Mar 31 2013 12:30pm

Doctor Who Returns Quippy and Charming in “The Bells of Saint John”

Doctor Who The Bells of Saint John

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.

Spoilers ahead!

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.

Summer Falls by Amelia Williams

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

Emmet O'Brien
1. EmmetAOBrien
I thought this one was really a bit of a let-down. Bits of superficial clever, and Clara's characterisation being kind of half and half exactly the same as Amy and "take this bit of Amy and invert it", and no thought given to all those other uploaded people most of whom were just killed at the end. It feels like Moffat is scraping the bottom of his box of tricks.

I like the new TARDIS design a lot, but that feels like fairly faint praise.

And I'm calling the woman in the shop as Rose. (Which would, I suppose, be Moffat reusing tricks of RTD's, but no less tired thereby.)

Flirty banter is being done to death here. New Who desperately needs a new paradigm for companions. Give us Matt Smith playing off a tough, down-to-earth cop from a gritty 1970s police procedural, or a deceptively frail-seeming little old lady from an Ealing comedy.
David Lev
3. davidlev
I found it amusing that the Doctor is actually asking for "Doctor who?" jokes now.

Also I noticed that Clara said that the 11th chapter of "Summer Falls" was the best, because it'll "break your heart." Foreboding much?

I think it would be awesome for the woman in the shop to be Sally Sparrow, which actually would fit (although I think Carey Mulligan is maybe too big a star to cameo again). I do hope we get to learn more about her
4. Lalo
I was rather let down by this episode to. If Moffatt is going to do these breaks between half seasons I expect him to come back with something that really WOWs the audience. Most especially if its also the (sort of) introduction of the (sort of) new companion.

Also why did the Doctor expect Clara to know him somehow? Victorian!Clara didn't and I don't remember Dalek!Oswin knowing him (at least not on a personal Aha I know You! level). Doctor you're anxiously waiting to meet HER, not the other way around.

I'll lay odds it was River--this would have occurred in her 'past' so she'd know who Clara is. She'd also be the simplest explanation for Moffatt & Co. to use. Though lord knows they don't like simple.

I don't know, this episode seemed too easily shorn apart. So then is "The Greater Intelligence" going to recur throughout the season? Its a bit odd that they had it back to back in episodes isn't it? And this whole thing with Clara and saying the same thing and having some of the same mannerisms--its reminding me more of Rose & Bad Wolf the more it goes on.

ROSE: I am the Bad Wolf. I create myself. I take the words, I scatter them in time and space. A message to lead myself here....
I want you safe. My Doctor. Protected from the false god.
(Parting of the Ways)

What if Clara is with the Doctor at The fields of Trenzalore? What if Clara, now having been part of the Greater Intelligence, is trying to prepare the Doctor for what is to come and to protect him (much the same way Rose tried to prepare herself and the Doctor with Bad Wolf).

And what if Clara doesn't look the same each time. What if she's a mental projection camo--like the little girl from the cover of the book was--and the Doctor sees her looking the same only because he expects to see her looking the same. He never saw Human Oswin, he only tied her together with Victorian!Clara because of what she said and he knew he found Clara again because of what she said.
"Run you clever boy. Run and remember."

If Victorian Clara had never uttered those words, he wouldn't have thought that she could appear again. Would have never looked for her. If Modern Clara hadn't said those words--I guess it was a word association game to remember the password?--he wouldn't have flown to her so quickly.
5. Dr. Cox
Interesting post and comments!

As per reworks, I was thinking "Forest of the Dead," Amy's mysteriousness as per the universe (her not knowing what Daleks were, for example), and the Doctor meeting Donna, then meeting her again.

Were there any "Who is this person?" arcs as per companions in classic Who? I started watching it with the last twenty minutes of "Logopolis"--and so "the" Doctor is Five for me--tho' I've seen previous Doctors' episodes as well. There was the mystery of Turlough's identity, but I only remember it as being something the audience was clued into, not the Doctor . . . need to do some rewatching :)

All that happens in the search for Clara's identity will be interesting, but can't Moffat dispense with that type of arc for a while and just have "Doctor and companion(s) having a series of adventures"?

@EmmetAOBrien . . . yes, a new companion paradigm! I'd like to see how Eleven would interact with Wilf . . . or Minnie the Menace, lol :)

I didn't catch the author's name on Summer Falls but did wonder why it wasn't titled Silence Falls.

I am glad to see new episodes!
F Shelley
6. FSS
I don't think we'll see a new paradigm of companions with Moffat in charge. It would be, for variety's sake, but I don't think he has it in him. I remember reading one of USENET posts in the 90s saying he thought "of course" the Doctor and his companions were shagging.

As to this episode...i thought it was OK. My wife has been accusing him of cheating on River. It'll take her awhile to get used to a new companion, especially if the show keeps them kissing...
Emmet O'Brien
7. EmmetAOBrien
FSS@6: I boggle. Precisely where have the Doctor and River been established as monogamous ?
8. AI1
I moved this from the meme article, I meant to write it for the new episode review.

This is a wild stab in the dark. Could it be that Clara IS by some measure, the Tardis? True that at the end of "The Doctor's Wife" she says both hello and goodbye to the Doctor but we now know that the Tardis can inhabit a form albeit for a short time. To some extent this would explain the Doctor's and Clara's instant attraction and familiarity. He is very quickly wholly positive and protective of her (like Rory and Amy) as he "recognises" his fascination with her, she is more reserved so far. Clara is also connected to the Great Intelligence in that it reflected her actions, interests, ambivalence, and emotional state--so is this an indication that Time Lords are analogous to the traditional magicians in that the magician's power is not derived from themselves but from their ability to summon a spirit and contain it? The "spirits", the Tardises in this case of which there were many in the past, are therefore ambivalent about the magician--beholden in that they can act in the here and now, but resentful of their imprisonment to the will of another for the most part. This latter said because in "The Doctor's Wife", the Doctor is angry with the Tardis/Idris (the name Idris means "firey leader or prophet") saying that she didn't always take him where he 'wanted to go' (insisting on her servitude) and Idris says she always took him where 'he needed to go', declaring her leadership nature.
Would this explain why the Great Intelligence--clearly reflecting Clara (the snow becomes "salty rain" when she cries while dying) also tries very hard to kill the Doctor? An expression of the severe ambivalence of the relationship? Are the Silence, a "religious order" devoted to this Prophet?
Name Breakdown:
Tardis: Time and Relative Dimensions in Space
Idris: fiery leader or Prophet
Clara: bright, famous
Oswin: God's Friend
Oswald: Divine Power

No real theory here just random thoughts I decided to pass along.
F Shelley
9. FSS
@7 - technically, no where. I guess we're just old fashioned (in a pro gay marriage, live and let live type of way). And i realize for all we know, this Doctor has sent River to the Library to die. I guess we still think too linearly, too. But, i guess we still think marriage equates to monogamy, unless the couple in question agrees to an open marriage, which the Doctor and River may have agreed to off camera. Stupid us.
10. jerec84
"Give us Matt Smith playing off a tough, down-to-earth cop from a gritty 1970s police procedural"

How awesome would Gene Hunt be as a companion?
11. Nicholas Winter
FSS: I think it's safer to assume that River Song meant very little to the Doctor as he admits he really didn't know her all that all. And I still don't trust River Song to be telling the truth about their marriage anyways.
Alan Brown
12. AlanBrown
While there are aspects of Clara's character that echo elements of Moffat's writing from the past, my bet is that she is an entirely new character from an entirely new direction.
I thought this episode was a lot of fun, interesting premise, lots of humor, some fast paced adventure, antigravity motorcycles riding up the side of skyscrapers (how could you not like that?), some spooky creepiness, snappy dialog. I liked it a lot.
If I wanted to see something serious, I would watch the Torchwood: Children of Earth miniseries, which BBC America ran this morning without too much fanfare, although I don't recall that it has ever appeared on US TV before. It was a bit too grim for my taste, but pretty gripping TV, very well done.
Lots of Who this weekend, and I look forward to the next seven weeks!
Jenny Thrash
13. Sihaya
Yeah, the people trapped in the system definitely reminded me of both "Idiot's Lantern" and "Forest of the Dead." "Where am I? I don't know where I am," sounds alot like "Where am I? Who turned out the lights?"

Here's the thing - we're still in the universe that Amy created. What are the repercussions of that? And has the Doctor forgotten that he has a wife? Has he assumed that she left her when her parents were taken, has he taken the fact that he'll see her again for granted, or is something else going on?

Personally, I loved this episode. It was straight up *fun,* and it reminded me very much of old "Who." The Doctor's staying half a step ahead, but not being trumpeted by everyone around him as some sort of god-hero, nor is he using his name to get places. He's just moving, working, interacting with the world, and picking a problem to solve. He solves it with the tools immediately at hand, and not through Deus Ex Machina. Checkov's gun gets used a couple of times. And the Doc does it while living out of a control room that looks like a giant closet with doohickeys attached - very old school. UNIT even mops up, without any real hand-wringing about their presence. The old school details aren't over-heavy. They're deep down in the layers of the episode, in the structure upon which it was built.
14. AlexKingstonIsMyAvatar
I've always maintained (OK, since "The Snowmen") that The Doctor was sulking on his cloudtop because of the loss of RIVER, not the Ponds. As @9 FSS points out, this Doctor sent her to her death -- he literally nods at it in the "First Night/Last Night" DVD extras on Series 6. So The Doctor has been mourning River, not cheating on her.

Is Clara therefore River's way of reaching out to him from the mainframe of the Library? And is River angry at him for consigning her there?

Another note: This episode shows the 11th Doctor's continued use of avatars. First as a Ganger, then as the Tesselecta, now as a Spoonhead. I expect this to be a repeated trope as well.
15. bryan rasmussen
"And is River angry at him for consigning her there?"

not in the context of that episode she wasn't, she thought he was quite clever for having done it.

I thought it was quite likely that Clara has some River relation given that I also think that River's disappearance from the series is not adequately explained yet. I mean it is nearly ok if you watched the appropriate webisode but I guess most people don't do that. But yes I think River is in the library, and the triple-whammy of losing all three Ponds within a short time was what soured him on life in general.
Jenny Thrash
16. Sihaya
You know, we keep treating Oswin as the central mystery. What if she's not - what if she's a deliberate distraction, something or someone meant to keep the Doctor occupied and remove his focus from some greater problem, some nemesis who doesn't want to be noticed?
Steven Halter
17. stevenhalter
I enjoyed the episode quite a lot. We got a number of clues we didn't have before (see the article above). We got the origin (maybe) of the "Oswin" part of the name and we have from where she gets her mad hacking skills (again maybe).
The chemistry between Clara and the Doctor is quite good.
18. Ashcom
A slightly disturbing thought, but at the end of the episode we are told "those that have bodies to go back to get to live, those who don't will die." What about the ones who were buried? They are going to wake up in their coffins, buried alive. Seems like someone as clever as the Doctor should have thought of that!

A nice episode though, if not spectacular. I think the Pond situation got a bit too heavy towards the end, so it's nice to see the Doctor back with a companion he can just have fun with. Celia Imrie was a suitably creepy baddie, and he little girl voice coming out of her at the end was genuinely chilling and one of those great Doctor Who moments for me.
Jonah Feldman
19. relogical
I hate Doctor Who's fixation on "random real-life thing is trying to kill you" and this was worse than usual. I don't expect scientific accuracy, but I don't think they made any distinction between Wi-Fi, the Internet, or computers. It was all just "the Wi-Fi". And I bet some people will be making dumb jokes about this whenever they lose their internet connection from now on. Great.
Thomas Thatcher
20. StrongDreams
Who gave Clara the Doctor's phone number? If not for the news about the 50th, I would have said Amy Pond. But with Rose coming back, I'll have to say Rose. It seems that if there is ever a good place to address the "fall of the eleventh" and the "first question" it would be the anniversary special, so I guess Clara is tied up in that mess, for better or worse.
Alan Brown
21. AlanBrown
Hmmm. New companion gets messages from a mysterious blonde. Seems like I've heard something like that before...
Kristen Templet
22. SF_Fangirl
Ashcom@18: A slightly disturbing thought, but at the end of the episode we are told "those that have bodies to go back to get to live, those who don't will die." What about the ones who were buried? They are going to wake up in their coffins, buried alive. Seems like someone as clever as the Doctor should have thought of that!

I also found it unusual and out of character that the Doctor did nothing to try to figure out who the alien baddie was (the audiance saw that it the GI but he didn't) or stop it. He stopped the human minions and did absolutely nothing to stop the alien mastermind. It's like the episode ran out of time because that's what the Doctor would normally do. It seemed a contrived way, via bad writing, to keep the Doctor from knowing that the GI is still on Earth attacking humans.

relogical@19: ...this was worse than usual. I don't expect scientific accuracy, but I don't think they made any distinction between Wi-Fi, the Internet, or computers.

Yes. I agree that was awful "science," and I do not expect good science from Doctor Who, but this was cringeworthy. And the twitter "joke" through which the Doctor deduced Clara knew all about computers required zero computer knowledge. Absolutely no hacking skills required whatsoever, but knowlege of a huge pop culture.

I actually enjoyed the light-hearted episode and the chemistry between the Doctor and Clara. I am tired, though, of all the angst surrounding his companions. For the first through seventh Doctors companions came and went. They enjoyed their travels, but moved on without all the drama that has surrounded every single new companion.

Now because the Doctor and traveling with him is so super awesome, none of them want to leave and their departure has to be tragic. Amy and Rory had an awesome out (growing up, moving on to a stable life, maybe adopt a kid), but instead the writers had to go for the overly convoluted (and silly) - they got trapped in 1930s NY and the Doctor can go never go there to see them again. And they could never leave NY city to meet him somewhere.
23. philosoraptor
Actually, "Where am I? I don't know where I am," sounds exactly like what Oswin was exclaiming in Asylum when she was getting flashbacks to her being caught and converted.
John Graham
24. JohnPoint
Bryan @ 15:
I thought it was quite likely that Clara has some River relation given that I also think that River's disappearance from the series is not adequately explained yet. I mean it is nearly ok if you watched the appropriate webisode but I guess most people don't do that.
I missed that webisode -- which one was it? It would be interesting to have some idea what actually happened to River...

This episode seemed remarkable similar to Silence in the Library to me -- my feeling is also that Clara may well be somehow affiliated with River. Afterall, River's conscience is uploaded into the Lib archives, and Clara's conscience is uploaded to the Great Intelligence network. Parallel there... Clara was able to escape from the computer via the Doctor's intervention -- if they aren't directly related, could that at least provide hime with an idea for how to save River and her team, after they were uploaded into the Library archives? Does he later return to the Lib and download/restore them?
Risha Jorgensen
25. RishaBree
@18 - I was assuming they meant _living_ bodies, probably hooked up to life support somewhere while doctors try to figure out why they're in a deep coma or brain dead.
Steven Halter
26. stevenhalter
Summer Falls is now available:

I have it on my Nook now and the first edition date is given as 1954.
Steven Halter
27. stevenhalter
From the Goodreads Amelia Williams author page:
AMELIA WILLIAMS is the editor of the famous Melody Malone series of crime novels, and a bestselling author of several books for children.
She lives in New York with her husband Rory and their young son, Anthony. They have a grown-up daughter, Melody, who works as an archaeologist.
Maybe someone from Tor should interview her--she lives in New York after all.

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