Thoughts on Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

The interior of the TARDIS is often discussed about a great deal, but is rarely shown.  A bit of the TARDIS interior off the control room was shown in “The Edge of Destruction,” the Tom Baker story, “The Invasion of Time,” showed some of the interior and we saw what seemed to be endless corridors in “The Doctor’s Wife,” but “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” is the first story to really show off the wonders inside the TARDIS.

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

In an attempt to bring Clara and the TARDIS closer, the Doctor puts the TARDIS into basic mode, to give Clara a chance to fly her.  Unfortunately, this makes the TARDIS vulnerable to some salvagers, who pull her on board their ship.  The process they use to capture the TARDIS destroys her engines and causes chaos in her interior.  The Doctor becomes separated from Clara and he must use the salvage crew to help him search for Clara, who is lost inside the TARDIS.  Besides dealing with the greedy salvage team and a damaged TARDIS, the Doctor and the others must deal with the mysterious monsters that seem to be lurking around every corner.

This story was definitely an improvement over Steve Thompson’s previous story for Doctor Who, “The Curse of the Black Spot.”  However, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed with it.  It wasn’t bad, but, for lack of a better way to put it, it was missing something for me.  I’m not saying that I disliked it, but this one was probably an average episode.  It wasn’t quite as good as “Cold War” or “Hide,” but it was definitely better than “The Rings of Akaten.”  In some ways, I felt that the problem with the episode was that it was moving along a bit too quickly with too much going on.  So much information is thrown at the viewer in this story that I feel that it requires multiple viewings to try to catch it all.  I’ve already viewed it twice to try to take it all in, and I still don’t feel like I’ve caught everything, or else their just aren’t any explanations given.

It was nice to get a glimpse of some of the wonders inside the TARDIS: the swimming pool, the observatory, the Eye of Harmony, and, perhaps most interestingly, the library (although still not the wardrobe, which has always intrigued me). I have to admit that I was kind of hoping to see a little panda somewhere in one of the rooms (Does anyone else remember the poor, forgotten Hi-Fi?), but there were a few nice nods to the past.  The Doctor’s baby bed, one of the seventh Doctor’s umbrellas, and one of Amy’s toy TARDIS are all spotted.  The Galifrean encyclopedia was an idea I wish I could have seen more of, but the main attraction in the library was a book, The History of the Time War. Clara looks through the book in the library and it was obviously mean to tease the fans, who have many questions about the Time War. She learns something interesting from this book (Is that where she learned the Doctor’s name?), but, of course, we don’t get to know what.

At first I wasn’t sure about the monsters on the TARDIS.  I couldn’t imagine how the Doctor was going to explain the creepy, charred monsters that were roaming around on his TARDIS.  However, when I learned what they were, I found them to be an interesting twist.  The idea that both the past and the future were bleeding through the small crack in time was a clever idea.  The revelation that they were being chased by what remained of their former selves made the monsters more than just something thrown in to make the episode scarier.  It was far more disturbing than simply having some kind of danger sneak aboard the TARDIS, and it was another secret for the Doctor to keep, since he clearly figured everything out much earlier in the episode.  I wasn’t exactly sure why after being burned by the Eye of Harmony they would chase and kill their past selves, but your brain probably isn’t functioning at a particularly high level when you are basically burning to death.

Clara in the TARDIS library

Clara in the TARDIS library

The part of the story that I wasn’t really on board with was the story of the three salvage brothers.  The idea that they had tricked their brother, who was really supposed to be the captain, into thinking he was an android, seemed like an unnecessary addition to the plot (although it does go along with the major theme, which I’ll discuss in a moment).  And, how could he actually believe them?  Didn’t he realize that he felt pain and emotions?  When time was reset at the end, I was a bit confused about why things were going to be different between the brothers and just what that meant for the non-android brother, since he wouldn’t remember being told that he wasn’t an android.  Clearly some of the emotional lessons they learned stayed with them, but what was their situation actually going to be now? The picture that was missing the third brother in the beginning of the story was now intact, but why? Did their past somehow get changed?

The theme of this story seemed to flow from the theme in “Hide” the previous week.  This story seemed to be all about the value (or lack thereof) of secrets.  The Doctor claims that secrets protect us and are necessary, but I’m not sure the episode supports his theory.  Clearly the brothers were better off without the secret that the third member of their team was actually their younger brother and not an android.  The Doctor feels better when he learns that Clara is not aware of her other selves, and, therefore, is not keeping any secrets from him.  In the course of the story Clara learns the Doctor’s name and all about her other selves that died while helping the Doctor.  Before time gets reset, the Doctor and Clara have no secrets from each other and they seem to be better off for it.  Unfortunately, all of the Doctor’s secrets are restored by the end of the episode, and he seems to have no intention of revealing the truth to Clara again.

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Thoughts on Hide

This episode was all about the things that can be hidden from us: feelings, motivations, intentions, truths… And while the title might be a bit on the obvious side, it is more connected with the heart of the story than some of the other titles in recent memory (“The Bells of St. John,” I’m looking at you). This story was actually the first written by Neil Cross, (although it was broadcast after his second script, “The Rings of Akhaten”), and this one is a much stronger script than “Akhaten,” which I thought was a bit of a mess. This one has a very engaging plot that has some intriguing ideas that are woven throughout.

The Doctor discusses the "ghost" with Alec, Clara, and Emma.

The Doctor discusses the “ghost” with Alec, Clara, and Emma.

The year is 1973. The Doctor and Clara arrive as Professor Alec Palmer and Emma Grayling, his assistant, are attempting to contact the ghost that haunts Caliburn House.  Alec was an important man in espionage during the war and Emma is an empathic psychic.  The Doctor immediately takes over the investigation and soon develops a theory when he notices that the “Witch of the Well” (as the ghost is called) is always in the same position in every photograph.  He and Clara hop into the TARDIS and he takes a series of photos from the same spot as Caliburn House, but taken across the lifetime of the earth.  The Doctor is able to use the photos to deduce that the “ghost” is in fact a time traveler trapped in a pocket universe.

Thanks to Emma’s psychic abilities, a crystal from Metebelis III, and some help from the TARDIS, the Doctor is able to rescue the time traveler, Hila Tacorien, from the pocket universe where she has been running from a rather grotesque monster.  The Doctor then reveals that Hila is a descendant of Alec and Emma, which is why Emma was able to have such a strong connection with her.  The Doctor also realizes that the monster from the other universe was just lonely and looking for its lost love, who is in this universe. The story ends with the Doctor going back into the pocket universe one more time, to rescue the lonely monster because “every lonely monster needs a companion.” (See the parallel there between the lonely Doctor and the lonely monster?)

As I said in the introduction, this episode is all about things that are hidden from view.  The main focus are the hidden feelings of Alec and Emma.  They are in love, but neither one is aware of the other’s feelings.  However, this is not the only hidden thin gin this story. Emma points out to the Doctor that Clara hides her fear from him.  I thought this was a nice carryover from last week’s episode, in which Clara was quite clearly terrified, but did not want to admit it, even to Professor Grisenko. There is the hidden universe in which Hila is trapped, as well as the hidden feelings of the two separated monsters, who seem scary, but are actually just lonely. There is the hidden truth of what happened to Hila, since all that is known to history is that she was lost (Why is this a fixed point in time, while the Cold War could have erupted and ended the world in the previous episode?) and the still hidden truth about Clara.

The Doctor is, of course, always hiding his true motivations.  He did not come for the ghost, as he pretends to, but instead came to see if Emma could give him any clues as to the truth about Clara (which is something that is hidden from him).  All she is able to tell him is that she is a clever, but ordinary girl.  However, Emma is a bit more perceptive in reading the Doctor.  She warns Clara not to fall in love with the Doctor because there is “a sliver of ice in his heart.”

The Doctor meets the "monster" face to face.

The Doctor meets the “monster” face to face.

There is also some interesting development of the idea of what is a ghost.  Clara become disturbed by the casualness with which the Doctor is able to visit the end of the world. To him, it is just a moment in time, but to Clara it is the end of everything she knows.  She realizes that at this point in time she is long dead, and confronts the Doctor about what that means to him.  Since he can travel to points way in the future, is she, in fact, anything more than a ghost to him?  The Doctor doesn’t give this idea much thought, but it is an interesting idea to explore.  What does it mean to the Doctor that he will outlive his companions?  This is probably a truth that he would rather not face and keeps hidden from himself.

The story was helped immensely by great performances from Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine as Alec and Emma.  In a very short time, they were able to make you invested in their characters and believe that they really cared for each other. From their first scene you got a sense of the characters and their unspoken feeling for each other.

In continuing with references to the past in this 50th anniversary season, there were a few references to previous stories, like the Doctor’s orange protective suit appeared to be the same one from “The Impossible Planet” and “The Waters of Mars.” However,  the most noticeable reference to the past was the use of the blue crystal from Metebelis III.  This, of course, is a reference back to the era of the Third Doctor.  The blue crystal figures into both “The Green Death,” when we learn that the Doctor has stolen a powerful crystal from the planet, and in “The Planet of the Spiders” in which the Doctor must return the crystal and sacrifice himself to restore order.  How the Doctor has come to have the crystal again, I have no idea, but I’m willing to accept an unseen adventure might have taken him back to the planet (I’m also not terribly concerned by Matt Smith’s mispronunciation of Metebelis). It was another nice nod to the past.

Emma wearing the blue crystal from Metebelis III.

Emma wearing the blue crystal from Metebelis III.

My only real complaint would be that the ending was, once again, a bit rushed.  The story about rescuing Hila actually had nice development and an ending, but the whole monster subplot felt a bit tacked on.  We never really learned who these creatures were.  Were they completely harmless?  How was the Doctor so sure that they wouldn’t harm him? From where did they originate? Where was the Doctor going to take them? I would have liked to have seen just a bit more of them or, better yet, just cut the subplot, and use the time to tell us a bit more about Hila.  I couldn’t help but wonder if she was trying to travel back to see her ancestors or if she was simply drawn there by Emma’s psychic abilities.

Overall, this was a good episode.  Aside from the rushed ending, the story was solid and the characters were engaging.  The whole episode had an eerie atmosphere, worthy of a ghost story.  I even enjoyed the twist that it was not a ghost story after all, but a love story.  The ending brought together two pairs of lovers and even brought some romantic advice from the Doctor, which I thought was the perfect way for him to look at love. His advice: “Hold hands. Keep doing that and don’t let go.”

Thoughts on Cold War

Steven Moffat has described the Ice Warriors as “maybe the definitive rubbish” Doctor Who monster. While I must confess to being a fan of the Ice Warriors, they did always seem a bit too slow and had perhaps the worst peripheral vision ever (just watch “The Seeds of Death” and you’ll see what I mean). However, the new Ice Warrior unveiled in “Cold War” is a perfect update of the classic alien.  In what may be the best episode of the season so far, the updated Ice Warriors returned to the show almost 40 years after their last appearance.

The redesigned Ice Warrior

The redesigned Ice Warrior

The premise is fairly simple.  The year is 1983.  While drilling, a Russian team uncovered something frozen in the ice.  Thinking they had found a mammoth, they bring it on board their submarine to take back to Russia. Once on board, an over eager crew member decides not to wait and melts the ice, unwittingly letting an Ice Warrior loose on the submarine. All of this, of course, is a nice nod to the Ice Warriors’ first appearance back in 1967 (minus the submarine, of course).

In the chaos surrounding the Ice Warrior’s release, the hull is breached and the Doctor and Clara appear.  The submarine pitches and the TARDIS dematerializes, leaving the Doctor and Clara stranded.  The Doctor takes charge of the situation and learns that this particular Ice Warrior is the legendary Grand Marshal Skaldak. Unfortunately, before he can ensure that there will be peace between the Skaldak and the human crew, a crew member attacks the Skaldak, which is a declaration of war to the Ice Warrior.

The Doctor must then not only find a way to stop Skaldak from destroying everyone on the submarine, but, seeing as how he is dealing with an angry Ice Warrior (who happens to be bent on destroying all human life) on a Russian submarine armed with nuclear missiles, he must stop him from igniting the cold war as well.

As I stated before, I thought this was a great episode.  It was Mark Gatiss’ best episode for the series so far.  It was very tightly plotted; the story really drew me in, right from the start.  There was a bit of humor peppered throughout to break the tension, but the episode also had a real atmosphere of menace and was genuinely a bit scary in parts.  And, for the first time in a while, I wasn’t left wondering about loose ends that were unresolved or endings that came out of nowhere.

Furthermore, unlike “The Rings of Akhaten,” I could believe in the characters (and the world) in this story. They were characters with a bit of personality, especially the professor. David Warner did a great job of injecting a bit of humor into the episode with his character’s love of eighties music, but he also played his scenes with Clara well.  He helped Clara show a slightly more vulnerable side than we’ve seen previously.

The Professor (David Warner) being menaced by the Ice Warrior.

The Professor (David Warner) being menaced by the Ice Warrior.

The star of this story, however, was the Ice Warrior himself.  I loved the redesigned Ice Warriors.  They retain their traditional turtle-like armor, but it is now far less cumbersome.  It looks far more practical that it ever did on the classic series and it bears an even stronger resemblance to a reptile’s skin than it did before.  The suit also takes on a far more cybernetic aspect than it did previously. I was also glad to see that the Ice Warrior still had his trademark hiss, even if his voice is no longer just a whisper. Of course, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat promised a new twist on the Ice Warriors and they certainly delivered with the first appearance of an Ice Warrior without his armor.  I loved the slow reveal of the Ice Warrior throughout the episode, beginning with just the hands, followed by a shadowy outline of its head (with the glowing red eyes), until we finally see the Ice Warrior remove its helmet to face the Doctor at the end.

Much as “The Bells of St. John” was a tribute to the Pertwee era, “Cold War” was a tribute to the Troughton era. It was a modern twist of the base under siege format, which was, of course, the dominant storyline in the second Doctor’s time. This episode brought back one of the classic Troughton monsters and had it menacing a small group of people trapped in a confined area.  It even managed to work in the traitor amidst the humans, one who betrays his species by helping the aliens (and winds up dead). It even mentioned that the TARDIS dematerializes because of the Hostile Actions Displacement System (H.A.D.S.), something it hasn’t done since “The Krotons.” Of course, in a nice modern twist, the Skaldak ultimately isn’t completely a villain, as the Doctor and Clara get him to show compassion for mankind.

I do, however, have a few random observations.  First, what was the deal with the Barbie-like doll that the Doctor was carrying? I know the Doctor often has strange things in his pockets, but that was odd, even for him.  Second, I couldn’t help but notice the Doctor talking about how history is always in flux.  He actually states that history “rewritten.” This specific word choice made me think of William Hartnell’s famous line from “The Aztecs,” “You can’t rewrite history! Not one line!”  What the Doctor is saying now directly contradicts that quote (which was not really proven to be true as even William Hartnell’s Doctor seems to have, at the very least, influenced the past), but I couldn’t help but wonder if Gatiss was referencing that line on purpose.

After discovering that they are not in Las Vegas, the Doctor puts on his Elvis-like sunglasses.

After discovering that they are not in Las Vegas, the Doctor puts on his Elvis-like sunglasses.

Basically, I loved this episode.  My only complaint would be that the Doctor is still relying on his sonic screwdriver a bit too much, but that’s true over all of modern Who, so it’s not a failing of this particular episode. I also couldn’t help but notice a few small changes to this Ice Warrior costume. The Grand Marshal in “The Seeds of Death” wore a less bulky armor and was…well…sparkly. Obviously, the decision to get rid of the glitter (or sequins, whatever they used) help eliminate some of the “rubbish” quality that Steven Moffat felt they had previously (although it’s bizarre little touches like that that I love in the classic episodes).  Can you image if Skaldak had removed his helmet to reveal a head that was covered in sparkles? Somehow, I don’t think that would have had quite the same impact.

Thoughts on The Rings of Akhaten

Since deciding that I really needed to write this blog post, I have: gotten up to get a snack, searched a couple of topics on the web, went on twitter, uploaded some pictures to my computer…basically anything but actually start on the post.  Why am I telling you this? Well, I’ve realized that all that reveals my feelings towards the episode; it just left me feeling uninspired.  It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good either.  “The Bells of St. John” may not have been perfect, but when it was over, I knew that I had liked it.  “The Bells of Akhaten” just left me feeling, well, nothing.

My favorite image from the episode: the Doctor confronts an angry "god."

My favorite image from the episode: the Doctor confronts an angry “god.”

The episode had potential.  It was the first time in a while that the Doctor has travelled to a proper alien world, filled with different types of beings (including one that looked kind of like a Hath).  Clara wants to see something amazing, so the Doctor takes her to the rings around the planet Akhaten.  All of the beings in nearby systems believe that life originated on this planet, so it is a very important place.  There is a big festival going on and aliens have gathered from all around for the ceremony in which the Queen of Years sings her song to ensure that the old god stays asleep.

While Clara is exploring the bustling marketplace (and learning that this world uses objects with sentimental value as its currency), she encounters a small girl running away.  Clara wants to help the girl and learns that she is Merry, the Queen of Years.  Merry is running away because she is afraid that she will get the song that she is supposed to sing wrong and “Grandfather” (which we later learn is another name for the old god) will be displeased.  Clara convinces her that everything will be okay, so Merry returns to perform her duty.  Unfortunately, while singing her song, Merry is suddenly taken in some kind of tractor beam to the pyramid which is on another planetoid and the Doctor and Clara rush after her to save her.

Essentially, we learn that the Queen of Years is to be a sacrifice to the old god, who feeds on souls (or stories, since the Doctor asserts that a soul is made up of stories).  This is why the Queen of Years learns all of the stories of her people, so that they can be fed to the god.  The Doctor and Clara, however, stop the sacrifice and the old god, who turns out to be the planet Akhaten, awakens. The Doctor tries to feed him his memories, but that is not enough, so Clara offers up her most treasured possession: the leaf that blew into the face of her father, causing her parents to meet.  Her mother died young, so she asserts that the leaf contains an infinite amount of possibilities, which is too much for the “god” to handle and he ends up destroying himself.

This episode was written by Neil Cross, who is the creator/writer of Luther (which I think is a brilliant show), so I was looking forward to seeing what he would do with a Doctor Who episode. His Luther episodes are usually very tightly plotted, but, unfortunately, this episode felt a bit disjointed to me.  Even though there were some very emotional moments, I was never able to get too emotionally involved.  It also had some interesting commentary on religion in parts, but that’s probably a discussion for another post. The episode had many interesting ideas and scenes, like the variety of species in the marketplace, the unique form of currency, or the Doctor’s speech to the “god,” but they never really gelled into a cohesive whole for me.  I saw how this could happen, however, when I read this interview with Neil Cross about his episode.  He says that he began by learning what materials were available to him in creating this alien world and what others wanted to see in the story.  From there he took these “disparate and unconnected resources and I used them kind of how David Bowie used to write lyrics by mixing them up until the story began to suggest itself.”  This might explain why the story felt so disjointed to me.

The Vigil with the mummy in its glass case.  If the mummy is an alarm clock for the "god," then are the Vigil like a snooze button?

The Vigil with the mummy in its glass case. If the mummy is an alarm clock for the “god,” then are the Vigil like a snooze button?

The ending just didn’t quite work for me.  The Vigil seemed like they could have been an interesting adversary for the Doctor, and has a very interesting (and creepy) look to them, but they were gone before you could really appreciate them.  The same for the god’s “alarm clock,” the mummy. It was another scary-looking creature that could have been used more, although it did get more screen time than the Vigil.  Besides the underused monsters, I found the ending of the  story a bit confusing.  Was the Queen of Years always a human sacrifice every few years or was it just because Grandfather’s alarm clock was stirring this time? Who was she sacrificed to: the “god” or the “alarm clock”? Why did the Doctor seem to have no ill effects from the “god” feeding on his memories? Could the “god” feed on people’s memories without destroying them, or was this just because the Doctor is a TIme Lord? Why was Clara’s leaf so powerful? Didn’t anyone else on the planet ever make an offering of something that was connected to someone who had died young?

In something that I would expect from a Neil Cross story, the strength of the episode was definitely the character development.  There continues to be good chemistry between the Doctor and Clara.  The early scene between the two of them in the TARDIS showed a give and take between the two that was almost akin to an intricate dance.  Clara is also shown to be a very independent, caring person.  She doesn’t seem to need the Doctor very much; she can handle herself pretty well. She is even the one who comes up with the way to stop the “god” from destroying the galaxy.  When the Doctor tells her that she reminds him of someone who died, she is very clear with the Doctor that she doesn’t want to travel with him just to be a stand-in for someone else.  She is definitely a companion who wants to travel with the Doctor on her terms, not his.  She also continues to show a real compassion for children, which goes along with her history of a being nanny/governess.

Matt Smith turns in another excellent performance in this story, even if it is more Clara’s story than his.  I know some people feel that Matt Smith is given too many monologues, but I enjoy them.  He is often at his best when he is displaying the angry, darker side of the Doctor, which he was able to do in his monologue at the end of the story.

There is an interesting moment that might be completely insignificant, but it really stood out for me.  When Clara tries to hide Merry in the TARDIS, the doors are locked, although the Doctor didn’t appear to lock them. There is a rather imposing shot of the TARDIS and Clara comments that she doesn’t think it likes her.  I’ve even read some theories that Clara wasn’t able to understand the dog-like language that some aliens spoke because the TARDIS deliberately wasn’t translating for her.  I tend to lean towards a more practical explanation, that the TARDIS didn’t translate simply because Cross (or someone else behind the scenes) wanted to have the comedic moment that ensues from the Doctor speaking in barks and growls, even though it didn’t really make sense with the TARDIS’ ability to translate.  Still, it will be interesting to see if the TARDIS’ dislike for Clara is ever developed further.

This was also an episode of many references to other works. On a completely out of left field reference, the Doctor quotes a bit of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass,” but most of the references were to other science fiction movies.  There was a very clear Star Wars influence on the story.  It is almost impossible to gather a large variety of alien species together for a scene without thinking of the alien cantina scene in Star Wars. The space motorcycles in the story were also inspired by the speeder bikes in Return of the Jedi.  Additionally, the Doctor’s monologue was also reminiscent of Roy Batty’s speech in Blade Runner (and perhaps the Doctor’s quote from “To Market” was a reference as well).

The Doctor and Clara watch the ceremony with the other aliens.

The Doctor and Clara watch the ceremony with the other aliens.

Overall, this story felt very uneven.  There were aspects I really enjoyed and others that fell flat for me.  However, continuing with the trend of references to the show’s history, this episode contained a few lines meant to excite the fans.  The Doctor’s monologue referenced many of his past adventures, like the new series’ “Utopia” and classic stories like “The Celestial Toymaker,” “The Mind Robber,” and “The Three Doctors.”  Most interesting was his reference to his last time visiting the rings of Akhaten.  The Doctor tells Clara that the last time came to the rings he was with his granddaughter, which is the first direct reference in modern Who to Susan. I’d love to see them pick up that storyline for the fiftieth, to eliminate some of the question marks that surround her character. Could there be another TIme Lord in the universe (if Susan is, in fact a Time Lord)? The Doctor left Susan on earth in the second half of the 22nd century, so she might have been safe from the Time War. I know it’s unlikely that they would pick up this storyline, but anything’s possible, right?

Lost Hartnell Stories: The Smugglers

William Hartnell’s Doctor had many great historical adventures, like “The Aztecs,” “The Romans,” and “The Massacre.” These are engaging stories where the Doctor becomes involved in past events and meets interesting people.  Unfortunately, William Hartnell’s second to last adventure, “The Smugglers,” is not one of them.  It is a historical, but it is not a great story.  In fact, it’s not even a good story.  “The Smugglers” finds the Doctor and his new companions, Polly and Ben, in late seventeenth century Cornwall.

Cherub threatens the Doctor.

Cherub threatens the Doctor.

At the conclusion of “The War Machines,” Polly and Ben enter the TARDIS to return Dodo’s TARDIS key and end up being accidentally taken along with the Doctor.  After initially refusing to believe that the TARDIS can travel thorough space and time, they find themselves in Cornwall caught between the Squire’s smuggling ring and Captain Pike and his pirate crew looking for Avery’s treasure.  The Doctor and his two “boys” (yes, people think Polly is a boy) end up joining forces with Josiah Blake, the King’s revenue officer to save the town from danger.

I found very little to enjoy in this story.  None of the episodes of this story survive, so I had to rely on the reconstructions to follow the story.  However, I often found the motivations and plans of the characters to be a bit confusing.  Keeping track of who was conspiring with who took a lot of effort.  I managed to follow the story, but it wasn’t always easy.  I’m sure this would have been less so if I could have viewed the episodes, but the plot seemed to be a bit of a mess.

My confusion was compounded by the fact that I did not find this story particularly engaging.  There are so many people plotting and scheming, and there is no one to root for.  The Squire is less bad than the pirates, since he doesn’t want to kill anyone, but he plays a villainous role for much of the story, until he helps Josiah kill the evil Captain Pike (who has something resembling a pike for a hand). Josiah is a good guy, but he is barely in the story.  Basically, the story consists of a bunch of indistinguishable bad guys, since no one’s personality is developed at all.

Furthermore, I didn’t really understand why the Doctor needed to interfere.  He insisted on staying to protect the town, which was noble of him, but he seemed to feel that he had an obligation to stay.  Why?  He had no problem letting the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve occur, or helping the Trojans sack Troy, so why was this particular event something he could change? Maybe this was lost along with the visuals, but I wasn’t sure why this was one historical event he could change.  Was it because it was not a famous event?

The story is also not helped by the addition of Ben and Polly.  They have a clever moment, in which Polly comes up with a way to get themselves released from the village gaol (by scaring the boy guarding them into thinking that they are warlocks). Unfortunately, the rest of the time they seem pretty useless.  I’m not sure what they contribute to this story.  Polly spends most of the story screaming and being held captive (I know she’s wearing pants, but who would believe that she was a boy, unless they were both blind and deaf?) and Ben seems to run around and get involved in the action, but yet does very little. They don’t really have very clearly defined personalities yet, except that Ben is very active and wants to protect Polly (he’s also overly concerned about getting back to the Navy barracks, given that he has just traveled in time- Wouldn’t you think he’d be at least a little awed by the experience?) and Polly is simply the damsel in distress.

The Doctor with his new companions, Polly (probably about to scream) and Ben

The Doctor with his new companions, Polly (probably just about to scream) and Ben

Finally, there was one point that really bothered me in this story.  The Doctor says at both the beginning and the end of this story that he has no control over where the TARDIS goes.  While this is true, it seemed very out of character for Hartnell’s Doctor to admit this so readily.  He was always insisting to Barbara and Ian that he could control the TARDIS if he wanted to control it (for instance in “The Reign of Terror”). He was always a very proud man, and I don’t think he would ever be so matter of fact about his lack of control over the TARDIS.

This story was written by Brian Hayles, and I must confess that I find his writing to be very uneven. I enjoyed “The Celestial Toymaker,” but it’s difficult to say how much of the was his and how much belonged to one of the other writers on the story.  I enjoyed his Ice Warrior stories and “The Curse of Peladon,” but “The Monster of Peladon” is probably my least favorite third Doctor story. His stories seem to be either great or rather boring.

Overall, this was my least favorite Hartnell story.  Perhaps if more of the story could be viewed, my opinions would change, but somehow, I doubt it. On a random note, it’s interesting that the only clips from this story to survive are the censored bits, so the only footage that survives is of people being stabbed or shot.  It’s also interesting to note that this story is connected to the modern Who episode, “The Curse of the Black Spot” which features Captain Avery, although I’m not sure how that could be the same Captain Avery whose treasure is being sought here.  That was another episode of which I am not a big fan, so maybe the problem is that I just don’t like pirates.

Thoughts on The Bells of St. John

Doctor Who has never been averse to looking at the dark side of technology. From early stories like “The War Machines” to new series episodes like “The Idiot’s Lantern,” Doctor Who has explored (with varying degrees of success) the dangers of new technology. Just as the creation of the cybermen was influenced by the development of new medical technologies, the “spoonmen” are influenced by our newfound reliance on wi-fi. “The Bells of St. John” explores what would happen if something evil got into our wi-fi and how easy it is to exploit our need to always be connected.

The Doctor taking over a crashing airplane. Jon Pertwee must be so jealous.

The Doctor taking over a crashing airplane. Jon Pertwee must be so jealous.

Apparently, the Doctor took young Clara’s advice from the prequel for this story and went to a quiet room to think. Of course, being the Doctor, his version of having a think in a quiet room is to retreat to a 13th century monastery. At the beginning of the story, the monks inform him that the bells of St. John are ringing, which we soon learn means that someone is calling the police box phone on the TARDIS. When the Doctor answers, he learns that it is Clara on the other end of the line, asking for help with the internet on her laptop (she thinks she’s calling a computer help line). Excited to have found her again, he races to her, only to discover that she is being uploaded to the Cloud by a “spoonhead.” He manages to stop the upload in time, but needs to solve the mystery of the spoonheads before he loses Clara once again.

Essentially, (and do I need to mention that there will be spoilers ahead?) the spoonheads are giant wi-fi mainstations that camouflage themselves by using a human image from the person’s mind. Whenever someone clicks on the mysterious wi-fi connection that they provide, the person can then be seen by a mysterious group of people working in an office trying to keep their “client” happy. The clever people (and apparently they prefer the ones with computer skills) are then uploaded by the “spoonmen” to the Cloud.

The Doctor meets a "spoonhead."

The Doctor meets a “spoonhead.”

The story was the kind of engaging, fast paced story that is traditional of Steven Moffat in a season or mid-season opener. The action and the dialogue happen at a breakneck pace, as the Doctor and Clara plunge from one danger to another. The plot kept me engaged throughout, even if everything isn’t explained and wrapped up neatly at the end. All we really learn at the end is that the Great Intelligence was behind the whole operation. Basically, he has figured out a way to hack and control people, even those who haven’t been uploaded into the Cloud. Instead of sounding like Ian McKellen, however, he has now taken the appearance of Dr. Simeon from “The Snowmen.”

We don’t know what The Great Intelligence’s plan was exactly, but I’m hoping that Steven Moffat will clarify this later on. He seemed to know that he would have to stop uploading people eventually, since he even had a reset button to make all his “employees” forget the time they spent working for him. He seemed to assume that the Doctor would eventually show up and put an end to his plan, so was his plan to draw him out into the open again? What did he get from the uploaded people?

I loved the idea that the need to always be connected was what the Great Intelligence was feeding on to find people to upload to the cloud, but it was also what brought an end to his plan. Now that everybody feels the need to document every aspect of his or her life, it’s very difficult to keep a secret. The fact that most of the employees working for the Great Intelligence had posted where they worked on their Facebook/Linked In/Twitter/etc., was a nice twist to show just how much information we share publicly and how addicted we are to our social networks.

I couldn’t help but notice that this episode had a very Pertwee-eque feel to it. It seemed to me that it was paying homage to the Pertwee era of Doctor Who, with his rather James Bondish love of action , gadgets, and vehicles of all kinds. While the Doctor doesn’t trot out his Venusian Karate, the story was full of action set pieces like crashing airplanes that the Doctor needs to take over and anti-gravity motorcycles. Just think how much Pertwee would have loved to ride a motorcycle up the side of a skyscraper. Plus, Matt Smith’s Doctor shows a bit more of an interest in his fashion choices, which is also quality shared with Pertwee. Matt Smith mentioned in an interview that the Doctor’s new purple outfit is a bit of a tribute to the rather flamboyant fashion choices of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor. Furthermore, this episode also featured a brief appearance by U.N.I.T., another staple of the third Doctor’s era. One thing that is definitely not of the Pertwee era is the Doctor’s computer skills, since the third Doctor was actually rather anti-computer. However, he always did love a helpful gadget, so I would think that he would feel very differently about them if he were in the present era.

Of course there were plenty of other references to past episodes as well. The novel that one of the children Clara watches was reading, Summer Falls, was written by none other than Amelia Williams (although I still don’t think Amy would ever have taken Rory’s name, but that’s a discussion for another post). (And, of course, chapter 11 will is so good and will make you cry. Is anyone else getting tired of the constant 11 references that Moffat seems to love?)The Great Intelligence is, of course, a villain from the Troughton era (appearing in “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web of Fear”), so there is a connection to the second Doctor’s era as well. I wonder if we’ll even see the return of the Great Intelligence’s traditional henchmen, the Yeti.

Miss Kizlet showing off her "hacking" skills.

Miss Kizlet showing off her “hacking” skills.

What really makes this story work, however, are the performances. Celia Imrie turns in a fantastic performance as Miss. Kizlet, the Great Intelligence’s human assistant. She takes what could be a traditional Doctor Who villain and makes her something more. She brings out both the character’s cruelty and humor. For instance, when she decides that it is time to eliminate one of the workers, she kindly suggests that they wait until after he’s had his vacation to kill him. However, she also gets across Miss. Kizlet’s earnest desire to please “the client.” There is always a bit of a pleading undercurrent to her interactions with the “client,” and you can see that she is desperate to please him. When she hits the reset button on everyone and they return to what they were before the Great Intelligence got a hold of them, it is quite sad to see that she goes from being a powerful, in-control woman to a small child (and Celia Imrie plays the transformation quite effectively). As he had with Dr. Simeon, the Great Intelligence had shaped the course of her entire life. On that note, even though he is only only on screen for a few moments, it was good to see Richard E. Grant back. I didn’t feel like he was really used as much as he could have been in “The Snowmen” so I’m happy that it now appears that we haven’t heard the last of him.

There is also great chemistry between Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman. The two already have a great give and take between them, with Clara being the typical Steven Moffat female character: flirty, fast talking, and clever. I differ from some people in my view of their relationship, however; I don’t see their relationship as being romantic at all. I think the Doctor is less smitten with Clara than he is intrigued by the mystery that surrounds her. It’s the perfect way to help him get over the loss of the Ponds. He didn’t simple replace them with someone else, he was drawn to Clara, the impossible girl, who now provides him with a new mystery to solve. This version of Clara also had some nice connections to the two other versions we’ve seen. She’s a nanny/governess like Victorian Clara, but now has the remarkable computer skills of Oswin. Plus, we got to see the origin of the name Oswin.

Overall, I found this episode to be a good one, even if it wasn’t a great episode. Like the best Steven Moffat opening episodes, it leaves the viewer with almost as many questions as it answers. We still don’t know the truth about Clara/Oswin. How can she exist across times? And why does she keep dying? However, this episode also raise some new questions that may or may not be significant. Clara was given the phone number to the TARDIS by the woman in the shop who told her it was the best help line in the universe. Who was the woman in the shop? Was it River, or someone else? Also, when the Doctor looked in Clara’s book, there was a list of ages from 9 to 24 on the first (blank) page of the book. Is it significant that there was no 23 in the list of ages? Is this just a case of obsessing over nothing, or will these details prove significant in the future? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if Moffat delivers on the intriguing premise he’s laid out.