Monday, 1 April 2013

Doctor Who: The Bells of St John

Starring: Matt Smith, Jenna Louise Coleman, Celia Imrie
Written by: Steven Moffat

In the aftermath of the Ponds’ departure, and the second death of Clara Oswin in Victorian London, the Doctor has taken a sabbatical to contemplate the mystery of the Twice Dead Girl. Meanwhile, in present day London, there’s something in the WiFi…

It’s back!

The Doctor returns for his fiftieth anniversary, and the second half of series 7. Or series 8, if you prefer. Or, if you’re really old school, series thirty three (or thirty four, depending on whether you’re counting this as part two or a separate series…it’s no wonder the show has a fairly confusing continuity and mythology; you can’t even pin down how many series there are!). Anyway, however you’re counting it, he’s back. Arguably more importantly – in the sense that while you probably already know whether you like Matt Smith in the role, or Moffat’s direction for the show, most viewers have very little idea about her – Jenna Louise Coleman is debuting for the third time as the mysterious Clara Oswin Oswald. Yes, third debut. See above re: series numbers.

We’ve seen her before, of course, in last year’s episodes ‘Asylum of the Daleks’, where she played Oswin Oswald, an ace hacker, chef, flight attendant and insane killing machine, and in the Christmas special, where she played Clara Oswald, part time barmaid and governess in search of adventure. Both were excellent performances, and she clearly had a wonderful, sparky chemistry with Smith, making her in many ways the perfect candidate for the next companion. However, I must confess I was left a little wary by both her introductions. For one, they marked another companion who was seemingly extremely important to the plot – as in, a companion with a destiny. There have been quite a few of these companions since the show’s return, although possibly not to the extent that some corners of the fandom would have you believe. It amazes me just how many people from twentieth century UK turn out to be the linchpins for plots and conspiracies that span all of time and space. Indications that this series is going to have a plot arc of ‘Who is Clara?’ did not thrill me, particularly because I’m still waiting for a satisfying resolution to the whole business with the Silence. It wasn’t until watching ‘The Bells of St John’ that I finally twigged what it was that had put me off about Clara/Oswin in her previous appearances.

She was too much like River Song. Now don’t get me wrong, I like River. She’s great fun, and in some ways there’s nothing I’d rather see than the Doctor, River and maybe Jack Harkness bombing around the galaxy having crazy adventures. However, I recognise that she would not be the best companion in the long run, because she’s too good. Very, very clever, she can drive the TARDIS better than the Doctor can, rather badass, and with a mysterious past to rival the Doctor’s; put her in the show too often, as arguably happened with series six, and she can overshadow the main reason people watch the show. I realise now that I was concerned something similar would happen with Clara. A genius hacker, smarter in some respects than the Doctor, sassy, witty, sexy…stop me if it sounds familiar.

None of these things are bad things, of course. But when your lead character is an immortal alien with a genius level intellect, a time-travelling spaceship and around a thousand years of experience and knowledge in…pretty much everything you could ever think of, it can be a little hard to swallow when every third character is just as brilliant as he is, or comes with some sort of special destiny that makes them galactically, temporally and historically important. Oswin was great in ‘Asylum…’, and Clara was one of the best things about ‘The Snowmen’ (the best thing being Strax, the Sontaran butler). I just wasn’t sure I wanted an entire series of her.

I should have had more faith. In keeping with the fact that this is the third incarnation of the character, present day Clara was a very different creation to those that have gone before. Less worldly, mildly less sassy, much more vulnerable…there are hints of a rather sweet father/son relationship between them, a sharp contrast to the now fairly familiar companion with a crush or more on the Doctor. Once again, it was a cracking performance from Jenna Louise Coleman, bringing different shades to the role and keeping the winning chemistry going. More importantly, it feels like she’s going to showcase the wonder of the show. In the sense that this was an episode largely designed to sell her as the new companion, it was an absolute triumph.

In other areas, Matt Smith was typically brilliant, and the new type of relationship between Doctor and companion is allowing him to show off a few new nuances to the character, which is always a good thing. The idea of something attacking people through the WiFi was suitably creepy, although it did leave a few unanswered questions, the main one being how all those robots climbed out of people’s laptops…but I well know that expecting answers for every little thing in this show is unrealistic. I was more impressed by Celia Imrie as the delightfully Miss Kizlet, although her best moment was her heartbreaking final scene. Lots of cool stuff happened, and it was all great fun, and well-acted, directed and written.

However, there is no denying that it was an episode that did pretty much everything by the book. Individual scenes and performances were spectacular, but the episode as a whole lacked that little bit of extra oomph. This might not have been quite as noticeable if it weren’t for the fact that Moffat was very obvious about the things he’d recycled from earlier episodes. The spooky catchphrases, the uncanny valley, robotic enemies…even the main body of the episode. People getting trapped in their computers, staring out from the screen and begging to be released? Looks like someone just re-watched The Idiot’s Lantern, Mark Gatiss’s episode from David Tennant’s first series, which revolved around…people getting their souls trapped in the television, and featured various different shots of people looking out from television screens, begging for release.

There’s nothing wrong with recycling good ideas, of course, and all of these things were good when they first appeared, and good in The Bells of St John. But as I said, they did emphasise the standard nature of the episode. Nothing in it was particularly bad, and a lot was very good. Sadly though, it proved to be a little less than the sum of its parts.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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