The Bells of St John

The Bells of St JohnTARDISAt the time of popping this online, DWM #460 is now in the shops and, in terms of reviewing the current series,  I’ve just delivered my review of Nightmare in Silver to Tom and Peter. So, for me this stint is nearly up.

But it began here. A review taken only from the notes I managed to make at the press screening.Upon reflection, I don’t think my point about “non-diegetic graphics” (yeah, I was once a media student) really stands up. Sorry about that.

Meanwhile, public thanks are due to my brother Jack, who provided the CB radio analogy. And, I’ll be honest, I was quite pleased with that little Facebook gag below. This was published in DWM #459…

DWM #459Seven B or not 7B? That is the question. Forgive the stupid pun, but the BBC’s decision not to simply bill this as the other half of last year’s run, and instead fudge up a kind of halfway-house between that and admitting this is an all-new series of Doctor Who, points to the profound changes we’ve seen in the six months since Asylum of the Daleks, its last big opener. New TARDIS, new costume, new titles, new music, new companion (kind of) – this isn’t more of the same. It feels like a line has been drawn between that ‘A’ and this ‘B’. Not a connecting line, a separating one. Unhelpfully then, that beta-label doesn’t do The Bells of Saint John justice. This isn’t the second team trotting out onto our TV screens. This is zestful and exciting Doctor Who.

Director Colm McCarthy infuses his debut for the series with a fresh energy and impetus. He’s showing off, basically. While the action sequences are played at a fury and the current anything’s-possible flourishes continue unabated – jumping from modern day suburbia to 13th-century Cumbria, to a stricken jet and then a quick whizz up the outside of The Shard – all of this is now expected, despite being remarkable. Thus it’s in the details he really makes this episode feel special. A script unusually weighted at the start with exposition is relayed superbly through a fast, cross-cutting montage and, in a first for Doctor Who – one that’s so specifically dull for to me to remark upon, you might fear I’m cutting and pasting from a Mark Lawson Media Guardian essay – non-diegetic graphics are employed to represent the Great Intelligence’s global Wi-Fi network. It’s proof of the dividends that come from Cardiff’s decision not to propagate a house-style. Each new episode has the potential to be exactly that.

Another pleasing visual quirk pays similar tribute to a sensible behind the scenes discussion. It’s one Steven Moffat revealed at the press launch for this episode, wherein he told the assembled of an agreement he’d made with Mark Gatiss that they wouldn’t fret about concepts minted for Sherlock also appearing in Doctor  Who and vice versa. That allows McCarthy free reign to punch up text on the screen as people type – a solid but stylish storytelling device, which, again, has rarely been seen in this programme. With Clara finally on board the TARDIS and the sense we’re now about to get going on her storyline, it all helps promote the feeling we’re in uncharted waters, and that’s the best place to be.

Nonetheless, not everything has been jettisoned in the rush for the new. There’s something pointless but pleasing in having Clara’s charge, Artie, reading Summer Falls – a book written by Amelia Williams. And in that final scene, are those Amy’s reading glasses the Doctor’s sporting? This fidelity to the programme’s recent past just feels right, a subtle tip of the hat to much missed friends but handled far more deftly than the Tenth Doctor’s year-long pining for Rose Tyler. Self-pity just doesn’t feel possible for the Matt Smith incarnation.

But let’s get back to now. Steven Moffat’s script is resolutely set in the present day, and full of pointed, observant dialogue. “Why isn’t there internet?” for one. It’s a great line that taps into both our sense of entitlement and reliance upon the web. Likewise the crack about Twitter. But in years to come, this will all sound positively archaic. The ‘other social networking sites are available’ name-check for “Bebo, Myspace and Habbo,” already feels a bit 2006. What will the decades do to the whole concept of creeping Wi-Fi and an era when weren’t always connected? To get a sense of that, imagine if this tale had been written during the latter days of Tom Baker. Incoming companion Tegan would have been het up about interference on the 27 MHz wavelength, as she tried to get onto the Citizen Band Radio (her call sign: ‘Rabbits’) to arrange a long awaited ‘eyeball’ with mesmeric buddy ‘Shady Laddie’. But you don’t make Doctor Who for posterity, and it’s sensible to periodically root the show in the present. Too many trips to faraway worlds can make it feel like it’s got nothing to do with us. Good, then, to enjoy the transient fascination for the newly opened Shard before it becomes just another nubbin on the London skyline, rather like The War Machines’ Post Office Tower. Squirreling together today’s obsessions also lends power to this thriller. Spoonheads in the Wi-Fi, of course, is an original take on monsters under the bed, and it layers the faintest veneer of verisimilitude onto the story. Similarly, it doesn’t feel all that improbable that Miss Kizlet could have an app that modulates the emotions of her employees (thumbs 21 senior Google executives like this).

As for the Spoonheads, they’re a very effective threat, albeit consciously written as one of the foot soldiers of the Doctor Who world, with only the verbal facility to paraphrase back what’s been said. That Miss Kizlet refers to them as servers (in the computer sense) is a bit of etymological fun, reclaiming the original meaning of that word. They also evidence Moffat’s fiendish and unusually visual imagination when it comes to creating monsters. Whereas in the past it’s fair to say most writers on the show didn’t think long on how their evil creations would be realised – other than to note their nasty might look a bit like a big prawn – Moffat’s army often sport a modus operandi defined by their physicality. The revelation of the concave absence at the back of the skull is horrific, and one that has to be prefigured by a lovely, anticipation-heightening gimmick, namely the slow revolution of the head. These critters have been so clearly envisaged it allows the writer to later pull one of his trademark turnabouts – hiding the fact it’s a fake Doctor ascending The Shard simply by virtue of kitting him out with a crash helmet.

We know about his clever plotting and his killer dialogue (“No one loves cattle more than Burger King”), but perhaps the best thing about Steven Moffat’s work is he writes pictures. Apart from the ballsiness of a scene in which the baddies opt to crash a jet into the heroine (I love how Clara’s still got her cuppa on the go throughout, Doctor Who adores mashing up the provincial with the fantastic), there’s also the supremely creepy sequence when the Great Intelligence’s threat is conveyed by lights gradually coming on in the nanny’s street. Squares of luminescence in the night, almost moving in on her. There’s vision behind that.

It’s true that this is yet another episode by the showrunner in which people are forced to talk through communication devices (Blink, Silence in the Library, The Time of Angels) – a weird stylistic tic, no matter how you look at it – but the invention and just the sheer feeling of Doctor Who itself being excited to be back ameliorate that concern. Likewise, the appearance of yet another duplicate Doctor didn’t bother me, because it’s cleverly achieved and then quickly discarded. I still think Moffat’s sexual politics are a bit off base, though. A “snogging booth” seems to me something a 13-year-old boy would conjure, not a 24-year-old woman. But this time around the relationship between Clara and the Doctor feels a lot less based upon who’s going to pucker up first. It’s more to do with friendly sparring.

A few words here, then, for Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman. I perhaps don’t mention Smith’s performance as often as I should in these reviews, but you can blame his consistent excellence for that. Something one of his predecessors said about one of his predecessors seems apt here: He’s like a light bulb – he glitters. And he really does. Smith illuminates every scene with his endless invention. Sometimes that just means investing in some silly stuff, such as tasting the leaf he finds in Clara’s travel book, but it’s all exquisitely judged. I’d challenge anyone to find an “I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts” moment; one Smith just doesn’t quite pull it off. He even invokes John Travolta in this story and gets away with it. Similarly, Coleman has quickly found her sea legs, making Clara easy to like. She feels as much as a protagonist as Karen Gillan’s Amy, but far less spiky. Cast more, perhaps, from the Billie Piper mould – albeit with a faint Lancashire burr which is a pleasing sound in this programme. Comparing Jenna-Louise to former companions isn’t perhaps the done thing, but I’d argue it’s testament to how well she already fits Doctor Who. That we don’t see her officially come on board the TARDIS – that’s for tomorrow – is another indication of the fact she’s already here.

Right now, Doctor Who’s trajectory seems clear, and that hasn’t always been the case in recent years. From here it’s onwards into the next adventure, with the expectation that somewhere along the way – actually, probably somewhere near the end – the secret of Clara Oswald will be revealed. We can also, presumably, look forward to more from the Great Intelligence now Richard E Grant’s been signed up. Although… who was the woman in the shop who gave Clara the phone number for the TARDIS? Not sure about that yet. But here’s the team who are going to take us through the rest of this oh so important year. The 7B team? No, these guys are Doctor Who’s First Eleven.


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