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Doctor Who “The Bells of Saint John” Review

by on March 30, 2013

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Hooray! It’s back! Doctor Who has returned to our various screen-types and has delivered an episode that looks so phenomenal it almost doesn’t look like it belongs on Doctor Who. “The Bells of Saint John” introduced Clara Oswald Proper (Jenna-Louise Coleman) in a story that was supremely modern in both its storytelling and presentation. It also features some of the best Doctor-companion repartee in quite a long time. The Ponds were fun, but Clara’s ability to banter is unmatched. Let’s dive right in!

Steven Moffat is known for making the everyday threatening. This time, he’s done it with something that surrounds everybody all the time, whether they like it or not: Wi-Fi. It’s everywhere and we can do nothing about it, so what if it was hostile? What if it had control of us all? What if it had these weird camouflaged servers with empty, hollow heads? Creepy-ass, right? As far as a villain goes, the Spoonheads and the corporate people who control them are fairly pedestrian, but the threat is very compelling. And when, at the end of the episode, we find out they’re being controlled by the Richard E. Great Intelligence, it gives me a great deal of hope that he (and it) are going to play a much larger role in this season’s activities. Hooray for references to 1960s, and specifically Patrick Troughton, stories. There’s probably going to be a lot of that this year.

The direction of this episode is nothing short of gorgeous. This is Colm McCarthy’s first foray into the world of Doctor Who, and he’s not slated to direct any more this year. However, he’s directed episodes of very London-centric shows like MI-5 and Hunter, so he’s one of the best people for directing an episode that so perfectly utilizes the city’s sites and geography. I just went to London last autumn and saw all of the locations shown. It’s exactly like that. The throwaway joke about Earl’s Court, when the baddies are looking for the TARDIS, was quite funny. (There’s a real police box outside the tube station there… I took a picture by it.) Moffat’s other show, Sherlock, uses London exceedingly well, and I never imagined Doctor Who would feel so… REAL. This gives me hope for what an eventual feature film COULD look like.

The real story here is the relationship between Clara and the Doctor. Coleman and Smith have chemistry to spare. It was more volatile in “The Snowmen,” but here it’s no less engaging or fun to watch. Seeing the Doctor really care about looking out for Clara and attempting to save her (finally) is wonderful. Smith never fails to surprise me with how he plays the Eleventh Doctor. It’s maybe the most varied and nuanced of all the Doctors ever. He goes from silly to serious so effortlessly. I love that Clara doesn’t fall for the Doctor’s usual lines and isn’t afraid to call him on his BS. In a series populated by tough chicks, it’s nice to see one who actually IS tough and not just made to look that way.

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The mystery behind Clara is nowhere near close to being resolved, which I love. We hear, possibly, the origin of the name “Oswin” and we see her do things that each of her previous “versions” have done (look after children and be very good at computers). I was initially concerned about having another companion who is mysterious and with a complicated past, but it’s different enough, and the character is certainly different enough, that it’s not a distraction nor does it feel like a retread. Clara is the only companion thus far in the new series with a completely clean slate, seemingly no relations, and definitely nothing going on for her beyond wanting to travel. I’m really looking forward to where she goes this year.

The more I think about this episode, the less I feel I have to say, but the more I think I enjoyed watching it. It’s not got a very complicated plot, it’s not a huge mystery, it doesn’t have very engaging villains or monsters, but it does have a huge amount of character and it’s never boring or dumb. It’s just a really good episode, a decent story with exceptional dialogue, direction, and performances. There’s a reference to Amy (the book the son is reading is written by Amelia Williams), a small reference to UNIT, which you know I love, and there’s a small setup for what will probably be the main baddie for the rest of the series. One thing that may (and I’m sure will) come back into play is this mysterious woman from the shop who gave Clara the Doctor’s number that rang the eponymous “Bells of Saint John.” Might be River, might be Amy, might be Clara herself from the future, might be someone totally different; it’ll be interesting to see who. So, to sum up: very good episode, would watch again, +++++.

Next week, we have “The Rings of Akhaten,” written by Neil Cross and directed by Farren Blackburn, both of Luther fame. Looks pretty weird and definitely very alien, which was rather lacking in Series 7a. Until then!