When reviewing The Bells of Saint John for the first time my takeaway was that this was a solid but unexceptional episode that used a lot of familiar elements.
After a re-watch I think that’s still broadly true. It’s certainly not the strongest episode of the season and the Spoonheads with their revolving head gimmick are clearly very similar to The Winders in The Beast Below, only not quite as effective.
There’s not a lot of depth to the story either. It’s very much a reintroduction to The Doctor and what he does. Which obviously isn’t going to be incredibly appealing to long time fans. But I think we sometimes forget that the show is not being produced and broadcast exclusively for us. That in fact the target audience skews towards the children/family mixture and that it needs to stay very accessible.
If you accept that that was the intention here with this episode: re-introduce Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor; introduce Clara as regular companion; set up the season. Then you could call this successful in that it achieved those goals. Still doesn’t make it a favorite episode though and I don’t think it’s the best example of what it was trying to do. On the other hand it was better than Partners In Crime with which it shares a lot of common elements.
I said it was a stand alone episode and you certainly don’t need to have every seen an episode of Doctor Who for it to work, but for those of us who have there were subtle references. I was a little slow on the uptake about the name of the episode for example (referencing the ringing phone on the TARDIS with it’s St. John’s Ambulance logo). Then we have the Great Intelligence putting in an end of episode appearance and of course there is the ongoing mystery of Clara.
But when looking at the episode as a whole, the Macbeth line: It is a tale, Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. Is a little more apt than it should be.
It’s fun. It’s fast moving. It’s witty in places. And there are certainly some big action moments like the aircraft and the motorbike ride up The Shard. But because the pace really never slows down, there is no time to reflect. And because there’s no time to reflect there’s no time to actually wring the emotional punch from scenes that have that potential. Which is a shame because there are a couple of scenes here (the second time Clara gets uploaded, and right at the end with Miss Kizlet) which deserve further exploration.
The same can be said for a number of the ideas that this show throws out. The paranoia factor of an omni-present wifi and camera network. Hacking people and tweaking their memories and personalities. People lost in cyberspace. This are all good concepts that could be explored further. But not here.
Steven Moffat has a habit of doing that. Just throwing out ideas and not fully exploring them. It is one of the more frustrating elements of his writing style. Admittedly, in some cases, Doctor Who just isn’t the place or format to explore them, but still.
So perhaps my less than ringing endorsement of The Bells of Saint John comes down more to missed opportunities than anything actually wrong with what I was watching. Because, in truth while I was watching it I enjoyed it just fine. The nit picks and if onlys didn’t really arrive until afterwards.