It’s a big year for Doctor Who – the 50th Anniversary, something it’s safe to say doesn’t come along too often in the world of TV series (we’ll overlook that little matter of the 16-year hiatus). Show runner Steven Moffat has big plans, though all we know for sure at the moment is that they involve the return of David Tennant (glorious news) and Billie Piper (yawn). As to the older Doctors, who knows – they’ve all expressed a willingness to take part, but I understand the challenge of trying to explain why they look so much older then they did when they regenerated.
In the meantime, Grand Moff has penned the season-opener, and it reminds me of how, in a funny way, this series has come to be more about the companions than about The Doctor himself. No longer is it enough for these young women (mostly) to accompany him on his adventures – now they all have mysteries about them, storylines that tend to define the season in which they appear. And The Doctor’s raging guilt-trip about his role in disrupting (and worse) their lives has become the existential spine of his character. And Clara Oswald (Oswin) is certainly no different.
I’m not sure I like this sea change in the sort of show Doctor Who is – in fact I can say with certainty that I miss the days of episodic adventures that didn’t always need to be part of a conspiracy plot. But that’s nothing against Clara, who – as portrayed by the confident and charming Jenna-Louise Coleman – is a good fit for Matt Smith’s full-bore ADD personality. And she’s certainly got her share of mystery about her, having died twice already (as Oswin) – which plays right into The Doctor’s complex. So much so, in fact, that he’s holed himself up in a Cumbrian monastery in 1207 to try and figure out what the connection of the two Oswins and their “Run you clever boy, and remember” message is.
One of the quibbles I have with Moffat’s take on Who is that it can be a bit too self-referential. Sometimes that works – the TARDIS exterior phone ringing for only the second time (the first being the premiere episode “The Unearthly Child” in 1963) was a great callback for a 50th Anniversary season. Others – like his constant need to make a joke out of people saying “Doctor Who” – come off as clever-clever and silly. But Moffat, for better or worse, is a man who loves inside jokes, and this episode is full of them. He also loves to recall the history of the series, as witness the return of The Great Intelligence, who first appeared in “The Abominable Snowmen” in 1967.
The plot of “The Bells of St. John” is pretty standard sci-fi formula – something strange is going on with the wi-fi, and people’s consciousnesses are being uploaded into a network being maintained by a mysterious control room on the 65th Floor of London’s 95-story skyscraper, The Shard. As you’d expect from Moffat it’s executed well, and ad you’d expect from the modern Who the production values put the old series to shame. I don’t think there’s much new here, but it’s fun seeing The Doctor yank a Harley out of the TARDIS interior (we have yet another re-designed control room this year) because, as he says, “I don’t take the TARDIS into battle – it’s the most powerful ship in the universe and I don’t want it falling into the wrong hands”. The episode is fast-paced and fairly exciting, there continues to be nice chemistry between Smith and Coleman and we get a very good performance by Celia Imrie as Miss Kizlet, the one in charge of harvesting minds for The Great Intelligence.
On balance, I don’t think “The Bells of St. John” will be long-remembered as a stand-alone episode – there’s plenty of well-executed formula in Doctor Who’s history. Mostly it exists to give the stars a chance to test drive their partnership and (as usual, of late) a setup for the mystery that will define the season. Who was the woman who gave Clara The TARDIS’ number when she needed tech support – River, perhaps? Why are there two years missing in Clara’s “101 Places to See” book? Why is The Great Intelligence so interested in Clara, and most fundamentally, just who is Clara and why does she keep being reborn and crossing paths with The Doctor? Next week marks the Doctor Who debut of writer Neil Cross, who created the Crime Drama Luther – in fact he wrote two of the next three serials – and it’s a return to space and an alien planet, which is a welcome change in the Moffat regime after Russel Davies almost exclusively Earthbound tenure.