Saturday, March 30, 2013

Behold! The Revelator: The Bells Of Saint John

Do! Not! Click! It!'
So, dear blog reader, in episode seven hundred and ninety one of the BBC's popular long-running family SF drama, Doctor Who, we learn that the Internet is, in fact, completely evil. (But, then, many of us already suspected that.) And, we also discovered that death is not, always, the final end. Especially when it comes to yer actual Clara Oswin. (But, we knew that as well, from past experience.) The Lord Thy God Steven Moffat (Thou Shalt Worship No Other Gods Before He) - author of the episode - described the premise of The Bells of Saint John as 'the traditional Doctor Who thing of taking something omnipresent in your life and making it sinister.' Which puts this story in a very long and noble tradition of Doctor Who archetypes stretching back through things like The Christmas InvasionRose, Delta & The BannermenMawdryn Undead, The Android InvasionSpearhead From Space and The Invasion to The War Machines in 1966 (and, possibly, as far back as An Unearthly Child its very self). 'If something did get in the Wi-Fi, we'd be screwed. Nobody had really done it before, so I thought, "It's time to get kids frightened of Wi-Fi!"' The Moffinator, when pressed on the issue, denied that his intention was to give viewers a warning about the sinister advances of technology (the kind of thing Nigel Kneale used to do for fun), but rather to tell 'an adventure story' about a 'new way [for aliens] to invade' based on something which viewers would be familiar with. It was apparently the show's producer, Marcus Wilson, who suggested that the episode could become 'an urban thriller', as the story would need to be set in contemporary London to reintroduce Clara and that the Wi-Fi monsters were the perfect accompaniment to this. Moffat later compared the style of the episode to the James Bond movies and The Bourne Identity and, obvious budgetary considerations aside, you kind of see what he's getting at. There's an elegance and wit at play here which demonstrates to a thousand wannabes just why Moffat wins BAFTAs and is so highly regarded in Hollywood. So, anyway, we've got a review coming up from yer actual Keith Telly Topping, dear blog reader. As ever,  beware of what is to come if you haven't seen the episode as there are many spoilers ahead. And, if you haven't watched the episode yet then, frankly, what the smegging hell are you doing reading From The North? Go and watch it, instantly, then come back here in fifty minutes time.
The Bells of Saint John starts off with a jolly clever little juxtaposition of two distinct sets of scenes across several centuries. In one time zone, we finds The Doctor his very self, living in a self-imposed, (and possibly self-flagellistic) exile at a monastery in the Cumbria of 1207 searching - inside himself - for answers to questions that he, possibly, hasn't even begun to fathom the true nature of. That is, until he is told - by The Monkees, no less - that the titular Bells of Saint John 'are ringing.' That's enough to make any Time Lord a believer, surely? At the other end of the metaphorical time tunnel, eight hundred and six years later (one presumes, anyway, since it appears to be contemporary London or, possibly, the very near future), is the actual object of his solitary ruminations - and, rather decent impressionistic watercolours at that. It is here, dear blog reader, that we find a twice dead soufflé girl and stone cold fox called Clara. Who can't get the Interweb to work.
The episode centres on the fascinating conceit of many people's souls being uploaded (without their permission, obviously) onto the Internet. You know, rather like videos on YouTube of hapless commuters being happy-slapped by hoodies. For the purposes of nefarious skulduggery in the area. Or, something. The so-called 'data cloud', as Miss Kizlet notes, is 'like immortality. But fatal' for those who find themselves, unwittingly, trapped within it. Something very, very dangerous is lurking deep within London's Wi-Fi signals, uploading people's minds and imprisoning them, disembodied, in some dark corner of the World Wide Web. Indeed, it is a kind of immortality, only without the free will. Or the annoying corporeal status. Or the ability to blog when angry. Among those targeted for upload is none other than the woman that The Doctor has travelled halfway across the galaxy to find. Which, as you can probably imagine, is something that he isn't too happy about. Neither is she for that matter, once she gets over the shock of finding a curious monk on her doorstep.
So, at length The Doctor tracks down Clara, and she's living in modern London as a childminder with unfulfilled dreams of travel and an - unseen - father who has a 'thing' about the government. They don't hit it off immediately, partly because of the weird costume The Doctor first turns up in ('monks are not cool'). That, plus the fact that Clara suspects his police box is nothing more than 'a snogging booth.' But the chemistry is soon - quite literally - exploding between Smudger and Jenna-Louise, who is (one certainly imagines) destined to become a hugely popular companion with fans of the show. Not to mention a head-scratching enigma over the course of the next eight weeks, that's pretty much a given. Of course, The Special People will probably find something to whinge about. They usually do. As for the episode itself it is, admittedly, somewhat low on plot overall. And what plot there is comes largely in the form of a major - from which read Brigadier-General - continuity revelation carried over from the Christmas episode, The Snowmen. It is, however, something of a breezy, one hundred miles per hour rip-roaring roller-coaster romp across the capital - full of gorgeous shots of London landmarks - and includes a big fek-off motorbike stunt worthy of yer actual Eddie Kidd. The technology-turns-against-humanity subplot is, as far as it goes, well-handled and pretty smart, full of very witty one-liners. 'We're living in a Wi-Fi soup,' warns The Doctor. 'Suppose there was something in the Wi-Fi harvesting human minds?' Is humanity just but click away from a living death? Or, is that just a decent description of bloody Twitter? The trail leads The Doctor and his new friend to The Shard and the high-rise offices of Miss Kizlet (a gloriously icy and Thatcheresque performance from the terrific Celia Imrie). But who, or what, is her mysterious client? If you're wondering, it turns out to be a - brief - return of The Great Intelligence and Richard E Grant. There you go, I told you you should have watched the episode first.
Ultimately, The Bells Of Saint John, is something of a curate's egg - inconsequential (albeit funny and fresh) in places but beautifully precise and quite dark in others. It's got loads of great lines, like: 'It's gone. The Internet. Why can't I find it?' And: 'Do we need another London activation? We can't always pass it off as a riot!' And: 'I can't tell the future, I just work there.' And: 'The abattoir is not a contradiction. No one loves cattle more than Burger King.' And: 'I'm ever so fond of Alexei. But, my conscience says we should probably kill him!' And: 'You're young. Shouldn't you be doing ... young things ... with young people?' It's an episode which sees the first use to the TARDIS's exterior telephone (which, isn't supposed to work) since The Empty Child and the first appearance of a London architectural icon as a base for evil since Doomsday. 'He loves and cares for humanity. In fact, he can't get enough of it.' This is an episode in which The Doctor once again asserts one of his mission statements; that 'It! is! Protected!' Respect is due, considerably, to Moffat for managing to juggle an awkward set of requirements (reintroducing another version of Clara, including and defeating the menace of the week and setting up the beginning of the rest of this series story arc) whilst also dropping in a few continuity references for the fans (the return of U.N.I.T) and, keeping the kids happy. In the case of the latter, Smudger and Clara, and the bike riding up the side of a building will have handled that, no problem. Not bad, overall, for an episode which includes not only a whole plate full of Jammy Dodgers®™ but, also, a fez.
And so the the news: Which you've probably already heard by now. But, if not, here it is. Yer actual David Tennant and Billie Piper her very self will appear in the fiftieth anniversary special of Doctor Who, the BBC has confirmed. Tennant played The Doctor between 2005 and 2010 whilst Piper played his on-screen companion, Rose Tyler. As if you didn't know. Filming on the special, which will also star the great John Hurt, will start next week. Hurt is one of the UK's most respected actors appearing in films such as John Merrick in The Elephant Man, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Scandal. On television he is best known for playing Caligula in I, Claudius and Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant. His distinctive voice has been used in many productions such as Watership Down and the animated The Lord of the Rings. He has received two Academy Award nominations, a Golden Globe Award, and four BAFTA Awards. Tennant's successor, Matt Smith - also, of course, in the special with his new assistant played by Jenna-Louise Coleman - said that fans 'will not be disappointed' by the 3D episode, due to be broadcast on 23 November. Tennant and Piper have long been rumoured to be making a return for the special, which is being written by the BBC's long-running popular family SF drama's executive producer and showrunner Steven Moffat. In January, Piper, appearing on The Graham Norton Show, denied she would be appearing. 'I wasn't asked, no,' she lied! 'I think Matt Smith may have said, in passing or in jest, it would be nice. I think maybe he said that and then it became something quite different, but no.' Smudger has said the show 'manages to pay homage to everything - and look forward. I read it and I clapped at the end. I think it's hilarious, it's epic and it's vast,' he said. Moffat, meanwhile, has said that he took 'special care' to protect the secrets of the story. 'One length I've gone to which is a really good security measure - I make sure I don't get a script, because I will lose it,' he said. 'I forbid people to hand me one. It's on my computer under lock and key.' Future episodes of the show, which is filmed in Cardiff, see the return of The Cybermen and The Ice Warriors, who last appeared during the Jon Pertwee era in 1974. Tennant starred in Doctor Who from 2005 to 2010 while Piper first appeared earlier in 2005 opposite yer actual Christopher Eccleston, who played the ninth Doctor. She left the show in 2006 but returned for a number of episodes in 2008 as well as for Tennant's final episode, broadcast on 1 January 2010. The first episode of Doctor Who, An Unearthly Child, starring William Hartnell as the Time Lord, was broadcast on 23 November 1963. As part of the anniversary events, the BBC will also broadcast An Adventure in Space and Time - a one-off drama looking at how the family SF drama came to be made.

One final point re The Bells of Saint John. I wonder what, exactly, is the clue of the 'missing' year in Clara's life glimpsed in her copy of 101 Places To See (what happened to her when she was twenty three?) And then there's the significance, or lack of it, of the leaf The Doctor finds, sniffs and, indeed, licks. I dare say we'll find out what relevance there is in these things in the weeks to come. Or, maybe we won't.