Review: ‘Doctor Who’ returns for more running with a new companion

Matt Smith is "Doctor Who" in the new season of the BBC show.
(Adrian Rogers / BBC)

The first episode of the second half of the seventh series of the reborn “Doctor Who” — which I can’t help thinking of as the first episode of the eighth series of the reborn “Doctor Who” following a very short seventh season, a Christmas episode and a 2 1/2-minute online prequel — lands in our corner of space-time Saturday, via BBC America.

“The Bells of Saint John” finds 11th Doctor Matt Smith living among monks in the 13th century as he meditates on the mystery of Clara Oswin Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman), “the woman twice dead,” who, every Whovian already knows, will live again as the Doctor’s new companion. Her recurring last words to him: “Run, you clever boy.”


Somebody is always telling someone to run in this show, and then there is running.

QUIZ: Test your smarts as the Doctor turns 50

Meanwhile in present-day London, feckless Internet users are being WiFi-ed out of their bodies and into ... well, you’ll just have to watch and find out. I detect echoes of “The Long Game,” “Partners in Crime” and “Rise of the Cybermen,” just to name three, for many are the tropes of “Doctor Who,” and there are only so many ways to bring a world to and back from the brink of apocalypse in 45 minutes.

Clara’s unofficial official debut is her third episode, after “Asylum of the Daleks” (the first episode of the first half of the seventh season), in which she appeared as a future manifestation of herself, and “The Snowmen” (the most recent episode), in which she appeared in the past. There may be an “explanation” for this waiting in the wings, though I don’t need or want one; the idea is poetically fateful and doesn’t require even the ersatz science on which this series habitually relies.


I am perhaps not the most exacting critic of “Doctor Who.” I watch it with a fan’s desire to love everything and a willingness to blink when something I don’t rears its head, or heads. I don’t ask too many questions, even when they occur to me.

I might, for instance, wonder why the Doctor, when last seen, was sulkily holed up on top of a cloud in Victorian London, spurning all human requests for help. He had forever lost companions Amy and Rory Williams (collectively, the Ponds) at the end of the previous episode, it is true, but that is nothing new for him, being a thousand years old.


The answer, of course, is it gives the character somewhere to come back from, makes things feel more crucial — just as taking the Ponds to the edge of divorce (suddenly, if you didn’t watch the Web mini-sodes that “explained” this, and pretty suddenly even if you did) made their love all the more palpable in the end. It also added poignancy to the Doctor’s awakening interest in Clara, to whom he offered a key to his time machine before she was pulled from a cloud by a governess made of alien snowflakes and, for the time being, died.

Given this multiplicity of Claras (and in “The Snowmen,” she is leading a double life, besides), it’s hard to get a bead on what kind of change Coleman will bring to the show, especially since she is roughly in the mode of predecessors Karen Gillan (who was Amy), Billie Piper and Freema Agyeman — young, pretty, spunky and self-possessed enough that we can overlook the fact that she is, basically, getting into a car with a strange man. (“It’s not a snog box,” protests the Doctor of his time machine.)


GALLERY: New ‘Doctor Who’ episode posters

Her character arrives as a conundrum, but one with few apparent issues. She is relatively unencumbered, and significantly, the first real solo companion since Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble left the show nearly five years ago. Between Amy and Rory and Dr. River Song (Alex Kingston), who was revealed to be the Ponds’ child and, at some point in her past and his future, the Doctor’s sort-of wife, the 11th Doctor’s adventures had been increasingly a family affair. In some ways Clara, who is very clever herself, and a little bit impudent, seems as much a replacement for River as she is for Amy.


I’m relieved, in any case, to be at the start of something new, after the tension and trauma of the first half of Season 7, in which every episode brought losing the Ponds. (Amy gets a name-check cameo Saturday as the author of an old children’s book, “Summer Falls,” which presently will be available to buy in the real world.)

Other business: It’s the same new old-school TARDIS interior as we saw in “The Snowmen” — a more expensive version of the 20th-century Doctor’s clean-lined ship and not the biomorphic junk-shop he’s been driving through the 21st-century reboot. And the Doctor wears a frock coat, which is also a nod to the series’ early years.


Show runner Steven Moffat continues to exercise his love for jokes that end in “Doctor who?” (The show has grown more madcap — though no less serious — under his watch.) And Matt Smith is funnier than ever.



PHOTOS: Behind the scenes of ‘Downton Abbey’

VIDEO: Winter TV preview

PHOTOS: Violence in TV shows