Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Bells of Saint John

Rather an odd beginning to the Doctor's search for the real Clara Oswald - having just chatted to her as a child in the mini-prequel, he then retreats to a thirteenth century Cumbrian monastery to "divine her message". Well, why not I suppose. Presumably he didn't realise he had been speaking to Clara herself and besides, the episode proper can't rely on ten million people all dutifully clicking on an optional webisode for plot developments (or can it?). In any case, it creates the perfect opportunity to justify the story's title with a satisfyingly incongruous telephone call.

And with that all out of the way Doctor Who screeches up to the very edge of ultra-modernity, almost, but not quite teetering and falling into the future. In many ways it is to 2013 what The War Machines was to 1966: swap those eponymous tanks for the Spoonheads, the Post Office Tower for the Shard, WOTAN for the Great Intelligence... Except of course that any similarity is utterly obscured by the astonishing changes that those forty-seven years have wrought.

This episode is thoroughly au fait with the pervasive and inter-connected nature of modern technology. The lights in your street can bring down a plane; human behaviour can be adjusted with an app; people's most private data (their, er, souls?) can be uploaded to the cloud, or rewritten. Kizlet traces the Doctor not with CCTV, but by flicking in real time through the location-pinned photos that are being uploaded to the web. Clara discovers the enemy HQ by hacking their webcams and cross-referencing the data against social media profiles. There are no ponderous explanations, it all just flashes across our eyes, the screen filling with code and data; none of this seems outlandish, or incredible to us sat at home - we get it, we are already part of the technosphere.

This is why it's not facile or cliched to turn wi-fi into a threat. This isn't the plastic attacking in Terror of the Autons, or the Christmas tree turning on Rose and Jackie. We're being shown the world we live in, and good thing too.

There are some superb moments in The Bells of Saint John. The creepy sweet way the Doctor tends to the fallen Clara. The breath-taking scene that rushes us into the TARDIS and back out through the doors onto a crashing passenger jet, Clara still clutching a cup of tea. The scene in the cafe where Kizlet hijacks passers-by to intimidate the Doctor. The way the Doctor outwits Kizlet (classic Moffat: it's so obvious, but only after he's shown us how the trick was done). The way the Great Intelligence's employees collapse and revert back to their original personalities (although, if they were just glorified automata, why did they all have Facebook accounts?). Celia Imrie in particular is fabulous throughout, but when she turns into that small child... brrr! Scary stuff, for adults and children alike, and a cracking start to this half of Series Seven.  


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