“The Bells Of Saint John” – Doctor Who

Bells Of Saint John 1

And we are back. After a fantastic Christmas episode that saw Clara “Oswin” Oswald re-connect with the Doctor in Victorian London – and then, once again, bite it – we return to present time and present London for an adventure in whimsy and wi-fi.

The title was tantalizingly obscure, but that was a mystery quickly dispatched in the first few minutes — the titular bells are just the ringing telephone on the outside of the TARDIS (which does, after all, have a St. John Ambulance logo on it). Turns out that another Clara is working as a child-minder for family friends, and after she can’t get the wi-fi to work she calls up our favourite be-quiffed thousand-year-old. How did she get his number? Well, a mysterious lady in a shop gave it to her, so let the speculation commence on whether it was River Song, Amelia Williams, Madame Vastra, or of course Romana. Because of reasons.

Soon the Doctor has turned up on Clara’s doorstep, solving the great mystery of how the hell to find Madame Multiplicity in under fifteen minutes. Luckily, the Doctor’s got other things to worry about. People are disappearing when they connect to a certain Wi-fi network, uploaded by a mysterious business who are working for another mysterious foe. Mysterious squared.

Clara UnconsciousThey attempt to upload Clara, but he stops her, and the two engage in a game of cat-and-mouse that involves all of London suffering a black-out, a brief sojourn aboard a crashing aeroplane, driving up the side of London’s tallest building, and then defeating the evil wi-fi folks with some clever misdirection (the Doctor sends one of their chameleon-like robots to pretend to be him, uploads the boss, and forces her to set everyone free).

By the end of the episode Clara and the Doctor are on solid terms, but she’s still not quite convinced, and she tells him to pop by the following evening to see if she might want to take a ride in his “snog box”. Phew.

The first measure of this episode, sitting where it does, is how it introduces Clara to the world of the Doctor. Yes, we’ve seen her twice before, but in a different form that she doesn’t remember. On this point, the episode unfolds flawlessly. It’s already been established that Smith and Coleman have a whip-smart rapport that’s, if anything, in danger of overwhelming the rest of any episode’s content. Clara is smart, independent, and chock-full of sass — but this episode shines light on other parts of her life, such as her ongoing relationship with children. What does this mean? It’s impossible to tell, but we were left hanging about the details of her own past that lead her to take up the mantle of Mary Poppins with these kids.

So Smith shines, Coleman shines, and the Ponds are firmly — if fondly — part of the past. Hurrah.

Amy WilliamsWhat was less successful was how this episode came together in its plotting and its development of themes and nemeses that feed into the back half of this staggered season. At Christmas we were dealt the revelation that the Great Intelligence was the force behind Richard E. Grant’s Scrooge-like and murderous bad guy, and once again fans of the original series screamed and shouted and did what fans of the original series so often do (and more power to them, I say).

But as someone who’s barely dipped into the archives of Whovian lore, I am in a position where I need to be convinced that this Great Intelligence is all it’s cracked up to be. What is it? How Great is it? Are we talking book smart or street smart? The revelation that the GI was behind the nefarious wi-fi plan of this episode was quite tacked on, but the scene where the entire staff were “restored to factory settings” was actually quite powerful, especially as we realized that the team’s hard-as-nails boss (played with an occasionally shaky aplomb by Celia Imrie) had been taken over by the GI when she was just a little girl.

This left us with one heart-breaking similarity across the GI’s presence: the loss of childhood. Grant’s nefarious Christmas foe Doctor Simeon was brain-washed as a child, as was this week’s Miss Kizlet. Add to that the concept that Clara’s main goal seems to protecting children and we may have something on our hands. Hopefully it’s something delicious, but too early to tell.

But I’ve gotten very timey-wimey about this whole episode, and haven’t dealt with the main plot. Although that may be because the main plot didn’t necessarily hold my attention as it should have. It was full of very interesting constituent parts, but didn’t necessarily come together, making it feel like Moffatt had jotted down the list of “very interesting things” that he must always do before writing an episode – but had not quite figured how these elements would cohere.

Look at the over-arching plot: evil bad guys are uploading people through the Internet. While it might seem clever to prey on an everyday activity — people looking for an open wi-fi get uploaded by said wi-fi — it actually came off a little hokey in practice. Yes, it was terrifying to see people trapped in a sort of ether shouting “I don’t know where I am”, but the uniformity of reaction was quite odd and the episode never quite established exactly what was happening to these people. Even when Clara returned from her almost upload, she didn’t really mention how it felt.

There’s also the problem that this concept, and the weird-headed robots that put it into action, bore overly striking similarities to the creepy Nodes from the Moffatt-penned two-parter “Silence In The Library” / “Forest Of The Dead” (which introduced, and dispatched, River Song). The final face-off with Miss Kizlet involved a very nice trick by the Doctor, but did feel a little anti-climactic, and like what had came before didn’t necessarily lead logically up to this point. In essence, the episode felt disjointed, especially when you consider that an attack on Oswin was followed by calm sipping of tea and trading of lazy barbs.

But while the story never did really come together, there were some fantastic moments. The highlight was the TARDIS’ arrival aboard a crashing plane, but the Doctor driving up the Shard worked, as did that lovely moment when Clara hacked the images of every employee at the enemy head-quarters and used their Facebook profile info to find out where they worked. Lovely stuff.

As we enter this great 50th year anniversary, and with whispers of returning Companions and Doctors from years gone by, there are worse positions we could be in. We have a fantastic pairing in Clara and Eleven, we have thrilling actors in Coleman and Smith, and we have some barn-storming guest writers coming up – Neil Cross (creator of Luther), Mark Gatiss (co-creator of Sherlock) and the much celebrated return of Neil Gaiman.

While I’m looking forward to more thought being put into episode structure and plotting as this year continues, I know that we are in good hands, and I’m still a very excited bunny.


Free Radicals

– There have been some rumblings in blogs and on the Guardian recently about the dearth of female writers on Doctor Who, and it’s a point worth making. Do I think that something about the sci-fi experience is quintessentially missing without female writers? No. But there is something quintessentially missing about the human experience — and sci-fi is just humanity through a more enticing lens. More than most sci-fi or fantasy, Who does well by female characters (with all the love Game Of Thrones gets, it’s still an intensely male-dominated cast where females are shackled by medieval expectations), but there’s still something odd about a show that thrives on casting young, sexy women against doesn’t-matter-their-age men. All in all, a conversation worth having, especially since there has only been one female-penned episode since the show returned in 2005.

– On a less serious note, I seriously loved that aeroplane sequence.

– Some very clever hiding of the Spoon back of the head by the Doctor’s old time motorcycle helmet.

– Am I going to spend the whole year listening to characters say “Doctor Who” a lot? Because no. Please.

– Say what you want about Clara Oswald, but that girl can hold on to a mug.

– Amy Williams the author? Good to see the nod to the Ponds having a jolly life in the distant past. Her book was called ‘Summer Falls’ – any theories?


About alfla

Playwright, screenwriter, sometime improv enthusiast and full-time television lover. You know, in THAT way.
This entry was posted in Doctor Who, Doctor Who Reviews, Reviews, Television Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to “The Bells Of Saint John” – Doctor Who

  1. Love the review Flabag, and I do agree with you about the dearth of female writers and agree that it might be making for some one-dimensional ladycharacters – for one, did we really, really need Clara to be a supergenius only because she got, ahem, all of the hackey skills of a 1990s hacker film (possibly called Hackers) uploaded into her noggin? It smacks of someone in the writer’s room saying ‘Eh, if she’s the computer genius we saw in Asylum of the Daleks, why can’t she connect to the WiFi?’ That said, I enjoyed the Twitter joke. Moff, I hate it too! Let’s be Bebo friends.

    • alfla says:

      Yes, it was a little lazy to do that, if it was an explanation of her not being able to use the wi-fi. But then again, there are other, non-idiot ways to need help with the wi-fi. Who knows? I hoped her mad skills aren’t gifted by the Great Intelligence, My Fair Lady style.

  2. Pingback: Doctor Who: The Bells of Saint John Review | The Consulting Detective

  3. Pingback: “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” – Doctor Who | [ par·al·lel·e·vi·sion ]

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