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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Doctor Who: “The Bells Of Saint John”

Illustration for article titled Doctor Who: “The Bells Of Saint John”

“The Bells Of Saint John” is just a fragment of a much larger story. That’s not exactly a revelation in the era of serialized television, but one of the great strengths of Doctor Who’s format is that the TARDIS can pop between self-contained and arc-driven stories at will. This episode falls into a weird middle ground between these two, as it continues the mystery of Clara the show began in “Asylum Of The Daleks” and brought into focus in “The Snowmen,” but it also tries to avoid dealing with that pressing question—so pressing that the Doctor begins the episode hiding out in a medieval monastery because he’s so obsessed—until as late as possible, as it’s not until the final line that the Doctor declares, “Now, Clara Oswin Oswald, time to find out who you really are.” It’s not that I expected the episode to offer any more clues than it does; modern Doctor Who has established that any overarching mysteries like this will play out over the course of an entire season, with only the tiniest of clues before the big reveal.

But what really gives the episode its incomplete feel is that it also has to spend a lot of its running time establishing the new relationship between Matt Smith’s Doctor and this modern-day version of Jenna-Louise Coleman’s Clara. Although it’s technically kicking off the second half of the season, “The Bells Of Saint John” falls into the same category as premiere episodes like “Rose,” “The Christmas Invasion,” “Smith And Jones,” and “Partners In Crime,” all of which primarily served to introduce a new Doctor or new companion. The episode’s central threat might theoretically imperil the entire world, but any such danger is strictly secondary to the character work between the Doctor and the companion. This setup is vitally important, but with one absolutely magnificent exception—the Eleventh Doctor’s debut story, “The Eleventh Hour”—current Doctor Who has struggled to support the character-building with effective alien threats.

Indeed, a key purpose of episodes like “The Bells Of Saint John” is to reestablish just how spectacular a hero the Doctor can be and how irresistible traveling with him can be to a prospective companion, so the formula almost requires an enemy that crumbles once the Doctor gets involved. That relative lack of dramatic investment in the story’s villains can give the story a curiously lightweight quality, as the Doctor triumphs over Miss Kizlet with minimal trouble and maximal flair. “The Eleventh Hour” worked as well as it did because the episode removed all of the Doctor’s usual resources and saddled him with his usual post-regenerative challenges, and even then his victories over Prisoner Zero and the Atraxi were almost beside the point. “The Bells Of Saint John,” on the other hand, presents the Doctor at the height of his powers, so the only reason Miss Kizlet and her employer get away with their villainy for as long as they do is because, well, the Doctor just doesn’t notice. Once he’s on the case, they don’t stand a chance.

Writer and showrunner Steven Moffat has called this episode Doctor Who’s take on an urban thriller, the Doctor’s one big opportunity to play James Bond or Jason Bourne, except neither of them ever materialized a police box onboard a plane in order to prevent a crash. As cool as that particular setpiece is, there’s a fine line between a winking pastiche and just general silliness, and while it’s fun to watch the Doctor ride around London on a motorbike, the episode struggles to make all its chosen genre elements compelling. In particular, it’s still really difficult to make people typing on keyboards visually dramatic, and the dueling hacking scene between the Doctor and Alexei just looks like a couple randomly thrashing their fingers on keyboards while a progress bar goes up and down. Manpreet Bachu does his best with the episode’s pre-credits monologue, but it’s difficult to find rogue Wi-Fi networks all that scary. Matt Smith comes closer with a later scene in which he describes Earth as submerged in a vast soup of data, and then he posits that something has found its way in there. It’s an evocative description, one that takes the episode’s approach to the concept beyond the basic “Internet is magic!” message that shows up way too often in contemporary entertainment.

And, in fairness, the episode does manage one truly clever hacking sequence, as Clara uses her newfound computer skills to turn the villain’s webcams against them, and then uses a facial recognition program to find all the employees’ Facebook pages. It’s not necessarily any more plausible than any of the other elements, but the scene is driven primarily by Clara’s ingenuity. While we may not know precisely how Clara accomplishes this, it’s easy to grasp what she’s trying to do, and it sets up the simultaneously funny and suspenseful moment in which Mahler discovers every last one of Miss Kizlet’s young, tech-savvy employees listed their place of work on Facebook. That moment, in which the villains are hoist with their own social media petard, offers the episode’s most trenchant insight into the follies and fears of the Internet age.

Like quite a few Steven Moffat episodes, “The Bells Of Saint John” gets by on these cool moments and lines; while I have my problems with the episode’s overall structure, it gets enough of the little things right that the end result is a lot of fun. In particular, the big twist, in which the Doctor turns Miss Kizlet’s Spoonhead robots against her, is a brilliantly executed bit of misdirection. The Doctor uses the Spoonhead in a way that goes far beyond their blocky, basic functioning that we had witnessed previously, but his masterful hacking doesn’t violate anything we already know. His use of a highly convincing double of himself—with the spoon aspect of the robot’s anatomy cleverly hidden beneath the motorcycle helmet—makes perfect sense based on the episode’s internal logic, but it’s enough of an extrapolation that it’s hard to guess what’s coming. The big confrontation is also beautifully played by Matt Smith, who hits just the right mix of pity and grim determination, and Celia Imrie, whose arrogance crumples in one crushing instant when she realizes the Doctor’s true intentions.


The other great advantage of “The Bells Of Saint John” is Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara, who proves an intriguing modern-day spin on her more inquisitive Victorian incarnation. Her reaction when the Doctor orders her into the TARDIS is entirely understandable because it’s a reminder of the underlying madness of Doctor Who’s premise; as much as all becomes clear the moment one steps inside, it’s fairly insane for anyone to walk into a tiny box with a stranger just because she or he is ordered to. Coleman matches Smith’s own manic energy, and the episode instantly makes them feel like equals in a way the show often hasn’t in its past Doctor and companion pairings. The episode reminds us that the Eleventh Doctor is a very old man who just happens to be in a very young man’s body, which sets up the great moment when Clara calls the TARDIS a “snog box”—the Doctor’s reaction falls somewhere between uncomprehending alien and mortified 11 year old. “The Bells Of Saint John” is a solid enough episode on its own terms, but its major success is in showing why this particular Doctor and this particular Clara are so well matched for each other.

Stray observations:

  • The Doctor’s antigravity-assisted ride up the Shard, London’s tallest skyscraper, is one of those delightfully insane ideas that the show almost pulls off. While the first shot of Matt Smith riding up the side of the tower looks painfully fake, the second shot actually looks rather impressive.
  • The Great Intelligence is back again, this time featuring the disembodied head of “The Snowmen” guest star Richard E. Grant. Since the Doctor doesn’t even learn the Great Intelligence is behind the events of this episode, I’m guessing we’re going to see this particular enemy again this season. Indeed, I’d say the new heavy favorite to explain Clara’s repeated lives is now “something to do with the Great Intelligence.” Which leads me to…
  • Insane, Obviously Wrong Theory Corner: All of the Claras are Yeti robots in disguise! Or maybe it’s all the same Yeti robot! In all seriousness, people, if Doctor Who is bringing back the Great Intelligence as a major threat after a 45-year hiatus, a damn Yeti better show up soon.
  • Of all the computer gags in the episode, my favorite was the final bit about Miss Kizlet hitting “Factory restore,” just because it was so gleefully disturbing.
  • I’m still waiting for the Cardassians to lodge a formal protest over this episode’s flagrant use of the slur “Spoonhead.”
  • The woman at the shop who gave Clara the Doctor’s number has to be River Song, right? It’s so obvious that I’m trying to think of any other plausible possibility, but I’m coming up empty. And no, Romana is not plausible.
  • I’m not totally sure about the show’s heavy use of arc words; I thought it was cool when the show repurposed “Doctor who?” in “The Wedding Of River Song” and “Asylum Of The Daleks,” but the show is starting to go a little overboard with the title drops.
  • The titular “Bells Of Saint John” refer to the ringing phone in the Doctor’s TARDIS, as it features a St. John Ambulance logo as part of its general Police Box disguise. Nina, one of the children in Clara’s care, is reading a book by Amelia Williams—time-displaced companion turned author Amy Pond, naturally—and Clara is quick to point out that, as good as the tenth chapter is, chapter 11 is even better. I’ll leave you to ponder the deeper significance of that last one.