Yes, I’m posting about the new Doctor Who. Because if I do have a “thing” on this website, which I’m quite prepared to entertain arguments that I don’t, it’s that I’m the “Doctor Who guy”. And there’s a new half-season on, because the BBC is too cheap to fund more than about six episodes a year right now (I wouldn’t be so annoyed by this if the show wasn’t profitable as well as entertaining and popular and well-made–yes, it has a high production budget, but it makes it back and then some in merchandising.) And the first episode, ‘The Bells of St. John’s’, aired last Saturday. So let’s chat about it after the cut.
The first thing you notice is something that’s getting more and more apparent about Moffat as time goes on; he’s pretty much allergic to doing anything the way that anyone else does it. We no longer get “the Doctor lands somewhere and investigates and gets drawn into a mystery”. Moffat was over that structure by ‘The Beast Below’, and he’s constantly looking for a new way to start an episode. So here we get the Doctor joining a monastery in 1207 AD where he just sits all day and tries to figure out what the fuck is up with Clara, the woman he’s now met twice who’s died both times, only to be interrupted by a phone call from 2013 from the aforementioned Clara, who was apparently told by someone that he was tech support for her laptop. (In this case, “someone” is almost certainly River Song, because any time you have a mystery woman in a Doctor Who episode written by Steven Moffat it’s River Song. Which kind of makes her not much of a mystery but nobody cares because Alex Kingston is just so damn watchable.) The point is, you could not come up with a more convoluted way to start up a relatively straightforward episode, and we know because we’ve seen all the previous attempts.
That said, it’s an extraordinarily good scene (with one slight misstep–the “Is it an evil spirit?” “It’s a woman!” joke was unfunny and sexist) with some genuinely great dialogue and chemistry between the two leads. Smith plays the Doctor magnificently as someone utterly flummoxed, like a paleontologist suddenly finding a talking dinosaur in his kitchen, and Jenna-Louise Coleman matches him with a sense of utter certainty and preposession completely unrelated to whether or not she’s got anything to be certain about. Watching her, you can genuinely believe that the Internet has vanished, and that only the Doctor can bring it back. Even though you know she knows she’s being silly. It’s a good bit.
That’s the cue for this week’s monster to show up, and, um…it wasn’t great, it wasn’t bad. It was sort of there, a mechanism to get us to Moffat’s Scary Catchphrase of the Week, “I don’t know where I am.” Which, in turn, was sort of there as well. Not as good as “Are you my mummy?”, significantly better than “Donna Noble has been saved.” It plays off of a number of fears (the fear of screwing things up by clicking on a strange link, the fear of isolation in a strange place) to good effect, but doesn’t really go that next step further. That’s for later.
Because, after a good amount of Doctor/Clara banter and some fun scenes where the Doctor confronts a deliciously smug bad guy, we get the real dagger…the villain, in fact all the villains, have been brainwashed for years. Indeed, the villain you’ve been waiting to see get her comeuppance the entire time is the ultimate victim, nothing more than a five-year old child whose whole life was stolen by the Great Intelligence. (Not that I really needed to see the Great Intelligence return so soon, particularly not played by REG again, but that’s the reason you have recurring villains sometimes. Establishing a whole new psychevore bad guy immortal disembodied intelligence that infests networks and tries to enslave humanity is time that the episode just doesn’t have, so why not use the one that everyone remembers from the Christmas special?)
On the whole, I liked the episode, because it’s damn near impossible to dislike a Moffat episode. Even when his tics are showing, and he’s writing yet another episode that aggressively refuses to stick to the narrative structure that’s come to feel like comfort food over the last fifty years, and he’s writing another 50-minute episode that feels like it needed to be about 75 minutes long (complete with “antigrav motorbike” plot point that came out of nowhere because really, how do you foreshadow the idea that the Doctor has a motorcycle that can drive up walls without giving the ending away?)….he’s still so good at dialoguing, so flashy at plotting, and his stories move at such breakneck pace that you don’t have time to feel the flaws too much. It’s Doctor Who that doesn’t give you time to wear out its welcome, and that’s no small thing.
That said, I still think his tenure as showrunner will be judged on how well he wraps up the Silence plot, because we’ve really had about two and a half seasons of loose ends now, but that’s something we can come back to after the end of Season Seven.