Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Bells of Saint John written by Steven Moffat and directed by Colm McCarthy

This story in a nuthshell: The Doctor meets Clara...again!

The Nutty Professor: I’ve heard an awful lot of complaints of late about Matt Smith spending a terrific amount of time arsing about on screen but not actually getting to do a great deal of acting so I paid extra attention to the Doctor this week despite the series (as usual) trying to shift our attention onto the companion. By jiminy…they’re right! It takes him 20 minutes to get involved in the story in any meaningful way (that’s half of the episode gone by without any input from the Doctor…even Colin Baker never took this long to get involved!) because he has this central mystery of Clara taking up his time. Not only that but he mucks around in a monks habit, tries on a fez in a prolonged costume change scene and sits outside the TARDIS for an entire day. By the time they materialise on the plane I was so relieved that he had decided to move along and get on with doing something. I’ve also come to realise that in Moffat’s hands the Doctor is less of a character in his own right than a collection of cute quirks that keep popping up (bow ties, jammie dodgers and the sonic screwdriver and all get their moment in this episode). Better was the reaction to his magically appearing box where he hands out his fez for change for breakfast – I always find Smith works best when he is painted as a magician (the TARDIS in the clouds in The Snowmen still gives me goosebumps).

Cheeky Clara: I really like Clara. I think Jenna Louise Coleman is a terrific actress, bursting with charisma and confidence and that she shares great chemistry with Matt Smith. I want to get that off my chest before I start to discuss her handling here because this is her third introduction to the audience and to my mind it is the least effective of the three. Asylum of the Daleks worked so well because her inclusion was such a beautifully managed surprise and The Snowman pushed Clara right in the audiences laps and gave her two equally fun roles to play (the governess and the bartender). What we are presented with here is a modern day Clara who is strikingly reminiscent of Amy in many respects. Because of the mystery surrounding her character she is a closed book from the off (just like Amy was in her early episodes, her life having been consumed by her enormous crack) because presumably we are going to discover more and more about her as the series continues. At times I wonder if Moffat is frightened to introduce a complete character because that isn’t where his strengths lie as a writer and so he dumps a shell of a person on us and pieces the individual together bit by bit as he goes by gauging our reactions to the performance and taking in what other writers are doing with them. It happened with River, it happened with Amy and now it is happening with Clara. None of these characters have greeted the audience as openly as Rose, Martha and Donna. Say what you will about those Davies’ companions they were alive and kicking from their first appearance and you understood who they were by the end of their initial episode…although to be fair to Moffat the one character he has always been upfront about is Rory who incidentally is still my favourite companion from his era. With his female companions Moffat presents us with characters that are shrouded in mystery, that wink at the audience and say ‘there’s more to me than meets the eye.’ That’s all well and good but the pay off is rarely worth the wait. There’s a good chance that Coleman and Smith might only have eight or nine episodes together and I would rather they knew each other from the off and got on with some good stories rather than spending this time pulling apart the mystery of who Clara is and not engaging with each other as a Doctor and companion should. Since we’ve taken this approach with River and Amy…isn’t it time to try something a bit different? More to the point Clara is another contemporary young female character and the show is starting to fall into a familiar pattern with regards to the age and sex of the companion. The Victorian governess Clara would have been much more fun but on a fundamental level she would have been a bit different. Given the list of recognizable tropes that turn up in the episode, introducing another 20ish female character to the series only adds to the familiarity of it all. At least Coleman is a more enjoyable actress to watch than Gillan was. At the moment that is Clara’s saving grace.

The 101 Places to See book might have given us a clue as to who this woman is but all we discover inside is that she knows how to count and she’s not bad at leaf pressing. Clara clinging onto the Doctor when he is trying to level the plane and then again when they are riding through London on a motorbike struck me as the moments where these two really worked and I could see this Doctor/companion dynamic really coming alive. Not the flirting and all the clever clever dialogue but in the moments of silence when they are simply getting off on each others company and holding onto each other for support. During those moments I saw a much more involving partnership than the Doctor and Amy. In a show that often favours the companion over the Doctor these days (Moffat himself has admitted as much in recent interviews) having Clara send the Doctor off to get coffee while she does all the clever stuff is perhaps not the best message to be sending. I hate to be the person that says this sort of thing…but this never would have happened in the classic series (even with Zoe or Romana the Doctor would pop up last minute and trump them). I have no doubt in my mind that in he hands of Russell T Davies we would care far more about Clara leaving her extended family behind and that we would have gotten to know them a lot more throughout this episode. The whole situation seems to be put together without much heart or humour.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s a time machine. You never have to wait for breakfast.’

The Good:
  • Despite the fact that with so much text scrawling across my screen I thought I had wandered into an episode of Sherlock, the teaser was actually pretty snazzy. The idea of something menacing lurking in the WiFi is one that is worth exploring and if the episode ahead doesn’t really tap into that as much as it should this initial warning about the dangers of clicking on the wrong network provides an instant burst of excitement. The editing on this show is one of the best thing about it these days and the way this is cut together with some thrilling special effects to bridge the scenes is flawlessly executed. The techno-thriller that Moffat promised looks like it is going to deliver. I can remember saying to my pal Paul that I was desperately hoping that this episode did not open up with the usual montage of a hundred different locations (ala The Time of Angels, The Pandorica Opens, The Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon, A Good Man Goes to War, The Wedding of River Song & Asylum of the Daleks) and whilst this did it used the concept in a very different way to suggest a terrifying threat lurking in the most insidious of places. Bravo.
  • Amy writing children's books is a lovely touch to remind us that Moffat hasn’t forgotten the first companion he created. It is much more subtle than the constant mooning over Rose in season three.
  • Who is the woman in the shop who gave Clara the Doctor’s number? If it turns out to be River I might scream but at the moment this is a subtly introduced mystery.
  • Celia Imrie. She’s as magnificent as I would imagine and fits the role of a Who villainess like a hand slipping into a glove. Her best scenes are her introduction (‘actually he’s about to go on holiday…kill him when he gets back. Let’s not be unreasonable’) and when she written out (the chilling moment when we realise just when the Great Intelligence took control of her life) with everything in between being the usual Doctor Who shtick. My favourite ‘evil Aunt’ from the New Series (and its related spin offs) is still Mrs Wormwood from The Sarah Jane Adventures, followed by Miss Foster from Partners in Crime (they both get far more humour to enamour themselves to us) but Miss Kislet would be a firm third favourite.
  • Moffat can still conjure up the odd fresh idea when he needs to and I really enjoyed the concept of Miss Kislet’s pad which could boost or reduce an employees confidence, paranoia, obedience and IQ depending on the situation. I would love to get hold of one of those pads! Also the way that she can speak through the mouths of anybody connected to the WiFi is sharply presented too.
  • The main set piece of the episode is the Doctor’s joyride on the plane which is peripheral to the plot (it is the villains choice of trying to dispatch him and Clara) but by far the most exciting thing on offer. The effort that has gone into this five minute action sequence is extraordinary and what I especially love is the fluidity of the direction as the camera follows the Doctor and Clara into the TARDIS for a quick spin around the console room and then out the doors again and onto the plane in free fall. The journey from one location to another felt effortless. It’s pure dynamism and sucked me in completely. It also pleases me that Doctor Who would play about with something as dangerous as a plane threatening to dive into a housing estate in London post-9/11. My favourite touch was Clara holding her cup of tea throughout the entire set piece (and she managed to save some because she has the last gulp when they are back in the TARDIS). At least she has her priorities right. Given that this promised to be a Bond-style urban thriller I was expecting far more of this kind of thing but I really appreciated this burst of excitement all the same.
  • Everybody is on social networking sites in the workplace and that is the bad guys downfall. It’s not particularly clever but it did make me chuckle.

The Bad:
  • Why was the Doctor hiding out in the 13th Century obsessing over Clara? This whole sequence is so disconnected to the episode at hand that it feels like Moffat has just pulled a location out of a hat to dump the Doctor in. He could have just have easily been in the TARDIS or better still already be on the trail of Clara. It may go on to have a more important meaning later but for now it is an anomaly that delays the action and feels unnecessary. Not exactly the best way to catch up with the Doctor at the beginning of a new ‘season.’
  • ‘Doctor who?’ has been mentioned on the odd occasion throughout the series, usually as a throwaway joke but now we can’t go five minutes without somebody mentioning it. It’s always been the central mystery of the series and it’s not something that I would ever want answered in full (and if it      is anything like his handling of the Doctor’s ‘death’ Moffat just shouldn’t go there). What is bizarre is that a season (mini series?) that seems to be devoted to the mystery of the companion should have a tagline about the Doctor. Surely ‘Clara Who?’ would be more accurate. Matt Smith is trying his best to make the moment fun but it is so self referential and back slapping (it feels like Moffat thinks he is the only writer to have stumbled on the conundrum at the heart of the show) that I wouldn’t have bothered.
  • I’d rather think of the TARDIS as a ‘mobile phone’ than a ‘snog box.’ Way to sexualise every little part of the series, Moffat. You really need to satisfy yourself before sitting down at the keyboard.
  • Human souls trapped in the World Wide Web. It’s an idea that’s promoted but never elaborated on. Why? What was the purpose of it? Something like this shouldn’t be left unexplained even if it is tied into an arc plot because the motive behind the plot suddenly becomes ‘because we thought it would be cool’ rather than for a narrative purpose. What is wrong with explaining yourself as you go along?
  • The Doctor riding the anti gravity bike up The Shard is one of those ideas that probably should have been nixed at the draft script stage. Not because it is without precedent (the Whomobile also enjoyed taking to the skies) or because it doesn’t fit into the genre of an urban thriller (even Bond would raise and eyebrow at this) but just because it is looks really, really daft. I mean really daft. I was laughing my head off. The last time the show was this silly the TARDIS was towing the Earth across the universe.
  • The plot seems to be over without any great struggle or consequence. The Doctor sends in his fake, waves a magic wand and everything is alright again. The term anti-climactic might apply.
Haven’t I seen you before: I’m sure it cannot have escaped your attention that the majority of this episode was constructed out of elements that have been seen before. It’s the sort of condition that I accuse Uncle Terry of suffering from in his latest work (dragging out the Raston Warrior Robot, Vampires and the Time Lords in every story from The Eight Doctors to World Game to Beyond the Ultimate Adventure) and Moffat is starting to show signs of a similar fatigue, reaching for past glories rather than producing anything original. As the episode progressed I sunk into my seat more and more as I ticked off the fluency of familiar ideas and felt my mind drifting backwards to where these ideas were used in better episodes. Here is my shopping list of ingredients that I recognised…

  • The Spoonheads were a rift on the Nodes from Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, right down to their spinning heads and how they steal the essence of their victims. Head spinning was also a highlight of the Smilers in The Beast Below. The Spoonheads were their not-so-scary cousins.
  • Preventing the plane from crashing was reminiscent of the Doctor struggling with the wheel of the Titanic in Voyage of the Damned including the way the craft arcs away from the building that it was going to collide with at the last minute.
  • Clara absorbing intelligence had echoes of Luke Smith from The Sarah Jane Adventures but was more in tune with the Doctor/Donna from Journey’s End.
  • Obviously The Great Intelligence isn’t an original concept but we’ll let that one pass on account that Doctor Who brings back old monsters all the time and that’s just part of the fun. However this villain and method of dispatch (the internet) is identical to the low budget spin off Downtime written by Marc Platt. The Bells of Saint John executes the ideas better but the ideas lose something the second time around.
  • Didn’t we romp around London enough during the Russell T Davies era?
  • The Spoonhead being sent into a dangerous situation on behalf of Doctor sees Moffatt stealing his own Tesselecta conclusion to the season six arc. And it wasn’t a particularly stunning idea then. What is wrong with the Doctor not squaring up to the villains anymore?
  • The Intelligence controlling the human race the way they did stuck me as another riff on the how the Silence did exactly the same thing for many, many years. I’m starting to wonder if we have ever been responsible for our lives or merely pawns of countless alien intelligences.
  • The Clara mystery running through this mini season feels like an attempt to re-ignite the initial excitement that surrounded the River arc.
  • A major London landmark being the centre of operations for goings on was handled in Rose (the London Eye) and Army of Ghosts (Canary Wharf).
  • The faces of the victims being captured on television screens screaming out in confusion has leapt straight from The Idiot’s Lantern.
  • As good as she was, Celia Imrie’s character was just another Miss Foster from Partners in Crime. Without the witty lines.
  • The ringing TARDIS phone plays out, practically beat for beat, in exactly the same way as it did in The Empty Child.
  • Something menacing coming down the stairs in the form of a little girl was pulled off with far more menace in The Lodger. It’s all about the lighting.
The Shallow Bit: Is it really wrong to fancy the Doctor at times? I loved his hair all messed up and hanging forwards when he was in the monks habit. He looks desperately cute in his motorbike helmet too.

Result: The first sign that Steven Moffatt might have run out of ideas and developed that little known illness known as Who exhaustion, The Bells of Saint John is entertaining enough but afflicted with a number of problems that prevent it from being anything especially memorable. If this was promoted as a love letter to the new series it might have worked (whilst still feeling hugely derivative) but the tone that this opener has been imbued with is one of starting afresh and moving the series onwards. It’s hard to do that in a story constructed out of old ideas. Most of my issues with The Bells of Saint John occur during the first half where nothing of consequence seems to happen for an age when suddenly the episode kicks into high gear during the near plane crash (The Angels Take Manhattan had a very similar structure of 20 minutes of set up for 20 minutes of payoff). Moffat seemed to suggest that this going to be an urban thriller when really it was nothing of the sort (it takes more than turning the lights out across London and accessing WiFi in a coffee shop to capture the essence of a contemporary urban thriller…go check out Skyfall). The Doctor wanders around for ages before attempting to engage the villain of the piece and doesn’t even get to see who was really behind it all (it is rare that he is on the periphery of a plot in his own show as much as this) and Clara is introduced for the third time and it is probably the least interesting attempt (because we’ve seen spunky contemporary lasses ad nauseum since the show returned). Now for the good stuff; the direction is phenomenally good and the few set pieces that Colm McCarthy gets to bring to life are handled deftly and dynamically, Smith and Coleman share terrific chemistry despite Moffat’s approach to both characters and I am really looking forward to seeing where other writers take them – they really do have the potential to be a memorable partnership, I have longed for Celia Imrie to appear in Doctor Who and she doesn’t disappoint and the suggestion of a villain from Doctor Who’s past taking an extended role in this series excites me. This wants to be a companion introduction story and a standalone thriller but instead of combining the two (Partners in Crime had Donna investigating Adipose Industries from the off) it fluctuates from one to the other alarmingly and devotes about 20 minutes to each which leaves both stories feeling short-changed. Doctor Who has rarely held off wrapping up stories as long as it does these days and both the Clara and the WiFi angle are left unexplained at the episodes conclusion and thus I was left unsatisfied. For what should feel important, The Bells of Saint John feels disposable. Fun, but with a manifest of issues: 5/10


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David Pirtle said...

I didn't really like the chemistry between Smith and Coleman here and going forward. It never seemed to be as strong as it was in her earlier appearances. But maybe that's just me, as it's often cited by others. I also think this is the episode where Smith starts to slip into self-parody, and he never quite makes it back out.