July 7, 2020

Doctor Who Rewatch: S7E6 “The Bells of Saint John”

The reintroduction of Clara in “The Snowmen” proves to be a more than adequate springboard for “The Bells of Saint John,” the midseason opener that is just a little confused about whether it wants to be a clever social commentary or a straightforward action/mystery.

Allow me to explain.

After an unsettling pre-credits sequence, “The Bells of Saint John” begins with Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) trying to access the internet in a family friends’ house. Not understanding how Wi-fi works is a good gimmick for about thirty seconds (thank goodness they didn’t try to make her lack of technical expertise a major part of Clara’s character), but luckily, the Doctor (Matt Smith) soon arrives, ready to save the day.
The episode doesn’t do anything unique or special in terms of the show, but it does have fun with its premise: that humans can be downloaded into a data cloud and their bodies can be appropriated for corporate use. However, it soon becomes clear that the show doesn’t intend to go beyond  the basic elements of the premise — however, whenever it does make use of it, the results are entertainingly impressive, albeit for only a little while.

The villains are a bit stale and underdeveloped (and the mechanics of their plan are pretty hazy), but this story is really about bringing the Doctor and Clara together. And in that, it succeeds — Smith and Coleman have fabulously giddy chemistry together (teased in “The Snowmen”), and it’s clear from the get-go that Clara will be a welcome member of Team TARDIS. Just give her a backstory of her own that can be utilized as a story point later on, and we’re in business.

In typical Doctor Who fashion, we’re introduced to the problem, we get a taste of the rapport between lead characters, and the investigation gets underway. “The Bells of Saint John” does not break from tradition, but it tries something different, a tactic that will become overused later during the Jodie Whittaker era: social commentary, and attempting to make a point about an element of modern society while also providing the viewers with a good old fashioned Doctor Who stories. This episode tows the line between success and failure in that regard, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad episode — it just struggles with its presentation of social issues.

The mystery of the Impossible Girl continues...
Plus, we get a brief return of Richard E. Grant as the Great Intelligence, further cementing that Steven Moffat does indeed have a story plan — and “The Bells of Saint John” is a perfectly adequate stepping stone to get us to where we need to be. It only gets better from here, folks — be sure to stay tuned. [Grade: A-]

Director: Colm McCarthy
Writer: Steven Moffat
Starring: Matt Smith, Jenna Coleman
Rated: TV-PG
Available: HBO Max
Fun Fact: A fictional book, Summer Falls, appears in the episode, written by Amelia Williams (née Pond), former companion of the Doctor.

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