Review: ‘The Bells of Saint John’

Bells_3

Warning: spoilers abound.

The email from Gareth went like this.

“On BBC Breakfast, we’re told that the cast and crew think that the upcoming series of Who is ‘the most ambitious everywhere’.

Of the anniversary story, Matt Smith said: “It’s hilarious, vast, epic – the biggest, best, boldest episode, the most momentous moment in the show’s history.”

And there was a clip of Clara, which went something like:

Clara: Doctor Who?
Doctor: Say that again?
Clara: “Doctor Who?”?
Doctor: Oooh, again.
Clara: Doctor Who!
Doctor: *does little shiver-down-the-spine dance*

Bleargh.”

In a parallel universe somewhere, there’s a version of Doctor Who where this joke was never made. It became one of the unwritten rules of the show, like the Doctor’s lack of beard (well, until River Song) and the fact that you never, ever see him using the toilet. (That’s a fairly generic rule for any action hero – you never see Jack Bauer using the toilet, for example – and a rule I’m glad they’ve never broken.) In our own little timeline, of course, it was used comparatively sparingly during the RTD reign (the very first episode, indeed, cleverly sidesteps such well-worn territory by having Rose intone “Doctor What?”). Then Steven Moffat turned up, and it became a recurring gag simply because it has now become the entire show.

To be fair to ‘The Bells of Saint John’, it does get this moment of silliness out of the way relatively early on. It happens when Clara Oswald comes downstairs to find a mad monk standing on her doorstep asking if she’d like to know about Jesus wanting to find out about Wi-Fi. It’s the Doctor, fresh from his role in the Cadfael remake.

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It’s not the first time the Doctor’s dressed up as a monk, of course, but at least these are actual monks, rather than swooshy black things with lightsabers. The Doctor’s in Cumbria, meditating on the mystery that is Clara. Who is she? Where did she come from? Is she feisty enough? Is the multiple death gimmick making Arthur Darvill bitter? Who’s the lady in the shop (as if we haven’t figured that one out)? Does anyone care?

Back in December, I wrote a rather dispassionate review of ‘The Snowmen’ in which I stated, quite bluntly, that I didn’t care at all. I do not believe this was a harsh judgement. But I did find, after Saturday’s instalment, that my interest was piqued once again. This was largely because we seem to have (for the moment) encountered the real and living Clara Oswald, free from the out-of-time contexts that dogged her predecessors (one worked for a futuristic cruise company, the other was a Victorian governess) and which thus made them unsuitable travelling companions for more than one story. I don’t know why there has to be this thing in New Who about a companion hailing from the home counties (preferably London) purely so that we can relate to them. They call it appealing to a wide demographic; I call it patronising. Leela was a primitive, inherently violent savage from a colonial nightmare, and we loved her. Zoe was a frosty, futuristic computer programmer and Jamie was a kilted medieval Scotsman with a heart of gold, and their banter saw the show at its best. Romana and Susan were as alien as the Doctor, but they were both fun to watch. Adric was a prodigious child genius, and proved to be one of the most popula- all right, yes, I suppose that rather stomps on my point.

Adric

Damn you, Adric. Damn you all the way to hell.

It’s curious that despite my insistence that ‘exotic’ companions are fine, I liked this Clara more than Oswin’s souffle-obsessed bisexual meandering or Nancy’s 19th century Clara’s cockney chirpiness. At the same time, there’s an air of unease about her reintroduction, because we know how it all ends up for her in the other episodes. It’s never fully established to what extent this is the exact same Clara – her sudden ‘reprogrammed’ brain echoes the hacking skills of Oswin in ‘Asylum’, as does one particular line of dialogue; her position as an unofficial governess (of sorts) to the Maitland family is a pointed reminder of her C.V. in ‘The Snowmen’, as mentioned by the Doctor himself. There’s obviously a connection here, and we thus have the series arc in place. Nevertheless, Clara is sparky and fun to watch, even if she is predictably described as ‘feisty’ by at least three journalists in this week’s reviews. There are several clues dropped in – some subtle, some less so. The references to her previous episodes are illustrated by needless flashbacks (kids are smart, Steven; showing them the deathbed speeches from ‘Asylum’ and ‘Snowmen’ was a waste of screen time) but her chemistry with the Doctor betters anything that Smith has ever had with the ever-irritating Alex Kingston, who always came across like Ann Bancroft seducing Dustin Hoffman (to the extent that the show made several jokes about it, but that doesn’t excuse the awkwardness of bad writing).

16 and 23 are missing. This is coming back to haunt us later. You watch.

16 and 23 are missing. This is coming back to haunt us later. You watch.

Yes, yes, WE GET IT.

Yes, yes, WE GET IT.

As a result of this necessitated introduction, the rest of the episode is rather Who-lite. It’s the most lightweight series opener since ‘Partners in Crime’ – an episode that works because it’s played strictly for laughs, with cute (if deadly) monsters and a grossly camped up villainess. ‘Bells’ repeats the latter concept by casting Celia Imrie as the power-dressing Miss Kizlet. Miss Kizlet possesses an iPad app that allows her to alter the moods of her staff by heightening obedience and decreasing paranoia (“Oh,” said Emily, in a moment that worried me rather, “I wish I had that app”). Miss Kizlet has been busy uploading souls into the interweb, because…oh, because her client wants them. Presumably because he feeds off them, although this is never fully established, and we don’t care, because we don’t need to. It is an excuse for a bunch of people trapped behind a multitude of screens, begging to be released, and something that the show has never done before, ever.

Lantern-Bells

It could be, of course, that they really did explain this, but in truth I was multitasking: straining to hear what was going on above the appalling sound mixing (although that could have been my TV), trying to explain to Thomas what was going on, and working out where I’d seen the young girl before. (A quick Google, as it turned out, provided the answer.)

Eve

The characters are under attack from the Spoonheads, for whom I had high hopes until they turned out to be robotic figures with large indents in the backs of their skulls. The indents serve as video screens and also suck out the life force from their victims. It’s about as underwhelming as the eventual introduction of the much overhyped Silence. And, of course, monstrous robots with rotating heads is something the show has never done before, ever.

Spoon-Smiler

The Doctor is only able to find the headquarters of the whole operation thanks to the obsession we have of recording everything about our lives on social networking sites – it’s one of the few jokes the episode throws at the use of technology (Clara’s gag about Twitter is another) and it feels welcome. It leads to the Doctor enacting this week’s ‘crowd-pleasing’ moment by riding a motorbike up the side of the Shard. (Fans of New Who may also note, of course, that the last time we saw the Doctor on a motorbike it was in ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’, which of course featured earlier.)

It’s here that the episode disappoints. You’re holding out for a big finale, a mammoth revelation about the identity of the mastermind, a Mexican standoff or hostage situation and at the very least an explosion or two, preferably one that results in the destruction of the building. But the episode’s climax is about as exciting as the last reel of Entrapment. In the end, the situation is resolved with a few squeaks of technobabble and the revelation that the Doctor we saw ascending the Shard isn’t the real Doctor at all, but a robotic duplicate that he’s controlling from a secure location – something else the show has never done before, ever.

S64

There are a couple of final twists that were worth waiting for: the revelation that Miss Kizlet’s suited second-in-command was actually there to clean the toilets, along with the news that Kizlet herself was taken when a small child. Unfortunately, Moffat then plays his trump card too soon and lets us know what’s really been going on. He could have spun it out for a little while, at least.

Oh well, that's pretty clear cut.

Oh well, that’s pretty clear cut.

There’s a bit of a heart to heart in the TARDIS and then the Doctor sails off, promising to arrive back at Clara’s house tomorrow evening (only presumably to overshoot this by twelve years). Followed by a ‘Next Time’ teaser in which I had absolutely no idea what was happening.

Somewhere inside ‘The Bells of Saint John’ there is a decent episode waiting to get out. Currently it is trapped behind glass, wailing “I don’t know where I am!”. What remained was a sea of confusion and a story that needed to be several things at once and couldn’t really manage any of them successfully. It’s a laptop sitting between three Wi-Fi hotspots without enough strength to properly latch on to any of them, and thus we were left with lags and hanging and general confusion. It’s a shame, because this could have been a good story. But in the hands of Russell T Davies I suspect it would have been an appalling story, and the fact that Moffat sidestepped much of the sentiment in place of some amusing gags is to its (and his) credit. And Clara was fun and watchable and, well, feisty. And I now want to know what happens to her. Damn you, Steven. You beat me.

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12 thoughts on “Review: ‘The Bells of Saint John’

  1. bekkysworld

    Saw it, it had itz moments and its confusion, i still don’t get the role of the the guy on the computer talking to the lady incharge. And why did clara say ask me tomorrow. We all know she is going to follow him. They all do. Love the article by the way. Pls check out my blog at bekkysworld, follow if you want or not.

    • reverend61

      Thanks Bekky, I will look at your blog later.

      The guy on the computer is Richard E Grant’s character from the Christmas episode. He was tied to the Great Intelligence (a villain from 60s Doctor Who) and we thought he was dead; it’s apparent that the Great Intelligence has lived on and, I suspect, consumed his form somehow. (It’s basically an excuse to get Grant to come back; it would in any case explain why he was woefully underused at Christmas.) It looks like it’s going to be this season’s villain, so stay tuned for that.

      I agree with you on Clara, though – it seems ludicrous that she’d turn him down!

  2. I’m assuming the yetis we see this year will be better than those from the Troughton era. Because of course they’re coming. But…I dunno. I guess the GI remembers the events from the Snowmen, but was the underground erased at some point? It is confusing and I’m not yet sure how I feel about it.

    I did enjoy Clara, though. More than I thought I would.

    • reverend61

      Yes, she was quite fun. And feisty, of course. Mustn’t forget feisty.

      I’m not sure about the yetis; it feels like something the show needs to do to get the best out of the GI, but they’re already bringing back the Ice Warriors. Maybe the Grand Moff doesn’t want to over-egg the pudding..

  3. Missus Tribble

    I’m already in love with Clara!

    I agree that this wasn’t Moffat at his best (the aeroplane seemed especially pointless, because *cough* *Titanic* *cough* that’s never ever been done either) but it was fun anyway, inspite of the absolute ridiculousness of it all 🙂

    • reverend61

      Ah, I knew I recognised that frantic hurrying about motif from somewhere…

  4. You make a lot of god points. Good catch about 16 being missing from the list of years. I only noticed 23 was missing. I also completely agree about more “exotic” companions being okay. I love the Troughton era and he traveled with two historical companions (Victoria and Jamie) and then Zoe who was from the future. I don’t think viewers had a difficult time accepting them. I wish new Who would be a bit more openminded about a companion who wasn’t from the present day.

    • reverend61

      I know, it’s annoying that we have to have someone contemporary so that we can ‘relate to’ them, and then – then! – they twist things so that said companions turn out to be part Time Lord (latent), or plastic. It kills all sense of empathy. So I don’t understand why they do it. The closest thing we’ve had in New Who was Jack, and even he was only an occasional drop-in when they wanted someone to flirt with whoever was in the TARDIS. I had high hopes for Victorian Clara (even if I prefer this version) because at least it meant, if nothing else, that we were going to have someone from another time period. And then they killed her.

      I also missed 16 the first time. It was only when I went to grab the image that I spotted it. I think we’re supposed to spot that 23 is missing, but that camera pans down pretty quickly. (Again, the whole point of New Who under Moffat is that you’re supposed to go back and watch it repeatedly and look for clues, which is the sort of thing Twin Peaks did, only Twin Peaks did it better.)

  5. Fantastic Episode! Do I enjoy my name is the name of the new heroine? why yes, yes I do. Loved the Intro 🙂

    • reverend61

      You know, if I had your name I’d be similarly pleased! 🙂

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