The Bells of Saint John Review

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Clint Hassell gives his verdict on the 2013 opener.

I’m not rooting for Clara.

There, I said it. Jenna-Louise Coleman is likeable enough, and she has certainly delivered on the promise of talking even faster than Matt Smith, but, thus far, Doctor Who has given me little reason for me to want this Clara to travel with the Doctor. Clara-as-Oswin was a firecracker and a genius, Clara-as-Governess Montague was devoted and feisty, and young Clara was empathic and wise. The Clara we meet in “The Bells of Saint John” seems to be yet another young, pretty, unmotivated, modern-day, British woman to serve as a companion to the Doctor. Clara’s only defining trait is that she has died twice, only to reappear at a different point in time . . . which is fine, since the Doctor is not interested in her character, but in the mystery she presents. Having just spent three years watching those exact story arcs play out with Amy, Rory, and River, I find no reason to become emotionally invested in Clara’s rehashed storyline.

It certainly doesn’t help that “The Bells of Saint John” contains many plot points used previously by Steven Moffat in his own scripts: the TARDIS phone rings (“The Empty Child”), a monster mimics a character previously known to the protagonist as one from a children’s book (“The Pandorica Opens”), humans are uploaded as computer data and machines turn to reveal human faces (“Silence in the Library”/“Forest of the Dead”), the Doctor uses a robot as a stand-in (“The Wedding of River Song”) – heck, even the “don’t click” intro is reminiscent of Ten’s “don’t blink” warning from “Blink.” Add to that Jammie Dodgers, a slam on Twitter, and yet another utterance of “Doctor who?” and this episode becomes a patchwork quilt of Moffat’s previous scripts.

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Another inherent problem with “The Bells of Saint John” is that the script is twice reliant upon computer hacking as a plot device. While I understand the need for that narrative shortcut, both scenes are devoid of any real tension as the Doctor and Clara seem to succeed by merely fake-typing at a feverish pace on a tiny laptop. The two scenes lack action and the Doctor’s trademark ingenuity – both of which are better demonstrated when the Doctor and Clara pilot the plane, or when the Doctor sends the Spoonhead to upload Miss Kizlet to the Internet.

That being said, there are things to enjoy in “The Bells of Saint John.” The idea of turning on all of the lights in one neighborhood, while simultaneously blacking out all of London – thus creating a visible target for a crashing plane – was clever in its simplicity. I haven’t been this delighted by a Moffat-penned plot point since the Doctor defeated the Silents in “Day of the Moon.”

Also, I applaud the seemingly-continuous shot of the Doctor pulling Clara from the street in front of her house, into the TARDIS, and then out into the cabin of an airborne plane. A similar scene was accomplished using practical (i.e., non-digital) effects to demonstrate the inner workings of the kindness center, in “The Girl Who Waited.” The clip from “The Bells of Saint John” certainly is more kinetic, and, were the digital effects used to mask the cuts between the three shots combined to form the scene not so spectacularly awful, the scene would be a highlight of the revived series.

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Though Eccleston and Tennant each portrayed the Doctor differently – Nine more distracted and gruff, Ten more charming and urbane – both depicted the Doctor as not just socially mannered, but as magnetic. Eleven has been characterized as increasingly immature, with Smith’s portrayal emphasizing the Doctor’s quirky, alien nature. While the combined effect has been yielded some hilarious results – Matt’s “drunk giraffe” dance at the Ponds’ wedding being my personal favorite – it is difficult to imagine Eleven being able to slip seamlessly into a dinner party as, say, Ten did in “Voyage of the Damned” or “The Unicorn and the Wasp.” The scene where Eleven brings a glass of water, flowers, and cookies to an unconscious Clara’s bedside reminds me that, despite the differences in Eleven’s personality, he is still the Doctor, and that he is still capable of relating to humanity in an mature manner.

The fact that young Clara’s handwriting grew progressively more adult as she aged – as evidenced by the inside cover of her travel book – makes me smile, and is probably the only moment in this episode I root for her to travel with the Doctor. I’d much rather Clara’s story arc be the Doctor taking her to visit all 101 Places to See, only from a more creative “all-of-time-and-space” perspective. (“Don’t just see the pyramids, see when they were built,” for example.)

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Another fix: the scene with the Doctor and Clara riding a motorcycle through the streets of London is both counter to continuity and an exceedingly silly excuse to show the Doctor on a motorbike. I wish that the two were riding his newly-invented “quadracycle” instead.

While I find the plot lackluster, I genuinely like much of the episode’s dialogue. Moffat’s script has several killer lines:

  • Eleven’s the best. You’ll cry your eyes out.”
  • “It’s like immortality. Only fatal.”
  • “It’s a time machine – you never have to wait for breakfast.”
  • “Whoever’s after us spent the whole night looking for us. Are you tired? Well, then imagine how they feel – they came the long way ‘round.”
  • “I can’t tell the future, I just work there.”

I particularly like the pre-credits teaser, especially the chilling, heartbreaking moment when you realize that the young man is already trapped inside the Internet, and that his warning/call for help will go unheeded. Further, I appreciate the various location shots that establish the Great Intelligence’s spread into other countries including France, China, and the U.S. These brief clips – particularly the woman speaking in her native Chinese – broaden the epic quality of the episode and demonstrate that the Doctor is the protector of Earth, not just of modern-day England.

Who is “the woman in the shop” that describes the Doctor’s phone number as “the best help line out there”? “‘In the universe,’ she said” – who might “she” be? Rose Tyler worked in a shop, but that was before she met the Doctor – who famously blew up Henrik’s mere minutes after the two met. (“Nice to meet you, Rose. Run for your life!”) Martha Jones worked in a shop . . . in 1969. My guess is that the woman in question is Sally Sparrow, working from the antique book/rare DVD shop she opened with Larry Nightingale at the end of “Blink” – a subtle reference to yet another Moffat-penned episode. Perhaps she is the one who sold Clara a copy of previous-companion-turned-mid-Century-book-publisher Amelia Williams’ Summer Falls?

Step back in time...