Steven Moffat likes to take everyday things and then make you scared to death by them. Lonely children, ticking clocks, statues, shadows, cracks and snowmen had all got this treatment so far, but what about the most modern thing in the world that you can think of? What about wi-fi?
Well, that’s where The Bells of Saint John comes in! Moffat decides that maybe it could be possible for some malevolent entity to get to work eating people’s souls when they choose the wrong wi-fi connection. This is the first story from the fiftieth anniversary year and what better way to show how far the Doctor has come than this? It is proof that the show is still relevant; the idea of deadly wi-fi is a topical one since everybody in 2013 was forever tapping away at social media, something that still hasn’t changed three years down the line.
The Doctor muses that it’s like "Human souls trapped like flies in the worldwide web, stuck forever, crying out for help," to which Clara quickly quips “Isn’t that basically Twitter?” You’ll find no argument from me about that!
Speaking of Clara (no Oswin this time) Oswald, this is the companion we’d all been waiting for, even if we didn’t know it yet. On her own merits she’s got it all: she’s smart, funny and stands up to the Doctor. But it’s not just that which makes her stand out, it’s also the Doctor’s reaction to her. In the extensive fifty-year back catalogue of companions there’s not one that gets a similar response from him. He likes her, and she knows it, but though he chooses not to act on it he still has that awkwardness around her to give his attraction away. “Cute” is not the word that comes to mind when you think of the Doctor, but setting up camp outside Clara’s house to protect her, even taking her messages, is certainly cute. We’re talking basket of fluffy kittens cute. With bows on.
In lesser hands, be it writing or acting, this would all be horrible and embarrassing, but with such indescribably skilled actors as Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman (I won’t call her Jenna-Louise, I just won’t) and with Steven Moffat’s writing at its best the setup works and feels original. This is something new and in a then-fifty year-old series that’s no bad thing.
It’s a shame that the dynamic between Smith & Coleman didn’t last more than 10 stories because it offered a sense of fun that the other TARDIS crews in the show’s history simply do not offer (the similarly short-lived pairing of Tennant & Tate being the exception). Her ability to keep up with the fast non-stop performance Smith gives must be seen to be believed.
With all this new companion stuff going on you’d think that the storytelling takes a lesser role. You’d be wrong. The story is actually a very interesting one with an evil entity residing in the wi-fi (later revealed to be the Great Intelligence – who didn’t let out a fanboy squeal when Richard E Grant’s face appeared right at the end?) and his brainwashed slaves trying to capture Clara and the Doctor effectively declaring war on them. This leads to several scenes of the Doctor typing computer code quickly and his enemies typing quickly to try and out-code him. Later we see Clara doing the same.
That’s right: this week’s Doctor Who episode spends a large chunk of its run-time by showing our protagonists hacking computers. Sounds boring, right? As someone who works in science even I have to admit that telling computers what to do is one of the dullest things on the planet! I’ll take a Dalek invasion over this any day.
Yet somehow, against all odds, Moffat makes it interesting. He gives the characters some fast-paced dialogue, Murray Gold’s remixed version of I Am The Doctor helps out a lot too and the use of exciting whizzing graphics or the occasional sonic screwdriver shortcut gives the kids something to appreciate. Does it work? Yes, I think so. Until computer codes reach the point where plugging in the right commands generates a fireworks display this is as good as you can reasonably expect.
The special effects in this story are rather good too. I especially like this one.
So is there anything that I don’t like about this episode then?
No, not really.
There are a few minor things to pick up on, like how the bit in 1207 adds very very little to proceedings besides an obvious joke. The reference to Clara getting the Doctor’s number from “the woman in the shop” is a bit needless too and exists only for the sake of foreshadowing a controversial reveal the following year. The plot is too fast-paced for its own good at times as well.
Actually that last one isn’t a complaint at all; it’s one final thing that I want to praise. This may be a story about wi-fi eating your soul but it is not Doctor Who being scary. This is Doctor Who as an action-adventure. Once the story gets going it doesn’t stop for even a moment. Clara’s first time in the TARDIS takes little more than a few seconds and suddenly she’s on a crashing plane. Then there’s the stuff with the motorbike. This is action-packed edge-of-your-seat excitement. It’s proper entertainment!
And never better than the final scene, the real highlight of the story, the thing that raises The Bells of Saint John from a good episode to an excellent episode: the punch-the-air moment as the Doctor rides up The Shard on a motorcycle and shuts down the Great Intelligence’s operation, in true Doctor Who style, by turning their own abilities against them. After losing the Ponds and then losing Victorian Clara the Doctor needed a victory and now, when he finally gets one, we share in his victory with him.
The Bells of Saint John then is a true achievement for Doctor Who, one that gets the fiftieth anniversary year and series 7B off with a bang. Bringing the Doctor and Clara together, the return of the Great Intelligence, the Doctor’s new and improved costume and an action-packed story; The Bells of Saint John are ringing out in triumph.
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.