Review: Doctor Who – 7×7 – The Bells of Saint John

Blink. Now blink again

In the UK: Saturday, 6.15pm, 30th March 2013, BBC1/BBC1 HD. Available on the iPlayer
In the US: Saturday, 8pm/7C, 30th March 2013, BBC America

It’s back! Look at that, would you. A new episode of Doctor Who. Ooh, I haven’t seen one of those since Christmas. That’s because we are now entering part two of series seven, which started last autumn, and is set to finish this November, right around when a new series should have been starting (but isn’t, because Steven Moffat’s been slowing down a bit). 

Despite the slight paucity of new Who in this, the show’s 50th year (my how time flies), we do have multiple treats to look forward to. As well as new companion Clara, who’s been introduced and died twice already in different guises, we’ve Neil Gaiman writing a Cyberman story, a returning enemy, a returning Doctor, and a whole lot more that if I wrote them down now, a lot of people would end up killing me over. So I won’t. Just watch the series and enjoy it.

But for this opening episode, The Bells of Saint John, which our Stevie has had simply ages to work on, we had a sort of hybrid story – half-Rusty, half-Blink – that riffed not only on the history of Doctor Who itself, but both Russell T Davies’s greatest hits as well as Stevie’s own, including Silence in The Library. And it was really rather good.

The search for Clara brings the Doctor to London, 2013, where something deadly is waiting in the Wi-Fi.

Was it any good?
Whilst one can quibble about the details – because, lest we forget, this is a show for kids, Stevie managed to deliver the goods, I reckon, with a show that gave us all the best bits of nu-Who: family, scares, big set-pieces, fun and just a hint here and there to the original series.

It was a bit of a wobbly start, with the Doctor stuck in the middle ages, contemplating his mysterious twice-dead Oswin, before she somehow manages to call him using a number given to her by a mysterious woman (you can be sure that’s going to be referenced later in the series. Another Clara? The same Clara? River Song? Pipes? It’s going to be important, anyway, and probably very timey-wimey).

The Doctor turns up, discovers she’s having problems with her WiFi, which is being taken over by something alien, and before you know it, he’s rescuing her from ‘spoon heads’, crashing aeroplanes and the neighbours.

Along the way, we get a glimpse of the new TARDIS wardrobe room – more of a pit really – get hints at the TARDIS interior we’re going to see more of later in the season, and see the Doctor’s motorbike in action. It’s better than the Whomobile, anyway.

Despite all the plane crashes and driving up the side of The Shard – nice use of London locations for once, with St Paul’s, Pall Mall and the South Bank visited along the way – most of the thrills came from the creepiness of the villains, particularly Celia Imrie, eventually revealed to be under the instruction of Christmas’s villain, Richard E Grant, who is now revealed, as was hinted, to be The Great Intelligence of Troughton stories The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear, the latter of which introduced to the Whoniverse the redoubtable UNIT led by the then Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, UNIT of course showing up at the end of this story (something Grant references, too). If he’s around for more of the series (and a little bird tells me he might be), that’s a lovely touch in this anniversary year, since that’s a villain that had plenty of mileage, but production issues prevented the planned sequels to those adventures happening.

Here we see Stevie – and indeed Doctor Who‘s – trademark of taking something ordinary and mundane and turning it into something frightening: in this case, the random WiFi networks you spot when you’re out and about and are sometimes tempted to join. But Stevie plays around with the even more interesting concept of hacking people’s personalities, and as well as the scary spoon head mobile base stations (who give the Yeti a run for their money in terms of robot terrors), one of the episode’s highlights is the way in which people’s personalities are manipulated with a touch of a button by Imrie. Nice one, Stevie.

This also lends itself to the surprisingly moving end scene where the villains get their original personalities back and are revealed to be ordinary brainwashed people – and in Imrie’s case, a grown woman who’s still a little girl looking for her mummy and daddy. It’s that combination of the adult and the ordinary that marks Moffat out at his best and it’s a pleasure to see this side of Moffat again, after quite some absence. What a writer he can be when he doesn’t have production pressures to deal with.

And now we have a new companion, complete with pseudo-family (cf Rusty Who) and links to Amy (her book). She’s more defined by her having died twice and being a governess than through anything more individual, but we’ve time for that yet. Coleman is good, Smith is as excellent as ever and Clara’s mystery is intriguing to say the least – all in all a great start to the series that makes me more confident that we’re going to get some equally great stories during the rest of this special year.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.