The Bells of Saint John

4th April 2013 • Review by Alex Newsome •

The start of series 7b seems to have come out of nowhere – and despite Moffat saying that a series split allows for two “series premiere” episodes, I can’t help but think that it also halves the hype; and to some degree the publicity. The result of this is that news of the new series can get somewhat lost amid the other news stories vying for our attention.

News stories SUCH AS THESE…

David Tennant and Billie Piper to return for 50th anniversary special

It was sad to see this news break hours before the series premiere. Ultimately, no matter how good or bad the episode was, it was always destined to be overshadowed by the first details of the much anticipated 50th anniversary special. This becomes even worse when the actors in question are Tennant and Piper, who to many fans that joined the show since 2005 are still the definitive combination of Doctor and companion. Whatever our feelings may be on this news, the strong reactions on either side of the fence remind us how important the relationship and dynamic between the two leads is.

With that in mind, enter Clara Oswald, though of course it’s not really the character’s entrance at all. That honour goes to “Asylum of the Daleks“, which threaded her introduction in way that’s not really been done deliberately in the show’s TV incarnation before. This once again means that we have a companion around whom the narrative arc of the series hangs, in much the same way series 5 did around Amy. This naturally has its plus points as well as downsides. On the one hand, we have a character-driven arc that is always with us, even if not at the forefront of the plot. Some series arcs have sometimes felt crowbarred in to otherwise completed episodes, as in series 6 and the inclusion of the word Torchwood in series 2, but by making it a central part of the character’s make up, that becomes harder to do and in theory should mean that the arc hangs together much better this time around.

On the other hand, by making Clara a magical character that exists across time we lose an important element that made Rose such a special companion: the relatability to the audience. It’s almost a cliché to say it, but the companion is the audience’s window into the show, there to give them an idealised vision of how they might react when faced with such wonder or such impossible odds. The reality that that most of us would be simultaneously crying and defecating in a corner of the TARDIS console room has no place in the show, which almost always runs with the idea that when the Doctor puts all of time and space in front of someone, they rise to the challenge with aplomb.

David Miliband leaves the Labour Party. Time for new blood?

Never is this more apparent than in Moffat’s take on the show. Strong female characters are a hallmark of his writing, although this is not always entirely female-centric, as Rory’s transformation proved. Clara very much fits into this mould and if I were to be harsh, I would say that the traits she shares with River and Amy are so numerous that her character seems to be based more around her arc than her actual characterisation. However, while it’s still early days and difficult to tell, I believe that the seeds are there for her to be enough of a character as we get further into this run of episodes.

This is a more self-assured companion than we have seen in some time. On television, she is the first since Grace not to jump into the TARDIS at the first opportunity. Her telling the Doctor to come back tomorrow is far from a small point and instead shows that this is a character that doesn’t need the Doctor in the way Rose and Martha did; nor is she in such wonder of him that she can’t bear to let him go as was the case with Donna and Amy. Crack the superficial similarities such as the flirty nature and we find an interesting change to the Doctor-companion relationship: something that we should remember becomes more difficult with each companion that we come to.

BBC leave London as TVC Closes

London! Bloody London. It’s marvellous isn’t it? There’s a certain irony in Doctor Who returning to the capital for an episode just over a week after BBC 4 aired its goodbye to Television Centre, which was surprisingly lacking in mention of the 26 years that the show was filmed there. While the series hasn’t exactly been short of London-based episodes since its 2005 return, logistics and distance have meant that it certainly hasn’t filmed there much. How lovely it was, therefore, to see the show use its location in a fun way. Having a run around a city that culminates in a denouement involving an iconic structure is very much what Moffat did two episodes ago with “The Angels Take Manhattan”, but somehow this episode felt more satisfying.

Perhaps that is largely due to the combination of location and format, which in this episode felt much more intertwined than it did at the end of the first half of the series. If every episode in series 7 follows a movie format then this was most definitely the series’ spy thriller, albeit with a heavy sci-fi fantasy veneer. Consequently, a metropolitan setting combined with spy staples such as the crashing plane ties into the feel of the episode perfectly and basing the episode’s villain in a new yet iconic structure works without feeling forced.

Triangular flapjacks to be made into squares for ‘safety reasons’.

“It’s political correctness gone mad! You know, you can’t even throw darts at babies anymore without some health and safety man stepping in? It’s a bloody outrage. So what if a pointed object is more likely to poke someone in the eye than a square? Back in my day we’d throw jugs of hot acid in each others faces and no one said a word! Not that you could say anything much after you’d been hit in the face with acid. It was mainly just incomprehensible screaming. Ah yes, those were the days.”

Different episodes present different levels of threat depending on their placement in the series, their narrative drive and the developments they bring to the ongoing story. Series openers can vary from the small scale as seen in “New Earth” to the large world-threatening end of the spectrum as evidenced in “The Eleventh Hour“. The one element that most of them have in common though is that the threat is often the secondary element to the introduction of a new character. But while this episode serves as a sort-of companion introduction, it feels as though it has a different set of aims to say, “Partners in Crime”. This in fact feels like a statement of intent.

Unlike 7A and Series 6, which both had a returning team, this episode follows the template that we all became so familiar with during RTD’s tenure – and while there was an obvious and apparent threat, Moffat smartly moves the audiences focus from the threat to humanity to the threat that the Doctor will once again lose Clara having only just found her. As such, in terms of threat the episode resembles “Partners In Crime” with its lead villainess and subsidiary monsters, which could easily have let the episode down in its finale.

New teaser for the trailer of the trailer for The Wolverine released!

Thankfully, the inclusion of Richard E Grant and the linking of the episode into a wider narrative with the Great Intelligence managed to elevate this episode above those concerns and what could have been an unsatisfying quick resolution as was seen in The Power of Three last year. It can be hard to remember that while this may be the start of 7B, it is still the midpoint of the overall series.

The villain is there to set up a greater threat to come and we have an entirely new set of mysteries added to the already growing list of odd things about Clara. Her repeated phrases, her recurrence, her book with the leaf and a couple of issues around the number 23 that may well be a reference to the upcoming 50th anniversary special; all of these mysteries kicking into gear seem to signify a mid-series change of course, while last series’ “Let’s Kill Hitler” was good but essentially more of the same.

After the hit and miss nature of 7A this is a hugely promising turn of events and goes a long way to confirming that the time was indeed right for a shake-up to the established TARDIS team. Only time will tell of course, but as a stand alone episode it had a pace, a humour and a sense of fun that have perhaps been absent for a little while. Even if the episode proves to be the equivalent of the one purple sweet left among the toffees in a tin of Quality Street, it is not beholden to the arc in the way a lot of series 6 could be and is all the more enjoyable because of it.

And finally, over to Bill with the weather…

Overall, I found my positive reaction to the show caught me somewhat off guard. While I have enjoyed Moffat’s series openers, RTD’s often ranked lower in my order of preference and if you told me in advance that this episode would be in that sort of tone I’d have been setting myself up for a fall. Yet despite this strongly resembling those episodes, I found it grabbing me in a way that “Partners in Crime” could never hope to. Perhaps a large part of that is that an RTD script would generally have a small cast of characters whose fates at the hands of the spoon heads would have been played upon to a greater degree. Moffatt choses not to do that, but instead to focus in upon the leads where the real heart of the story is.

There is no correct approach of course, with both having their own unique plus and minus points and it’s far from being a clear cut issue. If Moffatt had written the script in a way where the fate of the people being uploaded was inconsequential then the final reveal for Celia Imrie’s character would have carried no weight at all, rather than being the kind of moment that we praise RTD for and forget that Moffatt is equally capable of.

It’s certainly an interesting beast. On one hand it follows the format of 7A, yet on the other it feels like we are moving into another take on the show. As an opening episode it will always be hard to judge without having seen the rest of the series and this is only reinforced by the fact that the plot is clearly tied up in the ongoing narrative. But all this aside, when taken on it’s own it was a hugely satisfying affair. Funny, pacey and most importantly character driven, it had all the elements that we look for in a script from the the current show runner incumbent and was as such the best episode since at least 7A’s opening shot of “Asylum of the Daleks”. We can only hope that this episode’s quality is indicative of what seems to be a highly interesting season, but even if it leaves me as cold as the recent weather, I foresee that “The Bells of St John” will be an episode I return to again and again.

Alex Newsome is a a girl! No! No! He’s not a girl! Though his supple breasts would have you believe otherwise. He’s still not ginger, but he does write, podcast and play music so bad that it probably would be improved by a Delaware synth.

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One Response

  1. Rob Sang

    Clara’s not the first companion since Grace to turn down the TARDIS at first. Donna resolutely refused the join the Doctor at the first time of asking.

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