...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, April 01, 2013

Day 4472: DOCTOR WHO: Bell du Jour


Doctor Who returns with engaging and entertaining episode of chaotic plotting lifted by three winning performances from Matt Smith, Jenna-Louise Coleman and Celia Imrie, that looks and sounds wonderful but may not add up to a Shard of beans.

Perhaps we can start with a retcon: at Christmas, we saw “memory snow” or “mirror snow” falling to Earth. It fell from space through what we might call our “astral plane” and on its way it passed through the Great Intelligence of “The Abominable Snowmen”. So what we’re dealing with here is snow that thinks it is the Great Intelligence…

(And be thankful it was the Great Intelligence and not a Silent on Miss Babs’ screen of doom!)

But, if we’re thinking about questions of identity, who exactly does Steven Moffat think the Doctor is? It’s an important question in a season that purportedly will end with the revelation of the Doctor’s biggest secret (subject to many pinches of salt – see also “the Doctor really truly is dead in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’… oops, no he’s not.”)

Lawrence Miles described Moffat’s writing for the Doctor as “a stupid person’s idea of what a clever person is like”. I think that’s a bit harsh, but we do seem to be approaching “a dullard’s idea of what a bi-polar person is like”. If “The Snowmen” was about the Doctor being in a massive sulk for fifty years and rediscovering his zest for life, then why does “The Bells of St John” begin with him having another massive sulk, this time as a monk? (It’s clear he’s been there quite some while; they’ve had time to build a stone shelter around the TARDIS, as you can tell from the way the entrance is TARDIS shaped.) It really is a case of needing to do the set reading: the “prequel” this time has the Doctor losing heart in his search for Clara, having tried his usual method of “wandering about a bit and hoping she bumped into him”.

(And in typical “Moffat will eat himself” fashion, this is of course the young Amy Pond… er, I mean Clara not-yet-Oswin Oswald. Actually, to digress, there’s a lot of previous Moffat to be found here. To paraphrase the Moffat Times Table: “Monsieur, you’re in my television” (“Silence in the Library”) x “Donna Noble has been saved/revolve to spooky reveal” (“Silence in the Library”) = “Help I’ve been sucked into the Wi-Fi!”)

Anyway, what we appear to have is a Doctor with huge mood swings from hyper manic to brooding despair. I suppose we should be grateful that we’re at least one small step up from the usual Moffat writing where every male character is “Steve” and every female is “Sue” (see especially “Coupling” where literally all six leads are variations on his own Mary-Sue or his wife). We also have another typical Moffat morality-fail: it’s cool to see the villain “hacking” humans, dialling their paranoia or their obedience up and down; it’s emphatically not cool to see the Doctor doing the same. Particularly when you’ve had the Doctor explicitly say he doesn’t do that sort of thing earlier in the same scene! What I'd expected was the Doctor to dial conscience up to eleven, and let them sort it out for themselves. (Not that imposing conscience on people isn't without its problems: see also “The Keys of Marinus”, in case you think that “dicking about with people’s free will is baaaad” hasn’t been part of Doctor Who since year one.)

In fact, the Doctor’s moral core seems way off beam throughout this episode, where he’s entirely focussed on Clara almost to the total exclusion of the threat to absolutely everyone else. We, the audience, are aware that the “Wi-Fi” (yeah, whatever) is a threat to everyone, but the Doctor barely seems to notice. I had thought, when he sent his message – “Under My Protection” – to Miss Kizlet, that it would turn out he meant the planet not the person. But no, there was never any payoff for that, and pretty much all the other victims were just collateral damage to him. I think that the issues of terminating the lot of them are a bit too complex to dismiss with “they’ll all die” “at least they’ll be free”. When his dead girlfriend-from-the-future found herself in the very similar situation of uploaded into a memory chip, he went to the trouble of ensuring an entire virtual reality afterlife for her. Is this really the same Doctor?

It’s very hardline “Live free or die!” – ironically in view of how the Doctor has his latest Tesselector-Doctor use the meat puppet app – and ironically because if that’s his philosophy then that makes it not his choice to make.

As Alex says, if the alternative is eternity in hell, screaming they don’t know where they are with their brains being nibbled on by the Great Intelligence, then it might just make sense. It’s just that that doesn’t make sense either. How does that make them a useful part of a brain-gestalt thingy? In which case, why not put them in a ‘neutral’ VR like The Matrix, or even a VR paradise? Perhaps the Great Intelligence feeds off their despair, but it’s also said they’re being put to some use. Why splice computer genius powers into Clara's memories if she no more than a morsel on the smorgasbord? Did Moffat just not make up his mind?

If it was as simple as “in despair for ever and feeding the enemy,” that’s a relatively simple moral choice, but that’s confused and unclear in an episode that glosses over it in a single exchange of lines.

We do have the enormous talents of Matt Smith to thank for this being in any way believable. Even hugely talented actors like Jack Davenport or even Eccleston can fall into the “look at me doing comedy”/pulling faces trap. Smith manages to find ways of doing it that seem real, and adds little flashes of anger and sadness to give some edge to the madcap. He’s also been brave enough to start to add some of his own personality to the mix, in the freewheeling physicality and, dare I say, a little of the frustration at not being taken seriously. And, on re-watching, I see that he has a look of total self-disgust on his face when, playing the robot-pretending-to-be-the-Doctor, he turns up the “obedience”.

And boy it must be hard work when you’re given lines like “Doctor who?” “Ooh, say it again” to contend with. Yes, it’s a callback to the Christmas episode where Madam Vastra told him “it always begins with that question” so for him “Doctor who?” is as good as Clara asking him on a date. And yes, it’s the impossible-to-answer question that he’s going to face at Trenzalore and allegedly the end of this series (confession: I actually quite like the rumoured title for the finale of “In the Name of the Doctor” ‘cos it’s quite a clever word play for once). And yes we “geddit”: it’s the name of the series and it’s endlessly hilarious to reference it in the dialogue and draw attention to the central mystery of the character and to your absurd plot arc, but if you keep on doing this you’re going to wear a hole in the fabric of reality, never mind that any payoff you’ve come up with – he’s John Smith and the Common Men, or Leggy Mountbatten, or Rassilon or Clara’s father or Leela’s son or a monkey's uncle, or The Other or the Great Intelligence in mortal form or he just doesn’t darn well remember – no payoff is going to be enough for fifty years of a series called “Doctor Who”, so don’t set yourself up for the fall.

Over at the Mindless Ones, Andrew talks about Moffat’s writing lacking proper structure, that no effort has gone into the “craft”. He cites the missed opportunity of a Chekov’s antigravity motorcycle (for once not Moffat lifting from his own back-catalogue, but do check out 2000 A.D’s “The ABC Warriors” where Deadlock rides up the Eiger Building on Mars). He’s right of course. I’d also point out that the set-pieces are arranged to suit the pacing of a TV episode, rather than following the natural evolution of the story: the baddies go from cheerily willing to throw an aeroplane full of people at the Doctor, to preferring to show off their tech and chatter by taking over people in a coffee bar. Why aren’t those possessed people grabbing him and jumping off the balcony? Answer, because the plane in peril is the mid-episode climax and this is the talky bit before the big finish. And because we need to keep the aircraft-as-suicide-weapon as far away as possible from the very-tall-building lest anyone think we’re doing something a bit post-September 11 tasteless.

The possession scene is also much cooler than the plane – whose “bigness” is diminished by brevity and plot-irrelevance (it’s almost as though it’s only stuck in for the trailer reel; surely not!) – though it would seem to make more sense if they’re hacking the Doctor rather than all those people (that is they are altering his perceptions, like a Faction Paradox Shift, rather than taking over people and having everyone else ignore them).

But I think it’s deeper than that. There’s almost no exposition in this episode at all, hence the need to have Matt Smith gabble the bit about being a thousand years old twice. What we felt was that this was, for forty minutes, give or take the odd misstep, a perfectly acceptable “part one”; the problem is that there’s no explanatory “part two” and “part three” and “part four” are done in the last two minutes with a throwaway reference to UNIT tossed in to keep the fanboys warm.

But, as I keep on finding myself having to write in these Moffat reviews, this was enjoyable. Alex, particularly, said he didn’t mind Moffat rewriting himself for once so long as he was taking the things which worked poorly the first time out and doing them better.

Some of the direction was lovely. Especially the transition, dollying left to right as the Doctor grabs Clara by the hand and drags her into the TARDIS for the first time and the reverse when he falls out of the doors because the TARDIS is now on the plummeting plane.

Celia Imrie is delicious in a role lifted straight from Russell’s “Partners in Crime”, all the better for the little touches of humanity she gives the two-dimensional Ms Kizlet: her naughtiness at manipulating the emotions of her subordinates, her fear and her anger when she is caught in her own trap. Most tragic of all is the broken little girl to which she is reduced at the end, another shout back to the Christmas special where it was Richard E Grant's character who was seduced by the Intelligence as a child. As reward for a lifetime of service, that is terribly cruel.

Jenna-Louise Coleman is bright-as-a-button sparkling as Clara. There were good reasons for Amy to be spiky and unlikeable – and arguable Karen Gillan had a harder job portraying the more complicated character, and kudos to Moffat for at least trying to write a complicated, damaged person. But that doesn’t help with the fact that Amy was spiky and unlikeable. Clara is adorable, and has the least personality of any companion since the series returned (arguably since Mel, actually, and she was a whizz with computers too!). She’s the perfect companion. Which leads me to suspect that she’s artificial.

Didn’t for a minute buy “run you clever boy and remember” as a mnemonic for her Wi-Fi password, but again that was a Moffat-y writing trick to get around the fact that neither she nor the Doctor introduced themselves on their “helpline” phonecall. (Real people do that, you see, but never people on telly, 'cos it wastes screen-time.) “The woman in the shop said it was the best helpline in the Universe” did she? Like she won’t be turning up to haunt us later.

And it was the TARDIS that brought the Doctor together with this too-good-to-be-true sidekick: the TARDIS telephone (oh look! Another retro-Moffatism, this time from his first big hit “The Empty Child”) providing both the connection and the episode title. Hopefully, hopefully, that’s because there’s more to that than another throwaway gag in the first five minutes.

So who is the Doctor? For Terrance Dicks, the thing about the Doctor is that he’s a Time Lord from the Planet Gallifrey. For some of the people writing for Andrew Cartmel – and Paul Cornell in some moods – he’s god.

We have to arrive at the possibility that, in his eleventh incarnation, the Doctor’s finally just gone nuts. Arguments that this is the ruthless Time War of the seventh Doctor coming back to haunt him; or too much time on his own; or a consequence of that “Time Lord Triumphant” mania and then hanging on too long by the tenth; or an inevitable step along the path to the Valeyard can all be retro-fitted to try and make it look like this is an evolution of continuity rather than a vicious side-swerve on the lead character’s personality by the showrunner.

For Moffat, the Doctor is a story that writes himself, the ultimate storyteller.

I suppose at least that’s handy for the writer who always writes himself.

Next Time: Bells? Rings? Is there a theme developing here? The Doctor begins to unfold the mystery of Clara and we find out why that leaf is chapter one. Plus more cool aliens than we've seen since the End of the World when we visit "The Rings of Akhaten"

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