Doctor Who Recap - The Bells of Saint John
By Edwin Davies
April 4, 2013
There's not much to the story besides that idea, which is a little half-baked and makes it largely indistinguishable from something like "The Rise of the Cybermen," which does deprive the episode of the sort of kick one might be hoping to find in a mid-season premiere (or whatever the correct term for an episode airing as part of a split season might be). It kind of reminded me of that old Family Guy joke about Stephen King pitching a book about a lamp monster. It's as if Moffat really had his back to the wall and wrote something based on whatever was in the room with him at that time. We should all just be happy it wasn't an episode about killer tea cups menacing Bristol.
Anyway, The Doctor figures out what's going on, possibly because of a lingering sense of deja vu from the other times he's dealt with exactly this sort of thing. There's some peril; he winds up saving everyone through a judicious mix of derring-do (which involves driving a motorcycle up the side of The Shard, a building whose jagged edges make it look like inclusion in a Doctor Who episode was worked into its design) and some clever mental judo involving re-wiring one of the devices used to trap people’s minds in wi-fi and forcing the woman in charge (the charmingly icy Celia Imrie) to set everyone free.
It's all very neat and tidy, but it does kind of highlight Moffat's general unwillingness to let evil have consequences by making sure that everyone is left alive at the end of the story. It's not that The Doctor shouldn't be able to save everyone from time to time, but if his wins are so often indisputable it does kind of detract from the feel-good factor. (The best example of this being "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances," a couple of Moffat-penned episodes from the Christopher Eccleston year that made a big point about how much The Doctor felt like he needed a good day after so many bad ones.) This was mitigated somewhat by the scenes at the end that revealed Imrie and her cohorts were all working for The Great Intelligence (played by Richard E. Grant), who we last saw defeated at the end of "The Snowmen". It turns out that he has been controlling and guiding all of them for years, and once he leaves them they have no memory of what they have been doing.
This sets up a great little moment in which Imrie reverts to a childlike state, plaintively asking where her parents are, in doing so revealing that her character's entire life was spent under the service of The Great Intelligence, and its absence now leaves her confused and alone. It's actually kind of dark and disturbing in a way the rest of the episode isn't. Moffat relies on typically Who-ish images of people who aren't quite people and oppressive organisations, neither of which land quite as well as the two or three sentences that close out Imrie's scenes.
The main defence for how generic the episode is would be that it serves as an introduction for Clara Oswin (Jenna-Louise Coleman), who finally takes her place as the new Companion at the end of the episode. I use the word "finally" because this is actually the third time Oswin has been introduced over the last year. She first appeared as an insane Dalek, then as a Victorian nanny and in both instances died, leaving some lingering uncertainty and darkness over The Doctor in the process. Since she managed to make it to the end of "Bells" without joining the choir invisible, it's probably safe to say that this is the form Oswin will take going forward, and while it's nice that Moffat went for an introduction that was light on exposition and heavy on adventure, it didn't really feel as if the episode did anything other than restate stuff we already know: Oswin is tech-savvy (or becomes so after being set into the Wi-Fi) and there's something odd about her that The Doctor can't quite put his finger on, suggesting that the big mystery over the next few episodes, if not longer, will be the question of who, or what, Oswin really is.