Monday, April 1, 2013

Wireless in the Blood: An Overanalysis of "The Bells of Saint John"

Okay, so much is happening that I can't possibly explain it all in just one blog entry.  Besides, I'm trying to start marketing this blog to a wider audience, and I can't write 10 page dissertations on each episode without scaring everyone off.  The breaking news that's just come out will have to be covered in a separate entry (assuming that it doesn't turn out to be an April Fools joke), and I'm even going to have to expand on the villain a little later.  Don't worry.  I'll get to everything.  Now, on with the show...


On November 18, 1993, Nirvana, the kings of grunge, appeared on MTV to record an episode of the show Unplugged.  What ensued was the most popular recording in the history of the program, and possibly the most iconic moment in the history of MTV.  Refusing fans' requests for them to play their hits, like "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the band intentionally did the opposite, playing mostly older songs and covers.  They promised they would bring on a special guest artist to perform with them.  People speculated that it would be Rod Stewart or David Bowie or something.  Nope.  They brought an obscure underground band they were friends with:  The Meat Puppets.  But it was, in a large part, because they blatantly refused to do what was expected of them that their recording became such an important part of American popular culture.

In "The Bells of Saint John," Moffat showed us very early on that a recurring villain was going to be behind it all. Where we expected the Master, Davros, the Rani, the Meddling Monk, or maybe the Valeyard, Moffat gave us an obscure, Second Doctor villain:  The Great Intelligence.  In other words, Moffat gave us The Meat Puppets.

It's brilliant, but I'm still a little pissed about it.  It fucks with my plans and, I swear to God, Moffat's doing this to me on purpose. I start this new blog. I go to a lot of effort to start promoting this new blog. I figure this blog will be something very easy to write in my free time because I already have an encyclopedic knowledge of Doctor Who, so it won't require research or anything. The first episode I write about, Moffat stumps me and I have to do "research" for my blog post. Fuck you, you wonderful, brilliant man, you.  I'm writing two conference papers!  I don't have time to go back and rewatch both of the Great Intelligence's episodes from the Second Doctor era, not to mention Downtime, the semi-official spin-off movie from the 90's about the Great Intelligence.  Thus, I'm going to write this post based on what little I remember of the Great Intelligence, and then supplement it later with a longer post about the GI.

Moffat has stated publicly, many times, that he doesn't want to dip back into the past too often because the point of [i]Doctor Who[/i] is to move forward.  Therefore, most of his episodes are about villains he created, occasionally throwing in Daleks, Sontarans, and Cybermen as supporting characters, never the central menace.  "Asylum of the Daleks" was unique in that it was the first time Moffat ever wrote an episode in which the primary villain was one that was created in the classic series.

Moffat has also publicly stated that he hates the black and white era of the classic series.  He said that the first episode was fantastic, and everything after that was rubbish.  So it seems really odd that, for his last two episodes in a row, he not only brought back a classic series villain, but a classic series villain from the black and white era.  Plus there's the fact that the two serials that the Great Intelligence appeared in in the black and white era were thrown out in the great BBC purge where they got rid of episodes of old shows that they never thought they'd need in the future, failing to anticipate the lucrative DVD aftermarket that would develop in the 21st century.  Therefore, the only way to watch the first two serials about the Great Intelligence is through fan reconstructions where they use photographs, existing audio, and whatever video does remain of the episodes, to recreate the episodes.

What this all amounts to is that the Great Intelligence is a really strange choice for a recurring villain.

What I think happened is that Moffat created this arc where a sinister, non-physical force would stalk the Doctor throughout time and space.  The BBC then told him that, since it was the 50th anniversary season, he should make the overall arc about a recurring villain instead.  So he just slapped on the name of the first classic series villain he could think of who resembled the villain he was trying to create:  The Great Intelligence.

But enough about GI for now, let's talk about this really fun episode.

About halfway through the episode, I checked to see how much time was left, because I was hoping there was a lot more time left than there actually was.  Partially because I was having so much fun with this episode, but also because I was afraid they wouldn't have time to wrap this up in a satisfying way.  What I loved was that, at the end of the episode, the solution made sense.  It wasn't as perfect of an ending as "Flesh and Stone" or "Blink" or "Day of the Moon," but at least the internal logic of the episode made sense, unlike something like "Asylum of the Daleks" or "The Angels Take Manhattan." And, unlike "The Angels Take Manhattan," it didn't feel like a 2-parter that was uncomfortably shoved into a 1-parter.

Clara's a little badass, isn't she?  The Doctor did spend some time "protecting" her, but she held her own a little, too.  At the point in the cafe when Clara said she'd find where the people were being uploaded to and she told the Doctor to go away while she did her work, I said to my girlfriend "It takes a great companion to tell the Doctor to shoo while she takes care of things."  She said to me "Or the Doctor needed to leave so that she can be captured and, thus, advance the plot."  A few minutes later, she was proven right.  But remember, Kizlet gave Clara the computer skills, but the idea of using the webcams to figure out where the headquarters was was more than just computer knowledge.  That was a clever tactic that the Doctor didn't think of.  That's what you need in a good companion:  someone who can add something, not just someone who's just along for the ride (Peri, Mel, Tegan, etc.)

Weren't the spoonheads such wonderfully terrifying villains?  Now I know what those things were in the broken glass poster that looked like a gas pump with an oval coming out of it.  Moffat said the point of this episode was to make kids scared of wi-fi, because it's about time that they were.  So, for this episode, I tried to view it through a child's eyes, and yeah, it looked absolutely terrifying.  Sure, as adults we're jaded enough that we don't see that when we watch the episode.  But, if I was a small child and I watched that episode, I might have trouble sleeping, knowing that wi-fi networks are all around me, in the air, and there's nothing I can do to hide from them.

Another little snippet of my conversation with my girlfriend as I watched this:
Her:  I find it hard to believe that so many people would click on a wi-fi network they don't recognize.  Don't they know that's dangerous?
Me:  ...I do that all the time.
Her:  Why?
Me:  Sometimes you're in an unfamiliar place, you want to get online, so you steal a wi-fi connection that's nearby.
Her:  That's dangerous!  For this exact reason!

She's right, but it's still something we all do.  Right?

The plane crashing was awesome, but it was only a small glimpse at what a wi-fi monster could really do if unleashed on the public.  There were a lot of other great things they could have shown.

Although, the thing with Kizlet talking through people, that was a brilliantly imaginative idea.  Multiple appreciation threads have popped up on the Gallifrey Base message board for the last guy Kizlet spoke through, who is being referred to as either "Man with Chips," "Man with Sandwich," or "Man with Beard."  A man eating sloppily as he walked down the street who suddenly stops to threaten the Doctor in a very effeminate voice is apparently a very popular idea.

Some people have complained that this episode was too much like "The Idiot's Lantern."  The have a point.  But there's one thing about this episode that makes it much better than "The Idiot's Lantern":  It wasn't written by Mark Fucking Gatiss (#anyonebutgatiss).

The episode raised more questions than it answered, and really didn't address the Clara mystery very much.  What it did do, though, was demonstrate to us that the Doctor and Clara aren't just meeting coincidentally.  Something very specific is drawing them together.  In the prequel video, we saw the Doctor in the 20th century trying to find Clara, accidentally finding a 6 year old version of her instead, not knowing who it was.  In this episode, she managed to turn the police box...into an actual police box!

Moffat said at one point that we had heard the bells of St. John before.  This was a cute misdirection that left us wondering what he meant.  Clearly what he meant was that it's the second time someone turned the TARDIS into a working police box.  The first time was in "The Empty Child," where the boy was able to call the TARDIS's phone, which it isn't even supposed to have.  The TARDIS is supposed to have a phone inside, at the console (entirely Moffat's idea), but it's not supposed to have a working phone outside.  It's not even supposed to have a phone on the outside for display purposes.  It's not a phone box.  The fact that her call could create a phone where there shouldn't be one shows that there's a very significant connection between them.

Not to mention that she reached him by calling a number that "a woman at the shops gave her."  My initial instinct was that it was either Amy or River.  Or maybe Jenny (Vastra's Jenny, not the Doctor's daughter).  Maybe it's a future version of Clara herself.  It could have been an agent of the GI that gave her the number, but considering that this mystery woman told Clara it was the greatest helpline in the universe, I'm guessing it was someone who admires the Doctor.

I got the feeling that the Great Intelligence wanted Kizlet to fail for some reason.  The main reason I thought this was that the Great Intelligence warned Kizlet about the Doctor, but not the TARDIS.  Kizlet and her minions had no idea why the TARDIS disappeared, or how two people fit inside of it.  I asked some people on the GB forum if they had any thoughts on why the GI didn't warn them about the TARDIS.  One person said that, just because it's a "Great Intelligence" doesn't mean it's an "all knowing" intelligence.  However, another person pointed out that, in the Second Doctor episode, "The Web of Fear," the Great Intelligence saw the TARDIS, so it should know what it is.  Then again, the Great Intelligence didn't seem to recognize the Doctor in "The Snowmen."  Maybe its memory is limited?  Maybe this is farther back in its timeline than the one who met the Second Doctor.

Or maybe he set up a plan that was supposed to fail.  It felt like some sort of test case.  A pilot study.  Something to test the waters while on the way to some much bigger plan.  He fed off of the minds of all those people, yes, but he clearly has something bigger in mind.  Now, what is the GI planning?  There's not enough to guess yet.  But I have a feeling that the GI is going to be the one who finally asks the Doctor his name at the Fields of Trenzalore.

Or he'll be the one that asks the Doctor[i]s[/i] their names if the Fields of Trenzalore are going to be part of the 50th Anniversary special, because I think it's going to be.  Moffat said that, in the finale, the Doctor would reveal his biggest secret, which we all know is his name.  And he can only say his name on the Fields of Trenzalore, where no one can speak falsely or fail to answer.

And, of course, River has to be there to hear his name since she knows it in "Silence in the Library."  She told him her real identity.  She showed you hers, Doctor, you have to show her yours.

And River loves to play Doctor.

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