Firstly to address the Judoon in the room: The Doctor, a superhero? Sure, why not: he has powers of a sort (hyper intelligence, binary vascular system, regeneration), he’s an incorrigible do-gooder, he even takes on sidekicks.
And sidekicks are the order of the day in “The Bells of Saint John”, the seventh episode of Series Seven, Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith‘s third in the role, and the first episode since Christmas Special “The Snowmen”. Though the bells of Saint John do indeed get a look in – their first since “The Empty Child” way back in Series One – a more appropriate title might well have been “The Trouble With Clara Oswald” or perhaps “The Girl Who Died Twice”.
The Doctor’s lost companions before – just this season married couple cum intergalactic adventurers Amy and Rory Williams were torn away from him in the emotive but plothole-ridden “Angels Take Manhattan” – but never like Clara. Strangely enough, the mystery surroundings her repeated deaths and reappearances might well have provided him with a new lease on life. When the episode opened The Doctor might have been sequestered in a monastery, having singularly failed to track her down, but it wasn’t long before an impromptu phone call from an oblivious Clara brought him back to the world, contemporary London to be exact.
In-keeping with showrunner Steven Moffat‘s “blockbuster” approach to the latest run of episodes, “The Bells of Saint John” was an urban thriller complete with corporate conspiracy and monsters in the WiFi.
After the haunted Dickensian charm of “The Snowmen”, however, with its impossible staircase and Doctor in mourning, “The Bells of Saint John” could be forgiven for feeling a bit thin. The chemistry between Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman is in great evidence, but still hasn’t managed to reach the levels set by her first appearance in “Asylum of the Daleks” – there’s nothing here to match their chin-related banter or the heart-breaking revelation about the soufflés. The idea of human consciousness being trapped in the wireless network could have been a perfect callback to “The Forest of the Dead” and “who turned out the lights..?”, but it was never explored in any meaningful way. The episode’s supposed villains, the Spoonheads, were similarly undeveloped, little more than a means to an end.
Guest star Celia Imrie was good as the ruthless yet strangely considerate Miss Kizlet, head of enemy operations in The Shard. The development that she was, in fact, in the employ of The Great Intelligence – a second consecutive appearance after a 45 year gap – played again by Richard E. Grant – was interesting, especially when she was “reset” back to a childlike state. Assuming its not just lazy writing, could The Great Intelligence become something akin to this season’s Big Bad?
If “The Bells of Saint John” is to Clara as “The Eleventh Hour” is to Rose, then “The Rings of Akhaten” was Clara’s “The End of the World” or “The Beast Below”, the episode where the companion leaves home and finally gets to travel with The Doctor. There’s a distant civilization, aliens aplenty, and The Doctor and Co. just so happen to turn up on the day where it all falls apart. In this case, it’s the looming threat of Grandfather, a slumbering malevolent god, and the musical “sacrifice” of Merry, the Queen of Years.
The market setting is vaguely reminiscent of “The Fires of Pompeii” or perhaps “Turn Left”. The Vigil, masked servant of the Grandfather – think Kroenen from Hellboy without the self-mutilation or Nazi paraphernalia – are creepy, though, like the Smilers in “Beast Below”, don’t get a lot of screen-time. If I seem to be evoking a lot of other episodes of Doctor Who, it’s because “The Rings of Akhaten” feels very much like a best of: the mummy brings back memories of Tom Baker story “Pyramids of Mars” while the “final boss”, as it were, a sentient celestial body, was straight out of Series Three episode “42”. The Doctor gets a big dramatic speech about how much he’s lived and lost and the villain is ultimately defeated by Clara’s love for her mother in the form of a long-preserved leaf. All in all, the episode, written by Luther scribe Neil Cross, felt more like an installment from the Russell T. Davies era: lots of heart, not an abundance of nouse.
Next weeks’ episode, “Cold War”, written by frequent Moffat collaborator Mark Gatiss, involves a nuclear submarine and the return of the Ice Warriors: it feels like a bit like an Eight Doctor Adventure. The imaginative life of Doctor Who is still going strong, but, even with the whole of time and space to play with, after over thirty years on the air, it seems to be running out of place to go. Hopefully the enigma that is Clara Oswald will give the show a chance to break some new ground.