To introduce the same companion twice might be considered fortunate. To introduce her three times seems like a carefully orchestrated masterplan. As I’m sure I’ve stated before, I have no quarrel with being re-introduced to Clara Oswald, however many times are needed is fine by me. And on a rewatch we get to meet her for the first time over and over again.
Obviously, the mystery surrounding her loses much of its draw the second time around – that’s the thing with mysteries – and I have concerns about the future of the character after the revelations concerning her nature, but for now Jenna Louise Coleman is a treat to watch and she does a great deal to liven up even the lacklustre episodes.
So when we get a clever, energetic little gem of a story like The Bells Of St John there’s plenty to celebrate.
It doesn’t begin especially auspiciously. The pre-credits teaser amounts to a big show and tell, effectively establishing the situation the Doctor’s going to be up against and helpfully spelling it all out up front. Naturally, this clears the path for the core matter which is the Doctor-Clara relationship and it’s an ergonomic approach but it didn’t strike me as great storytelling on first viewing and it still doesn’t. We learn and discover what’s going on through the course of the episode anyway, so it’s not necessary and could have made way for a more artful opening.
But that’s a lesser quibble than it sounds because once the opening titles have stormed by on our screens, we’re right into a contemporary domestic thriller. The kind of thing that only Doctor Who really excels at.
Moffat has a proven talent for picking something mundane and making it scary – gas masks, statues, shadows, silence, fireplaces. Okay, not so much that last one, but here he’s taking something everyday that’s all around us and having a go at turning it against us. Yes, Wi-Fi. The world-wide web. And spoons. Let’s not forget spoons.
(And McCoy’s Doctor used to play the spoons. Significant? Could be...)
Written down like that it sounds silly. But it’s handled highly effectively and while the Wi-Fi is not in itself scary, I think the episode does successfully play on the particularly modern and adult fear of clicking on the wrong thing online. Most of all with regard to children freely exploring the internet. There are horrors out there, never mind the threat of having your consciousness uploaded into a database to feed the GreatIntelligence. We’re generally more worried about what might be downloaded into our consciousness, but flipping it and examining it in reverse works just as well.
Weaving the Great Intelligence into proceedings makes Great Sense and (as we now know) serves Moffat’s gameplan for the series. It also grants us another appearance by Richard E Grant, always thoroughly welcome.
And this time he’s aided and abetted by Celia Imrie. She oozes ice and the way her character reduces human emotion to numbers, manipulated on sliders on an iPad is a superlative touch. The moment when we discover she is merely a puppet, evidently recruited by the Great Intelligence when only a child provides for a note-perfect sting, superbly played.
Everyone else on the staff and the rest of the supporting staff are okay, nothing spectacular, nothing too memorable, but that’s fine as Jenna-Louise and Matt Smith are the stars of this show. Matt seems fired up, like he’s just come back from a fantastic holiday, and that fits because we’re seeing a Doctor (currently living a solitary existence as a ‘Mad Monk’ (but not meddling) in 1207 AD) brought back to life by the sudden unexpected return of (another) Clara. Moffat’s wit is on overdrive and the adrenaline seems to fuel the cleverness, with the whole scenario of Clara (thinking she’s) calling a tech support helpline across the timezones and her hooking the Doctor’s undivided attention with her mnemonic (‘thing’) of ‘run you clever boy and remember me’ being a joy to watch from start to finish.
Then the Doctor’s rushing to Clara’s rescue in the present day and the joy continues with the Doctor meeting this new companion with all his pre-existing affections (and obsession) with her, while Clara, for her part, wonders why this nutter has come knocking on her door.
There’s no attempt to explain the ‘woman at the shop’ who gave Clara the TARDIS phone number to call. We have to assume it’s River. Explanations aren’t important at this stage. It’s just another little piece of the puzzle hinting of Clara’s ties to the Doctor’s life, like the book written by one Amy Williams. Nice touch.
This brims with nice touches. Along with big, bold action sequences – house lights used to mark out the Doctor and Clara as a target for a plane crash (played for pure Hollywood but with underlying hints of 9/11); and in the closing stages, the Doctor’s motorcycle ride up the Shard.
Fab stuff, but honestly the final straw in Moffat’s habit of pinching my ideas. Kleptomania, I guess, be like that: starts with something small like intelligent snow from Drift, you move on to instances of the same girl scattered through time from EmotionalChemistry and before you know it you’re fancying the look of the Vertibike in Evil UnLtd Vol 2. Well, I’m watching you, Steven. At least, I’m watching Doctor Who anyway.
I have to if it continues to be this good.
The flaws here are sufficiently minor to be inconsequential. For example, the Doctor sending in the spoonhead substitute is fair enough but it only acts at all robotic once the audience is in on the trick. Clearly, he has to act Doctorish in order for the trick to succeed, but why lapse into full roboticness once the cat’s out of the bag? A bit more hmmworthy is the way everyone turns to useless jelly while the spoonheads’ necks are doing their 180-turn. It’s the sort of thing that goes on in video games – some enemy gets busy mutating into a bigger, badder boss but the main characters are left standing there, trapped in a cut scene with only the power to observe in awe at what they’re going to have to fight. When, really, the smart choice would be to run or start shooting, pronto.
But if that’s the level of gripe we’re reduced to, then we can safely conclude that this is quite simply the best introductory story for a companion since Clara’s last one.
The Rings Of Akhaten