I always hold out high hopes and anticipation for a new series of Doctor Who, and while this week’s return wasn’t strictly the start of a new series (but rather the continuation of Series Seven), it feels like one. A new companion (well, reintroduction of the new companion) and a new look for the Doctor signal a coming change. A new companion is in some ways like a new era for the show, similar to a new Doctor. On top of that, we are in the fiftieth year of Doctor Who and the show is beginning to gear up towards its fiftieth anniversary. It’s natural to anticipate what is to come.
But high hopes come with worries, too. And I certainly haven’t been short on worries considering my overall disappointment with a lot of recent Doctor Who. So I was actually quite pleasantly surprised by “The Bells of Saint John”. It’s fun and entertaining, and quite a bit different in style to what we’ve become used to over the past couple of years. There’s a definite feel of the Russell T Davies years to it. In particular, the episode is very reminiscent of “Partners in Crime”, the opening story of series four, while also lifting quite a few elements from other stories, notably “The Idiot’s Lantern”. But these come across more as homages rather than plagiarism, making for a highly enjoyable episode. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say this is Steven Moffat’s best script since “The Eleventh Hour”, the first story of the eleventh Doctor. It’s certainly not perfect—I have several quibbles here and there—but overall, it’s a good start to a new period of Doctor Who.
“The Bells of Saint John” marks the third introduction for Clara Oswin Oswald (just Clara Oswald this time around), making more introductions for her than any other companion in the show’s history. In some ways, this might seem a little tiring, but Moffat handles it fairly effectively. For this version of Clara, we actually get to see a little of the world she comes from, and meet the people she knows and lives with. It’s nice to see that this Clara does have a life of her own, and even some goals and aspirations. Her reaction to meeting the Doctor for the first time is also much more sensibly handled than in “The Snowmen”. Whereas in “The Snowmen”, Clara takes an immediate and inexplicable fascination in the Doctor, chasing after him when there’s no real reason to, I was very glad to see this Clara actually shut the door in the face of the stranger demanding to talk to her, and later reacts appropriately to the Doctor telling her, “You, me, in that box now.”
That said, even this Clara comes around a little too easily. The Doctor engages in some rather creepy, stalker-like behaviour after showing up out of the blue—going through her private belongings, making changes to the home she lives in, and sitting outside overlooking both her front door and bedroom window in order to “guard” her. Yes, we as viewers know the Doctor means only the best and doesn’t realize he’s being creepy, but Clara has no knowledge of who he is at this time. She doesn’t even remember him saving her life earlier. Yet instead of calling the police on him when she finds out he has no intention of moving from his chair outside her door, she comes outside to talk to him. Her reasons for going outside are very much “tv reasons” (as in, she needs to in order to move the story along) rather than being realistic. That said, on the whole, Clara’s actions in this story are considerably more believable than they were in “The Snowmen” and for that reason, her actions here don’t bother me quite so much.
There is one other aspect of Clara that just didn’t ring true with me either, and that’s her complete ineptness with computers at the beginning. It’s difficult to believe that a twenty-four year old person in this day and age would have so little understanding of computers, not even being clear on how to connect to the internet. You can’t get through school nowadays without being able to use a computer at an expected level of competency (around here, many teachers will put assignments online for students to download, and they have been doing so for close to a decade now). It’s perfectly believable that she’s not a computer genius. No one expects her to be a superhacker or capable of repairing computers, but not knowing how to click on the wi-fi button and enter a password is stretching believability a little too far. Added to that, the story would have worked just as well if there had actually been a problem with her computer that she needed to call a helpline about. That would have been believable and she could have still had her “upgrade” afterwards, becoming the superhacker she is later in the episode. So there isn’t even a story reason for her computer abilities to be so poor.
However, other than her computer skills and her accepting the Doctor a little too easily, Clara comes across as a very believable character in this story. I like, too, that she doesn’t run off with the Doctor right away at the end of the episode, instead telling him to come back tomorrow when she might say yes. There’s a hint of flirtatious playing hard to get in her actions, which I hope doesn’t rise to anything beyond this, but I’m still glad to see a companion who actually wants to take a bit of time to think about it before heading off through time and space with a strange man she just met. I know for those of us who are Doctor Who fans, it’s difficult to imagine not wanting to run right into the TARDIS and refuse to leave until the Doctor agrees to take us with him. It’s what so many of us fans would do, but believe it or not, not everyone else would, and in a world where Doctor Who isn’t a tv show, Clara is, by default, one of everyone else.
I also like that we see a little bit of Clara’s personal life in this episode. Whether we will continue to see this remains to be seen, but it’s nice to have it here. It helps to make her more of a complete person. Admittedly, we see very little of that personal life, but every little bit helps. As I said earlier, there’s a definite homage to the Russell T Davies years in this story, and the touch of Clara’s home life is part of what creates that homage. It’s still possible to see Steven Moffat’s style seeping through here, of course. Russell T Davies would have spent more time developing Clara’s relationships with each of her deceased friend’s family. Davies would have also started the story with Clara and would have had her encounter the Doctor later, rather than start with the Doctor and have him receive a phone call from Clara. The blend of the two styles that we end up with here actually makes for very interesting viewing.
The other characters in the story are painted in rather broad strokes, but nonetheless come across quite effectively. Miss Kizlet makes for a very effective villain, cold but also slightly charming, ordering one of her employees killed but also ordering that the killing wait until after he returns from holidays. Her ability to take over people across London gives her an air of menace that was lacking in her counterpart, Doctor Simeon in “The Snowmen”. Unlike Simeon, she actually does things rather than stand around and wait for things to happen (although taking over the news reader was a bizarre choice as surely there would be uncontrolled people in other locations watching that same newscast). Her mental reversion to a child at the end is utterly chilling and effectively adds some threat to the Great Intelligence itself.
I must say, I wasn’t surprised that the client turned out to be the Great Intelligence. In fact, I guessed it much earlier when Miss Kizlet first communicates with the client. It was interesting to see Richard E Grant playing the face and voice of the Great Intelligence rather than Ian McKellan, who played it in “The Snowmen” (Richard E Grant played Doctor Simeon). It seems the Intelligence has decided to take on the appearance of its former servant.
One thing that makes the story as a whole work is that Steven Moffat keeps the plot fairly simple and straight-forward. Moffat generally likes complexity and many of his recent plots have become so complex that they’ve gotten completely out of his control. It’s refreshing to see a plot here that is completely linear (no timey-wimey stuff) and comes to a logical, satisfying conclusion. (Well, I suppose the phone call at the beginning counts as timey-wimey. As an aside, I suspect the mysterious woman who gave Clara the phone number will turn out to be a future version of Clara herself—either that or River Song. Either would be in keeping with Moffat’s style.) I love that the Doctor actually outwits his enemies and uses their own devices against them rather than another love-wins-the-day resolution like in “The Snowmen”.
The pacing of the episode is a little off at times. On the whole, it’s a fast-paced episode with some moments of calm (as one would expect), but the shifts don’t always seem completely natural. There are moments when the pacing works perfectly, such as the nail-biting sequence on the plane, but also times where it just seems a little awkward. Both Clara and Miss Kizlet simply cower when the Doctor-spoonhead slowly turns its head around in order to upload them, ruining the tension in the scenes, instead of running away or, in Miss Kizlet’s case, pushing the spoonhead out the shattered window. I also felt that the café sequence where Miss Kizlet demonstrates her ability to control people is drawn out overly long. The point is made clearly and effectively quite quickly, but instead she continues to demonstrate her abilities some more and the scene basically turns into one of the villain telling the Doctor all her plans.
Also affecting the pacing are the jokes scattered throughout the episode. Many of the them are actually quite funny, and some of them work well in the context of the episode. For example, when Clara asks the Doctor why he pointed to that blue box when he mentioned his mobile phone, his response of “Because it’s a surprisingly accurate description,” is both funny and fits the moment naturally. However, a lot of the jokes, while funny, have too much emphasis and attention drawn to them. It’s like they are written and performed with a knowing wink to the audience saying, “Hey look, we’re being funny!” Clara’s referring to the TARDIS as a “snog box” is a particularly glaring example. Moffat is fond of having characters, particularly female ones, speak in witty banter. The problem is, no real person actually speaks that way. The quick come-backs, while often funny, jolt the viewers out of the reality of the programme and remind them that they’re just watching a tv show. Some people don’t mind that sort of thing, but it does bother me. I like to get involved and I don’t like to be knocked out of that involvement.
Still, there are some wonderful moments in the episode, from the afore-mentioned plane scene (in which Clara miraculously doesn’t spill any of her tea!) to the first chilling reveal of a spoonhead to the Doctor’s reaction to the cake and other treats in the café. And the Doctor riding the anti-grav motorcycle up the side of the Shard was pure silliness, but also pure fun in a way that only Doctor Who can manage.
A lot of people are likely to notice the similarities between this episode and “The Idiot’s Lantern” from Series Two. Many of the plot elements seem lifted directly from that episode. Both episodes involve a disembodied intelligence feeding on people’s minds. Both involve people’s minds being sucked from their bodies and their faces appearing on a wall of screens (television screens in “The Idiot’s Lantern” and computer screens in “The Bells of Saint John”). I have actually seen some comments on-line accusing “The Bells of Saint John” of being a rip-off of the earlier story. However, while there are undeniably overlaps, the style of “Bells” is much more in keeping with stories like “Partners in Crime”—a lot of quirky fun with a bit of chills thrown in. As such, I don’t really see this story as a “rip-off”. It’s true that Moffat does reuse old ideas quite frequently, but here he spins out those ideas in a different way than their source, making those reused ideas seem fresh and new. And the Great Intelligence is a more effective villain than the Wire, if only because the Intelligence is much calmer.
I must say that it feels good to be writing a mostly positive review of a Steven Moffat episode, given that I’ve come down very hard on many of his other episodes (and deservedly so, I believe). “The Bells of Saint John” is certainly not a perfect episode, but it also doesn’t suffer from many of the issues that Moffat’s other stories suffer from. Well, not to the same extent, at any rate. They’re there, but not quite as egregious. It remains to be seen just where Clara’s story will go and how the character will develop (or not develop) over the course of it. Will she follow Moffat’s standard pattern for female characters? There are hints that she will. She’s already put her life goals on hold in order to raise children, for example (albeit for believable reasons and at least she actually has life goals, even if they’re not very well defined yet beyond wanting to travel). But perhaps—just perhaps—we’ll see something different this time around. “The Bells of Saint John” is certainly good enough and enjoyable enough to give me hope. Bring on the remainder of the series!