Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Bells of St. John

A lot of my Moffat-era reviews slam against the conflict between the slower storytelling of Classic Who verses Moffat's lightning-paced modern episodes. In general, I've come to the opinion that Doctor Who is generally better suited for 90 minute stories - most stories worthy of the Doctor simply have too many ideas, characters, and emotions to adequately fit into 45 minutes, keeping the episodes from fully paying off. On the other hand, when the 45-minute format is used correctly, the sheer speed and wealth of ideas is exhilarating. And while its story does suffer from the compression, The Bells of St John mostly balances its plot, characterization, and wild ideas into a yarn both emotionally and intellectually rousing.

So, yes, Moffat just dumps "people's souls are getting uploaded to the internet against their will" into the opening minute, then jumps into the 13th century halfway into minute 2. While just throwing the premise out there like that keeps a pretty mind-blowing concept from have the emotional and intellectual punch it could if set up properly, the sheer craziness of blasting from the digitally uploaded souls to the Doctor giving a 21st-century Clara tech support from the 13th century without giving us a breath is exciting stuff. Still, while I love this sort of insanity in Doctor Who, you could ease us into it a little, maybe buy us dinner first.

But no time for that. The Doctor and Clara (who actually survives an episode for once) have the bond, and Moffat's dialogue sparkles as always, and Matt Smith and Jenna Louis-Coleman give off a wonderful screwball chemistry. It's going to be a delight to watch these two. I've gotten a little annoyed in the last few episodes by the overuse of characters asking the question, "Doctor Who?" But I loved this exchange:

DOCTOR: Do you remember me?
CLARA: No. Should I? Who are you?
DOCTOR: The Doctor! No? The Doctor? [checks mirror to make sure he's still him]
CLARA: Doctor who?
DOCTOR: No, just the Doctor. [checks mirror again] Actually, sorry, could you just ask me that again?
CLARA: Doctor who?
DOCTOR: One more time.
CLARA: Doctor who?
DOCTOR: Okay, just once more.
CLARA: Doctor who?
DOCTOR: Ooh, yeah. Do you know, I never realized how much I enjoyed hearing that said out loud? Thank you.

That said, while the Doctor going through Clara's things is played as charming, it verges just a tad too close to creepy after a while. A little too much of the eccentric whimsy. A lot of it is Murray Gold overdoing the whimsy music for that and the next scene that pushes it too far. (To balance that out because for all my complaining I really do like a lot of Gold's music, I've gotta say I loved his timpani-driven suspense piece when the robot girl shows up.)

And seeing more of the TARDIS, I like it a lot more. Maybe it was just the way it was shot and used in the Christmas Special that threw me. It actually looks really cool when shot well.

All this stuff is nicely balanced with the plot, which zips along nicely. Moffat tries to use Wi-Fi and the internet in general turning on us to create fear, and while it isn't quite scary, it's certainly intriguing. The half-head duplicates are fantastic, and the villains' attempt to kill the Doctor and Clara with a plane crash is thrilling. And when the Doctor does defeat the villains, it leads to a haunting moment when the villainess regresses to childhood.

So the whole thing definitely works. Moffat's super-efficient storytelling gets the point across very excitingly. The lack of proper build-up for the ideas and atmosphere makes this a lot less satisfying than a fully-realized story would be, but Bells of St John delivers good entertainment and a terrific Doctor-Companion relationship. Good stuff.


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  • Nice touch.
  • I'm not convinced people have to know what the internet is to make a "Twitter" joke. I'm fairly certain my grandmother made a twitter joke last time we spoke on the phone, and she'd still be using her typewriter if it was in full operational order.
  • Oh, so the Great Intelligence is the Arc-Villain? That makes Richard E Grant's underuse in the Christmas special slightly less annoying. Now he can be underused all season!

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