Doctor Who Recap: Season 7, Episode 6, “The Bells of Saint John”

With “The Bells of Saint John,” the second half of Doctor Who’s seventh season follows smoothly from last year’s Christmas special.

Doctor Who Recap: Season 7, Episode 6, The Bells of Saint John
Photo: BBC

It’s been a while since the last episode, but with “The Bells of Saint John,” the second half of Doctor Who’s seventh season follows smoothly from last year’s Christmas special. With the Doctor (Matt Smith) finally meeting his new traveling companion, Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), showrunner Steven Moffat presents an episode that efficiently sets several plot-arc threads in motion, but whose actual story is fairly thin and relies too much on devices he’s used before to be totally satisfying.

For one thing, the episode’s rather evocative title turns out to be a red herring—just a throwaway gag. We find ourselves rejoining the Doctor when he’s gone into retreat in a Cumbrian monastery in the year 1207, still contemplating the mystery of Clara, the woman he’s encountered twice now. To some extent, this initial section exists as an attempt to provide painless exposition for viewers who didn’t see “The Snowmen” and “Asylum of the Daleks”—in particular, to emphasize Clara’s status as “the woman twice dead,” and her enigmatic last words on both occasions: “Run, you clever boy—and remember.” Then one of the monks comes running in with news that “the bells of Saint John are ringing,” and the Doctor quickly returns to his time machine, the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), which has a prominent St. John Ambulance badge on its door—a detail on the original police box prop in 1963 which soon disappeared, but was restored when Moffat took over as showrunner in 2009. It’s a cute little twist, but it makes this episode surely the most irrelevantly titled one in the show’s history.

One thing I did like about this opening section was its use of another time period, in the sort of casual way that only Doctor Who can do. The Doctor, after all, is supposed to be a citizen of all times, belonging to none; he sees absolutely nothing incongruous about being in the 13th century one moment and the 21st the next. In this case, too, it’s not a matter of Moffat’s usual time-twisting plotting, but rather a pure character touch. There’s no real need for us to see the Doctor hanging around in 1207; it makes no difference to the actual story whatever. In the classic series, there would occasionally be stories that showed more than one time period: “Day of the Daleks” (1972) and “Mawdryn Undead” (1983) are two prominent examples. But there, the multiple time periods were always strictly a product of plot necessity: In those days, the show’s resources would barely stretch to showing one time and place on screen, never mind more. It was only with the advent of the new series, and particularly since Moffat took over, that the Doctor’s trans-temporal nature has been foregrounded like this, and it was pleasing to see.

Unfortunately, to kick off the story, Moffat resorts to recycling one of his more memorable tricks. The idea of the TARDIS’s external police box phone actually ringing provided a wonderfully unexpected and spooky moment in the very first episode Moffat wrote for Doctor Who (“The Empty Child” back in 2005). Repeating the moment here (“That is not supposed to happen!”) can’t help but be less effective, particularly as it’s reused for more comic effect, as the Doctor finds himself somehow talking to a present-day Clara, who’s calling for technical support to help her with a missing Internet connection. In this way, the Doctor is pulled into the action, not only encountering Clara again, but becoming aware of the menace he will have to defeat in this episode.

As so often with Doctor Who (and particularly with Moffat), the threat is an extrapolation from everyday experience. With the now ubiquitous nature of webcams, wireless networking, and cloud-based data storage, it’s an entirely Who-ish thing to do to take the idea of “something lurking in the wi-fi” as the hook for a story. The teaser at the top of the episode lays it all out for us: If your computer’s wi-fi detection shows a strange network with a name that looks like alien gibberish, don’t click on it. Because if you do, some shadowy organization will be able to hack into your computer, observe you through your webcam, and may choose to upload your personality into a virtual entity under their control, leaving your body as an inert husk.

The actual uploading is done by the aptly named “spoonheads.” These walking robotic wi-fi base stations are able to camouflage themselves in human form until they’re ready to strike. Then the human head twists around 180 degrees, to reveal that it’s just a hollow shell, a housing for a dish antenna. This head-turning trick would be much more macabre and effective if Moffat hadn’t used a similar gimmick twice before—with the Nodes in 2008’s “Silence in the Library” and the Smilers in 2010’s “The Beast Below.” It’s also unfortunate that the turning is so slow that their victims should have plenty of time to run away, rather than just cowering in fear in front of them. On the other hand, the way Moffat has constructed their dialogue is more effective, simply taking the last thing said to them and transforming it to make as realistic a conversation as possible (“I know you, don’t I?” “You know me, don’t you?”). Not only is it spooky the first time, when Clara encounters one in the form of a small girl, but it provides an excellent moment of delayed realization when one of them later takes on the Doctor’s appearance.

Once the Doctor realizes that he’s made contact with Clara again, he rushes to meet her. Understandably wary of this crazy guy who claims to know her, she rebuffs him, but when she’s attacked by one of the spoonheads, he manages to rescue her by using her computer to thwart the theft of her personality. As someone who spends his days programming computers, I can only wish it was as simple as the frantic flailing away at a keyboard seen here. (Of course, movies and TV shows, especially sci-fi ones, almost never make any concessions to realism when it comes to how computer interfaces actually function.)

As the Doctor and this version of Clara get to know each other properly, the interaction between Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman is as delightful as in their two previous episodes. Smith’s Doctor can be irritating when he’s being deliberately wacky (for example, in the scene where he changes out of his monk’s robes back into his usual costume, accompanied by ridiculous music), but when he’s telling Clara about the telephone calls she missed or reeling off a list of things he did around the house while she was sleeping, he’s alternately charming and hilarious: “I invented the quadracycle!” For her part, Clara is quickly intrigued by the Doctor, who’s repeatedly put off-balance as he tries to avoid hinting that he’s met her before. By the end, they’re already well on the way to becoming friends, and it will be interesting to see how this relationship develops over the course of the season.

The episode suddenly switches to action, as the Doctor and Clara come under attack from the mysterious enemy organization. It’s an indication of the level of sheer confidence with which the series is produced these days that the makers can simply insert a crashing airplane into a story as an action set piece. Clara gets to make her first quick journey in the TARDIS as the Doctor materializes on board the aircraft, which is about to smash into her house. Almost before she has time to draw breath, the Doctor has pulled the plane out of its dive, revived the unconscious crew, and taken her to the next morning, where he retrieves a motorcycle from the depths of the TARDIS and gives her a ride to a cafe in the heart of London for breakfast. The whole sequence is an excellent change of pace, and well-directed by newcomer Colm McCarthy.

The Doctor: “Human souls, trapped like flies in the worldwide web. Stuck forever, crying out for help.”
Clara: “Isn’t that basically Twitter?”

It remains a mystery both to the Doctor and to us exactly what the relationship is between the various versions of Clara we’ve seen. For example, Clara in this episode starts out as hopeless with computers, but in the course of the upload which the Doctor interrupted, she receives a package of computer knowledge and skills. In “Asylum of the Daleks,” Oswin was a computer genius. Are they actually the same woman, or is there some trickier connection? We actually see Clara come up with the name Oswin here when she needs a user ID for her hacking (“Clara Oswald for the win…Os-win!”) Is this significant, or is Moffat simply having fun with us? The Clara of 1892 (in “The Snowmen”) was a governess; the present-day Clara has effectively been a live-in nanny for the children of a family friend for the last year. The Doctor spots the similarities, but can only speculate for the moment. This is obviously one of the major plot questions we can expect to see resolved by the end of the season.

As I mentioned above, the use of computers in this story lives up (or rather, down) to the usual standard of realism for sci-fi TV, but there’s one element of the plot that’s thoroughly plausible: Clara finding out the location of the enemy via their social-media pages was a clever touch—and exactly the kind of boneheaded security breach that happens in real life, like people writing their passwords on notes stuck to their monitors. With the knowledge that the organization is based in the Shard (a right-up-to-date element of the story: This 95-floor skyscraper, the new tallest building in London, was opened only in February this year), the Doctor can now take action. In another casually spectacular set piece, he reveals that his motorcycle is actually an anti-gravity vehicle (“I rode this in the anti-grav Olympics, 2074…I came last”), and enters the building by simply riding up the outside to the top.

This episode’s main guest star, accomplished actress Celia Imrie, doesn’t get a great deal to work with as Miss Kizlet, the chief antagonist, but her confrontation with the Doctor is well done, as it’s revealed that the Doctor is still back at the cafe, and actually programmed a spoonhead double to break into the building for him. Neatly hoist by her own petard, Miss Kizlet is herself uploaded into the cloud, leaving her subordinates with no alternative but to download the entire cloud to restore her and all the other victims, including Clara. Or rather, some of the other victims will be restored; what might seem like a rather easy victory for the Doctor is complicated by the fact that most of the virtual personalities have no bodies to go back to, and will be lost forever. He contends that the best that can be done is to release them from a “living hell”—which is rather a contrast to his behavior in 2008’s “Forest of the Dead”, when he took pains to create a virtual afterlife for River Song. The difference here is due to the presence of Miss Kizlet’s mysterious “client,” which has been feeding on the uploaded minds; indeed, in a striking, albeit slightly strained, metaphor, she compares the situation to a farmer raising livestock for slaughter.

Imrie does a nicely creepy job with her best moment of the story: Miss Kizlet’s final scene, as her augmented intelligence is removed and she regresses to a small, frightened girl. For in a surprising reveal, Miss Kizlet’s client is revealed to be the Great Intelligence (Richard E. Grant, as seen in “The Snowmen”)—a bodiless entity capable of mentally dominating humans and forcing them to serve its own ends. I certainly hadn’t expected such a direct link between the Christmas episode and the second half of the season, particularly in view of Moffat’s statement that he would be dialing back on the season-arc plotting after the intricacies of the 2011 season. It remains to be seen just how much of this season (and Clara’s story) will be linked to the Intelligence; since the entity appears to be confined to Earth, some of the episodes (next week’s, for example) should certainly be stand-alones.

As has become the norm with Moffat’s Doctor Who, we start a new season (or half-season, in this case), with many questions awaiting answers. Apart from the central mystery of what’s going on with Clara herself, several other threads were left dangling after this episode. Some of them will probably turn out to be mere mystification on Moffat’s part—like (I hope) the fact that the book which Clara was shown holding early in the episode, the cover of which showed the little girl that the spoonhead attacking her used for its disguise, is called Summer Falls, by a certain Amelia Williams. Then there’s the whole question of how Clara managed to call the Doctor’s TARDIS in the first place. She said there was a “woman in the shop” who gave her the phone number: “It’s a help line, isn’t it? She said it’s the best help line out there. In the universe, she said.” My first thought was that River Song might be making another appearance in the Doctor’s life. But recent casting news about the 50th anniversary special episode that will air this November brings other possibilities to mind. (And for those who wish to remain unspoiled, I won’t say anymore here.) There was even a reminder of the big unanswered question (“Doctor who?”) that was left hanging over the Doctor at the end of the 2011 season.

The unfinished business with Clara and (as yet unknown to the Doctor) the Great Intelligence outweighs the relatively slight and straightforward adventure involving Miss Kizlet and her organization. “The Bells of Saint John” certainly isn’t dull, but like the “bells” of its title, the episode is more a trigger for the story being told over this next stretch of episodes than a story in itself.

Next Week: Clara finally joins the Doctor properly, and they find themselves journeying to an alien planet in “The Rings of Akhaten.”

Classic Who DVD Recommendation: For a much, much earlier look at computers in Doctor Who, check out 1966’s “The War Machines,” starring William Hartnell, with Jackie Lane, and introducing Anneke Wills and Michael Craze.

For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.

Steven Cooper

Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan living in Melbourne, Australia.

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