[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
And so we’re under way with the second half of Series 7 — which really feels like Series 8, as it’s separated by the best part of a year from the first half, and has a new companion replacing the much-loved Amy and Rory. (In fact, we were under way a bit more than two weeks ago, but I’ve been insanely busy and not in a position to blog about the series until now.)
The Bells of Saint John had rather a nice little prequel, which I saw after the main episode. Andrew Rilstone argues that it shows the Doctor at his best: cosmic loneliness distilled down a gentle, thoughtful moment. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I think the episode proper could probably have used a bit more of that.
It faced the classic problem of introducing a new companion while telling an actual story; or it sort of did. But not so much, because we’ve already met (a version of) the character not once but twice. That should have made things easier for BOSJ, but somehow the episode didn’t seem to capitalise on this work already done, choosing instead to do an essentially cold intro to the character. More frustratingly, it didn’t quite seem to be the same character.
And that’s important, because at this point, the character looks like a definite downgrade. In The Snowmen, there was a quickness to the governess, a sharpness of mind (particularly in all the business with the umbrella) that sold me on the idea that the Doctor might feel an immediate bond with this person, and even become obsessed with tracking her down through time and space. This time around … not so much. She came across much more as Generic Spunky Girl Companion, with none of that sense of her being a worthy counterpart to the Doctor.
But enough of Clara. What of the actual story?
It worked for me. I know enough about networking to realise that the premise is nonsense from step one, but then Doctor Who has never stood or fallen on the realism of its premise.
The point of the WiFi monster is that that it’s a retargeting of the primal ghost-in-the-machine fear for today. It’s certainly becoming a familiar trope in Who: something familiar, even comforting, that becomes the conduit for a threat. We could point to the mobile phones of Rise of the Cybermen, the televisions of The Idiot’s Lantern and the sat-navs of The Sontaran Stratagem. For that matter, the Weeping Angels of Blink and other episodes, while not everyday objects, are essentially the kind of statuary we’re used to seeing in public gardens (at least those of us who are English).
Of course this idea of the familiar made uncanny goes back much further than the series reboot in 2005. The most obvious example from the old series is the autons — shop-window dummies come to life. But it’s really only since Doctor Chris that this theme has become such a recurring part of the show, to the point that now when you think of Doctor Who you think of the TARDIS, Daleks, and familiar technology gone wrong.
Now to a certain point, I am perfectly cool with this. I certainly have no truck with those who criticised BOSJ for resembling The Idiot’s Lantern because it has screens and Partners in Crime because it has a businesswoman. Doctor Who has been running for fifty years, and has racked up 234 stories. It simply isn’t possible to keep coming up with stories that don’t resemble something in that vast backfile.
More than that: it’s right and proper that Doctor Who should do some of its work with the familiar rather than on alien worlds. And if I may be permitted to stretch a point a bit, it’s laudable if one of the effects of Who is to make us see the familiar in a new way, perhaps even to look with wonder on marvels that we’ve grown overly used to. Wireless Internet is magical — I well remember less than a decade ago being astonished and delighted by it. It’s good to be reminded of that.
And yet …
It can all feel a bit consequencesey. Roll the D20: technology of the week comes up WiFi! The Big Bad will be … (roll another D20) … The Great Intelligence! Roll a D6 and find that the baddie’s collaborator will be: a businesswoman! There’s nothing wrong with any of these choices. The problem is that they’re not made to work together, and so they feel arbitrary. What is it about the businesswoman that makes her a particularly appropriate conduit for the GI? We don’t know. Why does it choose to use WiFi rather than 3G? We don’t know.
Worst of all, the WiFi doesn’t seem to represent anything. The premise, that joining an uncanny network can steal your soul, is creepy, but it’s not made to mean anything. And that seems like a terrible missed opportunity. Because of course the ubiquitious availability of WiFi does steal your soul — just slowly and incrementally rather than all at once. That is an issue worth thinking about, and one that Doctor Who is perfectly capable of shedding light onto.
In the same way, the office that operated the soul-stealing operation was staffed by people who had been there for years, in at least one case decades — people who had literally given their lives to their jobs. There again is a pervasive and important issue, and one that Who could usefully address via metaphor. At its best, Who has a capacity for insight and even wisdom which can illuminate complex concepts. Right now, it doesn’t quite feel like it’s trying to do that, just racing through each standalone episode. I’d like to see the program work a bit harder to draw out the substance of its raw materials.
Part of the problem might be the lack of two-parters recently. Although The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People ultimately muffed its exploration of the human status of the eponymous beings, I look back on it now and think that at least it tried — the two-part format gave it the time and space to stop and breathe and look at its issues. I find myself wondering whether the problem now is a failure of nerve: because the ideas in BOSJ were certainly rich enough to sustain a two-parter with no fat. Slow down, Moff! Show us the concepts! Explore the ideas! Leave us to chew them over for a week before you start to resolve the problem.
Anyway — I am complaining more than I should: I thoroughly enjoyed the episode, particularly the (in retrospect obvious) twist when the Doctor confronted Miss Kizlet in her office. And there was a brief — too brief — moment of real poignancy when her history became apparent.
As is so often the case in recent years, this episode raised questions — potentially important ones. Of course we already have the core mystery of the series: who or what is Clara, and why does the Doctor keep running into her? To this, we can now add: why was the family’s WiFi password based on Clara’s previous dying words “Run, you clever boy, and remember”?
And why did Clara’s call to technical support get routed to the TARDIS? Her conversation with the Doctor runs thus: “Where did you get this number?” / “The woman in the shop wrote it down. She said it’s the best help-line in the universe.” / “What woman? Who was she?” / “I don’t know. The woman in the shop.” So who was the woman? We’re being invited to assume River Song, I suppose, or maybe Aged Amy. Maybe someone cleverer.
In her book of places to go, the “Property of Clara Oswald age 9” inscription has the age repeatedly crossed out and rewritten to form the sequence 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24. What happened to ages 16 and 23? She seems too methodical a girl to have just overlooked them. Do I detect the distinctive aroma of timey-wimey?
The problem is that, after the let-down at the end of series 6, I just don’t trust the Moff like I used to — I’m not confident that all the clues necessarily point anywhere. That may be a bit harsh: after all, the spectacular denouement of Series 5 did tie up most of its loose ends, most notably the “wrong” jacket in the garden in Flesh and Stone. But somehow I feel that Who has slightly lost my trust and has to win it back again. I could do with one of these mysteries being resolved very soon indeed, so I can relax and believe in the master-plan again.
And another thing: who did make the TARDIS explode as the end of Series 5? We never did find that out, did we?