This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
7.7 The Bells Of St John
Shall we start with the questions, then?
Where did Clara’s 16th and 23rd years go in her book? Is there meaning to their absence? Also, what is The Great Intelligence up to? Who else let out a strange noise of glee when Richard E Grant reappeared? And can we have more Celia Imrie in Doctor Who in the future please?
It’d be remiss to say that The Bells Of St John felt like a return to form for Doctor Who, because even in its weaker stories, there’s been a good deal to enjoy over the past 12 months. Yet it builds on the excellent Christmas special, and tells a terrific, logical and enjoyable standalone story, with a few bits and bobs left around to tie it to Who past and present.
At first, it felt a bit like Blink mixed with Sherlock. The recorded video message with the assorted graphics appearing on the screen certainly gave that flavour, but just as it was settling into that, Steven Moffat yanked us back to 1207. There seemed to be three reasons for this. One, to do a gag about the time later in the episode. Two, to get Matt Smith in a monk outfit (as if he’d been reading Tom Baker’s autobiography). And thirdly, not really touched on for too much of the episode, to add to the mythos of Clara just a little more. Note it in your head for later in the series: there’s a painting of her in the 13th century. Who knows why, but we’re told it’s her final message. “Run you clever boy” may yet become the new “hello sweetie”.
To be fair, that mythos of the increasingly-brainy Clara is being handled really very well. It’s never dominating, but it’s always bubbling away. She doesn’t know the Doctor when we first catch up with her here, acting as a nanny for two young children. Via a fun technical support call (and a very long phone cord), Clara and the Doctor are brought back together, with the former oblivious to the fact that the man she’s looking at has been responsible for her death. Twice.
Jenna-Louise Coleman settles into her role as Clara – again – as if she’d been working on the show for years, and the easy chemistry she has with Matt Smith, where both are giving as good as they get, adds a fun heart to the episode. There’s still a nod of the head to the Ponds in here, given that there’s the small matter of Amelia Williams’ book (Summer Falls), but this is Clara and The Doctor’s show, and they seem to be having a ball. And not snogging. We’re quite happy with that.
The story itself is a really good one. Doctor Who has always traded in secret transmitters and communications devices, not least because they tend to be speedy ways to resolve seemingly intricate plots, but Moffat here decides to go for wi-fi networking, tying it into a thriller set in and around London (with a mild sprinkling of The Idiot’s Lantern to it). It works well, too. He builds things up exceptionally confidently, as it becomes clear that Celia Imrie – God love her – is, on behalf of someone else, behind some scheme that uploads people to a cloud computing storage system, collecting their souls together. Thinking about it, this might just be the first Doctor Who story to ever be inspired by its writer having a long, arduous phone call to technical support at some point in their life.
Imrie is working for a higher power, as it turns out (and by the ending, it seems as though she’s been working for him for a long time – what other established characters are also under his control?), and the covers are now firmly off The Great Intelligence, courtesy of a fleeting, but very welcome, Richard E Grant cameo. It feels, and the rug may yet be pulled, that the main underlying antagonist for the upcoming episodes has been revealed, and there’s something to be said for having the key foe in close to plain sight. It hardly did Sherlock any harm.
The spoon creatures fit logically into the story too, and feel less daft than when they were first announced. There’s an element of Moffat’s Silence In The Library about them, granted, but having them as walking wi-fi base stations fits in well. They’re not likely to give anklebiters nightmares, certainly, but they suit the story.
Debut Who director Colm McCarthy does terrific work. Whether he’s shooting an action sequence as the Doctor rides a bike up The Shard, or putting together the witty comedy moments, he, like Coleman, settles into Who exceptionally well. Furthermore, he makes the most of London, not least when he sends Matt Smith on a bike ride around the capital. He clearly has magical powers as well, as it’s not pissing down with rain on the day he shot the sequence.
Matt Smith’s Doctor – and Smith is excellent again – is almost in his own Grand Theft Auto game here too, given that it’s three different forms of transport he uses throughout the episode. The plane sequence in particularly was really well handled. It continues to impress just how much can be squeezed out of the working budget.
Sometimes, Who stories can build up really well and then rush the denouement, such is the need to squeeze so much into 45 minutes. The Bells Of St John, though, feels like a pretty much bang-on fit for the running time. It’s packed, certainly, but to just about the right amount. Perhaps once the Doctor and Clara have had their coffee, and Clara’s fingers have done an impression of Data from Star Trek, the momentum wobbles a little. But it’s a very temporary blip, and the episode storms into its ending with real confidence. We’ve have loved more Celia Imrie though. Have we mentioned how much we love her?
Bursting with ideas, but not too many so as to overburden the episode, this is one of the most downright entertaining and rounded Doctor Who stories in a while, and a real contender for the highlight of series 7 so far, perhaps with the exception of The Snowmen.
And sure, we’ve seen sentient computers, communications issues and Jammie Dodgers before. But Doctor Who is bloody good at making the most of them, and it’s on really good form here. A lovely return for the series, and really fun to watch too.
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