Doctor Who hit the ground running on Saturday night with its first episode of 2013. Midseries premiere "The Bells of Saint John" was a gleeful, almost giddy episode that was heavy on both action and humor -- and refreshingly light on exposition. Arguably, the episode was the best of series 7 so far.
A lot of that is due to last year's Christmas special, "The Snowmen," which essentially served as an extended prologue to this episode. The special established Clara as a character, meaning that her re-introduction in "The Bells of Saint John" didn't need to. We did learn more about Clara in the episode (she's fantastically cheeky, by the way), but her development never distracted from the episode's overall plot.
That plot, by the way, was typically complex. In a nutshell, an evil corporation had begun stealing peoples' souls through their Wi-fi connection, with the help of technology called "Spoonheads," Wi-fi servers who could disguise themselves as humans. In the end, it turned out, this evil corporation was working for the Great Intelligence -- the villain of the Christmas special, albeit a much older version of him. The Great Intelligence's escape at the end of the episode seems to indicate that he'll be the big bad guy in series 7's endgame -- could he be the one behind the entire mythology of the Eleventh Doctor's arc as well?
Since the Christmas special had taken care of a lot of this episode's exposition, there was room for action in "The Bells of Saint John." That's where some of the episode's giddiness comes from -- the episode not only featured the Doctor singlehandedly preventing a plane crash, but it also featured him riding a motorbike up the side of the Shard, a British skyscraper. Neither sequence had much of an element of danger, but both were hugely fun.
The episode also had plenty of room for some humor. The Doctor asking Clara to repeat the question "Doctor who?" multiple times was a humorous joke that couldn't help but feel like a little bit of self-deprecation on writer Steven Moffat's part -- after all, that question's been heard so often this series that we're starting to feel just as weirded out as Clara was. But it was Clara who was given the real zinger of the night, with a precisioned jab at Twitter that drew the biggest laughs. Lines like these, littered throughout the episode, established Clara as the snarky, sexy middle ground between Amy Pond and Donna Noble -- she's capable of being entirely flirtatious with the Doctor, but she's more interested in poking fun at him and making him uncomfortable. Matt Smith plays along gamely; his frustrated reactions to her repeated references to the TARDIS as a "snogging booth" provided some of his best comedic work.
The episode, of course, wasn't perfect. The story felt like a pastiche of several past 'Who' episodes -- perhaps most notably, the introductory episodes of Donna and Amy. The evil corporation behind it all was reminiscent of Adipose from "Partners in Crime," while the creepy-monsters-disguised-as-humans trope seemed pretty borrowed from "The Eleventh Hour." Comparisons to "The Idiot's Lantern" are also pretty easily made -- but, really, what's it matter? The Spoonheads were creepy enough (their spinning heads -- particularly the one with the Doctor's face -- were pretty unsettling).
And the villainous Miss Kislet (Celia Imrie) was absolutely pitch-perfect as the Great Intelligence's pawn who, in the end, had to restore her consciousness to how it was prior to meeting the Great Intelligence. The fact that Miss Kislet's mind was reverted to a child's state was a brilliant touch -- it adds some complexity to the show's happy ending -- as collateral damage in the Great Intelligence's war against the Doctor, it's pretty chilling.
Overall, "The Bells of Saint John" was a welcome return for the series, and perhaps the best of the series so far. With seven more brilliant-looking episodes headed our way, it looks like Doctor Who's fiftieth year might also be its most solid creatively.
The spectre of Amy Pond still looms over the series -- as most eagle-eyed viewers have pointed out, she wrote the book that popped up several times throughout the episode. Clara's warning to the child that chapter eleven is a tearjerker is a pretty clear warning from Steven Moffat that the Eleventh Doctor's got some rough times ahead.
It's a real shame that they couldn't keep Sir Ian McKellen around as the voice of the Great Intelligence. Richard E. Grant is great, but he just doesn't have the gravitas of Sir Ian, does he?