It might only be three months since we last saw the Doctor, but things have changed. The Christmas Special found the Doctor morose, unwilling to involve himself until the appearance of Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) piqued his interest. The action-packed ‘The Bells of Saint John’ brings the Doctor back to the here and now, London to be exact, and finds him back to his usual spirited self.
A mysterious wireless network has appeared and hoovers up the souls of anyone desperate enough for wi-fi to click on it. When Clara Oswald (this time a nanny for a family in London) dials the TARDIS for internet advice, the Doctor gets to her just in time. The souls are being stored by a mysterious organisation in the Shard, led by the power-suited, iPad-wielding Miss Kizlet (Celia Imrie). But for what purpose?
After the departure of companions as long running as the Ponds, it was only right that the Doctor should have a bit of grieving period, leading the somewhat gloomy Christmas Special. But it’s great to see him get his energy back, driven by this new threat and the mystery of who exactly Clara Oswald is. Speaking of Clara, Coleman has referred to this final version as “mark three,” and there is an obvious through-line from the versions we saw in ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ and ‘The Snowmen’. She’s also very much a Steven Moffat creation: vivacious, determined and a bit flirty. It might take a while before she becomes a distinctly separate creation to Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond but she seems to have the acting chops to suggest that shouldn’t be a problem.
And to be fair to her, this episode isn’t really about the mystery of who Clara is. Moffat clearly wanted to bring the Doctor back with a bang, and he does so. In terms of sheer action, this is one of the most cinematic Doctor Who episodes that we’ve seen. There’s that crashing plane, the motorbike ride along the Southbank, not to mention that same bike riding up the bloomin’ Shard. There’ll be time for mysteries being solved, but this episode is about fun. We even get a bit of a greatest hits parade of Smith’s Doctor’s favourite quirks, from the jammy dodgers to the fez.
It helps that the unseen evil has such a great actress providing its villainous face. Celia Imrie sinks her teeth into the role of Miss Kizlet and gets some killer lines, with “I’m ever so fond of Alexei, but my conscience says we should probably kill him” our personal favourite. The idea of a wireless monster didn’t sound particularly scary but it was handled well (with a few obligatory Twitter gags) and it allowed for that final reveal of Richard E Grant’s Doctor Simeon, or at least, The Great Intelligence using his image. At the time, ‘The Snowmen’ seemed unusually plot-heavy for a Christmas special, and now we know why.
‘The Bells of Saint John’ was relatively lightweight but it was tremendous fun and showed the verve and energy that Matt Smith and Moffat can bring. We’d like to see Clara establish her own identity a bit more, but we assume that will come as the Doctor further investigates the mystery of her reappearances. For now, this was highly entertaining, wonderfully cinematic Who.