“Human souls, trapped like flies in the World Wide Web.”
So which is it – series 7 episode 6, or the opener of a whole new series? Steven Moffat’s experiments with the scheduling of Doctor Who mean that it’s hard to know, with lots of people referring to new ep The Bells of Saint John as a ‘season opener’.
Whether it is or not, it certainly had the hallmarks of one – a bit spectacular, with some awesome London locations (rather than Cardiff pretending to be the capital) and some super set pieces (which actually fitted into the story context rather than being shoehorned in because they looked good). Most importantly, it was a bit of a mini-reboot for the show, with the Doctor reinventing himself in the wake of losing Amy and Rory; that process feels ongoing, having begun in the Christmas special and carrying on here. Along with the new console room revealed at Christmas, the Doctor now got to pick out a new outfit, something traditionally reserved for an incoming new Time Lord.
The ‘Moffatiness’ so common of late was dialed fairly low in the mix. This story was straightforward enough, with no head-scratching time paradoxes, there was fairly little smugly flirtatious witty dialogue, and River Song didn’t even appear (though odds on she was the mysterious ‘lady in the shop’ who gave Clara the TARDIS phone number). Nevertheless, some of the usual Moffat trademarks were in evidence, notably in the ongoing mystery of who exactly Clara is, and the unexpected return of an old villain as the mysterious ‘Client’ – even if that villain turned out to be the same one as in the previous episode.
It did have another Moffat trope at its heart, though it’s one he inherited from 70s script editor Robert Holmes – the central concept took something very ordinary and familiar and turned it into something scary. Here, very much tied up in the zeitgeist, it was Wi Fi networks, and the Cloud. What if, the script asked, the human mind could be linked to a computer, and programmed or downloaded like any other system? If anything, that should have given us a clue as to who the real villain was, but it still came as rather a surprise to me.
We’re all familiar with the list of odd looking Wi Fi networks we see when our mobile devices try to connect, so it seemed not too much of a stretch to assume that one of those weird looking networks might be an alien creature intent on sucking out our brains… well, maybe a bit of a stretch, but not in the world of Doctor Who. As this situation was explained in an X-Files-like precredits teaser, it was reminiscent of nothing so much as the cursed videotape from Ringu; you log on to the network, and 24 hours later, you’re dead. But your mind isn’t – it’s ‘”integrated into the cloud”, for an alien to feast on.
For me at least, this seemed a trifle unclear. The Doctor managed to ‘download’ the prone Clara back into her body – but surely if the body is dead for more than a few minutes, there’s no coming back? When he accomplished having all the minds ‘re-downloaded’, there was some acknowledgement that not all of them would still have a body to return to; I’d say that was probably most of them. Given that Moffat scripts of late have lacked real jeopardy because of his apparent unwillingness to kill characters off for real and permanently, I suppose it’s not too surprising that he left this somewhat unclear.
Still, that was about the only criticism I could find of this rather enjoyable episode (though I’m sure the fan forums will find plenty more). Matt Smith was, as usual, excellent; he’s still plainly loving the role. I liked the return of the fez, and the fact that his bow tie is kept in a little treasure chest. Jenna Louise Coleman, as Clara, has still to truly convince me as a character though. It’s a good, sparky performance. It may not be naturalistic, but Doctor Who acting often isn’t (Smith himself being a good case in point). But, appealing though she may be, Clara still strikes me as almost a stock Moffat leading lady; not a bad thing in itself, but still not vastly different from Amy Pond.
Of course, Clara has an ongoing mystery (thankfully the only convoluted element in this episode). It’s possible that the more of this is revealed, the more interesting I’ll find her as a character. And is it significant that she happened to be the one to ask the question “Doctor Who?” (much to the Doctor’s near-orgasmic delight, it seems)?
I imagine we’ll see more of this kind of thing (and, presumably, the return of River Song) as the series progresses. For now though, the only other element of this story that wasn’t truly standalone was its villain. The script revealed the agency behind the webnapping of human minds fairly early on, with the sinister black office headed by the marvellously frosty Celia Imrie as Miss Kizlett. But from the outset, it was clear that they were acting for somebody else. The mysterious ‘Client’ who knew all about the Doctor and his box – I found myself resorting to that oft-asked question of Sue Perryman, “is it the Master?”
But no (fun though it would be to see John Simm’s barmy renegade again), it turned out to be none other than the Great Intelligence, making this also a sequel to The Snowmen. The plan was very much in keeping with what we’ve seen the Intelligence do before; we know it can possess humans from The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear, though on those occasions it could only manage one at a time. Obviously the advancement of technology has helped, and Wi Fi now enables it (and its minions) to hack into any human brain at any time.
This led to a series of Matrix-like moments where various anonymous passersby turned into conduits for threats to our heroes, including the BBC newsreader. Though I did have to wonder how many uncontrolled viewers found the one-sided conversation rather baffling…
The Intelligence is now represented by the face of its one-time puppet Dr Simeon, meaning it’s now played by Richard E Grant. Shame though it is to lose the voice of Ian McKellen, it’s not like Grant’s any less of a star catch. Since he ‘got away’ in the end, I wonder whether he’s shaping up into the next Big Bad of the story arc?
Director Colm McCarthy, plainly with a bigger than usual budget for the show, had a field day with London locations – barely an exterior shot went by without at least one major landmark in the background. It was hard to begrudge though, and amusing to think that for the classic series, leaving London seemed like a Big Occasion; and these days, having the real London and not a dressed-up Cardiff was a cause for visual extravagance!
McCarthy also did well with the various set pieces. Again, these were pretty ambitious. The Doctor materialising the TARDIS inside an about-to-crash plane was audacious (lucky the passengers were asleep, trying to use the toilets could have ended up with several of the roaming the TARDIS corridors). It was a well-directed action set piece, but topped not too long after by the Doctor employing a flying motorbike to roar up the side of the Shard offices.
Yes, that is pretty over the top, even by action movie standards, and I’m betting some fans will think it’s fairly gratuitous. For me though, it fitted in with the tone of the show – and more importantly, made sense within the context of the story, in a way that such set pieces often don’t. I refer you to – the window cleaning lift in Partners in Crime, the lift cable slide in New Earth, Spitfires in Space in Victory of the Daleks… And many, many more.
So – a good story, that made sense on its own terms without requiring in depth knowledge of a convoluted arc. Some thrilling action set pieces. Great performances from, in particular Matt Smith and Celia Imrie. And the usual self-consciously witty dialogue kept to a controlled minimum (probably because River Song didn’t show up). Whether it’s a season opener, a mid-season opener or whatever, The Bells of Saint John was one of the more straightforwardly enjoyable Doctor Who stories in a couple of years. Please keep it up, Mr Moffat.