TV Recap: Doctor Who, ‘The Bells of Saint John’

jason stives looks at the return of The Doctor …

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After so many years, you expect a certain amount of information delivered in regards to story arcs in Doctor Who. Each season has always had a linking idea that has carried through the bulk of the seasons 13 episodes and whether it’s blatant or meta the audience has always been on the same level as the protagonist and each mystery unfolds with a little hint here and there. The mystery of who Clara Oswald is is a perplexing one and so far we know very little about her but that’s expected.

Photo Credit: Ray Burmiston,  ©BBC/BBC WORLDWIDE
Photo Credit: Ray Burmiston, ©BBC/BBC WORLDWIDE

Now obviously with this current mystery we have to wait till the next seven episodes run their course and that’s expected, but Doctor Who has always been keen to set up red herrings and drop clues that start to make the gears turn in a fans mind. “The Bells of Saint John,” while a fast paced and fun thriller suffers from a real sense of mystery and with some less than lively chemistry between our two leads it feels like the smallest piece of a much larger puzzle.

The Doctor has withdrawn from his travels once more, this time holding up in a monastery after suffering multiple bits of tragedy. The Doctor’s lonely retreat into seclusion in “The Snowmen” was nomadic and respectable, but this time it seems a bit unneeded, although the ‘Mad Monk’ name he is given fits perfectly. He is only called out of his slumber when he is informed that the bells of Saint John are ringing. Surprisingly, this is where we get the episodes throw away title but it fits and it’s hear that the Doctor answers the one phone call he never thought he would get. It’s Clara, the woman twice dead, asking about internet issues in 2013.

Compared to “The Snowmen,” The Doctor and Clara’s chemistry in this particular episode doesn’t feel as quick witted as it was before but then again Clara doesn’t’ remember the Doctor so as much as she is a mystery to him, he is just as much of a mystery to her. This is technically when we reintroduce the importance of The Doctor to the incoming companion and we see that in some of great action sequences here. Even watching The Doctor ride a motorcycle up the side of The Shard building was exciting even if it was completely ridiculous. You have to expect these kind of things because this is where we see the Doctor at his most heroic but something still feels like its missing from his interactions with Clara in comparison to their previous appearances together.

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Despite this, The Doctor and Clara work well off each other in a Nick and Nora Charles-kind of dynamic. The Doctor despite being the smartest one in the room always needs someone to challenge and sometimes deflate his ego and Clara catches his bluff several times. Clara rarely questions an action or doesn’t go along with it until the very end when she turns down his offer to travel with him. Clara may be a mystery but she has her feet grounded firmly in reality so being asked to travel with a mad man in a box is more than understandably something to be worried about. The Doctor for the first time in awhile is enjoying a challenge and no doubt the challenge of who Clara is will be one that emotionally twists and turns him into various directions over the coming weeks.

Character development and moving the narrative along is most important here but its not the only thing that is needed to make an exciting episode of Doctor Who. Build as a modern day thriller, “The Bells of Saint John” moves along at an exhilarating pace that sees minds being snatched up, a motorcycle pursuit through London and a daring in air rescue of a commercial airline. Clearly executive producer Steven Moffat hasn’t let up on the movie like quality he emphasized in the first half of this season and that’s definitely important. While every new Doctor ushers in a new era, each new companion emphasizes a new journey and for the Doctor and Clara it’s their own mysteries so keeping the show exhilarating and action packed is important as the story unravels.

Credit: Adrian Rogers, ©BBC/BBC WORLDWIDE
Credit: Adrian Rogers, ©BBC/BBC WORLDWIDE

We truly know nothing about Clara because at this point we have seen three incarnations of her with varying backgrounds and results and part of me felt a bit frustrated by this. However, that probably means the show is doing its job but the focus at hand is not just Clara but the baddies of the week, the Spoonheads. I must admit they failed to impress as a menacing villain but the idea of the wifi absorbing the minds of internet users was a flawless plot point. While he has said that there is no underlying commentary to this idea you can’t help but think of how this all relates to 21st century consumption of technology. Even Miss Kislet (Celia Imrie), our humanoid antagonist this week, uses an ipad to control the thought patterns of people constantly connected to technology. This provides some very eerie scenes including one involving the Doctor talking to the patrons of a coffee shop who suddenly inhabit the voice and conscious of Miss Kislet.

The final reveal of Miss Kislet’s boss being that of The Great Intelligence (Richard E. Grant reprising his Snowmen role) seems a bit throw away but it means a lot to where the idea of the GI can be taken. The fact that he can use his conscious to take any form means he can pop up anywhere at any time but it did feel tacked on and the fact that The Doctor never finds out who is behind it all shows how the alien threat was merely secondary to The Doctor/Clara dynamic. However, one would think that maybe the Great Intelligences appearance here might be the start of a reoccurring theme down the line.

“The Bells of Saint John” regardless was a fun watch, not necessarily pitch perfect, but one that got its ideas across very well without having to dig for answers. The adventures of The Doctor and Clara are just beginning and if the coming attractions for the next seven episodes are any indication than it’s just going to get even darker and more chilling.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10 (Good not Great)

all photos courtesy of bbc