‘Doctor Who’: ‘The Bells of Saint John’ review

For an episode which did so much to ring in the new, there was an awful lot that was familiar about ‘The Bells of Saint John’.

Human beings are uploaded to a virtual data core. Faces are scalped onto spoon-shaped robot heads. A business-suited executive has done a deal with an alien intelligence to harvest humankind. Oh, and there is an awful lot of talk of nannying. At times, it felt like we were back in 2008 and watching a mash-up of ‘Silence in the Library’ and Russell T Davies’ ‘Partners in Crime’.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise. Steven Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who has so often chimed the same themes, it’s given us a kind of cosmic tinnitus. The girl who waited, the woman twice dead, the question hidden in plain sight… we have all become attuned to catchphrases which play out as leitmotifs – and the latest seems directed as much to the fan viewer as to the Doctor: ‘Run, you clever boy, and remember!’

The instruction is nothing if not appropriate. Running and remembering are the dominant themes of 21st century Who. This is not a programme which stands still. Gone are those 20th century days when the Doctor would stroke his chin and soliloquise, or bombastically iterate the same thing three times for the hard of taste. These days the Doctor and his companion are like a quarterback and receiver, constantly throwing suggestive banter and innuendo for the other to catch. You have to be match-fit to keep up.

The programme works constantly to make us remember. You thought you’d forgotten Amy Pond? Never fear – the former kissogram turned model turned travel journalist has now established a new career as a children’s author. You thought you’d forgotten The Great Intelligence? Well, actually, you won’t have forgotten The Great Intelligence, because the Radio Times online cast list will have spoiled that particular surprise.

But just as the programme prompts us to remember, it also obliges us to forget. The reveal of the relevance of the title is dependent on us not remembering the thing hidden in plain sight: the St John Ambulance sticker on the front of the TARDIS. It works deliciously well.

However, there is nothing in this episode perhaps quite so delicious as Jenna-Louise Coleman, effortlessly bringing something fresh to the familiar Moffat tropes. Flirty and audacious, she strikes a new note in an old tune. Ding dong indeed!

If the episode feels new at all, it’s thanks to her, and thanks to the delicious novelty of seeing a contemporary Who story genuinely play out against our capital’s landmarks, rather than the usual compromise of Cardiff-cum-London. London has certainly never looked sexier in Doctor Who than it does here: a world of chrome and glass, juxtaposed against the grand old dames of St Paul’s Cathedral and Admiralty Arch. The direction itself is a sleight of hand to distract from the feeling that thematically, if not geographically, we have been here before. It’s a confidence trick, but what confidence!

This is not an episode for those who are resistant to Moffat’s riddling impulses, and there are certain moments here which, in their desire to join the dots with what has gone before, feel at best contrived. Whether Clara’s cry of ‘Oswald for the win!’ is the origin, or a temporal echo, of the name ‘Oswin’ is neither here nor there. We’ve scurried towards these narrative dead ends before and are not inclined to repeat the journey.

Still, as the programme strides into its fiftieth year, the battle cry seems to be, appropriately enough, ‘Resistance is useless!’ You may not like the tune which Moffat’s Doctor Who is playing, but you cannot deny the confidence with which it is played, or quite how catchy it can be.

Aired at 6.15pm on Saturday 30 March on BBC One.

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