Funny how the instant The Bells of Saint John finished, we were all immediately in the midst of our own wi-fi soup, begging to find out what everybody else thought of the episode. That’s how Doctor Who works these days and doesn’t Steven Moffat know it? It’s probably a good job Doctor Who Confidential is finished, as it would seriously cut into our tweeting, blogging and status-updating time...
The Bells of Saint John was actually an impressively low-key way to start the anniversary run of episodes, the fairly obvious, broad-strokes cold open aside. At the other end of the opening titles we were back in 1207, and Moffat was already playing his usual games. What better way to enter a story about monsters in the wi-fi, than through a Cumbrian monastery 806 years in the past? The second repeated trope follows soon after, as the mysterious monk drops his hood to reveal the Doctor, and hard upon that comes the ringing of the TARDIS telephone. So far, so Steven Moffat.
Except there’s something different going on here. I’m not sure if it’s the fact that we’re now in the anniversary, or whether it’s maybe our incumbent showrunner’s excitement about finally unveiling his new companion – at the third time of asking – but the confidence of approach that has been building across the last two-and-a-half series suddenly seems to have found its apex, and series producer Marcus Wilson’s suggestion that Steven Moffat try a “modern urban thriller” has borne a beautifully-judged and deftly handled fruit: Clara Oswald’s debut story proper is the unlikeliest turn of events in quite a Doctor Who while – it’s a slow-burner, and a story about character. After the spills and spectacle of episodes like Let’s Kill Hitler and Asylum of the Daleks, it comes as a bit of a shock to the system. And a very welcome one at that.
Of course, there’s plenty of familiar elements. Given the triumph of Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ other great success, it was no surprise to find a touch of the onscreen computer graphic trickery that Sherlock utilises so effectively, although here it comes in the service of something far simpler and more easy to follow; and in the aftermath of Clara’s two previous deaths (and the Ponds’ “Who killed Kenny?” mania), we’d have been given to expect another, similar red herring of a plot-turn here, and we weren’t to be disappointed. And then we weren’t to be disappointed again. But that’s kind of beside the point. That The Bells of Saint John (with the Shard standing in as an ostensible modern tower of London) is so light on story – effectively the quiet chapter that stands in the middle of a plot that begins in The Snowmen and will be concluded elsewhere (and the fleeting cameo from Richard E Grant is all the reason we need to understand why the Christmas Special was exempted from its own standalone video release, in favour of an appearance in the Series 7 Part 2 set) – might on another day come across as a weakness, but in fact it’s that very breathing space it has been afforded that is its greatest strength. The two trailer-friendly action sequences aside (involving first an aeroplane and then a gravity-defying motorbike), by far the greater part of the 45 minute running time is spent investing in the characters. There’s enough forward thrust to keep you occupied, it goes without saying, but the Spoonheads (in spite of their fantastic first appearance in the guise of a little girl animated out of a picture – another nod to Moffat’s previous stories) are basically the side helping of peril that keeps the Doctor and his new girl in constant forward motion throughout. The Doctor and his new girl, that’s what it’s all about.
Matt Smith is just as delectably odd as ever, channelling the changes between ostentatious eccentricity and quiet gravity in a manner so natural he’s fast becoming a very serious contender for best-ever Doctor (and how pleasing to see the Doctor-in-a-funk of The Snowmen given enough of a twist to make it still interesting), but for all his screen charisma our eyes are only ever on the girl.
Jenna-Louise Coleman is the perfect antidote to Amy Pond. Which is strange, because on the surface, she’s written in a very similar fashion, snapping back the answers to the Doctor’s constant challenges in the off-handedly defiant jousting manner we’ve come to expect from pretty much all of Moffat’s characters (and despite Karen Gillan’s early shouty approach – an approach that almost made Tegan feel demure by comparison – the actress had grown into the part by the end and almost but almost made Amy Pond somebody worth missing). Look a little further though, and the differences become more apparent. For a start, there’s Clara’s response to the TARDIS interior. Rather than go for the obvious repeat of the rather obvious inversion of “Bigger on the inside” that Clara “surprised” us with last time, instead we get a rather wide-eyed “actually bigger,” a more human reaction that suggests a more sympathetic character, somebody to whom we might warm more quickly and more easily than has recently been the case. Now that she’s on-board for the foreseeable (or at least, she will be by the start of next week; “Tomorrow I might say yes,” was Steven Moffat toying with another familiar device in a satisfactorarily subdued and playful way), you get the feeling that the next few weeks will have all of the fun that Amy would occasionally supply, and none of the attendant angst. The Doctor Who of this anniversary year might be in slightly shorter supply than we’re used to, but it’s a trade-off that suddenly seems worthwhile. I just hope that Clara’s story isn’t so told by the end of the current run that we end up moving on without her once it’s over.
There’s a touch of Partners in Crime about The Bells of Saint John (and not just because it’s the Doctor tracking down an ex-companion that wasn’t quite), but Celia Imrie makes for a far more impressive villainess than Sarah Lancashire could, and the cool washes of sunlight and fragrance of coffee give the episode an entirely different feel, the London skyline a surprisingly relaxing backdrop to what is perhaps the most modest series opener the programme has ever produced. I like it – but don’t do it again; I wouldn’t want this every week. It’s uniqueness is what makes it so cherishable.
Now, what did everybody else think of it? Let’s see what Twitter has to say about that...
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