Doctor Who is back! Series 7, or 3, or 33 (never ask a Doctor Who fan a question about numbers), which began with a stream of 5 episodes last Autumn and continued with a Christmas special, is now here for a final run of 8 episodes which shall lead into the 50th anniversary celebrations. I have to make the sad confession that I’m not quite the fanboy I was in the past – I think I may have reached that stage in fandom where I temporarily lose interest for about a decade – so I haven’t done the whole fervent search for information which had become the norm for previous series’. However, this has the advantage of allowing me to go into episodes ‘cold’, with no pre-conceived conceptions or awareness of spoilers. So here, having only watched the The Bells of Saint John (by Steven Moffat) once, is my knee-jerk review.
First off, I love the concept of the wi-fi being used as a means of ‘harvesting’ human life, wherein their physical bodies are killed and their ‘souls’ uploaded to a database, for an as yet unknown reason (this is clearly part of an ongoing story arc, though given Moffat’s track record I won’t be holding out for a concise answer anytime soon). Connecting to wi-fi networks, or, often, failing to connect, is something most viewers will be familiar with, so the idea of slotting in a deadly network onto the list is incredibly creepy. It may come across as a cynical view of computers and networks in modern day life, though there are too many apt references towards them for this to have been written by someone with disdain towards modern technology. Perhaps too much of the concept was explained in the opening sequence, but, given the limited time the episode has to develop, is understandable. I commend Moffat for writing a truly original script, playing with modern ideas and exploring new avenues for storytelling.
The plot is well-paced, tension ramping up and down successfully where necessary. Doctor Who can often feel unnecessarily rushed but I didn’t find that to be the case in this episode. I’m glad Moffat has chosen to give the ‘timey-wimey’ plots a rest for the time being; these once brilliant storytelling methods were becoming rather repetitive and uninspired, being used in such quantity. The story is a thriller, which gives a grand opening to the series – this is evident from the wonderful sequence where The Doctor’s ‘spoonhead’ rides on a motorbike across the Millennium Bridge and then up the surface of Shard. I always enjoy the wide scope of Doctor Who episodes, which continued in this episode with the Doctor receiving a phone call from Clara whilst living as a monk in 1207 (this is where the episode loosely derives its title from; the title being only a small reference irritates me slightly but I suppose that’s just being pedantic). It’s not quite clear why the Doctor is in 1207 – we’re to presume it’s just the kind of thing he does, which, knowing the character, sort of makes sense.
Matt Smith is, as ever, fantastic as the Doctor. No longer sulking from the loss of the ponds, having abandoned his life as a hermit, the Doctor is as alive as ever in his quest to find Clara Oswald. For the first time, this Doctor is independent – in that he is no longer tied to either Amy or River Song, who he has associated with from his very first appearances in 2011. Smith revels in the opportunity to play a ‘free’ Doctor. Jenna-Louise Coleman, reprising the role of Clara for the third time, continues to impress. Due to the nature of Clara’s character this is, technically, the character’s third introduction, but Coleman’s performance combined with the writing allows these continued meetings to stay fresh and engaging. The character is less irritating than I had feared; the one-liners are reduced and the cocky nature toned down. I look forward to seeing more of this new TARDIS team.
Celia Imrie as Miss Kislet, the woman in charge of the operations, makes a great if somewhat clichéd performance as an efficient, humorous villain. I enjoyed her character’s chilling use of technology to change her minion’s characteristics, moving a switch up and down to determine their IQ and ‘conscience’. But where Imrie truly shines is in her final appearance – the understated scene where everyone has been freed of the Great Intelligence’s influence. She reverts to her former state – a child. In just three lines, Imrie perfectly captures a tragic childlike quality in her acting which is disturbing to watch – and therefore highly effective. We see less of Richard E. Grant, who makes a shock return as the Great Intelligence, but I have no doubt he will appear again.
The episode is well directed by Colm McCarthy, making his Doctor who directing debut. Doctor Who episodes fly by too fast to make a detailed comment on the direction, having only watched it once, but I was particularly impressed by the sequence where the Doctor and Clara prevent the plane from crashing. Having established the technique of moving in and out of the TARDIS in one single shot in The Snowmen, it is skilfully deployed again here, to great effect. I also enjoyed the music, as usual, by Murray Gold.
Overall, The Bells of Saint John was a great opening to the second half of this series of Doctor Who. The trailer for next week has shown what could be the most audacious attempt at creating an alien planet yet, but I shall have to wait and see. This is a good time to be a Doctor Who fan.
Final rating: 8/10