(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: “The Snowmen”)
(get my downloadable discussion guide to “The Bells of Saint John” for teachers, librarians, and everyone else who needs to keep kids amused, engaged, and educated at DoctorWhoTeachersGuides.co.uk)
I think I’ve figured out what’s been bugging me, on a deep-down, grand-scheme level, about Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who.
It came to me as I was pondering notions of just What The Hell The Deal With The Claras could be: I was suddenly struck with the terrible fear that it would turn out there was no there there at all, no reason for there to be multiple Claras across time and space who keep saying, “Run you clever boy, and remember.”
Cuz that’s what happened with Amy, right? We never found out why her life didn’t make sense, or if it had anything to do with the crack in the universe… which, to most understandings of how stories work, it should have. I had my own ideas about how the mystery of Amy could be connected to the crack in the universe, and I was upset not because my idea turned out not to be what was going on but because there turned out to be no idea behind Amy at all.
We never ever learned why the TARDIS exploded.
I’m starting to be terribly worried that Moffat isn’t concerned with telling a story that is satisfying over the long run, but only with crafting scripts that might be clever in a sporadic moment-by-moment way rather than making much narrative sense. I’m starting to worry that Moffat thinks that because Doctor Who is science fiction, anything goes, at any time, for no reason. But that’s not true: Reality can get away with “It just is,” but fiction can’t. Not even science fiction.
There are moments in “The Bells of Saint John” that, if Moffat isn’t in fact actually trolling us, then he’s simply not concerned with anything beyond the isolated impact of any given moment of screen time. Why is the Doctor hanging out with 13th-century monks, especially if “monks are not cool,” particularly when there must be much better places to get some “peace and solitude” in the big wide universe? Is it only so that Moffat could have a monk cross himself to ward off the “evil spirit” that the mere mention of “woman” brings? Or was it just so the title — “The Bells of Saint John” — could be the punchline of a joke… a joke that also demands that 13th-century monks can read modern English and that the Doctor knows what the hell the monks are talking about when they say that “the bells of Saint John are ringing” even though he’s completely startled to discover it means that the TARDIS phone is ringing?
I’m exhausted just thinking about all the nonsense that went into making the title make sense. And still it’s only a sort of sense that has no bearing whatsoever on the larger tale. The bells of Saint John have absolutely nothing to do with the Great Intelligence scooping up human minds in 21st-century London.
It bothers me less that Moffat is borrowing from himself — “whatever you do, don’t click”; “Clara Oswald has left London, Clara Oswald has been uploaded” — than that Moffat can’t see what he has in front of him right here. Consider the storytelling possibilities inherent in the concept he has before him! This could have been a cautionary tale about clicking on stuff on the Net that you don’t know what it is. It could have been a satire on corporate culture, like how it’s kinder to kill Alexi after he comes back from his holiday rather than before he goes, or that corporate employment is a like a hack on people’s minds (as in adjusting one’s conscience, for instance). The hints of this are present, but they go no further. Again, it’s as if Moffat doesn’t really understand science fiction: it’s not just about a cool idea, it’s where the cool idea takes you. Extrapolating why the Great Intelligence wants all those human minds could have been enough to get us there, but that never happens. It wants the minds; that’s enough here.
It’s very unsatisfying.
I liked this episode more than I’ve liked some recent Doctor Who, but even the good stuff here only highlights what’s missing. The TARDIS on Southbank and the line about Earls Court — where there is still an authentic police box — being “an embarrassment” are solid nods to modern London, as is the simple setting for much of the Doctor and Clara’s interaction: a cafe overlooking St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Sitting in a cafe with a laptop drinking coffee… that’s London (if usually without an unconscious person nearby). The Doctor’s wonderment in “I invented the quadracycle” and the suggestion that the 2011 London riots were a citywide activation of the Great Intelligence’s wifi network: those hint at a wider scope for everything, from the Doctor’s life to nefarious alien plots happening all the time in the background of our lives. That’s what makes Doctor Who so cool. So why does Moffat waste so much screen time on having the Doctor have Clara repeat “Doctor who?” over and over, or having Clara ask why he points the “blue box” when he says “mobile phone” (especially since the Doctor only just pointed out how its phone is not supposed to actually work as a phone!)?
Belaboring jokes is particularly annoying when I fear that we’re never going to learn who “the woman in the shop” was who gave Clara the phone number for “the best help line… in the universe.” Or why “run you clever boy and remember” a thing. Or what the hell could possibly be meant by Clara’s insistence that the leaf in her book 101 Places to See “wasn’t a leaf [but] was page one.”
Sure, some things should remain mysterious, particularly in a story such as Doctor Who, which gets much of its mojo from the ongoing mystery that is the Doctor. But not everything can remain a mystery. If there turns out to be no answer to the question of Clara — just as there was no answer to the question of Amy — I’m going to be very very cross indeed.
Random thoughts on “The Bells of Saint John”:
• Oooo, the Doctor’s face appearing in the credits again!
Very old-school Doctor Who. I like.
• Um, does the Apple logo here
break the BBC’s prohibition against advertising of any kind? I think it does. After all, they blocked out the Converse logos on David Tennant’s Converse even though they would have only appeared onscreen fleetingly, too…
• Didja notice who wrote the book Clara’s young charge was reading?
• Steven Moffat’s been watching Sherlock, hasn’t he?
• It’s nice to see the Doctor enjoying some sensual pleasures, like food:
Kinda makes it all the more mysterious and annoying that he’s simultaneously surprised and horrified that Clara is flirting with him. It’s like he hasn’t spend his entire traveling life surrounded by pretty young women.
• That bit in the plane — I can’t fly a plane, can you, no, fine, let’s do it together — is really familiar. Is it swiped from an earlier Doctor Who? Or — this is starting to ring a little bell — does it comes from the original BBC production of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Am I seeing Ford and Trillian trying to fly the Heart of Gold together?
The Doctor’s “I can’t tell the future I just work there” is most definitely swiped from James T. Kirk, however.
• Since when doesn’t the Doctor take the TARDIS into battle?
• I really like the suggestion — via Clara hitting on “Oswin” for a username — that made-up usernames might become incorporated into future real names.
• Great quotes:
“There’s something in the wifi.” –the Doctor
“Imagine that: Human souls trapped like flies in the World Wide Web, stuck forever, crying out for help.” –the Doctor
“Isn’t that basically Twitter?” –Clara
(next: “The Rings of Akhaten”)