It’s good to get back underway once more with the stop-start drip-feed of new Doctor Who. “The Bells of Saint John” is actually episode 7 of series 7, which follows on from the final instalment of the Ponds (“The Angels Take Manhattan”) six months ago by way of the one-off Christmas Day special “The Snowmen”, so this is already feeling like the most protracted season of the show of all time.
Still, such a prolonged wait only adds to the anticipation of a new run of episodes – which is all well and good when they deliver against the raised expectations. This one had a lot to do to achieve that, considering the Christmas special was such a very impressive affair, but by and large it managed to do so and was a very positive and enjoyable way of getting back underway.
One of the most anticipated parts of this episode was the arrival of new companion Clara Oswald, played by the truly delightful and talented Jenna-Louise Coleman. We’ve seen Coleman twice before but in both cases her character died, so this is the first time we get to see the version of Clara who will actually be the Doctor’s companion. She certainly didn’t disappoint, instantly reviving her snappy repartee with Matt Smith who seems thoroughly reenergised by the new company on board the Tardis.
The episode that (re-)introduced her was a surprisingly different style of story for show-runner and chief writer Steven Moffat. The Amy Pond era had a more fantasy or fairy-tale feel to its two-and-a-half year run, but “The Bells of Saint John” seemed to snap back to the realistic modern urban setting that Moffat’s predecessor Russell T Davies favoured during his tenure running the show. In fact while watching this episode I kept feeling reminded of the 2008 episode “Partners in Crime” which kicked off season 4 and re-introduced Catherine Tate as new companion Donna Noble to David Tennant’s incarnation of the Doctor.
“The Bells of Saint John” had much the same sort of bright, breezy, knockabout and fun feel to it as that story did, and overall I’d describe this latest episode as the most RTD-ian thing Steven Moffat has ever written. And that’s not intended as a criticism, either – one of the things that I think the show has been missing in recent times is a sense of flat-out fun, of enjoying itself without feeling it has to be conspicuously, achingly clever at the same time.
That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of smarts in this episode, however – just that they blended in better, felt more natural and never imposed themselves onto the viewer in such a fashion that got obtrusively in the way as has been the case too many times in the recent past. The alien menace lurking in the WiFi crowd is a great idea and the Apple-inspired network base stations are an inspired and really unnerving execution that might have been genuinely too scary for kids viewing in the pre-7pm time slot.
There were some great lines relating to social media (Twitter did not come out of it well), and plenty of other humdingers as well. Even the title was a terrific twist, with the St John of the title relating to an aspect of the show that’s been present since the start in 1963; the early teaser sequence set in the Middle Ages monastery was beautifully done, as was all the London location filming – something you don’t realise how much you’ve missed until you see it done so well. And the end of the episode with its twist reveal of a returning adversary felt just right and entirely welcome.
If the rest of the series can live up to this start, I think we’ll all be pretty happy. And the signs are good, seeing as Moffat seems to have done his utmost to line up a formidable array of writers that includes two stories each from Mark Gatiss and novelist Neil Cross (a newcomer to Doctor Who) and the return of fantasy author Neil Gaiman after his brilliant “The Doctor’s Wife” in 2011. Yes, there’s been a fuss about the lack of female writers and that should certainly be a matter of concern to the show, but that’s a topic for another time.
From the trailers and the teaser details about the upcoming episodes it appears that this year the show is planning to celebrate its 50th anniversary with thrills, chills and impressive big-budget spectacle. It all looks and sounds terrific; and on the evidence of this first instalment I think it might just succeed in knocking it out of the park.
Doctor Who continues on BBC1 on Saturday evenings starting around 6.15pm, with repeats on BBC and also available on the BBC iPlayer. Series 7 part 2 is out on DVD and Blu-ray on May 20.