Steven Moffat is up to his old tricks in the midseason premiere of Doctor Who, airing a week from Saturday. "The Bells of St. John" marks a return to the overt creepiness of episodes like "Blink" and "Silence in the Library," mixed with some very Russell T. Davies-esque villainy. Here's our spoiler-free review...
And when I say "spoiler-free," I mean there will be generalizations, but nothing more.
Before he became the head writer of Doctor Who, Moffat was known for the spooky threats that prey on people's very existence, from the gas-mask zombies to the Weeping Angels to the Vashta Nerada. In the past few years, his main attempt to duplicate that sort of thing was the Silence, but they very quickly got subsumed in a larger conspiracy storyline.
Now, with "Bells of St. John," he's back on his home turf, with another story about a horrible, spine-tingling fate that can befall the unwary. Once again, there are rules of survival, and once again there's a catch phrase. And the jarring, weird bits are pleasingly jarring and weird.
But at the same time, Moffat keeps the story moving along, and the "boy's own adventure" vibe is strong this time around. Large parts of "Bells of St. John" feel very much like they could have been written by Davies for one of his rollicking season openers. The resemblance to "Partners in Crime" (the one with the Adipose) is very noticeable, in particular.
By the end of the episode, you've had your recommended dose of clever twists, fanservicey easter eggs and delightfully silly bits. The always great Matt Smith is particularly on fire this time around, spouting one-liners and staying ten steps ahead of everybody else with especial panache. And Jenna-Louise Coleman, in her third appearance on the series, is still just as fun as she was the first two times.
The bulk of the episode, of course, deals with the Doctor's relationship with Clara, played by Coleman. And it's more or less your standard Doctor-companion thing, with one twist that fans of the show already know about. Clara is very much in the mold of "spunky lass who challenges the Doctor," Amy Pond meets Sally Sparrow with some of the serial numbers filed off. But Coleman brings a certain amount of lovable vulnerability to the character — and the fate that we saw befall her in "Asylum of the Daleks" and "The Snowmen" certainly hangs over the character here, an ominous shadow.
All in all, "Bells of St. John" is Moffat showing that he can still do a traditional jolly adventure, and that he can still find new life in the "creepy implied horror" thing. He's definitely not reinventing Doctor Who, or doing anything particularly new, with this one. But it's a cracking good nail-biter, and we haven't had one of those in a while.