Doctor Who's The Bells of Saint John is interesting as much for what it doesn't say as for what it does. While the story doesn't achieve the same highs as the previous episode, The Snowmen, writer Steven Moffat still has a spring in his step, a mystery for us to solve, and chemistry coming out of his regulars' ears. As an episode, it was above average. Possibly, as a season opener, it excites with its promise -- though the fanboy inside me wonders if we'll ever solve the unanswered questions of season six.
A full spoiler-filled review is available after this break. Please turn away if you do not wish to be spoiled.
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After a teaser that decently establishes the rather esoteric nature of this episode's threat (there's something in the wi-fi, and it's uploading human minds and trapping them in the Internet -- insert social media joke here), the action shifts to a monastery in Cumbria, 1207 AD. A monk comes rushing for the gates, demanding to be heard. "The Bells of Saint John are ringing!" he says.
The gates are opened, and the abbot leads the monk down to a private area deep within the monastery where the eleventh Doctor is sulking once again, and painting images of Clara Oswald (not obsessive or stalkery at all). He receives the news about the Bells of Saint John and he gets the ominous scowl on his face. Immediately, they depart into the woods. By now, you know that the monastery, whatever it's called, isn't called Saint John. And indeed, Saint John isn't what you expect. It's not a cathedral or a second monastery. I suspect most of us begin to realize what it is when they come to a hole in the ground and hear that the "bells" is actually a telephone ringing.
The Doctor climbs inside the hole and finds his TARDIS, ringing like it shouldn't be, just as it was back when Steven Moffat wrote his first story for the Doctor Who TV series, The Empty Child.
At this point, the two narratives of the story click together. Up to this point, we've seen Clara Oswald, working as a live-in nanny for a family friend in the suburbs of 2013 London, England. She's been having trouble accessing the Internet with her laptop, and has been madly dialing a tech-support line for help. When the Doctor picks up the phone, guess who she ends up talking with. Elated to discover that he's finally found Clara Mark III, the Doctor hoofs it to 2013 London, and Clara's clients' home before she even hangs up the phone.
And that is the last we hear about the Bells of Saint John. This is significant.
The rest of the story flows through 2013 London, as the Doctor deals with an evil corporation (led by Miss Kislet, who is played with aplomb by Celia Imrie) uploading human souls to the Internet for the benefit of a mysterious "client". There's plenty of decent creep as the spoonheads reveal themselves as mobile uploading wi-fi boxes that take on the form of people in the victims' subconscious. The Doctor and Clara manage to prevent a plane crash on London, ride a motorbike through rush hour traffic and remotely confront the evildoers on a roof-top café before the Doctor uses an anti-gravity bike to zoom up the side of a skyscraper for a final showdown.
In short, the justification for the title of this story, The Bells of Saint John, comes roughly ten minutes into the narrative, and is never dealt with again. The bells of Saint John refers to the TARDIS (nice camera work to highlight the St. John's Ambulance logo, by the way), and the fact that it's called the Doctor to let him know that Clara is ready to be contacted. This story is entirely separate from the narrative of the monsters in the wi-fi.
The Bells of Saint John is best described as "above average". There's great chemistry between Matt Smith and Jenna Louise-Coulman, and Steven Moffat's dialogue crackles, as always. Director Colm McCarthy delivers some good action scenes and some creepy moments as the monsters in the wi-fi make themselves felt. However, there's nothing completely standout as there was in The Snowmen. The story is a lot less epic in scope, and doesn't have the trio of Paternoster Row to really spice things up.
But The Bells of Saint John has promise, and lots of it. Two narratives are established in this story. At the end, we discover (spoilers ahoy!) that the Great Intelligence is not only very much alive (nice cameo by Richard Grant, here), but is continuing his drive to sink his talons into the human race. And then there's Clara.
I think it's significant that The Bells of Saint John is one of the least applicable titles for an episode of Doctor Who in some time. Again, it doesn't refer to the Great Intelligence, his influence on the wifi, or even hacking people. The title refers to the TARDIS, and the fact that it rang to provide a connection between the Doctor and Clara after the Doctor had spent a long, long time searching fruitlessly for the woman. The rest of the story sets this development aside. We're treated to motorcycle chases, creepy wi-fi monsters and Doctor and Clara chemistry.
This is how magicians misdirect. Our eyes have been drawn away to the action of the plot with the Great Intelligence, and we don't get a chance to ask some pertinent questions, like: who was the woman who handed Clara a number for "tech support" that just happened to dial the Doctor's TARDIS? It is only the title of this episode gives us just a little indication that maybe, just maybe, we shouldn't forget what happened in the first ten minutes of the program.
So, yeah, Mr. Moffat, I'm hooked. The Snowmen promised us one big mystery for the coming season and, after the end of The Bells of Saint John, we now have two. The second -- the continuing plans of the Great Intelligence -- may well be gravy, but it's yet another thing to look forward to as the mystery of Clara Oswald deepens. It's going to be a long eight weeks -- assuming you don't force us to wait all the way to the 50th anniversary. But I can see the spring in your step, and I for one am looking forward to seeing what you're about to fool us all with.
Baseless Speculation: So, Who's Clara?
Well, you know me: I tend to overthink things when it comes to long, season-spanning mysteries. After seeing Clara Oswin Oswald appear and die twice this season, I keyed in on Clara's conversation with her charges during The Snowmen when she starts to tell them bedtime stories. She says that she was "born behind the face of Big Ben, which accounts for my uncanny sense of time." At this point, I'd have to guess that Clara is in fact a TARDIS, much like Compassion was a companion and a newborn TARDIS in the BBC Books series of eighth Doctor novels. This may not turn out to be true. However, after seeing The Bells of Saint John, I think that somebody is building Clara to be something, and it may or may not be something which blows up in the Doctor's face.
Remember my question: who is this woman who supplied Clara with the "tech support" number that happened to ring the TARDIS phone? This event served to bring the Doctor and Clara together, finally, but it may be more than that. It could be that whoever arranged this meeting did so to help augment Clara's personality.
Remember, before Clara was almost uploaded by the Great Intelligence, she had been completely inept with computers. She emerged changed. By the climax of the story, she's able to hack into the less-secure parts of the Great Intelligence's operations and use Facebook in order to suss out where the hideout was. Note also that she was just such a computer whiz in Asylum of the Daleks, so it's possible that this may be where this attribute came from. So maybe the phone call from the TARDIS wasn't done because Clara was ready to be found by the Doctor, but because the next ingredient in Clara's make-up had to be added.
But to what end? This feels separate from the Great Intelligence's plans to upload humanity. But just because these two plots happened to collide with one another doesn't mean that the Clara's plot is being done for her benefit.
Then there's the matter of the red maple leaf in the book of 101 places Clara apparently wants to see and her cryptic response that it's not a leaf but "page one". If I had to read that any way, it's not that she hopes to go to Canada someday. The fact that it's a physical leaf and "page one" suggests that she's already been.
However, remember what I said about misdirection? Steven Moffat makes so much of this moment, he's obviously drawing our attention to it, and I'm forced to wonder what we're being directed away from. Could it be the way that Clara signed the book with her name and a bunch of crossed-out numbers that we assume to be ages, and which lead us to assume that Clara is 24? But what if they're not numbers? What if they're iterations, and this is in fact Clara Oswald, #24?
Well, we'll see in the next eight weeks, won't we?
- I didn't notice this until I picked it up on Wikipedia: the book Summer Falls was written by none other than "Amelia Williams". And given that the catch phrase of this season appears to be "Winter is Coming", the title itself may be a tip of the hat towards that.
- Given the catchprhase of the season is "Winter is Coming", it seems odd to be dealing with this matter on a season that leads into spring. But then, it could be that this whole thing won't be resolved until the Christmas special that we're due to get at the end of the year. Drat it!