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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