“Doctor Who – The Bells of Saint John” review

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“I’ve never seen a Jammie Dodger so scrumptiously perfect”

It usually takes me a couple of viewings to make my mind up about the episode which heralds the return of “Doctor Who” and I suspect that “The Bells of Saint John” is no exception.

For some reason – wanting to ease the wider audience back into the rhythms of the show, to introduce new characters, to just have fun with the premise – it always seems to me as if the opening salvo of each series is a little lighter and somehow less substantial than the episodes which come to follow.  Not that this is bad or ill-advised, per se, but I never quite feel that the Tardis is fully firing on all cylinders until episode two or three (Technically, of course, this is episode seven of series seven, so my misgivings shouldn’t apply).

The story dealt with a very contemporary fear – the extent to which technology enters our everyday lives and encroaches on our freedom via our inability to deal with it, which is a notion that I’m sure strikes a rueful note for any brave soul ever charged with the dire responsibility of providing technical support for computer-averse friends and family.  The villain of the piece this time utilised dear old endlessly useful wireless internet signals and used them to…do nefarious stuff.

I’ll not go deeply into spoilers, but the methodology of the Big Bad in this episode didn’t quite ring true for me on this first viewing – it smacked a bit of that notion ‘because…science?‘, which probably plays quite well with folks who view their modem and router as terrifying technology daemons which inhabit their living rooms and blink malevolently at them several times a second for no good reason.

The villain was, it may come as no surprise at all to you, hardly a match for The Doctor but the bad guy’s machinations did give Matt Smith‘s big kid in funky Edwardian clobber a chance to meet cute again with Clara – a charmingly sparky and energetic Jenna Louise Coleman – who we last saw in the Christmas special, having just died for the second time.

Clearly, her nature and repeated appearances in vastly different times and galactic locales will constitute an ongoing mystery and its to current “Who” show-runner and gigantic brainy overlord Steven Moffat‘s credit that you do want to know what her deal is and how she’ll come to affect the Doctor’s in the rest of the season.  I’ve read one theory to the effect that Clara constitutes a kind of Moorcockian ‘Eternal Companion’ and it would be interesting to know just what Moffat would do with that idea, were it to be an accurate assessment of just how the expiry-prone Clara fits into his master plan.

"Computers - how do they work?"

“Let me update my status…”

The story rattled along nicely, sure enough, but it didn’t seem to add up to much on first viewing – save for a last-minute appearance by a malevolent character we saw quite recently, albeit in somewhat different form than the last time that we encountered them (vague enough for you?), this was essentially stand-alone, monster-of-the-week stuff.   I suppose it’s daft to feel that the Doctor is ever really going to be truly challenged by the menaces he encounters, but this was somewhat a case of the Doctor waving his Sonic about, loudly asserting his intellectual dominion and then saving the day because he’s The Doctor and that’s his gig.  No real sense of the day not being saved – and so not much dramatic tension as a result.  First episode syndrome, and no mistake.

I don’t do ratings – meaningless things, be they numeric or arbitrary and letter-based – but if I did, I’d probably say this was a solid B-plus, perhaps an A-minus.    Extra marks for Clara rushing into the fray still carrying her cup of tea.  A nation salutes you, fine miss.

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