Please note that this review of Doctor Who Series 7b Episode 1 The Bells of Saint John contains some spoilers. Read at your own risk!
A motorbike ride up the side of the Shard, a plane diving towards a street in London and travel from the year 1230 – The Bells of Saint John is quite a ride!
Over the past few weeks I’ve found myself edging away from the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who. Whether it be repeated tropes or sledgehammer dialogue, Moffat’s tight plotting and imaginative monsters of the RTD years seems to have fallen by the wayside (in my humble opinion) as the show lurches from one executive producer to the next, one excuse for reduced episode counts to another.
Now, I have no problem with Doctor Who being cut down in length if the quality is going to remain the same, but reasoning by the man at the top that it’s all to do scheduling/making new episodes available all year round and nothing to do with his ability to manage his own job while running a second show leave me increasingly cold. Some honesty would be nice, you know?
However, despite my inner turmoil, I’ve simultaneously been increasingly excited by each new photo reveal and trailer (my thoughts on the new Ice Warrior design can wait for now). So it was that I approached The Bells of Saint John with hot anticipation.
For the first time in three years we have a new companion, and Jenna-Louise Coleman’s wonderful Clara Oswald certain seems to have pulled the curtain aside on a new aspect of the Doctor. More intriguing, however (beyond the beguiling charms of Ms Coleman) is the way in which the character’s previous appearances are cleverly incorporated into the episode, the character taking shape through references to her past and future incarnations. But does she die again?
Well, there are no explicit spoilers here, but I’m sure you’ll be impressed by the Doctor’s resolve. Matt Smith is superb as Eleven, as ever, and thanks to the presence of a new companion we get to see an interesting new dimension to him. No longer the father/friend for Amy (whose presence extends into this episode) and Rory, the Doctor is pitted into a curious new situation. We meet the Time Lord in exile as a monk, apparently perplexed by his previous meetings with Clara Oswald and his inability to track down another version of her when all of a sudden, The Bells of Saint John start to ring (it shouldn’t take too long for you to work out the significance of the episode’s name – not, as I thought, an audio solution to the Wi-Fi invasion vector) and his scenes with Clara see him morphing slightly, the asexual incarnation baffled by his new charge’s flirtations.
(It’s worth mentioning that Jenna seems far more comfortable and convincing with the majority of her dialogue than Karen Gillan and Alex Kingston – her delivery is natural and measured, even the cheeky moments.)
Clara’s third incarnation is funny, likable and seems to be desperate to travel and have adventures if her journal are anything to go by. Oh and she calls the TARDIS a “snogbox” which is one of the few funny moments of The Bells of Saint John, a story that pushes along at a fair old pace, even for nuWho. Indeed, the urban thriller tag is accurate, but rather than the Bond/Bourne comparisons, Bells is closer to Moffat and Gatiss’ Sherlock both visually (London, lots of nice angles and of course the computer code displayed on screen) and tonally (specifically the Doctor/Ms Kizlet dialogue).
And there’s nothing wrong with that!
The episode progresses as a fun and engaging development of friendship between the Doctor and Clara, with disaster averted a couple of times and the Time Lord effortlessly using the Wi-Fi weapon of Ms Kizlet against her. The Spoonheads are another of Steven Moffat’s tropes revisited, this time the robot with a programmable outer shell (see The Wedding of River Song) that uploads consciousness (Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead) and leaves the victim with no sensory connection (as before, as well as The Time of Angels). Still, when you’ve had that many ideas, it seems sensible to reuse them like a build-your-own sonic screwdriver, doesn’t it?
All in all, The Bells of Saint John is an enjoyable opening episode to Doctor Who Series 7b, and perhaps a little more consistent and impressive than Asylum of the Daleks. It has all of the promise of The Impossible Astronaut and The Eleventh Hour and might be the best season opener yet, something I’ve found myself saying a few times during the Steven Moffat era.
But this is an era that is in danger of being remembered for the wrong reasons. It is important for Doctor Who to do its talking on screen, not in gossip columns and rumour mills. So let’s hope that Series 7b continues in similarly fine style with The Rings of Akhaten next time…
Things to take away from The Bells of Saint John
Has River Song been moonlighting in a computer shop? How else does Clara get the Doctor’s phone number?
A quick disappearing act and UNIT’s clean up team are all over the Shard. Nice work, Doctor, but I’d have preferred an explosion. Just saying…
The Great Intelligence appears to be a new recurring villain for the Doctor, which is good because it was never fully explained or defeated on screen in the classic series. What I want to know, however, is will the Doctor remember it next time he encounters it…? (Great to see Richard E. Grant again, though. Love how his pre-Christmas comment of “this character has never been in Doctor Who before…” was both completely accurate and while promising so much more…)
While we’re here, let’s spend a few moments too to appreciate what Moffat has done to The Great Intelligence. Not only is it as all-powerful as it ever was, it now devours souls and is also content to take children into its service – two in consecutive episodes. Forget the Ice Warriors, Daleks and Cybermen; forget the Master. This could be the classic villain revival to top them all…
One last thing – don’t set your Wi-Fi password to rycban123!