Doctor Who: The Bells of Saint John (7.2.1)

The Bells of Saint John

The Bells of St. John

Gay go up and gay go down
To Ring the Bells of London Town
“Oranges and Lemons” say the Bells of St. Clements
“Bullseyes and Targets” say the Bells of St. Margaret’s
“Brickbats and Tiles” say the Bells of St. Giles
“Halfpence and Farthings” say the Bells of St. Martin’s
“Pancakes and Fritters” say the Bells of St. Peter’s
“Two Sticks and an Apple” say the Bells of Whitechapel
“Maids in white aprons”say the Bells at St. Katherine’s
“Pokers and Tongs” say the Bells of St. John’s
“Kettles and Pans” say the Bells of St. Anne’s
“Old Father Baldpate” say the slow Bells of Aldgate
“You owe me Ten Shillings” say the Bells of St. Helen’s
“When will you Pay me?” say the Bells of Old Bailey
“When I grow Rich” say the Bells of Shoreditch
“Pray when will that be?” say the Bells of Stepney
“I do not know” say the Great Bell of Bow
Gay go up and gay go down
To Ring the Bells of London Town

– Nursery Rhyme

First you should see the prequel to Clara’s proper introduction to the series.

It sets the scene for the main episode. The Doctor is holed up in a 13th century monastery, apparently prompted by young Clara’s suggestion that he go off somewhere quiet for a think, to help him find his lost friend. It all ties in with the image of the bells, which directly link the episode to London through the old nursery rhyme. The conceit is also effectively used as the windows of the houses chime alight to represent the captured minds being activated later in the episode.

I’m a little disappointed and not quite sure why. It has the wonderful Clara, who I have been waiting for since The Snowmen, her previous, inconclusive encounter with the Doctor. And it’s stuffed to the gills with brilliant Moffat inventions and allusions.

We have London in general, and the Shard in particular, showcased in a piece of mega product placement, along with a classic Triumph motorbike. The action sequences have a Bondian feeling, with the Doctor riding up the sheer face of the Shard to confront the soul-stealers in their office. There’s a nod to Amy in her novel, Summer Falls, and a spoonface is created out of the creepy little girl on the cover. Clara even refers to the Doctor’s regenerations in her comment on the chapters – “Eleven’s  the best. You’ll cry your eyes out.”

The idea of the Great Intelligence hoovering up the minds of internet users through their wifi connection is utterly contemporary, and not so far from the truth. I particularly liked Clara’s take on it – “Isn’t that basically Twitter?” This reflects Moffat’s animus against Twitter in real life. There’s also an ironic appreciation by Celia Imrie’s boss lady of the Great Intelligence’s love for his stolen minds, ending in “No-one loves cattle more than Burger King.”

Entertaining as all this is, the threat-of-world-domination plot is slight and the Great Intelligence easily vanquished. The real business of the episode is the bonding of the Doctor with Clara. No smooth sailing here, what with Clara being a little skittish about this strange man who so obviously wants her to run away with him. Quite rightly, she won’t get into a cramped police box, even in the face of danger. Nor will she fly off in the Doctor’s “snog box” when all is explained. But she’s attracted, and the flirting is very enjoyable. You can’t blame her, really, given that the Doctor comes across as a bit of a stalker. He even changes his clothes for a smoother image, which I don’t entirely approve of. That tweed jacket was a classic look.

So we’re left with the Doctor essentially told that Clara’s washing her hair that night, but he’s welcome to try again tomorrow. And off he goes to ponder her mystery: “Right then, Clara Oswald, time to find out who you are.”

I think my reservations spring from there being so much good stuff jammed together in this episode that it was hard to get a handle on it. I can understand why Moffat wanted to knock our socks off, including a revamped opening sequence and music, plus a Tardis that looks like Changing Rooms was given a free hand in the make-over. But it comes across as an extremely entertaining dog’s breakfast.

Presumably things will settle down and get a bit deeper as the relationship between the Doctor and Clara develops.

Doctor Who: The Snowmen (2012 Christmas Special)

Doctor Who - The Snowmen

The Doctor as Scrooge? Why not? Steven Moffat pulls it off perfectly in this cracking Christmas Special, with the Doctor living in a cloud of his own misery, reached by a retractable ladder and an ornate, circular iron staircase (“It’s taller on the inside”). In keeping with his mood, he’s dressed in shabby Victorian clothes, dented top hat, and sans bow tie. The TARDIS could do with a lick of paint as well.

It is, of course, because of losing the Ponds – “He suffered losses which hurt him,” as Madame Vastra explains to Clara, who has a more down-to-earth take on it, “Mad.” The Doctor is indulging in a massive sulk, refusing to help humanity, until Clara appears like a force of nature to get him up and running.

While the Doctor still has loyal friends – Madame Vastra, her wife, Jenny, and Strax, the Sontaran warrior brought back from the dead – only Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) is able to break though the scar tissue and enlist his help against the Snowmen. They are intelligent crystals who mirror human thoughts, given form by the lonely, bitter mind of a boy who decides he doesn’t need anybody. Grown up to be a lonely, bitter man, he colludes with the snow to destroy humanity.

This Doctor Simeon is another Scrooge, sharing the Doctor’s bitter loneliness. But the Doctor has Clara to save him. Mostly by irritating him till he has to recognise her as his new companion. And because he starts to care about her, he can care about the world again.

It takes time. The catalyst is Clara’s one word answer to Madame Vastra, encapsulating the problem – “Pond” – which cannot fail to attract his attention. To the extent that he subconsciously puts on a bow tie before dashing off to rescue the Latimer’s from a dead, frozen, vengeful Governess. To make sure Clara is the one, he tests her by asking what his plan is, while being pursued by the Governess. Clara gets it, and also sees through the subterfuge.

From then on, the Doctor is committed, perhaps in love. There’s a fervency in the way he offers Clara the key to the TARDIS: “I never know why. I only know who.” And he’s devastated when the Governess snatches her away, just as things are turning out right. So he fights even harder to save the world and her. Perhaps he tries to bargain with the universe.

The world is saved, but it’s through the tears at Clara’s death, which fall as salt rain to melt the Snowmen and destroy the globe that controls them. And yet, maybe that bargain has been struck after all, because the Doctor recognises her name from the gravestone – Clara Oswin Oswald. He remembers her as Souffle Girl, who though a Dalek herself, saved him and the Ponds from the Daleks. As she lay dying, he again gave her the key, saying, “I don’t know how. I only know who.” So now he dashes off to find her, on the principle that three times is a charm, and in this case death doesn’t seem to be an obstacle. The last scene shows a modern Clara, standing by the gravestone in an overgrown cemetery. Of course we know she’s the new companion, but it’s good to have the mystery about how it could possibly happen.

I’m delighted with Clara. She’s intelligent, sexy, independent, exactly what the Doctor needs to keep him on his toes. Looking forward to the new season. I also enjoyed the return of Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. Madame Vastra had one of the best lines in the show, with “Good evening, I’m the Lizard Woman from the Dawn of Time, and this is my Wife.” Glad to see Strax alive and well – you can’t keep a good Sontaran down.

A superb Doctor Who Christmas Special, made more powerful by allowing the Doctor to reveal his dark side.

Television Review: Doctor Who – The Angels Take Manhattan (7.5)

“Some left me, some got left behind, and some – not many but some – died. Not them, not them Brian, never them.” – the Doctor.

Asylum of the Daleks (7.1)
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (7.2)
A Town Called Mercy (7.3)
The Power of Three (7.4)

I intended to write a review for this episode back in the same week it was shown, but life got in the way. Now it’s really too belated. So I’ll just add a few words, and refer you to Slouching towards Thatcham for an exhaustive blow-by-blow review.

I just want to say it was a brilliant, emotionally satisfying finale to the Pond’s life with the Doctor, delivered with the Moffat genius for story-telling. We knew it was going to be heart-breaking in some way, but I could not see how he could kill off Amy and Rory. It would be like murdering puppies on YouTube. The clue was in the Weeping Angels, who send people back in time. This is what happened first to Rory, heavily foreshadowed by the sight of his gravestone early in the episode. Amy sacrifices herself to the last Angel in the hope of joining Rory in the past, where they do indeed live long, happy lives together. The grief belongs to the Doctor and River, ameliorated by Amy’s Afterword in Melody/River’s 1930s detective novel.

A powerful ending, but something was still missing. Rory’s dad, Brian, who I had grown to like as character, willingly sent them off on their travels with the Doctor. And the Doctor had, perhaps foolishly, promised he wouldn’t let Rory and Amy die. Technically he didn’t, but the the effect on Brian would have been the same. There is no acknowledgement of Brian’s loss in The Angels Take Manhattan.

There was an alternative ending, written by Chris Chibnall, in which Rory sends a letter to Brian through a very special messenger. It’s difficult to see how this could have been worked into the ending of The Angels Take Manhattan alongside Amy’s Afterword, but I wish it had. Enjoy.

Television Review: Doctor Who – The Power of Three (7.4)

“Some left me, some got left behind, and some – not many but some – died. Not them, not them Brian, never them.” – the Doctor.

Asylum of the Daleks (7.1)
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (7.2)
A Town Called Mercy (7.3)

I can’t help feeling that in The Power of Three, the “year of the slow invasion” is actually the MacGuffin designed to bring about a meeting of minds between the Doctor/Amy, Doctor/Ponds. As an invasion it has a lot less oomph than previous ones, and even the deaths (third of the population) are almost casually reversed by the Doctor’s jiggerypokery in the Chakri spaceship. Granted that if you’re on or behind the sofa, you need heaping handfuls of willing suspension of disbelief, but this episode seemed to be taking the piss in its lack of internal logic. On the other hand, it’s the perfect vehicle to explore the relationship between the Doctor and the Ponds, prior to their “heart-breaking” defenestration next week. I predicted last week that there would be more discord, but Chris Chibnall sneakily pulled the rug out from under my feet. Instead, while recognising the disconnection between their ordinary lives and their time with the Doctor, Amy and Rory end up following their hearts (and the Doctor). With Brian’s blessing. It’s good to see him back.

So, these cubes appear all over the world one morning with no explanation, or even a clue about what they’re made of. People take the cubes home and make them part of the bric-a-brac we collect, until one day they all wake up and start doing wildly different things, from playing bad pop music on a loop to attacking people. Oh, and accessing the world’s data. Then they shut down. As soon as people think that’s all they do, and UNIT has declared them safe, the little buggers wake up again and start a countdown from 7. The sting in the tail, when it reaches 0, is a heart attack for everyone in the vicinity. I’ll not trouble you with the plot, which pits the power of 7 against Amy’s “power of 3,” the latter inevitably proving triumphant.

Since this takes place over a year, the Doctor asks to stay with the Ponds while he helps out UNIT, commanded by Kate Stewart, Lethbridge-Stewart’s daughter. And it’s great to watch the Doctor sort of settling down a bit, enjoying fish fingers and custard on the sofa with the Ponds, getting to know their real lives. It’s been 10 years since Amy and Rory’s wedding, and they’ve grown to like their domestic lives, with friends and jobs. They still enjoy adventures in time and space but, as Amy tells the the Doctor, “the traveling is starting to feel like running away.”

This is the crux of the problem. The Doctor runs to things because their existence, compared to his, is so fleeting. Amy is “the first face this face saw,” so she and Rory “are seared onto my hearts…I’m running to you before you fade away.” Because “one day, soon maybe, you’ll stop.” This is good, honest, necessary stuff to hammer out before Amy and Rory leave, a foreshadowing of their departure. Coupled with the Doctor’s admission to Brian that “some left me, some got left behind, and some – not many but some – died.”

We know they’re going out with a bang, and the Weeping Angels in the next episode suggest they’ll never have existed. So when Brian recognises that it’s not so much the traveling they can’t give up, but the Doctor himself, then his warning to “just bring them back safe” sounds like another huge foreshadowing. I don’t doubt that Moffat has a surprise up his sleeve, which will still be “heart-breaking,” though perhaps in a way I hadn’t imagined. And River Song is back. About time, too, with the glorious Oswin in the offing.

But I did enjoy the Power of Three, while they lasted, and there will probably be a catch in my throat at the end of The Angels Take Manhattan.

Television Review: Doctor Who – A Town Called Mercy (7.3)

“That’s all I ever wanted to do – end suffering.” – Kahler-Jex

Asylum of the Daleks (7.1)
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (7.2)

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was always going to be a tough act to follow, pushing all the right pop culture buttons. It’s a given that most Doctor Who episodes will try to do this, only occasionally opting for iconoclastic brilliance, as in The Doctor’s Wife. The object is to steal rather than borrow, because in stealing you make the material your own.

A Town Called Mercy, written by Toby Whithouse, merely borrows the Western genre. Combining Westworld with High Noon, it spices up the stakes by making Kahler-Jex a war criminal. There are Whovian touches, particularly the Doctor’s transgender horse, Joshua/Susan, but they’re bogged down in a literal reading of the genre with no quirky/original supporting cast. The characters are straight out of Studio Casting: the young man drawn to the way of the gun, the preacher, saloon-keeper, principled town marshall, comic undertaker, and girl who faces down the cyborg gunslinger. She is the great-grandmother of the narrative voice that opens and closes the episode.

The debate on morality suggested in the title weighs heavily on the plot, centred upon the creator of the cyborgs, Kahler-Jex, who considers himself a hero for ending a global war by using programmed killing machines. Drones spring to mind. As he tells the Doctor, “It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing.” Instead he is also the town’s saviour, who gets them through a cholera epidemic with no casualties, and a public benefactor who installs street lights. The question in the Doctor’s mind being, “Is that enough?”, a reflection of his own guilt. The Doctor is, of course, deeply aware of his own implication in genocide, as well as the consequences of his mercy, and wants to honour “all the people who’ve died because of my mercy.”

So he bundles Kahler-Jex out beyond the pale, an interesting visual take on a phrase that originally meant to exile miscreants from the protective walls of civilisation, and leave them to the tender mercies of the wilderness. Isaac, the town marshall, prevents this and is killed by the cyborg, but not before handing his badge over to the Doctor.

Amy is also fiercely opposed to the Doctor’s vengefulness: “You can’t be like him, we have to be better than him.” You can see the join between the Doctor’s and Kahler-Jex’s dilemmas – they come together as clumsily as the skin on the cyborg’s face, when it was clearly the writer’s intention to suggest a neater confluence of ideas.

There are many felicities. I mentioned Susan, the transgender horse, and I loved the doctor’s choice of drink when he swaggers into the saloon: “Tea, but the strong stuff – leave the bag in.” My choice as well. Almost on a par with “Tea, Earl Grey, hot.” But the plot is an uncomfortable mix of high moral purpose and Whovian high jinks, along with a feelgood finale in which Kahler-Jex sacrifices himself to save others, and the cyborg becomes the town’s new marshall. Better to have let the Whovian ethos predominate, and the moral purpose be implicit, as in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. We had genocide there, as well, but it wasn’t preached at from the pulpit.

Meanwhile, on the Ponds front, they once again reject the Doctor’s offer of further gallivanting. Even the chance of finding out what happened to all the animals we shot into space. This after Amy correctly identifies his moralistic malaise as the result of being too much alone. We’re clearly rushing headlong towards the moment when Doctor and Ponds part company forever. Next week’s trailer offers more rifts within the lute.

Television Review: Doctor Who – Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (7.2)

“You’ll be there till the end of me.” – Doctor
“Or vice-versa.” – Amy

Asylum of the Daleks (7.1)

Utter bliss. It’s going to be difficult writing this review because I am so stuffed to the gills with Whovian goodness that all I want to is contemplate the glory of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. Chris Chibnall has gleefully plundered Jurassic Park and Star Wars, while bringing Nefertiti to life and pairing her with an Edwardian big game hunter to form the Doctor’s “gang,” along with three Ponds. Rory’s dad is of course a Pond, however much he attempts to deny it. Throw in genocide, piracy, and a hint that India will become a superpower by the 24th century, and you have an irresistible episode.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship starts on a high note, with Nefertiti putting the moves on the Doctor after he helps her with a trifling “weapon-bearing locust attack.” So that’s her on board, followed by John Riddell, the politically incorrect big game hunter. Then the Doctor lassoos the Ponds while Rory’s dad, Brian, is fixing a light socket, so he comes along for the ride as well. And everyone gets their chance to help save the day – Rory and Brian piloting a spaceship, Amy being a computer whizz and gun-toting mama, Riddell shooting velociraptors (with a stun gun), and Nefertiti sacrificing herself for the gang.

Saving the Earth, that is, what with a spaceship the size of Canada on a collision course, and the Indian Space Agency ready to fire missiles at it. The Doctor has 6 hours. The ship turns out to be a Silurian Ark, filled with last of the dinosaurs, hence the Jurassic Park connection. The revelation is brilliant, as a door opens and stegosaurs stampede out. It’s impossible not to say the title in the Doctor’s own delighted tones: “Dinosaurs…on a space ship!” Riddell echoes Jurassic Park in being stalked by velociraptors. Brian gets slobbered over by a friendly triceratops who wants to chase his golf balls, an echo of the scene where a girl gets sneezed on by a brontosaurus. It’s a lovely triceratops and I wanted to take it home with me. My only regret is that Chibnall saw fit to have the beast killed on Solomon’s orders.

Solomon is the trader/pirate who committed genocide against the Silurian crew when they wouldn’t give up their precious cargo of dinosaurs. His two decrepit robots (they were cheap) are a lethally comic turn in the Star Wars tradition, one of them being being voiced by comedian, David Mitchell. I half expected the other one to be voiced by Robert Webb. They are passive-agressive “tantrum machines,” given to saying things like, “You’re going straight on the naughty step!” They witter on at each other in the spirit of R2D2 and C3PO, but are always ready to obey Solomon’s orders.

Nefertiti is very curious about Amy’s relationship with the Doctor, wanting to know if she’s his queen, which Amy denies, saying, “I’m Rory’s queen,” then correcting herself, “wife!” This only the truth, but she realises it would be undiplomatic to be heard putting the fact into words. Meanwhile, Nefertiti and Riddell are flirting outrageously, and she ends up in his tent on the African plains.

There’s a serious undercurrent going on in the relationship between the Doctor and the Ponds. Amy is upset that the intervals between his visits are getting longer – 10 months this time – since she relishes the excitement and adventure he brings. In a foreshadowing of their eventual parting, the Doctor says, “You’ll be there till the end of me,” to which Amy replies, “Or vice versa.”

Despite this, the Doctor is losing the Ponds. Brian happily eats his lunch while sitting in the TARDIS doorway and looking out over the Earth from orbit, but Rory and Amy have a more longing gaze, and the Doctor picks up on this. Brian now becomes the traveller, in the conventional way, judging by his postcards from tourist destinations. The last one is from Siluria, though, so the Doctor still has a companion. Could be wrong about this, but it’s what I want to happen. Meanwhile, it’s Amy and Rory who stay at home.