Doctor Who: The Bells of Saint John

Well, let’s plunge ourselves back into the unpredictable rip current of Doctor Who. Now, I bashed the previous episode, 2012 christmas special “The Snowmen”, because it had a dumb plot and an inconsistent tone. At the time, though, I was pretty happy with it. The point of the episode was to introduce a new companion, and it did so pretty well: We got to know the compassionate teacher and lady-out-of-time Clara Oswald. Though she seemed a little generic, I was looking forward to future episodes fleshing her out and establishing her as something other than another tiresome “Most important person in the universe, with a love-hate relationship with the Doctor” companion.

Well, here we are at the season premiere (I’m not going to split hairs with Brit vs. American terms, or with the wonky series division the BBC has – the run of episodes from now until “Time of the Doctor” is the 2013 season for me). Let’s see how things pan out, and whether promoted internet weird guy Stephen Moffat can work his customary magic to restore my faith and fandom in the show.

We start with a pretty good monster-establishing opening sequence, where people all over the world are entrapped by an evil Wi-Fi network, and have “their souls uploaded into a computer”. Instead of getting in laser frisbee battles with Bruce Boxleitner and listening to giant faces monologue, this entails sitting in a comfy room on a screen. Not much to say about this – a perfectly fine way to introduce us to a bad guy’s M.O and raise the tension.

The next scene, though, gets strange. Remember how in the last episode, the Doctor was convinced to stop living alone and useless, and to start saving people again on his search through time for Clara? No, you dont? Well as it turns out, neither does the Doctor: We see him, for no reason at all, living in a medieval English monastery (presumably, somewhere near the Castle of Aaaarrrgh), in contemplation.

Mmmmm…watery tart.

Yes, I know this is a reference to a classic episode – that doesn’t excuse it having no reason to be in the episode, or in the story arc. If we have to make references, how about this: Since the bad guys of this episode include evil robots that look like people, and the Doctor is trying to find someone by traveling through time and knowing their name, you have the perfect opportunity to do some Terminator jokes! Have the Doctor try to look for a phone book, only to remember it’s the 21st century and everyone uses the internet anyway.

Speaking of which, we’re introduced to Clara mk.III here, trying to get a wi-fi signal. Like her previous incarnations, she works in child care – in this case, she babysits two little kids with no interesting attributes except later being turned into the Hardy Boys by Neil Gaiman. But for now, Clara’s busy having internet trouble. She decides to call a mysterious phone number, and manages to contact the Doctor’s phone, who is too suprised at Clara calling him to stop her from getting hunted down by the evil Wi-fi network, in a sequence that tries to be scary and fails miserably.

Don’t you miss the days when doing things like this would have had an aura of tension and mysticism about it? Compare the Book of the Dead scene from The Evil Dead to Ethan Hawke Skyping with a passionless and doughy Vincent D’Onofrio in the recent horror movie Sinister – the Internet has made everything related to information much less cool or interesting.

How creepy and terrifying.

Meanwhile, the masters of the evil Wi-Fi network is revealed: An evil corporation. Despite being dressed in sinister black and surrounded by moody blue lighting even in the middle of the day, the antics of the Boss Monsters (as I call them) are rooted firmly in the realm of comedy. We see this as the Final Boss casually discusses murdering her employees, before mind-controlling them. Fun, fun, fun!

Sorry, but I just can’t laugh at this sort of thing. No matter how you look at it, your two most valuable possessions are always your free will and your life, and taking either of those from them anyone almost automatically makes you a bad guy in fiction. It’s a source of drama when you take a character we know and threaten to subvert their mind or kill them, and the tense staging of this works too well to stop me from taking it seriously.

But anyway, back in the plot, Clara is uploaded into the Boss Monsters’ computer (and the Intersect is downloaded into her brain, but that’s not important). The Doctor has been engaging in his usual antics with her for a while, but now decides it’s time to get dangerous. With judicious application of a Sonic Screwdriver, he discovers Clara’s been replaced by a creepy automaton. Outraged, he finds Clara’s computer and begins engaging in some Hollywood hacking – you know the kind. Lots of super-fast typing interspersed with jargon and floaty text, that’s usually HTML or BB code because that looks the least coherent. To put the cherry on top, one of the Boss Monsters starts their own counter-hack, which begins putting glowing blue lines of code amid the regular variety.

You know what? Forget what I said about code. This is just plain gibberish!

Again, I can tell they’re going for light comedy this episode, but there’s more to comedy than just doing something that’s easy to make fun of without actually making fun of it. Again, the Doctor is a genius time-traveller with a flawless grasp of contemporary pop culture. Have him complain how strange the Boss Monsters’ system is, making him go through their security by doing something as arbitrary as typing fast. This would actually work in favor of the story, as we see later.

After the hacking is complete, the Final Boss reveals she’s working for an offscreen recurring enemy, who now knows that the Doctor is here. Meanwhile, the Doctor decides to care for Clara and watch over her, tucking her into bed as fairytale music plays. I’m actually just fine with all the child’s fantasy elements present in the show – they’re generally well-written and well-executed, since Moffat’s gotten so much practice with it.

However, he’s had less practice with writing conventional Doctor Who bad guys, as can be seen in the next scene. Clara finds the Doctor dismantling the automaton he found earlier, and wants to know what’s going on. The Doctor’s response deserves to be reprinted in full.

“There’s something in the Wi-fi…This whole world is swimming in wi-fi. We’re living in a wi-fi soup. Suppose something got inside it. Suppose there was something living in the wi-fi, harvesting human minds – extracting them. Imagine that: human souls, trapped like flies in the world wide web. Stuck forever, and crying out for help. A computer can hack another computer. A living, sentient computer – maybe that could hack people!”

BAHAHAHAHA…hahaha..ha ha…Wow. Just take a look at that. This, folks, is a textbook example of unintentional comedy: Trying to take a break from the silly stuff to make a point and get us to care about the plight of our heroes, but being too mired in that silly stuff to connect.

Also, I think I caught an anti-technology moral in there. Explain how we’re supposed to reconcile this with the show’s premise being “A man uses his super-advanced stolen technology to save billions of lives every week?”

Now, you might say that it’s unfair to get angry at a comedy episode for making me laugh, but I’ll go ahead and do that: I’m obviously laughing at the wrong things. This episode was talked up as “The Eleventh Doctor doing his take on Jason Bourne”, but I could actually see this as an attempt at self-parody. “Wi-fi monsters” has apparently been a pet idea of Moffat’s for some time, and it probably could have been done well if he hadn’t attempted to combine it with the lighthearted adventure romp.

And as we can see, that romp is actually not too bad. The Doctor takes Clara into the TARDIS, and brings her on a motorcycle tour of London. Meanwhile, the Boss Monsters track them by hacking into people’s phone GPSes (which is the good kind of unintentional comedy), and then demonstrating that they can mind-control pretty much anyone.

I wonder how often they use these subdermal disco lights to throw sweet raves.

This works well in the moment, building the suspense and showing off the power of the bad guys, but it also raises some worrying implications if you think about it. The way the Boss Monsters tell it, anyone who’s used Wi-fi at all can be controlled. Wouldn’t that include the Doctor himself, whose very first adventure in this incarnation hinged on using the internet to make his own presence known all around the world? For that matter, wouldn’t most of the Doctor’s companions be controllable? If they can control anyone’s mind, what might they do with something like Doctor/Donna, or the Bad Wolf? Isn’t Seven Moffatt supposed to be all about the continuities?

But no matter. Clara gets to work fast on discovering where the Boss Monsters work, and discover it’s (of course) the tallest building in sight – London’s newly constructed Shard. Okay, that’s something I can definitely roll with. And when discovering this gets her captured and soul-sucked by an automaton pretending to be the Doctor, things get even better.

The Doctor discovers Clara’s soul in the wi-fi, and decides his only recourse is to ride up the side of a skyscraper.. This is pretty outlandish, but I can see they wanted a big signature image, to start the fiftieth anniversary off with a bang, and this works well for that, I suppose. I will say that I made that Tron joke back when I first saw the episode, before I knew that the climax of the story was a motorcycle duel that broke the laws of physics.

This summer, Matt Smith IS Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible: Regeneration Protocol!

When the Doctor reaches the Boss Monsters’ floor and gets himself into the building by the power of not being onscreen, he confronts the Final Boss. She explains to the Doctor that they couldn’t get Clara back in her body without doing it to every single person who’s ever been uploaded. This would kill almost every one of them, but the Doctor argues that it’s better that their current fate…whatever. The point is, the Doctor solves this by downloading the Final Boss into the mainframe, and mind-controlling the remaining Boss Monsters to shut down their whole operation. Unfortunately, this makes Network abandon the Blanks and vacate the planet…wait, no, I’m thinking of the wrong Brit sci-fi thing.

No, everything’s pretty much dandy here. UNIT confiscates all the mind control tools for study, the Doctor and Clara have some banter before she resolves to become a companion, and the driving force behind the Boss Monsters is revealed to be Richard E. Grant as the Great Intelligence.

Wait, what? Him? The guy was turned into evil water in Victorian London last time! How did we get from there to here? Ah, forget it, an explanation for this would have taken valuable time out of “Just when you thought it was safe to go back on the Internet…”

The Bells of St. John has some good bits, but overall I still wasn’t sold on the direction this landmark year of Doctor Who was taking, so I didn’t tune in again (except for Neil Gaiman’s episode, but that practically doesn’t count) until the landmark season finale, “In the Name of the Doctor”, which I’ll be talking about all the way in May.

TWO THUMBS UP: The parts with the Doctor and Clara

THUMBS UP: The monster scenes, the vertical bike

THUMBS DOWN: The unrelated opening, the villains of the story

TWO THUMBS DOWN: THERE ARE PEOPLE IN THE WI-FI CLARA!

 

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