Doctor Who S7 Ep6 review: The Bells of Saint John

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The Doctor meets Clara Oswald again as the pair combine to battle a sinister operation which is uploading and harvesting human minds via wi-fi, with a familiar foe pulling the strings in the background.

The best helpline in the universe (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

The best helpline in the universe (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

The bells of Saint John

After Amy and Rory’s tearful departure in the noirish The Angels Take Manhattan and the foreboding Victorian setting of The Snowmen, a lighter, more playful episode in contemporary London was, ahem, just what the Doctor ordered. And there are few writers as adept as Steven Moffat when it comes to wrapping comedy and general high jinks around a fairly gruesome concept – the mortal peril of something as everyday as wi-fi – without making their story appear clunky and schizophrenic.

People’s souls are being uploaded to the internet.

The short pre-credits sequence packs quite a punch, evoking both Sherlock and the second season episode The Idiot’s Lantern with its combination of on-screen graphics and the wall of screens containing those who have been uploaded via the wi-fi. It’s short, economical and throws us straight into the action.

Moffat loves nothing more than to tease his audience by hiding clues in plain sight, and with The Bells of Saint John he achieves this with the episode title itself. Rather than being sinister, it’s merely the ringing of the phone in the TARDIS – the Saint John referring to the St John’s Ambulance logo emblazoned on the door – as the Doctor, who has been musing over the mystery of Clara in 1207 Cumbria, finds herself acting as a technical helpline to her contemporary version.

But this largely comedic sequence builds the mystery of Clara even more. The Maitland family’s wi-fi password is, conveniently, ‘rycbar123’, which Clara inadvertently converts to the mnemonic ‘run you clever boy and remember’, alerting the Doctor to her identity. And she was given the TARDIS’ phone number by “the woman in the shop” – who is this, exactly? (River Song, perhaps?)

Ghosts in the machine

The Doctor: Suppose there was something in the wi-fi harvesting human minds, extracting them. Imagine that. Human souls trapped like flies in the world wide web, stuck forever, crying out for help.

Clara: Isn’t that basically Twitter?

After rescuing Clara from being uploaded by a Spoonhead – a walking wi-fi base-station – and discovering that a side-effect of her partial upload is that she now has enhanced computer skills, the pair are targeted by the mysterious organisation headed up by the ruthless Miss Kizlet (Celia Imrie, playing very much against type), who sends an out-of-control plane hurtling towards them. No, I don’t quite understand the logic of that either – but it does make for a great visual effects sequence as the Doctor rescues everyone on board.

Having narrowed down the field of search to London, it is Clara who homes in on the precise location of their foe – the Shard, 65th floor – before being uploaded via a Spoonhead disguised as the Doctor. But it is enough to set the Doctor on the right track as he sends his doppleganger riding up the side of the Shard on an anti-grav Triumph motorbike, tricking Miss Kizlet into getting herself uploaded to the cloud, forcing all the souls trapped inside it – including Clara – to be downloaded again to retrieve her. With UNIT storming the building, Kizlet informs her client of her failure – the Great Intelligence, now taking on Richard E Grant‘s face and voice – before being released by it, returning her to the young child she was when it first assumed control of her.

Fun stuff & mysteries

  • So the 21st century version of Clara is a nanny, whereas her previous incarnations were a governess and an entertainments officer – all jobs in which she is required to take care of people.
  • Blink and you’ll miss it: the book Summer Falls by Amelia Williams née Pond – an unobtrusive reminder of what we have left behind.
  • “Right, don’t be a monk. Monks are not cool.”
  • Yet another appearance for the Doctor’s favourite snack food: Jammie Dodgers, after Victory of the Daleks (when he fooled the Daleks into thinking it was a TARDIS self-destruct button), The Impossible Astronaut and Night Terrors.
  • Another Clara mystery: in her book 101 Places to See, she has religiously marked off consecutive years of her life, but 16 and 23 are missing. Why?
  • A previous London-wide activation of wi-fi-controlled humans was passed off as city-wide rioting. (That would be August 2011, then.)
  • An embarrassing incident at Earls Court is mentioned. This is a reference to the 1920s-style blue police box which stands outside Earls Court tube station – which is easily mistaken for the TARDIS.
A case of mistaken identity? (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

A case of mistaken identity? (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

  • Clara provides her own origin for Oswin Oswald’s name: “Clara Oswald for the win – Os-win.”
  • “No one loves cattle more than Burger King.”
  • Clara’s suggestion that the TARDIS is the Doctor’s ‘snog box’.

And so off we go on this eight-episode run building towards November’s 50th anniversary special, with Clara firmly established as a mysterious presence in the Doctor’s life and the Great Intelligence seemingly set up as the ‘Big Bad’, and with the mouth-watering prospect of a Neil Gaiman-penned Cybermen story en route. As the unofficial opener of season ‘7b’, this was a tightly-paced, rollercoaster ride of a story which showcased the easy and immediate chemistry between Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman, and bodes well for what is to follow. This is new-Who at its finest. Top stuff.

Rating: 9/10

Links:

BBC Doctor Who website

7.1 Asylum of the Daleks

7.2 Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

7.3 A Town Called Mercy

7.4 The Power of Three

7.5 The Angels Take Manhattan

Christmas special: The Snowmen

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4 Comments on Doctor Who S7 Ep6 review: The Bells of Saint John

  1. Heh, I didn’t understand the Earls Court joke till I read your post, Tim 🙂

    I’m not sure this was the best of new-Who but it was certainly a lot of fun and a nice, breezy way to kick things off again without getting too bogged down in angst or mystery. Everything was lightly woven in, and it skipped along at a fast, cheery pace. The script was great – loved the Doctor realising “I INVENTED the quadrocycle.” Heh again.

    • On the whole I do prefer the dramatic stories (both the big epic ones and the smaller intimate pieces), but there’s a definitely a time and a place for the fun ones and this was just what was needed here.

      We want to see what the quadrocycle (quadricycle?) looks like – and what it does!

  2. I didn’t get the Earls Court joke either, so thank you for enlightening me!

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