The Bells of Saint John ★★★★

Beware the wi-fi – in a breezy thrill-ride across London and a hugely entertaining introduction to the Impossible Girl, Clara

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Series 7 – Episode 6

“We’re living in a wi-fi soup. Suppose something got inside it. Suppose there was something living in the wi-fi, harvesting human minds” – the Doctor

Storyline
The Doctor is in retreat at a monastery in Cumbria 1207, contemplating “the woman twice dead”, when his police box receives a call. In present-day London, Clara thinks she’s on a helpline to sort out her wi-fi problems. Still dressed as a monk, the Doctor turns up to help Clara, who works as a childminder for two kids, Angie and Artie. A sinister organisation run by Miss Kizlet is deploying robotic servers, swivelling Spoonheads, to upload people’s souls to the internet. After Clara is drawn into the data cloud, the Doctor storms Kizlet’s office – sending a Spoonhead version of himself on a motorbike up the side of the Shard. The Great Intelligence has returned and is feasting on the uploaded minds. The Doctor saves the day and asks Clara to join his travels but she’s reluctant to go off in his “snog box”.

First UK transmission
Saturday 30 March 2013

Production
September to December 2012. At Beatty Avenue, Roath, Cardiff; MOD St Athan, Barry; Southerndown Beach, Dunraven Park; Welsh National Assembly Building, Cardiff; BBC Roath Lock Studios. In London at Grange St Paul’s Hotel, Westminster Bridge, Horse Guards Parade, Waterloo Bridge, Queen’s Walk and the Shard. February 2013 at BBC TV Centre in London.

Cast
The Doctor – Matt Smith
Clara Oswald – Jenna-Louise Coleman
Miss Kizlet – Celia Imrie
Mahler – Robert Whitelock
Alexei – Dan Li
Nabile – Manpreet Bachu
Paul – Sean Knopp
The Abbott – James Greene
George – Geff Francis
Angie – Eve De Leon Allen
Artie – Kassius Carey Johnson
Barista – Fred Pearson
Little girl – Danielle Eames
Waitress – Jade Anouka
Newsreader – Olivia Hill
Child reading comic – Isabella Blake-Thomas
Man with chips – Matthew Earley
Pilot – Antony Edridge
The Great Intelligence – Richard E Grant

Crew
Writer – Steven Moffat
Director – Colm McCarthy
Producer – Denise Paul
Series producer – Marcus Wilson
Music – Murray Gold
Designer – Michael Pickwoad
Executive producers – Steven Moffat, Caroline Skinner

RT review by Patrick Mulkern

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 couldn’t give a monkey’s what her secret is 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 rang was in Moffat’s first episode, The Empty Child in 2005.

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.

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 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.

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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. He’s supplanted Ian McKellen (the voice of the Intelligence in The Snowmen) and would return for a further chilling encounter later in this season.