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Well, first things first we have new titles and a new mix of the theme tune. Well, I say new, they actually debuted with the Christmas special The Snowmen but as I didn't review that they deserve a mention here. Firstly my reaction to the latest incarnation of the iconic theme is pretty much the same as my reaction to every theme since 1980 and that is to shout at the telly "Bring the bloody Delia Derbyshire version back, this new version is bobbins!"
Yes, I know, I'm a hard-liner! But the Derbyshire version STILL sounds like it dropped out of a wormhole from another, more frightening and futuristic dimension. You're not going to better it any time soon, so admit defeat and bring it back! End of.
As for the new titles - well, I approve of the homage to the classic series, a nice touch for the 50th anniversary year. They are a case of I can see what they are trying to do, but again I have to say - and yes, I know I will sound hopeless trapped in the past - but again, since 1980 they've been doing different titles sequences and all have looked inferior to the classic 'time tunnel' that debuted in Pertwee's last season and remained until Tom Baker's last. Like the Derbyshire theme, it was so ahead of its time, it still looks good now and really you're on a hiding to nothing doing something different really.
Not that they should use the old titles footage, but I feel that concept should be the blueprint on which modern titles sequences should be built. All the new series title sequences have flirted with the old time tunnel but then pranced about trying to be modern and do their own thing and it's not quite worked. It's time to stop being coy and use rebuilt on a blueprint drawn from the old sequence...
However it's not really a big deal - the new show changes the titles and theme mix on a regular basis. And so while I'm not particularly enamored with either of the latest version, I'm fairly sure they'll change again in the not to distant future.
We also have a new look console room. Now this latest TARDIS desktop theme I'm a bit unsure of as I really liked the last one. This one feels a bit too metallic and cold, but it may well grow on me and again, the new series has a habit of changing these things regularly anyway. I daresay I won't be giving it a second thought in two or three episodes' time.
So then, with all the new visuals remarked upon, what of the episode itself?
Well, it was good fun all in all. Not the greatest Who ever screened but then I wasn't really expecting that. For bearing out my Series-7- is-two-mini-seasons idea (see Doctor Who Series 7 - The Story So Far), The Bells of St. John felt like a series opener, and one with the job of embedding a new companion. Now yes, I know that we've already met Jenna-Lousie Coleman twice before, but they were different versions of that character, and the current one we meet here doesn't remember and/or know about those previous encounters with the Doctor. And hence this Clara needs to meet our favourite Time Lord and decide to travel with him.
Now as these sort of episodes go, it was rather nicely handled. Of course, as the purpose of the episode is to get the Doctor and his new companion together the story was, as I expected it would be, rather slight. However I would say that as thin as the actual plot was, it was a solid little mystery for the Doctor and Clara to unravel together and one that fitted the running time of the episode nicely, without feeling galloped through or suffering from an over-stuffed last ten minutes (two common stumbles in the modern show).
Needless to say Matt Smith was on good form as ever, however what of the new girl. Well, yes, she's very pretty and the whole mystery around her is intriguing. However we did really see much more of her character than we've already seen before. And I have to say, I am slightly worried that her fast-talking traits may well get a little irritating if the writers are just going to push the buttons marked 'snappy line' and 'sassy'. Time will tell.
However as we have met Clara, or rather other versions of her before, I did feel we needed to see a little more of personality than we actually got in this episode. The trouble is it that this was effectively the third introduction to the same girl. Of course, I appreciate that as the first episode of a fresh run of Who, it's seen as a jumping on point and therefore we need (allegedly) to have the character freshly established, and this episode did it nicely, however I did have a nagging feeling that perhaps a little less meet-and-greet and more heads down adventure would have been nice.
Unusually for Mr Moffat, the episode was all fairly straight forward stuff plot-wise. Now some have said that we got no real explanation of what the spoonheads and their master were really up to, or indeed why. But come on folks, this is a first episode and aside from firmly establishing the mystery over what is going on with Clara, Moffat is also seeding his story arc here. For example, I'll be very surprised if this is the last we've seen of U.N.I.T. this series - being an important part of the show's history, I fully expect that these Earthbound allies of the Doctor will play an important role in later stories, and we'll be seeing the Brigadier's daughter again.
But the big point here - and last chance to jump ship spoiler dodgers! - was the reveal that the Great Intelligence was behind it all. Now many felt, that Richard E Grant was under-used in The Snowmen, an opinion with which I concur. However, that seeming under-use started to make sense when The Great Intelligence appeared at this episode's close - the GI's appearance wasn't just a nod to old fans, it was the (re)introduction of a major foe. Clearly this old enemy from the Doctor's past is going to be a recurring problem in this series, if not the Big Bad itself! And I'm quite sure we'll learn what object of its schemes in this episode were in the coming weeks. Giving that the Doctor's second encounter with the Great Intelligence, the Web of Fear, introduced us to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and led to the formation of U.N.I.T., I imagine he/it may well be looking to settle an old score there too.
So then, while not an outstanding story, I think The Bells of St. Johnsowed some very interesting seeds for the coming series...
JIM MOON,5th April 2013