sat 22/06/2024

Doctor Who: The Bells of St John, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Doctor Who: The Bells of St John, BBC One

Doctor Who: The Bells of St John, BBC One

Expect the unexpected as the Doctor's 50th anniversary year gets underway

Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) and the Doctor (Matt Smith) cross iconic London on a motorbike as Doctor Who returns

Ever since Steven Moffat made the transition from fan favourite writer to showrunner, certain storytelling tricks in Doctor Who have become increasingly frequent. I can’t have been the only one who groaned at the short prequel to The Bells of St John, the first of eight new episodes to air before the summer, when it appeared online last week.

In a two-and-a-half minute scene, the Doctor (Matt Smith) meets a little girl who is revealed to be new companion Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman). It could only have been more of an homage to Smith’s first appearance proper, The Eleventh Hour, if the girl had started chattering about a mysterious crack in her bedroom wall.

There are some heart-stopping set-pieces and a nod to classic series in the opening credits

Here’s what the uninitiated can expect from a Moffat-penned season opener: the phone in the TARDIS, the blue police box that doubles as the Doctor’s spaceship and time machine, unexpectedly starting to ring. A character asking “Doctor who?” when introduced to the double-hearted time traveller for the first time. A mysterious ladypal, who despite or because of her youth and good looks might just be the key to the secrets of time and space. In fact, this time around some of the early visuals appear to have been ripped from another Moffat series altogether. But Moffat’s greatest trick is usually the one that you forget is coming: taking the episode in a completely different direction about halfway through.

Celia Imrie in Doctor Who: The Bells of St JohnThe Bells of St John begins with the Doctor hiding out as the abbot of a 13th-century monastery, painting and brooding over the loss of “the woman twice dead”. Handy flashbacks are provided for those who had forgotten that a Victorian version of Coleman’s character perished during the last Christmas special, while a souffle-making adventurer version from the future became a Dalek who sacrificed herself for her new friend. Given his level of obsession for the woman, it’s odd that the Doctor doesn’t recognise the voice of her contemporary London equivalent until she coincidentally utters her last words on both previous appearances. Clara calls the TARDIS on a number she was given by “the girl in the shop” after experiencing wi-fi problems. Jumping to no conclusions, I will merely point out the occupation of the upcoming 50th anniversary episode’s recently-announced guest star before she too became a time-travelling adventurer.

Doctor Who flies a plane in The Bells of St JohnIn a plot straight out of Black Mirror (or, perhaps, Moffat’s David Tennant-era two-parter Silence in the Library), computer users are being uploaded to the internet shortly after selecting a mysterious unlocked wi-fi network. When the same almost happens to Clara, she develops some new-found computer skills that hint towards the possibility of the Doctor having a companion that is better at something than he is. Celia Imrie (pictured above right), working on behalf of a mysterious client, plays the baddy of the week with a confident malevolence which perfectly translates when she is able to borrow the bodies of affected Londoners in order to communicate with the Doctor, but it’s her perfectly-acted last scene that is one of the episode’s finest moments.

With this being the first episode of the iconic show’s 50th year, there are some heart-stopping set-pieces and a nod to classic series in the opening credits. And just when the jokes are getting a little repetitive, or there is another shot of London looking at its best, the episode throws in something really startling like the TARDIS materialising inside an aeroplane (pictured above left). Besides, it’s some of those little Easter eggs - like the author of the book Clara’s babysitting charges are reading towards the start of the episode - which are part of the reason this show is still so loved.

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