The Bells of Saint John (Doctor Who series 7, episode 6)

[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.)

BOSJ-prequel

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.

doctor-who-episode-7-07-the-bells-of-st-john-full-set-of-promotional-photos-1_full

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.

Do-not-click-it

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.

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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.

bsj3

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?

13 responses to “The Bells of Saint John (Doctor Who series 7, episode 6)

  1. I’m pretty sure “the woman in the shop” will be Rose, since we know she’s coming back for the 50th anniversary.

  2. Actually, I didn’t know that. But I do now. D’oh!

  3. Thanks for the heads up about the pre-quel. I totally missed that because I’m not in the UK and I don’t dare check for general info about Doctor Who on the Internet because it’s all spoilers as far as the eye can see. (I don’t even look at the Next Week On’s–seriously–I’m kinda crazy about the spoiler thing.)

    Anyway. I thought the ep was ok. Mostly I liked the part where the Doctor got to drive a motorcycle up the side of a building in Ghost Rider fashion, then followed that up with the reveal that it wasn’t actually him. Now, granted, you can once again say that, that’s copying from I’m-not-really-the-Doctor schtick. But I liked it.

    About the WiFi: I was at a local/small version of Comicon recently (named Planet Comicon). While there I decided to see if there were any open WiFi networks. One of the networks was that garbled-character one like in the show. :-D I did *not* click on it. ;-)

    As to the mystery of Clara: After the side-step with the death o’ the Doctor, I no longer have the expectation of having clear, good answers to the mysteries that Moff might present. If he manages to come through with one, cool, but I’ll not hold my breath.

    One thing I like about the Clara mystery is that I don’t actually *need* for it to be satisfactorily explained. In fact, I’m a little worried that a detailed explanation of her continued re-appearance in the Universe might be like midichlorians are to The Force. In other words: the mystery is better than the lame explanation.

    I’m used to Douglas Adams-style Universe stuff where couches appear from “thin air” and the contents of duffel bags sometimes change for no properly explained reason other than: “hey! This Universe! It’s crazy!”


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  4. I think, Mike, that you’ve hit a really good point here: the mysteries are there, littered through the episode, but they simply aren’t engaging the way that they used to. This is part of the process of coming to terms with the detail in the Moff’s writing and his desire to leave open possibilities which he may or may not decide to follow-up later. It’s eminently pragmatic on his part, but it tends to leave everyone on this side of the microscope a little worn out. And yes, distrustful of what are just as likely to be red herrings as they are important plot elements.

  5. The Clara mystery is presented as a mystery; I want it to be one. I don’y think we can make an analogy with midi-chlorians at all, because they weren’t the answer to a mystery. The reason they are so universally derided is because they’re the lame answer to a question no-one was asking. The Force worked perfectly well as an ambiguous do-what-you-want-with-it bit of cod spirituality/magic. Trying to ground it in science-fictional terms not only introduced all sorts of new problems to do with heredity and suchlike, but was completely unnecessary in the first place. Whereas from The Snowmen onwards, Clara has been explicitly pitched to us as a mystery that the Doctor is out to solve.

    So in doing that Moff has made a promise, and he needs to come through on it. And because of Series 6, I am not as confident as I used to be that he will do that. After posting this review, I re-read my thoughts of The Wedding of River Song and was struck by this passage:

    But then in A Good Man Goes to War, Moffat pulled the same point-the-skis-downhill manoeuvre by introducing a whole nother bunch of concepts — the Future Church now opposed to the Doctor instead of allied with him, the Headless Monks, the Sontaran nurse, the Silurian detective, The Pirate That No-One Really Wanted To See Again, and much, much more. Again, it worked; but again, largely on sheer exuberance. And, unlike The Big Bang, it left just as many open questions behind it as it resolved. So it was satisfying as a mid-series semi-finale, if you will, but wouldn’t have done as the series finale.

    And of course the problem was the Wedding, which was the series finale, did the same thing: throwing yet more ideas into the box instead of, rather than as well as, resolving the existing ones. That won’t suffice this time. (Well: it didn’t suffice last time, either, but that’s over and done.) Set up a mystery? Great. But solve it.

  6. How far do you think these mid-season breaks are influencing opinion? Where the wait is six months, or a year, or longer, do we expect something bigger, better, more substantial and more generally rounded than we’re actually getting? And do we actually really want Moff to solve the question of Clara, or is there an underlying feeling that whatever is answer is, it’s going to be incomplete and vaguely disappointing?

  7. That’s a good point. I don’t think the mid-season breaks help at all — they break the flow and momentum, and I find that I don’t think of Series 6 as being a unit as I do with Series 5 or indeed Series 1. This time, with the much longer break, the effect is even stronger. And yes, I do suspect it has the effect of making Moff feel that the episodes need to be more eventy. Episodes 6 and 7 of Series 5 were the relatively self-contained Vampires in Venice and Amy’s Choice. I don’t think there’s room for those kinds of “mid-season” episodes in the Split Series format. And the programme is the poorer for it.

  8. I just had a wonderfully chilling thought regarding the phone: who has made it ring before? Only The Empty Child, as far as we know. Hard to imagine that his Mummy could be the woman in the shop, mind you.

  9. Pingback: The Rings of Akhaten (Doctor Who series 7, episode 8) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  10. Christopher Brown

    You’ve hit on one of the biggest problems for me with the current run of the show: I didn’t trust Moffat either anymore, and thanks to “Asylum of the Daleks” and “The Angels Take Manhattan” I now trust him even less. It seems like less and less thought is being put into the show, and that’s very disconcerting considering we are now in its most important year since the beginning of the show.

    Having said that, the latest episode “Hide” was absolutely fantastic. More like this please.

    I’m also very worried about the chance of Classic Doctors appearing in the 50th at this point….

  11. Pingback: Announcing my book about The Eleventh Doctor | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  12. This is kind of stupid, but maybe the woman in the shop is Sally Sparrow? I mean, she started up a shop with the other guy at the end of blink.

  13. I’d be happy enough if that turned out to be the case, but I don’t think anything we’ve seen so far supports that interpretation — plus how would Sally Sparrow even know that number? She only ever met the Doctor for about 20 seconds, as far as we know.

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