Doctor Who And The Bells Of Saint John

Jenna Coleman and Matt Smith in Doctor Who - The Bells Of Saint John (BBC1, 2013).

One of my recurring irrational petty annoyances is the insistence that a lot of people seem to have on likening something new to an obvious and usually wildly inaccurate reference point. Sometimes prominent, obvious and shameless influences are prominent, obvious and shameless, of course, but it’s the casual disinterest with an undertone of snorting that generally comes with ‘pointing’ them ‘out’ that irritates me. It’s the triple whammy of undermining something for no good reason, attempting to cultivate an air of superior cultural detachment without actually demonstrating anything of the sort, and the simple straightforward expression of an opinion you don’t have that nobody asked for and which achieves precisely nothing. The reality is usually a good deal more complicated than an aloof X Is The Same As Y dismissal might suggest. In a sense it’s similar to how pretty much any sixties-influenced record at one point, be it by The Charlatans or Madonna, would be described by bewilderingly aim-free cynics as sounding ‘exactly like a song by The Beatles I can’t remember which one but someone played it to me and it sounded exactly like it!!’; this was a charge levelled especially heavily at Sowing The Seeds Of Love by Tears For Fears, which sounded more like A Saucerful Of Secrets-era Pink Floyd borrowing the chorus from All The Young Dudes and the drum breaks from Itchycoo Park if you ask me, but sure, whatever you say. Not that this stops me claiming that every record ever made was ripped off from the Camberwick Green closing theme, of course.

While I didn’t exactly think that Doctor Who series seven opener The Bells Of Saint John was a timeless example of classic television, I enjoyed it a good deal more than I was expecting to and found it fresh, well-paced and above all original. It was more than a little depressing, then, to find that almost every review, tweet, forum post and banner hanging off the back of a plane the next morning likened it in vague and non-specific terms to Charlie Brooker’s near-future sci-fi/horror anthology series Black Mirror. And no, I’m not exaggerating there. One friend of mine with a fondness for mischievously playing devil’s advocate later remarked that he’d read this review and was preparing to jokily berate me for fabricating an argument that I could then argue against, only to find that when he read all of the other reviews of The Bells Of Saint John, they really did all mention Black Mirror after all. Even now, the entire first page of Google results for ‘bells of saint john review’ is taken up with articles that make this very comparison. As well as finding this approach both lazy and smug, I also immediately thought of several practical reasons why it was both wrong as well as boring, and although nobody had actually asked me to review The Bells Of Saint John I decided to say so anyway. The original title, incidentally, was ++CHARLIE BROOKER IS REQUIRED++BRING HIM HERE, an obscure gag which comes from an infamous line in the 1966 Doctor Who story The War Machines. You can find my thoughts on that particular controversy at the end of this review.

You can find a lot more discussion of archive television on a similar tangent – and a lot more on Doctor Who full stop – in my book Not On Your Telly, a collection of columns and features which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. Hint hint.

Well, I had decided that I was more or less done with writing reviews of new episodes of Doctor Who. Not for any indignant or loftily ‘artistic’ reason, but because I’d pretty much run out of anything to say. It’s a lot more difficult to get a critical crowbar into the more streamlined revived series than it is with the original run, there’s not really any scope for examining the context – which is what I really enjoy when writing about ‘old stuff’ – and, let’s be honest, there are more than enough other people reviewing them already. After a couple of years’ worth of causing minor furores by liking The Idiot’s Lantern (as you can get annoyed by here) or not being that keen on Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead (as you can similarly get annoyed by here), I felt that I no longer had anything constructive or worthwhile to add, and in fact my most recent Doctor Who review to date used that very problem as its starting point. Well that and Monster Munch.

Anyway, let the eating of hats in Astrakhan fur (or, if raining, Stovepipe) commence – last Saturday’s episode, The Bells Of Saint John, turned out to have some things worth saying about it after all. Speaking as someone who on the whole hasn’t really enjoyed the last couple of series as much, and never really got on with Amy, Rory, River, overcomplicated ‘story arcs’ or huge swathes of screen time given over to sub-soap opera emoting at the expense of any actual appearances by The Doctor, it was a real breath of fresh air to see an episode that just got right on with telling a straightforward story really well. More pleasingly still, given my tendency to rationalise any misgivings over the new series by reminding myself that it’s not being made with me in mind as it’s not in black and white and from 1966, it seemed to have drawn a god deal of inspiration and energy from mid-sixties Doctor Who, with stylistic and structural nods to stories like The Faceless Ones and the Internet-predicting The War Machines, not just through revisiting the era’s fixation with the misuse of new technology but even down to the pacing of the scenes featuring The Doctor and Clara ‘meeting’ the public. Yes, maybe the actual technological detail was all over the place, but frankly you can forgive that of a series that once gave us The Megabyte Modem and The Icecano. In short, this is what happens when Steven Moffat uses the influence of the past to forge something new, and on this evidence that’s something he should be doing a lot more of.

This is why it was more than a little tiresome to see so many individuals from newspaper columnists to the one-shot instant opinion-merchants who cause Twitter to creak under their weight the second the end credits roll grandstanding about how the episode was ‘clearly’ influenced by Black Mirror, in most cases going on to say more about that – and presumably, by extension, themselves – than about Doctor Who itself. Leaving aside the evidently trivial detail that this episode was in production several months before the second series of Black Mirror even aired, this kind of reductionism is on a par with the seemingly inexhaustible supply of contestants on Pointless who won’t even guess at a Rolling Stones song title because “it’s a bit before my time”. Though you can admittedly go too far in the other direction and affect not to be familiar with all too familiar reference points because it makes you sound ‘cool’, automatically assuming that something must have been based on whatever is nearest to recognitive hand is selling both yourself and whatever it is you’re professing to like short. Perhaps Black Mirror was on Steven Moffat’s list of things to mention in the tone meeting – though he’d only have seen series one and the animal sex whimsy slash decade-out-of-date argument about Reality TV slash cunningly disguised rewrite of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind content was decidedly thin on the ground in The Bells Of Saint John – but judging from his previous form it would have been about seventeenth on a list that also included some things that Black Mirror had in turn drawn influence from – and, well, Doctor Who itself.

All of which you’re probably now thinking is a very long preamble leading to just going on yet again about how people should go and watch some black and white Doctor Who. Well, it isn’t. But I don’t have a proper ending, so go and watch some black and white Doctor Who. And then go on about how it’s all just ripping off Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life

Some things that might need explaining…

“…and never really got on with Amy, Rory, River, overcomplicated ‘story arcs’ or huge swathes of screen time given over to sub-Soap Opera emoting at the expense of any actual appearances by The Doctor” is a bit of a fib as, in a sense, I really, really got on with Amy.

I often use The Megabyte Modem and The Icecano as comedy reference points but in fact I’m actually rather fond of both. Pip And Jane Baker’s Megabyte Modem from 1986’s The Ultimate Foe was nothing more than an attempt to reference cutting edge technology that dated hilariously quickly and in spectacular style, while – from 1973’s Planet Of The Daleks – only Terry Nation could really carry off something as deliberately ridiculous as an ‘Icecano’.

Excepting possibly – possiblyThe Entire History Of You (which coincidentally starred Jodie Whittaker), series one of Black Mirror in late 2011 did not include any comparable storylines to The Bells Of Saint John. The distinctly more Smartphone/Social Media-fixated Series Two aired in February 2013; production on The Bells Of Saint John wrapped in October 2012 and it was transmitted on 30th March 2013. I am of course being unnecessarily flippant about Black Mirror at certain points in this, but I’m sure Charlie Brooker would approve of that approach.

Not So Much A Programme, More A Way Of Life was a late-night BBC television satire show that ran for one series between 1964 and 1965; it was essentially a toned down replacement for the more contentious and decidedly more well-remembered That Was The Week That Was and even some of its contributors commented negatively on the show while it was still on air. You can a feature on my love of That Was The Week That Was itself here.

++Hey! That’s The Name Of The Series!

The War Machines is notorious for a sequence in which snazzy big WAP-enabled computer WOTAN appears to suggest that The Doctor also goes by the somewhat more contentious handle ‘Doctor Who’. This one throwaway line has caused more in the way of consternation, hair-splitting and ‘thinkpieces’ than pretty much any other in the original Doctor Who‘s entire twenty six year history. There are those who argue that it proves this is his full name after all, those who try and invent ludicrous He’s Free Is Nelson Mandela-style conceits in order to posit that it’s some form of mishearing of ‘(it is The) Doctor who is required’ or similar, and at the most ridiculous extreme there are the dullards who furiously declare that it means The War Machines isn’t ‘canon’. This is one of those moments where you have to step back and take a look at Doctor Who as Just Another TV Series. Nobody involved in The War Machines had any idea that anyone would even care about it after what they expected to be its one and only showing, they’d never exactly been averse to playing around with this notion as a bit of silly fun before then (“Eh? Doctor Who? What’s he talking about?”), and with several new people coming in on the production side it’s hardly surprising that something like this should have slipped in under the radar. Honestly, you do have to wonder about the sort of person who gets exercised about what was ‘meant’ by something that probably predated even the merest suggestion that it might in fact ‘mean’ anything at all.++

Jenna Coleman and Matt Smith in Doctor Who - The Bells Of Saint John (BBC1, 2013).

Buy A Book!

You can find more of my thoughts on Doctor Who And The War Machines – and pretty much every other sixties Doctor Who story too – in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. I promise not to compare it to the latest hipster coffee sensation that I have both heard of and want to show off about having heard of.

Further Reading

You can find my review of Steven Moffat’s earlier two-part Doctor Who story Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead – and what I think about the episodes and the review itself now – here.

Further Listening

You can hear me talking to Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding about politics and Doctor Who past and present in The Zeitgeist Tapes – the show where politics and pop culture collide – here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.