Review – Doctor Who: The Bells of Saint John by Steven Moffat (Spoilers within)

Well, how am I going to top the cracking post by Mendy, Stella and Rosalie.  The answer is that I can’t.

However, what was topped this weekend was the opening episode of Season Seven, Part Two for “Doctor Who” by the news that David Tennant and Billie Piper, along with acting legend John Hurt, will be joining up with Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman in the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary special episode.  Whilst the news itself is exciting, the timing was unfortunate as it overshadowed a solid opening episode for the Doctor and the 21st century version of Clara/Oswin Oswald.

As with previous changes in the Doctor/companion, “The Bells of Saint John” has the feeling of a new chapter, but this one has used the series’s past as the foundation for looking forward.  I mean the title itself is referential to the series, and to my shame as a person who has watched “Doctor Who” for nearly forty years I didn’t spot the reference, with “Saint John” referring to the St. John’s Ambulance sticker on the TARDIS door (alongside the Doctor’s observation that the TARDIS’s phone shouldn’t be ringing as previously pointed out in the 2005 episode, “The Empty Child”).

The episode itself was billed as an “urban thriller” and, to some extent, it leaves up to this billing as the story takes place in contemporary London and uses the traditional plot theme of using an element of the ordinary and everyday as a threat.  I mean, wi-fi is as prevalent in society today as plastic tailors dummies were in 1970 when the Autons first burst on to our screens.  However, this story had a lightness in it, by terms of humour, to make it a true “urban thriller” in the mould of an episode such as “The Sound Of Drums” which really held a sense of fear within it.

But the feeling of the story isn’t the only area where the story references itself.

They have only been gone for two episodes, but the Ponds are still making their presence known – in this story through the book “Summer Falls” by Amelia Williams.  Whilst speaking to Mendy today, we discussed the book and the relevance of the picture.  There are already fan theories behind this, but I have taken this picture to be a reference to Amy and “her boys” (Rory and the Doctor).

Once the story really gets started from Clara’s perspective of trying to access her wi-fi, the viewer is drawn into THE big plot strand for this year… who is Clara and what is her relationship to the Doctor?  This mystery is pretty much set up with her being set up in contact with the Doctor through the “best helpline in the universe” by a woman in the shop.  Again, there are the theories bouncing around to who the woman is, but it will be interesting to see if she is going to be a major player in the Whoniverse, or one of Mr Moffat’s red herrings.

This initial encounter sets up a dynamic between the Doctor and Clara which has a feeling both of the classic Doctor/companion dynamic and the contemporary dynamic that has been the mainstay since 2005.

From the Doctor’s perspective, he behaves with a sense of responsibility for Clara’s welfare – whether it be because of the Ponds’ fate or the fact that he has seen two other versions of Clara/Oswin die, but he also shows a fascination with the mystery of who Clara is which runs from his first scene as a “Mad Monk” through to his embarking to find out whether Clara has agreed to his offer to travel with him.

From Clara’s perspective, she shows an equal fascination in who the Doctor is from the moment he enters her life.  However, her personality straddles the two previous Clara/Oswins when it comes to her interaction with the Doctor.  On the one hand, she is the contemporary version of Clara’s prim and proper Governess role, whilst she shows the flirtatious side of Clara’s barmaid role and the Oswin from “Asylum Of The Daleks” when she calls the TARDIS a “snogging booth” and warns him that “There’s such a thing as too keen”.

However, the pair also have a childlike innocence to them in their dynamic with the Doctor leaving Jammy Dodgers for Clara after her first encounter with the “Spoonheads”, whilst she still writes her age in her book, “101 Places To See”, which also highlights her adventurous nature.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this dynamic plays out, especially as the initial interest on the Doctor’s part is the mystery behind Clara’s origins, something that is highlighted in the cafe scene where the Doctor calls Clara’s bluff about people always having plans by stating that he doesn’t, even though the Doctor has a plan right from the off to meet Clara.

The story itself also has many “kisses to the past” in it, which is rather appropriate given that this is the first story of the fiftieth anniversary year including:

1. The Twitter joke – the Doctor’s dislike of the social networking site came up in “The Power of Three”.

2. “Short hops are difficult” for the TARDIS – possibly a reference to Season 18 0f the classic era where the TARDIS was getting better at short journeys, in particular in Tom Baker’s final story, “Logopolis”.

3. The Doctor’s sense of direction (when looking for the TARDIS garage) – possibly a reference to the fifth Doctor, portrayed by Peter Davison, who played the same gag about the Doctor’s poor sense of direction several times.

4. The fact that U.N.I.T. are known to the Great Intelligence – especially as the organisation’s original commanding officer, Brigadier (or Colonel, as we known back in his first story) Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart encountered the Great Intelligence and its Yeti footsoldiers in “The Web of Fear”.

In fact, the Intelligence’s modus operandi is consistent with the previous stories in which it features – use a lonely or withdrawn person, in this case Miss Kizlet portrayed with a cold hearted villainy by Celia Imrie, as the hands-on organiser for the Intelligence whilst it seeks to harvest the people’s minds through the use of the worldwide web – see webs again.

However, it is also a story that isn’t afraid to use its contemporary setting to act as a social parable, in this case the fact that modern communication is part and parcel of our everyday lives and that we should be careful as to how much of ourselves we put online for open view – such as the scenes where the Doctor and Clara are constantly photgraphed in London and where Clara uses hacked webcams and social networking to identify Kizlet’s base of operations.

Whilst “The Bells of Saint John” isn’t as strong as some of the season openers we have been treated to (and I am treating this like a season opener as it sets the tone for what is to come by way of the direction for the show), it is a solid opening story for Matt and Jenna-Louise’s, along with the Doctor and Clara’s, era in the programme and serves as a foundation for the remainder of Season Seven, Part Two and leaves the viewer in anticipation as to what is going to happen between the members of this TARDIS team.


One thought on “Review – Doctor Who: The Bells of Saint John by Steven Moffat (Spoilers within)

  1. Thanks sweetie, absolutly brilliant as ever!!!

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