TARDIS Bells Are Ringing: “The Bells of St. John” Review

the bells of st john posterWell, Doctor Who is finally back! Did the second half of the season start off better than the first? Find out after the jump!

If you read my review of the Christmas special, you’ll remember that I came out of it pleased but underwhelmed: pleased, because there was surprisingly little problematic about it compared to the first half of the season, and underwhelmed, because although there were many great lines and some great character moments the story itself was nothing to write home about.

This episode is much the same. There was plenty of action, lots of sciencey-wiencey cleverness, lots of funny bits, and a bit of setup for the plot of the rest of the season. There wasn’t, however, anything remotely involving character development for Clara, which is a complaint I’ll get to in more depth in a second.

This episode was billed as a sort of Doctor Who meets James Bond sort of plot, and I was really annoyed with that descriptor going in—James Bond is all hyperviolence and sex and male power fantasies, which is like the polar opposite of what I want from a Doctor Who episode. However, this episode managed to do homage to Bond with the motorcycles and the Q-branch-y computers and the Judi Dench-esque Miss Kizlet without losing too much of its Who-ness.

That said, this episode was also advertised with a lot of “We’re going to make you scared of the wi-fi!!!” buzz, and really? There have been much scarier episodes of Doctor Who, and the villain, who was harvesting peoples’ souls through the wi-fi for food, was relying on the sort of people who would be dumb enough to click on an unsecured wireless network whose name was written in a non-human language. I hope, dear readers, that none of you are that sort of people.

My biggest beef is with Clara. First of all, the Doctor managed to find her with little to no problem because of some outside help (my vote’s on River Song, but what with the super-de-duper-exciting news about the 50th Anniversary it could just as well be Rose). What with the setup they’ve given her character in the last two episodes, I thought it would be a lot more trouble for the Doctor to find her, but she basically fell into his lap with no issues.

So far Clara’s character… doesn’t really exist. She has no personality except ‘clever and sassy and flirty’, and her current incarnation has no memory of the Claras/Oswins of past episodes so I’m not sure how having this Clara around is going to help solve that mystery. Also, above and beyond the fact that she is more interesting as a mystery for the Doctor to solve than she is as a person, her big contribution to this episode was hacking a computer system based on information she accidentally retained after being uploaded to the system. Not anything of her own. Rose kicked the anti-plastic into the Nestene Consciousness using her rusty athletic skills. Martha’s medical knowledge helped save the day in “Smith and Jones”, and Donna’s sheer belligerence kept the Doctor from dying in “The Runaway Bride”. (Notice how I’m not mentioning Amy, because Amy is largely passive in “The Eleventh Hour” and the Doctor gets most of his help from Amy’s male friends Rory and Jeff.) Clara doesn’t get to help save the day with something that is inherently hers—she doesn’t really have anything that is inherently hers at this point.

There’s also the issue of stranger-danger and consent that seems to be almost totally ignored in Doctor Who at this point. Sure, the Doctor remembers Clara from the other two incarnations of her that he’s met, but Clara doesn’t know him at all. Regardless of how unthreatening Matt Smith looks, imagine that a stranger showed up at your house, knew who you were, demanded to be let in. Later, you wake up in bed with a hole in your memories, and the same strange man from before is camped outside your house, “guarding” you. You can tell that this show is written by a dude, because let me tell you, as a woman, I would be terrified in this situation. I wouldn’t be going outside to chat this guy up, I’d be calling the goddamn police. We as the audience are expected to be so wrapped up in our own dreams of flying away with the Doctor that we won’t see the shitty character development that is “oh hello stranger let me jump in your box and not suspect anything bad about you at all ever”.

Also, the female villain, Miss Kizlet, was ultimately cast aside by her male superior, who had been controlling her since her childhood. At the end of the episode her memories of him are wiped and she reverts back to a five-year-old, but she is trapped in a sixty-year-old woman’s body. Despite being the bad guy, she was a strong-willed character throughout and it sucks that in the end she had that agency stripped from her by some sneaky evil dude.

Bluh. So anyway. They seem to be setting up for the rest of the season with this Great Intelligence villain (if you recall, the Great Intelligence was also the big bad in the Christmas special). It/he is apparently a throwback to the Second Doctor, and with the old-school Classic Who Cybermen coming back in the Neil Gaiman-penned episode later this season I wonder if all the villains for the rest of the series will be updates on Classic baddies.

Next week’s episode is “The Rings of Akhaten”, which sounds awfully Egyptian. Fingers crossed for no racefail, everyone, and in the meantime, be careful of unsecured wireless networks and strangers in monks’ robes, eh?

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