DOCTOR WHO: Series 7 - The Bells of Saint John / Review

The Bells of Saint John
30 March 2013, 6.15pm

Steven Moffat's departure from Twitter seems to have inspired a rather bitter reflection about his experience on the World Wide Web of fear in The Bells of Saint John, the opening episode of the second half of Series 7 of Doctor Who. Apparently at producer Marcus Wilson's suggestion, he decided to return to the modern thriller format and set this re-introduction to Clara 'Oswin' Oswald (three versions and counting) in contemporary London. There's a dash of Partners in Crime and Smith and Jones by association and a brief nod to a post-Skyfall milieu as Clara and the Doctor dash through the capital to rescue those trapped in the alien wi-fi.

It also features several televisual hallmarks of modernity - the Shard (yet another in the long line of threatening London landmarks and the equivalent of The War Machines' Post Office Tower or Rose's London Eye) and scrolling on screen web code gibberish to suggest evil is but one click away. London and these visual representations of communication are stock in trade for Moffat's other day job, Sherlock. Cue lots of concerned people sitting at laptops or on smart phones at the mercy of a great hacking intelligence. However, this is window dressing to a darker vision of modernity at the centre of The Bells of Saint John.

'I don't know where I am'
The episode's rather indistinct moral panic about 'souls trapped in the wi-fi' is not virgin territory for Moffat when it comes to his obsessions with the interface between human and machine. Since The Empty Child he has often pondered on how technology can shape and alter human lives. Ask Madame de Pompadour about those strange clockwork men that kept chasing her round Versailles, for instance.

So, instead of nanogenes repairing bodies or a library's staff and visitors being downloaded and saved in a vast computer, we've got Richard E Grant and Celia Imrie uploading souls into a digital heaven provided by cloud computing and hacking people to make them change their minds, have brilliant flashes of intelligence or simply wet themselves in sheer terror.

It doesn't quite explain why these humans are harvested beyond feeding the Great Intelligence, returning from its appearance in The Snowmen, and a joke about cattle and Burger King. This is ironic considering the current fears about the food we shove in our own gobs but the story does pounce on a few worries about the ubiquity of media in the modern world. Quips about Twitter mask the alienation, a distorted sense of self and the moral panic which seems to go hand in hand with an incestuous mass media and entertainment as they provoke our anxieties about national identity, class and society.

It's also worth bearing in mind the raging cyber warfare now being conducted by the US, Russia and China as the 'democracy' of the internet is turned inwards and becomes a DDoS battle for control over internet infrastructures. Social control also seems to be on Moffat's agenda as Miss Kizlet, the chief exec of some nameless corporation, and her lackeys sift through thousands of surveillance cameras and images posted to the web to track down the TARDIS.

Here, the iPad wielding Celia Imrie, really splendid as Miss Kizlet, not only controls her minions by touch sensitive screen (and a cheeky inference suggests the summer riots of 2011 were created as such by media effect) but also despatches mobile humanoid servers to carry off the souls unfortunate enough to click onto the appropriate wi-fi link. These 'spoonheads' pop up as a variation on the Nodes in Silence in the Library and the head-twisting Smilers of The Beast Below and offer a brief frisson of terror during an episode which tends to focus on the re-introduction of Clara, Moffat's meme-turned-character.

The Bells of Saint John is more Proustian than usual in the Moffat scheme of things and yet there really isn't anything new in terms of ideas here. As well as the technophobia about the internet, wi-fi and cloud computing - something even Russell T Davies fastened onto as a contemporary fear with brainwashing bluetooth and monsters living in television transmissions - we get the ubiquitous use of doppelgangers, childhood regressions, repetitive memes and temporal side-trips.

Before the glamour of contemporary London, there's a time-hopping detour to a 13th Century Cumbrian monastery where the Doctor, the madman in a box turned mad monk, has been contemplating his encounters with the Woman Twice Dead (and is a dab hand at portrait painting, it seems) and receives one of those 'special' phone calls, the eponymous bells of the title.

This time it isn't a boy looking for his mummy, Churchill or an impossible astronaut on the blower, it's Clara calling a helpline provided by a mysterious woman in a shop (what's the bet it's River) when she finds someone's nicked her internet connection. This beautifully photographed sequence, as the Abbot and his monks contemplate the Doctor's madness and the Doctor takes a phone call from 2013 (the joke about 'it's 1207' and 'Am I phoning a different time zone?' is rather lovely), is a stylish juxtaposition to the glare of the modern world where the rest of the story unravels.  

The Proustian is evoked again when Clara uses a familiar mnemonic for her computer password and sets the Doctor's own alarm bells ringing, her 'run you clever boy and remember' meme becoming a remembrance of Claras past in brief flashbacks and partly captured in the Doctor's painting. The familiar and the domestic becomes uncanny, as it always does in Moffat's world, and 'spoonheads' acquire their appearance by cherry picking their victims' minds. Before long, one of them is standing on Clara's stairs.

For Clara, the 'active camouflage' of this intruder is depicted on the cover of a book she and the children are reading. Summer Falls is perhaps the youthful adventures of Williams, Pond and their Raggedy friend written by one Amelia Williams, the Doctor's mother-in-law and former companion, and it's the cover girl who arrives and responds in kind to Clara's enquiries. One suspects playground games will involve kids freaking each other out by repeating their friends' conversations or they will simply annoy their parents with cries of, 'I don't know where I am', this year's 'Hey, who turned out the lights' or 'Are you my mummy?'

From here, the Doctor deposits his sackcloth and ashes and sports a flashy new coat as he downloads the uploaded Clara (almost the Woman Thrice Dead once the 'spoonhead' gets her), now complete with conveniently grafted on computer skills. The chemistry between Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman is the glue holding the episode together even if characterisation often plunges to Disney movie-of-the-week levels. While bunging in lots of references to memory, remembering, identity, the companion's childhood (the episode's prelude on the web was as spectacularly obvious as it was predictable, sadly), Moffat returns to the well worn alignment of, and I'm loathe to use the words of a thousand press releases, the 'feisty female companion' and a sexually defensive Doctor.
... Moffat's usual one hour wash, spin cycle, rinse and repeat 
All this is trivially summarised in the 'snog box' moniker for the TARDIS and Clara's 'down boy' admonition, the cliches in an otherwise likeable on-screen rapport. The developing relationship is seen at its best in that dizzying interplay in the TARDIS as Clara, still clutching her cuppa, spirals through its doors, round the console room and out into the aisle of a passenger jet Celia Imrie's iPad has flung towards the street where she lives. Director Colm McCarthy pulls off a coup de théâtre with the shot of the plane scraping the rooftops.

Smith completely owns the role of the Doctor and is at his most expressively childlike in The Bells of Saint John. A highlight is the quiet moment where he finds the dry leaf in Clara's book of 101 Places to See and gives it a quick lick, tasting time gone by on his Time Lord taste buds. That leaf and that book are clearly significant and we are left to wonder what exactly happened to Clara at 16 and 23, the two ages missing from the crossed out list at the front of it.

It's also a scene that again takes place in a companion's bedroom, a visual parallel to Amelia's original encounter with the Doctor and the crack in the bedroom wall in The Eleventh Doctor and its resolution in The Big Bang. The sense that the Doctor is some kind of guardian angel is reinforced by the conversation they have after he waits below her bedroom window. It is a fine line though and one is often left with the impression that he's turned into a time-travelling stalker.

Naturally, it gets a bit bonkers with the Doctor wandering off to the garage to find his anti-grav motorcycle (I wonder if we'll see the garage in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS in a few weeks time?) and there are echoes of Rose and the Tenth as he and Clara speed off across Westminster Bridge. One of the best in-jokes is Miss Kizlet's search for the iconic blue box, where 'Earl's Court was an embarrasment' offers a little nod to the actual police box still sitting outside said tube station. The cafe scenes also build the story's possession theme as customers and servers are subjected to a Matrix-like shift between their real personalities and Kizlet's domination of them, the uncanny emerging into the everyday again which culminates with the Doctor appearing as a 'spoonhead' to a terrified Clara.

The delicious encounter between Kizlet and the Doctor concludes with a gratifying twist as it turns out the Doctor has reprogrammed the 'spoonhead' which uploaded Clara at the rooftop cafe and sent it on a mission to to the Shard. Kizlet is uploaded and then tricked into ordering a full download of the Great Intelligence's digital abattoir. The Great Intelligence, it seems, deposits its human acquisitions in a kind of data cloud purgatory where its victims no longer seem to have a corporeal existence but instead remain conscious in a You Tube-like limbo. It's interesting to note, hoist by her own petard, Kizlet's regression to the state of a child as an extension of Moffat's signature about the disparate worlds of the child and the adult.

This seems to coincide with a vague religious theme, a metaphor for death and resurrection, implied by the title of the episode and its links to the poetic description 'the dark night of the soul' we often ascribe to some sort of spiritual crisis, which originated with the treatise of Saint John of the Cross. The order of monks featured at the start of the episode could also be a reference to the Order of Saint John and their moto 'For the Faith and in the Service of Humanity' seems highly appropriate for the Doctor's return to Earth to save mankind. Is Moffat also offering some veiled comment about our ignorance of such spirituality in the midst of our digitally determined and commercially shaped social lives? More than likely, it's just a simple observation about how nasty corporations reduce individuality to blocks of data, people becoming mere demographic units segmented by markets.

Like the rattling noise in Clara's washing machine this is Moffat's usual one hour wash, spin cycle, rinse and repeat enlivened only by glossy packaging with one eye on an international market keen on those iconic London landmarks, good performances and a distracting paciness that hurtles us from TARDIS to crashing jet plane to a motorcycle on a Shard. It plays as a slightly better version of Mark Gatiss's The Idiot's Lantern, its wit, use of spectacle and character chemistry, with Coleman properly breathing life into Clara, offering the highlights in a rather low key affair too keen on repeating rather than renewing aspects of the current showrunner's tenure.

2 Responses to “DOCTOR WHO: Series 7 - The Bells of Saint John / Review”
  1. David says:

    Yet another episode that causes me to painfully yearn that Moffat be put out to pasture where Who is concerned. Smith is an engaging Doctor as ever, but both he and the show as a whole are hamstrung by Moffat's scripts, about which the kindest thing I can say is that, like a Time Lord gone mad, he travels back in time to steal from himself, skulking in the past rather than pushing into a new adventure.

  2. David, never a truer word.

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