Steven Moffat said in numerous interviews in recent weeks that “The Bells of Saint John” was as close as Doctor Who could get to James Bond. I don’t know about all that, but the episode does sport some nifty action sequences, there’s a great deal of running to and fro, and the mechanics of it all work as long as you don’t analyze them too closely, which opens the door to a special kind of hell for those of us who must write about this show.
What the episode really smacks of is Russell T Davies. This is the closest thing that’s been done on Moffat’s watch to what Davies was often doing before him. It’s as if Moffat was haunted by the ghost of “Partners in Crime” while he plotted this, which isn’t a bad thing, because this style of action romp/social commentary has been missed. If anything, in the past it was easy to take these sorts of stories for granted, because they appeared so effortlessly written. Moffat’s guiding hand isn’t quite as steady as Davies for this kind of material, but as season openers go, it more or less accomplished what it set out to do. Oh yeah, that’s right … this isn’t a season opener. Though we’re still in the middle of season seven, “The Bells of Saint John” has that “the story’s starting over” vibe — the sort of thing you’d feel at the top of a new season.
The Doctor appears to be scouring time for another Clara, and maybe his detour to the monastery at the start is a subtle reference to 1967’s “The Abominable Snowmen” which largely took place in a monastery, and introduced the Great Intelligence to the series. (More on the GI later.) Soon the exterior TARDIS phone is ringing (the titular bells of Saint John – “St John Ambulance” is emblazoned on the TARDIS door), and Clara is on the other end, needing help with her Wi-Fi. How did she get the number? Seems “the woman in the shop” gave it to her, and presumably we’ll find out who this mystery woman is later on.
So, the Doctor still doesn’t recognize Clara’s voice until she utters the “Run you clever boy” line? Even when he’s obsessed with this woman to the point of painting her, it still takes that bit of dialogue for him to get it? Moffat frequently underestimates his audience. They couldn’t possibly be as clever as I! The “Bells” prequel that hit the internet last week is a perfect example. It was obvious the little girl was Clara – did he have to punctuate it by naming her at the end? Couldn’t it have been left up to our interpretation? “Bells” suffers from this, too. Something I notice time and again about Moffat is that he tries too hard to write clever sci-fi, and it comes off strained. The lengths to which he goes to explain the many facets of The Evil Plan within this episode are way, way too convoluted. (Best stupid line of the episode? “In 24 hours you’re dead … for a while.”) By contrast, there were rarely lingering questions with like-minded Davies scripts; such was the streamlined manner in which he put these sorts of things together.
The only reason I complain about it is because it’s all so unnecessary when he’s able to make two characters duet for 45 minutes the way the Doctor and Clara do here. Moffat may not be a great sci-fi writer, but his flair for character-driven comedic charm is unmatched. Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman seemingly provide the perfect counterpoints for one another. (It’s so refreshing to see him having fun with his companion again!) The way the Doctor is determined to not lose this Clara like he lost the other two is the real meat of “Bells,” and since she’s been introduced to the Doctor’s world twice already, Moffat handles their mutual entrances into one another’s lives differently than usual. (I noted at one point that it almost felt as though the episode was introducing the Doctor to Clara’s world, rather than the usual opposite.) It’s bam, bam, bam, and we’re immersed in the ludicrously loopy action. Having said that, for how long does the Doctor intend to keep the whole “I’ve met you twice and seen you die twice before” thing a secret from Clara? Surely not a good way to start things off with your brand new bestie.
It’s, I believe, a fairly well known fact that Moffat had something of a falling out with Twitter a year or two ago. Almost overnight he dumped the whole thing, and since then we’ve been getting scornful Twitter jokes in the series. Is much of “Bells” Moffat’s direct commentary on the pitfalls of online social media culture, or does it emerge in the script from his unconscious mind? (He’s said in interviews that he chose Wi-Fi only because it’s something everyone uses.) The idea that a person can lose their soul to this aspect of daily living could be viewed as a harsh criticism of some of the show’s most ardent fans. Or maybe it’s just a gentle warning. In any case, it’s again an area where this script in particular resembles a Davies satire, only Moffat doesn’t play the commentary in nearly as broad a manner as Davies would’ve, and instead emphasizes the horror. One style isn’t preferable to the other; just a difference in writers.
Perhaps the most Davies-esque aspect of “The Bells of Saint John,” however, is the show’s return to a contemporary London setting. I’d imagine that because of Russell’s heavy emphasis on London city life throughout his era, Moffat felt the need to go in the other direction for a couple years, and as a result, the Ponds’ lives had the more intimate setting of Leadworth. But here, London is back — big and bold as ever, with the Shard and Westminster Bridge playing sizable roles, and it’s a most dazzling, welcome return.
Finally, we come to the story’s villain, who turned out not to be the creepy Spoonheads, or the deliciously whacked Miss Kizlet (Celia Imrie), but was in fact revealed to be the Great Intelligence from “The Snowmen”, represented by the disembodied head of Richard E. Grant, which was the episode’s biggest surprise. Where this is going, and the Intelligence’s eventual role in the Doctor’s life remains to be seen. At Christmas, I said that it was a noteworthy narrative move to not have the Doctor recognize the Intelligence, and in this story he’s blissfully unaware that the Intelligence even is the enemy. Only Miss Kizlet seemed to know, and now that she’s (presumably) out of the picture, the Intelligence must return at some point, perhaps in the season finale, if not before.
Odd and Ends
- In the past, Moffat has said that he prefers creating new villains as opposed to resurrecting villains from the past, but boy, season seven sure flies in the face of that assertion. It kicked off with the Daleks, got rid of the Ponds via the Weeping Angels (who at this point can hardly be considered new villains), has now showcased the Great Intelligence twice, and we’ve still got Ice Warriors and Cybermen waiting in the wings (and let’s not forget our friendly reinventions of both the Silurians and the Sontarans in the forms of Madame Vastra and Strax, both of whom are set to return before season’s end as I understand it).
- Spoonhead is apparently a racial slur for a Cardassian on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
- Is this Clara the third and final version? I’d like to believe there are dozens more scattered throughout time and space.
- The book Summer Falls by Amelia Williams. Does this mean something, or is it just an example of the concept of “the interconnectedness of all things,” as espoused by one Dirk Gently?
- Jammie Dodgers! Mmmmm…