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Review: The Bells of St John

Every week, James Chapman, Doctor Who expert and author of Inside the Tardis: A Cultural History, will be reviewing every episode of the new series (or is it?) of Doctor Who for us at Who Watching. Naturally we are delighted, so let’s kick things off with ‘The Bells of St John’.

When is new Doctor Who not new Doctor Who?

‘The Bells of Saint John’ // Reviewed by James Chapman

BBC1. 6.15 pm. 30.03.2013.

Written by Steven Moffat.

Directed by Colm McCarthy.

Ever since the return of Doctor Who in 2005, it has become a tradition that a new series will premiere on the Saturday of the Easter weekend. This was the case with ‘Rose’ (2005), ‘New Earth’ (2006), ‘Smith and Jones’ (2007), ‘Partners in Crime’ (2008), ‘The Eleventh Hour’ (2010) and ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ (2011). In 2009, the year of the Tenth Doctor Specials, we had ‘Planet of the Dead’, so for the last seven years it was only in 2012, when the new series was pushed back to a late summer start, that we have not had an Easter weekend Doctor Who ‘event’.

Why does this matter? For me the reason is that watching Doctor Who has always been something of a ritualistic experience: same time, same place, each week, for 13 weeks, or, in the days of what we now call ‘classic’ Who, 26 weeks. (As this is my first blog for ‘Whowatching’ I should mention that my earliest memories of the series date from the end of the Jon Pertwee ‘era’. I can vaguely recall some images from ‘Planet of the Daleks’, though not ‘The Green Death’, but my clear memory of Who begins with ‘The Time Warrior’ when I was five and a quarter. How appropriate, then, that the current series, with dinosaurs and Ice Warriors, has some echoes of Season 11, which was my formative Who-watching experience.) In those days, of course, before home video and iplayer, it was essential to see each episode as it was broadcast, as so few were ever repeated, and the only way fans could experience them again was by proxy through the Target novelisations. But even in 2005, when time-shift viewing had become standard practice, one of the significant aspects of new Doctor Who was that it rediscovered the ritual of Saturday-evening family viewing. Since the start of the Steven Moffat ‘era’ in 2010, there has been evidence that more viewers are either time-shifting or watching later on iplayer – a phenomenon that, however, has been overlooked in alarmist but ill-informed newspaper headlines about Doctor Who haemorrhaging viewers in recent years. As someone who has never quite taken to iplayer, however, it remains part of my Who-watching ritual to sit down and watch each new episode on BBC1 of a Saturday evening.

So here we are – another new series of Doctor Who. Or is it?

With its new title sequence, new arrangement of the music (how good to hear the old electronic theme reconfigured as the bass line), new costume for the Doctor and new companion, not to mention the attendant publicity blitz including the now obligatory Radio Times cover, ‘The Bells of Saint John’ was clearly being presented as the launch episode of a new series. But in fact it was really episode six – or, if we include the 2012 Christmas special ‘The Snowmen’, episode seven – of a series that began with ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ way back on 1 September 2012. Recently the trend has been to split each series of 13 episodes into two batches, and, while the sixth series in 2011 all came within the calendar year, the seventh series has been split over two years. The reasons for this put forward by the BBC and by the Doctor Who production team have been somewhat contradictory, it must be said. There is a desire that the series should not become stale – fair enough, one might say, except that one thing that new Who has not shown under Moffat’s direction is a lack of ideas or imagination (it might even be suggested that it has had too many ideas at the expense of good, old-fashioned story-telling discipline). Moffat, for his part, has spoken about rationing new episodes so that Doctor Who does not become ‘part of the furniture’. This certainly helps to sharpen the appetite for new Who, though it does not take account of the ritualistic nature of the viewing experience. And in any event the public’s appetite for Doctor Who in its fiftieth anniversary year seems well-nigh insatiable. Might it be that the seventh series was scheduled in this way so that the costs of what is, after all, one of the BBC’s most expensive drama productions could be split between two budget years? This has been denied by the production office, though the suspicion remains.

On one level, of course, this matters not one jot, and certainly any suggestions that Doctor Who has suffered from the squeezing of its budget are wide of the mark as the production values of the current series seem as high as ever. Yes, ‘The Bells of Saint John’ lacked the epic scale of, say, ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ or the detailed period mise-en-scene of ‘The Snowmen’, but there was no sign to me of diminishing values. The one disappointing SFX sequence was the Doctor’s anti-grav motorcycle ride up the outside of The Shard, but that was kept to a minimum, and in any event what would Doctor Who be without the occasional ropey visual effect? (By the way: for a five-year-old the now-notorious puppet tyranosaurus in ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ was one of the most realistic and frightening monsters ever.)

No, what struck me most about ‘The Bells of Saint John’ was simply that it was not a very good episode. It felt like a mid-season filler, which in a sense it was. It was certainly the most disappointing introductory episode for a new companion since the series returned. (I am considering it as an introductory episode in that, while we, and the Doctor, have encountered Clara/Oswin Oswald twice before, this version of the character seems likely to be the ‘real’ Clara – though with Steven Moffat one can never be entirely sure) More ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’ or ‘The Lazarus Experiment’ than ‘New Earth’ or ‘Smith and Jones’: both episodes with much to recommend them, but not really the stuff of a series, or even part-series, premiere.

This is not to say there was nothing to like about it. One of the pleasures of Moffat’s dense writing (what some cultural theorists would call an example of a ‘thick text’) is the incidental references, and in this sense it was good to learn in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that Amy Pond seems to have built a career as an author of children’s fiction after being thrown back in time by the Weeping Angels in ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’, or to realise that the episode’s title referred to the ‘St John Ambulance’ sticker that has been visible on the outside of the Tardis for some time now. And, although Christopher Eccleston remains my favourite new series Doctor, I’ve warmed to Matt Smith’s combination of geek chic and strong moral authority. The standard interpretation of Matt’s peformance is that he plays the Doctor as an old man in a young man’s body: his ‘dad dancing’ moment was a joy to behold. What’s also been interesting to observe is the extent to which, after Russell T. Davies and Eccleston stripped away all the Edwardian baggage that characterised previous incarnations of the Doctor, including the outre fashion tastes, this eccentricity has re-emerged in the character of the Eleventh Doctor, symbolised here by the moment in which he rejects his old tweed jacket in favour of the purple frock coat. It seems to represent the Doctor reverting to his old self as the series approaches its fiftieth anniversary. I wouldn’t bet against Matt fiddling with his lapels and intoning ‘One day, I shall come back’ before the series ends.

But overall ‘The Bells of Saint John’ was too derivative of previous episodes. Here we had a plot where people’s souls were being uploaded onto the Internet by an agent acting on behalf of the Great Intelligence. An imaginative enough idea in its own right, but one that Moffat has used before in the Tenth Doctor story ‘Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead’, whose sentient droids were reincarnated here as the ‘Spoonheads’. (The explanation why the Great Intelligence needed these ‘human souls’ was rather rushed: perhaps this is part of a Grand Design that will emerge over the course of the series.) The threat of the mass media as an instrument of social control has been a recurring theme of new Who, with previous examples including ‘The Long Game’ and ‘Bad Wolf’ in Series 1 and ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’ in Series 2. In fact ‘The Bells of Saint John’ struck me as a rather lacklustre reworking of ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’, simply substituting the Internet for television, The Shard for Alexandra Palace, the Great Intelligence for The Wire, and Celia Imrie for Maureen Lipman. It recalls classic series script editor Robert Holmes’s dictum that to write Doctor Who ‘all you need is a good, strong idea – it doesn’t have to be your own good, strong idea’ – except on this occasion the idea itself wasn’t quite strong enough to bear repetition.

Perhaps I am being over critical? In a series like Doctor Who, which unlike other telefantasy series such as Star Trek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Merlin or Game of Thrones is not fixed to one narrative template, and where different types of stories are a means of continually keeping it fresh, there are always bound to be some duds. I have every confidence that the rest of this series will provide us with some classic Who episodes: the trailer for next week looked very promising, and we know that we have both old monsters (Ice Warriors, Cybermen) and new monsters (Whispermen) to come. Moreover, the nature of Doctor Who fandom is a very broad church, and I expect there will be many who are more favourably disposed towards ‘The Bells of Saint John’ than I am. ■

More reviews:
The Rings of Akhaten // Cold War // Hide // Journey into the Centre of the TARDIS // The Crimson War // Nightmare in Silver // The Name of the Doctor

Inside the TardisJames Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester and author of Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of ‘Doctor Who’ – A Cultural History, a second edition of which will be published by I. B. Tauris in September 2013.

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This entry was posted on April 3, 2013 by in Episode Reviews and tagged , , , , , , .

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