TARDIS Talk: “The Bells of Saint John” (Series 7.6)

April 3, 2013

The Doctor Who crew inexplicably “phones in” the beginning of the fiftieth anniversary season.

(As ever, “TARDIS Talk” treats everything officially aired through the most recent episode as fair game, so here there be spoilers!)

How fitting that the title of Doctor Who’s mid-season premiere refers to a telephone call—the episode feels “phoned in” on several levels.

It’s not that “The Bells of Saint John” was bad. I laughed at several moments (I thought Clara’s quip about Twitter was brilliant, if not the plot point the script asked us to believe it was—quipping about computers requires no great knowledge of them). I thoroughly enjoyed watching the TARDIS materializes in the rear of a passenger airplane, culminating in the Doctor’s (nearly) crash course in flying a jet. And I appreciated the return of the Great Intelligence. I’m looking forward to seeing this malevolent mind behind last Christmas’ snowmen as the Doctor’s nemesis (though, sadly, no longer voiced by Sir Ian McKellen).

The story and its elements would have been more entertaining, however, had we not seen them many times before in modern Who (and, I suspect, the classic series, too, though I have no in-depth knowledge of the pre-2005 canon). Steven Moffat’s script chose a noble theme: the dehumanizing tendency of technology, especially its ironic effect of further isolating the people who seek to use it for connection. So many of us plug into our personal devices and log on in search of a network only to end up echoing, at some level, the plea of the people fully integrated into the Great Intelligence’s cloud: “I don’t know where I am.”

Instead of ringing some masterful and novel changes on this theme, however, as his fans know he is fully capable of doing, Moffat here seems content to simply plunk out a simple tune, composed of notes he’s lifted from his own and others’ work on the modern series. The absorption of people’s identities (“souls”) via ubiquitous tech (“The Long Game,” “Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel,” even last fall’s “The Power of Three”); the Doctor fighting technological fire with fire (“The Eleventh Hour”), doppelganger Doctors (“The Almost People”), children at the top of stairs who lure people to their doom (“The Lodger”), even the image of human faces atop inhuman bases (“Silence in the Library”)—it was all so familiar. Seeing Matt Smith’s Doctor as the romantic “pursuer” as opposed to the romantically pursued made for a small but nice twist, but even he seemed to be bored at times (the café conversation with Clara felt interminable, matching none of the chemistry these two actors shared in either “Asylum of the Daleks” or “The Snowmen”). I went away from the episode feeling it had been done largely by the numbers, and hoping the rest of “series 7B” won’t follow suit.

Most disappointing of all, however, was the introduction proper of Clara as a companion. I had hoped for so much more! Not that Jenna Louise-Coleman doesn’t adequately handle the material Moffat gave her; she does. But what she’s given diminishes her more than it enhances her.

To be fair, we do see at least two positive attributes in Clara. First, she is empathetic, kind, and loyal. I think her devotion to Angie’s grieving family is admirable. The Doctor correctly commends her for not “run[ning] out on the people [she cares] about.” As Scripture says, she weeps with those who weep (Romans 12.15). Second, as I indicated earlier, Clara is not going to be swooning over the Doctor any time soon. I enjoyed her teasing (flirting?) remarks about the Doctor and his “snog-box.” She knows, seeming instinctively, how to get under the Doctor’s skin, and it’s clear she will enjoy doing so. But her insistence that the Doctor, in effect, woo her away rather than sweep her off her feet also speaks to her self-confidence. I believe her when she tells the Doctor she’s still going to see those 101 places listed in her travel book from childhood. (Incidentally, did anyone else notice that ages 16 and 23 were missing from the list of ages she wrote on the blank verso of the front free endpaper? Production oversight, inconsequential detail, or something else?)

Still, I find it hard to praise the “real” Clara too highly (on Doctor Who, one never knows any more who is real and who isn’t, or, indeed, what “real” means) when compared with her previous incarnations. Gone is the fresh, funny, fully realized ancestor (presumably?) from “The Snowmen,” who was every bit the Doctor’s equal. Nor is this Clara the smart and sassy soufflé-baking Oswin from “Asylum of the Daleks.” The real Clara is pretty and pleasant, but not a computer whiz, either natural-born or self-trained. Her hacking skills are the residual (and, the script suggests, temporary) effect of her partial upload to Miss Kizlet’s wicked wi-fi cloud. We are told she is naturally clever, but we don’t see much of that cleverness on display. No, we don’t see her being foolish, either—Clara doesn’t fit the stereotypical mold of the vapid, screaming companions of decades past—but she spends much of the hour as the damsel in distress. (The episode even took away Victorian Clara’s marvelously novel reaction to the TARDIS—“smaller on the outside”—in favor of a more standard approach.) The imagery of the Doctor keeping vigil beneath her window (in itself a touching notion, but problematic in context) and literally riding to rescue her from a dark tower only reinforces the overwhelming impression of passivity surrounding Clara.

The Doctor’s last line, heavily touted in previews—“Right then, Clara Oswald, it’s time to find out who you are”—seems to me Moffat’s tacit acknowledgment that this particular story has told us precious little about the new companion. No doubt Moffat thinks he has given us enough to keep us interested as the Doctor unravels the mystery of her identity over the next several weeks, but people are more interesting as individuals than as puzzles to be solved. Right now, Clara feels more like a puzzle than a person.

Incidentally, other observers raised the same complaint regarding Amy Pond. I didn’t then and don’t now think that’s a fair summation of Amy’s character, but I do now have a better appreciation of their perspective. How frustrating to watch a character—especially, in this case, one whose other “incarnations” have led us to believe she will be someone really special—reduced to a cryptic cipher! In fact, given the detail—which I missed entirely on the first viewing—that Clara’s beloved childhood book Summer Falls was written by one “Amelia Williams,” combined with the fact that Victorian Clara knew to choose the word “pond” as her response to Madame Vastra’s single-word test in “The Snowmen,” Clara may be subsumed under Moffat’s all-encompassing Amy Pond story arc before all is said and done. I will always have a soft spot for Amy as “my first companion,” just as Matt Smith will always be “my Doctor”—but I agree with those fans who say it’s really time to move on.

“The Bells of Saint John,” while entertaining, won’t be ringing in my ears too long. Fortunately, Doctor Who has a chance to play a new melody this weekend. (Not, I trust, Melody Pond—though just who was that “woman in the shop” who gave out the Doctor’s number as the best helpline anywhere, hm?)

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19 comments on “TARDIS Talk: “The Bells of Saint John” (Series 7.6)

  1. I completely disagree — I found this episode to be fun and exciting and interesting.

    I was frustrated by the lack of revelations about Clara, but enjoyed whenever she was on screen in the same way I enjoyed whenever Matt Smith was on screen.

    “No doubt Moffat thinks he has given us enough to keep us interested as the Doctor unravels the mystery of her identity over the next several weeks, but people are more interesting as individuals than as puzzles to be solved. Right now, Clara feels more like a puzzle than a person.”

    I don’t think that IS a problem. So far, Clara has not been an individual — she has been three individuals. And there is the mystery. Three times “she” has met the Doctor, and each of those three times it seemed to be the first time (to me). How? Why? Will this Clara die, too?

    It wasn’t a perfect episode — I had a couple quibbles with some plot holes that could have easily been plugged. But over all, I felt the subject matter was handled well, the Big Idea was not hammered over the head but actually shown instead of told (and the resolution to part of that was quite chilling).

    My thoughts here:

    http://strangersandaliens.com/2013/04/who-review-the-bells-of-saint-john/

  2. Regarding the “woman in the shop” that gave Clara the phone number of the TARDIS, another companion was described as just a woman in a shop until the Doctor arrived.

    Rose Tyler.

    • Michael Apr 3, 2013

      “So far, Clara has not been an individual — she has been three individuals. And there is the mystery.” – No, Clara has been two individuals and one almost nondescript “character.” I think it’s a problem that the two “alternates” or “others” or whatever are far more interesting than “Clara proper,” at least so far (although perhaps I am seeing a hierarchy where none exists). I’m glad you enjoyed the episode more than I did, and I agree, she’s fun to watch… but this was just a really bland episode. And Clara is almost completely passive throughout. She can only help because she was hijacked by the Great Intelligence; and the only other real action she took, choosing to stay with the grieving family, happened off-screen and a year in the past.

      Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting! I am more than open to having my mind changed on this one, and still hold out high hopes for the balance of the season.

      • I think the only thing that will change your mind is future episodes, which (if they do well) will prove that this is a “middle of the mystery” episode. This is, technically, the third episode for this companion.

    • Michael Apr 3, 2013

      Whoa! Nice catch, Doug!

  3. AlyssaZ Apr 3, 2013

    I completely agree with Michael. I thought Clara was lackluster compared to her other ‘characters’. She was strong and confident before but in this episode it was too much ‘damsel in distress’. And while I like me some Doctor Who mysteries, this one felt too forced and dragged out at the beginning of the episode. I hope Clara’s character steps up in the next episode, and I hope we are given a little something more to help whet our appetites over the Big Mystery.
    So far I am not a huge fan of season 7, especially compared to its predecessor season 6. Episodes have been to flat and fast. I hope it improves and cannot wait for the 50th anniversary episode! Bring on the David Tennant AND Billie Piper!!

    • Does anyone know when the 50th anniversary episode will be?

      • Palindrome Apr 6, 2013

        It should air on November 23rd, it’s the exact 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, it’s even a Saturday.

        Not looking forward to seeing David Tennant or Billie Piper again, I was really hoping they were gone for good.

        I think it’s just that Clara is supposed to be a mystery and we have the rest of the season to get to know her better that they’re being so vague with her. I didn’t find her that flat, she just wasn’t as snarky as the other Claras have been so far.

  4. Michael Apr 4, 2013

    Alyssa – I liked series 6 well enough, but the resolution of the Doctor’s “death” via tesselecta robot really felt lame to me, as though Moffat just couldn’t bring himself to do the reasonable and still quite clever thing by involving the Flesh Doctor. I think a two-parter like that should’ve been treated in the overall arc as more than a red herring. But, I thought the season had many, many strong stories – not only the Flesh story, but “The Doctor’s Wife,” “The God Complex,” and “The Girl Who Waited.” Elements of other shows I liked, too – I didn’t think “Night Terrors” was half bad, for instance – but I didn’t like the overall arc.

    I agree that series 7 to this point has been disappointing, even though I think three stories – “Asylum of the Daleks,” “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” and “The Snowmen” – have been top-notch. I could take or leave Billie Piper returning – Rose’s story has been done a long, long time. But looking forward to seeing Tennant again.

    Doug, I don’t know when the ep will actually air, but I can’t imagine it would be anytime other than late November!

    • Found a YouTube video with a date for it; November 23rd. The video itself isn’t a preview, but it does ratchet up the anticipation.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtube_gdata_player&v=G8g5BrLm7uQ

      • Michael Apr 4, 2013

        Doug, awesome video find! Very cool! Notice the repetition of Ian’s quote from “An Unearthly Child”… I wonder if Trenzalore is going to turn out to be that prehistoric world? (I know, people *say* it’s Earth, but that is never established on-screen!)

      • Daniel Apr 21, 2013

        Wow…they gave McGann screen time. But I will admit I liked him better as Lt Bush

    • alyssaz Apr 6, 2013

      I actually liked the fact that Moffat didn’t use a Flesh Doctor. I would have found that too predictable after discovering Flesh Amy. Instead I felt it ended in true Moffat style.
      The three episodes, especially “The Snowmen” were the only ones I truly enjoyed. I am excited to see how the Great Intelligence survived. And I am obviously dying to know who Clara is!
      As for Rose, love her, but I don’t see how they can bring her back. Again. She has her Doctor and I don’t think she would much like Matt Smith’s Doctor. Who else are they bringing back? Donna? Mickey? 9?

      • Palindrome Apr 7, 2013

        I agree with you about not using the flesh Doctor, to me it makes a lot of sense that they wouldn’t use it. 1) Like you said, they already used it for Amy, 2) we would have had to have a person who wasn’t really the Doctor the whole episode, 3) the Doctor’s plan for saving his own life would have been to let someone else die 4) his plan to save his own life would also have been to let River murder a real person and 5) the flesh Doctor was definitely dead, you can’t have two Doctors in the universe, the universe just isn’t big enough.

  5. Michael Apr 8, 2013

    Yes, going with the Tesselecta Doctor was “true Moffat style,” but usually Moffat plays fair with the audience. He didn’t in series six. The Doctor died – we were told this in no uncertain terms, even to the point of having Old Canton to show up and say, “That is really the Doctor, and he is really dead.” So… was Canton just lying? Or what? Canton’s whole place in the Doctor’s world is a major dropped thread, in my judgment.

    Palindrome, the flesh people arc yourself negates your point 2, because, again, the Doctor goes to great lengths to tell Amy, in no uncertain terms, “He is me and I am him.” It might not have “sat right,” but it would have been established on-screen and would have been Moffat playing fair (especially since we were told there was some outside chance the Flesh Doctor could come back – so your point 5 isn’t quite accurate).

    Similarly, your point 3 – The Doctor would not have been letting someone else die; he would have died. Or, one true, truly Doctor Doctor would have died; and the other, truly Doctor Doctor would have lived.

    I agree it might have been morally iffy to have River kill the Flesh Doctor, but the Flesh Doctor would have been the one issuing the invitations, meeting everyone in Utah – it all would have worked out that the Flesh Doctor was choosing to sacrifice himself for the other, truly Doctor Doctor – or, if you prefer, for himself.

    It just feels like Moffat had planned out one thing that would have actually made some sense, but decided at some point to junk it all for the Tesselecta and frozen time plot, which made precious little of it. The Doctor was in a Doctor suit – he says so himself – meaning he doesn’t die, meaning all the agnst about the Doctor dying all year long was really for nothing.

    Oh, well. Thanks to you both for the follow-up comments, and for reading!

  6. AlyssaZ Apr 8, 2013

    Got a TARDIS Talk for episode two?? I want to know if any one else thought of Harry Potter during the Sonic v. Aliens moment…

    • Palindrome Apr 8, 2013

      The sonic screwdriver has been a magic wand for a long time now, but yes, even more so of late. The Doctor used to be able to get through a whole episode without using the sonic at all, but I think that was before the new series started.

  7. Michael Apr 9, 2013

    Thanks for being such loyal readers – I am hoping to have a TARDIS Talk by Wednesday a.m. I know it’s not as fast a turnaround as some other bloggers, so I really do appreciate your interest and patience, and will look forward to continuing the conversation!

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