“The Bells of Saint John”, which marks the return of the modern incarnation of Dr Who‘s seventh season, was for the most part a triumph for the franchise which is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year.
Effectively acting as a season opener after a reasonably lengthy hiatus (save for the excellent Christmas special, “The Snowmen”), it reaffirmed once again that Steven Moffat is an outstandingly gifted writer with a real ability to create and sustain characters that people are willing to invest themselves in watching week after week.
Take the Doctor’s new companion for instance, the sassy, intelligent and witty new companion, Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) who was introduced in this fast-paced, rollicking motorcycle ride through a glamorous-looking 21st century London.
Well re-introduced really.
If you recall we have met the mysterious Ms Oswald twice before in “Asylum of the Daleks” as the tragically doomed Oswin Oswald, and in “The Snowman” as Clara Oswin Oswald who also met an end most foul, but not before uttering a trade mark phrase, “run you clever boy and remember” (which was featured again in her mnemonic internet password in this episode) .
Both times Clara, who seems to have a knack of reincarnating herself with the sort of frequency and ease that a devout Buddhist would envy, struck a nerve in the Doctor who found himself deeply drawn to this enigmatic figure.
And why wouldn’t he? Apart from loving a good mystery, Clara is a winning combination of Rose Tyler’s (Billie Piper) worldy-wise ways, Martha’s (Freema Agyeman) blistering intelliigence and the sass and wit of the greatly missed Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), all wrapped up in her own attractively-unique package.
She is everything you could want in an engaging and resourceful companion, who will more than hold her own with the Doctor, while not overshadowing his primacy in the show that bears his name as Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) came close to doing on multiple occasions.
He’s so drawn to her in fact that he retreats to a monastery in Cumbria in 1207 to ponder how she manages to keep popping up throughout history, each time with no memory of who she was, or will be, or of the people she knew each time.
Hoping his rumination on her unorthodox multiple existences will lead him to her once again, he is having little luck till Clara makes a call to him, believing him to be tech support for her dodgy wifi connection.
(How she obtains his number, which connects to a previously unseen phone on the outside of the TARDIS, is something only the intriguingly-unnamed “woman at the shop” can answer.)
But upon returning to modern London, he is hugely disappointed to find that Clara has no memory of who he is, and regards him as an amusing oddity more than anything else.
That all changes quick smart of course when in short order the Doctor saves her conscience from being permanently downloaded by menacing figures who call the wifi home, the “Spoonheads” (controlled it turns out by the Great Intelligence who looks astonishingly like Richard E Grant’s character from “The Snowmen”), whisks her off in the TARDIS to a plane that is threatening to crash onto them before racing across London on a madcap dash to find out who means her current incarnate harm.
It’s a whole lot of action in a very short period of time, during which she “dies” again (until he is able to free her from the computer matrix holds the conscience of hundreds of people all hauntingly crying out “I don’t know where I am”), and puts her recently acquired and fearsomely good computer skills to good use, but it bonds them closely together.
But not it seems close enough for her to immediately agree to go with him on adventures through space and time in what she mischievously terms a “snog box”, a playful jest that throws everyone’s favourite 900 year old Time Lord completely, leaving him blushing, and at an uncharacteristic loss for words.
This one perfectly constructed scene underlines beautifully that she is very much her own woman (a quality I think I am very much going to like in her) and that the rapport between the two characters is real and genuine, helped along by almost tangible chemistry between the two actors.
It was a master class in how to introduce a new character into a much loved franchise and have her almost instantly be considered as much a part of the time-travelling furniture as the TARDIS itself.
Unfortunately the wafer-thin narrative that made all this character-introducing and relationship-building possible was half-baked and more than a little disappointing.
It squandered an eerie, intriguing premise – that dark unspeakable evil lurks all around us, yes even in the ubiquitous mobile connectivity we take for granted these days and may grab our very souls when we least expect it – reducing it to a simplistic, if thrilling and highly enjoyable, action adventure with all the substance and resonance of a soufflé, where the threat was vanquished almost before it began.
In no time flat, the Doctor had found out where the threat was, got into their lair in London’s iconic Shard building and foiled the people doing the bidding of the Great Intelligence.
Just like that! Whoosh!
With the coldly calculating Miss Izmet (Celia Imre) at its heart – who, when a reset of the cloud storage holding all the stolen consciousnesses was enacted freeing Clara, reverted back to a confused, scared child – there was so much more menace lurking in the premise that wasn’t properly exploited.
While there were some genuinely unsettling moments such as the disembodied voices calling out from their matrix-like tombs, and the Great Intelligence’s frightening ability to take over just about any connected person at will (riffs on standard Moffat tropes it should be noted), and it make sense that the narrative should service the relationship building between the Doctor and Clara, what could have been a wholly engaging, and deeply troubling storyline became almost an aside.
And that’s a pity because the episode was otherwise a triumph of masterly characterisation, and relational world-building, creating an exciting launching pad for the inevitably exciting adventures to come in which the Doctor’s greatest challenge will be finding out just what kind of woman is sharing the TARDIS with him but why she matters so much to him.
*Here’s the previews for next week’s cracker of an episode “The Rings of Akhaten” …