Ring Out, Wild Bells: The Bells of Saint John in Perspective
Guest contributor Michael Coats takes another look at the Series 7 Part 2 opener.
After the 2012 Christmas Special, The Snowmen, the audience were left with several questions to ponder over the 3-month gap. Just who was Clara and why was she currently standing in front of her own grave? Would we find out the Doctor’s name in Series 7B? And most importantly, why does Matt Smith look so handsome in a top hat? Were any of these questions answered in the series reopener? Er, no. Except maybe who Clara was, as a person, if not as an enigma. So what else did Steven Moffat’s distinctly troll-like hand give us to ponder this time? Read on…
I can’t tell the future, I just work there. – The Doctor
We first encounter the Doctor having retreated to a monastery in 13th century Cumbria, a place of peace and solitude, to attempt to decipher the mystery of Clara Oswald, after multiple attempts to find her (including one he does not know was successful in the prequel). And already the detractors are crying: ‘Boo!’ ‘Hiss!’ ‘I really shouldn’t be here!’ What are they on about this time? Well, apparently, it’s not believable the Doctor would be so obsessive over Clara. Well, it’s not that he’s obsessive. Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davies consulted with each other over the character of Amy during The Eleventh Hour. Amy piqued his interest, so he took her on as a companion. If Amy had not piqued his interest, in light of the events of Journey’s End, he would not have let her travel with him. It’s the same with Clara, he chose Victorian Clara as a companion in The Snowmen. He told her ‘No more cloud’ when he spoke to her as she was dying, but that does not change the fact that he does not want anyone else to accompany him right now on a whim.
We learn a lot about the sort of man the Doctor is through his actions in this episode. Even seemingly comedic scenes tell us something: the most obvious thing the clothing scene tells us is when he discards his Pond era tweed jacket, he associates it with them, and being a different man (which I shall elaborate on more below), but there are certain other points that can be drawn by comparing him with Moffat’s other leading man, Sherlock. Moffat has gone on record as stating that he feels the two are opposites: Sherlock is a human who wishes to be a god, whereas the Doctor is an angel who aspires to be human. This is perhaps emphasized in the fact he thinks monks are ‘not cool’, a statement he has never made about anything before. Perhaps he doesn’t feel comfortable in monk robes, which is contrast to Sherlock, who picks out a vicar’s uniform as an appropriate disguise to wear when meeting with Irene Adler in A Scandal in Belgravia.
The Doctor we begin to see emerging is a changed man, a semi-regeneration if you will. After the events of The Angels Take Manhattan and The Snowmen, he is much more cautious, as we can see from the way he guards Clara after the failed upload attempt, as well as staying away from direct confrontation with Miss Kizlet. Instead, he opts to stay in the cafe and keep an eye on the unconscious Clara, and sends a hacked Spoonhead as representative; calling in UNIT to finish the job, and only leaving when he knows Clara is safe. The manipulative traits of his Seventh incarnation we begun to see emerging in Series 7A are also more prominent, nowhere more so than his ‘motivation’ for Miss Kizlet to download the data cloud. It’s an interesting riff on the themes of justice explored earlier in the series: is it right to put one person in danger if it will save many others, even if they are evil? This question becomes even more pertinent when we learn of Miss Kizlet’s true nature.
I keep the book, because I’m still going. – Clara Oswald
The Clara we encounter in Bells is, as we now know from The Name of the Doctor, the Clara Prime. The original, you might say. As all of her echoes, including Oswin and Victorian Clara, are derived from her, it’s a good time to start getting to know her. Clara has always had aspirations of traveling the world, as shown by the book, which along with her aspirations, she inherited from her mother: 101 Places To See. Incidentally, with The Rings of Akhaten, we now know why she hasn’t listed 16 and 23 as ages she’s crossed off: her mother died when she was 16, and when she was 23, the mother of the Maitlands’ also died, which postponed her traveling. Despite that, as the quote above shows, she’s not given up on her dream, but will not run out on those she cares about, a very endearing and very human trait. I also like that she told the Doctor to come back tomorrow, as it gave us that rare thing, a companion who travels with the Doctor on her terms. Moffat has often been criticized for not writing strong female characters: this is precisely what being a strong female character is all about.
Clara has been criticized for her flirtatiousness towards the Doctor in this episode, but as the stories have gone by, it’s become apparent that it’s something that she uses to keep the Doctor at a distance, as she’s just a little bit wary of him. Other criticisms that have been made are that the fact that she has no computer skills seems unrealistic. Not necessarily. Clara is 24, and would have been born in 1988. She may have narrowly missed the introduction of IT classes at primary school level, and what she would have learned at secondary level would now be outdated (Clara would have entered her first GCSE year, the point at which IT stopped being compulsory, in 2003). It’s also probable that for the majority of her teenage years, the only kind of Internet she would be familiar with is dialup, hence her lack of understanding of Wi-Fi. Regardless, with a quick computer skills package solves all of this, and her Oswin persona is born. Clara is now both a nanny, and a hacker.
Do we really need another London-wide activation? We can’t always pass it off as a riot! – Mahler
As a Londoner, I really love the use of London in this episode. Some felt the above joke at the expense of the 2011 Riots was a little bit too soon after the event. Possibly due to to my dark sense of humor I found it, well, a riot! (Rimshot.) That’s not the only London based joke we have here, we also have a cheeky reference to the Earl’s Court Police Box, which is somewhat meta in that it was partly inspired by the show itself. Apart from jokes, we also have a motorbike ride across Westminster Bridge (remix opportunity missed, Murray!) and up the Shard (a building which I have incidentally been right next to and missed, proving my powers of observance aren’t always switched on).
Actually, he’s about to go on holiday. Kill him when he gets back. Let’s not be unreasonable. – Miss Kizlet
A stunning performance from Celia Imrie and some brilliant lines from an on form Steven Moffat (who is, in my opinion, one of the best dialogue writers the country has ever produced) has made the character into one of the best villains of the revived series. The above line is just scratching the surface of many of Imrie’s finely detached deliveries. Let’s discuss the implications of the line ‘She’s very pretty isn’t she? Do you like her? I can make her like you too if you want.’ That she is prepared to rewrite a human’s emotional responses is chilling; how many people have we seen change overnight for seemingly no reason at all? What if had been because someone had rewritten them, purely on a whim? Brr. After making Miss Kizlet into a character that I loved to hate, Steven Moffat had one last twist up his sleeve: she was kidnapped and brainwashed by the Great Intelligence as a child, and this is what she reverts to when the GI abandons her. Having gleefully despised her, this reveal felt like a genuine punch to the gut.
Speaking of the GI, I had suspected that it had been behind everything, having read some of the teasers. I thought that while pretty good in The Snowmen and The Name of the Doctor, Richard E Grant’s few lines were a bit wooden. Apart from that, it is suited to to being in the shadows, munching on people’s minds, using Miss Kizlet and the Spoonheads as its agents. The Spoonheads meanwhile were a neat concept, if a little bit underused.
It’s a time machine, you never have to wait for breakfast. – The Doctor
Some have noted that a lot of the ideas in Bells seem a little familiar, almost a bit of a ‘Moffat’s Best Bits compilation’, with a little bit of borrowing from RTD and Gatiss. There was a new spin on most of the tropes though, and I thought they felt very fresh in how they were executed. One of my favorites would have to be use of a book as small but significant part of the narrative (River’s Diary, the book from The Time of Angels, The Angels Take Manhattan et cetera), this time its role was for the front cover to become a subconscious image taken from Clara’s brain and used as active camouflage. I also like how the previous long time companion thing was handled, Amy’s influence being subtly felt through Summer Falls and the Doctor continuing to use her reading glasses is a massive improvement on Rose casting a long shadow at the start of Series 3 for me.
It wasn’t all old ideas given new spins though, Colm McCarthy’s direction all felt very fresh, he managed to create a tone that was somewhere between Moffat’s Sherlock episodes and Series 4 of Doctor Who, with a Moffat concept that was highly reminiscent of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror in tone. I particularly loved the effect of the text appearing on the screen, Sherlock style. Some of Moffat’s new ideas were brilliant, the best of which being the Doctor traveling forward one night to give him an advantage over his opponents, I can’t believe it hasn’t been done before. The concept of Wi-Fi controlling people, switching them on or off was also a good one. Outside of his usual brilliant compositions, Murray Gold had some male singers imitate a sheep. Still not sure on that one.
Summing up, The Bells of Saint John is everything a series opener or reopener should be: it’s fast paced, but not rushed. It has all the fun of Let’s Kill Hitler with none of the narrative confusion, and some real depth to its ideas. A hugely solid script with real justice done by a rejuvenated Matt Smith, the ever-brilliant Jenna-Louise Coleman and a deliciously detached performance from guest star Celia Imrie. It certainly lives up to its billing as an urban thriller.