Sunday, 14 April 2013

TV Review: Doctor Who 7.06 - The Bells of Saint John

I hope you're using a safe wireless connection to read this, otherwise you're in deep- ┓┏ 凵 =╱⊿┌┬┐

After yet another relatively lengthy hiatus, Britain's most beloved sci-fi drama is back on the box and along with it so ends my prolonged absence from the publishing of any actual articles here on the blog. From now onwards, you can expect reviews of new Doctor Who episodes published a fortnight after their original airing date at the very latest. All I can say is what a story to start with; Steven Moffat's modern-day London-based 'proper' introduction to the enigmatic Clara Oswald, titled The Bells of Saint John, is a thoroughly enjoyable, thrilling tale of mysterious goings-on in the commonplace near-necessity that we call Wi-Fi, complete with action-packed set-pieces, a solid cast of characters old and new and most importantly, a near-flawless script. That last asset is something that bodes well for Steven Moffat, who's been receiving a fair bit of stick for some of his recent mishaps. I've always considered the Moff to be a much better writer when he's penning stories that fit under the horror genre, so to give you an idea of The Bells of Saint John's greatness, this is easily one of his best non-horror scripts to date.

A good way to sum up the plot of Bells would be 'Doctor Who does Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, spliced with a modern Bond or Bourne flick in London'. Steven Moffat and indeed the show as a whole have done the 'take an everyday object or image and make it scary' concept many a time before with statues, gas masks, plungers and the like, but it's never been applied to something we take for granted to such an extent that it (probably) almost comes second to oxygen and water. In the 21st century, Wi-Fi is everywhere and so is the temptation to join an unknown, open network. We've all tried it, and even though it almost never works, we continue to do so in hope that it will. It's because of this crazy temptation that Bells absolutely nails the tried and tested Doctor Who trope of taking something so commonplace and making it deadly, something that the previous episode, Christmas fiasco The Snowmen, failed to succeed in, creepy Richard D. James-ish grins plastered on Snowmen or no.

Colm McCarthy's Doctor Who directorial debut (try saying that 3 times fast, folks) is brilliantly realised, as is the subtle yet effective Sherlock-like production work. However, the real star of the show visuals-wise is the setting: the London cityscape and its landmarks feel fresher than ever after a long absence from Doctor Who in fully-fledged form, a factor that greatly highlights how much the show has improved from a visual standpoint since the Russell T. Davies era, in which the city of London was included in a large number of episodes on-set or otherwise. The setting is beautiful and the various Bond/Bourne-inspired set-pieces, such as the motorbike scenes and the aversion of an almost crashing airliner are gripping, especially when placed in front of such a slick backdrop. The London setting makes for some pretty clever cracks at recent history, too, such as the 2011 riots and the Olympics, as well as general witty remarks about the location. On a similar note, the episode also uses its Internet-centric plot to justify the inclusion of some jabs at Steven Moffat's long-abandoned Twitter escapades; You can tell that the Moff clearly had a lot of fun writing the script for Bells and taking stabs at the social network he's so indifferent to.

This brings us to the villains of the piece, who demonstrate a genuine sense of threat, something that, again, The Snowmen failed to deliver on. You'll realise the irony of that last point if you've seen Bells yourself. Those behind the harvesting of human minds through the Wi-Fi are clever: They work undercover in a professional manner, with their free-will caged up and being manipulated by the dastardly Miss Kizlet and her 'client'. While I found the reveal of the one pulling the strings to be rather obvious before the episode even hit the halfway point, it wasn't too much of a let-down and was made up for by the brilliance of the antagonists and their stellar performances. Celia Imrie, as Miss Kizlet, is a definite highlight. Linking back to the humorous aspects of the episode, the leading villain delivers some of the most cold and apathetic one-liners in recent memory, cementing her as a truly memorable antagonist. It's genuinely a bit of a shame that it's not likely we'll see her presence in any future episodes of Who.

On the topic of the cast, Matt Smith's portrayal of the travelling Time Lord is on top-form, as ever. It's got to the point where I don't even have to praise this man's acting in these reviews any more - It just goes without saying that Matt Smith is indeed still Matt Smith, thus still a brilliant actor and my favourite portrayal of the Doctor. As for the Doctor's latest companion, despite her intriguing sub-plot taking something of a back-seat in favour of the actual goings-on in the episode's standalone plot, Jenna-Louise Coleman gives her defining performance as the third iteration of the mysterious Clara Oswald, a slightly toned-down and more human-like version of the character. The chemistry between the two protagonists is fantastic and speedily established while also feeling genuine, too, something that worried me would be squandered prior to the Bells' broadcast. If you thought the decision to cast Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara primarily because she could talk at as rapidly a pace as the Doctor was slightly ridiculous, watch this episode and think again. Of course, you probably haven't seen her previous appearances either if you hold on to such a belief, so go ahead and watch those too.

Overall, The Bells of Saint John, while not anything too special, is a thoroughly enjoyable, solid episode. It's got a clever, very 'Who-esque' concept, great villains, enough clever little tidbits to get the speculative engines running, superb acting and some thoroughly stylish visual presentation, as if a great story with a satisfying and very Doctor-y resolution isn't enough to warm viewers' cockles. Even on repeat viewings I couldn't find anything wrong with Bells bar a few minor nit-pickings, which is genuinely impressive given the flaws of some of Steven Moffat's recent offerings (flaws that may not have offended myself, but definitely did others). Bells kicks off the concluding run of series 7 in style and certainly has me hyped for what's to come. It's also a great starting point for new viewers, so if you've never seen the show or lost faith in it after recent offerings, it might be worth tuning in from here onwards if you're willing to jump at the chance to have your faith restored or get into what continues to be a superb TV programme. Let's hope the quality of this first episode continues in the coming offerings, which will see the thoroughly intriguing Clara mystery built upon and eventually resolved at the end of the series. It's safe to say I can't wait.


Raphael Reviews said...

Nice subtitle ;)

Great work here, thoroughly enjoyable and fluent to read. Roll on the next Doctor Who reviews!!

Peace out and happy writing - Raphael

Tom said...

Fantastic review as always Noodle! Keep up the good work!

Noodle said...

Cheers for the feedback, guys. I personally felt this review was of a lesser quality than my previous work, what with me being rather rough around the edges having not written anything in months, but I'm glad it paid off in the end!

DJEvstar said...

Very good review. Nice point that it features the 'third Clara' with a slightly different character - that passed my mind!
Maybe a few choice quotes or examples could have boosted some of your points in my opinion but I enjoyed this review. :D