Doctor Who: “The Bells of St. John”

Doctor Who is back from its winter break with the second half of season 7. We jump right into things with “The Bells of St. John,” the second (third?) new companion introduction episode for Clara Oswald. Steven Moffat’s script for this story is complete rubbish, but once again it’s the characters who save it. Moffat has a great handle on character, and in particular he understands the use of humor very well, but he does not seem to understand satisfying narrative arcs or internal logic. “The Bells of St. John” is a good example of this.

DANGER: SPOILERS AHEAD!

When I say the script is rubbish, what I really mean is that the story makes no sense. For instance, the Doctor would never in a million years sit around in some Dark Ages monastery meditating and painting conveniently captioned pictures of Clara while waiting for something to happen. The Doctor doesn’t wait for things to happen. The Doctor, like any heroic protagonist worth following into a story, makes things happen. Sitting around in monk’s robes while the universe chugs on, with countless lives under threat on countless worlds, the Doctor comes off selfish and obsessive. Right away, the tone is off.

Things get better five minutes later when the plot actually falls into place. We may never know who the mysterious woman at the shop who gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number is, but we should be glad she did because otherwise he would have been sitting around that monastery for, what, a hundred years? Anyway, the Doctor meets Clara for the third time, though she has no memory of him, and then some more complete rubbish happens involving people getting sucked into the wi-fi or something, and their consciousnesses being held in limbo or something, and maybe also being eaten by something, too. I’m not exactly sure, mainly because the script is never exactly sure. Remember the awful season 2 episode “The Idiot’s Lantern”? It’s kind of like that, but made slightly better by every scene where the Doctor and Clara just get to talk and let their characters come through amid all the nonsense. (Said nonsense including an averted plane crash that is pretty much immediately forgotten about, except that it shows that the bad guys can control people through the wi-fi, too, thereby negating any need to suck them into limbo, but they do anyway because plot.)

By the way, people get sucked into limbo by the “Spoonheads,” free-moving wi-fi bases that can disguise themselves telepathically as anyone. I think. Again, the script is never quite clear how this works or where the technology came from, considering this is a contemporary story, not a far future one. Anyway, the Spoonheads have to be there to zap you with a ray (!) to take your mind into limbo, and when it’s reversed they apparently also have to be there to zap you back into your body, as is shown with the first time Clara is returned to her body. This rule holds true except at the end, of course, when suddenly the Spoonheads don’t have to be there to return you to your body because…well, there just wasn’t one around when Clara is returned to her body the second time, but why let that stop you? Maybe consciousnesses just find their way back to their right bodies automatically? Sure, why not. It makes about as much sense as anything else in this episode.

So the Doctor defeats the Spoonheads and the evil people who control them, run by Miss Kizlet, and it turns out they’re all in the employ of the Great Intelligence from the Christmas special and also a couple of the Second Doctor’s serials from back in the day. Not that this makes any sense, either. Since when does the Great Intelligence eat consciousness? Until now, its motivation has always simply been to find a body to inhabit and then take over the world. But I guess when you’ve got Richard E. Grant playing the role, you want some bang for your buck. (Ironically, the Great Intelligence is a consciousness that cannot just find its way back to the right body!)

There’s also some nonsense about an anti-grav motorcycle that had me rolling my eyes so hard I thought I would accidentally enter REM sleep. The less said about that, the better.

But there’s good stuff, too! I still love the new TARDIS interior buckets more than the last one. The scene where Miss Kizlet is taunting the Doctor in the cafe by jumping from body to body is suitably creepy. There’s also a cute nod to Amy and Rory in the past with Clara’s friend (or step-sister? The relationship isn’t clear yet) reading a vintage children’s book by “Amelia Williams.” She’s on Chapter 10. Clara tells her to just wait for Chapter 11, when it gets even better. I took that as a jokey reference to the 10th and 11th Doctors. Too bad it’s not true.

So, “The Bells of St. John” is a rubbish episode saved only by the handful of scenes where Moffat just lets the Doctor and Clara be themselves. Here’s hoping for more of that in the future. As I said before, I think Clara might be just the shot in the arm the show needs after two and a half seasons of meh, and I hope I’m right about that. But I have two concerns. The first is that Steven Moffat is still showrunner — I haven’t exactly been quiet about how deeply disappointed I’ve been with his tenure — and the second is that I’m skeptical the companion should ever be anything more than the window into the Doctor’s world for the audience. If you make the companion a central mystery to be solved, they have no place left to go once that occurs. They have an automatic expiration date, which means they lack the potential to be anything more. Even in the classic series when they occasionally had high-concept companions like Leela, Romana, or Turlough, the show never detoured into being all about them. We’ve seen Moffat take that detour once already with River Song, and I thought it turned season 6 into a disaster. I’d hate to see him make the same mistake with Clara Oswald.

 

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