Doctor Who: 706 “The Bells of Saint John” Review
Reviewed by Adam James Cuthbert
“Actually, he’s about to go on holiday. Kill him when he gets back. Let’s not be unreasonable.” – Ms Kizlet
“Third times’ the charm” the old adage goes, and although this was by far the most likeable ‘introductory’ performance delivered by Jenna-Louise Coleman, Steven Moffat continues to undermine himself. Not once has he successfully invested me in his recent ‘object of mystery’. This, I’m inclined to suggest, is attributed, in part, to his broader portrayal of pivotal female characters of late: they inherently must possess a surface-layer of quirkiness and/or eccentricity to them. I’ve grown increasingly apathetic towards his central female characters. They are less well-rounded individuals, and more an insipid formulaic choice. (Contrast with minor characters like Lorna Bucket from A Good Man Goes to War, or Darla from Asylum of the Daleks. They’re innocent, well-written personas: victims of brutal circumstance who elicit pathos because their ordinariness (young, impressionable girl who voyages to meet her ‘idol’; and devoted mother to her daughter, respectively), compounded by their premature deaths (in Lorna’s case, never actualising her full potential), make them an identifiable viewpoint for the audience.)
This time, at least, Coleman’s Clara Oswin benefited from a believable societal background, without pretensions of allure. This is supplemented by the nuance of her childhood possession: a book entitled 101 Places to See, which Clara has had since she was nine, marking off her age throughout the years (though, curiously, not the ages 16 and 23). Sadly, she has never realised her childhood dreams. Instead, Clara has remained with the Maitland family, as nanny to the children after their mother’s death. When Moffat approaches Clara as simply a young woman who has made such compromises, out of platonic affection, but nonetheless yearns to travel and experience the world, it’s a welcoming change in direction.
Unfortunately, any attempt at realism is strained by several factors. Firstly: Clara is stated to be “very clever. But no computing skills.” Assuming Clara hails from a working/middle-class background, with a good education, proximity to technology and social media as she does, and her purported intellect, she hasn’t mastered basic computing skills? I find that somewhat implausible. Furthermore, Clara does not assist the Doctor in saving the day through any innate talent or aptitude of her own. Rather, she is granted prodigious hacking skills after her consciousness is temporarily transferred into the villain’s Wi-Fi snare.
The episode failed to convince me why Clara is so special, other than her creation is a jigsaw-puzzle in progress. The companion should be written within their introduction in such a way that they actively assist the Doctor during the climax – for example: saving his life (Rose, Smith and Jones); providing him with the resource to foil the villain’s machinations (Partners in Crime) – through an innate competence/talent of their own. This strengthens the foundational bond between the character and audience; the underlying factor of their ordinariness contrasting with the extraordinary world they now find themselves in, and how they process this disconnect from the everyday, whilst growing to trust the Doctor. By bestowing Clara with these miraculous hacking skills, it feels like a betrayal of that bond; racing through the plot, rather than taking time to flesh out any meaningful insight into her innate abilities.
I also feel it’s worth briefly discussing how Clara has been integrated within the show’s mythos. For me, the integration is flawed. Compare Clara here with how River Song was characterised over series 4 and 5. In her successive appearances, the mystery was diligently unpacked, slipping in new hints – about her context of her relationship with the Doctor; the sights she’d seen; the atrocities she’d committed that led to her incarceration – without addressing anything explicit. This stimulated our intrigue and investment in what was a richly-weaved, grounded persona. What I’m suggesting is that a similar technique should have been adopted with Clara. By her third appearance, there’s been a dearth of hints to further our speculation. Why does she exist? Has she been engineered for an arcane purpose? Understandably, certain details must remain undisclosed at present, but if you’re going to establish a mystery, with significant ramifications, there needs to be a foundation to the mystery that justifies your reasoning to the audience – an insight into why she exists, ‘splintered’ throughout time – provided within the character’s introduction.
I’m chagrined with Moffat’s characterisation of the Doctor. Not only does the Doctor behave illogically (why would he assume present-day Clara would recognise him?), but he shifts between obsessive maniac (that it borders on absurdity) and hyperactive child. It’s only when the Doctor is written as an avuncular figure, and Matt Smith tones down his performance, that Moffat’s writing improves. The “mad man in a box” moniker has been taken to ludicrous extremes. “Mad” in terms of unorthodox, maverick, or idiosyncratic – perceived as an outsider within society; that which strays from the everyday ‘norm’ – is a stronger, more intelligent, outlook. But so consumed by an unfounded mystery pertaining to one woman, that’s he retreated to a 13th century monastery, with a painting of her? I’m struggling to comprehend what Moffat discerns in the character. I don’t think he believes in the Doctor as a character, to the writer’s detriment, as he does, intermittently, write the Doctor effectively. This is illustrated during the scene where the Doctor reprograms one of the syndicate’s Spoonheads to masquerade as him, a clever twist (albeit reminiscent of the Teselecta) that showcases the Doctor’s more sinister side in his attitude towards justice, thus elaborating on themes of justice explored earlier within this series.
I’m also nonplussed by Moffat’s intimation that the Doctor – who we’ve been led to believe has eradicated any vestige of his existence, from every database, throughout spacetime; an act which, presumably, entails navigating sosphisicated alien computer systems – cannot hack past but the lowest level of a 21st century human company’s operating system. Even if the operating system was created by the Great Intelligence, the aforementioned account creates a tension in Moffat’s writing. It presents an obstacle for the sole purpose of demonstrating Clara’s newfound esoteric skills, undermining both the account of the Doctor’s genius, and employing his tired formulaic technique of yet another female who outsmarts the Doctor.
There’s a light to the end of this tunnel, however, and despite its flaws The Bells of Saint John managed to be entertaining. Like Asylum of the Daleks and The Angels Take Manhattan, the pre-credits sequence was intriguing, startling, and dramatic. The sequence consists of a young man broadcasting his caveat to the world, juxtaposed with a compilation of worldwide shots of people connecting to Wi-Fi, their bodies collapsed, and finally a harrowing assembly of trapped minds, earnest for succour. The insidious eyewitness report of humanity’s subjugation is complimented by the opening CGI shot of the Earth, seen from space. The world is enveloped in shadow, and red lights grow like veins, or blood vessels, across the planet, as humanity’s life is later revealed to be harvested, vampire-like, by an intangible force residing in the Wi-Fi.
The Spoonheads were a creative concept: “walking base stations” that project an image extracted from their intended victims’ subconscious in a form of “active camouflage”, to lull them into an ersatz sense of security. Using the same leitmotif as Garner’s arrival at Winter Quay, when Clara is confronted by the Spoonhead disguised as the little girl from the storybook, added to their effectiveness, as an infiltration-unit of stealth and horror.
Miss Kizlet was an inventive setup, if unremarkable: an antagonist who coldly manipulates her employees, using the technology of her tablet, ultimately revealed to the puppet of the Great Intelligence. It was a twisted revelation: that she was abducted as a young girl, lost from her parents; a child’s mind stuck in an older woman’s body. While his writing can be improved (“snog box” was cringe-worthy), I’ll commend Moffat on his capacity for horror (both physical and psychological).
The scene in the café, and the verbal sparring between the Doctor and Kizlet, was also entertaining, as Kizlet flagrantly exhibited her powers, controlling the people within the café. It was an intricate, logical touch that the manipulated conducted themselves with Kizlet’s mannerisms.
The Bells of Saint John was advertised as an ‘urban thriller’, although a ‘urban horror’ would be more appropriate, as that’s where the story excels. The plane incident was a well-shot sequence by director Colm McCarthy (the segue between the TARDIS interior and the plane) but it felt like an extraneous intrusion within the story; an event lacking consequence; superficially tense (similar to the opening sequence from The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe).
I’m predicting that the “woman in the shop” is River Song. Who else would possess the ‘number’ for “the best helpline in the universe”? The Great Intelligence will either be the menace of the finale, or the 50th anniversary.
In conclusion, The Bells of Saint John, as with this series thus far, was less than the sum of its parts. A rushed resolution, inconsistent characterisation of the Doctor (is he even trying to be inconspicuous?), and flawed integration of Moffat’s new mystery within the series mythos, are amongst the story’s greater disappointments. It’s a recurrent symptom of Moffat’s stories that they emphasise style over substance. While the story’s elements of horror were effective, its endeavours to re-instil the series with realistic drama only met with contention.