TV Oh the irony. Earlier in the day, the BBC found themselves in the midst of the kind of information emergency which could only exist in the social media era as the epic casting announcement of some of the people who’re going to be returning to the 50th anniversary, clearly otherwise embargoed until some time in the next week found itself online thanks to subscribers of Doctor Who Magazine receiving their copies earlier than usual, presumably due to the posting pattern being disrupted thanks to the Easter bank holidays. Once again, the premiere of a new run of Who episodes is overshadowed by the news of some future instalment.
Before the internet such news would have remained whispered in hushed tones on street corners and in pubs, but within seconds fans were taken their phones from their pockets and tweeting the news, the BBC still attempting to shutdown the message with the poor old Doctor Who News page posting that they’d been asked not to publish anything by the BBC until an official announcement, despite Bleeding Cool, Blogtor Who, Doctor Who Online and a dozen other sites splattering photos of the David Tennant, Billie Piper and John Hurt all over everywhere. Cue rushed out press releases and story up on the BBC News page and something eventually being posted on the Doctor Who news site later in the day.
Now in the evening we have a story thematically about all the networks which led to the story proliferating, with screenshots of flickr and jokes about Twitter, in one of those rare occasions when Doctor Who becomes so zeitgeisty it’s commenting inadvertently about its own existence as an entertainment entity. Incidentally, this isn’t the only occasion the BBC’s been caught on the hop by a publication being posted early; the first time anyone knew that the show was taking a break in 2009 was when the RSC sent out a brochure advertising Tennant’s appearance in Hamlet at a time when most fans assumed he’d film the next series. Here we go again.
With all of those shenanigans, what of The Bells of Saint John? How did that go? Went the day well? The day went very well, especially considering the narrative and structural nonsense Moffat as usual is masochistically inflicting on himself. The episode has to act like a season opener, except it isn’t. It’s episode six, or seven depending on how you count the Christmas special. It has to introduce a new companion, except it can’t because she’s already been in the series twice, or three times depending on how you view the coda in the Christmas special. Tossing a Christmas special into the middle of the series has created all kinds of problems, especially at Easter.
Faced with all of that, Moffat cunningly pulls back on attempting inject too much extra business too soon, parking most of the mysteries previously set up and simply offering what seems like a relatively generic piece of nuWho that purposefully doesn’t put too many demands on the viewer, offers some surreal scares but overall presents something which reaffirms the franchise’s core values in its first televisual salvo of the anniversary year. Some wags will presumably be calling it RTD-lite, but it's to Innes Lloyd they should really be looking back to since this was mostly an affectionate homage to The War Machines.
Have you watched The War Machines lately? With its treatment of Dodo it might have one of the worst companion exits in the show’s history, but otherwise, in 1966, Ian Stuart Black and whoever else worked on the script set down all of the archetypes that are still in evidence in the franchise today, and like The Bells of St John, it also offered a light format reboot in the middle of a series (the First Doctor arguably becoming an even more vital presence than before), introduced some new companions (however poorly executed later) and the Time Lord referred to using his full name several times.
Having already been spoiled about the ending by the usual social networks, I wasn’t too surprised that the client wasn’t revealed to be iWOTAN but the Great Intelligence’s behaviour isn’t too dissimilar, taking control of us humans via the pre-eminent communication media of the period. Of course then, WOTAN was attempting to construct a version of the internet for itself. Now (or whenever this episode was set), the Great Intelligence simply botnetted into existing networks and from the top of the Shard, a London icon which has arguably superseded the BT tower, which seemed so with it, and was back in the 60s.
What are the Spoonheads but slinkier War Machines, the Doctor interrupting their connection to the hive via keyboard and code rather than giant ungainly pieces of wire? Instead of hypnotised humans engineering aggressors in a warehouse, we have the brainwashed behind tapping away behind desks in an office. If Dominic Sandbrook ever wanted to present a social history through the medium of sci-fi, all he’d need do is show these two stories back to back, grinning smugly between. At one point, I almost expected Adam Curtis’s voice to chime in and trace the socio-economic policies of the 1970s back to two teenagers who met at the Inferno club.
All of which said, rare is the modern Doctor Who story which doesn’t have one of its predecessors arthritically nudging against it. But there was a warm embrace to The Bells of St John, a sense of, “and we’re back”. Since the broadcast of the previous five, I haven’t been back to them, partly because I’ve been stuck in the mid-period quagmire of the Hartnell era, but mostly because somewhere in there it stopped being fun. Perhaps I’ll re-appraise when the blu-ray boxset of all this is finally released, but at this point I can’t imagine why I’d want to sit through "The Doctor uses a gun" or "The Doctor kills a bloke in cold blood" or "The Doctor lets some innocent people die while saving his friends".
No so The Bells of St John. I want to be watching it again right now. Much of this has to do with Matt’s performance which seems re-energised by the loss of all the narrative baggage which ultimately came with the Ponds, pointed weariness rather than the general weariness when we weren't sure if it was just acting. One of his best performances is still in The Sarah Jane Adventures story, Death of the Doctor as he brought the magnetic magician element of the character to the fore and here he is again, relishing the potential of the script for some off-kilter line readings and the chance to let the character be.
There’s also a specific detail to his characterisation as he notices the Doctor is and has to be a different character around Clara. Because the incarnation was still cooking around Amy, it’s almost as though, if you’ll forgive the Twiglet reference, she became imprinted on him, whereas in Clara, like Donna before, we have a figure who reminds him what it’s like to have a friend, but who he’s also intrigued by because of her status as an enigma. But her willingness to set aside her own life in order to look after this man’s children also makes her special, or least gives him a reason to convince himself that he isn’t simply dragging her along for his own amusement.
But oh Clara, who are you? Jenna-Louise isn’t giving us many clues. She’s been allowed to keep her natural accent, wandering the British Isles like an episode of Coast, her delivery the screwball ratatat of Katherine Hepburn or Jean Arthur. If anything she’s been given the kind of blank slate character design of old, pointedly without fixed abode or family unit beyond what we saw in the prequel, a mother who for all outward appearances might not even be biologically such. So far, she's been as much about all of the expectations that we and the Doctor pour into her and Jenna-Louise is entirely cognisant of that.
But notice how often in scenes when she’s supposed to be the viewpoint character, and the companion usually would be, yet simply isn’t. Partly this is because an earlier iteration of Clara has had that moment, the “bigger on the inside” bit which is thrown away in the heat of battle here, the Doctor talking all over her, but that’s also true in her valour against the social network which is conducted in the background of the Doctor’s own discovery of just how powerful his enemy is. Even in her self-actualisation moments, she’s being kept at one remove, never allowed to or doing what we might expect.
Since we’re on the subject of casting, it’s probably important to note Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’s Celia Imrie’s first appearance in the Whoniverse cast against type as the villain (leaving Hetta Charnley, Joan Collins and Mark Hadfield as the only primary cast members from Ken Branagh’s In The Bleak Midwinter who hasn’t had a brush with the Whoniverse) (sort it out Big Finish). For all her serpent like slither as Kizlet, it’s her final plaintive delivery after her returning to innocence which sticks in the memory. No longer watched over by the machine of loving grace, does she deserve this fate?
Do any of them? Scratch the surface and for all the excitement of the Doctor’s Testicle-like control of the spoon-person in its drive up the Shard, in releasing the souls from the network, he’s only really committing the same mercy as disconnecting the personality echo from the space suits in The Silence in the Library but unlike CAL he isn’t somehow able to resurrect them corporeally. When the network is triumphantly purged in the closing stages, we’re also watching hundreds of people’s life forces being snuffed out on-mass. The subliminal streak of darkness which has crept into Moffat’s work of late continues unabated.
What of the portrayal of social networks? Well, we’ve come a long way since the misuse of the word “blogging” in Utopia, haven’t we, with jokes about Twitter, though as others have noted elsewhere, the referencing of Bebo and MySpace must have been a way to demonstrate just how long these humans have been under the influence. You might wonder why the network gave them enough autonomy that they set up social media profiles especially if like their team coaches they’re no longer the people they originally were, but there is enough ambiguity perhaps to suggest they’re simply agency staff being given a much needed psychological nudge.
Anyway, the Wifi here is surprisingly accurately utilised apart from the bloke who found a decent signal on the train. Open up your laptop in most places and you’ll find half a dozen signals not your own, all with little locks next to them, some of them with mysterious codes which don’t make much sense not that you’d want to click on any of them. But this is a system designed for the less savvy user, like Clara, willing to click on anything to see what happens. It’s why and how spyware, and botnets and all the other crud gains traction and continues to exist. As well as social history, this was also a pretty good public information film.
Fun then. Grim in implication in places, but fun. A few new mysteries. Like who the woman in the shop was that gave Clara the TARDIS’s number. We’re perhaps supposed to assume River Song unless Paul Magrs is expecting a royalty payment soon. Like how she ended up with a copy of Amelia Williams’s book in the house of the many other pieces of children’s literature in the Whoniverse. Like why the Doctor tasted the leaf in her book and grinned with recognition. Like why she doesn’t apparently remember anything about her other existences other than subliminally. I like these smaller mysteries more than the great big ones.
But The Bells of St John’s real achievement is that demonstrates that 2013 isn’t simply going to be a year long wait for the 50th anniversary special, that there’s going to be something worthwhile in-between. Moffat could have included some more onanistic foreshadowing in here, Rose popping up again or the Eighth Doctor’s TARDIS landing in the gap the Eleventh Doctor had just vacated and while such things would have led to this being a rather more squee laden couple of thousand words, it reminds us that for its mythological referencing, Doctor Who should always be about its current identity and on the basis of The Bells of St John, that’s in pretty good shape.