Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Doctor is back, with a new companion and new threats

Doctor Who's return features the third incarnation of Clara Oswald, the reappearance of an old villain, and a dose of internet-age paranoia.


Jenna-Louise Coleman and Matt Smith in "The Bells of Saint John." Photo courtesy of telegraph.co.uk.

There is one genuinely horrifying moment in "The Bells of Saint John," the first episode of this half-season of Doctor Who. At the end of the hour, Miss Kizlet (Celia Imrie), who is working for the Great Intelligence (who originally appeared way back in the era of the Second Doctor, and who returned as the villain behind the evil snowmen in this year's Christmas special) is abandoned by the Intelligence and told to erase knowledge of the Intelligence's existence from the minds of herself and her staff. In a wickedly clever, creepy image, Kizlet hits a "Restore Factory Settings" command on the iPad app she's been using to run the operation, leaving behind a room full of suddenly bewildered employees who have no idea how they got there. It's a funny stinger that turns tragic when the UNIT troops sent to assess the situation bust into her office, only to find the formerly powerful woman reduced to the intellectual level of a child who can't find her parents. The Intelligence has discarded her, just as it discarded Dr. Simeon (Richard E. Grant), whose face and voice it now uses to communicate (apparently the show couldn't afford to retain Ian McKellen), in "The Snowmen," and the moment is sad and disturbing in equal measure.

The rest of "The Bells of Saint John" stays away from this kind of harrowing emotion, which is probably best for those of us still recovering from the events of "The Angels Take Manhattan." It's a generally light-hearted episode that serves primarily to re-introduce the audience to Jenna-Louise Coleman's new companion, Clara Oswald, and to establish Clara's relationship with the Doctor. The episode's actual plot, which involves uploading people's souls into the WiFi as food (or possibly pets) for the Great Intelligence, takes a backseat to the Doctor/Clara dynamic; the threat never seems terribly credible, and mostly serves as a platform for lots of Facebook and Twitter jokes. Not that I have a problem with these jokes; the way Matt Smith contemptuously enunciates "Twitter" is, and always has been, marvelous, and the scene in which Kizlet's second-in-command, Mahler (Robert Whitlock) realizes that every employee of their super-secret operation has posted their work information on Facebook is a brilliant little piece of comedy.

Luckily, the Doctor and Clara make an excellent team, one with a different sort of chemistry than we've seen before. Most of the Doctor's companions are, in one way or another, definitely his inferiors; they might be talented in their own way, but they can't be said to stand on equal footing with the Time Lord. Amy Pond probably came the closest, but her ultimate role as part of the Doctor's surrogate family, along with River and Rory, made their relationship something different.

Clara, however, proves herself as the Doctor's equal at several points during "The Bells of Saint John." While we can probably assume that her super hacking skills were deleted when Miss Kizlet restores everyone to their factory settings, it is notable that, at the end of the episode, Clara refuses to come away with the Doctor, at least on the first try. Now obviously, she'll agree soon enough (she is the new companion, after all), but it was nice to see someone take the Doctor's invitation with a grain of salt for once. He is, after all, a madman with a box.

It certainly helps that Coleman does a great job with the material; her antic energy matches Smith's, especially in a great comic set-piece where Clara accompanies the Doctor aboard a plane that, due to the interference of Miss Kizlet and her control of the WiFi, is about to crash into Clara's home. That scene features the pair jumping out of the Tardis, running down the aisle of the plane, breaking into the cockpit and taking control just long enough to keep it from crashing. It's an energetic, engaging action sequence, pushed to the point of absurdity by the fact that Clara spends the entire scene with a death grip on a mug of tea, which she only puts down once she's safely back in the Tardis.

The sense that Clara and the Doctor are, at least in some ways, equals is bolstered by the mystery that surrounds the girl known to an abbey full of medieval monks (the Doctor was spending some time there contemplating the mystery of Clara Oswin Oswald) as the Woman Twice Dead. While there have been mysteries surrounding previous companions - the prophecy of the Doctor/Donna and the Doctor's fifth-season confusion as to why Amy didn't remember the Daleks or the Cybermen come to mind - Clara is the first companion who is, in her very existence, truly unexplainable. "The Bells of Saint John" doesn't  really address this issue, with the exception of the opening scene with the monks and the Doctor's final line, "Right then, Clara Oswald. Time to find out who you are." The very fact that the Doctor doesn't know who or what she is, or why she doesn't seem to remember him from meeting to meeting, gives Clara something of an edge in their relationship, whether she knows it or not. And whatever Clara turns out to be, watching the Doctor navigate this new kind of relationship promises to be an excellent ride.

3 comments:

  1. Not sure how I feel about having "homework" between episodes. Any plans to read "Summer Falls" by Amelia Williams? I'm afraid if I don't I'll miss clues as to Clara's identity. As of now my best guess is that she is Mary Poppins. I've ruled out everything else.

    Any thoughts about who the women in the shop that gave Clara the Dr.s phone number was? River? I'm hoping it is the girl from "Blink"

    Best line was Clara referring to the Tardis as a "snog box".

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  2. Pretty sure "Summer Falls" isn't a real book, given that Amelia Williams is almost certainly Amy Pond (unless they published a tie-in that I don't know about). I too was assuming the woman in the shop was River, although now that you mention it I'm intrigued by the idea that it's Sally Sparrow's bookshop.

    And yes, "snog box" was magnificent. Although I am still partial to the way Matt Smith says "twitter." Such contempt.

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    1. Unless it was an Aprils fools joke - Summer Falls will be available as an e-book on Thursday.

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