5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE BELLS OF SAINT JOHN
Aw, yeah! Now we're talkin'.
There you are, trundling along quite happily, when someone takes away your toy and hands you a new one. And when you see how shiny and sparkly and spiffy the new one is, you realise the old one was a bit faded. With little cracks around the edges.
That's what it was like when the Tenth Doctor regenerated. We thought David Tennant was pretty great at the time. Then we got Matt Smith, and it was woohoo, level up!
Now we have a new companion. Sparkly new toy? Ab-so-lute-ly.
It's not that we didn't like Amy and Rory. In fact, sometimes we loved them. But Clara Oswin Oswald is something else altogether. We thought she was fantastic in her previous two episodes, but a touch of Riveresque smart-aleckiness kept her fractionally away from perfect. Here, they've got the balance just right.
Another companion with a mysterious background could be too much. Could be, but isn't. We're intrigued. (We're also grateful she isn't going to do a Kenny and kick the bucket in every episode, because that would have been a serious downer.)
Clara would be a terrific companion just on her own merits: she's smart, she's funny, and she stands up to the Doctor. But what makes her even more interesting is the Doctor's reaction to her. We've trawled through the entire back catalogue to find anything remotely similar, and we came up blank. This is a situation that's entirely novel, and after almost fifty years, that's no mean feat. Bravo, Mr Moffat.
He likes her. He really, really likes her. Yes, in that way: that couldn't be more obvious. But more than that too. He's a thousand years old: he's been everywhere and he's seen everything. But for him as for us, Clara is something new: it's not just the audience who's been handed the sparkly new toy. And after the post-Amy gloom, he needed it. The prospect of solving Clara has totally given him back his mojo.
That's not all of it, either. At some level he feels responsible for her, and it's brought out his protective side. "Adorable" is rarely the first word which comes to mind with the Doctor, at least for us, but him setting up camp outside her house is more adorable than a basket of fluffy kittens. With bows.
All of that adds up to an attitude towards her that has many levels. He's intrigued, he's charmed, he's watching out for her - but there's also a colder level there that sees her as a puzzle he needs to unravel. We're loving the complexity and can't wait to see where they go with it.
So, for more than one reason, the Doctor's fallen for Clara in a big way. And she can't help but be entranced by him too, right?
Well, no. Not as such. She likes him, sure. He's pretty interesting to her. And we know from the fact that her previous incarnation kissed him that she doesn't find him unalluring. But the total fascination the Doctor has for her? She ain't feelin' it. Yippee! After endless companions mooning sappily after the Doctor, it's about time the ankle boot was on the other foot.
All of this could be hideously embarrassing to watch, done wrong. But it isn't done wrong. By anybody.
If there's one complaint we've made over and over again about the new series, it's that there's too much. Too much being pointed out to the audience. Too much emotion. Too many strings and choirs. Why, we've lamented, can't they leave some things up to the audience to figure out without us being led by the hand?
Well, they've finally got the message. We're seriously, seriously impressed by the writing of the emotional content here. For once, it's sparingly written, with a lightness of touch and with far more show than tell. Instead of having the Doctor declaim about how much he's concerned about Clara's welfare, for example, he gives her some Jammie Dodgers. Perfect.
And the actors take the ball and run with it, underplaying it wonderfully. It's in the looks, it's in the gestures, leaving the audience to join the dots. It doesn't hurt, either, that both Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman are masters of comedic timing, wringing the maximum snarf-snarf potential out of every nuance of the script. As a result, the impact is a hundred times greater than if they'd carefully spelled it all out. Exactly what we've always been looking for. Standing ovation.
Wow, we've got this far and we haven't mentioned the plot of the episode at all. That's because as far as we're concerned the Clara/Doctor stuff is by far the most interesting thing here. But that's not to say there's no merit in the rest of it either.
The idea of souls/minds (they never seem exactly sure which it is) being uploaded isn't exactly the most dandy-fresh concept in SF. Our favourite take, we're sure you're dying to find out, is the spectacularly excellent anime Ghost In The Shell: that manages philosophical depths that are beyond the brief of Saturday teatime. So The Bells Of Saint John isn't the most novel and it isn't the richest treatment of the material, but it's workmanlike enough.
It's computers. Anything that deals with computers runs into the same problem: it's pretty yawnful. How do you stop all that keyboard-bashing from lulling the audience off to sleep? Russell T Davies solved the problem, sort of, with extreme tech stupidity. Steven Moffat does it in Sherlock by accompanying the furious typing with dialogue sprayed out from a machine gun. Here, he also goes the furious typing route - duelling furious typing, even! - and throws in whizzy graphics and a few sonic screwdriver shortcuts. Does this work? Yeah, well enough. Until coding evolves to require fireworks and explosions, it's as good as you can probably get.
What's more, they wisely leaven the keyboardy stuff with plenty of rollicking action. The plane scene and the motorbike inject tons of fun fast-moving derring-do (and for once we don't mind the generous use of the sonic screwdriver to keep things moving without getting bogged down in detail).
As for the villainous side of things, Celia Imrie does a lovely line in bone-chilling judgments and mystic pronouncements. There isn't really all that much time to fully develop it, but that appears to be deliberate. Richard E Grant's back again as the Great Intelligence and clearly that's not going to be its last appearance, so they can expand on that bit later. (Shame that "Great Intelligence" always makes us think of a brain in a jar, but never mind, we're sure that's just us.) UNIT is a nice touch, as is the pathos of Miss Kizlet's reversion to childhood.
London looks wonderful here, thanks to Colm McCarthy's direction - we love the gorgeous shot on the cafe terrace when the camera shifts angle to reveal the dome of St Paul's right next to them. Then another angle change and we see the Shard looming. Pretty. We also enjoyed the odd Londony joke thrown in ("Are we sure this time? Earl's Court was an embarrassment.").
So what don't we like?
F/X: CRICKETS CHIRPING
Yeah. We're struggling here.
All right then. The plot with the human farming does seems a little confused. Minds, souls, the Great Intelligence does no harm, the Great Intelligence is operating an abattoir (and to be honest, we never did figure out what he was doing with all those yummy minds). Also, no one loves cattle more than Burger King - o rly? What on earth are they trying to say?
And the actual resolution seems a bit rushed and unspectacular. Upload. Download. Upload. Download. A little lacking in oomph, wouldn't you say?
It's a nice twist when the wrong Doctor turns up at The Shard, but it fools the audience by cheating. It's supposed to be Creepy Spoonhead Doctor, but it's obvious that the one we see has a full complement of cranium. (The hair is the giveaway - Spoonhead Doctor has no hair at the base of his neck in the middle, but the Doctor in the reverse shots in the office does.)
Other than the niggling little stuff we've put in the Outtakes, that's it, really. Deft and hilarious writing, pretty spectacle, fantastic performances all round. Great little touches, like the phone ringing and the half Jammie Dodger. Oh, and that lovely, lovely restraint and underplaying. It's a good day to be a Doctor Who fan.
MORAL: Immortality isn't all it's hacked up to be.
HERE'S TO YOU, RON GRAINER
We forgot to say in our review of The Snowmen, but we're nuts about the new theme and credits. The references to the classic series bring a nostalgic tear to our eye.
BREAKING THE HABIT PART I
"He's definitely not a monk." Ain't that the truth.
HOME ON THE RANGE
"I'm going to need a horse." Not the most hysterically funny line on paper: not funny at all, in fact. But Matt Smith's delivery made us laugh like drains. We weren't laughing, though, at his chilling delivery of "I'm going to motivate you". Does this guy have range or what?
THAT IS NOT SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN
If the TARDIS is a horse ride away, how did the monks hear the phone ringing?
BREAKING THE HABIT PART II
We didn't mind the tweed jacket, but we like the frock-coaty new one a lot more. More Doctorly, doncha know.
YOU AGAIN AGAIN
Clara's password ends "123", and it's the third time the Doctor's seen her. Aha! (Assuming you haven't seen the prequel, which kinda blows that theory out of the water.)
Someone unused to dealing with computer user problems might think that Clara trying a different network instead of simply retyping the password correctly is a bit strange. We are not that someone. Once you've heard someone say "I didn't spill orange juice on the keyboard!" as an orange tide engulfs the spacebar, you'll believe users are capable of anything.
STOP OR I'LL SHOOT
"Doctor who?" "Could you just ask me that again?" Oh, please don't. No, really.
LIKE I SAID BEFORE
The Spoonheads remind us of the talking spoons in the Library. Is that deliberate? There are certainly other episode refs in here, like the Blink-alike opening and the book by Amelia Williams.
CATCH OF THE DAY
There are some wonderful lines in here, but for us the prize has to go to: "It's like immortality, only fatal."
What sort of dead are the uploaded people anyway? Not immediately dead, obviously, because Miss Kizlet says it takes 24 hours. Why? What happens then?
TAKING A LEAF OUT OF HER BOOK
In the list of crossed-out ages in the front of Clara's book, 16 and 23 are missing, 12 is in red, and 11 is crossed out in red. And what's the deal with the leaf being the first page? Why does the Doctor taste it and look concerned? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN??? Also, who's the woman in the shop? River? Rose? Sally Sparrow? WHAT DOES IT ALL etc etc.
"Human souls trapped in the World Wide Web, stuck forever, crying out for help." "Isn't that basically Twitter?" A deservedly cynical comment from Steven Moffat, who famously dumped his Twitter account after receiving abuse and death threats. Death threats! It's a TV series, people! In case you've ever wondered why we don't open our reviews up for comments or have a Twitter presence, it's because we decline to deal with abuse as well. It's annoying for the many people who just want to have a civil discussion, but it's why we can't have nice things.
SUITED AND REBOOTED
If that guy came to fix the toilets, why is he wearing a suit?
ARE WE THERE YET?
What's with Clara asking the Doctor to come back the next day? Which part of "time machine" is she failing to grasp?