Monday, 1 April 2013

The companion introduction episode is one of the staples of a Doctor Who storyline. It’s where the key relationship that will define the upcoming run of the series is spawned, where the audience can jump in and meet the Doctor anew as his new friend does. It’s an episode that can show Doctor Who at its best – The Eleventh Hour, Rose, and, of course, An Unearthly Child, are all brilliant, timeless episodes that kicked off their respective series with aplomb and immediately hooked new generations of viewers. The companion introduction episode is so important that the latest companion has had three.

Yes, three. Don’t worry – all will be revealed. The third, The Bells of Saint John, kicked off series 7B this Easter weekend. But did it live up to the aforementioned classics?

The episode opened with the Doctor in  a medieval monastery, trying to solve the mystery of having seen the same woman die twice through the medium of painting and isolation. While I’m not a fan of the reclusive Doctor and like him much better when he’s actively investigating, the couple of scenes that brought him from here to his next meeting with Jenna-Louise Coleman’s companion were brilliant. I love that, in one of those “I really should have seen that coming” moments, the title referred to the TARDIS phone, and the  phone conversation was a work of witty genius - “The internet? It’s 1207” “I’ve got half past three.”

It didn’t take long for the Doctor, donned in a lovely new purple coat (I’ve been waiting years for a nice purple coat – where can I buy it?), to end up re-united with a Clara who’d never met him, defending her and the world from a mysterious organisation controlling people through the wi-fi.

The new TARDIS duo fought this technological conflict against the backdrop of a bustling contemporary London. There’s no doubting that the location filming in actual London – they didn’t have to tape over the Welsh signage for once – looked stunning, though the publicity calling it a Bourne movie with aliens was perhaps a little ambitious; the episode never had the same sense of scale that such comparisons imply. It did have a good action-packed pace, with the best motorbike stunts and nearly-crashing planes that a BBC budget can manage.

I also appreciate the story being about something important in our culture – Moffat’s attempt to make us scared of the wi-fi was a clever twisting on the familiar with a good dose of the socially relevant. Moffat used humour, action, and robots shaped liked spoons to poke fun at our internet-entrenched society, with the villains’ downfall being their careless giving away of information on social networking sites. Russell T Davies’ stories, as well as much of the classic series, often had a similar edge of satire, using science-fiction to explore topics such as an obesity crisis, governmental corruption, and society’s addiction to reality TV. This is something that’s been sadly missing from much of the Moffat era, which has instead focused on timey-wimey mysteries and exploring the Doctor as myth. I saw a tweet comparing the episode to Black Mirror – and that’s a good sign.  What’s science fiction about if it’s not about our society?

On other levels, however, the story fell flat. It took this satirical idea and made an enjoyable ride out of it, but the progression of set pieces felt quite generic, quite predictable. Overall, the plotting felt unexceptional – very much reminiscent of 2008’s Partners in Crime.

Speaking of being reminded of previous episodes, Moffat has been criticised in the past for re-using ideas, and the Spoonheads were a bit Silence in the Library, weren't they? 

"Clara Oswald has left the wi-fi. Clara Oswald has been saved." 

Plus, the girl from the book cover, as creepy as she was, seemed to steal the repetition of words idea from Davies’ Midnight before becoming a Library-esque spoon. I suspect the Moff has been watching series four.

Of course, the wi-fi plot wasn’t the only thing going on in The Bells of Saint John, as the Doctor continued his investigation into Clara Oswald, the woman twice dead. As a mystery, this is shaping up quite nicely, with the genesis of future Oswin’s computing skills being shown and enough new elements added to keep us guessing. Is she a Jagaroth-style splinter across time? A trap laid by the Great Intelligence? A result of a clumsy time traveller spilling his time coffee into a fragile part of the  time vortex? I’m looking forward to finding out.

On the other hand, I'm still not feeling connected to the character within the mystery. When companions have been introduced before, we've seen the story through their eyes, with emphasis on their normal human life and the Doctor being the mystery that mixes things up. Conversely, we've been introduced to Clara through the Doctor's eyes. She isn't a character encountering mystery and plot, she is the mystery and the plot. The emphasis is on the Doctor working out this mystery. And so, despite nice little touches such as the '101 Places to Visit' book and the unmet desire to travel, we've seen very few scenes of her living her life which have been uninflected by this mystery - there's been little chance to connect with her as a human. Ever since Ian and Barbara investigated an unearthly child, the best companion introductions have shown them meeting the Doctor through their human eyes. Moffat's trying to reverse this, and, while I do find Clara's mystery interesting enough to keep me guessing, it's not working in terms of making her a relatable character.

Another criticism levelled at Moffat is his inability to write varied and believable female characters. Does Clara fit these criticisms? She certainly shares a certain sassiness with Amy, River, and Irene before her, though, unlike the latter two, isn’t overtly sexualised. If anything, it was the Doctor acting a bit of a perv, forcing his way into a poor young girl’s house and stroking her as she lay unconscious. Good on her for calling this out, suspicious of his attempts to get her into his box. Clara don’t take no shit. Hopefully, now that she’s realised that the Doctor is, in fact, a Time Lord and not a sex-crazed maniac, we can leave all that behind. Also good on her for being reluctant to leave the children she cares for – at heart she seems like a good person. I’d just like to see more of her as a person and not as a plot.

Despite my lack of connection with the character, it does show that Jenna-Louise Coleman is a talented actress and her energetic repartee with the Doctor is a joy to watch. It’s also nice when her Northern accent comes through. We’ve had a Doctor from Gallifrey with a Manchester accent and now a companion from London with a Blackpool accent – can’t be too long before he have a truly Northern character!

Meanwhile, Celia Imrie gave an excellent, nonchalantly sinister performance as Miss Kizlet, a suited femme fatale very much, perhaps too much, in the vein of Kovarian or Partners in Crime’s Miss Foster. Her decision to kill a subordinate, though not until after his holiday so as not to be “unreasonable”, was a darkly hilarious summation of this character type. We never got to know much about Kizlet, though given the reveal at the end that she was no more than a mindless puppet of the Great Intelligence, that was kind of the point. As insidious as she’d been, her regression to a child looking for her “mummy and daddy” as the giant evil face of Richard E. Grant returned her soul was sudden and shocking enough to make me feel a little sorry for her.

Ah yes, Richard E. Grant’s giant evil face. Go on then, who predicted the Great Intelligence would be the big villain of the 2013 series? Moffat’s pulled an enemy out of long ago in the Doctor’s past and updated them to fit this arc – and it seems to be working. The majority of the audience won’t even have realised the presence of a classic villain in either of the past two stories, but won’t have been alienated by their lack of recognition either. The Intelligence is a nice hark back to old days for the fiftieth anniversary year and genuinely seems to work with the stories it’s been in so far. Plus, it’s Richard E. Grant.

While I’m on the subject of plot arcs, I kept expecting the identity of "the woman in the shop" to be a big reveal at the end of the episode. Looks like that will have to wait.

So, did I like The Bells of Saint John? It’s fast, it’s fun, it has lots of great lines. It’s not going to be a classic. Steven Moffat is a better writer of plot arcs than Russell T Davies, and Clara’s mystery is developing well, but Davies is the better writer of character, and it shows in Moffat’s failure to make me like Clara. Maybe with time, she'll grow on me.

With time. It's one of those episodes that would have benefited from being longer. An hour would have given the plot more space to grow out of its generic structure into something more complex and unique. And maybe if Clara's introduction had a bit more time, we could see a bit more character to her, care more about her, see more of the world through her eyes. Steven Moffat is on record as saying that any story can be told in 45 minutes. This isn’t untrue, but not all stories can be told well in 45 minutes, and not all stories should be told in 45 minutes. The Bells of Saint John, like a lot of Moffat’s series six episodes, suffered from being rushed.


  1. My prediction: 'the woman in the shop' (whose reveal I was waiting for too) will be Rose. Ties in nicely with the 50th anniversary, doesn't it?

    Agreed on the timing issue.

    1. I was expecting it to be Rose too. Another reason I kept thinking of Partners in Crime. Though I wouldn't be surprised if it ended up being River.

    2. Or an older incarnation of Clara. That would be very Moffat.