Saturday, June 1, 2013

"The Bells of Saint John"

Moff's early warning 'hater detection' system.
"The Bellend of Saint John." No, I shouldn't say that, but I'm going to anyway. For whatever financial reason which was spun as some apologist PR nonsense, we only received the second half of The Smith's third series at the beginning of 2013, and I'm afraid to say that it did not return with aplomb. As a companion introduction you expect something reasonably significant, but I fear that by virtue of having foreshadowed her character in both "Asylum of the Daleks" and "The Snowmen" Moff was content to pen whatever came to mind, because regrettably "The Bells of Saint John" is, put simply, bland, forgettable and utterly mediocre filler which does absolutely nothing which has not been put forward by New Who previously. It's the greyest and most inconsequential opener I think the New Series has ever witnessed, and even taken as a 'middle of the series' piece it reeks of laziness and the reluctance to gamble upon or even bother to produce new ideas. It's infinitely regrettable, because the episode has a few quite decent moments, but a few good bits do not a good episode make. The thing that strikes me is the notion that this show can still call itself Doctor Who, because at the end of the day, since 2005 in fact, it never has been, and it's no more clear than now. Doctor Who, as a series, lived and died in the twentieth century for a reason, and what we're being force-fed here is nothing more than a soulless resurrection with no purpose or relevance. I'm not entirely convinced that Doctor Who could not exist today whatsoever - the Big Finish audios, limited as they are, suggest otherwise - but that doesn't change the fact that, sadly, what we're afforded today is not Doctor Who, and never has been.
Thanks, but its quite unnecessary.
We know it's going to suck.
So where to begin? I can barely begin to face how unutterably awful and sad the introduction to this episode is, not with a voice-over this time but rather with a flat out explanation of the episode's premise on the part of some twat in a Youtube video who is giving a warning, and apparently needs a sign with 'WARNING' written on it to really drive the point home to the "geeks" (ie soap-opera-but-with-wizards-and-robots-buffs) who are too busy waiting for Matt Smith to appear on the screen so they can start gratifying themselves according to whichever manner best suits them into a state of delirium. We are being warned to not join a particular wireless network indicated by weird symbols, because people are likely to do that, apparently, and it's all served up with a healthy dose of (direct quote) "they're in your computer" technophobia to ensure that we're all thoroughly afraid of our household objects. It's all coupled with some very broad-strokes safe, generic internet terminology to avoid alienating anyone terrified of the show going all 'spod boy' on them. Forget being scared of gasmasks, masquerade, statues or shadows, let's all be afraid of the wireless network! "People's souls are being uploaded to the internet." The word 'souls' gets used a lot - more magic thinking. Don't make me do it. Is this honestly dialogue in anything? It turns out that this guy is just like all these other people: a face ranting on a screen while their bodies are catatonic and comatose elsewhere. Some kind of metaphor for the forum-arguing generation, voices unheard in an anonymous mass? I can only assume. "I don't know where I am," they all meaninglessly drone. I think we're meant to be terrified. I'm bored out of my ever-loving skull.
"A starring role in Ryan Gosling's directorial debut? Can I get
out of doing the Christmas special? Paul will sub for me."
Bam, titles. The Doctor has become a recluse in a monastery in thirteenth-century Cumbria, because it's not like he hadn't just become a recluse really recently, say, in the episode immediately prior to this one. A monk rocks up at the doors of the monastery declaring that "The Bells of Saint John are ringing." Well that's meaningful. The Abbott and Thelonious Monk go to see the 'mad monk', also known as 'the misused Smith' who is squatting in a cellar painting pictures of Clara, trying to "divine her meaning". 'Cool factor' trumps any concession to reality, apparently, but upon hearing for whom the bell tolls he ups shop and declares that "I'm going to need a horse." A reference to Marvel's Thor, perchance? I wouldn't put it past New Who and its superhero Doctor. Smash bang wallop to Clara Oswald, resident cutie du jour, who lives with some family to whom she is definitely not the mother, despite having a pretty darn cushy top floor guest room all to herself. She identifies a book being read by local small male child Artie, written by Amelia J. Williams esquire in a pointless backwards glance, as having a particularly good Eleventh chapter. Don't try too hard, Moff. I'm willing to bet that the first and fourth chapters are the true stunners, with a side line in second and third with a dashing of sixth and eighth. Regardless, we see an evil map of London in blue electric lines being invaded by red bits for some unexplained reason and it's revealed to us via some kind of primitive medieval tomb in which the Doctor's TARDIS is concealed that the 'Bells of Saint John' is in fact the TARDIS phone. My word, how clever. Moff deserves the Nobel Prize.
"Can you repeat that, Steven? You're
breathing very heavily."
Apparently Clara's internet hotline is the TARDIS phone. She was given this number by "the woman in the shop." For posterity's sake let it be known that this never gets resolved, it's just pointless throwaway dialogue. I will consume my own trousers with brown sauce if it ever is. Just kidding, I won't do that, I'll just complain about whatever godawful stupid resolution with which we are provided - River "Please go away" Song being the most likely candidate. The family's young female child, Angie, wants to go to the house of 'Nina'. Wasn't Oswin's lesbian lover in "Asylum of the Daleks" called Nina? What have these Claras been up to? Anyway the Doctor informs one of the monks that the voice on the other end of the phone is not an evil spirit but in fact a woman, to which the monk crosses himself. Thighs are slapped all around at the hilarity of this, although to be fair back in those days monks were probably just as afraid of women as Moff thinks the average Doctor Who fan is. Clara, apparently as thick as about five planks, needs the Doctor's help to access the wireless, but having been interrupted she clicks the other, evil alien, wireless network for no reason. She can't be that stupid, but she is. The Doctor jumps into the TARDIS and comes to her house, introducing himself. "Doctor who?" Clara asks. "I never realise how much I enjoy hearing that," the Doctor responds. Urgh. Why?
"I've got a fresh basket of baby seals in your office
and your club's just come back from the cleaner's."
So it turns out that this whole evil wireless operation is being run by a cadre of generic black-suited villains in an evil office of doom straight out of the most generic and unambitious RTD-style script imaginable, and they're granting the people of the world a very unpleasant brand of immortality by 'uploading' them to a 'data cloud'. Their boss, whose name is, I believe, Miss Kizlet, has a sort of iPad type thing which lets her alter people's behaviour in weirdly specific ways, with only traits like 'Conscience', 'Paranoia', 'Obedience' etc being alterable, like the most messed up Dungeon Master of all time. She complains to her lackeys who need to capture Clara, and they send a 'spoonhead', a robotic server hub with the appearance of the creepy little girl from the cover of Artie's novel. It's a classic magic thinking 'fantasy science' machine that sucks people's brains out using a beam of light after the head has rotated to reveal a hollow glowing cavity, and the robot repeats everything said to it turned into statements, so it's a sort of hybrid of the stupid monster from "The Idiot's Lantern" and the equally stupid monster from "Midnight". It's got RTD's fingerprints all over it. Due to the fact that she just stands there like a plum and lemon pie they are able to suck Clara's brain for a bit, discovering that she's intelligent but lacks computer skills, so they give her some (for some reason: according to later plot revelations these minds are being fed to the true villain, so I'm unclear as to the purpose of improving these harvested minds). The idea of a 'walking server' seems moronic to me; with the whole story being about how proliferate internet access is in the west in the modern day the idea that a physical object would need to walk into Clara's house to slurp her brain seems woefully outdated, and in his desperate and painfully transparent quest for relevance Moff makes himself look as technologically illiterate as Clara is meant to have been.
"If you want to view Paradise (Towers),
Just stop watching this and view it..."
The Doctor now needs to have a "change of clothes" sequence, the second one for the Eleventh Doctor - they usually happen just once, in the first story - but despite the self-referential bow tie moment I have to admit that his new Willy Wonka outfit with the purple overcoat and tie is a bit more palatable than the short-lived green overcoat of yesteryear, even if it still seems to miss the point of his original rather professorial appearance, and we get some horrific Murray Gold comedy music in the background to really spoil the mood. Clara's now in the back of the spoonhead's head somehow, being downloaded to the villains' systems, but the Doctor reverses it by hitting lots of random buttons very quickly against a guy in the office also hitting buttons very quickly. Moff doesn't seem to realise that when you upload or download something you make a copy of it and the original is still there - you don't literally move it from place to place, so the idea of 'reversing' an upload or download is just nonsense. The Doctor complains about the spoonhead (I can't believe I'm writing that) being a "Walking wi-fi waystation hoovering up data," but once the disguise is dropped it's just a pathetic looking robot prop which is less convincing than Kamelion. We get a lot of arbitrary technobabble about how Clara is not "fully integrated", a meaningless phrase which is desperately overused in the episode, and at last she's rescued. The bad guy's computer even makes a little 'short circuit' noise when the download is reversed, and Clara's mind is 'beamed' back into her body like someone just cast a spell. At the evil office of blackness Miss Kizlet complains that she has to contact her client in response to a threatening message from the Doctor which makes him look like an arrogant grandstanding fool with a death wish and we're left to ponder who it could possibly be.
"He just thinks we need a 'pull my finger moment'.
He's the showrunner; he must have his reasons."
Meanwhile it's sleepy time for Clara as the Doctor looks after her in a somewhat sweet but ultimately time-wasting sequence involving water, flowers, Jammie Dodger-sniffery and the Doctor intruding into Clara's privacy by examining her diary. It has a leaf in the front cover, which he licks. Was that really necessary? Why doesn't he just smell her hair while she sleeps? Clara wakes up and has a nice background-establishing conversation with the Doctor out the window, although I find the line about him inventing the 'quadricycle' to be unnecessarily corny, and the Doctor comes across as a bit of a creep, admitting to guarding Clara outside her house. Nonetheless, Jenna-Louise Coleman and Matt Smith have a nice, friendly rapport which eases through some pretty mediocre dialogue, such as when the Doctor talks about how the world is "swimming in wi-fi" and how the enemy is "harvesting minds". If it's everywhere, why do they need robots? Clara compares the entrapment of the users to Twitter - possibly a dig by Moff after he was driven from Twitter by hostility from certain vocal fan elements, not that he probably should have had a Twitter account anyway, and it feels like another forced 'relevant' joke which is sure to date the episode in time. I don't mind the Doctor's suggestion that a living computer could "hack people" but when Clara realises that "I know all about computers now" it seems awfully convenient and rather facile: how would she know that she knows? And 'all about computers' is classic writer fakery.
"Out of my way! I need to be in Los Angeles in ten
hours or I'll be stuck doing Big Finish forever!"
After noticing all the lights coming on, a weird bystander across the street and what appears to be a crashing plane, the Doctor demands that Clara join him inside the TARDIS, which to her seems awfully forward, and isn't it hilarious. We get some more god awful 'relevant' humour where a "London-wide activation" of wi-fi possessed people has been passed off as a riot previously, and the spoonhead is unnecessarily described as featuring "active camouflage". Thanks. I don't mind the Doctor sticking the TARDIS on the crashing plane so that he can pull it up, however he does, although I swear another Doctor recently claimed in something I watched or listened to that short trips were easier, but the idea that suddenly anyone and everyone can be arbitrarily "switched off" or on by the wi-fi makes me question further why they need robots walking around sucking people up and so on. The Doctor admits to not being able to fly a plane but still somehow manages to do it, "blocks" their wi-fi, whatever that means, and yanks Clara out of the cockpit in a timeless comedy pull. The Doctor wants breakfast so they head for the following morning: "It's a time machine. You never have to wait for breakfast." Probably because you see it again after having watched this episode.
"I don't remember eating this tree!"
I don't mind the bit where the Doctor nabs some dosh by pretending that the TARDIS materialisation is a busker trick but the bit where he comes out on the motorcycle is completely pointless. I'd suggest it was a reference to the 1996 TV Movie if it wasn't another shameless parallel with "The Idiot's Lantern". Back at Evil Villains Inc. the second in command complains about how "Earl's Court was an embarrassment," referencing the last police box in London for those paying attention, and the Doctor is identified by people uploading tourist type photos. "I do love London," Kizlet drawls. "So many cameras." Thanks for spelling it out for us; I hadn't figured that out from all the shots of the Doctor being identified by people taking photographs. This bit, much like the random bits of made-up code appearing in thin air in the opening sequence, remind me painfully of Moff and Gatiss' massively overrated Sherlock, and to be honest this almost could be a rubbishy Sherlock episode. Once the Doctor gets Clara to breakfast he claims that his plan was to make everyone more tired, assuming none of the enemies slept the night before, and we have the Shard looming up in the background to foreshadow as heavily as possible. Now it's Clara's turn to frantically tap buttons due to her newfound computer knowledge, while refusing to fess up about why she's a nanny to the little kids despite being okay with the Doctor being an alien. It's hardly riveting character development, and I can't help but feel that Moff thought that the presence of future Oswin and past Clara in two other episodes negated the need for it.  The Doctor thinks that Clara should be doing "young things" and does a little dance which is spoiled by some over the top "Stayin' alive" disco moves and telling Clara to "shut up" after she has an unnecessary flirt. Every time something nice happens in this episode, something else ruins it. We get some cloying music as accompaniment to the mystery of Clara's life as well, and it's all about as subtle as an unanaesthetised appendectomy.
A load of waffle and the bakery counter.
The Doctor goes inside to get more coffee and all the stiffs start talking to him due to this ubiquitous wireless control the villains apparently have. "Just let me show you what control of the wi-fi can do," Kizlet announces through a mouthpiece, which mostly involves people standing around like plums, spontaneously manifesting blue Matrix-style columns of digits across their persons. We are told that the server robots "home in on the wi-fi like rats sniffing cheese," a horrendously cliché simile which any professional writer should be ashamed of, and no one seems to notice that the bad guys can talk through a news reporter. It's okay, though, because we have a bunch more relevance thrust down our throats, with the true villain needing "healthy, free range human minds", which is not evil because "no one loves cattle more than Burger King." I can't believe someone actually wrote this stuff. Meanwhile, Clara Os-For-The-Win Oswin is using webcams and Facebook to identify who works at the evil office of death, and they are reprimanded for their en masse use of social media identifying their workplace: they of course all work at the Shard, an eyesore on the face of London which somewhat resembles Orthanc, abode of Saruman from The Lord of the Rings. What I want to know is why these evil office drones all have old-fashioned detachable webcams on their computers if they're so ridiculously technologically advanced. Also, how can the mind-controlled news reporter hear what the Doctor is saying to her?
"Tell Ryan I'll be there in fifteen minutes!"
Anyway a Spoonhead Doctor comes out to slurp on Clara something proper. These spoonheads have got to be some of the worst monsters yet, reminiscent of the revolving faces in Moffat's "Silence in the Library" to add another title to the 'lack of imagination' pile. Speaking of which, the office people, the Doctor and everyone else all sound a bit naff to me. Why does no one speak BBC English anymore? Clara gets uploaded, uploaded hard, and it's revealed that "she's fully integrated now, she can't be downloaded again." I despise this dialogue. There can be two schools of thought on technobabble. I think technobabble is fine when it just adds background dressing. I don't approve of technobabble when it's required to carry the plot and hinges on limited information or the misrepresentation of some real world process. In the same way the Doctor has an anti-gravity device on the motorbike which he is now once again riding which at the push of a huge red button allows him to, absurdly, drive up the side of a building. Kizlet's fine with it because it "might be quite funny." Her constant concessions required to keep the plot moving forward make her look hopelessly inept as we see a little black blob on some photography of the Shard to show us the Doctor's progress. "Seriously? He can do that? He can really, actually do that?" asks our number three evil stooge. Who talks like that? It's also just more "in awe of the Doctor" stuff which is tiresome.
"Your office? I'm just following in Tom's footsteps..."
The Doctor, smashing into Kizlet's office, demands the release of the imprisoned minds, even the now bodiless ones, because death would for them be escape from a "living hell." A bit like River then, huh? Predictably the Doctor himself is still at the café, coordinating business through the spoonhead, and when he concedes that "I'm old fashioned, I have technology" I can't help but feel like my approval of this notion would seem more real if the whole episode and revived series as a whole wasn't rife with magic thinking. By the same token, why do I have to hear this meaningless term "fully integrated" so many times? The actors must have been embarrassed as hell. I at least enjoyed the Doctor's solution, that to free the uploaded Kizlet all the innocents must be released too, but it's achieved by him manipulating the second in command, whose iPad entry now simply reads 'Obedience' with all the other variables eliminated. No one bothers trying to enter the office and deactivating the spoonhead even though they know their boss has been uploaded; the villains in this episode have to suck to compensate for how badly paced it is.
"Well yes, money is a bit tight if you must know."
Once everyone's freed from the "data cloud" (pass the sick bags) all the nasty evil red lights on the earth turn blue in a classic condescending colour scheme to the sound of ridiculous triumphant music while UNIT shows up right on time and Kizlet has a chin wag with her client, the Great Intelligence. Clearly Ian McKellen was too expensive for more than a once-off because now he's Richard E. Grant's face floating in a mass of Matrix digits, and as he escapes all of his minions have their personalities restored. The second in command was a plumber, how hilarious. Kizlet was a little child! I'm so confronted, I may wet myself! The third banana guy asks the UNIT troopers "Are you soldiers?" For god's sake. How did this script get to production stage? Was there no editor? As far as I can tell from some limited research, no, Series 7 in fact had no script editor. It shows. Back in the TARDIS it turns out Clara is hanging out with this dull family due to the mother of the house dying while she was staying there. "You don't run out on the people you care about," the Doctor muses. "Wish I was more like that." How many times do I have to say 'show don't tell'? Despite inviting Clara to come with him, she sees it as some kind of pick up, referring to the TARDIS cringeingly as a 'snog box'. Who says 'snog' these days, especially after their teenage years? She tells the Doctor to pick her up tomorrow for whatever reason, informs him that the leaf in her diary was its 'first page' and leaves him determined to discover who she is.
"Just stop me when I've held up enough."
"The Bells of Saint John" is nothing more than a forty-four minute waste of time in which no one really does anything and nothing really happens. The story faffs around for a good twenty minutes at least, virtually half its running time, while failing to reintroduce a character we've already seen in any kind of particularly interesting way, relying on the ongoing mystery, much like River's previous situation, to replace character development. Afterwards the plot has to scramble towards something approaching an actual narrative, relying on ridiculous incompetence on the part of the villains, technobabble and meaningless set pieces to drive the episode home towards something which only a desperately naïve person would dare to describe as a 'conclusion'. Matt Smith is decent, albeit still a little overplayed and needlessly eccentric, and Jenna-Louise Coleman's modern-day Clara is nice enough, better than her first appearance but not, perhaps, as endearing as the Christmas manifestation of the character which was originally intended as the actual companion. The two of them are fairly watchable together but it's very far away from being riveting stuff and the other performances are utterly negligible, mostly as a consequence of the severely limited, second-hand plot. It's not especially terrible, but it's dull, flavourless and extremely derivative of other New Who episodes. As what is effectively a series premiere it's unengaging, unambitious and uninspired, and mostly just leaves Moff looking utterly exhausted, trying to ignore the very telling tolling of the bells.

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