Way back in the 2007 third season premier of Doctor Who, David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor reminded us that you can never cross your own time-stream, except of course, “for cheap tricks.” And now, six years and four seasons later, the Doctor is still dropping time travel jokes, like they’re never going out of style, which thanks to time travel, they never will. The mid-season premiere of Doctor Who, “The Bells of Saint John” finds the show returning with a light-hearted sci-fi romp which is mostly concerned with having a good time at the expense of contemporary culture.
When we left the Doctor in last year’s Christmas episode “The Snowmen,” he was determined to find Clara Oswin Oswald, a women who he had now met—and failed to save—twice. As in their other encounters, though, Clara ends up finding the Doctor after accidentally calling the TARDIS phone. This time, Clara Oswald doesn’t remember the Doctor, is lacking her middle name, and is mysteriously a contemporary computer-illiterate nanny. He rushes to her side and the pair stumble upon a plot by some nefarious organization to suck up people’s souls via free wireless internet networks.
The notion that our technology is going to come kill us in a slightly more exaggerated manner than it already does is fairly old hat for contemporary Doctor Who. In “The Idiot’s Lantern,” TVs were sucking people’s faces away, then cellphones controlled our brains in both “The Age of Steel” and “The Sound of Drums.” Diet pills and GPS tried to destroy us in the fourth season’s “Partners in Crime” and “The Poison Sky” respectively, and most recently tiny little cubes from space tried to murder everyone in “The Power of Three.” Mostly, these premises always work the same way, and here, it’s fairly effective, too.
When the Doctor explains the horrific notion of human consciences being trapped forever in cyberspace, Clara quips, “Isn’t that basically like Twitter?” It’s here where the episode truly excels. Both Clara and the Doctor are humorously flirty in a way Matt Smith never was with Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond. And while there where some moments of flirtatious levity between Alex Kingston’s River Song and the Doctor, it always seemed a bit forced because the audience had already been told they were supposed to be an item.
With Clara however, the chemistry feels more natural, even if the writing isn’t. She’s funny, pushy, and cute, and Matt Smith is sufficiently confident and flustered by her abundance of personality. Here, Steven Moffat gives us a fairly off-the-rack Doctor Who plot and makes it seem a little more charming with solid jokes and a few great science fiction concepts. (The Doctor borrows one of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy inventions and puts it to an awesome and unexpected use.) The gathering of people through wi-fi turns out to have been administered by the Great Intelligence, who appears again after the events of “The Snowmen,” and who is feeding on people in order to rebuild itself (himself?). And as far as the time travel jokes, they’re plentiful and awesome, my favorite being this one-liner from the Doctor: “I can’t tell the future, I only work there.”
So what of the mystery of “who is Clara Oswin Oswald?” Here we see Clara obtain her hacking skills via an accidental partial upload of her brain into whatever data cloud the Great Intelligence was using. Could this have accidentally spread her soul across all of time and space? Have we already discovered that yes, Clara is a living meme? While it’s not exactly a closed case, the idea that this is where the spreading of her consciousness begins seems at least plausible. This episode sees Clara as both a nanny and a hacker, two guises we’ve seen her in before. Further, we see her “invent” her own middle name. Is this “Clara Prime?” and all the other versions echoes of that meme?
Perhaps the most interesting mystery in this episode is why Clara calls the Doctor’s phone in the first place. She claims a “woman in a shop” gave her the number. Could this be River Song? Sally Sparrow? Another previous companion? A bizzaro older version of Clara herself who needed to set off the whole situation to begin with? Much of this seems like things we’ve seen before. From the Mr. Saxon paradox, to everything with River Song, the closing of a paradox loop has become a somewhat common and maybe a little tired trope of Doctor Who.
But, in this first seemingly “regular” outing for Clara and the Doctor, none of that is bothersome nor does it weigh down any of the fun. Jenna-Louis Coleman is a witty, interesting actor with charm and chemistry that jibes well with Matt Smith’s Doctor, who, for his part, gets better and better in the role with each passing season.
Now all that remains is to see if the charm and quippy banter of those two can power the TARDIS in new interesting story directions. Because while we all love a good sci-fi romp in modern London, it would be nice for Doctor Who to do something this season that we’ve never actually seen before.
Other “clues” of note in the episode:
- Clara skips the ages 16 and 23 in her 101 Places to See book.
- She also skips the 3 while typing out her wi-fi password.
- Clara has never appeared to the Doctor without the presence of Amy Pond. First, directly in “Asylum of the Daleks,” then by Clara unknowingly saying her name in “The Snowmen,” and now through Clara’s friend reading a children’s classic tale titled Summer Falls written by an “Amelia Williams.” Which BBC Books is releasing as an ebook on April 4th, just in case you doubt that it’s from the pen of Pond.
And not a clue but a fun thing: How to change your wi-fi network’s name to look like the alien one from the episode.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.