One of the great advantages of Doctor Who is that the show has change built into its DNA, allowing it to reinvent itself as it goes. That's a quality very much on display in this first episode of the second half of the season, which finds Matt Smith's eleventh Doctor starting afresh with a fetching new purple frock coat and – most important of all – a new companion.
That would be Clara Oswald, whom we've already met twice before. She was a computer genius trapped in the shell of a Dalek last season, and a doomed Victorian governess in the Christmas special. What is the secret of the twice-dead girl? That's the mystery that has driven the Doctor to seek the solitude of a 13th century abbey, but he's plucked from his musings by the news that the bells of St. John are ringing. In a typical Steven Moffat twist, that turns out to be the telephone in the TARDIS, and the caller is none other than Clara, now a normal 21st century girl who just wants customer support for her internet connection.
This is more than a broken router, however. A mysterious corporation is using an alien wifi signal to upload living human minds to a data cloud, all on the orders of some shadowy client. Assisting them in this sinister endeavor are “Spoonheads” - free-roaming robot servers that cloak themselves in forms lifted from the subconscious of their victims. Behind it all is a shadowy client, but The Doctor is having none of it, of course, and sets about tracking down the wrongdoers with Clara in tow.
The result is a breathlessly paced return for the Timelord, but one that manages to keep a firm grip on its various plot threads as it rattles along. One of the show's weaknesses has always been a tendency to fudge the details in the final minutes, but this episode keeps the story simple and papers over its comic book premise with some elegantly deployed technobabble. “It's all very sciencey!” declares the Doctor, tipping us the wink that lets us go along with whatever contrivances are necessary for human biology and communications technology to be smooshed together.
Matt Smith remains the show's boldest asset, and he clearly relishes the chance to play the Doctor as a wide-eyed eccentric again, unafraid to let his gangly limbs flail as he races around, or to portray the Doctor as a leaf-licking oddball forever out of sync with normal life. “I can't tell the future, I just work there,” he deadpans in one of the episode's best lines. Following the heavier emotional narratives that rounded out the last season, this lighter, more playful tone is just what was needed.
Smith's ability to bounce from giddy schoolboy to cranky old man to cool man of action in the space of a few sentences is well matched by Moffat's script. That the Doctor averting a crashing airliner is a mid-episode gag rather than the climactic payoff says a lot for how confident Moffat is with his writing. The episode's major weakness is that we've seen this story before, more or less. "The Idiot's Lantern," from the second season of David Tennant's run, also had an icy matriarch enslaving people via technology, while the concept appeared again in "Partners In Crime," the first episode of the fourth season. That time, humans were being harvested as hosts for alien babies made of fat, under the guidance of yet another evil matron working for shady corporate interests. It's clearly a formula that works, but formula it remains.
Jenna Louise-Coleman continues to charm in her third incarnation as Clara. It's becoming more than a little predictable that the Doctor will team up with a spunky modern day British girl, but if we must have the cliché it might as well be the cliché done well. Following Karen Gillan's fan favorite turn as Amy in the blue box is no small feat, and Coleman just gets on with it, teasing the Doctor and showing that she'll be no more of a damsel in distress than her predecessor.
The lingering whiff of familiarity aside, this was a breezy and satisfying start to a new chapter in the life of Gallifrey's errant son, and one that offers tantalising hints as to where the Doctor might lead us over the next eight weeks.
We're reminded that UNIT is an active presence in the rebooted Doctor's world, which is always nice, and here's hoping we see Jemma Redgrave return as Kate Stewart following her introduction in last season's "The Power of Three." Indeed, the nods to classic Who are coming thick and fast now. The new TARDIS console room is looking more and more like the one Tom Baker flounced around in, while the theme tune and opening credits have also taken on a distinctly old school feel. With the show's 50th anniversary this year, it all feels very appropriate. If James Bond can embrace his tropes afresh in Skyfall, there's no reason the Doctor can't reassert his own beloved past.
There were even a few sly nods to the show's more recent history, with a brief glimpse of an old novel written by Amelia Williams. Clara lets us know that the eleventh chapter will make you “cry your eyes out,” a sweet way of acknowledging the emotional toll of the last season finale, while letting us know that her life with Rory in New York worked out pretty well.
But that's the past, and regardless of when he ends up, the Doctor is always about racing forwards to grab the future with both hands. He's always at his best when he's just hooked up with a new travelling companion, all puppy dog eagerness to show off the universe and its many terrible wonders. Refreshed, reinvigorated and ready to explore time and space again, it's great to have him back.