My Mind Will Be Like That Of A Child (The Bells of Saint John)

(31 comments)

The totally gibberish computer code that is occasionally superimposed
over things is by far my favorite part of this episode.
It’s March 30th, 2013. I’m in a hotel in Clarion Pennsylvania with my wife, at the halfway point of a drive from Chicago to Connecticut. This is the trip back from our honeymoon, which was a tour of top restaurants in Chicago. We’ve had some of the best food of our lives over the last week, which is making the shitty Applebee’s takeout nachos just that little bit more disappointing. It’s not helping Doctor Who much either, which we’re watching on a laptop having pirated it in a Panera’s. The honeymoon was about as impromptu as all of this: we wanted to check out a restaurant called Next in Chicago, which does three menus a year, each very tightly around a theme. Their theme that spring was The Hunt, and it was all game meats and preservation techniques and the coolest thing ever, and we were thinking about a winter wedding, and were basically going as inspiration. So we added a few other fine dining restaurants and made a nice vacation out of it. You may have noticed the hitch in the chronology already, so to speak - we quietly eloped to secure me health insurance, and then ended up deciding to save on the wedding and just declare it all done, the result of which was to, frankly, get a far better wedding dinner than any bulk caterer is going to give you for, ironically, not actually all that much more a head. 

So let’s see, that means I had the Pertwee book coming out, and yeah, I did the last few edits in the hotel. Exchanged e-mails with Mac Rogers and got set up to do the Slate review thing for Hide. No idea what was in the charts, because despite four days of 6-8 hour drives in a single week I mostly just listened to Paul McGann audios because those were what was coming up in Eruditorum. Last War in Albion wasn’t even started. It feels like ages ago. 

Strangely, so does this episode. I thought it was crap on transmission, although as I said, circumstances. I quite liked it on this pass, but I liked it very much as a thing that felt over. As the past of the series. I watched it last night after dinner with my wife, on the big TV in the bedroom, with one of the cats curled up on my chest, and it felt like a nice thing to watch before bed, and now she’s at work and I’m writing it up and I have a bunch of interesting things I want to say about it. I remember it both ways - in Clarion and last night. Like time’s been rewritten, which I suppose is what becoming history is. 

The Capaldi era starts here, in a sense, though we didn’t know it at the time. So does Clara, though we had no idea what that meant and wouldn’t really all season even though we’re told. That’s the funny thing about this episode, in hindsight. It’s so very March 30th, 2013. It felt dated the moment it aired, a big post-Olympics James Bond pastiche with a daft bit of pseudo-cyberpunk at its premise. Gremlins in the wi-fi indeed. But in hindsight it feels almost beautifully calibrated to its moment. Already it looks to 2013 what killer plastic shop dummies in hindsight look to 1970. Its calling out Twitter is reasonably timely, and actually a good gag, but it’s juxtaposed with its strange list of social networks called out as Clara takes photos of everybody. I’m open to being corrected on the dialogue, but I’m fairly sure the last one on the list is Habbo, as in Habbo Hotel. Certainly Bebo is still there from The Eleventh Hour, which is funny given that Bebo went offline less than six months after this aired. This is the most beautifully idiosyncratic list of social networks ever. This is so gloriously and unabashedly a fifty-year-old man’s idea of what it is the teenagers are up to these days. 

As with most of Doctor Who, that historicization makes the spiky bits show up in sharper relief. The grotesquery of Ms. Kizlet’s fate stands out as a moment of proper brilliance now. Elsewhere, there’s a joke about the riots that feels jarring, we don’t usually think of Doctor Who as being quite this invested in the immediate culture, and certainly not as prone to making light of touchy subjects. It’s a terribly bleak joke, and bleak in the way that Robert Holmes is usually bleak. The more visible cynicism comes in the fact that the megacorporations that hack into our webcams and watch us really are predatory monsters trying to kill us. That the riots were just cover for alien activity is almost obvious given that assumption. 

To his credit, Jack Graham got this almost immediately when he tackled this story in his absolutely brilliant “50” countdown, at number seventeen - the only Moffat-era story he proves able to tolerate enough to do. And he’s right - what really jumps out about this story is how utterly cynical the plot is. The Shard is a beautiful setting in this regard, quietly nicking the uncanny effect The War Machines had at the time and updating it for 2013. But that “the abattoir is not a contradiction, no one loves cattle more than Burger King” speech is just so brilliant. Especially in the context of what comes after - of the realization that this is the beginning of Moffat really letting that cynic off its leash to do things like His Last Vow and Dark Water

This immediately makes it easier to forgive the story’s missteps, which do exist. This is the caveat that really applies to all of the back part of Season Seven, which is an extended exercise in not fucking up too badly that is, in everyone’s eyes, undermined by fucking up at least once, though opinions differ on precisely where. In hindsight this was probably inevitable. Between fannish frustration at the decreased episode orders for 2012 and 2013 and the pressure of the 50th Anniversary bearing down on the program, the degree to which this season was doomed to be overshadowed by its future seems almost inevitable in hindsight. It’s easy to read too much into the Doctor Who Magzazine rankings, but it’s telling that Day of the Doctor won its 50th anniversary poll while the remainder of the season came in, from best to worst, in 40th, 83rd, 119th, 120th, 132nd, 201st, 203rd, and 233rd. Put another way, in terms of fan opinion this season was not unlike one that went Castrovalva, The Space Museum, The War Machines, The God Complex, The Gunfighters, Marco Polo, The Armageddon Factor, The Brain of Morbius. The thing is, that sounds like a perfectly pleasant Doctor Who marathon. And so, mostly, is this. 

It is probably this (and The Rings of Akhaten) that most benefit from the change in focus. They are, of course, the episodes most concerned with establishing Clara as a character, and it’s telling how much of that actually gets done here. At the time the lack of any actual development on the Impossible Girl arc grated. With all pressure of that arc removed and this episode one that more people are going to come to after Deep Breath than before, it feels like a solid introduction into a character who’s been given phenomenal growth since then. On one level, she starts out as an iteration of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Some of this, it has to be said, is simply down to Jenna Coleman, whose neoteny is significant. The term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” got quickly oversignified, to the point where its coiner has disowned it, but like this episode, it makes sense in a historical moment. Nathan Rabin coined the term in 2007, a year before Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things To Me,” the essay that brought us the concept of mansplaining. Both are terms whose imprecision has bloated them to where they’ve lost much of the power they had, but that power was genuine, and came out of the way in which both essays put words to a peculiarity of how popular culture is experienced by women. 

Regardless of the degree to which the MPDG can be rigorously defined, Clara as initially presented is certainly adjacent to it, if only because of the fact that she’s a terribly cute twenty-something involved in a story in which the Doctor goes from brooding depression to loving life again by solving her mystery, which comes awfully close to Rabin’s original statement that “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Because she led with her mysteries, this was the cultural space she began in.

But knowing that she does grow out of it highlights the ways in which it never really applied to her. Perhaps most obviously, in the ways in which it turns out that she understood the Doctor better than he does her. Her calling the TARDIS the Doctor’s snogbox is slyly apt in a way that gets developed significantly by the regeneration into Peter Capaldi. The fact that she makes the Doctor come back the next day turns out to be a much bigger move than it first appeared, and one that speaks to her unique relationship with the Doctor. The fact that she’s not immediately taken by him turns out to be tremendously deft characterization. And her status as a quasi-governess becomes significant characterization about who she is and what she’s good at professionally.

Much of this, in turn, hinges on a quiet transformation in how Matt Smith is used. The departure of the Ponds and resolution of the core business of the River Song arc was, in hindsight, the end of the period where the Doctor had emotional arcs that carried him through the season. His arc for the tail end of Season Seven is an arc in which nothing happens. For seven episodes, he continues to find out that Clara is a perfectly ordinary woman. It’s not until The Name of the Doctor that we get a story in which he can be accurately described as the protagonist. The Eleventh Doctor becomes a performance here as opposed to a character. 

In many ways the result is some of Smith’s best work. With the story something that happens around him, he’s satisfyingly liberated. It’s easy to see why he decided to leave, but equally, it’s because he’s mastered the character. There’s nothing left to do with him. This is a victory lap, and an enjoyable one to see, but it’s also tangibly the start of a retirement tour for this version of the Doctor. And again, this plays up the sense of the story as something improved with hindsight.

What’s surprising is how much The Bells of Saint John seems to know all of this. This is the story that makes the most out of the decision to bring back Great Intelligence and play it as a sort of joke villain based on Gareth Roberts’s terribly clever suggestion that the villain of The Lodger should be Meglos, and that the Doctor shouldn’t remember who he is either. Because this is a backwards-looking story - a remake of The Web of Fear and The War Machines. It’s telling that UNIT only shows up at the end, as the endpoint of this sort of story, allowing the imagery to function as its equivalents did in the 1960s. 


Indeed, it’s not unfair to suggest that this story is the product of Moffat seeing The Web of Fear and deciding that he was going to do something that would work as well over forty years later as it did. I suspect he succeeded, but that it’ll be a long time before people appreciate the degree to which he did. In some ways, one almost wishes the fate of The Web of Fear on it: one suspects that nobody watching this for a few decades and everyone reducing it to a list of trivia facts about recurring characters would make its surprises and barbs stand out in the sharp relief they deserve. For now, being history will have to do for it.

Comments

Bennett 2 years, 4 months ago

Interesting how you call out the superimposed code as total gibberish, as there do exist esoteric programming languages that are even less human-readable. BrainF**k, for instance, in which ++++++++[>++++[>++>+++>+++>+<<<<-]>+>+>->>+[<]<-]>>.>---.+++++++..+++.>>.<-.<.+++.------.--------.>>+.>++. is a valid program.

I quite like McCarthy's appropriation of Sherlock's floating text, and the choice to replace parts of actual code with randomly changing characters (fourth-dimensional coding, at a stretch) made for one of the better duelling keyboard scenes I know of. Then again, it was still a duelling keyboard scene.

But as trappings of the genre of the week, it's really just part of the fun. All the Hard Computer Science criticisms of this story bewilder me.

As for the strange list of Not-Facebooks, I believe it was less the work of an out-of-touch fifty year old and more the work of corporate policy (other social networks are available).

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mengu 2 years, 4 months ago

It really is a wonderful episode at introducing Clara's characterisation. My personal favourite is the exchange "101 Places to See, but you haven't been to any of them, have you? That's why you keep the book." "I keep the book 'cause I'm still going." The refutation, the insistence on her ability to fulfil her own dreams that separates her from every other companion who's had a desire to see the universe among their primary motive, and the ambiguity latent in whether she would actually have separated herself from the Maitlands eventually.

Then there's the book, by her bedside, with her age written in it every year but two, all the way into her twenties. Her openness about how afraid she was; the specific fear of not knowing where she was, of being lost. Ordering the Doctor to get coffee and let her find them; her pride at finding them, at being a hero. "So this is tomorrow then. Tomorrow's come early."

Some of it jumps out specifically in contradiction to later: she says she 'might' go with the Doctor, then sits on the stairway in rapt anticipation the next day. She tells Angie she isn't trying to be her mother, but in NiS automatically refers to them as "my children". It's the facade in each case that we are shown first.

Right from the beginning, she arrives as complex, intricate, and vitally alive.

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ReNeilssance 2 years, 4 months ago

Wasn't familiar with 'neoteny', but a swift Google reveals it means 'juvenilization', the retention of childlike characteristics into adult life. I'm not sure I agree with that, Jenna Coleman doesn't seem particularly childlike to me, and Clara as a character is more mature and responsible than Amy in a lot of ways. It's possible I'm just applying that in light of her barnstorming performance across S8, I suppose.

The episode I loved when it first went out. I personally had felt the show had got a bit bogged down in S6 by the overarching Ponds/River plot, and although the first half of S7 had been a lot better in that regard, the clean slate of Clara was very welcome. On a superficial level too, I much prefer this version of Eleven's costume, Tardis desktop and opening credits.

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Froborr 2 years, 4 months ago

"Neoteny," which autocorrect thinks is a misspelling of "beignet," usually refers to physical features, not behavior.

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Jarl 2 years, 4 months ago

I agree with the conclusion of this essay, that Bells is destined to improve in fan estimation with age. At the time, and to this day, it seems like the "Showruiner" thing had gotten completely out of hand. Tumblr fangirls and GB and /who/ fanboys attacking the same characters and concepts for diametrically opposed reasons should go down as the prevailing "fandoms can be terrible" narrative of the Moffat era, I think. The show was still coming off the rocky fan reception of 7A in general and of The Angels Take Manhattan in particular, and it set out to do something very Sherlock adjacent, perhaps trying to lay out a different take on what "Moffat Who" could mean than the previous two seasons had. Series. Sorry. Whatever. Caught between the rock of 7a and the hard place of the 50th, 7b can't really breathe, it can't seem to get any slack from the fandom.
And yet, here, right now, this might be one of my favorite episodes. The biting humor, the rewarding and effective plot, and the Moffat-characteristic willingness to play with the implications of the TARDIS are all on top form. The entire airplane sequence, in particular, is perhaps the best introduction to the concept of the TARDIS that the show's ever managed. It's like when they realized that dimensional transcendentalism meant they could do the "TARDIS run-around", where the companion steps in, then steps back out and runs a circuit around it to be sure they're not getting tricked. It's that same leap forward in understanding of how one of the central features of the show can work that makes this episode just... jump out, for me. I may just be carrying a torch for this episode for the rest of eternity, but I'm hoping when the showrunner hate machine moves on to start chewing up whoever else, that this episode rises in fan estimation. It's quick, it's got some great dialogue, some excellent scenes, and for my money it's hard to top it as an actual introduction point to the series.

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Harrison Cooper 2 years, 4 months ago

Neoteny can refer to behavior. Wolf puppies bark, while wolf adults howl. Dogs' retention of barking behavior into adulthood is therefore a neotenous trait.

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Harrison Cooper 2 years, 4 months ago

I remember the airplane moment specifically as a shining moment of an episode I wasn't impressed with at the time. In particular I love how it demonstrates the Doctor as a hero. He could have merely piloted the TARDIS away from the airplane, saving Clara (the only character in the scene we were caring about.) Instead he puts them both in MORE danger by piloting inside the crashing plane in order to save all of the unnamed characters on the plane and in the houses. I really love that.

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Pen Name Pending 2 years, 4 months ago

When BBC America aired "The Rings of Akhaten" the following week, one of the commercial breaks began with an ad for wifi on planes.

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David Anderson 2 years, 4 months ago

The frock coat doesn't work for me. I just can't envisage Matt Smith in a frock coat. It hangs wrong for the way Smith uses his body.

Unlike ReNeilssance I also prefer the original Smith TARDIS interior (although I appreciate it was difficult for practical filming reasons). But I like the new title sequence. I grew up with the Nathan-Turner years, and, while it may not have many aesthetic merits, nothing says Doctor Who to me like a star field turning into the Doctor's face. That said, I think Season Eight titles are brilliant.

We've had the Doctor brooding about a lost companion before now, with Tennant and Rose. It didn't work. It occurs to me that one thing overshadowing Clara with the mystery of 'how come she's already dead twice' achieves is that it means the primary question about Clara is not 'how does she replace Amy'. Which gives the character some room to find her breathe.
But, for all the complaints about Clara's character not being clear in Season 7, I think looking back it's obvious that Moffat knew what he thought her character was.

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Pen Name Pending 2 years, 4 months ago

These first two episodes are some of my favorites for Clara. "Bells" struck me in particular because she functions as a critique of the typical Doctor Who companion. She's suspicious of why he wants to get in her house and the TARDIS. And then in "Akhaten" her past and characterization becomes more fleshed out (among other great things).

The issue with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is that sometimes it is rightfully spotted, but then the critique of it as the story goes on is ignored, or those characters do actually have a life and grow as people.

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jane 2 years, 4 months ago

I was immediately happy with Bells on transmission. An 8/10 happy, at least, and I still feel pretty comfortable with that assessment. But my approach to the show is admittedly a bit idiosyncratic.

First off, I love the Spoonheads. They're mirror-monsters, which is right in my wheelhouse. They're not just made of shiny silvery metal -- they come to represent other characters themselves, and in so doing can represent or reveal what's going on "under the hood" -- what's going on behind the "mask" that's initially presented to us.

So, an obvious bit of imagery -- a Spoon!Doctor has hoovered up Clara at the coffee shop. We see her face superimposed on the back of his head. And it's revealing of two characters at once: the real Doctor, of course, has been thinking about Clara a lot, he's got Clara on his mind and in his mind, down to the subconscious level. Less obviously, Clara's mask has been removed, as she desperately cries out about being "lost."

Oooh, there's that word, "lost." It becomes a huge word in Rings, repeated ten times. A significant issue for Clara -- and a key word for anyone who was obsessed with LOST back in the Naughts.

The Spoonheads even continue the "monstering" of Amy Pond. Amy was obliquely monstered by the Ice Lady in The Snowmen given that the monster emerges from a pond. Here we get the representation of a girl who was initially seen on the cover of a book -- a book written by Amelia Williams, "Summer Falls," where a little girl has to stop Winter from taking over a little resort town and turning it into snowglobe, with the help of a mysterious character called The Curator. Good times. (And yes, Chapter 11 can make you cry your eyes out.)

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Jarl 2 years, 4 months ago

Once I realized I should be looking for it, "I don't know where I am" started coming up everywhere in Moffat's Who. It's the central horror, for him, of what the Angels actually do to you (rather than how they look) and it comes out in dialogue in... hell... was it Silence in the Library? I forget when exactly, but it was a pretty big shock when I suddenly realized it had been staring me in the face all those times I watched it.

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Corpus Christi Music Scene 2 years, 4 months ago

@jane Summer Falls is a wonderful book. It's exactly the kind of book you would imagine Amy writing in the 1950s . I love how the idea of the Doctor being the curator of a museum was used again in "Day of the Doctor"

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Nyq Only 2 years, 4 months ago

Neoteny can refer to behaviour biologically but I think it is clear in context that PS is referring to Coleman's face - big eyes etc :)

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elvwood 2 years, 4 months ago

Curiously, my own initial experience of Rings was somewhat like Phil's here. We were watching on a TV with very dodgy sound (and in fact missed the beginning while we were trying to get the sound working at all), which meant we had to concentrate to make out what people were saying. It didn't leave a good impression, but a second viewing later upped my opinion quite a lot.

Bells was kind of mixed for me. There were great bits like the aeroplane and Celia Imrie at the end, but most of the James Bond stuff left me cold. And it was too fast, a problem with many of the episodes around this time. I think it's due a rewatch soon.

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Matthew Blanchette 2 years, 4 months ago

Sorry to pop in here with what might be a dumb question, but... Phil, I think you said we were getting a Pop Between Realities for Orphan Black -- what happened to that? Are we still coming up on that, at some point, or was it eventually decided against? :-/

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 4 months ago

Jesus. This is the third thread you've posted this to.

That said, I meant to answer it last time. It was decided against. No fault of the show - just that I decided a Pop Between Realities as late in the day as that was planned didn't really jibe with the point of the Pop Between Realities entries, which have always been more forward-looking than backwards-looking.

I can't imagine not doing one for the Capaldi book though.

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Dustin 2 years, 4 months ago

Do the Pop Between Realities posts stick to media that one can claim exerted an actual creative influence on the show (whether by pressuring the producers to respond creatively, or by shifting the sensibilities of viewers around the show,) or just any old thing that was in the cultural air at the time and happens to, however vaguely, share a genre, or a writer, or an actor, or even just a channel? I mean, Game of Thrones and Doctor Who both get thrown into the "nerd" box, but they don't actually resemble each other in any, and I don't think see how you can make a case that either show has measurably influence the other.

If it's any old thing, does that mean we'll someday get a "Thick of It" post?

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Dustin 2 years, 4 months ago

Oh God, you've done that already, I now see. And I'm such an idiot.

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Matthew Blanchette 2 years, 4 months ago

My apologies; didn't mean to triple-post and annoy you. I'm sorry about that. :-(

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ferret 2 years, 4 months ago

I love this episode, pretty much for reasons everyone else has described, but two more points:

I like that the spoonheads selectively repeat their targets words back at them - conversationally it works, it's creepy, and it's exactly what the first Intelligent Snow-man did to the young Walter Simeon.

Secondly, I'm curious as to how different this episode would have been had Victorian!Clara been the series companion. I can still see here getting uploaded and given a Computer Knowledge Upgrade (possibly along with other knowledge that would serve her well in future episodes no doubt, a plot/characterisation shortcut akin to the psychic paper to allow her to function easily in 20th/21st Century settings). A great deal of screentime in this episode is spent in getting the Doctor and Clara together as a team (i.e. everything featuring either of them up to the airplane sequence). Presumably this would have been used instead to introduce Clara to the wonders of the future, and put her in a position to be uploaded somehow.

I'd love to see a draft of that script - I presume it exists to some stage?

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Douglas McDonald 2 years, 4 months ago

"In this scene, Clara is cleverly disguised as Tumblr base code..."

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Anton B 2 years, 4 months ago

If you count Caretaker as synonymous with Curator he's adopted the role in DotD, tWatW, and the eponymous The Caretaker.. At a stretch you could include his years looking after Trenzalore.

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Anton B 2 years, 4 months ago

Not to mention his future incarnation as curator of the Van Gogh exhibition in VatD. (My head canon YMMV).

Oh and adding my love here for Summer Falls too. It pulls off the great trick of being an evocative and readable fantasy story even without the Doctor Who references, which are minimal to non existent but lovely if you catch them.

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Ben 2 years, 4 months ago

Aside from a few flashes, Clara wouldn't really come into her own as a character until the Capaldi era. That said, Jenna Coleman does well with what she has. This episode has some eerie scenes reminiscent of Whedon's Dollhouse (I'm thinking especially the office full of people all talking to the Doctor in one long sentence.)

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encyclops 2 years, 4 months ago

Best opening credits of the new series, bar none. The Capaldi version isn't awful, and it's nice to remember each time it happens that a fan came up with it, but yeah, for me this was the best refresh since 1980/81.

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encyclops 2 years, 4 months ago

I really enjoyed this episode too. But I'm mystified at the idea that it's going to age well, and that it's a good intro to the series. Maybe I just can't get past the fact that the tech really will date very very quickly, or past the fact that so much of the Doctor's behavior here is almost inexplicable without knowing about "Asylum" and "Snowmen." I mean, it's a fine fun episode with some really beautiful moments and lovely dialogue, and for those reasons it'll last, but yeah.

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Steven 2 years, 4 months ago

the change has been so marked. I was never in the dislike camp, but going by the response online she's shifted from one of the least popular companions to one of the most totally beloved.

I think the recent rumours that she's committed to at least another half year is the right move, and gives her a little bit longer to bed in and'll be remembered.

Assuming Capaldi follows the Smith/Tennant tenure pattern it means that when she goes, in half a season's time, we could well be half way through his tenure. Which is genuinely a terrible thought. I hope he's here for as long as possible.

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Daru 2 years, 3 months ago

I gotta say that I loved this episode when it came out (and still do). It was made much more odd by the fact that I was visually out of touch with the London landscape and had no knowledge of The Shard. That building then played a larger part then in the episode for me as I had literally never seen it before! It (along with it's name) felt like a deep intrusion into the landscape, a corporate dagger 87 floors high, dug deep into the earth, reminiscent of the spaceship used as a weapon in State of Decay. I thought that as the building loomed but no-one noticed it that there was another perception filter going on.

So no other re-watch can quite compare to that first time, but still love the story.

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Katherine Sas 2 years, 3 months ago

Clara also repeats the phrase "I don't know where I am" when LOST in the Doctor's time stream in "Name of the Doctor."

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Katherine Sas 2 years, 3 months ago

The immediate reception of this always baffled me - I liked it from the first. I understand what you're saying about the datedness, though, and I think that might be what people were reacting to. I'm just not very sensitive to things like that.

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