The Bells of Saint John summon the Doctor to begin his 50th anniversary year of adventures as there are monsters in the Wi-Fi, villains in the Shard and the mystery of Clara Oswald to solve.
The Doctor’s return in The Bells of Saint John on Easter Saturday 2013 marked the 8th anniversary of the debut of the revived series with Rose on Easter Saturday 2005. It’s sobering to contemplate that as much of a gap exists between Rose and The Bells of Saint John as does between An Unearthly Child and Day of the Daleks, or Robot and Arc of Infinity. The series has come on in leaps and bounds since the painful rebirth pangs of that first production block for the Ninth Doctor comprising Rose/Aliens of London/World War Three when filming was in chaos as the complexities of producing a series like Doctor Who became evident. It was in those early days that the seeds of discontent that would lead to Christopher Eccleston’s departure after just one series would be sown. Yet from that crucible of chaos emerged a series that continues to be more and more confident in itself with each passing day of production.
A mishmash of techno-thrillers and Steven Moffat’s own Sherlock (especially the on screen texts) The Bells of Saint John marks the first occasion that Matt Smith’s Doctor has appeared in contemporary London, a trope which was a hallmark of the Russell T Davies era, and he looks right at home with his Triumph motorcycle, money-gathering antics and locations on and around the South Bank. The Bells of Saint John contains several parallels with Rose in that both feature the Doctor and his new companion interacting in the shadow of the London Eye, journeying across Westminster Bridge together and the villains utilising iconic landmarks in their schemes – the London Eye with the Ninth Doctor and the Shard with the Eleventh Doctor.
The use of the Shard, the 95-storey skyscraper that dominates the London skyline, by the Great Intelligence as its base of operations indicates that the formless entity from the dawn of time has certainly gone up in the world. No more skulking in the drafty Tibetan Detsen Monastery of The Abominable Snowmen or the shadowy London Underground of The Web of Fear. The immediate return of the Great Intelligence after its appearance in The Snowmen was unexpected, especially with the vocals being provided by Richard E Grant. The use of the formless entity as a hidden nemesis for the Doctor throughout the other episodes of Series 7b is an appealing one as disembodied intelligences manipulating minions has been a recurrently successful theme throughout the history of Doctor Who. From the Great Intelligence and the Yetis of the Troughton era, through to the Nestene Consciousness and the Autons that debuted in the Pertwee era and onto Fenric and its “Wolves” from the McCoy era and subsequent Big Finish audios.
More often than not the role of a sentient humanoid mouthpiece for the disembodied intelligence provides for a memorable turn by a guest actor and this was certainly the case for Celia Imrie who enacts the role of Miss Kizlet with villainous relish in The Bells of Saint John. In scenes such as casually ordering the powering down of London and the diverting of an airplane to crash down onto the heads of the Doctor and Clara, Imrie displays the casual disregard for innocent life and utilisation of high technology that makes for the best grandiose villains. Yet at the core of Miss Kizlet’s darkness there is heartbreak as she is reduced to the mentality of a small child when the Great Intelligence purges the memories of all its minions.
The theme of evil lurking within the Wi-Fi soup of the world may or may not be a comment by Steven Moffat on his departure from Twitter in 2012 after he received a slew of criticism for his handling of female characters, especially that of Irene Adler in the A Scandal in Belgravia episode of Sherlock. Whatever the circumstances behind its conception the idea of a monster lurking within the data cloud that is the Wi-Fi and utilising it to harvest humanity’s minds is an eminently logical one for Doctor Who. We no longer control information, information controls us and losing one’s mind to Wi-Fi is an excellent metaphor for excessive time spent on the internet. Especially on Twitter.
With this third version of Clara surviving until the end of The Bells of Saint John Jenna Louise-Coleman is finally able to start building a character and establishing a proper relationship with the Doctor. Clara looks set to continue the bantering and flirtatious interaction that the Eleventh Doctor enjoyed with Amy but it just doesn’t feel as natural as that enjoyed by Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. The unnecessarily convoluted mystery of her background has many echoes of the heritage surrounding River Song.
In short the character of Clara brings nothing new to the series and continues an unwelcome aspect that began with Grace in the 1996 TV Movie and which has been perpetuated by firstly Russell T Davies with Rose and Martha and now Steven Moffat with Amy and Clara. The idea of the Doctor being sexually attractive to the females that accompany him on his travels through space and time didn’t exist until the arrival of Paul McGann and in the classic series there was a firm unwritten rule of no “hanky-panky” in the TARDIS. Since the dawn of the more youthful Eighth Doctor and the more filmic emotional style of series the girls have been lining up to drool over the Time Lord. 1979’s City of Death by the legendary Douglas Adams contains the perfect summation of what the Doctor’s attitude to the opposite sex should be with Tom Baker’s classic delivery of “You’re a beautiful woman. Probably”.
Though cleverly titled and bombastically delivered The Bells of Saint John is the least effective series opener that Steven Moffat has served up. The chemistry between Matt Smith and Jenna Louise-Coleman is neutered in comparison to what has come before, the approach of the show remains noisily bombastic and the mystery of The Woman Twice Dead is an unnecessary conundrum in a series where the Doctor should be the enigmatic central point. Labelled by the production team as a roller-coaster thriller in the style of the James Bond and Jason Bourne films much of the tension of The Bells of Saint John is subverted by comedy interludes and comic book style action. A prime example comes during the first reveal of the Spoonheads, the camouflaged Wi-Fi base stations designed to harvest human consciousnesses. When Clara’s mind is in the midst of being uploaded the action shifts to what is effectively an audience-pleasing moment as the Doctor sheds his monk’s habit and dons his usual clothes, especially the showcasing of the moment the “cool” bow tie appears in its own special box. This switch of focus dilutes the threat to Clara and by extension that of the Spoonheads.
A major drawback of 21st century Doctor Who lies in the fact that the TARDIS is working far too well. Part of the appeal of the initial era of the show lay in the fact that the TARDIS was completely uncontrollable and destinations couldn’t be planned at all. Key plot elements within the likes of The Chase, The Daleks’ Master Plan and The Seeds of Death hinge upon the Doctor being completely unable to programme an accurate course for the TARDIS. Steven Moffat is attempting to reintroduce mystery to the programme with an exploration of the Doctor’s identity via the phrase “Doctor who?” when a better return to the mysterious roots of the programme would be with the Doctor being unable to control the TARDIS and never knowing what he will find outside the doors of his timeship. The framework of Doctor Who works most effectively when the series is not looking within to convoluted character concepts but without to a myriad of mysterious machinations.