|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.