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Doctor Who: The Bells of St. John (Review)

There’s something in the wifi.

– the Doctor does his best Jaws impression

The Bells of St. John is an intriguing piece of Doctor Who. This is the first time that the show has had to manage a companion swap in the middle of a season. That said, it doesn’t really work to think of the seventh season as a single cohesive entity.

The first five episodes are something of an abridged season, akin to the 2009 season of specials starring David Tennant. They are dedicated to tidying away lingering plot threads from the last two years of the show, and resolving Moffat’s lingering plot threads. The Power of Three and The Angels Take Manhattan are very much about tidying up the Doctor’s lingering connection to Rory and Amy.

In contrast, the second half of the season has a much more celebratory feeling to it, tied together by the over-arching mystery around Clara. While Clara pops up in Asylum of the Daleks, she’s very much a teaser of a mystery to come rather than a character in her own right. Instead, the themes of the season start in The Snowmen, introducing (or reintroducing) the Great Intelligence and Clara, and outlining the mystery of “the twice-dead girl.”

As a result, The Bells of St. John feels very much like a season opener to an unfortunately brief season of celebration.

Maybe that should be "thrice dead"?

Maybe that should be “thrice dead”?

Even the lingering insecurity over Rory and Amy seems to have faded slightly. While having the Doctor withdraw to lick his wounds in The Snowmen – and repeating the plot beat here – feels a little shallow and manipulative, at least Moffat has reined in the Doctor’s grief without downplaying it. There’s no need to dedicate a season to reminding the audience how great the last companion was. Martha remains the least well-developed of the revival’s companions because the show spent so long defining her as “not!Rose.”

While the Eleventh Doctor’s fixation on Amy (and now Clara) feels a little excessive and melodramatic – in The Name of the Doctor, he retroactively refers to this period as “the dark times” – Moffat never allows it to dominate the season. This is the fiftieth anniversary of the show. Spending it watch the Doctor mope over past companions would put a bit of a dampener on things. So The Bells of St. John throws the Doctor into action quite readily.

Holding the line...

Holding the line…

There’s an argument to be made that the second half of the seventh season is one giant journey through the history of Doctor Who. A number of the episodes feel like conscious homages to the past, and like an attempt to consciously evoke and celebrate one particular iteration of a show that radically regenerates and reworks itself. Some of the connections are easy to forge. Cold War and Nightmare in Silver are obviously Troughton-era throwbacks, beyond the familiar monsters. Hide is an ode to Hinchcliffe and Holmes and “the Baker Street irregulars.”

Some of the connections are more abstract and questionable. Is The Rings of Akhaten a throwback to the William Hartnell era, with the whole “lets throw our leads into three sets with actors in funny make-up and call it an alien world” aesthetic? Is Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS a nod towards the Nathan Turner years, with its focus on the show’s internal continuity and fetishisation of the show’s own history like the Peter Davison and Colin Baker eras, along with a more manipulative and scheming Doctor?

Faint signs of life...

Faint signs of life…

If the structure is intentional – and it would seem to be – then what is The Bells of St. John? Well, like Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, it pulls double duty. It feels like an attempt by Moffat to channel his inner Russell T. Davies, while also making quite a few affectionate nods towards the Pertwee era. Despite radically different politics, those two eras of Doctor Who sit together quite comfortably, at least thematically. After all, Davies consciously patterned Rose after Spearhead from Space.

As a Davies/Pertwee homage, it’s the perfect place to introduce a new companion, because of course the companion has to be from contemporary Great Britain. Still, there’s a sense that Moffat is playing with quite a few of the narrative devices that Davies frequently used in his stories about contemporary London. (After all, Moffat has generally steered quite clear of threats to contemporary London.) It even opens with a shot of Earth from orbit.

A driving force in their relationship...

A driving force in their relationship…

There are sinister forces preying on the population’s greed and dependency on technology, much like the invasion-via-sat-nav in The Sontaran Stratagem, the invasion-via-diet-pills in Partners in Crime, or the conquest-via-mobiles in Rise of the Cybermen. Here, it’s free wifi that is out to get people, complete with some obligatory political subtext. “Once you’ve clicked it, they’re in your computer,” we’re warned in the prologue. “They can see you.” There’s even some topical political humour thrown in. “Do we need another London-wide activation?” one operator asks. “We can’t always pass it off as a riot.”

Moffat even plays quite blatantly off the “Doctor kisses the companion” motif running through the Davies era, with Clara repeatedly referring to the TARDIS as the Doctor’s “snogging box.” “Does this work?” she asks. “Is this actually what you do? Do you just crook your finger and people just jump in your snog box and fly away?” It actually seems quite close to summarising the seduction technique of the Davies era Doctor.

Street cred...

Street cred…

As in Flesh and Stone, Moffat seems to be trying to make a clear break with that sort of romantic subtext – or at least attempting to push it into the background a bit. Clara finds the Doctor’s technique more funny than flirty. “Both of us?” she asks when the Doctor pushes her towards the TARDIS. “Oh, trust me,” the Doctor assures her, “you’ll understand once we’re in there.” Clara playfully responds, “I bet I will. What is that box, anyway? Why have you got a box? Is it like a snogging booth?” When the Doctor asks what she means, she clarifies, “Is that what you do, bring a booth? There is such a thing as too keen.”

Of course, The Bells of St. John doubles as a shout-out to the Pertwee era. Of course, any contemporary Doctor Who story probably feels like a Pertwee era story, but The Bells of St. John is weird in how heavily it pushes forward the idea of the Doctor as a protector of the planet. The Eleventh Doctor has been more of a wanderer than the Tenth Doctor, travelling more freely in time-and-space and spending less time on modern-day Earth. While “under my protection” is a nice shout-out to The Eleventh Hour, it does feel rather jarring, given how little time the Eleventh Doctor spends on Earth.

It's all Clara now...

It’s all Clara now…

“I don’t know who you are or why you’re doing this, but the people of this world will not be harmed,” he warns the dark forces at work. “They will not controlled.” The story seems like a something from the Letts era, right down to the obligatory vehicular action sequence. “Really, Doctor?” our villain taunts. “A motorbike? Hardly seems like you.” Obviously somebody never watched the Pertwee era, as Moffat makes a rather blunt response to Philip Segal’s assertion that Paul McGann was the only Doctor you could see on a motorbike. (Also, the Doctor used the bike in the ’74 Antigrav Olympics. 2074, but still.)

There’s even a nice little cameo from U.N.I.T., a piece of Doctor Who lore that the new series has had a bit of difficulty consistently establishing. (That said, hopefully the casting of Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart helps firmly anchor the organisation as part of the revival.) There’s even an overt nod to the organisation’s place in Doctor Who lore, with the Great Intelligence identifying them as “old friends. Very old friends.” He should know, since the genesis of U.N.I.T. took place in The Web of Fear.

Televised terror...

Televised terror…

There are also a whole bunch of decidedly Moffat high concepts thrown in as well. Here, people get trapped inside computers, become literal ghosts in the machine – playing into the technological glitch subtext of so many of Moffat’s monsters. In particular, the description of how “some people get stuck; their minds, their souls, in the wifi – like echoes, like ghosts” can’t help but evoke the “ghosting” in Moffat’s Silence in the Library.

There’s also a sense of monsters preying on children, feasting on imagination. “My client requires a steady diet of living human minds,” the villain of the episode boasts. “Healthy, free-range, human minds.” It’s a rather literal expression of what Doctor Who monsters do, preying on the imaginations of the more delicate souls who watch. In particular, the Great Intelligence is portrayed as a decidedly predatory force, heavily contrasted with the Doctor.

Can he stick the landing...?

Can he stick the landing…?

“He loves and cares for humanity,” we’re told of the Great Intelligence. “In fact, he can’t get enough of it.” Whereas the Doctor helps human beings define their individuality and come to their own understanding of the world, the Great Intelligence instead helps keep people docile and easily manipulated. “The abattoir is not a contradiction,” our villain boasts. “No one loves cattle more than Burger King.”

Even more explicitly, the Great Intelligence’s side-kick is a woman he recruited from childhood. Like Amy, there’s a sense that the Great Intelligence just swooped into her life. “Where are my mummy and daddy?” the woman asks after she has been “reset to factory settings.” As the soldiers surround her, she cries, stating, “They said they wouldn’t be long.” In a way, the fate of Ms. Kinzlet can’t help but evoke the final fate of Donna Noble, a woman who ultimately wasn’t enriched at all by her remarkable experiences.

Dressed for battle...

Dressed for battle…

This predatory attitude is something of a theme in the Moffat era. The Silence conspires to turn children into weapons. Neil Gaiman makes the subtext more explicit in Nightmare in Silver when he reveals that the Cybermen used the imaginations of children to power their vast and powerful armies. Moffat has claimed that Doctor Who takes place “under the bed”, and that’s quite evident in the way that his version of the show leans so heavily on the exploitation and terror (and heartbreak) of children.

Of course, Moffat is drawing quite a lot of influence from across the history of Doctor Who. The Doctor’s self-imposed exile and hermitage seems quite familiar. This isn’t the first time the Doctor’s failure to protect a companion has forced him into solitude. Colin Baker’s first story, The Twin Dilemma, was based around a similar premise – with the Doctor deciding to live the life of a hermit in penance for trying to murder his companion.

TARDIS 2.0... (Well, more like 200.0...)

TARDIS 2.0…
(Well, more like 200.0…)

While it should go without saying Moffat’s writing and characterisation are infinitely more compelling and more engaging than anything in The Twin Dilemma, the comparison is a striking one. Like Davies, Moffat has a knack for re-working and rehabilitating troubled eighties Doctor Who. Here, he evokes The Twin Dilemma to create the sense that the Doctor has lost his way, and that he needs a course correction, a wake-up call, a purpose.

The image of the Doctor trying to shirk his responsibility is hardly new. There’s a lovely moment in Russell T. Davies’ Smith & Jones where the Doctor explains he was trying to keep a low profile when he just stumbled into a hospital that ended up on the surface of the moon. “I was just travelling past,” the Tenth Doctor blabbered. “I swear, I was just wandering… I wasn’t looking for trouble, honestly, I wasn’t…” That Doctor was also dealing with the traumatic loss of a valued companion, making the way that the universe just called him into action seem all the more tragic.

It's the most important meal of the day...

It’s the most important meal of the day…

The notion that the hero of a given story can’t simply relinquish his role in that story is a strong one, and I can see why Moffat likes it. The sound of the TARDIS phone – which isn’t connected to anything – ringing just to lure him out of his ten-minute retirement is almost poetic. The Doctor can’t ignore the call of adventure, as much as he might want to. This is where the abridged structure of Moffat’s Doctor Who seems to work against it.

Moffat’s Doctor Who has a very quick pace – it can be exhausting (but rewarding) just trying to keep up. Like the Doctor skipping over the boring stuff (“it’s a time machine, you never have to wait for breakfast”), Moffat’s scripts and seasons tend to breeze along. One of the biggest problems with Moffat’s finalés is that they tend to feel a little overstuffed, that it might be worth making a bit more room to unpack The Wedding of River Song and The Name of the Doctor.

Dialing up the tension...

Dialing up the tension…

Here, the accelerated pace means that the Doctor doesn’t spend too long moping, but it also means that his return to action doesn’t feel like a suitably big moment. The Doctor’s retirements – both here and in The Snowmen – could have lasted a thousand years within the story, but it still feels like it was only last episode we saw him running around again, even if the last episode was quite a few months ago. (The fact that this is the second time in a row that the Doctor has retired doesn’t help.)

The killer!wi-fi hook might riff on familiar Moffat themes, but it largely works, because it feels strangely timely. We’ve just come out of a decade where the internet was treated as something inherently terrifying and scary. Movies and television shows exploited the human fear of the unknown, and anybody watching a thriller from the late nineties or early naughties would be forgiven for assuming that the internet was a hub of sexual predators and serial killers.

Wherever he lays his hat...

Wherever he lays his hat…

The Bells of St. John is interesting because it explores how we’ve sort of moved past that. The internet is not new and scary any longer. At the very least, we think we know all the risks associated with it. So, logically, the proper thing is for Steven Moffat to show up and make it something taken for granted and scary. As with any of Moffat’s mundane scary things, the concept works a lot better on an elemental level than a practical one. The notion of killer!wi-fi is ridiculous, but no less so than killer!statues or killer!shadows or killer!kids with gas masks.

Moffat does something interesting, and quite clever here. He takes this rather wonderful modern concept, the kind of concept that could easily have been the basis of a new and modern monster, and he ties it to an existing concept. In this case, it’s the Great Intelligence. Richard E. Grant is officially set up as the season’s big bad. The Great Intelligence appeared in The Snowmen, but also dates back to the Patrick Troughton era of the show.

The Doctor takes a leaf out of Clara's book...

The Doctor takes a leaf out of Clara’s book…

The Great Intelligence’s foot soldiers – the yeti – are perhaps the most iconic monsters never to have appeared in colour (outside of a brief appearance in The Five Doctors), to the point where Jon Pertwee could make off-hand jokes about how they embody the spirit of Doctor Who. Apparently, according to Pertwee, there’s nothing more scary than coming home and finding a Yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec. The recovery of The Web of Fear (with one episode missing) was still a bigger deal than the recovery of the entire Enemy of the World, in part because of the appearance of the yeti.

The ability to modernise and rework familiar concepts is one of the strengths of the revival. Davies’ portrayal of the Daleks as religious fanatics in The Parting of the Ways might be a radical portrayal of everybody’s favourite genocidal pepper pots, but it is also the best use the revived series has made of them. So it’s nice to see Moffat renovating a classic monster, updating it for the modern world.

Being taken for a ride...

Being taken for a ride…

And then there’s Clara. Clara, who is more of a plot device than a character in her own right. In The Eleventh Hour, Amy came packaged with her own mystery, but the mystery of “the girl who waited” was never pushed to the fore quite as clearly as it was with “the twice-dead girl.” The fact that the whole season is building towards a reveal about the nature of Clara in The Name of the Doctor, and the fact that there are only eight episodes in this half of the season, means that Clara gets a bit of a short shrift when it comes to characterisation.

In contrast to Amy’s imaginary friend, Moffat seems to be setting up the Doctor as Clara’s guardian angel, another fantastical archetype. Of course, he’s not very good at it – but he was never very good at being Amy’s imaginary friend either. Certainly, his guilt over losing her twice plays into his attitude towards Clara. “Under my protection,” he advises the people who attempted to download her, and it seems like the Doctor is more concerned about Clara’s safety than that of London. “Not this time, Clara, I promise,” he vows as she is downloaded.

Don't take anything for Granted...

Don’t take anything for Granted…

When he confronts the villains of the episode, he doesn’t demand the return of everybody, he demands the return of Clara. He stands guard outside her house while she rests, assuring her, “You’re safe now, I promise. Goodnight, Clara.” It’s an interesting twist on the dynamic between the Doctor and the companion, even if it does run the risk of provoking even more gender criticism about the role of women in Doctor Who.

These criticisms are valid, of course. Clara never feels like her own character. She’s more like a plot function. Her development is rather clumsily and hastily handled. She seems like a return to a more tradition model of companion, and a portion of The Name of the Doctor is devoted to reminding her that she is one of many of the Doctor’s friends, and not particularly special beyond being the one who happens to be with him at Trenzalore.

A storybook encounter...

A storybook encounter…

All of this is a bit unfortunate, but I think it’s more down to Moffat’s grand design than any thinly-veiled sexism. In The Name of the Doctor, Clara is defined as “the constant companion”, the archetypal associate scattered across the Doctor’s timeline and always protecting him and looking out for him. Her relative blandness would seem almost intentional, as if to emphasis just how perfectly she fits within that plot function.

It’s worth noting that Clara retains her independence throughout the season. She doesn’t run off to live in the TARDIS. She meets the Doctor for scheduled dates. She keeps her own job and her own ties to the real world. She’s a companion who could easily leave the Doctor’s world at any given moment, without a massive amount of angst or without a sense of being lost. Sarah Jane claimed that the Doctor was her life in School Reunion, and it’s worth pointing out that both Amy and Clara are defined as characters who do have larger lives outside the Doctor.

A window of opportunity...

A window of opportunity…

It is worth noting that the Doctor does seem to respect and care for Clara. He doesn’t patronise or condescend to her. For example, he is quite candid with her. He still boasts that he doesn’t have a plan, but confessions about his battle strategy disprove that assertion. He doesn’t avoid her questions, and instead answers with what seems to be honesty. He grudgingly concedes that she might be better with computers than he is.

He tells her he doesn’t fly the TARDIS into battle because he worries about it falling into the wrong hands (he’d probably tell Amy that motorbikes are cool) and he explains that his decision to jump forward in time to the morning was more than just showing off, it also served to exhaust their adversaries, who caught up with them “the slow way.” The Doctor is, despite his protestations to the contrary, a keen strategist. More than that, though, he’s honest with Clara about it. (Even though he does keep the reasons for his interest in her secret.)

Helmets are cool...

Helmets are cool…

The Bells of St. John is a solid high-speed season opener, high on spectacle and energy. Drawing from Davies is a good idea, as the episode moves at a tremendous pace through its visual set-pieces. There’s a wonderful shot where the Doctor takes Clara from outside her house to inside a falling jumbo jet without any obvious cuts. It also features Doctor riding a motorbike up the side of the building. So it’s hard to begrudge the introduction that.

The Bells of St. John lacks the depth of some of Moffat’s stronger scripts, but its sets the tone quite well for the season ahead.

You might be interested in our other reviews of this season’s episodes of Doctor Who:

Note: To celebrate the show’s fiftieth anniversary, I’m doing weekly reviews of the show (past and present.) The last one published was Jon Pertwee’s Planet of the Spiders, so feel free to check it out.

2 Responses

  1. I like your recap! I had many similar points of view. What is your opinion on Clara calling the TARDIS. She said the Lady in the shop told her this was the best help line available? River maybe?

  2. You summed up my complaint about Moffat really well, which is that however long events are supposed to have taken in the show, he always rushes to the cool stuff at the occasional expense of the emotion. See: the Doctor mourning the Ponds, or River Song’s entire revelation/Let’s Kill Hitler arc. Still, can’t wait to see what he does with the Great Intelligence!

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