The Bells of Saint John

New Who, Series 7

Doctor Who: The Mad Monk meets the Lazy Writer

For those who haven't seen the episode yet, spoilers ahoy!

The Doctor is not in, screenshotThe Mad Monk revealed; apparently all things come to Time Lords who wait. Screenshot, The Bells of Saint John, copyright © BBC 2013.

April 6, 2013, OTTAWA — An old enemy returns to upload souls, or minds, or essences — or something that leaves dead bodies behind — via a mysterious link on "the WI-FI". Folks clicking the wrong icon are harvested by a "base station" disguised as a trusted friend or a story-book character from the front, but bearing a concave dish-thingy in the back of its head.

Kinda creepy, but also kinda familiar — and also, as Livejournal's Patches365 has pointed out, it kinda begs the question: why don't people run?

Onward. This is Doctor Who, and long-time fans have come to accept a certain percentage of dodgy conceits with our plots. But there are dodgy conceits and there are insults to one's intelligence ...

Show-runner Steven Moffat himself penned the opening episode of Series 7's second half; and on first viewing, "The Bells of Saint John" is a considerable improvement on the dismal first half. Jenna-Louise Coleman is comfortable in her part as the enigmatic Clara (Oswin) Oswald and seems to have real acting chops to go with her undeniable charm. Better yet, the episode features an actual story, with a beginning, middle and end, and even an action sequence that was exciting and made in-story sense.

All that said, a series (or "series") opener ought to be quite a bit better than even "a considerable improvement" on "dismal". Moffat's reliance on familiar tropes and his contempt for consistent characterization are all too-much in evidence for much optimism as we begin this ostensible 50th anniversary year.

Doctor and Companion — who?

Clara clutches Doctor and cup. Screenshot, The Bells of Saint John, copyright © BBC 2013.

Right. Let's talk about characterization; let's talk about suspension of disbelief.

Post teaser and credits, we're taken to a monastery in the year of our Lord twelve hundred and seven. An improbably well-groomed and toothy denizen of the Middle Ages beats upon the door, demands an audience with the Abbot. "The Bells of Saint John," he insists, "are ringing!"

In due course, the Abbot is woken, hears the message and (finally) he and the door-beater, accompanied by a possle of monks, find their way to the cell of "the Mad Monk" who — after a pause the background music lets us know is dramatic indeed — thrusts aside his cowl and reveals himself to be none other than (you guessed it!) the Doctor!

The internet is broken and the Doctor is no Pablo Picasso. Screenshot, The Bells of Saint John, copyright © BBC 2013."The internet is broken" and the Doctor is no Pablo Picasso. Screenshot, The Bells of Saint John, copyright © BBC 2013.

"I'll need a horse," quoth he.

The Bells of Saint John, of course, are the ringing of the TARDIS' telephone, a call for which the Doctor Doctor has (apparently) been waiting at least long enough to learn he is no threat to the reputation of Vincent van Gogh.

Why? Er ... Because Steven Moffat thought "The Mad Monk" would be a "cool" episode title, is my best guess. There is certainly no sign we will ever again go back to Cumbria.

Indulge me. Allow me to detail this this pointless yet portentous minute-and-a-half set-piece; it speaks volumes, about Moffat flaws as a writer and, especially, as a show-runner.

Somewhere in more-or-less present day Britain, the improbably computer-illiterate young Clara Oswald calls for technical support because "the internet is broken". As has been pointed out by LifeofMendel on Livejournal's DoctorWho community, there may still be some 80 year-olds around who complain about broken internets, but none of us is likely to have chanced upon a 25 year-old living anywhere outside of an Amazon rain forest who does.

Suspension of disbelief fraying ...

And more: We are expected to believe that Clara believes "the internet is broken", despite the fact she is talking with someone less than a metre away from her who is connected to the net as they speak.

There goes one of the major pillars ...

Nevermind. That's small potatoes. Let's just accept that Clara believes she is calling technical support.

What is utterly beyond belief (unless she is a female Abed Nadir, waiting out a psychology experiment. But I digress. Shamelessly) is how patient Clara is.

How long would you listen to a ringing phone before hanging it up, if not hurling your device across the room? We're not talking an auto-reply, or hold music, or even dead air, here — we're talking about a phone that just keeps on ringing.

Consider with me just how long our Clara must have listened to those bells.

  • Nameless monk hears "Bells of Saint John" in forest;
  • Nameless monk runs through forest to Abbey;;
  • Nameless monk bangs on Abbey door;
  • Second nameless monk answers Abbey door;
  • First nameless monk demands to see Abbot;
  • Second nameless Monk says you just wait a minute, goes to wake Abbot;
  • Possle of monks descend to Mad Monk's cell, announce ringing of Bells of Saint John;
  • Mad Monk reveals self to be the Doctor, announces need for horse;
  • (Off-stage, horse is procured — at least two, in fact;
  • (Off-stage, Doctor rides horse);
  • Doctor having departed, remaining monks examine portrait of Clara, "explain" that Mad Monk was trying to "divine the meaning" of her;
  • (Brief cut to Clara listening to phone ring, in case we've forgotten scenes are connected;
  • Doctor and two monks dismount from what looks very much like two horses, while old-fashioned ringing is heard;
  • Cut to: the TARDIS! Underground!;
  • Doctor proclaims "That is not supposed to happen!" (But then: What was he waiting for in the year 1207?); and
  • Doctor descends to the TARDIS, pauses dramatically ... and ...answers the telephone;

Clara meets TARDIS. Screenshot, The Bells of Saint John, copyright © BBC 2013.Clara, meet TARDIS. Screenshot, The Bells of Saint John, copyright © BBC 2013.

Look. I said the episode was fun to watch and it was. The conversation between Clara and technical support was good fun, if you buy into Clara's cluelessness and the ham-handed way she is induced to click on the Evil WI-FI Icon.

But the brain concusses trying to believe in and care about a protagonist who believes hanging out in a Medieval monastery is a good way to be a detective; or in a Companion so dense she will spend an hour listening to a phone's ringing in her ear.

As is so often the case with Moffat's stories, the meerest breath of logic blows his constructs away, like so much faerie dust carried off by a vernal breeze.

I am unable to care about his complex games with time, or the clues he scatters about like day-glo eggs at Easter, or that Clara's favourite childhood book was written by one Amelia Williams, or about the missing years in her hand-written list. I don't care because I don't believe in Clara, despite Jenna-Louise Coleman's strong performance in the part.

And if I don't believe in Clara or the Doctor, the universe they populate is just as nonsensical, isn't it?

Character and plot work together — or don't — to build a world. In "Bells of Saint John", even Moffat's villain, too, is implausibly dense.

In what is clearly intended to be an exciting climax, the Doctor(ganger) rides an anti-gravity motorcycle up the side of the villain's urban fortress. A henchman notes to his mistress, "We could stop him, you know."

"Why bother?" quoth the delightfully over-the-top Celia Imrie as Miss Kizlet. "Could be fun."

The first-rate emoting aside, having a villain's downfall come about strictly due to her own hubris is a tired and a lazy trope, one that leaves this viewer feeling taken for granted at best.

There are some good ideas in "The Bells of Saint John", but the narrative threads from which they hang make for a shoddy suit indeed.

Sigh. Despite all that, I'll be back at it after today's episode. See you then?

Spread the word!

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You mean The Idiot Lantern redux

It was not a Bad episode. It did not contain River or Amy thank goodness. It's just that we have seen this episode before, even down to the motorcycle. I watched it with a friend who is still on season 2 and we had a good laugh comparing this to TIL, this had better FX, TIL had better characters.

On the good side, I find the Doctor less grating here than he was in seasons 5 & 6, I have even heard someone say they don't think he is the real Doctor anymore as he isn't annoying enough. All in all i may actually watch the next episodes, unless River comes back. Thank you for continuing reviews, it is nice to have someone sharing the snark.

The detective in a monastery?

The detective in a monastery? Maybe he had been watching Cadfael?

Re: The detective in a monastery?

I had to search the reference, so I'm only guessing that Brother Cadfael didn't just hang about in his cell waiting for a knock on the door so he could tear off his cowl.

Re: The detective in a monastery?

I had to search the reference, so I'm only guessing that Brother Cadfael didn't just hang about in his cell waiting for a knock on the door so he could tear off his cowl.

Totally not. Brother Cadfael is a very active Benedictine who spends quite a lot of time traveling around Shrewsbury, England (with occasional side trips to Wales); talking to his best friend, the sheriff; making good use of his knowledge of the Welsh language, his skill with plants and his general knowledge of the world gained from a long stretch as a soldier in the Holy Land; and genuinely caring about people. He's an excellent monk-detective. The Doctor is a disgrace to his habit.

Re: Re: The detective in a monastery?

Thanks for that, I thought as much.

Meanwhile, for the record, I took the liberty of editing my initial comment and your quote therefrom to make of the nonsensical "of" an "off", as in "... so he could tear ofF his cowl".

The typo was driving me crazy, yet I don't like silent changing history. Hence this over-long explanation.

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