As the Doctor tracks down Clara, and the Great Intelligence attempts to create a World Wide Web of Fear, James Willetts gives us his appraisal of the opening episode, The Bells of St John. Don’t forget to check out our commentary!
It’s that time again – new Doctor Who! And a new companion too – well, newish. Admittedly Clara has appeared in two episodes already, not that that’s done her much good, she’s already developing a habit of dying. She’s a more female Rory, basically.
And this then is her third introductory episode, and Moffat pads around the issue a little bit. We’re given a cold open first, to introduce the threat of the episode. The Internet has started killing people – it’s not Black Mirror, but it’s a pretty horrible conceit. Unlike Gas Mask children, clockwork dolls, statues or even libraries, we all have wi-fi in our house, which is always a good sign that something is going to be creepy.
Of course, most peoples broadband provider doesn’t attract a robotic imitator intent on sucking out your knowledge and preserving your essence in a tiny screen. Moffat Bingo is already going well here – creepy children, chameleonic bad guys, everyday items turning against us, it’s pretty standard fare for his Who really.
It may be because she’s already been introduced, but even Clara’s promotion to companion seems a bit samey. It feels like we’ve already done this. Maybe I’m still mourning the Ponds, but this is a companion who I’m still not that fussed on. Admittedly, I didn’t see the Christmas Special, and maybe that added the extra something that’s needed here to transfer her from plucky and able support-character to co-lead. I’m sure she’ll grow on me, I just wish I didn’t feel like we had already been here.
It’s always hard to be the follow up to a new Doctor’s first companion – just ask Martha. There needs to be enough of a transition that they become their own distinct personality quickly, but without alienating the viewer who really liked the characterisation of the previous iteration. I don’t feel like that has happened yet – I can see Amy delivering most of these lines, and that’s a pretty fundamental problem for an episode that needs to make me forget about her.
Having died, or maybe just ‘died’, Clara is back as the Doctor interrupts the transfer of her personality via the age-old solution of waving his Sonic Screwdriver in its direction and then hacking it with a laptop. This is one time when the Screwdriver would have made sense to use – surely it has a jamming function in there somewhere? I think a large percentage of my problems with it would be solved if the Doctor used it consistently.
Still, it establishes that the Doctor has super speed to go with his hacking skills, so that’s good to know. The bad guys are flummoxed, but too busy infighting to really pay attention anyway.
It’s unclear what they see as their purpose in this to be honest. Their ‘client’ turns out to have been mind controlling them all along by the end, which I think is mean to clear up those issues of what exactly they would be looking to do with this technology, and where their profit was coming from. Surely it takes quite a bit of money to finance an entire floor in The Shard? That’s prime office space, and it’s being used to hack the internet and steal the minds of the innocent for the enjoyment of a giant head.
I feel like there’s a bit of a meta-commentary there, on how Moffat feels about the Internet. He’s made no bones about the fact that he dislikes large sections of the online fandom (especially those who spoilt his plot twists). The idea that the Internet is the enemy, and that it steals your ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ is a pretty easy leap to make from there.
The episode ramps up the tension with the attempt to destroy the Doctor, plus the collateral damage of an entire street, something which slightly undermines the later argument that the actions of the unnamed group are benign and don’t lead to real deaths. It’s all very well their client wanting to eat people’s minds, and farming humanity, but you get one little hiccup and they’re exploding suburban streets with aircraft.
Still, it does means we get to see some of the show’s famous “pretend you’re being shaken around” acting, which Clara is really quite good at. It’s a shame that we didn’t see some of her tea slopping out of the mug as she goes for added realism though.
She must have lost some of her drink though, because the pair immediately nip forward to the next day and head out for coffee. Her newly introduced (and earlier plot important) L33T hacking skills are shown off, and they mainly seem to involve searching for people’s faces on social networking sites.
Now, at some point then, we’re assuming then that these people go home and update their Facebook. Does nobody notice that they’ve changed job from ‘plumber’ to ‘Evil Businessman’? It’s a fairly unusual career path. Again, it brings up larger questions of how that company pays them – presumably they need money for suits and accommodation, but where are their funds coming from? I doubt there are many banks willing to finance some weird, dystopian scheme to steal the souls of the common man and… oh, who am I kidding? This is exactly the kind of thing that bankers would provide money for. They probably have shares in it
Despite being one with her laptop, Clara gets reabsorbed into The Matrix. At some point she should probably have tried to run away, but apparently the reason The Doctor tells people to run is that they would otherwise simply cower in front of an enemy as it destroys them.
The next sequence is fantastic, as the Doctor reprograms the Doppelganger, sends it up The Shard on an anti-grav motorcycle and lets it do all the work for him. This is brilliant, and I really didn’t see it coming at all.
Does it stray into moral ambivalence a little? Maybe. Using the weapons of the enemy against them in this way is a little bit hypocritical. I realise we keep on saying that, but it’s so casually done, and isn’t remarked upon at all, and that makes me a little uncomfortable because I think we’ve forgotten the lessons of last season’s Aesop already.
Of course, having not seen The Snowmen (and having deliberately avoided reading up on
what happened) I was totally taken by surprise to have the client revealed to be The Great Intelligence. That, I think, is what I like the most about the episode – that it was such a shock, and I suspect I would have been a little underwhelmed by it had I seen the Christmas special first. But anything where I can get a shock appearance from a Great Old One in Doctor Who is alright by me.
What did you think of The Bells of St John? Let us know in the comments below!