Comparisons between classic Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes and current series runner Steven Moffat have been inevitable ever since Moffat’s first story “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances.” But these comparisons were even more inevitable (at least for this fan) on a weekend in which BBC America aired both “The Bells of Saint John” and the classic third Doctor serial “Spearhead from Space.”
Both stories find Earth under threat of invasion by aliens who are willing to use something mundane and turn it into something scary. In the case of Holmes, it was using plastics. In Moffat’s case, it’s wi-fi.
Of the two, I can tell you I vastly prefer the Holmes invasion story and not just because I’ve seen it multiple times.
It’s because the Holmes story didn’t feel like a mash-up of greatest hits from other successful installments of Doctor Who.
I think part of the problem is that “Bells of Saint John” had some huge expectations placed on it. It’s the first story of the fiftieth anniversary year, it’s the story in which new companion Clara joins the TARDIS crew and it’s the story that is supposed to start pushing forward the mystery surrounding Clara. Oh yeah, and it’s also supposed to show the Doctor battling a new alien invasion from the Spoonheads, a group of aliens who take over the wi-fi and suck the consciousness of unwitting victims inside it. And yet as intriguing as the Spoonheads were, I never really felt like they were fully established as a threat in the same way that the Weeping Angels or the Silence were. (And before you argue that both had multiple appearances, I will say that the Angels were effectively creepy in their debut story as were the Silence. So it can be done.)
In many ways, “Johns” felt more like a list of things to check off instead of a fully realized episode. I did like the chemistry between Matt Smith and Jenna Louise-Coleman and the big set pieces of the Doctor flying a plane and driving his anti-grave motorcycle up the side of a building were impressive. But in between, the story never really quite connected with me in the way that it that other returning episodes have.
I think part of this may be that unlike “Asylum of the Daleks” this story wasn’t necessarily meant to be a season premiere but instead a mid-season story.
In fact, the only moment that had me sit up and really take notice was the reveal of who is behind the Spoonheads. It also made me say, “We’d better see the Yeti return later this year or I’m going to be very, very annoyed.” The fact that the Great Intelligence is behind this was a nice touch and a great tie-in not only to the Christmas special but also to the Troughton years.
It just wasn’t quite enough to justify the forty or so minutes leading up to it. Hopefully this is a foundation placing episode and we’ll build on it for the next seven weeks. But for now, I liked it, but didn’t necessarily love it.