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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review: Doctor Who, The Bells of Saint John

Series 7, Episode 7
Review: C+
Verdict: This falls somewhere in-between my favorite type of Doctor Who episodes and the worst, so a C+ feels appropriate. This is less self-contained than the first half of series 7, which went for blockbuster-style movies in a single episode that were, at times, pretty bad. It also opens up some interesting threads for an ongoing narrative. But at the end of the day it, unfortunately, requires even more suspension of disbelief than usual, which at times gets downright silly.

I read somewhere that Matt Smith likened this episode to The Bourne Identity. It definitely strives for a cool, technical, thriller-action type of thing, but it goes WAY too far in some cases (like when Matt Smith rides a motorcycle up a skyscraper). And honestly, this episode was two separate type of plots, for me, blended together. Part 1 was the interaction between The Doctor and Clara, his mysterious new companion who keeps dying and coming back, seemingly unaware of her connection to The Doctor. Part II was a throw-away attempt at a newfangled, technical horror story that they blended in to give the episode some structure. I'll give a very cursory overview of the throw-away, larger plot, and then I'd like to talk a lot more about the Clara/Doctor mysteries.

In this episode it turns out that wi-fi has somehow been harnessed by an evil villain who is uploading users' minds and souls into his own database of sorts. The people he chooses to upload are trapped in the system, and once he downloads them, they die in the real world.  Because Clara chooses to use the unsecured internet connection that harbors this criminal activity, she is downloaded, and The Doctor has to work his tech-savvy magic to save her and the rest of the trapped souls.

The idea of storing someone's thoughts and intelligence in some kind of crazy "cloud" isn't a new one for this show (remember River Song and the library?). Writer and show runner Steven Moffat does have an uncanny ability to bring out really creepy elements lurking in objects and systems we interact with every day, like stone statues, but fails at that here - I'm just saying, I'm going to continue to steal internet if I need to.  (Did anyone else think of the Family Guy episode where Steven King half-assedly proposes writing a horror movie about killer lamps?)

So on to more interesting things. Let's start with the very first characteristic of this episode, the title. The monks inform The Doctor that the bells of Saint John are ringing, and we come to learn they're referring to the Tardis and it's phone, which basically never rings. Somehow Clara has the number to the Tardis, and we're given little information as to how she got it (River Song? Her future self? I'm sure we'll find out). The Tardis has a "St. John's Hospital" sticker on it, so that's ostensibly what the title refers to, but there might be a deeper meaning beneath the surface. Kind of WAY beneath the surface, so please bear with me. The Bells of Saint John is also a reference to an English children's rhyme, Oranges and Lemons. The unabridged version of the rhyme goes like this:

 Gay go up and gay go down, 
 To ring the bells of London town. 
 Two sticks and an apple, 
 Say the bells at Whitechapel.
 Old Father Baldpate, 
 Say the slow bells at Aldgate. 
 Maids in white aprons, 
 Say the bells at St. Catherine's. 
 Oranges and lemons, 
 Say the bells of St. Clements's. 
 Pancakes and fritters, 
 Say the bells of St. Peter's.
 Bulls eyes and targets, 
 Say the bells of St. Margaret's. 
 Brickbats and tiles, 
 Say the bells of St. Giles.
 Kettles and pans, 
 Say the bells of St. Ann's.
 Pokers and tongs, 
 Say the bells of St. John's. 
 Halfpence and farthings, 
 Say the bells of St. Martin's.  
 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 Fleetditch. 
 Pray, when will that be? 
 Say the bells of Stepney? 
 I am sure I don't know, 
 Say the great bell at Bow. 
 When I am old, 
 Say the bells at St. Paul's. 
 Here comes a candle to light you to bed, 
 Here comes a chopper to cut off your head. 

"Pokers and tongs" refers to torture devices here, I believe (it's a rather dark children's rhyme...). This rhyme has been featured in a previous episode, The God Complex. More importantly, this rhyme is also referenced throughout George Orwell's 1984. The novel's protagonist, Winston Smith, can remember only a little bit of the rhyme, but comes to remember/learn more of it throughout the story. It seems that the more verses he learns, the closer he is to a very dangerous end.

I might be reaching here, but I thought the episode's title could be a reference to 1984. The rhyme plays a prominent part in 1984, representing a piece of culture that was wiped out from people's minds almost entirely, a few sparse verses remaining as a ghost or a relic of a culture they've lost (they don't even know what churches are, so the rhyme has little actual meaning to the characters). Something may be going on with Clara's memory here, too. She doesn't know who The Doctor is, which could be explained by her timeline vs. The Doctor's timeline, but it seems like she never knows who he is when she meets him, unless I'm mistaken. Why not? Perhaps she's genuinely different people in each life, but that seems suspect - she had crazy hacking and computer skills in her first meeting with The Doctor, too, and this episode shows how she obtained them.

Clara's version of this rhyme, in my opinion, is the phrase "run you clever boy and remember." We're not sure what this means, and it seems like present-day Clara doesn't know either, yet she's said it in every episode she's appeared in. It's obviously going to play a large role in future episodes. And perhaps like 1984, the more she remembers of this seemingly simple phrase, one that she recalls for no reason and can't connect to reality in this week's episode, the more danger she'll be in. Not to mention, the line specifically instructs someone to remember something that's been forgotten.

Lastly, I noticed when The Doctor was reviewing Clara's travel book, it listed her age as she grew, and the age "23" was absent from the list. A re-wind revealed that both ages 16 & 23 were missing from the list. Where did these years go? I'm putting my money on "she doesn't remember those years." These little tidbits and clues definitely have me eager to unravel more of the Clara mystery in upcoming episodes. And for me, that's what saved this one.

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