There are two things that are essential to my love of Doctor Who. The first is its format. This is a series with unlimited possibilities. Because the Doctor can go anywhere in time and space so can the writers, any kind of story can be told from week-to-week, or sometimes scene-to-scene. The other essential element is reinvention. Doctor Who has lasted (on and off at least) for 50 years because it knows how to renew. Again, the Doctor regenerates, so does the show.
Episodes are at their most exciting when they find a way to bring these two elements together. The premiere episode of season 7.5, The Bells of Saint John, is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about.
We go from spooky messages in the Wi-Fi in present day London, to cloaked and shadowy monks in 1207 Cumbria, and the Doctor (the Mad Monk) getting an impossible phone call in the TARDIS. Switching so drastically from a technological time period to such a relatively primitive one is a nice and simple way to remind us of the scope to this series.
Also in the episode we’re given our first (third technically) introduction of new companion Clara Oswald. Companions are crucial to the success of the series. As Steven Moffat stated in a recent interview, “the companion is who the story happens to.” So it is a big deal when a new passenger takes a ride in the TARDIS. I’m still not totally sold on the character, and could care less about the mystery surrounding her, but she served the story well and failed to annoy me as she has done previously.
The changes in the Doctor are subtle. He seems a little more content with his situation than he was in The Snowmen. Probably that’s because he’s so enamored with the girl who is twice dead. He’s moving on and it’s good to see him every bit as fun and charming as always, but with some new clothes and something different about his approach. The Doctor is, of course, a brilliant man (well, Time Lord) and a lot of the time that brilliance is constantly bubbling all over the place. Here it comes off more focused – calculated. There’s a lot going on and he’s handling it as it comes instead of trying to take it in all at once.
That is perhaps my favorite aspect to this evolution in the show. There is an ease to the Doctor’s confidence. A swagger almost. Sure, he’s zany and excitable. He is also more subdued and observant. This comes off in his less marionette-ish limb movement and the very, very cool long purple coat and bow tie. He takes time to breathe, which gives us time to breathe and stay invested in the story.
The new interior of the TARDIS also gets shown off more a bit here, and it is still mesmerizing. In a way, it serves as another reminder of this evolved demeanor the Doctor has taken on. Gone are all the whimsical bells and whistles cluttering up the grandeur that is the TARDIS. This is an elegant and efficient machine, the most powerful ship in the universe, it deserves our awe. The new interior gets it.
What happens when you take these familiar elements and tweak them just enough to make them feel new is a more exciting and satisfying show. Everything here feels like everything that has come before but fresher. Even the villains are just different enough to keep me wondering about them and what they’re up to.
I thought the idea of clicking onto the wrong Wi-Fi and getting your mind uploaded to the internet was creepy. Cyberspace is still such a wild and formless frontier that the possibilities of what the wrong person could do with it are staggering. The ability to hack into anyone’s mind to make them think and do whatever you want using a tablet is bizarrely creepy.
A lot of the episode reminded me of a Pod people movie. Anyone could have been uploaded. Anyone could be a servant of the mastermind behind this scheme. This is a tried and true sci-fi trope that never fails to get me a little paranoid.
Steven Moffat’s voice isn’t nearly as intrusive here as it has been recently. The story is complex without being confusing. Scenes, characters, and themes aren’t constantly battering you over the head with how clever they are. At no point does anyone in the script step outside of the main plot to point out how cool everything is.
We’re given a taste of the two core elements of what makes this show so great – instead of having it all jammed into our gullets. The episode just is what it is and what it is is entertaining, fun, a little creepy and totally satisfying.
It’s Doctor Who.