Doctor Who (7.6): The Bells of Saint John

[Apologies for the tardiness of this review – I have been lucky enough to be on holiday for the past week but somewhere beyond the reach of iPlayer…]

Matt Smith returns as the Doctor

I know I was a bit curmudgeonly about The Snowmen, and I have to say I wasn’t at all sure I was going to like The Bells of Saint John any better, but I’m pleased to report it hit the spot at Hat Towers.

[Spoilers, sweetie, below the line]

Steven Moffat’s stories are usually at their best when they make an everyday thing utterly sinister (a little boy looking for his mummy, darkness, stone angels, a ticking clock in a bedroom). TBoSJ isn’t as scary as The Empty Child or Blink – Wi-Fi is ubiquitous and pretty addictive, but it can’t compete with such primal fears as the dark or a lost child – it does however take a simple idea and make it work right to the end (not always a given, sadly).

Of course, this is actually two stories colliding for our benefit – one is the story of the monster living in the Wi-Fi consuming human minds, the other is the Doctor’s personal mission to find a certain nanny again and solve the mystery that is Clara Oswin Oswald.

Along the way there is plenty to enjoy. For a start I’m glad we got the explanation of the frankly cumbersome episode title out of the way swiftly – it’s a neat little gag if too insubstantial to take the weight of the title.

But it’s not long before we get what Steven Moffat is best at, namely witty, teasing, revealing but obfuscating dialogue. The conversation ‘across the timezones’ between the Doctor and Clara, for example. While they’re busying misunderstanding each other (and the universe is kicking the Doctor on the ankle to make him take notice of who he’s talking too) I can’t help wondering who exactly the ‘woman in the shop’ is. There are several women who might have the Doctor’s phone number, and be able to say with some accuracy it’s the best helpline in the universe, but I can’t see any of them working in a shop… Let’s hope we find out (can we add to this to the list of other unanswered questions from the previous two seasons? For example, who blew up the Tardis? I have put my faith in Steven Moffat tying up the loose ends, he had better not let me down…).

As the Doctor is tied almost literally in a knot, it is also probably the moment to remind ourselves of Matt Smith’s talent for physical comedy (or perhaps his innate clumsiness, and I speak as a similarly cackhanded soul, though I’m not nearly so funny, just bruised usually). It adds a playful side to the Doctor that his ninth and tenth incarnations didn’t exhibit (though both could be gleeful and excitable).

Talking of excitement and glee, how wonderful to cast Celia Imrie as the human contact for the monster. Channelling something of Judi Dench’s M, she delivers the lines about killing off a staff member, but after he gets back from holiday (“let’s not be unreasonable”), with such a light touch you could almost misunderstand.

Shortcuts to the other best bits:

  • The Doctor calling the ‘blue box’ his mobile phone “because it’s a surprisingly accurate description”.
  • The nod to Amy’s happy life in the past as an author.
  • The Doctor’s bow tie gets its own special box… (and that new coat is lovely too)
  • The Doctor reeling off what Clara’s missed while she’s been asleep, particularly the several pages of notes made on the subject of her dad’s crossness with the government.
  • The Doctor: “Imagine that. Human souls trapped like flies in the world wide web, stuck forever, crying out for help.” Clara: “Isn’t that basically Twitter?”
  • The Tardis as a ‘snog box’.
  • At last, an explanation for why the Doctor doesn’t take the Tardis ‘into battle’ – because it’s the most powerful ship in the world and he doesn’t want it falling into the wrong hands.
  • The Doctor dancing is always a pleasure.
  • The Shard as the base of the evil operation, a callback to the first episode of the new series perhaps? (The London Eye in Rose, to save you Googling.)
  • The twist. That clever, clever Doctor’s plan to ‘motivate’ Miss Kizlet into downloading Clara’s mind back into her body – obvious once you’ve seen it and a seamless pulling together of everything we’ve seen. Enough to make a grown woman clap her hands with pleasure.
  • And the final (for now) reveal – Richard E Grant back as the face of the Great Intelligence and the viewer’s underestimation of how just how long it’s “been whispering in [Miss Kizlet’s] ear”.

In the pursuit of balance, I will pick three nits to finish. One, I don’t see why the Doctor’s double had to keep moving like an automaton after the initial reveal when it had been smooth as silk before. B or two, the new ‘desktop setting’ inside the Tardis. I just don’t like it. iii, C, or three, the conversation about the leaf. Just icky. [Edit: I confess, this isn’t my best description ever. Like Tim (in the comments) I suspect the leaf will have a Meaning, my problem is with Clara’s line. It doesn’t sound like something she would say. Having slept on it, it puts me in mind of the advice given to writers by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (often attributed to William  Faulkner) to ‘murder your darlings’. He said: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.” For me, it was too much of a flourish, too writerly a line for Clara. But,  who knows? Knowing Steven Moffat the payoff may well match this grandiose, and seemingly misplaced, little line. Only time will tell.]

Other than that, it was all rather marvellous. I expect I’ll see you tomorrow for a variety of aliens and what looks like Matt Smith channelling Gandalf on the bridge of Khazad-dûm.

Posted by Jo the Hat


Filed under Dr Who

2 responses to “Doctor Who (7.6): The Bells of Saint John

  1. dogdrovenorth

    cf in The Parting of the Ways the TARDIS is taken into battle.
    Don’t forget during the reign of the tenth Doctor, Canary Wharf was an evil base of operations for Torchwood.
    How can the half-eaten jammy dodger possibly be left off the list of highlights?! That for me was a clap-of-the-hands moment.

  2. Tim

    It was rather marvellous. And if the main threat was dealt with rather lightly, that is largely because, as you say, it’s really two stories in one. After the angsty way the Ponds left us, I loved the lightness of touch and the wit here to bring Clara fully into the fold before we embark on too much seriousness. “[Chapter] 11’s the best one” – heh. Sly, Mr Moff, very sly.

    Good to see we picked up on many of the same ‘best bits’ too. Although the more I think about it, the more that leaf must be significant – along with the missing years from the front of Clara’s travel book (no 16 or 23). Hmmm …

    Usual mad ramblings here: