Doctor Who 3.6: The Bells of Saint John review

Review

The Bells of Saint John

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Clara: When you say mobile phone, why do you point at that blue box?
The Doctor: Because it’s a surprisingly accurate description.

Production Code: 3.6.
Doctor Who Season: S33 (Ep6).
Story Number: 232.

Another introduction…

Steven Moffat explains in the most recent Doctor Who Magazine that “one-shot characters are caricatured”, exaggerated. For example, computer-expert Oswin of Asylum of the Daleks is very much a “smart-ass”; governess Clara of The Snowmen is resolutely “plucky”.

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This third Clara is a different character, but the same, he explains. A more “realistic version”. Against the frenetic action of this “urban thriller”, Moffat’s not wrong – a quieter, more complex, even more interesting version of Clara this time.

Before this story introduces us to her (again), there’s a huge infodump of plot – the precredits sequence. That’s maybe a little harsh to describe it as such, but there’s no doubt that with 45 minutes (compared to The Eleventh Hour‘s 65 minutes or The Snowmen‘s 60 minutes) it’s useful to get the plot out of the way so the characters of the show can be introduced to us properly.

That voice rings a bell – is what the Doctor doesn’t say – the way the story-title is how our heroes meet again is hugely clever. (And this Doctor being contemplative in a monastery is somehow perfect for the downtime between adventures.)

The “Bells of Saint John” also conjure up the spires of London’s metropolis which is appropriate. (Doctor Who icon St Paul’s is in this, the second most prominent building of the story after the Shard.)

Curiously – or maybe not so curiously as Moffat perhaps wanted to define his era in contrast to RTD’s – this is the very first “contemporary London Doctor Who” of the Moffat era, after 34 episodes.

It’s not like Doctor Who doesn’t have a strong tradition of using London as an exciting backdrop for its adventures – consider the Sixties: The War Machines; The Web of Fear; The Invasion.

The story-title also alludes to the biggest and most subtle unresolved new mystery of this episode – “the women in the shop”, and just how and why she’s joined this TARDIS duo together.

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picThrowing off the monk habit, the Doctor – as he periodically does, think Season 18 of the 1980s – keeps the same get-up but completely changes it. The new mixture of formal aubergine coat and “cool” skinny jeans is very Eleventh Doctor.

The Spoonheads are seriously creepy. As the nominal central monster of the episode though they’re hardly in it – all the more time for the character introductions. Their three main scenes are hugely effective though, with their eerie swiveling spoon-dish.

The scene in which Clara finally fully warms to the Doctor (it’s the flip of The Snowmen) is really very Eleventh Doctor too. In many ways he’s the most unworldly and alien of the incarnations of the Doctor – he doesn’t really see anything out of the ordinary in “guarding” Clara, and she seems unfazed. Even by his quadrocycle.

Her introduction to the TARDIS interior is perhaps the most kinetic of any such scene of the past 50 years – in, whoa, out, and into the interior of a nosediving jetplane – there’s some nifty camerawork to make the transition each time, if maybe not quite as super-spectacular as The Snowmen‘s equivalent scene.

It’s great that there’s a further glimpse of the TARDIS and the multi-level nature of its control room – the Doctor dashing first one way then the other down a corridor has an extra frisson when you know the story-title of a future episode of this Spring run.

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picThe TARDIScycle is extraordinary – “I don’t take the TARDIS into battle” – though actually quite logical. Victory of the Daleks revealed the TARDISphone, so the Eleventh Doctor was already edging towards the 1960s Batman television show.

Going vertically up the side of a building – another Adam West Batman thing, but this instance was just a little more spectacular, showing off London to great effect.

Two brisk and clipped voices arguing in a corporate office – hero and villain – The Invasion was again recalled by this particular scene.

Once the master-villain’s plan is defeated – and the big reveal – then the Great Intelligence, with its Dr Simeon-transformed visage floating in the weirdscape on the screen: that just points up again how the two “Dr”s are contrasted against each other. It’s like the Doctor’s face that now floats in the weirdscape of the title credits.

Was anyone else half-expecting the Master to be pulling the strings of the master-villain plan instead? It’s the kind of thought that’s only natural in this celebratory year of 2013.

This and the previous episode were their own subtle celebration of 50 years – snowmen, the Web? (London Wide Web if not World Wide. A network across London, like the Tube.)

The Abominable Snowmen; The Web of Fear.

It’s a marvellous 45 minutes. The introduction of Clara is over, once more. She’s joined the TARDIS – and yet curiously she hasn’t, as yet.

“Come back tomorrow”. She has her own plans – as we learn of her character, she never gave up on her plans.

“That wasn’t a leaf – that was page one”.

Rating: 5/5
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(The Bells of Saint John on bbc.co.uk/programmes/)

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