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Thoughts on The Bells of St. John

Doctor Who has never been averse to looking at the dark side of technology. From early stories like “The War Machines” to new series episodes like “The Idiot’s Lantern,” Doctor Who has explored (with varying degrees of success) the dangers of new technology. Just as the creation of the cybermen was influenced by the development of new medical technologies, the “spoonmen” are influenced by our newfound reliance on wi-fi. “The Bells of St. John” explores what would happen if something evil got into our wi-fi and how easy it is to exploit our need to always be connected.

The Doctor taking over a crashing airplane. Jon Pertwee must be so jealous.

The Doctor taking over a crashing airplane. Jon Pertwee must be so jealous.

Apparently, the Doctor took young Clara’s advice from the prequel for this story and went to a quiet room to think. Of course, being the Doctor, his version of having a think in a quiet room is to retreat to a 13th century monastery. At the beginning of the story, the monks inform him that the bells of St. John are ringing, which we soon learn means that someone is calling the police box phone on the TARDIS. When the Doctor answers, he learns that it is Clara on the other end of the line, asking for help with the internet on her laptop (she thinks she’s calling a computer help line). Excited to have found her again, he races to her, only to discover that she is being uploaded to the Cloud by a “spoonhead.” He manages to stop the upload in time, but needs to solve the mystery of the spoonheads before he loses Clara once again.

Essentially, (and do I need to mention that there will be spoilers ahead?) the spoonheads are giant wi-fi mainstations that camouflage themselves by using a human image from the person’s mind. Whenever someone clicks on the mysterious wi-fi connection that they provide, the person can then be seen by a mysterious group of people working in an office trying to keep their “client” happy. The clever people (and apparently they prefer the ones with computer skills) are then uploaded by the “spoonmen” to the Cloud.

The Doctor meets a "spoonhead."

The Doctor meets a “spoonhead.”

The story was the kind of engaging, fast paced story that is traditional of Steven Moffat in a season or mid-season opener. The action and the dialogue happen at a breakneck pace, as the Doctor and Clara plunge from one danger to another. The plot kept me engaged throughout, even if everything isn’t explained and wrapped up neatly at the end. All we really learn at the end is that the Great Intelligence was behind the whole operation. Basically, he has figured out a way to hack and control people, even those who haven’t been uploaded into the Cloud. Instead of sounding like Ian McKellen, however, he has now taken the appearance of Dr. Simeon from “The Snowmen.”

We don’t know what The Great Intelligence’s plan was exactly, but I’m hoping that Steven Moffat will clarify this later on. He seemed to know that he would have to stop uploading people eventually, since he even had a reset button to make all his “employees” forget the time they spent working for him. He seemed to assume that the Doctor would eventually show up and put an end to his plan, so was his plan to draw him out into the open again? What did he get from the uploaded people?

I loved the idea that the need to always be connected was what the Great Intelligence was feeding on to find people to upload to the cloud, but it was also what brought an end to his plan. Now that everybody feels the need to document every aspect of his or her life, it’s very difficult to keep a secret. The fact that most of the employees working for the Great Intelligence had posted where they worked on their Facebook/Linked In/Twitter/etc., was a nice twist to show just how much information we share publicly and how addicted we are to our social networks.

I couldn’t help but notice that this episode had a very Pertwee-eque feel to it. It seemed to me that it was paying homage to the Pertwee era of Doctor Who, with his rather James Bondish love of action , gadgets, and vehicles of all kinds. While the Doctor doesn’t trot out his Venusian Karate, the story was full of action set pieces like crashing airplanes that the Doctor needs to take over and anti-gravity motorcycles. Just think how much Pertwee would have loved to ride a motorcycle up the side of a skyscraper. Plus, Matt Smith’s Doctor shows a bit more of an interest in his fashion choices, which is also quality shared with Pertwee. Matt Smith mentioned in an interview that the Doctor’s new purple outfit is a bit of a tribute to the rather flamboyant fashion choices of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor. Furthermore, this episode also featured a brief appearance by U.N.I.T., another staple of the third Doctor’s era. One thing that is definitely not of the Pertwee era is the Doctor’s computer skills, since the third Doctor was actually rather anti-computer. However, he always did love a helpful gadget, so I would think that he would feel very differently about them if he were in the present era.

Of course there were plenty of other references to past episodes as well. The novel that one of the children Clara watches was reading, Summer Falls, was written by none other than Amelia Williams (although I still don’t think Amy would ever have taken Rory’s name, but that’s a discussion for another post). (And, of course, chapter 11 will is so good and will make you cry. Is anyone else getting tired of the constant 11 references that Moffat seems to love?)The Great Intelligence is, of course, a villain from the Troughton era (appearing in “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web of Fear”), so there is a connection to the second Doctor’s era as well. I wonder if we’ll even see the return of the Great Intelligence’s traditional henchmen, the Yeti.

Miss Kizlet showing off her "hacking" skills.

Miss Kizlet showing off her “hacking” skills.

What really makes this story work, however, are the performances. Celia Imrie turns in a fantastic performance as Miss. Kizlet, the Great Intelligence’s human assistant. She takes what could be a traditional Doctor Who villain and makes her something more. She brings out both the character’s cruelty and humor. For instance, when she decides that it is time to eliminate one of the workers, she kindly suggests that they wait until after he’s had his vacation to kill him. However, she also gets across Miss. Kizlet’s earnest desire to please “the client.” There is always a bit of a pleading undercurrent to her interactions with the “client,” and you can see that she is desperate to please him. When she hits the reset button on everyone and they return to what they were before the Great Intelligence got a hold of them, it is quite sad to see that she goes from being a powerful, in-control woman to a small child (and Celia Imrie plays the transformation quite effectively). As he had with Dr. Simeon, the Great Intelligence had shaped the course of her entire life. On that note, even though he is only only on screen for a few moments, it was good to see Richard E. Grant back. I didn’t feel like he was really used as much as he could have been in “The Snowmen” so I’m happy that it now appears that we haven’t heard the last of him.

There is also great chemistry between Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman. The two already have a great give and take between them, with Clara being the typical Steven Moffat female character: flirty, fast talking, and clever. I differ from some people in my view of their relationship, however; I don’t see their relationship as being romantic at all. I think the Doctor is less smitten with Clara than he is intrigued by the mystery that surrounds her. It’s the perfect way to help him get over the loss of the Ponds. He didn’t simple replace them with someone else, he was drawn to Clara, the impossible girl, who now provides him with a new mystery to solve. This version of Clara also had some nice connections to the two other versions we’ve seen. She’s a nanny/governess like Victorian Clara, but now has the remarkable computer skills of Oswin. Plus, we got to see the origin of the name Oswin.

Overall, I found this episode to be a good one, even if it wasn’t a great episode. Like the best Steven Moffat opening episodes, it leaves the viewer with almost as many questions as it answers. We still don’t know the truth about Clara/Oswin. How can she exist across times? And why does she keep dying? However, this episode also raise some new questions that may or may not be significant. Clara was given the phone number to the TARDIS by the woman in the shop who told her it was the best help line in the universe. Who was the woman in the shop? Was it River, or someone else? Also, when the Doctor looked in Clara’s book, there was a list of ages from 9 to 24 on the first (blank) page of the book. Is it significant that there was no 23 in the list of ages? Is this just a case of obsessing over nothing, or will these details prove significant in the future? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if Moffat delivers on the intriguing premise he’s laid out.

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5 responses to “Thoughts on The Bells of St. John

  1. Pertwee! Thats the one! I was wondering why it all seemed a bit familiar. You’ve observed some very interesting facets about the turn out of the episodes and comparisons to previous ones. It’s a great read! 🙂

  2. I’m also pleased to Richard E Grant again, after all he was the first ninth doctor (if that makes sense). It hadn’t occurred to me that the title referred to the St John’s ambulance badge on the TARDIS.

  3. Ooh — I hadn’t made the Pertwee connection before. Thanks for pointing that out! Agree with the rest of your points. There were a lot of little loose ends but for the most part it was engaging enough that I don’t mind waiting a little bit to find out what the Intelligence has in store, or who gave Clara the TARDIS phone number (I’m kind of hoping it’s someone other than River). Loved all the scenic shots of London!

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