Warning: spoilers abound.
The email from Gareth went like this.
“On BBC Breakfast, we’re told that the cast and crew think that the upcoming series of Who is ‘the most ambitious everywhere’.
Of the anniversary story, Matt Smith said: “It’s hilarious, vast, epic – the biggest, best, boldest episode, the most momentous moment in the show’s history.”
And there was a clip of Clara, which went something like:
Clara: Doctor Who?
Doctor: Say that again?
Clara: “Doctor Who?”?
Doctor: Oooh, again.
Clara: Doctor Who!
Doctor: *does little shiver-down-the-spine dance*
In a parallel universe somewhere, there’s a version of Doctor Who where this joke was never made. It became one of the unwritten rules of the show, like the Doctor’s lack of beard (well, until River Song) and the fact that you never, ever see him using the toilet. (That’s a fairly generic rule for any action hero – you never see Jack Bauer using the toilet, for example – and a rule I’m glad they’ve never broken.) In our own little timeline, of course, it was used comparatively sparingly during the RTD reign (the very first episode, indeed, cleverly sidesteps such well-worn territory by having Rose intone “Doctor What?”). Then Steven Moffat turned up, and it became a recurring gag simply because it has now become the entire show.
To be fair to ‘The Bells of Saint John’, it does get this moment of silliness out of the way relatively early on. It happens when Clara Oswald comes downstairs to find a mad monk standing on her doorstep
asking if she’d like to know about Jesus wanting to find out about Wi-Fi. It’s the Doctor, fresh from his role in the Cadfael remake.
It’s not the first time the Doctor’s dressed up as a monk, of course, but at least these are actual monks, rather than swooshy black things with lightsabers. The Doctor’s in Cumbria, meditating on the mystery that is Clara. Who is she? Where did she come from? Is she feisty enough? Is the multiple death gimmick making Arthur Darvill bitter? Who’s the lady in the shop (as if we haven’t figured that one out)? Does anyone care?
Back in December, I wrote a rather dispassionate review of ‘The Snowmen’ in which I stated, quite bluntly, that I didn’t care at all. I do not believe this was a harsh judgement. But I did find, after Saturday’s instalment, that my interest was piqued once again. This was largely because we seem to have (for the moment) encountered the real and living Clara Oswald, free from the out-of-time contexts that dogged her predecessors (one worked for a futuristic cruise company, the other was a Victorian governess) and which thus made them unsuitable travelling companions for more than one story. I don’t know why there has to be this thing in New Who about a companion hailing from the home counties (preferably London) purely so that we can relate to them. They call it appealing to a wide demographic; I call it patronising. Leela was a primitive, inherently violent savage from a colonial nightmare, and we loved her. Zoe was a frosty, futuristic computer programmer and Jamie was a kilted medieval Scotsman with a heart of gold, and their banter saw the show at its best. Romana and Susan were as alien as the Doctor, but they were both fun to watch. Adric was a prodigious child genius, and proved to be one of the most popula- all right, yes, I suppose that rather stomps on my point.
It’s curious that despite my insistence that ‘exotic’ companions are fine, I liked this Clara more than Oswin’s souffle-obsessed bisexual meandering or
Nancy’s 19th century Clara’s cockney chirpiness. At the same time, there’s an air of unease about her reintroduction, because we know how it all ends up for her in the other episodes. It’s never fully established to what extent this is the exact same Clara – her sudden ‘reprogrammed’ brain echoes the hacking skills of Oswin in ‘Asylum’, as does one particular line of dialogue; her position as an unofficial governess (of sorts) to the Maitland family is a pointed reminder of her C.V. in ‘The Snowmen’, as mentioned by the Doctor himself. There’s obviously a connection here, and we thus have the series arc in place. Nevertheless, Clara is sparky and fun to watch, even if she is predictably described as ‘feisty’ by at least three journalists in this week’s reviews. There are several clues dropped in – some subtle, some less so. The references to her previous episodes are illustrated by needless flashbacks (kids are smart, Steven; showing them the deathbed speeches from ‘Asylum’ and ‘Snowmen’ was a waste of screen time) but her chemistry with the Doctor betters anything that Smith has ever had with the ever-irritating Alex Kingston, who always came across like Ann Bancroft seducing Dustin Hoffman (to the extent that the show made several jokes about it, but that doesn’t excuse the awkwardness of bad writing).
As a result of this necessitated introduction, the rest of the episode is rather Who-lite. It’s the most lightweight series opener since ‘Partners in Crime’ – an episode that works because it’s played strictly for laughs, with cute (if deadly) monsters and a grossly camped up villainess. ‘Bells’ repeats the latter concept by casting Celia Imrie as the power-dressing Miss Kizlet. Miss Kizlet possesses an iPad app that allows her to alter the moods of her staff by heightening obedience and decreasing paranoia (“Oh,” said Emily, in a moment that worried me rather, “I wish I had that app”). Miss Kizlet has been busy uploading souls into the interweb, because…oh, because her client wants them. Presumably because he feeds off them, although this is never fully established, and we don’t care, because we don’t need to. It is an excuse for a bunch of people trapped behind a multitude of screens, begging to be released, and something that the show has never done before, ever.
It could be, of course, that they really did explain this, but in truth I was multitasking: straining to hear what was going on above the appalling sound mixing (although that could have been my TV), trying to explain to Thomas what was going on, and working out where I’d seen the young girl before. (A quick Google, as it turned out, provided the answer.)
The characters are under attack from the Spoonheads, for whom I had high hopes until they turned out to be robotic figures with large indents in the backs of their skulls. The indents serve as video screens and also suck out the life force from their victims. It’s about as underwhelming as the eventual introduction of the much overhyped Silence. And, of course, monstrous robots with rotating heads is something the show has never done before, ever.
The Doctor is only able to find the headquarters of the whole operation thanks to the obsession we have of recording everything about our lives on social networking sites – it’s one of the few jokes the episode throws at the use of technology (Clara’s gag about Twitter is another) and it feels welcome. It leads to the Doctor enacting this week’s ‘crowd-pleasing’ moment by riding a motorbike up the side of the Shard. (Fans of New Who may also note, of course, that the last time we saw the Doctor on a motorbike it was in ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’, which of course featured earlier.)
It’s here that the episode disappoints. You’re holding out for a big finale, a mammoth revelation about the identity of the mastermind, a Mexican standoff or hostage situation and at the very least an explosion or two, preferably one that results in the destruction of the building. But the episode’s climax is about as exciting as the last reel of Entrapment. In the end, the situation is resolved with a few squeaks of technobabble and the revelation that the Doctor we saw ascending the Shard isn’t the real Doctor at all, but a robotic duplicate that he’s controlling from a secure location – something else the show has never done before, ever.
There are a couple of final twists that were worth waiting for: the revelation that Miss Kizlet’s suited second-in-command was actually there to clean the toilets, along with the news that Kizlet herself was taken when a small child. Unfortunately, Moffat then plays his trump card too soon and lets us know what’s really been going on. He could have spun it out for a little while, at least.
There’s a bit of a heart to heart in the TARDIS and then the Doctor sails off, promising to arrive back at Clara’s house tomorrow evening (only presumably to overshoot this by twelve years). Followed by a ‘Next Time’ teaser in which I had absolutely no idea what was happening.
Somewhere inside ‘The Bells of Saint John’ there is a decent episode waiting to get out. Currently it is trapped behind glass, wailing “I don’t know where I am!”. What remained was a sea of confusion and a story that needed to be several things at once and couldn’t really manage any of them successfully. It’s a laptop sitting between three Wi-Fi hotspots without enough strength to properly latch on to any of them, and thus we were left with lags and hanging and general confusion. It’s a shame, because this could have been a good story. But in the hands of Russell T Davies I suspect it would have been an appalling story, and the fact that Moffat sidestepped much of the sentiment in place of some amusing gags is to its (and his) credit. And Clara was fun and watchable and, well, feisty. And I now want to know what happens to her. Damn you, Steven. You beat me.