‘The Bells of Saint John’, by Steven Moffat, is a jaunty adventure to bring the Doctor back to our screens. Making the most of its London setting and making another part of modern life terrifying the light plotting allows for an efficient reintroduction of the Doctor and Clara while still being a satisfying piece of entertainment.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON!
In many ways this episode is very reminiscent of ‘The Snowmen’. Everything we need to know about the villains scheme is established very quickly. If you click on the wrong Wi-Fi server you die, while your mind ends up trapped in a virtual prison.
While the delivery lacks subtly the accompanying footage of people falling foul of the alien Wi-Fi helped establish a global threat. This was reinforced by some clever floating text (borrowed from Sherlock no doubt) and a mess of red web crisscrossing the globe (a clue to the true villain).
With the audience now fully aware of what is at stake there is a real sense of jeopardy when Clara returns to the series, this time a modern day incarnation who is struggling with her internet and coming dangerously close to clicking on the aforementioned Wi-Fi.
This is, after all, the companion that had died twice before and there was every chance she’d die again. Indeed throughout the episode it seemed as if this would be a reoccurring theme. Clara seems to be one of the few companions whose survival is far from guaranteed.
Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman continue to have incredible chemistry onscreen, even when they are in separate time zones. Both the Doctor and Clara seem inextricably drawn together in a manner that confuses both, making it unclear who has the upper hand in their relationship.
Cleverly this allows Moffat to reintroduce the Doctor as he gives Clara a crash course on saving the world. From his role as guardian, sitting patiently outside her window while inventing the quadrocycle, to taking the TARDIS on to a stricken airplane and skipping ahead in time to the morning.
Clara stayed close to the personality traits displayed by her other incarnations. Smart, brave and refusing to be intimidated or frightened by her situation. Her newly acquired computer skills were intriguing and we’ll have to see if they remain past this adventure.
Up against the Doctor and Clara was a mysterious organisation presided over by Miss Kizlet, played by Celia Imrie. While this type of villain is nothing new there were several nice twists, including Miss Kizlet being compassionate enough to allow an employee to have his holiday before he was killed.
I enjoyed the peak behind the curtain to see how the bad guys tried to track down the Doctor. Their ability to link into cameras reinforced the idea that technology was being used against us and our heroes.
The use of Servers, or Spoon-Heads as they were nicknamed, were effective despite their short screen time. Able to impersonate anyone, save for the tell-tale indentation at the back of their head, they were chilling tools. The faces of their victims reflected in their digital dish brought back memories of ‘Silence In The Library’ as did the plaintive cries of their victim that they didn’t know where they were.
Most remarkable of all is the amount of humanity and compassion Moffat brought to what could have been one-dimensional villains. These are people with facebook accounts who can’t help but brag about where they work, who have had their memories and personalities tweaked to make them steal the minds of others.
Miss Kizlet is revealed to be as much a victim as anyone else as we learn just how much of her life has been controlled by the true villain of the piece.
The revelation that The Great Intelligence was behind the plan was a surprise, as was the appearance of Richard E Grant. This explains much of the similarity to the Christmas Special, not to mention the Servers habit of repeating their victims words back to them.
With the Great Intelligence still at large and his ultimate motive for digitising humanity still a mystery no doubt we’ll see his return in the future. We will have to see how much involvement the Great Intelligence has over the coming weeks.
The London setting was used well, the distinctive skyline bringing character to the setting and one of the most striking buildings providing a key set-piece. It was nice to see St Pauls Cathedral prominently displayed once again in Doctor Who.
There were a few moments that felt out of place. The reveal that Clara now knew about the internet because she’d made a joke about twitter didn’t ring true, as most people are aware of social media even if they don’t use it.
The scene in which Miss Kizlet took control of people to act as her mouthpiece was chilling but the method was vague. Were these people who had been infected by the alien Wi Fi but not downloaded? Was she controlling the image on the television or were people across the country wondering why a BBC newsreader was giving exposition on an evil plot?
Coupled with the Doctor acting as if the TARDIS phone shouldn’t ring (when it did exactly that in ‘The Empty Child’) and UNIT apparently not being known by the henchmen (although they could be lying) these were moments that took me out of the story.
Aside from these minor gripes the episode itself was engaging enough, thanks mainly to its refusal to dwell on any individual set piece. The death of those who were downloaded and the use of a plane as a weapon made this feel much more daring, contrasting with the light banter between the Doctor and Clara.
The conclusion was satisfying because it was clever, added a final twist and showed the harder edge to the Doctor that has become more evident over time. Clara’s refusal to play by the Doctors rules and making him wait for her underscored how different she is.
Overall the episode was a fun, contemporary adventure that at no time felt like it was dumbing itself down for the audience.
On a final note I mentioned in my review of ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’ that the Chinese writing on the vase read by Rory said ‘Rapture of Summer’ in contrast to the Weeping Angel run hotel ‘Winter Quay’.
Here we find that Amy has written a book under the name Amelia Williams (so is her daughter following in her footsteps as a novelist or the other way round?) called ‘Summers Fall’.
It would be curious if this is just a coincidence and not something that will be revealed later.