Doctor Who’s return in ‘The Bells of St John’ was a funny mishmash of an episode, that welcomed (well, sort of) a new companion with what seemed like a rehash of several episodes from the last few seasons. We had a monster consuming people through new technology (as in ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’), spinning head robots (as in ‘The Beast Below’), and the Doctor using a robot to act as himself (mirroring The Tesseract). More generally, the style of the episode was very reminiscent of series four’s first episode (in which humans are converted into walking fat). The list goes on, and this level of recycling came across as a little odd in my book — though almost certainly unintentional, it made the episode one of the weaker openings since Steven Moffat took over the franchise; even though I didn’t like ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ all that much, it had a bit of originality to it.
The episode saw the Doctor trying to track down his sort-of companion from the Christmas special, Clara, who is also both a futuristic Butlins redcoat-Dalek and a Victorian governess. Sort of. Her importance and mystery was front and centre, but it’s hard to fully engage with such a similar storyline to that of River Song, and it doesn’t feel like Clara’s been around long enough for us to get on board with the Doctor’s obsession. Also, given that he hadn’t really met Clara before, the amount of physical contact he made with her was genuinely slightly uncomfortable – I mean, he stroked her hair a lot. I’ve never been more aware that the Doctor is supposed to be a 1,000-year old alien, and that the women he picks up are generally in their twenties.
Clara certainly seems a lot less insufferable than her Oswin persona last year (I was concerned we might end up with a Jar Jar kind of scenario), but it’s early days. Certainly, I would say that it’s becoming harder and harder for the companions to seem distinct from one another as the series goes on. The recent backlash against Doctor Who’s treatment of women has been slightly blown out of proportion I think (especially the online arguments about Amy changing her surname), but as time and actors move on it is becoming clear that female characters do come across as less developed than their male counterparts in the series. Compared with characters like Rory or Captain Jack who really brought something different to the TARDIS crew, it feels that the primary companion role is in danger of becoming generic. Admittedly it is part of the structure of the show to have a character acting as a surrogate for the audience, but Doctor Who should be capable of meeting higher expectations. Amy Pond, for example, really did seem quite different to her predecessors.
It wasn’t a bad start to this run by any means — it looked great, some of the ideas were pretty cool and a motorbike charge up The Shard will always get my vote. But fundamentally it just didn’t seem particularly original, and the ‘modern technology is trying to kill us’ trope has been done to death (in Who and elsewhere). Still, while Clara may never eclipse Amy, I’m willing to give her the chance over a series that includes a long-overdue journey through the TARDIS and a Cyberman episode written by Neil Gaiman.
Oh, but please stop doing the ‘Doctor Who?’ question. It was never funny or deep, but now it’s starting to grate.