Reviews Doctor Who: The Bells of Saint John

Published on March 31st, 2013 | by Christian Cawley

The Bells of Saint John Reviewed

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!

Clara sleeping? In the Matrix?

Clara sleeping? In the Matrix?

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?

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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).

Clara on a screen

Clara on a screen

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?

Nice cup of tea?

Nice cup of tea?

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!

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About the Author

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A long-term Doctor Who fan, Christian grew up watching the show and has early memories of the Graham Williams era. His favourite stories are Inferno, The Seeds of Doom and Human Nature (although The Empty Child, Blink and Utopia all come close). When he’s not bossing around the news team, Christian is a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology and domestic computing, and enjoys classic rock, cooking and spending time in the countryside with his wife and young children. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.



15 Responses to The Bells of Saint John Reviewed

  1. avatar Guy Grist says:

    I thought it was great allow I do see your point about reusing old ideas but anyway I really think Steven Moffat has been watching the 1995 fan production “Downtime” because he seems to have incorporated lots of plot threads from it recently.

  2. avatar TimeChaser says:

    I don’t think its necessarily bad to re-use certain ideas. Its obvious that such technology is used across time and space by different people. But perhaps a holographic head that vanished to reveal the Spoonhead would have been better than the old twisty-neck idea.

    The one thing that’s bugging me is, why is there a portrait of Clara in a monastery in 1203? I know they had art back then, but I don’t think they had paint on canvas until later. I’m not an art historian though so I could be wrong.


    • I imagined the Doctor painted it. Happy to be proved wrong!

      • avatar STLShawn says:

        Well,,,,,, Moff did recently say he had preferred no historical.

  3. avatar Carl says:

    Thought Clara’s calling Doctor might have been timey wimey related to ler later / earlier, although one of her books was by Amelia Williams, so maybe there was a coded message in there that we’ll find out later.

    Totally agree about Coleman’s handling of dialogue and such as her character is written very similar to Amy and river

  4. avatar Lauren says:

    I thought the password was rycbar123?


    • it is! I clearly can’t type… :(

  5. avatar Elwood says:

    Timed as it was with news of the return of Billie Piper, I thought the mysterious “shop girl” was probably Rose. Although UNIT was in this one, and Martha also has the Doctor’s number. No idea why she’d be in a shop, though.

  6. avatar David F says:

    I really enjoyed it, but was confused by the premise. Is wi-fi really that significant to people’s lives? I’ve never had to use it. I have a desktop computer, so never felt the need to get wireless internet, and my smartphone works everywhere I go without my ever turning on the wi-fi option. I didn’t understand all that business about signing in to different addresses.

    f course, drama has no obligation to cover only things I know about (and would be rubbish if it did), but the story kept telling me we are all in a “wi-fi soup” and our reliance on it makes us sitting ducks for alien exploitation.

    I suddenly feel very safe. Confused, but safe.


    • I think it depends on where you live. People in remote parts of the UK are reliant on very slow ADSL connections with – if they’re lucky – the ability to tether their mobiles. If they have this option then with modern smartphones tethering is often done wirelessly rather than by cable.

      If you’re in the city, however (and this is as true for York as it is London) their are many wireless networks around that can be connected to. Wi-Fi of course has the advantage of not counting on a smartphone’s data usage agreement, and is very popular among those of us that are self employed and enjoy frequenting coffee shops, libraries, museums or a combination of the three :)

      You’re right though, David – you can’t beat the reliability of a good cabled connection.

      • avatar stlshawn@yahoo.com says:

        i find myself way too dependent on public WIFI for various tasks. Be it remote conn with phone, doing some heavy data transfers that 3G won’t handle, even listening to the Kasterborous PodKast without eating up my miniscule data allotment,,, all require me to locate and connect to WiFi. I live in a lucky little bastion of swampy Southeast Missouri that actually has good WiFi scattered about my town and the larger town that i work in, but not so much the other small towns in this area. Therefore, i often feel i am “hopping” like an Easter bunny from one WiFi island to another

        (I even go through many areas where cell service disappears for miles at a time),,, then i feel really disconnected. It’s like i’m only really connected to the world if i have a good signal.

  7. avatar Dan Hallett says:

    Anyone else notice the Multi-coloured scarf hanging in Clara’s hallway?

    • avatar BOJAY says:

      It was RTD that gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number, and the good folks at Big Finish who snuck the scarf in there, free advertising always being desirable………..

  8. avatar elle24 says:

    And I’m sure I saw Craig the Lodger in one of the captured-wifi screens. No?

    • avatar stlshawn@yahoo.com says:

      Richard E Grant’s Great Intelligence,,, the new era master? Liking it.

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