Doctor Who: The Bells of Saint John
(1 episode, s07e06, 2013)
The clever boy rides.
A little girl finds the Doctor sitting on a swing in a playground. The Doctor is sad because he can’t find his “friend”, but the girl is friendly despite her mother’s warning not to talk to strange men. The little girl offers some advice about finding lost items before returning to her mother.
The girl’s mother scolds her for talking to a stranger. It turns out that the little girl is none other than Clara Oswald.
The Bells of Saint John
A man warns the world against attaching to strange public wifi networks. Which, you know, is wise advice under any circumstance. But this warning also adds a little bit of The Ring to the story: Within 24 hours of connecting to the strange network, a user’s soul is extracted into the internet where it screams in the cybernetic void.
The man knows what he speaks. He is one of the lost souls.
Shifting to Cumbria in 1207, a monk sends warning that the bells of Saint John are ringing. The Abbot informs the “mad monk”, the man known as the Doctor who asks for a horse. As the Doctor prepares, the Abbot looks upon a painting of “the woman twice dead”, remarking that if the Doctor is mad, the mystery around the woman is his madness.
In London, circa 2013, Clara Oswald has trouble connecting to the internet. George is leaving with a boy named Artie while Clara keeps track of Angie. She also remarks on Artie’s choice of reading material – Summer Falls by Amelia Williams – noting that Chapter Eleven is the best because it makes the reader cry.
Back in Cumbria, the Doctor and the monks arrive in a cave where the TARDIS is parked. The exterior phone is ringing, which isn’t supposed to happen, and it connects the Doctor to Clara through the help line that a “woman in the shop” gave her. The help line is supposed to be the best in the universe, after all. When Clara tries to connect to the Maitland family wifi, she asks Angie for the password. It is “RYCBAR123”, remembered by the mnemonic “Run you clever boy and remember.”
Of course, the Doctor remembers the phrase and startles Clara. Clara inadvertently connects to the strange network, starting her twenty-four hour clock before running to answer the door. There she finds the Doctor, dressed in monk robes, pounding on the door and excited to meet her.
On the other side of the strange network, an analyst named Alexei remarks that Clara is “borderline,” being clever without much computer skill. His boss, Rosemary Kizlet, his superior, orders him to upload Clara anyway and supplement her with a computer skills package. With the promise that Alexei will activate the “Spoonheads”, Kizlet returns to her office and discusses Alexei with a man named Mahler. They agree to kill the analyst after he returns from holiday, then discuss Mahler’s worry that they’re uploading too many people too quickly. Kizlet tries to comfort him while manipulating his senses of conscience, paranoia, obedience, and IQ. After Mahler leaves to carry out Kizlet’s orders, she raises his obedience level to the maxmum.
At the house, Clara is unconvinced to let the robe-clad stranger in. As she turns to go back upstairs, a little girl comes down to meet her. This strange girl is the same girl from the Summer Falls book cover, and she also has a spoon-shaded indent in the back of her head. Clara backs away in fear.
The Doctor returns to the TARDIS for a change of clothes, donning a purple cashmere coat and matching bow tie. He rushes back to the house to find Clara unconscious with her screaming voice trapped in the Spoonhead. The Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to analyze the robotic base station before using Clara’s laptop to reverse the connection and restore Clara’s consciousness.
He also leaves a message for Alexei, Mahler, and Kizlet: “UNDER MY PROTECTION – The Doctor”. Kizlet immediately contacts her client with news that the Doctor has arrived.
The Doctor tidies up while Clara rests, even adding a plate of Jammie Dodgers nearby. He flips through a book of hers and finds a dried red maple leaf, then steps outside to guard her while she sleeps. Clara joins him some time later and the Doctor recounts everything that she missed: Angie is staying with her friend Nina, Clara’s father called to complain about the government, he fixed the washing machine, optimized the photosynthesises of the plants, organized the food pantry, and reassembled a broken Quadricycle. Okay, that last one? He invented the Quadricycle.
He also promises to stand watch while Clara sleeps, but she decides to come downstairs to him. While she gathers a cup of tea and a folding chair, Kizlet’s team watches them and plots. The Doctor explains the internet eating souls to Clara, which she equates to Twitter – she’s not wrong – and the pair realize that Clara has gained a greater knowledge of computers from being partially uploaded. The Doctor spots a Spoonhead and the lights around the neighborhood switching on. There’s also an airplane plummeting down on their position. Kizlet is intent on removing the Doctor and Clara from the equation.
Against her wishes, the Doctor rushes Clara into the TARDIS. She’s amazed as the Doctor makes a short hop through space into the falling airplane. The passengers and crew are switched off through the wifi, so the Doctor manages to pull the plane out of the nosedive and revive the people onboard. As the Doctor and Clara return to the TARDIS, Kizlet demands that her team locate the blue box.
The Doctor promises to explain everything over breakfast, dropping the TARDIS into a group of people who cheer the materialization as performance art while the Doctor retrieves his motorcycle from the garage. The pair ride to a café for breakfast as Kizlet’s team processes cell phone photos for the TARDIS, the Doctor, and Clara.
The Doctor and Clara use the laptop to hack the webcams at Kizlet’s office and cross-reference the imagery through various social networks to find their adversary’s location: They work at the Shard.
The Doctor leaves to get more coffee, talking to several people who are being controlled remotely along the way. Kizlet explains that her client feeds of the neural energy of humanity, similar to a farmer slaughtering cattle for harvest. She notes that Clara is not as safe as he thinks, and he soon discovers that Clara has been uploaded by a Spoonhead duplicate of the Doctor.
Furious, the Doctor rides his motorcycle to the Shard, using an anti-gravity feature to ride up the side of the Shard and literally break into Kizlet’s office. He demands that Kizlet restore Clara and the entire data cloud into their bodies. For those who no longer have a body, their deaths would ensure release from the living virtual hell.
Oh, and the Doctor? He’s still at the café. He sent his Spoonhead duplicate which has now uploaded Kizlet as motivation to restore everyone to the living world. The Spoonhead uses Kizlet’s tablet to boost Mahler’s obedience and he follows her demand to be released by emptying the entire cloud.
Clara wakes up at the café, but the Doctor has gone. Meanwhile, as UNIT storms the Shard, Kizlet reports her failure to her client. As the Great Intelligence bids her farewell, it orders Kizlet to reset herself and every one of her co-workers to their “factory settings”. Everyone is restored to who they were before the Great Intelligence’s plot began, including Kizlet who is now a scared child.
This plot has been going on for some time.
Back at the Maitland residence, Clara sees the TARDIS outside and goes to see the Doctor. He invites her to travel with him. She declines, telling him to come back the next day and ask her again because she might say yes. After she leaves, the Doctor returns to the console, dialing up the next day as he declares that it’s time to find out who she is.
As mid-season returns go, this one is a great season premiere. It pushes a soft-reset while giving the new companion a bright spotlight in which to play. This version of Clara is a bit less flirty than her predecessors (wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey) but still definitely herself in the end. You know, despite the fact that she has no idea who Oswin or Clara Oswin are.
The return of the Great Intelligence was a neat trick, as was the allusion that this plot was long-reaching. I especially liked the story and its connection to modern technology and our obsession with it. The plot itself is reminiscent of The Idiot’s Lantern. It’s also quite fun when real-life landmarks like the Shard are used in the plot.
The rapid-fire introduction of Clara to the TARDIS as they saved the nosediving airplane was a heart-pounding ride. Of course, I have to ignore the basic logisitics of that save since there is no place neither wide nor tall enough to park the TARDIS on a Boeing 737.
The switcheroo with the Doctor and the Spoonhead was a nice nod to The Android Invasion. The “short hop” discussion was a fun callback to the other times that such trips were difficult, such as The Seeds of Death, State of Decay, Army of Ghosts, and (most recently) Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.
Overall, a good time and a fun start to the next run of adventures.
Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.