Review: The Bells of Saint John



Writer: Steven Moffat

Director: Colm McCarthy

DWM 458 copySo, Doctor Who is back! And what an interesting story to see the series off to a flying start. Compared with last year’s Asylum of the Daleks there are almost no resemblances, yet both stories are trying to do the same thing – reintroduce the companion(s) and remind the viewer of what the show is about. The Bells of Saint John was billed as an urban thriller, yet really it feels more like a thriller tale told with a dash of Russell T Davies plot devices. Certainly, the story evoked a certain Partners in Crime and Rose feel, yet also it had a feeling that only Moffat can conjure, that of Blink, an uncanny fear of the mundane.

This brings me very nicely to the opening of the story. The pre-credits sequence feels very Sherlock, probably because of the shallow depth of field and the edgy text on-screen effect, yet also it evokes a clear resemblance to the closing of Blink. Why? Because it’s a narration over seemingly generic images of people using laptops and wifi by a person on a grainy TV screen. Very Blink.

The title music which debuted at Christmas time was a little more refined in this story, less of the zapping and whooshing from the on-screen elements and more of the generic, dum-de-dum that we all love.

There’s a strange jump after the credits back to the past were the very clever title of the episode is revealed. The Doctor has taken solitude as a Monk, trying to summon in himself the will to find Clara. It’s here that we really get our first glimpse of how Colm McCarthy is going to direct this story, with lots of light pouring into the lens. It’s probably a slight metaphor for the world swimming in Wifi, all that technology just floating around in the air, suffocating us. The title of the episode, The Bells of Saint John comes form the Monks telling the Doctor that ‘the bells of saint john are ringing’, which is a clever twist on words. Whilst we were all expecting a church or town bell, the bells in fact referred to a telephone ring and the saint john the ambulance circular emblem on the TARDIS door – hence The Bells of Saint John herald the TARDIS phone ringing.

And guess who is on the phone… Clara.

There’s some interesting points in this conversation: Most interesting is the ‘woman’. Clara says that she got the TARDIS’ number from “a woman in the shop”, presumably were she was complaining about the wifi not working, and that she said ” it was the best helpline out there, in the universe she said”. Given recent news I’m inclined to believe that this might be Rose (after all, she did work in a shop) yet something else inside me says that this might refer to River Song. Still, this is an important piece of information which I am assured Moffat will return to later this series.

The reintroduction of Clara is done through this phone conversation and the Doctor quickly tracks it back to her house. Here, the Doctor assumes that Clara will know him, yet she has no recollection of him at all, “Doctor Who”? The Doctor asks her to repeat the words, saying “I never realised how much I enjoy hearing that said out loud”. It’s also interesting that when the Doctor calls her Clara Oswin Oswald she corrects him to “just Clara Oswin”.

Here, we are introduced to Miss Kizlet the main foe for the story, performed beautifully and subtly by Celia Imrie, and the monster the Spoonheads, as the Doctor describes them – “walking wifi base station hoovering up data, or people”. Again, Colm McCarthy’s destinctive aesthetic of lighting is evident in Miss Kizlet’s office and Clara’s house.

The conversation between the Doctor and Clara over the intercom resembles their interactions in Asylum of the Daleks where the Doctor and Oswin talk over a video interface, in both cases Clara can see the Doctor but he can’t see her.

Doctor 4

Matt Smith is on fine form in this episode, mostly with the beautiful delivery of Moffat’s witty lines, like describing the TARDIS as him mobile phone because it’s “a surprisingly accurate description”, and when he’s in the cafe picking up cakes. It’s all become very normal for Smith to be overly eccentric and now it’s almost expected of him. He’s really inhabited the role of the Doctor now, firmly stamping him mark on the role.

Miss Kizlet seems to be acting on behalf of someone in this episodes, as we later discover it’s the Great Intelligence from The Snowmen, but to start with we know them only as the clients, needing a constant supply of human intelligence. Yet the Great Intelligence remembers the Doctor, and UNIT, so perhaps this will herald a return of the Yeti in the near future, what’s certain is that the Great Intelligence will surely pop up a third time, maybe in the finale.

The touching scene when the Doctor takes Clara to her bedroom is a quieter moment in a more action based story, with the subtleties of Smith’s performance, placing out the Jammie dodgers and flowers with such precision and care, like a child trying to please their parents. The Doctor picks up a 101 places to see book from Clara’s shelves – it’s interesting to note the ages on the inside cover, the numbers 16 and 23 are missing which begs the question, what happened to Clara in those years. Smith’s performance is again superb moments later when he exclaims to Clara that he “invented the Qudrocycle”! In between all the fear in this story there is quite a playful and enjoyable performance form Smith, with really shines through.

Doc&Clara 7At this point the real thriller elements enter the plot, with the whole city blacked out except for Clara’s orchestrated through the wifi, with hundreds of people under their control. Then a plane begins to head straight for them. There’s a real sense of scale here, showing just what control of the wifi means, city-wide control, everyone against them. As the Doctor says, “we must be one hell of a target right now”. The direction at this point is spot on by McCarthy, paced perfectly and leaving just the right amount of pause for dramatic effect.

Then we get the action packed sequence on the aeroplane heading for destruction. It’s jarring after the low scale conversation of the preceding few minutes, now it’s full-out action. The whole sequence is brilliantly rendered and edited by the Mill VFX.

Doc&Clara 8The story picks up pace here with the Doctor and Clara on the run, heading through London on a motorbike. Murray Gold’s coring of this scene is bold and exciting, yet really for the rest of the story the soundtrack rally takes a back seat, dying to complement the on-screen content, not over take it. The shots of the Doctor and Clara on the bike zooming over westminster bridge are fulfilling the urban thriller motto and giving us a really great view of London which makes for a try british and patriotic feel.

Yet, Miss Kitzlet is still searching for the Doctor, using photos uploaded to the internet (“I do love London, so many cameras”) to find him. They’re searching for a blue police box which prompts perhaps the best one-liner from the episode, “Earls Court was an embarrassment”.

Doc&Clara 4

Throughout the scenes on the rooftop the Shard looms ominously which makes it hardly surprising when it is revealed that this is where Miss Kizlet’s gang are hiding out. Moffat brings back the horror element in the cafe scenes though through Miss Kizlet using people to talk to the Doctor.

There’s a real negativity towards social media in this episode, which is hardly surprising given that Moffat recently left Twitter because it was a distraction and Smith’s pet hate is Twitter. We get lines like “The whole of humanity trapped inside the internet screaming out – isn’t that just Twitter” and a dig at revealing information through social media when Clara manages to track down their location through such services, “put your hand up if you’re on Facebook … put your hand down if you didn’t put where you work”.

Kizlet 2

The incidental cast members in this story also give lovely performances, the aforementioned Miss Kizlet played by Celia Imrie is a triumph of cold humour and ruling with an iron first. She really evokes strong connection to the character from Partners in Crime, Sarah Lancashire’s Ms Foster. Also the man who talks to the Doctor as he approaches the Shard gives a wonderful rendition of an upper class female voice as Miss Kizlet talks through her.

A real centre piece for the story was the Doctor’s ride up the side of the shard in the anti-grav motorbike. It felt like the sequence should have felt silly and over the top and unbelievable, but in the end it was quite the opposite. Because it was given very little screen time (because of the expense of digitally creating each shot) it didn’t feel over played.

In the resolution to the episode we find out who Miss Kizlet’s client is: The Great Intelligence. There’s a strong hint that this is the same enemy that faced the Doctor in the Underground with the Yeti in The Web of Fear because it seems to know that UNIT are “very old friends” of the Doctor. The episode takes a real emotional u-turn here with Miss Kizlet restoring everyone to factory settings. There’s a bluntness to how she has been treating humans like computers and now it has become her downfall. Her last scene is her curled up on the floor surrounded by soldiers asking for her mummy. Yet it doesn’t feel pathetic, it really pulls a the heart-strings that this lonely child was effective abducted by the Intelligence to serve them.

“Where are my mummy and daddy… they said they wouldn’t be long… are they coming back?”

Next weeks episode, The Rings of Akhaten looks like a really good story set on an alien world. Check back here for a review of that story a few days after the Saturday broadcast.


One response to “Review: The Bells of Saint John

  1. Pingback: Doctor Who @ BBC , Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman are introducing The Rings of Akhaten·

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