Doctor Who The Bells of Saint John review: “Steven Moffat at his confident, playful best”

A hugely entertaining introduction to Impossible Girl, Clara, that poses more questions than it answers

So what is Clara’s big secret? With Steven Moffat at the helm, Doctor Who has become just as much Companion Who. He seems compelled to bamboozle us with enigmatic women: River, Amy, Clara… Just a straightforward modern companion with no baggage would satisfy me and, happily, that’s how Jenna-Louise Coleman is playing it – for now.


I haven’t a clue what her secret is, have barely given it a moment’s thought and – it’s just occurred to me – I don’t particularly care. But it’s certainly vexing the Doctor. At the start of the story, we find him living as a “mad monk” in Cumbria, 1207, with a painting of the Impossible Girl, supposedly hoping to “divine her meaning”.

His contemplation is interrupted by the bells of Saint John. Cleverly, this turns out to be the telephone ringing inside the hatch on his police box, which of course has a St John’s Ambulance emblem beside it. I believe the only other time that phone has rung was in Moffat’s first episode, The Empty Child in 2005. (I may be wrong; please comment below if you remember another.)

But how does Clara have his number? Who was “the woman in the shop” that said it was “the best helpline in the universe”? Anyone else instantly picture River Song? Also, why does Clara possess Summer Falls, a faded children’s book written by Amelia Williams (ie Amy Pond)? Is this just a sweet, incidental detail or some heavier hint?

With all this bamboozling going on, there’s little time to consider why the Time Lord is fannying about in a 13th-century monastery – except that this interlude provides an atmospheric opening, some contrast to all the hi-tech snappiness that follows, and it allows him to be clothed in something muted before the reveal of his new outfit. Which I have to say I like very much: it’s dapper, quasi-Edwardian, reminiscent of earlier Doctors. Expect a run on purple tweed!

The Bells of Saint John shows Steven Moffat at his confident, playful best – a hugely entertaining episode that revels in its modern London setting. He’s turned wi-fi and the worldwide web into targets of fear – tapping into contemporary anxieties and following in the Doctor Who tradition of mining menace from the mundane (shop-window dummies, gas masks, statues, our own body fat…).

The fast-paced action and quieter interludes are nicely judged by Colm McCarthy, directing his first Who. Murray Gold’s score is palpitating but unobtrusive. Moffat’s flights of fantasy (a diving airplane, the swivelling Spoonheads, the Doctor zooming up the Shard) are spotlessly realised by The Mill. In Cardiff they must be reeling at the news that the special effects house is closing down.

But most important is the chemistry between Jenna-Louise Coleman and Matt Smith. They look good together, they spark off each other, and let’s not forget this isn’t the first episode they filmed. Coleman is a natural: warm, sympathetic, gutsy, and surely destined to become one of the most popular companions. And Smith remains a joy to watch – note-perfect, nailing every scene, every moment.

Celia Imrie is amusingly frosty as the ruthless Miss Kizlet. And how soon did you twig that her mysterious “Client” would be the Great Intelligence? After Moffat re-established the 1960s adversary so carefully at Christmas in The Snowmen, I was expecting a rematch at some stage but not in the very next adventure.

I’m glad I watched this episode before the BBC sent their publicity material to Radio Times. “The Great Intelligence – Richard E Grant” was typed at the end of the cast-list, but RT decided to withhold the information and preserve the surprise for our readers.

Surely we’re due a further encounter later this season with Richard E Grant, who has now supplanted Ian McKellen – the voice of the Intelligence in The Snowmen. But if only they’d bring back the Abominable Snowmen, the robotic Yeti, the Intelligence’s furry/ferocious/preposterous minions. My all-time favourite Doctor Who monster. I’d be very happy. Think of the sales figures for cuddly Yeti toys and the silver spheres that control them. Isn’t that inducement enough..?



The RT preview for episode seven, The Rings of Akhaten, will be online soon – and I’m just about to indulge in some Ice Warrior action…