Review: Doctor Who, ‘The Bells of Saint John’

Poster: Doctor Who, The Bells of Saint JohnI rather enjoyed this episode. Have I surprised you? I’ve seen a lot of disappointment on Twitter, contrasted with a bunch of other people shouting about how it was PERFECT and haters are gonna hate. Given my feelings about recent Moffat Who you might expect me to be in the former camp. OK, I don’t think it was perfect – far from it! – but we’ve seen a lot worse in recent times, and there was a lot to enjoy.


A weird phenomenon has been spreading over Wi-Fi. Open wireless connections are appearing with weird symbols as names. If you select that wi-fi your consciousness is uploaded to a mainframe and within a day your body dies.

Meanwhile, the Doctor has been hiding out in a monastery in 1207, trying to get the peace of mind to figure out what’s going on with Clara Oswin Oswald and why he keeps seeing her in different places. Until, that is, the TARDIS phone rings, enabling the gag that names the episode, as the TARDIS has a St John’s Ambulance sign on its door.

The call is from Clara, who has been given the number of the TARDIS’s fake phone (which ought to be just a part of it’s camoflage as a police box) as an IT helpline. The Doctor realises it’s her and goes to find her. Together they take on the uber-coporation.

Things I liked

There was a lot of fun in this episode. The joke of the title was a little throw-away and contrived, but in that kind of groan-joke way that’s completely appropriate for Doctor Who. Matt Smith was on fine form as his bumblingly eccentric Doctor who’s surprisingly smart underneath. Very Sylvester McCoy mixed with Patrick Troughton and a dash of Paul McGann. I like it. I liked that the fez and bow tie came out again, and I enjoyed the gag that monks’ robes are ‘not cool’ in contrast to such stylish accessories. Perhaps some find touches like this gimmicky, but I love them I love them for their eccentricity and because the Doctor has always had such peculiar quirks – recorders, capes, scarves, celery, umbrellas, hats… they make me smile, and they’re a great feature for a kid’s TV show. Kids can pick up on them and feel like they’re in on an in joke, and they can very easily play at being the Doctor just by getting hold of an inexpensive item like a fez or a clip-on bow tie without going full Comic Con regalia. That’s important because it’s inclusive, and because it helps spark children’s imaginations – especially when it’s encouraging them to think about what counts as ‘cool’ in different ways, and in ways that change over time. It’s important for showing children how to be more accepting of differences and to be more experimental in their own thoughts, as well as fashion choices.

Whilst the ‘be careful what you share over the Internet and beware of using and/or stealing unsecured Wi-Fi’ moral was a little obvious, I didn’t particularly mind. On the one hand it felt a little technophobic, but the Doctor and Clara didn’t respond to the crisis with a full on Sarah Connor Computers-Are-Bad routine. They used computers to retaliate against the human enemy, which was the real culprit for its misuse of technology.

I liked that they incorporated the Shard, an awesome piece of modern, futuristic architecture so new that I haven’t even seen it yet, but which has dramatically changed the London skyline. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s current, and it presents the future as something that we’re involved in creating, rather than merely something the Doctor can show us.

I liked Clara’s common sense response to a strange man landing on her doorstep demanding to be let in, and that only when he’s shown her a good reason to suppose it’s more dangerous to remain outside than to enter his small box does she agree to do so.

I liked the foreshadowing of a mysterious woman giving Clara the Doctor’s number (I’m guessing Rose?). I wondered if there was a deliberate reference to the Meddling Monk (a Time Lord antagonist of the First Doctor) in the Doctor’s hiding out as a monk at the beginning. And I LOVED that they got Richard E Grant in for the mysterious baddy. He’s a fantastic actor with oodles of charisma, and it’s a nice touch, what with him having played an AU Doctor in ‘The Curse of Fatal Death‘ and the animated adventure produced for Doctor Who’s 40th-anniversary, ‘The Scream of the Shalka‘. With the 50th anniversary coming up, we can expect big things, there, and it’s good to feel like we’re building towards that.

Things I didn’t like so much

Despite the fact that Moffat is now clearly aware of what people feel about his sexist attitude towards women (I don’t condone him being bullied off Twitter, but I assume it at least made him aware of the groundswell of feeling) he persists in throwing out sexist ‘gags’. Having the monk ask ‘Is it an evil spirit?’ and the Doctor reply ‘It’s a woman’ as though the two weren’t that dissimilar… it’s only funny if you hate women, which is out of character for the Doctor and a really bad message for kids. And… it’s doing you no favours, Moffat. It’s not just a few crazy feminists you’re continuing to poke with sticks because, for some reason, you think that’s funny, it’s 52% of the population that you’re insulting. We are watching, too, and some of us are little girls learning what the world thinks of our gender. Having it derided by an icon like the Doctor is pretty awful and entirely unnecessary. Not to mention the little boys who are learning about acceptable ways to interact with women.

On a similar note, I have some sympathy for the criticisms of Clara’s character as one-dimensional, used as a plot device and not really developed. As noted above, I do think she had some interesting elements of independence, but she has fallen into the tired old format of flirting with the Doctor. Although she says ‘come back and ask me tomorrow’ it’s token resistance that is presented more as a tease than any real sense that the Doctor’s being out of line in assuming that any woman who’s asked would willingly go with him. As others have noted, she’s too much like Amy and Riversong and all the other women Moffat writes, and not enough like a real woman with a personality that doesn’t revolve around her relationships to men. I am uncomfortable with how similar her speech patterns are to Riversong’s. ‘Run you clever boy’ is clearly drawn from the same smugly over-familiar well as ‘Hello, sweetie’ and, sexism aside, that’s just bad writing.

I also found some of the science a bit too silly. If the uploaded minds have been ‘fully integrated’ I don’t see how any of them could be re-downloaded without going mad. The cognitive scientist in me is irked. But on this point I am willing to subside and say ‘it’s Doctor Who, that’s just how it is’. Although this plot bore some similarities to ‘The Idiot Box’, I find the criticisms that it’s just a straightforward copy somewhat unkind. There was much more to the premise than an alien being simply absorbing minds. There was also a concept about integrating and altering minds – inducing paranoia, increasing intelligence, adding skills, enforcing obedience… some real interesting questions about the nature of personal identity and free will.

Overall, I found this episode considerably better than I expected. I still have serious problems with Moffat that I don’t think are going to go away. He seems to be digging his heels in on the sexism thing rather than listening to the voices of what women themselves think about his characterisation (or lack thereof) of them. But this was at least a fun episode with a good plot, some interesting ideas and a cohesive presentation. It was not a return of the ever more complicated confusions of the Riversong plot, and laid some stable ground for what I am tentatively hopeful will not be a complete train-wreck of an anniversary.

Doctor Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Dinosaurs on a SpaceshipIt’s been a long while since I’ve reviewed Doctor Who, and those who follow me on Twitter probably know why, but suffice it to say that I don’t really enjoy writing strongly negative reviews, I enjoy even less doing so for a show to which I am strongly attached, and I really don’t enjoy writing the sort of review that might attract vitriol in response a) because it’s very negative about something a lot of people like, and b) because it’s about sexism.

I’m reviewing Dinosaurs on a Spaceship because it’s the first episode in a long time that did not make me very angry at some level. In point of fact, I really enjoyed it.

To be clear: this is not an episode that’s gonna go down as one of the great classics. The comedy was a little forced and the general tone was very silly, but it was great fun, and largely not offensive. It’s such a relief to be able to say that about an episode of Doctor Who again.

And let’s make no bones about it: ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ is a fantastic concept for Doctor Who. One might have written a much more nuanced and intellectual script on the concept, but you didn’t have to. It’s a concept that will make kids and old hardcore geeks alike clap their hands with joy and start bouncing off the walls of the Internet. If you’re onto something that will please both kids and fans of the classic series alike you don’t really need to do a lot else but make sure that your script is relatively inoffensive. If we hadn’t endured the second half of the last season that might be damning with faint praise, but in contrast it’s just… it’s just really, really nice.

And it wasn’t just about dinosaurs in space. I was always a fan of the crowded TARDIS – Davison’s era is a favourite of mine from that point of view, although I know it bothers some people. When the Doctor has just one companion it does funny things to him, and funny things to the script. I was relieved when Rory became a regular feature of the TARDIS, but this episode went multi-companion in a delightfully spectacular way. It threw itself into the idea with great abandon and with largely good results. We had: Amy (Karen Gillan), Rory (Arthur Darvill), Rory’s dad (Mark Williams), Nefertiti (Riann Steele), and a big game hunter named Ridell (Rupert Graves). And the Doctor has apparently specifically pulled them all together because he fancies having a ‘gang’ along for the ride, and because he thinks they will each appreciate the wonder of dinosaurs on a spaceship (that, and Nefertiti was unwilling to be left behind).

I’m going to try and keep the spoilers small, so I won’t tell you why there were dinosaurs on a spaceship, but the reasons were fun and interesting, tying back to events and peoples the Doctor has met before in both New and Old Who; again, lending the episode broad appeal. But I will say that he’s in a race against time to save the dinosaurs before the spaceship they are on is blown up by missiles launched by an Indian space agency in defence of the Earth.

Rory and his dad are delightful, and Mark Williams is a perfect match. Whilst the gags based on a bumbling-but-always-prepared picture of dad-hood are rather obvious, they are performed to perfection. He’s also not the only familiar face. David Bradley is delightfully grizzled as the opportunist, Solomon, who wants to steal the dinosaurs to sell. David Mitchell and Robert Webb also cameo as a pair of daft and somewhat whiney robots.

It’s always a delight to be entertained by Mitchell and Webb, and they were certainly suitably cast, but whilst it sounded like they were having great fun (well, you would, wouldn’t you?) the whiney-robot jokes were rather predictable and fell a little flat. It all felt oddly Douglas-Adams-esque, which I’m sure was intentional (what with the complaining robots and wacky shenanigans in space) but didn’t quite hit the spot there, either. All the same, it was harmless, gentle humour that I’m sure would have delighted children, who are not as cynically familiar with such material as me. I enjoyed the nod to Adams even if it didn’t 100% pay off.

There was some reasonably well-executed gender debate, the range of characters allowing different attitudes to be expressed, although, to be honest, Amy and Nefertiti might have been interchangeable on that front. A point Moffat has been criticised on before, although this episode was penned by Chris Chibnall and not Moffat himself. That said, Amy fell less flat for me than she has for a bit, being allowed to take control of herself and others in ways that have nothing to do with her reproductive system. Both Nefertiti and Amy bounce off the sexist Ridell, and although for Nefertiti the sexism descends uncomfortably into flirting, Amy offers a nice counter-balance by looking askance at this. Moreover, between Rory, his dad, Ridell, the Doctor, and Solomon there are a wide variety of expressions of masculinity on display, and it’s very clear that Ridell marks an exception (and even he seems willing to change his mind).

The one moment that struck a raw note for me was one in which the covetous Solomon refers to Nefertiti as an object to be possessed, owned, and sold. Yes, it was clear that it was only her uniqueness and historical fame, not her gender, that made him respond so, but with the recent history of the series I really didn’t need to see a plot about a woman being treated literally as an object and in danger of being sold as the property of a male, in need of rescue from the Doctor. Such a plot has the potential for use in a context of sensitive and careful writing, but I mentioned that this was not an episode marked for that style of writing, right? It’s balanced, to some extent, by the resolution of that plot, but it still made me… uncomfortable.

Overall, Soloman’s plot is one markedly concerned with the Evils of Capitalism. It’s a little heavy-handed, but I remember what it was like to be a kid opened up to such big ideas and challenges to societal norms. It’s an interesting and important thing that science fiction does particularly well, and I’m OK with it’s use. I’m OK with Doctor Who taking on the big debates of the day and introducing them to children, the way I was introduced to the ideas of environmentalism by Silent Running. And if, as an adult, it started to feel a bit too much, well, there were always the dinosaurs.

Overall, the episode was fun and inoffensive, with some big fun concepts that are totally correct for Doctor Who. Definitely worth a watch, especially if you’d been as disheartened with the show as I had last year.

Doctor Who: Night Terrors

I liked this. There were no obvious gender issues, which made it a relief after last week. The plot was solid and the Doctor was wonderful.

Brief, non-spoilery plot synopsis

Little boy is so scared he sends a psychic message out so strong it is registered by the Doctor’s psychic paper inside the TARDIS. It says “Please save me from the monsters”. And the Doctor comes – to save the day and solve the mystery of what the monsters are and how to stop them.


Creepy little children are such a cliché, but overall this episode strikes a nice balance by keeping us guessing as to whether the child is creepy or creepy things are happening to the child. It certainly achieved something that would be scary for children, which is something Doctor Who has something of a duty to perform, but doesn’t always achieve. If you’re a small child, you want to at least say that you were hiding behind the sofa watching Doctor Who at some point in your life, even if you couldn’t ever physically hide behind your sofa.

I also felt it dealt well with the tensions inside the home that children feel but are so often ignored, or that parents assume they can keep from children, and thereby make worse. More than this, it showed the resolution of such tensions, which is something children need to see. I got no problem with sound resolutions like that happening in Doctor Who.

The only minor points of criticism are that the dad was too easily convinced that the Doctor wasn’t a nutter, and that it wasn’t really clear what happened to the old lady. I loved her as a character, but whatever happened to her didn’t happen in the same way as what happened to the other people. (I know this is vague, trying to minimise spoilers.)

Anyway, creepy children and dolls are a little obvious, but I found the resolution original and satisfying. I also really liked the aspect of meta-textuality introduced by what initially seemed, to me, to be a film set. I don’t know if that was intentional, but I liked it.

Other than that, not much to say. It did exactly what a Doctor Who episode needed to do – nothing more and nothing less. Not the best Doctor Who ever, but perfectly satisfying and not at all irritating. For that much, Mark Gatiss should be commended.

Doctor Who, A Good Man Goes to War

Sweet zombie kittens that was awesome! The little I saw on Twitter before I wisely closed my feed for the duration suggests that the Internet may not agree, but I don’t care. I thought that was phenomenal. Somehow it managed to do the sort of motherload pay-off that RTD Who always went for and missed in the season finale. I’m stunned.

It’s a puzzle how to review this, because I’d like to avoid giving the Great Big Honking Spoilers away. Obviously the episode concerns the Doctor’s rescue mission for Amy. He basically calls in all his favours and goes to war. It all goes remarkably smoothly, and just as you’re starting to think ‘Good lord, this episode has no dramatic tension, it’s just about how awesome the Doctor is’… the game changes. And I won’t say any more about exactly how, except to say that there’s lots of fighting and it’s pretty cool, as well as sad and poignant at times. Also, at the end, we find out who River Song really is, but don’t worry, I shan’t say.

Madame Vastra and Jenny

Madame Vastra and Jenny kick butt

Despite the potential for cheese, I really enjoyed the way the Doctor’s ‘favours’ are called in. Some of the friends he calls on we recognise, some are brand new, but of races we recognise. I was particularly pleased by the Victorian silurian lady, Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), and her human maid (or possibly lover?), Jenny (Catrin Stewart); and the sontaran who had spliced his DNA so that he could serve as a nurse (as punishment). Both concepts could have gone horribly wrong, and the sontaran walked a very close line, but they came out on just the right side. Additionally, we saw glimpses of some awesome war scenes had on a planet where men in gorgeous period-wear shoot laser pistols. I suspect much of the budget of this half of the series went on this episode, but it was worth it.


Rory. Nuff said.

Rory was also impressively awesome. I have this feeling there was meant to be more Rory this season, and it somehow got cut out. I very much appreciated Rory wandering around in a roman uniform calling himself the Centurion, but there was no build up. We’ve had the odd reference, but I have seen others speculate that there were originally more conversations between Rory and the flesh Jennifer in which he talked about his time as a Nestine more, and that it ended up on the cutting room floor. If so, that is a shame, it would have helped pave the way for this.

I also like seeing the bad side of the Doctor. I’m always puzzled when there’s an outcry that the Doctor did something not 100% OK. The Doctor has always been morally ambiguous. At first he was simply selfish and insensitive (recall how he ended up meeting the daleks in the first place, tricking his companions into thinking the TARDIS was broken just so that he could satisfy his curiosity?), but he’s made a number of morally dubious decisions in every carnation. If anything, he’s grown: his selfishness has expanded to encompass those that he cares about, and in general he tries to help those he encounters, and to impose rules for acting when things are not so straight forward. He definitely doesn’t like guns, but he has used them in the past*. He’s committed and contemplated genocide a number of times. This is not a New Who phenomenon. All that seems new, to me, is that he is more openly concerned by the consequences of his actions. This episode was a great exploration of these complexities in his character and I loved it.

I also loved the speechifying and the poetry: not a thing you will hear me say often. This virtually never works, in Doctor Who or otherwise, but they pulled it off and deserve the credit for it.

It’s not all perfect. Whilst I enjoyed the implied relationship between the silurian lady and her ‘maid’, the relationship between the two men identified by their weight, homosexual relationship, and religion, instead of by their names, sat ill with me. It felt like it was meant to be comment on how gay relationships or religious affiliations are usually token… but it actually just felt token, and uncomfortably so. Similarly, Amy is simply the princess to be rescued, not doing anything that moves the action along at all, either when she’s waiting for her ‘boys’ to save her, or afterwards. Apparently giving birth makes you go uncharacteristically passive?

On the other hand, there was no shortage of other women kicking ass in this episode. I’ve mentioned already how much I liked Vastra and Jenny – they were awesome throughout, but especially in the fight scenes. As were the other female soldiers, not to mention Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber) and River Song. I guess it’s swings and roundabouts, it’s just a shame that the lead female had all her umph taken out of her just ’cause she had a baby. I’d have imagined Amy as a fearsome momma-bear sort, rather than a ‘hide-in-the-corner-and-let-Rory-take-care-of-it’ lady. But ho hum, you can’t have everything.

All in all, there was very much to enjoy, and only a few reservations. I thoroughly recommend it!

* For true, that man knows his way around a gun:

In case this YouTube video is juddery (as they sometimes seem to be when I embed them) please go here to enjoy it in all its glory.