Tuesday, April 02, 2013

[The Bells of St John (7.7)]

Doctor Who's greatest asset is Matt Smith, even if on a bad day, we feel that he could swap places with Sherlock and no-on would really notice. 

The best thing about the Bells of St John was the trailer. The Doctor in the park, on the swing, talking to the little girl, doing the whole child-man thing perfectly. "That's sad"/"It is a bit" gets the cosmic loneliness of the Doctor better than a whole season of angst. 

I suppose the Doctor couldn't really have spent 45 minutes talking to a little girl, although is it too much to hope for that one day we could get a "nothing happens" episode (like that episode of Red Dwarf, or that episode of Porridge, or that episode of Zed-Cars I heard about but never saw) where there was no silly action and we just got the Doctor being the Doctor? I suppose that's why I loved the Lodger so much. 

But obviously, a thing has to happen. 

And the early signs are pretty good. The little girl's suggestion (go to a quiet place and wait until you remember where you lost your friend) leads us straight to the Doctor having gone into retreat in a monastery. That's how the show is now. Everything has already happened. If the Doctor wants it to be breakfast time then he can skip the night and make it breakfast time: he doesn't merely have a time machine, he's outside of time in an Aristotelean way, and that outside time-ness scrambles the linearity of the show. I think that's a good, off-the-wall, left-field-way of ensnaring the Doctorness of the Doctor in a narrative were Things have to keep happening. Both real and a dream, both a child and a man, able to slip from Baron Hardup's Kitchen to Prince Charming's Palace in the blink of an eye because he knows they are both stage sets; and also everybody's best mate, who scoops you up and puts you in bed with rubbish flowers and a plate of jammie dodgers. It's really only the consummation of what the Doctor has been doing since the universe was black and white: talking about the adventures you missed, name dropping the people we never actually saw him meet. Only now we have.

Note For Americans: Jammie Dodgers are the cheapest, least interesting biscuit (i.e cookie) money can buy; the sort of thing Mum gets you if she doesn't feel you've been good enough for Jaffa Cakes. 

So the Monk thing, and the hanging around outside Clara's house thing, and the getting to know Clara thing, and the driving around London on an old motorbike thing, and, in fact, practically all the things work perfectly well. So long as we can accept that the plot-thing is only there as a canvass on which the Doctorness of the Doctor can be drawn and a backdrop against which the Doctor and Clara's relationship can play out, then it it's a perfectly adequate plot thing. It's silly and perfunctory and it makes no sense. But compared with some of the silly and perfunctory plots which make no sense that we've had, it's actually fairly sensible. 

It has been said (possibly by me) that every New Who villain has been, not so much an alien or a monster but more a demon, working according to some sort of magical or metaphorical dream logic. The Doctor doesn't defeat them or outwit them so much as exorcise them, often by the use of sympathetic magic. On those terms, today's story  was perfectly intelligible (they aren't always). There is a magic monster that lives on or possibly in the internet. It sucks people into their computers and eats their souls. The Doctor finds out where it lives and forces it to set all the captive souls free. Easter Saturday isn't a bad day to have a Cyber-Harrowing of Hell, come to think of it. 

Lots of children have a sort of vague belief that TV screens and mirrors might be permeable; that the image on the screen might look back at you; there's another world on the other side of the mirror; that the TV might suck you in. (Very early Who played heavily on that belief.) And everyone talks about cyberspace as if it is a place, so the idea that you might fall through the screen and get trapped there is quite a compelling one. And it's also a metaphor — people talk about getting "sucked into" Twitter or World of Warcraft or Angry Birds. The science fiction scaffolding around that idea is embarrassingly perfunctory: it simply doesn't mean anything at all. People being hacked into the wifi so they are like flies in the world wide web. It's on a level with catching flu over the phone. But this only matters if you still think of Doctor Who as "science fiction." 

(I would like to know what a Young People, who grew up with Computers, think when they hear a person on the telly saying "I’ve hacked their base operating system, but I can’t find their geographic location." Are they embarrassed because way behind the times adults are using computery words even though they obviously don't know what the mean, like the Vicar talking about hippy-hoppy music in his Easter sermon? Or do they just sort of accept that TV gets stuff wrong but watch it anyway, the way we used to put up Fireball XL5 because there wasn't anything else? Or are they so used to computers that they do in fact think of them as magical, in the way that some of us used to think there were little men in our TV set? Or are they just not paying that much attention?)

No, my problem with the plot is that I've seen it fifteen or twenty times before. In the Idiot Box, obviously, where people get trapped in 1950s TVs, and in The Eleventh Hour, where something vaguely internetty is happening while the Doctor gets to know Amy, and in the one with the mobile phones and the one with the sat-navs and the one with the diet pills. And it felt a lot like Rose, of course, because it was introducing a new companion lady, who, in an astonishing twist, is torn between her responsibilities on earth and her desire to travel with the universe and see the Doctor. And like Partners in Crime, because it was the Doctor and a new companion lady running around London, with office buildings and ice-cold lady-baddies.

It's not that Doctor Who is formula ridden. Some of the best TV in the world is formula ridden. One man's cliche is another man's format. But it's like every story takes every other story, tears it to pieces, throws the pieces up in the air and pastes them together in a very slightly different order. 

I could have done without the Doctor riding his motorbike up the side of the skyscraper, but I don't think it mattered. I think that the Doctor who hangs out with little kids on swings is a real person and I don't think real people benefit from being turned into cartoon superheroes. I think that the child man who is outside all categories could have found a cleverer, funnier and more Doctorish way of getting into a skyscraper. I think perhaps he should have gone back in time and bribed the architect. The denouement where he turns up the minions "obedience" slider to maximum actually made me smile; it was clever and it was foreshadowed and it only very slightly reminded me of Robocop. 

The trouble with the made-up villain being The Great Intelligence (from the Christmas show and the 1960s) is that it doesn't make any difference. I suppose it is a foreshadowing of the Big Bad: each threat this season will unconvincingly turn out to be controlled by the Great Intelligence, and the Great Intelligence will then be the villain in in the last story of the season. In the 1960s the Great Intelligence controlled Yeti — Abominable Snowmen — so it was quite funny that at Christmas he was controlling actual Snowman. One of the 1960s stories involved something called the Web of Fear so its quite funny that this one involved the World Wide Web. I don't know who finds its for, though. Not me, particularly. Not young kids. Not ordinary viewers. Not people in the their sixties who've actually seen Web of Fear. I think it's for the kind of fan who has never seen any black and white Doctor Who but has read about it in the their spotters guide to Doctor Who. It's not like the Archers or the Simarillion or to to be fair Harry Potter where the Great Intelligence turns up because someone who cares about building an artificial world has been tracking what he's been doing off stage since his last appearance and knows that this is the point where he would naturally have to turn up. 

Is there a word for overloading things with meaning? "Over-coding", possibly, or "semiotic entanglement"? At one point, Clara is seen reading a book by Amelia Williams. [*] It might turn out that that is really important. Or it might turn out that it's just a thing. Almost everything has a special meaning because it has happened before, but the special meaning doesn't mean anything. I find it quite exhausting. The Doctor makes a big thing of putting on a bow-tie because the Doctor wears bow-ties; we see him wearing a fez a couple of times because he once wore a fez; he quotes some lines from the Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy, twice. None of it means anything. It's there because it's there because it's there. It makes me dizzy, and leaves me confused about how I am meant to be watching. When we find out that the sinister lady in charge is called Kizlet I immediately think — "Is that important? Have I missed something?" I don't think it is and I don't think I have. 

I am pretty sure that this is because I am looking where I should not look be looking. The plot is noise. I am supposed to be looking at the Eleventh Doctor and Wonderful Clara who is for some reason the most important person in the universe, just like Wonderful Amy, Wonderful Donna and Wonderful Rose. (We have all forgotten Martha.) I could wish for less wonderful companions. I could wish for very ordinary people who just happen to get stuck with the Doctor. (Don't all these Wonderful companions rather spoil the nauseous Sarah-Jane adventures metaphor that contact with the Doctor makes people Wonderful?) 

The set up is intriguing. I don't know why Emma keeps dying in one time and being alive in a different time. She keeps asking "Doctor who?" and the Doctor has noticed that she keeps asking "Doctor who?" and we know from the end of the last season that the Silence is a cult dedicated to finding out the answer to that question, so I suppose it will turn out that she is either an agent of the Silence of else she isn't. [**] I am quite happy to look at the Eleventh Doctor and I am quite happy to watch him hanging out with Wonderful Clara, although, to be honest, I wish she was still the child on the swing. (Doctor meets a wonderful companion as an adult and find out that he first met her when she was a kid. There's a turn up for the books. Surprised they've never done it before.) I think that the funny-silly-actiony version of Doctor Who is a good space for the Eleventh Doctor to inhabit; I think, with reservations, the very silly One With the Dinosaurs was the most successful of the first half of this season's stories. I am quite happy for that to be what the series is for the time being. 

But I am very much afraid that next week the series will decide to be something entirely different. And so far, without a single exception, every single great big soap opera story arc has failed to have a pay-off which delivers on the the set-up. 

Hammer and tongs, by the way. Hammer and tongs. I expect that will turn out to be significant. Or else not. 

[*] You can actually buy the book. Unless it's an April Fool, which would make it worse.

[**] When we first met River Bloody Song, who we know is the most Wonderful of all the Doctor's companions, because she told us so herself, the Doctor knew that she was his wife (the time traveller's wife) because she knew the answer to the question "Doctor who?" The story where we first met her was called "Silence in the Library." Just saying. 


Louise H said...

I have noticed recently that new Who episodes all seem to be most enjoyable when watched about 2 or 3 years after they first came out. The anxiety (and sometimes disappointment) over whether the plot was any good is gone, but the little script details and characterisation are sufficiently blurred in memory to allow one to rediscover and enjoy them. I think that's probably related to what you're saying; maybe we expect way too much of plots because they are the Big Reveal of a new episode, but what we enjoy most and certainly what we want from episodes on rewatching is all the stuff going on around. So maybe I should get less uptight about spoilers!

K said...

Being a heathen who has only watched the New Who, I didn't particularly mind Rose and the whole romance thing, though I understand that it was a break with prior tradition. For me it worked fine for what it was.

However, when it happens over and over again... I'm beginning to find it more than a little odd and creepy that the Doctor appears ONLY* to be interested in traveling with young women, most of them quite attractive. Apparently only attractive young women are spunky and eccentric enough to make the companion grade nowadays?

*I mean, obviously there was Rory and there was Mickey, but equally obviously Rory and Mickey were both essentially adjuncts to the female companion of their time. Even if I did rather like Rory.

Gavin Burrows said...

" The plot is noise."

That's an interesting point, but I wonder if it applies more to the Davies era. Then following the plot seemed to be a bit like trying to work out the words to pop songs or the like, completely beside the point of the thing. There had to be Daleks or the Devil or parallel realities so the Doctor could be separated from Rose so the Doctor could miss Rose so he could do his tragic but noble face.

The point about the show now is that we seem to constantly be told the plot isn't noise. "Ah, did you see that bit?" "Yes, and this over here." And occasionally, very occasionally, we get the odd bit of harmonic action amid the noise.

To them have the plot fall back into noise, and be effectively told we were mistaken to be watching for it in the first place... well I would call it frustrating. But a more accurate description would be 'past caring.' I suspect I enjoyed your review more than I did the actual episode.

John Nor said...

Who is the Snowmen/Web joke for?

"Not ordinary viewers. Not people in the their sixties who've actually seen Web of Fear. I think it's for the kind of fan who has never seen any black and white Doctor Who but has read about it in the their spotters guide to Doctor Who."

It's a very good joke because the original Sixties stories were in quick succession too.

Anybody who has merely only seen the Clara episodes can enjoy the "returning monster" element though - which has always been a big part of Doctor Who, and may yet be for the next few episodes.

Also it's the 50th. If it was good enough for the 20th then it's good enough now.

It can be a joke and it can be something else too.

Salisbury said...

I think the problem for Steven Moffat's Doctor Who is that it's Steven Moffat vs the Internet.

No tightly plotted multi-episode story, no matter how delicately foreshadowed, could outwit 50,000 obsessives working together to solve it. So he has no choice but to seed lots and lots of clues, some of which (most of which) aren't clues at all.

This still leaves plenty of room for in-episode reversals, of which this most recent story had several, about as well done as you are likely to see.

I disagree with Andrew about Matt Smith, who is charming enough but just a little obvious. (I prefer him at his most camp.) The best thing about the show right now is its 50-year milieu; rich enough that you can squeeze an interesting through-plot out of two half-remembered shamblers from the nineteen-sixties, with juice to spare.