Monday, April 8, 2013

The Idiot Box: Doctor Who "The Bells Of St. John" And "The Rings Of Akhaten" Reviews

Yeah, so, I didn't decide to do regular reviews of the current episodes of Doctor Who until just before the second one premiered, so I'll be covering both here to catch up. You'll see the same thing later in the week when I start doing season three of Game of Thrones.

Anyway, coming off the heels of an incredibly fun Christmas special that punctuated a somewhat lackluster first half of this season, The Doctor is back, and I want to say in full force, but while the first new episode in this batch was strong, the second leads me to believe that we might be settling back into the same pattern we got in the first five stories. This new storyline started strong with the introduction of Oswin in Asylum of the Daleks, and I was willing to forgive the meandering four episode slog through Amy and Rory's send off after seeing the possibilities of the new companion and her mysterious knack for reincarnation, but now that we've settled in with Clara, I think the magic has already worn off a bit.

The Bells Of Saint John starts out as many Moffet stories seem to do nowadays, off in a location far from where the actual action is due to take place, giving us a pointless but usually fun excursion into the solitary life of The Doctor, now steeped in his obsession with solving the mystery of the twice dead girl. In a monastery long before the invention of the telephone or the satellite network that manages their signals, The Doctor gets a phone call re-routed from the future that just happens to be from the very girl he's been looking for, sending him barreling into what I assume is the present day. Here he is faced with another mystery involving a strange wifi address that is feeding on the souls of the people who dare to log onto it.

Right away I chafe at what has seemed to become a staple of the newest regeneration, where the use of modern technology as a narrative gimmick is nearly bordering on fetishism. From his very first adventure where he bragged about saving the world with a cell phone, to the more recent Power of Three where social media was used against mankind, I long for the days when the 900+ year old alien super genius wasn't referencing Twitter and being weirdly fascinated by tech that must seem like Amish farm equipment to him. Still, its not a terrible concept all told, and sets up a spooky scenario where those affected find themselves trapped wherever they were first lost, able to do nothing but call in vain for help.

The puzzle of Clara provides a new dynamic to the old Doctor/companion relationship that I still find refreshing, even if the witty banter between the two of them is already getting a bit grating. That's another Moffet tick I find unappealing, namely his tendency to create characters that can so easily keep up with or even befuddle The Doctor, who to me should always be the smartest guy in the room. After Amy, River, and now Clara, you can be forgiven for wondering why he's still the main character, at least until the triumphant music sting at the end of every episode lets you know he's about to do something awesome. Then again, my hope was that Clara would die in every episode, just to be replaced by a new version the next week, so what do I know?

The resolution of the menace threatening the world this week (or rather last week, again, sorry) is the kind of thing that I have to wait and see on to know if I like or not. Spoilers if you haven't seen it, but the behind the scenes villain is eventually revealed to be a classic Who monster that was recently reintroduced, presented in such a way that I'm led to believe this will be the new Big Bad for the season. If this is the case, then my estimation of this episode will probably be more favorable in retrospect than if this was just a one off reminder of the character. Also, I want to say The Doctor's ultimate plan to stop the villain's evil scheme feels a bit rushed, but then we have another review to get to here, and I wish that that one had this one's pacing.

The Rings of Akhaten is our first big stand alone adventure with Clara in tow, repeating the Rose pattern of starting with a present day Earth story and then going to one set in the far flung future in an alien environment filled with crazy prosthetic monsters. More filled than usual this time actually, with the main set piece putting one in mind of the Cantina from Star Wars, but beyond that and a few interesting touches here and there, I found this story to be lacking in some of the magic and intrigue that has always attracted me to the show. All the elements for a good Doctor Who episode are in here at various points, but they never seem to come together into anything cohesive or memorable.

There's always that moment in every good Doctor Who episode where one revelation brings everything into focus, and all the disparate pieces that seemed so strange and confusing all fall into place with one clever idea to unite them. It usually comes somewhere near the end as The Doctor explains the crux of his big plan or shockingly comes to an understanding about what's going on, and as predictable as that crystallizing moment has become, it rarely fails to disappoint, and is typically given the weight and gravitas that it deserves. We get a moment like that at the end of this episode, highlighted as many of them are by an impassioned Doctor monologue, but unlike most of them, it didn't feel earned to me.

This entire episode felt like it was rushing through the required beats of a normal Doctor Who episode without taking the time to let the thing breathe and apply the requisite amount of reverence to the material. By that I'm not saying the producers were going through the motions or lacked a passion for what they were doing, just that when you don't stop to give the audience time to understand why things should matter and slowly build to their importance, it just comes off like a bunch of crazy stuff that happens with no rhyme or reason. For example, we ultimately get three creepy monsters in this episode where usually one suffices, the first being a trio of evil mimes whose names I didn't even catch, the second being some kind of vampire, except not a vampire, and the last being a skull faced mass of CGI. Compared to something as deceptively simple as living statues or tall grey men in suits, I can't help but think we might have gone off the rails a bit.

This is easily one of the most visually eclectic episodes in recent memory with all sorts of cool and interesting things to look at, but there's just so much of it and so little story to compensate that it feels like the make up and special effects department wrote the episode. Once we get to the rocket cycle to the pyramid, I just can't take it anymore. And then, as if to acknowledge the lack of pay off up to that point, we get not one but two examples of this weeks gimmick, in this case the vampiric feeding on past stories, which would have been interesting and moving had it been set up as the heart of the episode, and not just in one throwaway line in between the rubber faced creeps. I don't want to spoil it, but if you remember the brief reference to a red leaf that seemed so important in the last episode, its explained here, cementing the fact that I guess it wasn't all that important to begin with.

We're only two episodes back, so I can't take the current one as any indication of a pattern, especially considering that the next episode apparently features the return of one of my favorite old school villains, so I'll probably enjoy it just on a nerdy fan service level even if it sucks as bad as The Rings of Akhaten. These first two new episodes of this block are collectively somewhat representative of the way this whole series has been up to this point, with good milestone episodes, and otherwise lackluster stand alones. Even so, hit and miss Doctor Who is still Doctor Who, and its one of those shows where the worst episodes are still better than most shows on TV, so they are only really bad in comparison to themselves. Here's hoping we get a better source for comparison next week.
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