Doctor Who 7.06 “The Bells Of Saint John” REVIEW

Doctor Who 7.06 “The Bells Of Saint John” REVIEW

Episode: 7.06
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: Colm McCarthy

THE ONE WHERE: London, 2013, and something deadlier than unexpected data charges is waiting in the world’s wi-fi. The Doctor pits his wits against the Great Intelligence once more – and encounters an impossible girl named Clara all over again…

THE VERDICT: All the pre-match talk for “The Bells Of Saint John” promised a splice between the mismatched worlds of Doctor Who and 007, a collision of styles that felt as fundamentally unseemly as dunking a Jammie Dodger in a Vodka Martini.

While this episode’s relentless hymning of the London skyline delivers a contemporary spy-thriller gleam worthy of Spooks, Steven Moffat is smart enough to know that the spiritual heart of Doctor Who is suburban, not urban. So, yes, there’s an out-of-control plane screaming headlong into the capital – and this is the only show in the world with the gall to play such a Hollywood set-piece as an almost throwaway burst of peril, complete with a cosy mug of tea clutched in somebody’s hand – but home is where the horror is.

Surprisingly few Who stories locate their chills in the very place the audience interfaces with the programme but Moffat’s determined to mine the shiver-potential of mundane suburbia, tripping all its traditional mouse-traps for the imagination: the unexplained sounds from upstairs, the stranger at the door, the faceless figure beneath the streetlights. But there’s also a topical charge to this tale of something distinctly maggoty at the heart of our Apple-worshipping world. You can detect a definite touch of Black Mirror here, and while Moffat may not share Charlie Brooker’s culture-punching anger there are still some swift, stinging jabs at modern life, delicious pops at everything from surveillance cams to social networks to the ethics of the fast food industry (the show has rarely delivered as skewering a line as “The abattoir is not a contradiction – no one loves cattle more than Burger King.” Now that’s taking names…).

New Who helmer Colm McCarthy makes a striking first impression, shaking up the show’s visuals with Sherlock style text graphics and an arresting pre-titles hook that mashes fractured footage into one gloriously overloaded whole, a bombardment of information that builds to a tremendous pay-off (even if the concept of faces trapped inside screens rather recycles series two tale “The Idiot’s Lantern”).

In a sense this is a soft reboot for the Matt Smith era – new clobber, new-ish companion – an episode that arms itself with fan-friendly totems of the recent past (the fez, the Jammie Dodger, the declaration “Under my protection” from “The Eleventh Hour”, a little random licking) while launching the golden anniversary year with verve and ambition to spare.

STAR TURN 1: He may have exchanged his professorial tweed for dandyish Victoriana but Matt Smith continues to be one of the truly top-drawer Doctors. He’s impossibly sweet and daft – yes, why wouldn’t you take a whole cake? – but there’s still an ancient, implacable face hiding beneath the skin (“This ends. I’m going to end this today.”) Here he cuts a rather more protective and paternalistic figure than of late – “You’re safe now, I promise,” he tells Clara, with just a hint of the Pertwee Doctor’s stately sense of reassurance.

STAR TURN 2: Jenna-Louise Coleman makes no less than her third debut in the show. Impressively, she gives us yet another flavour of Clara, equally sparky and winning but altogether younger and possibly just a tad more vulnerable than her previous incarnations. There’s a helplessly watchable chemistry between the two leads, one which energises the show’s new dynamic. With the Ponds gone we’re back to the pure Doctor/companion dance. And these two kids certainly know how to jitterbug.

STAR TURN 3: One of those Brit-thesp troupers you’re astonished to discover has never been in Doctor Who before, Celia Imrie gives a wittily brittle performance as technomatrix Miss Kislet. Her regression to the state of a broken child at the episode’s climax feels genuinely unnerving after all the wry, knowing villainy that precedes it.

HMM: We’re told that Chapter 11 of Amelia Williams’ Summer Falls “is best – you’ll cry your eyes out.” There’s something naggingly ominous in this apparently innocuous line. Does it link to the inexplicable Room 11 in “The God Complex” and the long-prophesied Fall of the Eleventh? Stroke those chins, people…

WHO’S A CLEVER BOY, THEN?: The Doctor isn’t the only one struggling to divine the meaning of “Run, you clever boy, and remember”, though not all of us have sufficient downtime to withdraw to a 13th Century monastery for a decent ponder. Knowing Moffat’s mazy mind there’s bound to be some tricksy wordplay concealed in plain sight. Can it just be chilling coincidence that the phrase is a perfect anagram of “Oh my! Venerable, bouncy murderer”? Lordy! It’s River Song!

TRIVIA: “Earl’s Court was an embarrassment,” says Miss Kislet, a reference to the real life police box standing outside Earl’s Court tube station. Built in 1997 it was based on the classic 1929 Mackenzie Trench design. Note to potential sightseers: it only emits a TARDIS-faithful wheezing, groaning sound when some tanked-up city boy hurls an unwise late-night takeaway in its general direction.

DID YOU SPOT?: There’s an onscreen nod to Amy Pickwoad, occasional stand-by art director for Doctor Who and youngest daughter of Michael, the show’s current production designer.

BEST LINES:
The Doctor: “Imagine that – human souls trapped like flies in the world wide web, crying out for help…”
Clara: “Isn’t that basically Twitter?”

Nick Setchfield

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