what I'm talking about. If I didn't know better I'd say they were typing any old crap.

—Clara Oswald for the win = Oswin. Nice detail. As was RYCBAR123. Wouldn't it be splendid if the 123 meant something, too?

—Great camera work during the plane crash. Colm McCarthy managed to make the whole sequence look both humorous and perilous at the same time.

—The WiFi graphical overlays looked distinctly Sherlockian.

—How long is the TARDIS' phone cord? I haven't seen one that long since the days of Roseanne... so to speak.

—The TARDIS has a garage? Even the Doctor looked lost in his made-over TARDIS.

Quotes:

Doctor: 'Would a victory roll be too showy offy?'

Clara: 'Are you an alien?'
Doctor: 'I am, yes. Okay with that?'
Clara: 'Fine, yeah. I think I'm fine.'
Doctor: 'Oh good.'

Clara: 'You don't have a plan?'
Doctor: 'Oh, you know what I always say about plans.'
Clara: 'What?'
Doctor: 'I don't have one.'

Doctor: 'I can't tell the future, I just work there.'

---
Four moor peaces eye rote, sea hear.

9 comments:

Mark Greig said...

I've seen the episode twice now and I liked it more the second time around. Wasn't the best season opener (or mid-season opener), but a fun ride nonetheless. I love how densely packed Moffat’s episode are with in-jokes and references. I loved Celia Imrie as Miss Kizlet and I love that the Big Bad of this season is a minor villain from two Patrick Troughton stories that don’t even still exist in their entirety. Keeping my fingers crossed we see some Yeti in the finale.

Oh, and Matt and Jenna were both amazing, but that really goes without saying.

a.m. said...

I enjoyed this episode, especially the moments where the Doctor and Clara were trying to get to know each other--I loved the conversation when he was trying to divine her reasons for staying with that family and the moments when she was trying to figure out exactly who he was. I appreciated that she continued to not just take him for his word and was as flirtatious with him in this episode as in the other two.

I also found it interesting the way they gave Clara her hacker skills which she also had way back in Asylum of the Daleks. I have no idea how they are going to link all of her characters together but I am glad she didn't completely die in this one. I am looking forward to the rest of this season but I am even more excited about the 50th anniversary special!

Great review, Paul!

Patrick said...

I thought this episode was really good fun, mostly because of Matt & Jenna. This is only her third episode, playing three (possibly)different characters, and these two are already in the running for my favorite Who pairing since the relaunch. They look great together on screen, and they can bounce dialogue back & forth like nobody's business. Better even than Catherine Tate could with David Tennant(well, maybe not better, those two were amazing at the witty banter, but definitely on par).

Nice callback to the Great Intelligence, honestly didn't think we'd be hearing from him again. I too wonder if this is the last we've seen of that particular enemy.

From a visual standpoint, I have to give kudos to the shot that followed Clara's entrance into the TARDIS through to the airplane. Even though it clearly wasn't, they did a wonderful job making it FEEL like one continuous tracking shot, following the duo through the doors of the TARDIS, around the interior, back to the doors and through to the airplane. I love it when shows use simple tricks like that to create shots that look impossible.

The riddle about who gave Clara the Doctor's phone number is one I hope they come back to. That doesn't seem like the sort of question the Moff will leave unanswered. I'd say the clear front-runner would be River Song, but who knows.

If anyone hasn't seen it yet, there's a short prequel to this episode floating around the Internet. You can find it on Youtube if you search for "bells of saint john prequel", and it contains some truly lovely acting by Matt Smith. There are also appearances by what COULD be some of the first characters we met when the show was re-launched. They're never identified by name, but it would be one HECK of a coincidence if Moff didn't put them there on purpose, just to mess with us. :)

Juliette said...

How many people suddenly woke up in coffins when they were 'downloaded' and then suffocated to death in their own graves? Thanks for that, Moffat. At least he's finally realised that being uploaded into a computer is creepy, not nice/heavenly.

The Doctor's habit of picking up pretty young girls has always been a bit dodgy, but his shrine to Clara hidden away in a medieval monastery was horror-movie levels of psychotic.

Is he ever going to tell Clara he's married?

More levels of creepy-in-a-bad-way than I've noticed before - is it the show, or maybe I'm just in a bad place...?

Juliette said...

(I'd love it if 123 was Moffat's Romans obsession coming back and they were going to AD 123, possibly to Chelmsford, but I think he may have drained that particular well dry)

Anonymous said...

I really like Clara. While Amy could be quite stubborn and certainly had a mind of her own she always had this faith that the Doctor would come through. He had been her hero since she was a kid. (I don't mean that as a criticism, just an observation.) But Clara is like a younger, flirty Donna. She is not automatically impressed with the Doctor. Even her whole, "So people just run away with you?" felt like Donna. I think Clara is going to be great, and I'm looking forward to figuring out the mystery of who she is :)

Mandy

paivi said...

You might want to fix the link to this review here:
http://www.douxreviews.com/2000/01/doctor-who_01.html#season7

Took some work to find this review!

Billie Doux said...

I just fixed it, Paivi. Thanks so much for the heads up.

Anonymous said...

A big improvement over the first half of the season. Here's hoping they manage to create some kind of meaningful story arc from here on in.

I agree that the episode did have a Russell Davies flavour to it, but not to its detriment.