The Bells of St. John

“The Bells of St. John,” indeed. That Steven Moffat is one clever bastard, isn’t he?

Well. When I heard the elevator pitch for this one—”there’s something in the wifi”—I rolled my eyes, because come on. We’ve had sinister cell phone networks, Bluetooth headsets, GPS devices, TV sets, diet pills…is this “ubiquitous technology attacks people” approach not played out? It’s not as though this trick even started with the new series, if you want to trace it back to the Autons (1970’s “Spearhead from Space” and 1971’s “Terror of the Autons” both preceded “Rose”). So when I saw this opening, I thought: really? we’re going to lay out the whole J-horror-esque premise in one breath right away, are we?

Well, yes, because we only have 45 minutes. “The Eleventh Hour” had 65 minutes to be suspenseful and mysterious, but this episode needs to get right to the point. The point being: Clara Oswald.

The Doctor’s in love with her. Or maybe infatuated is a better word, because it’s related to the word “fatuous,” and he’s certainly making a fool of himself over her. He fumbles, trips over his words, takes her messages, tries to please her father (who’s very upset with the government, and the Doctor promises to “look into it”), arranges her bedside with great care (including a plate of cookies with one bite missing, as though he’s making sure she’ll know what to do with them), and takes her on a gratuitous motorcycle ride to their first date. Most revealingly, there’s that almost intolerably embarrassing “monks are not cool!” sequence in the TARDIS, which surely can’t be read any other way. The Doctor we’re used to doesn’t have to doll himself up to save the world, or even to impress his companions. He’s got it bad.

And why not? Okay, she’s young, somehow seeming younger than Amy Pond did even at the end of “The Eleventh Hour,” and yet effortlessly poised and immediately hip to the Doctor’s puppy love, which he incriminatingly denies again and again (“it is not a snogbox!”). Jenna-Louise Coleman is terrific in what’s recognizably her third role in the series, the same person and yet very much not the same as Dalek Oswin and Governess Clara. Everything she says is exactly what she would say, and yet she makes it sound completely fresh. She’s a lot like Matt Smith in that respect, and they might end being too good a match. But so far, so good.

In Clara, Moffat also has a companion he can legitimately kill at any time he likes. He’s had to resort to elaborate tricks to get those heartstrings pulled in the last two seasons: dream sequences (“Amy’s Choice”), Auton duplicates (“The Pandorica Opens”), magic memories (“The Big Bang”), Flesh duplicates (“The Almost People”), parallel timestreams (“The Girl Who Waited”), shapeshifting robots (“The Wedding of River Song”), and paradox-inducing suicide (“The Angels Take Manhattan”). But here we have a companion whose most prominent characteristic is that she seems to keep coming back in different incarnations after she really-and-truly dies. It’s a subtle but effective difference, because it means that when she seems to be dead in this episode, we have to wonder just for a few minutes if she’s really dead for the rest of the story. Moffat doesn’t even have to kill her ever again for us to be thinking each time, this might be it. Like I said: clever bastard.

If you’d like a reason to complain about Clara, you might focus on the other traits her various selves seem to have in common. Namely, she’s a governess, or a nanny, or a woman who’s good at taking care of kids; and she’s a chef, or a barmaid, or a woman who’s good in the kitchen. Then again, she’s also a hacker, equally at home with manipulating Dalek technology or (after her first upload/download experience) human computer systems. It remains to be seen whether we’ll see any of these skills come into play during the later stories, or whether they’ll fade into the background like Martha’s medical training.

The rest of the story didn’t have to be anything special; the Prisoner Zero stuff (which the sequence in the cafe strongly resembles) felt like pretty standard fare, after all. And yet, as familiar as the soul-stealing wifi seems as a premise, the cinematic direction and underplayed characters really make it sing. I love that they’re decent enough to kill their employees after they take their vacations, although maybe that’s just so they don’t have to pay out the remaining days to their surviving relatives. And then there’s the Great Intelligence, turning out to be more than just a one-off Christmas-present classic series nod. Is it this season’s Crack/Silence? Is it inherently interesting enough to carry a season arc?

What’s most striking this time around is how gorgeous the cinematography and direction are even in comparison to the heights they reached in the first half of this season. I was struck, especially in the cafe scenes, by how bright everything was, after all the darkness in the last six episodes. It’s not surprising that this looks a lot like Sherlock; it’s surprising that it took this long to get there.

If all these parts don’t appeal to you—the visuals, the repartee, the hackable people (“CONSCIENCE,” “PARANOIA,” “OBEDIENCE,” “IQ”), the awkward/embarrassing/cute/funny relationship between the Doctor and Clara, the Spoonhead reveal classic series writer Andrew Smith described as “the scariest moment New Who,” that last scene in the Shard—I can see how their sum might seem less than thrilling. But to me it read, at long last, like the modest, beautiful page one of a book of places I really want to go.

Worth mentioning:

  • The new title sequence and theme arrangement: still fantastic.
  • Yes, yes, Summer Falls by Amelia Williams. Yes, yes, chapter 11 will make you cry your eyes out.
  • Who’s the woman in the shop who gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number?
  • Does Clara repeat “Doctor Who” three times because its repetition is somehow key to the Silence’s prediction, or because Moffat just likes spiting those of us who complained about the end of “The Wedding of River Song”?
  • Hmmm…the jury’s out on the new jacket. And is that a clip-on bow tie?
  • For the numerically-minded: Clara’s list of ages starts at 9, skips 16 and 23, and ends at 24. What does this mean? Well, 11/23/1963 is the date the first Doctor Who episode went out, and you can make that date entirely out of the digits in 16 and 23 if you flip the 6 over for the 9. More interestingly, if you count backward from 2012 (when this episode was filmed, and probably also written), the first time Doctor Who was cancelled was 23 years earlier, in 1989, after the ironically/prophetically titled story “Survival.” And the second time it was cancelled was 16 years earlier, after the TV movie pilot failed to launch a new series starring Paul McGann. Does it mean something else? Nothing at all?