Review: Doctor Who, “The Bells of St. John”

Right, then, Clara Oswald. Time to find out who you are.

After losing her twice before (in “Asylum of the Daleks” and “The Snowmen“), the Doctor finally meets his impossible girl again. But just who is Clara “Oswin” Oswald?

If you were expecting to find out everything today, you were gravely mistaken.  Still, we have a strong, fun episode to get us back into the swing of things and re-re-reintroduce us to the universe’s next companion.

“The Bells of St. John” marks Jenna-Louise Coleman’s first official appearance as companion Clara. These first companion episodes (as they should be) are all about the chemistry and the spark between Doctor and his newest assistant. The Doctor needs to be so amazing and spectacular that the companion wants to be whisked away by this youthful, 1100-year-old man, but the companion also needs to be as intriguing and challenging to make the Doctor offer the ride. They have to work best off of each other, and they have to overcome the foe together.

As quick with a keyboard as she is with her wit, Clara certainly fits that bill.

“The Bells of St. John” opens with an ominous message from a dead man, begging anyone who can hear him not to click onto a certain open wifi network. Later, we see he is just one of many victims all around the world – each one being fed to the monster of the wifi.

It’s hard to be terrified by a monster in the wifi. You can’t see it, of course, and – I can’t stress this enough – basic internet security tells you not to join any public networks at all, much less one containing a monster. Still, for the purposes of Doctor Who, we’ll let that one slide, and when trouble’s brewing, that’s when the bells of St. John ring.

Of course, the “bells” aren’t traditional bells at all: they refer to the ringing of the otherwise non-functioning telephone behind the “St. John’s Ambulance” sign in the door of the TARDIS. Hidden away in a monastery in the cliffs of Cumbria in 1207, the “Mad Monk” Doctor obsesses over the woman twice dead. The other monks bring the Doctor to his ringing TARDIS. He answers the phone to discover one Clara Oswald asking for IT help from 800+ years in the future. I would have paid money for a “Did you try turning it off and on again?” but I supposed the Doctor is too busy to watch an episode of The IT Crowd.

Then he hears it. “Run, you clever boy, and remember…” Clara’s last words (twice) being uttered by this woman on the phone that shouldn’t work.

Before she even realizes he’s left the phone, the Doctor knocks on Clara’s door seeing the face of the woman he’s lost once again. She is, unsurprisingly, skeptical at this mad monk that’s appeared at her door, but she doesn’t have much time to argue the point. Because the Spoonheads have come for her.

In her fumbling with the wifi earlier, Clara accidentally clicked the public network, getting their lock on the “very clever” girl “with no computer skills.” The Spoonheads are mobile servers that copy a person’s consciousness and intelligence into the malicious wifi network cloud, never to be seen again. The catch Clara and begin her upload process to the cloud, but the Doctor intervenes. He is able to bring Clara back to her body, but her mid-upload process left her with a few new useful pieces of information, like computer hacking, networking, and technological skills. (Inching her ever closer to the Dalek-ian technical genius that we first saw in Asylum of the Daleks… coincidence?)

The Doctor, intent on saving her this time, battles with a remote user via nonsensical programming code (although the Sherlock-esque visual effects were certainly appreciated), revealing the main threat of the episode to the Doctor.

This unravels a plot that was full of energy and spectacle, even with an ultimately anemic pseudo-villain in the end. While the threat of the wifi being so pervasive that it can literally control everyone sounds impressive in concept, it’s still just not that imposing. After a weird ride on a motorbike, the Doctor stops a crashing plane and Clara, with new hacking skills in town, hijacks our tech-savvy enemies’ workstations to discover exactly where the boss castle is among the visually impressive setpiece of modern-day London.

The key parts of these scenes is not that they save the day, but how they do it – the Doctor prevents the plane crash with instinct and brute force (all about show); whereas Clara discovers the enemy’s base of operations with a bit of social engineering and ingenuity (all about skill.) When the Doctor failed because the security was “impenetrable,” Clara didn’t disagree, she just knew another way around it – namely, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. For a superhero whose greatest weapon is the mind, the Doctor was just beat at his own game by a companion for the first time.

The Doctor saves the day (spoiler alert) in a ridiculous swagger – seriously, how many people drive up buildings? – but that just makes us fall in love all over again with this 7.5 premiere. And, coinciding with his particularly vindictive nature, he turns the Spoonheads on their leader, Miss Kyzlet, after her hubris poked the bear that is an angry Doctor. (Although there was a truly sad moment when Kyzlet reverted to her childhood mind, revealing that she was in fact a prisoner of her client, the Great Intelligence, for quite some time.)

Still, even with an ultimately throwaway villain, we know that this episode is just a set up for what’s to come. Along the way, there were plenty of awesome moments and funny lines (snog box!) Most importantly, though, this episode showcased just why the Doctor and Clara are so perfect for one another in a way no other companion has (at least since the reboot.) Amy Pond put him in his place when he needed it, but Clara beat him at his own ingenuity game. I am certainly looking forward to see where they go from here.

Final thoughts:

  • “Summer Falls” by Amelia Williams. “[Chapter] Eleven is the best; you’ll cry your eyes out.”
  • Clara received the Doctor’s TARDIS phone number by a mysterious woman. “She said it’s the best help line out there. In the universe, she said.” Bets on River Song?
  • “Is it an evil spirit?”
    “It’s a woman.”
  • Mobile phone: a “surprisingly accurate description” for the TARDIS.
  • What happened to age 23 in her “101 Places to See” book?
  • “I invented the quadricycle!”
  • “It’s a time machine; you never have to wait for breakfast.”

Grade: B. Not the greatest episode we’ve seen, but a solid entry to the latter half of this seventh season. High energy, great spectacle, and impressive visual effects put the icing on the cake of a strong start to Clara’s companion run.

Written by: Dwight Tejano

Dwight is the founder of Open the Fridge, which he started in 2008 and rebooted in 2010. Due to the nature of early adopting, his bank account is normally empty. He likes to sing in world-renown choruses to forget such things.

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