Third Time’s a Charm: A review of Doctor Who S7, Ep6, “The Bells of St. John” [WARNING: SPOILERS]

Just so you’re aware, this review contains:

“The Bells of St. John” – written by Steven Moffat, directed by Colm McCarthy

It’s been three months and seven days since the Doctor realized that Clara the barmaid/governess and Oswin the souflee girl were one and the same and took off to find her. After what’s been a fruitless and frustrating search, the Doctor’s retreated to a monastery in Cumbria 1207AD to “meditate in his madness on the woman twice lost and her final message.” (Apparently the Eleventh Doctor likes to sulk a lot after disappointment.) That is, until the bells of St. John start ringing and for only the second time ever, the external phone in the TARDIS actually works.

Three guesses as to who’s on the other end of the line.

As to how Clara Oswald got the Doctor’s number and why she’s calling – the latter is arguably the biggest unanswered question of the episode (and there are some fairly reasonable guesses as to who gave Clara that phone number); the former is what reunites the Doctor and his mysterious new companion.

Because you see, there’s something in the Wi-Fi, and it’s killing people.

The plot for “The Bells of St. John” takes from the idea Moffat first played with in “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” – that people can be uploaded as data and stored in a mainframe. Except this time, instead of taking an entire person, it’s just the person’s consciousness, leaving the body behind (whether the body dies or remains in a comatose state isn’t made clear). A clandestine group is snatching up unsuspecting people who click on an innocuous open Wi-Fi icon (because really, who hasn’t done that at least once) because their mysterious Client lives in the Wi-Fi and likes to feed on “healthy, free-range human minds.” After Clara becomes their next target, the Doctor has no choice but to bring the whole operation down to save her. (If this is scenario is pinging your alarm bells for the “damsel in distress” trope, you get a cookie.)

As a mid-series opener, “The Bells of St. John” faces something of an uphill battle. Doctor Who is coming off of a three-and-a-half-month break and is “introducing” a companion we’ve actually met not once, but twice before. As a result, while the episode offers exactly what we’ve come to expect from Doctor Who and showrunner Steven Moffat, it’s becoming apparent that both those things are both an advantage and a liability.

WHAT WORKED: Several things, actually.

“What if something’s living in the Wi-Fi?” I’ll give this to Moffat – the man certainly has a knack for taking everyday things and turning them into something spectacularly creepy. He’s done it with gas masks, statues and now, Wi-Fi. Moffat is very, very good at communicating fear and helplessness. The opening montage of ordinary people clicking on that Wi-Fi icon and then moments later, while their physical bodies lie still and empty, crying out from behind a small computer screen while the camera pulls back to show how they’re just a mere few among rows upon rows of computer screens, all filled with people crying in fear and confusion, is downright chilling.

“If you see a strange unlocked Wi-Fi icon, don’t click it!!” (image from www.threeifbyspace.net)

Remember folks, if you see an unlocked Wi-Fi icon with strange, alien writing, unless you want to become a snack for a disembodied malevolent consciousness, DON’T CLICK ON IT!!

It’s cautionary social commentary about our vulnerability via our unquestioning consumption of something as ubiquitous as surfing the internet because of the willingness of an amoral few to take advantage of our complacency. Not to mention the implication that there’s an independent, uncontrolled consciousness living in the Internet that might be watching you every time you log on (and might just want to EAT YOU) is pretty damn freaky. Combined, those elements are practically guaranteed to strike that perfect chord of not-quite-paranoia (because it’s only paranoia if they’re not actually out to get you). If Moffat’s trying to get Doctor Who fans to lay off Tumblr and procrastinating by looking at cute cat videos when we should be reading a good book (or out wandering around in hopes that just maybe we stumble onto a blue police box standing where it shouldn’t be), he should keep turning out scenarios like this.

Also, Clara’s use of social media to find out where the conglomerate was hiding was bitingly clever (and her admonishment to the Doctor that it’s not about the tech, it’s about the people harkens back to Donna Noble’s similar observation from “The Sontaran Stratagem”). Note to bad guys and their minions: don’t post where you work on Facebook if you work for a clandestine organization harvesting human minds in what you’re pretty sure is a horribly illegal and diabolical scheme, m’kay?

“I’ve failed you, Great Intelligence.” He’s baaaaack. While it was telegraphed from the moment the “little girl” appeared at the top of Clara’s stairs and repeated Clara’s words back to her in an echo of Ice Lady Governess from “The Snowmen”, it’s still fitting that Moffat seems to be setting up the Great Intelligence as the Big Bad for this half of Series 7. As a seemingly ageless disembodied being of enormous telepathic ability and voracious appetite for power, the GI has great potential as a season-long nemesis for the Doctor.

Image from neuroticglader.wordpress.com

Because it’s Moffat we’re talking about, I’m betting that by the end of the season, it will be revealed that the GI was significantly manipulating the events of Series 5 and 6 – from the cracks in Time and Space that nearly destroyed the universe and the mysterious presence that gained control of the TARDIS at the end of Series 5, to the conspiracy of the Silence and the plot to kidnap Amy and brainwash Melody Pond to kill the Doctor – all from behind the scenes.

Whether or not that explanation (if this should turn out to be the case) will actually make sense and retain any logical plot consistency is a completely different matter of conjecture (because again, it’s Moffat).

Also, Richard E. Grant was coldly brilliant as Dr. Simeon and his controlled malevolence provided an interesting counterpoint to Matt Smith’s manic exuberance in “The Snowmen,” so I’m looking forward to seeing more of him as the series progresses.

The Doctor: “Human souls trapped like flies in the world wide web. Stuck forever. Crying out for help.” Clara: “Isn’t that basically Twitter?” Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman have an electric dynamic and rapid-fire banter that works, despite the more problematic aspects of the Doctor and Clara’s relationship (more on that in a moment). Their timing and delivery feels effortless and the two have a natural ease with each other that brings some much-needed levity to a Doctor who’s been fairly traumatized by the loss of his best friend.

“Did I mention it was an antigravity bike?” The Doctor has a motorcycle that can drive up walls. Eat your heart out, Joel Schumacher.

WHAT DIDN’T WORK: Unfortunately, also quite a few things, but I think they can all be safely lumped together under a single umbrella.

“Under My Protection.” Look, I get it – Clara has died twice already and the Doctor has gotten more than a wee bit frustrated searching through all of time and space trying to find her again and now that he has, it turns out that she has no idea who he is. His protectiveness of her is understandable and he is the Doctor – he saves people, that’s what he (tries) to do. That’s not the problem.

The problem is that the entire story is based around Clara’s needing to be protected and ultimately rescued by the Doctor in the first place.

Clara (Oswin) Oswald has already appeared in two previous episodes and in both instances, was a highly capable and intelligent woman who was clearly able to hold her own with the Doctor and in several instances, throw him off-balance.

Oswin (“Asylum of the Daleks”) was a genius to the degree that the Daleks wanted her as one of their own, rather than a servile drone. Her sense of identity was so formidable that she managed convince herself she was still human for a whole year. Not only that, she learned to subvert their network to the point where she was able to assist the Doctor, Amy and Rory through their journey in the asylum, resisted becoming a Dalek when being confronted with the reality of her condition long enough for the Doctor, Amy and Rory to get to safety and if that wasn’t enough, erased all memory of the Doctor from the Daleks’ collective databanks.

Clara (“The Snowmen”) refused to let the Doctor push her away from the Snowmen mystery “for her own good” and actively sought him out after her own observations and keen deductions led her to realize that what was initially an intriguing mystery might be threatening the family she worked for. Like Oswin, Clara had a firm grasp on her identity. She refused to apologize for who she was – both the barmaid and the governess – and apparently managed to transition between both lives fluidly. She passed Lady Vastra’s “One Word Test,” protected her charges from the Ice Lady and solved every puzzle the Doctor threw at her even when her own life was hanging in the balance.

Clara Oswald, by contrast, is indeed clever, but she lacks both Victorian Clara and Oswin’s sense of identity. While she knows that she wants to travel to “101 places she’s never been to before,” she’s become mired between a conflicting sense of obligation to her family friends and the sense that she’s letting her own dreams slip away. The Doctor has to interrupt her to tell her to “Look around!” because she’s too busy making jokes about his “snog box” to actually notice they’re in trouble. It’s a jarring personality shift and it’s disappointing to see that the version of her that gets to live and travel with the Doctor is apparently the least fully-formed in her sense of self (and somewhat lacking in observational skills).

Further, the skill that allows Clara to actually make a major contribution in the episode isn’t one that she possesses naturally. While this version of Clara has echoes of the previous two – like Victorian Clara, modern Clara is a live-in nanny for family friends, but unlike Oswin, she has no affinity for technology. Clara only gets those skills because she’s partially uploaded to the data cloud before being rescued by the Doctor the first time around.

It’s an annoying plot device because ultimately Clara’s lack of computer skills and the means by which she acquires them are arguably the linchpins for the whole episode: if she hadn’t known how to deal with the Wi-Fi, then she wouldn’t have needed tech help and wouldn’t have (somehow) been given the Doctor’s number and he would never have known where she was; then Clara wouldn’t have accidentally clicked on the wrong icon, been uploaded to the data cloud, rescued, and brought back conveniently with the computer skills necessary to hack the system and find out where the data cloud group was hiding, thus giving her something to do to assist the Doctor before she needed rescuing again by the Doctor in a dramatic finale which then leads to the shutdown of the data cloud, the downfall of the Miss Kizlet and her minions, and the reveal of the Big Bad.

Essentially, she’s required to be less capable than her previous incarnations in order for the story to work.

There could have been workable alternative narratives had Clara also naturally possessed formidable computer skills. A computer genius would have noticed that something funny was going on with the Wi-Fi and could have gotten the Doctor’s number in the course of her investigation. One of the children in Clara’s care, or their father, or even a friend of Clara’s, could have been stolen by the data cloud, leading Clara to track down the Miss Kizlet and her minions utilizing her considerable skills with the help of the Doctor. Or even if Clara had been uploaded twice, why not have her do something similar to Oswin and have Clara figure out how to destroy the data cloud from the inside, so that she’s at least an active participant in her own escape, rather passively awaiting rescue? Nothing in either scenario says there couldn’t still be antigravity motorcycles or the TARDIS materializing inside a 747 on a crash-trajectory (both of which were pretty darned cool).

It’s not exactly a novel introduction for the Doctor’s companions to have them saving the day by his side without needing to be rescued in the final moments. Rose was initially rescued by the Doctor but helped him figure out where the Nestene Consciousness was hiding and ended up rescuing him (“Rose”). Martha actually exposed the fugitive alien with the Judoon scanner while the Doctor was barely conscious, allowing the Judoon to execute the right alien so that the Doctor was free to turn off the MRI scanner before it killed everyone in the hospital (“Smith and Jones”). Thanks to Donna’s independent investigation of Adipose Industries, she acquired the extra pendant he needed to stop Miss Foster from killing everyone who had taken the diet pills (“Partners in Crime”).

You’d think Clara would at least be able to help the Doctor get her out of the data cloud after she’s been uploaded the second time, especially now that she’s a computer genius. But nope, can’t do a thing except call for help.

Clara’s quick wit, sass and ability to flummox the Doctor with her flirty sexuality might make for great dialog, but that’s not the same as putting them on equal footing, especially when at the end of the day, their relationship is established by Clara needing the Doctor to save her.

Whether or not this annoying tendency is a byproduct of Moffat’s decision to make the companions cosmic-possibly-all-space-and-time-shattering-conundrums that the Doctor can’t afford to ignore is debatable. However, I’m really beginning to miss the Doctor just choosing his companions because he’s lonely and wants to share all the wonders of all Time and Space with them and they’re curious, fully capable people who want to see all of Time and Space and keep the Doctor from being lonely.

In any case, Moffat’s penchant for casting companions as damsels in distress while protesting that they are actually “strong women” (with an apparently narrow definition of what makes a woman “strong”) is getting very, very tiresome.

IN CONCLUSION: Not an outstanding episode, but not horrible either.

“Right then, Clara Oswald, time to find out who you are.” While I enjoyed the creepy not-quite realism of Miss Kizlet and company controlling and harvesting human minds via Wi-Fi, I’m disappointed that once again, Moffat seems to be mistaking sass and sex appeal for strength and putting his companions in the position of needing to be rescued instead of assisting the Doctor with doing some rescuing of their own. “James Bond/Bourne Identity” action-style sequences are fun, but what makes Doctor Who special is the relationship between the Doctor and his companions because of how they bring out the best in each other. The companions remind the Doctor of what it’s like to connect with others and how to see wonder and compassion in the universe, and the Doctor exposes the companions to places, times and beings they would never be able to see or meet otherwise. And that relationship is better when it takes place among equals.

DoctorWho_GQ_15mar13_BBC_b_642x390I really hope that other writers will give Clara more agency and independence as her episodes progress. Presenting her as a mystery for the Doctor to solve, as well as his companion, is walking a fine line and I really hope they don’t tip over into making her an object for him to cosset and lecture to, rather than a fully-realized person who will function as a truly equal companion. I think the season stands a better chance of ending on a strong note if Clara takes an active role in solving the riddle of who she is and why there were two other versions of her who died. That plotline should be part of her coming to terms with and forming her own identity, rather than just the Doctor figuring her out as a mere puzzle.

I missed Doctor Who and I’m glad to see it back. I really liked the first two incarnations of Clara Oswin Oswald, and I very much hope that this Clara will have the chance to become more like her predecessors. Third time’s a charm, right?

Dialog to rewind for:

Miss Kizlet: “I’m ever so fond of Alexei, but my conscience says we should probably kill him.”
Maher: “I’ll inform HR.”
Miss Kizlet: “Actually, he’s about to go on holiday. Kill him when he gets back. Let’s not be unreasonable.”

The Doctor: “I’m the Doctor, I am an alien from outer space, I’m 1,000 years old, I have two hearts, and I can’t fly a plane!!”

The Doctor: “It’s a time machine. You never have to wait for breakfast.”

Miss Kizlet: “The abattoir is not a contradiction—no one loves cattle like Burger King.”

The Doctor: “I don’t know the future, I just work here.”

Clara: “Clara Oswald for the win. Oswin!”

Bits to notice:

–Clara says she was given the Doctor’s number by “the woman in the shop.” Vegas odds the “woman” is River Song: 3:1. Martha Jones: 5:1. Sally Sparrow: 10:1. Rose Tyler: long shot. Madame Kevarian: ???

–The book Artie is reading is Summer Falls by Amelia Williams – oh Amy Pond, gone but not forgotten. According to a Tweet by BBC Books, this book will also be available to buy as an e-Book. Moffat likes going meta.

–Apparently the TARDIS does have a garage. Given the Third Doctor’s penchant for gadgets and vehicles, is it too much to hope that he’s got the Whomobile stashed in there?

Next Episode: “The Rings of Akhaten,” in which the Doctor takes Clara to the inhabited rings of the planet Akhaten when she asks him to take her somewhere “awesome.” Written by Neil Cross (Luther). Directed by Farren Blackburn (The Fades). BBC America. Sat. 4/6. 8pm EDT.

(This post originally appeared on The Chicago Nerd Social Club. Reposted with permission.) 

One thought on “Third Time’s a Charm: A review of Doctor Who S7, Ep6, “The Bells of St. John” [WARNING: SPOILERS]

  1. Sadly, I agree with everything you wrote. What makes me even more sad: I expected to be disappointed by this episode. We had great glimpses of Oswin Oswald, the entertainment director of a space ship, and Clara Oswald, the Victorian barmaid/governess. We had such great glimpses that I had a hard time imagining how they would improve on her as a modern day girl.

    Also, how would they play out the Doctor and her first meeting when she was the one in control a lot of times in the past two meetings where she died? This time, he was looking for her rather than just running into her, and her kind of taking the spotlight. It’s hard to have a show where a permanent character gets outshined by the co-star that’s not supposed to last as long. Outshined in an episode or two where she dies, yeah, but as a more long term character, I could see difficulties there as a writer.

    I’m not even bringing gender issues in for that last paragraph. I think it would just be difficult to keeping upping the ante on a character, and she had been THAT awesome in those two first episodes. And with my opinion of Moffatt from the 6th series of trying to write River in a longer term fashion and trying to keep her from taking over the show and having flaws. I knew Clara had to suck at some point, and I kinda figured it would be the first episode where she doesn’t die (which kind of makes for her appeal, in a way).

    Not to say that Jenna Louise Coleman does a bad job or Clara wasn’t an interesting character in this episode. I think we just saw versions of her that had her at her best, and those versions that didn’t last long for us just crowd out the longer term version that needs more flaws to keep her believable.

    Then again, dying does make for something of a flaw. . .. =b

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