Thursday, April 04, 2013

Doctor Who - The Bells of Saint John (S7E7)

This remake of Quadrophenia is pretty bitchin'
There's been something off about Doctor Who for quite a while now, and up until this episode I had not quite been able figure out what exactly the problem is. Most of the elements that make the show great (or which can make the show great when it's working at the top of its game) are still present and correct; a thoroughly likable, engaging lead in Matt Smith; witty, playful writing; a sense of scale and ambition that tends to be in short supply in populist science fiction shows, let alone ones made on the typically frugal budgets of British television. Despite this, I've found myself less drawn to the show over time, and whilst I still like individual episodes, often a great deal, my attitude towards the show as a whole has cooled somewhat.

The reason, I have realised, is that Doctor Who has become reliably consistent, and has stopped being a show of extremes. People like to pick apart the Russell T. Davies era of the show for its often excessive sentimentality, lax plotting, and tendency to go for broad, pantomime-like comedy in a way which could detract from suspense and emotion. I would count myself amongst that group. Yet while those first couple of years were wildly inconsistent, they also delivered some of the best episodes in the history of the series. Part of the fun of Doctor Who was its unpredictability. You could tune in and end up watching a group of farting aliens engage in a hamfisted satire of the decision to invade Iraq, or you could find yourself watching "Blink," one of the most terrifying and celebrated episodes of genre television ever produced. It was a show that swung pendulum-like from terrible to amazing, and whilst that was infuriating, it also made it riveting. The appeal lay in the contrast between how great the show often was and how terrible it could be between episodes, or even scenes.

The problem with the show now is that it has settled into an agreeable rut, one where it rarely produces an out and out terrible episode any more, but it also seems to churn out fewer sparkling gems. There's nothing wrong with that, since there are plenty of shows that plateau after a few years, and Doctor Who has plateaued at a higher level than most. It's certainly a less aggravating show than it used to be, and there's something comforting about the sleek professionalism with which the show is put together these days. Still, the show feels as if is lacking the kind of wild, flailing passion which seemed to drive it - for good and ill - back in the earlier days of the revival.

"The Bells of Saint John" is a textbook example of the sort of episodes the show is able to churn out with no particular fuss; quick, efficient, kind of instantly forgettable but enjoyable while it's on. The script by showrunner Steven Moffat is peppered with funny one liners (though one joke about Twitter seems very mean-spirited, especially given Moffat's very public exit from the social networking site) and moves at a fair old pace, both of which compensate for the fact that the story itself falls into a trope that Doctor Who has done a number of times in recent years: the world is menaced by a seemingly benign technology, in this case wi-fi, which is secretly being used for nefarious purposes.

There's not much to the story besides that idea, which is a little half-baked and makes it largely indistinguishable from something like "The Rise of the Cybermen," which does deprive the episode of the sort of kick one might be hoping to find in a mid-season premiere (or whatever the correct term for an episode airing as part of a split season might be). It kind of reminded me of that old Family Guy joke about Stephen King pitching a book about a lamp monster. It's as if Moffat really had his back to the wall and wrote something based on whatever was in the room with him at that time. We should all just be happy it wasn't an episode about killer tea cups menacing Bristol.

Anyway, The Doctor figures out what's going on, possibly because of a lingering sense of deja vu from the other times he's dealt with exactly this sort of thing. There's some peril, he winds up saving everyone through a judicious mix of derring-do (which involves driving a motorcycle up the side of The Shard, a building whose jagged edges make it look like inclusion in a Doctor Who episode was worked into its design) and some clever mental judo involving re-wiring one of the devices used to trap peoples' minds in wi-fi and forcing the woman in charge (the charmingly icy Celia Imrie) to set everyone free.

It's all very neat and tidy, but it does kind of highlight Moffat's general unwillingness to let evil have consequences by making sure that everyone is left alive at the end of the story. It's not that The Doctor shouldn't be able to save everyone from time to time, but if his wins are so often indisputable it does kind of detract from the feel-good factor. (The best example of this being "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances," a couple of Moffat-penned episodes from the Christopher Eccleston year that made a big point about how much The Doctor felt like he needed a good day after so many bad ones.) This was mitigated somewhat by the scenes at the end which revealed that Imrie and her cohorts were all working for The Great Intelligence (played by Richard E. Grant) who we last saw defeated at the end of "The Snowmen". It turns out that he has been controlling and guiding all of them for years, and once he leaves them they have no memory of what they have been doing.

This sets up a great little moment in which Imrie reverts to a childlike state, plaintively asking where her parents are, in doing so revealing that her character's entire life was spent under the service of The Great Intelligence, and its absence now leaves her confused and alone. It's actually kind of dark and disturbing in a way which the rest of the episode isn't. Moffat relies on typically Who-ish images of people who aren't quite people and oppressive organisations, neither of which land quite as well as the two or three sentences that close out Imrie's scenes.

The main defence for how generic the episode is would be that it serves as an introduction for Clara Oswin (Jenna-Louise Coleman) who finally takes her place as the new Companion at the end of the episode. I use the word "finally" because this is actually the third time Oswin has been introduced over the last year. She first appeared as an insane Dalek, then as a Victorian nanny and in both instances died, leaving some lingering uncertainty and darkness over The Doctor in the process. Since she managed to make it to the end of "Bells" without joining the choir invisible, it's probably safe to say that this is the form Oswin will take going forward, and while it's nice that Moffat went for an introduction that was light on exposition and heavy on adventure, it didn't really feel as if the episode did anything other than restate stuff we already know: Oswin is tech-savvy (or becomes so after being set into the Wi-Fi) and there's something odd about her that The Doctor can't quite put his finger on, suggesting that the big mystery over the next few episodes, if not longer, will be the question of who, or what, Oswin really is.

Since Doctor Who has basically reset Oswin twice now, this just serves to highlight the juddering nature of the meta-narrative storytelling that the show has struggled with over the last year or so. In trying to create long arcs that work over the course of a whole season, Moffat and his writers sometimes falter when it comes to episodic storytelling, which is very much the case here. The introduction of the new Companion should be a big deal, yet it felt like a piece of a much broader puzzle, a piece which in and of itself wasn't that interesting. You know, like a bit of sky or something. Not even an edge piece.

That's no fault of Coleman's, who's a very charming presence and fits in nicely as a part of Moffat's patter-driven world and has a nice rapport with Matt Smith, who in turn still manages to be endearingly goofy and deadly serious without the trick every getting old. Unfortunately the same can't be said about the episode around them, which felt a little like it was going through the motions. However, those motions are still pretty fun, and even if there is something a little mechanical about Doctor Who these days, it is at the very least a well-oiled machine. I just hope that its heart, or more accurately hearts, can begin beating more passionately again, and that this happens sooner rather than later.

Rating: 6/10


-  As I said in the review, it's kind of hard to know what to think about Oswin at this point. So far, she seems like Amy Redux, but without the weird obsession with The Doctor. I'm sure Moffat has some interesting things planned for her, but so far the show hasn't topped her appearance in "Asylum of the Daleks", which was far and away the most interesting use of her.

- Nice to see Richard E. Grant being brought back in. I felt that he was severely under-used in the Christmas Special and hope that he gets plenty of opportunity to mess shit up for The Doctor in the coming weeks.

- Sorry that this review went up a little late. Work stuff got in the way, but this should be a one-off. Going forward, these reviews will be posted as close to the date the episode airs as possible. (They will also, hopefully, be shorter.)