After taking a mid-season break and a Christmas episode, Doctor Who returns with a new companion, a new outfit, and a pretty solid episode, at least compared to many of the episodes that aired last fall. Let’s recap The Bells of Sain John.
The episode opens in a way reminiscent of the Davies era, with a man in a video delivering dire warnings about mundane activities, except this time it’s over lots of B-roll of folks using the internet, and it’s not blinking, it’s clicking. Choosing the wrong Wifi connection can make computers (dramatic voice) steal your souuuuuuul. The twist? Video guy is already lost in the wifi! Horrors!
We quickly cut to the year 1207, where some monks are all in a tizzy because the bells of Saint John are ringing. They go to tell a mysterious monk about it and SURPRISE, it’s the Doctor, doing his patented “I don’t have a companion so I’m going to be reclusive” schtick. However, unlike “The Snowmen,” this is a productive moping, as he’s been meditating in isolation hoping to gain insight into how to find Clara. And also painting. Painting Clara. And her twice famous last words. The “bells” turn out to be the phone in the TARDIS. Well, not the one in the TARDIS, but the one in the actual, chameleon circuit created outside phone part of the phone box.
Turns out Clara is doing well quite well, in what appears (for the moment) to be something like a nanny-type role again. (Lots of folks might have picked up on the exchange between Clara and the young boy in the family about his book “What chapter are you on?” “Ten.” “Eleven’s the best. You’ll cry your eyes out.” as being significant, but it’s also worth noting that the name of the author on the cover is “Amelia Williams.”) She’s doing quite well except for her Internet, which she can’t get to work. So she’s calling a help line.
That is, she’s calling the Doctor. She was given the number by “the woman in the shop,” which for Doctor Who could really represent anyone. River? Another Clara? Considering current events, Rose? An as yet unknown villain or orchestrator of destiny? Whoever the woman in the shop was, you can bet dollars to doughnuts we’ll be talking about it later and/or maybe rolling our eyes at how contrived the reveal was. The Doctor is just as confused as she is. It wasn’t clear to me that he even recognized her voice, although he also did a pretty piss-poor job of that in the “The Snowmen” as well. You’d think if he’d been meditating about a woman that he initially met entirely through audio, he’d have gotten better at this. But he puts two and two together once she mentions a mnemonic for her host/employer/family friends’ Wifi password, rycbar123. That is, Run You Clever Boy And Remember.
Then she flubs the password, tries to reconnect, and clicks the EEEEEEEVIL WIFI.
Then, I shit you not, the show cut to commercial and told me that it was being presented by AT&T.
So Clara has an incoming doom and the Doctor shows up outside her door. Luckily, everybody else, the father and two kids she seems to be living in with and looking after, is gone because he acts super creepy in that way that he can get away with because he’s the Doctor and he’s just so enthusiastic about how he knows her but she doesn’t know him. So she shuts the door on him. Good girl, Clara.
And then we get our first good look at the villains of the episode, some corporate hacker types who are definitely evil because their HR department has leeway to kill people. (Even though they see later that they also have the ability to wipe the minds of their employees of all knowledge of their time working there. One would assume that would suffice for security.) We also know they are evil because they freely use mind control on their employees to get them to agree to do things the boss’ way. (One wonders why, if this is a blanket policy of the organization, there are even folks who exist in advisory roles.) They’re downloading human brains/souls for The Client (because he eats brains, or knowledge, or souls, or something), and decide that Clara is clever enough for him but that they need to give her computer skills. It’s unclear why this is necessary. Is computer knowledge the tastiest knowledge?
But we cut back to the Doctor and Clara sparring over the house intercom and get the best line of the night, after Clara asks why he refers to that box as a “mobile phone” and the Doctor responds: “Because it’s a surprisingly accurate description!”
Then suddenly there is a creepy little girl who repeats everything Clara says. She’s also the girl from the cover of the book Clara’s young charge was reading. The creepy girl gets waaay creepier as she reveals that she’s only got half a head and the rest is a weird spoon shaped depression in the back of her head that (spooky voice) downloads souuuuuuuuuuuls. Hence, the episode’s latest creepy Who monster, the Spoonheads.
Where’s the Doctor during all this? It’s makeover time. He needs a new outfit to impress a girl! Specifically he’s looking for “Sensible clothes.” Insert your own joke. Once he’s done changing into his new wardrobe for the season, he dashes back to find Clara passed out on the floor, and her voice crying from the intercom. Does the sonic screwdriver hack? This is the point where the episode’s overlay of computer text on footage really starts to be reminiscent of Sherlock, and the hacker typing starts up in earnest. He re-downloads Clara before she becomes “fully integrated” with the cloudweb or something, but she still has her upgraded computer skills. Is this intended to connect her to Oswin? It’s unclear even from a meta-textual standpoint.
The bad guys recognize the Doctor as someone they were warned about and get real serious.
Meanwhile, the Doctor takes Clara upstairs to her bedroom, arranges a glass of water, a plate of cookies and some flowers, and reads her favorite childhood book, and I realize, oh god, we’ve reached the point where adult companions are younger than I am. Then the Doctor leaves, and sits outside, which is a nice step towards being less creepy. When she wakes up he demonstrates that he’s done a number of useful and unthreatening things around the house, making a much better second impression, and she comes down to talk with him.
This is the point where you realize she’s got the mug that was in the trailers and shit is about to go down. Also there’s a joke about human souls like flies crying out for help and “Isn’t that basically twitter.” How this joke falls may depend on how you feel about Steven Moffat‘s tumultuous, shall we say, relationship with the Twitter community.
Mid-chat, the bad guys find them and mind control everybody in the vicinity of a wifi signal, which includes a passing airplane which nosedives in their direction. The Doctor drags Clara onto the TARDIS (introductions are brief) and pops them up into the plane to yank on the control yokes until disaster is averted. Then he shuts off the plane’s wifi and everybody regains consciousness, but not enough consciousness to tackle the two civilians who invaded the cockpit and then had to dash back through the rest of the plane to get to their spaceship.
From there the Doctor takes them to breakfast, because everyplace serves breakfast at any time you want with a time machine and also to evade pursuit. He materializes the TARDIS in a public location and then passes the fez, not for money but for cover as a magic act, which is a nice bit of cleverness, and then pulls out the publicized motorbike. I suppose motorbikes are cool now? Unfortunately his cleverness doesn’t keep the bad guys from finding him when someone takes a snapshot of the magic act with their wifi-enabled phone.
He and Oswin speed off to eat and make plans. I feel like Oswin is taking this a bit too much in stride. He tells her he’s an alien and she accepts it immediately, but I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be because the episode is trying to get us to think she’s just so cool or because England, and indeed the world, has had several notable alien invasions since the show was revived. Those invasions happened during the Davies era, however, and it’s never really been conclusively shown that anybody remembers them since the Doctor closed the crack in reality in Series 5. The Doctor also says that he doesn’t take the TARDIS into battle, which is funny because I’m pretty sure he’s done that about one million times. This scene does get us the second best line in the episode, which is “I can’t tell the future, I just work there.”
Clara insists that with her new computer skills she can find our badguys better than the Doctor can, so he goes to get more coffee, and the Wifi people take over everybody in the bistro to warn the Doctor all about their freaky mind control powers. Meanwhile, Clara goes super hacker typer. By the way, does Britain just, like, have a hackable online face-matching service that works in seconds? If so, remind me NEVER TO GO THERE. The Doctor comes back, but it’s not the Doctor, IT’S A SPOONHEAD AAHHH Matt Smith that is not an acceptable amount of head. The Wifi people (who we now know are called The Shard, presumably an allusion to all the shards showing the season villains in the promo pic for this episode, see top pic) download Clara.
This time Clara’s downloaded for good apparently, merged with the Allspark or something, so the Doctor goes on the warpath with his antigrav bike. But actually he sent his spoonhead (hence the tenuous strand that makes the motorbike important: it gave the Doctor plausible license to put a helmet on the spoonhead that looked like him so that it could make it all the way into The Shard without his subterfuge being uncovered). Clara can’t be downloaded individually now since she’s all merge-y, the only way to get her back is to release all the souls. Naturally the big lady in charge, Miss Kizlet, refuses to do that, so the Doctor Spoonhead downloads Kizlet and integrates her.
This causes panic as she, from the computer screen she’s trapped in, orders her underlings to un-download the whole cloud… thing, and they refuse. So the Doctor mind controls the 2nd in command into changing his mind. This was the one moment in the episode that I simply didn’t like. When Miss Kizlet uses her mind control iPad to make her underling go along with her ideas, it’s to show how evil she truly is, but when the Doctor does precisely the same thing it’s supposed to be a clever part of his heroic plan. The writers can’t have it both ways. And there’s pretty much no reason for Miss Kizlet to even use her mind controlling ipad on her employees anyway. She’s top of the heap. There’s no evidence, say, of a board of shadowy directors or CEO that tops her power at the operation. I suppose it’s possible that the Great Intelligence was speaking to her and to her 2nd in command and therefore 2nd in command could countermand any orders against the GI’s interests just by tattling, but the episode only gives us evidence that that the Great Intelligence speaks to her. “The Bells of Saint John” would have functioned just as well, probably even smoother, if her orders were simply followed without her having to resort to mind control, and then we wouldn’t have the Doctor using an evil mind control device to, minimally but crucially, get his way.
In the aftermath, UNIT takes control of the building and it is revealed that the Great Intelligence, classic Who villain brought back for “The Snowmen” is actually The Client. It orders Miss Kizlet to “reduce,” and so all the Shard people get bad migraines and then forget everything about their jobs there. Miss Kizlet looses all memories she’s had since coming into contact with the Great Intelligence, which leaves her with the mind of a child.
The Doctor and Clara return to the TARDIS and he gives her one of the many variations on his Come Away With Me speech. And she says… “Come back tomorrow. Ask me again.” Clara refusing and delaying certainly sets her apart from other companions. This is a character who may actually be less interested in the Doctor than he is in her. But on the other hand, they have to do something to distinguish her from the joining up stories of other companions since the restart, and they already used up their “It’s smaller on the outside” line in the Christmas special.
I’d love to see this as a season-long theme, of Clara going on adventures with the Doctor that always wind up with her going home and saying “Ask me again tomorrow.” After “Asylum of the Daleks,” however, where it looked like we were being set up to watch Amy and Rory’s legitimate relationship problems solved organically over a whole season only to have them deus ex machina’ed back together in one episode, I hesitate to expect too much. Comparisons to the last half of the season seem inevitable with “The Bells of Saint John.” I was seriously disappointed with the first half of Series 7, which seemed rife with plot holes and skipped or fast-forwarded character development. “The Bells of Saint John” was not so much a relief because it was an exemplary episode of Doctor Who, but because it didn’t fall as low as other recent episodes by, for example, literally saving the day with the sadness of children on Christmas.
I feel like I should talk about whether this was a good introduction to a new companion, but frankly we already pretty much know who Clara is personality-wise, since we’ve met her twice already. While I’m still not sure why this Clara takes the Doctor so in stride (whether it’s because we’re going back to the idea that Earth has proof of alien life or because the writers are getting tired of introducing her to the Doctor I can’t say), but I like that so far she’s not head over heels in love with him and his way of life. There could be some interesting grist there, but, as I said, with the way the earlier parts of the season went, we could see all of that tension solved not-so-neatly in the next episode so that the show can go back to dinosaurs on spaceships and robots in the old west. Time, and more episodes, will tell.
Edit: The Wifi is telling me that The Shard is actually a building in London and not the name of a new recurring Doctor Who villain. You could have fooled me.
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