Doctor Who: The Bells Of St John spoiler-free review

Review Simon Brew 18 Mar 2013 - 00:01

Doctor Who returns on Saturday the 30th of March with the devilishly entertaining The Bells of St John. Here's our spoiler-free review...

7.7 The Bells of St John

It's best that we quickly kick off with our usual but necessary explanation of what we mean by spoiler-free in our reviews. Feel free to jump a paragraph if you've read our spoiler-free stuff before.

Basically, this. We believe that spoiler-free reviews should be just that, and as such, we always veer on the side of caution. Shows such as Doctor Who are best enjoyed knowing as little about them before you watch an episode, and that's certainly the case again with The Bells Of St John. As such, we accept that we're telling you next to nothing about the story itself in the review that follows, but that is a deliberate choice on our part. We don't even put hidden clues or subtexts in these reviews either, and wouldn't want to kid you otherwise.

All that said, on with the review then...

We like to think that when Steven Moffat sat down to write The Bells Of St John, he was also trying to watch a little bit of Eastern horror on a laptop, one that wasn't really working properly, all the while as a Google StreetView car drove down his road gathering its data. That'd certainly explain just a small number of the themes and ideas he's woven into The Bells Of St John, an episode that ushers in a feel of a fresh era for Doctor Who

That fresh era is heralded by the proper arrival of Jenna-Louise Coleman as the new - and increasingly mysterious - companion Clara. She's been killed twice already in the show before she's had a chance to be properly introduced, but one of the many things that The Bells Of St John does very well is properly ground her into the world of Doctor Who. It's to her and Moffat's credit that she slips into it all so easily.

For the vast majority of its running time, The Bells Of St John is, as billed, a contemporary thriller set in the heart of London (weaving in plenty of the city as it tells its tale). It certainly feels a long time since we had something quite like this in Doctor Who, too. It's a standalone modern day episode, with subtle threads weaving their way through, and crucially, it's exceptionally entertaining. Were Moffat a man with longer foliage on the top of his head, this would be described as one of his stories where he's let it down a little more, and from start to finish had raging fun with his episode. It's a delight to watch it unfold.

That fun is infectious, too. First time Who director Colm McCarthy takes little time getting his hands dirty, starting off with one or two Sherlock-esque visual tricks, before showing a deft ability to change pace, and mix up the comedy and the action. Both of which come, as you head into the second half of The Bells Of St John, thick and fast. 

And then there's guest star Celia Imrie. Perhaps the last hold-out of the British acting elite to yet appear in Downton Abbey (Leslie Phillips too, to be fair), she's just brilliant. Celia Imrie is always brilliant of course, but she proves inspired casting, making a real mark in her reasonaby brief screen time. The heart of the episode, though, is the clear and evident chemistry between Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman. They make it look effortless, and questions abound as to how their story will pan out. Theirs, already, isn't a relationship where one person is always explaining things to the other, and it's all the better for it. After all, both the Doctor and Clara have mysteries of their own, that intrigue the respective characters.

Back to the narrative itself. What Moffat does particularly well here is to pack in a complete story, from start to finish, that's never less than devilishly entertaining. The fun factor occasionally seeps out of new Who just a little as it goes darker and deeper, but this is an episode where the balance feels pretty much bang on. There's a sense that this is keeping to the blockbuster ethos that's underpinned the series so far - fans of Mission: Impossible movies won't feel shortchanged - but it's also coupled to a tight, terrifically executed piece of television. 

Furthermore, there are lots of little touches for fans dotted around, and just a few little threads from more recent times. But make no mistake: this feels like an opening episode again, one that's shooting out of the proverbial traps at some speed. It loses just a tiny bit of momentum going into the final third, but gets going again in double-quick time, with a nice and satisfying ending. 

It's a really nicely structured, balanced piece of work this, with something close to the end that'll have you awaiting further episodes and developments with real interest. It also feels like Doctor Who has taken a breath of fresh air, building on the rightly-acclaimed The Snowmen, and packing in so much of what there is to love about the show in 45 minutes. The introduction of a major new character is an opportunity that has not been squandered.

Bottom line? If the plan for series 7 was to give us a blockbuster a week, The Bells Of St John achieves that as well as any story we've seen this series so far. We had a real blast with it, and suspect you will too. 

Our full spoiler-y review will follow on the evening of Saturday 30th March, when Doctor Who returns to our screens.

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Excellent looking forward to this. Matt's been a superb Doctor and really looking forward to seeing Jenna again she is gorgeous. The Trailer's aren't helping either 12 Days to go hurry up.

Your review has got me fired up for a great hour in front of the telly in two weeks' time. Can't wait. Haven't looked forward to a new episode of DW this much since Castrovalva heralded Peter Davison's first full episode back in 1982.

Matt and jenna's chemistry was really obvious in the two episodes they've been in even if they didn't appear together onscreen in one. She like Amy seems a mach for him, she does't fawn unnecessarily at his genius and this takes her immediately away from the helpless female being lead by the male hero.
Often when TV shows or films create strong female characters they either make them shouty or give them masculine traits. 'Who' has never done this (amy and donna do approach shouty/bolshi) and Cara looks to continue this and I can't wait to enjoy it all

I really can't wait for this series. Matt Smith is now entering a second phase as the Doctor in the way that Tom Baker and David Tennant did before him. It's like a major key change into the 50th. I'm getting really excited now!!!

I am very much looking forward to the final arc of series 7. Although I do sound a note of caution. I have learnt from experience that the reviews here at DoG are very pro-Who........and TBH a preview for a major episode that isn't glowing in its obscene use of hyperbolic praise is a bad omen, I have found.
Still one musn't grumble before seeing the episode. Happy to be wrong.

Raising our hopes? We trust you, DoG. Looking forward to it!

See what you think come 30th March. Didn't meet anyone at the preview who didn't really like it.

As for pro-Who: well, it's little secret that lots of us love the show and grew up with it. It's a tough love though, as we're equally taken to the task for the episodes we don't like as well as those we do. All we can do is call it as we see it. No agenda either way when it comes to our reviews.


Very nice review! And it does such a nice job of avoiding spoilers that, aside from the presence of Matt and Jenna, which I sort of expected from the "trailer" and all the publicity, the only thing given away is that the ep is a "a contemporary thriller set in the heart of London."

Which, come to think of it, sounds quite a bit like Spooks/MI-5.

I am really hoping they do not lay on the romantic tension too thick. One of the reasons I loved Amy (and Donna) was there was just a friendship and comraderie in the TARDIS, like mates on a road trip, rather than a "when will we snog" mentality. Having seen the start of their relationship in the Snowmen, there is definitely something there, but hopefully it wont take over the show like it did with some companions (Martha Jones, I am looking in your direction)

Is it just me or is anyone else concerned how the series is now promoting itself as "a movie every week" vast, epic, fast-paced etc. Classic era Who aside, just looking at New Who stories, for me, the best episodes that worked best weren't the big, brash loud productions but the well written slow burners, like Fathers' Day, Blink, Human Nature/Family of Blood, Midnight, Vincent and the Doctor, The Doctor's Wife. Sometimes less is more

I love the show and grew up with it too Simon (from 1966), but some more honesty and balance in your reviews would help. Which was the last review where you said something along the lines of "this episode doesn't work and is a major disappointment"? Most of your reviews do come across as terribly sycophantic tbh.

Great review Simon, I am really looking forward to this run. I'm glad that this episode will be a tight and complete story. Steven's run as exec is just getting better and better.

I really hope The Doctor grows some balls and starts acting like a man.

Sure, he's been loopy in the past thanks to regeneration issues, but ever since the Dalek wars, he's become a bit of a wet rag, only able to get it on if there's a young nubile girl needing to be saved. Speaking of which, he seemingly can't keep his hands off them these days, the dirty old bugger. I mean this guy is a thousand year old grandfather who has reverted to stealing girls away from their mothers and then breaking down into a blubbery emotional mess when they leave. He no longer relies on his wits to defeat his enemies, but uses a flashy sonic vibrator (no wonder the girls love him) that solves all his problems. And running, wow this guy can run like the wind. Always running in the opposite direction to where the danger lies. You'll never see this guy run full tilt into a battle, at best he materialises behind their back, shoves his vibrator up their collective kazoos and sets it to eleven. No wonder his enemies keep coming back for more.

And now here he is, set for another female conquest. She's young, single and with no familial attachments. All she has to do is die a couple of times and the Doctor's besotted with her. The Universe could be falling apart for all we know, but he's made it perfectly clear all his energies (and sonic vibrator battery power) are focused on this girl. Luckily for the Universe I'm confident their paths will cross and the Doctor's device of many pleasures will once again save the day so people will be able to tune in next week for another dose of Time Lord tomfoolery.

I'm looking forward to it :)

no....not concerned at all....this is what keeps this series can change. They will eventually go back to the slow burners and 2 parters....and they will be fresher than ever

maybe the truth is they just plain liked it

I don't remember the exact episode, but a couple years ago they panned an episode that a whole bunch of people came out in defense of, myself included. Sure would help my argument if I could remember which, though, wouldn't it? ;)

Found it! It was "Amy's Choice". These guys hated it, but several people, myself among them, loved it, and it got ugly.

Well, not really, but it was a definite instance of them not liking an episode, wrong though they were. ;)

(Forgive the double post, if they decide to approve my previous response with the links. In fact, Moderator, feel free to just leave the one with the links. We don't need both.)

Indeed, he has certainly mellowed with age.

That's fair enough but there have been a few duds since 2005, I'm curious to see what DOG thought of them all. Time to check the back catalogue :)

Thanks I'll check it out.

I genuinely don't think so.

Matt's contract is up at the beginning of 2014, isn't it? With discussions to follow. Matt has said a fair amount of times now that he's eager to break into Hollywood movies, and he's now being given that oppotunity with How to Catch a Monster.

Personally, I think he should let his contract end in 2014, and treat his new movie as the second stage of his actual acting career - instead of focus on his second stage of being The Doctor. He wants to act in Hollywood, and he's being given that chance right now! He should take it, and Doctor Who should do what it ALWAYS does eventually.. Change!

Good comment! You're right about the blubbering, too.

I understand fully that with regeneration, comes a new man - and each of those men handle situations quite differently.. But I quite liked the steely nature of both 9 and 10, when it came to losses, or emotional upheaval of any kind. That's what really cemented The Doctor's reaction to The Master's "death" when he was shot. It was really the first time we actually got to see him break up! It was fantastic! Really powerful moment.

God, I'm not one of those nostalgia goggled 10 obsessives. 11 is quite possibly my favourite so far in many ways. I just don't see how this individual incarnation can be pushing over 100 years old and be less emotionally mature than when he started! ..Or, actually, yes I can. What's character progression when you can milk and overwrite a character to death, once it grows immensely more popular? I mean, come on, that's what this is isn't it? This individual Doctor - Eleven - has seen and been through a LOT. And I mean a lot. More than most of his other incarnations saw while they were about. Why, then, does it feel like we're going backwards? Yes, yes.. I know. Refer me to The Snowmen, and moody Doctor. Didn't last long, did it?

Hopefully I'm wrong, and he grows up a bit. I like character progression, it allows me to invest in characters I like. I hate it when it blatantly isn't allowed to happen to simply sell a certain style of brand.

I wouldn't mind if they did such a thing. I mean, after the whole Rose and Martha fiascos(yes, I believe both were done horribly on the romantic angle), I was the same. It just didn't seem quite right with any of the companions(unless we're counting River, which I definitely didn't mind at all). But so far, they've had not just a lot of chemistry but the right kind. Rose seemed too... buddyish. Martha was a great character aside from the whole unrequited love thing. I honestly think RTD just threw that in there to remind the audience of Rose every episode. People get mad at Moffat because he's got an ego but RTD had just as big of an ego as Moffat. Difference being that Moffat has written so many brilliant episodes, we we can kind of deal with it. As for Donna, obviously they were buddyish but it was meant to be that way. No romance there which was a good choice. Amy and the Doctor has loads of chemistry but it wasn't quite the right kind for me to accept them(then they threw Rory in who we all admire) in that way. It was good of Moffat to move away from that as time went on. Clara would make sense though. At least so far she does.

For the record, they still haven't approved my previous post, the one with actual links to their negative review of Amy's Choice. The links which go back to their own website, that I added to DEFEND THEIR JOURNALISTIC INTEGRITY.

I, uh... I don't know how to process this. Wanna just call 'em honest yet incredibly lazy? :p

Are we getting the different textured logos again? I was one of the few that actually liked them ;)

The Rose thing was hardly a "fiasco". After Doctor/Master, Doctor/Rose fan fiction stories easily make up the most majority of the hetereo pairings from Doctor Who. Plenty of people liked Rose; the Doctor/Rose fan clubs are typically some of the largest shipping groups for the fandom; and the show got its popularity from when Tennant was the Doctor, and Rose, the companion. The Doctor/Rose partnership helped add a lot of new fans to the fanbase, and helped Doctor Who begin its expansion as a fandom outside of the U.K.

As for River, she seems like a carbon copy of Mara Jade from Timothy Zahn's Star Wars AU trilogy. You also mention that RTD wanted to "remind the audience of Rose every episode". Well, not we have that with Moffat, wanting to remind the audience of River every episode, and the Doctor constantly saying "I'm married" or the like. You also mention RTD's ego, yet what is more egotistical than having the Doctor marry your own character created to be his love interest? What is more egotistical than inserting that same creation into the 50h Anniversary of Doctor Who? Or having the entirety of season 6 revolve around River?

Clearly, Moffat is the more egotistical of the two. Even RTD recognized that he Doctor could never truly be with Rose, and he certainly didn't have them marry each other. RTD has also written many brilliant episodes.

Brilliant, can't wait!!!! Den Of Geek. What rating would you give this out of ten?????

1) Popular doesn't equal good. I would have you know that plenty of people like the Twilight series.

2)"what is more egotistical than having the Doctor marry your own character" As opposed to someone else's?

Well, if they don't think the didn't work, then why would they say it?

They've changed the theme again!

His second phase only has to be 8 episodes long!!

I think this may be the last Who episode I watch until Moffat/Smith leave. I nearly gave up when James Corden defeated the Cybermen with the love for his son. I nearly stopped when Dinosaurs were running around a spaceship. I was pulling my hair out every episode for weeks with the whole "love conquers all" Amy/Rory saga. Now I've decided that enough is enough. No more. Why should I bother? There's no longer any peril, with no antagonist development to speak of (aside from the obligatory "throw in a reference to a season long primary antagonist" bit in each episode, which detracts from the episode villain, both in terms of significance and more often, pacing). The whole theme of Doctor Who has been pretty much dismissed to conduct an attempt at character writing, while occassionally throwing in an episode that wants to be "blockbuster" but would make SyFy
think twice about its production values. It's so easy to predict each week now. You have 80% of the episode that revolves around "relationships" and the whole "quirky hipster Doctor" routine. The last 20% is the opening set-up and the final (swift) defeat of the after-thought enemy. Frankly it's just not enjoyable anymore. I'm not saying that other Doctors and other writers were perfect, but I feel this combination just doesn't understand what I (and I understand I'm probably in the minority on this one, judging by the gushing reviews every time either of them even blink) want and hope for from a Doctor Who series. I look forward to the next regeneration and hope that it will be just that, for the WHOLE show.

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