DOCTOR WHO 7.6: “The Bells of Saint John”

DW7bellsdocclaraCould DOCTOR WHO show-runner Steven Moffat be out of ideas already? At first blush, this story looks like a reworking of the 10th Doctor story “The Idiot’s Lantern,” in which a malevolent alien intelligence sucks human faces (and energy) into the then-new technology known as television. In this story, a malevolent alien intelligence sucks human minds into the new technology known as wi-fi. But despite appearances, that impression could not be more wrong.

In fact, Moffat and his partner-in-crime, Matt Smith, are at the height of their powers. Moffat has a firm grasp on the creative direction of not only this season but his entire era as the guiding force of DOCTOR WHO, and Smith has made role so completely his own that it is almost hard to imagine anyone else playing the Doctor. Smith inhabits the role so completely that it’s hard to tell where he ends and the Doctor begins. The result is a perfect storm of creativity, with Moffat serving up big, inspiring stories that Smith knocks out of the park. They are not all perfect, but working together, Moffat and Smith are crafting some of the best DOCTOR WHO stories ever and forging one of the great eras in the programs history. They are the Lennon-McCarthy of DOCTOR WHO.

The latest Moffat-Smith collaboration begins in modern London, where wi-fi users who access a network identified by strange symbols find their minds downloaded into the wi-fi ether, leaving their bodies apparently dead. When Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) has trouble connecting to the Internet, a woman in a shop gives her a number for “the best helpline in the universe.”

In Cumbria in 1207, a monk and his abbot report to the Doctor (Smith) that the bells of St. John are ringing. The Doctor, who had been working on a painting of Clara with the caption “Run, you clever boy, and remember” rushes to the site and discovers the TARDIS phone is ringing. Answering it, he is shocked to hear Clara on the other end of the line. Rushing to Ealing in London, the Doctor arrives just in time to prevent Clara’s mind from being downloaded into the wi-fi by a remote transmitter. As a residual effect of being partially in the wi-fi, Clara has gained amazing computer skills, which she uses to activate the webcams at the organization operating the rogue wi-fi network and track the baddies to London’s Shard building.  However, Clara is captured and her consciousness downloaded successfully into the cloud. Realizing that Clara cannot be individually released from the cloud, the Doctor contrives to upload evil mastermind Ms. Kizlet (Celia Imrie) to the cloud, forcing her minions to release everyone from virtual imprisonment.

DW7bellsclara01Ms. Kizlet reports to her client that she has failed in her mission to collect human minds. Her employer is revealed to be the Great Intelligence, still possessing the form of Dr. Simeon (Richard E. Grant). Meanwhile, the Doctor asks Clara to travel with him, but she refuses. However, she urges him to ask her again tomorrow.

With its contemporary setting and a conceit hinging on familiar technology, TBOSJ feels more immediate and visceral than TIL. It is also much more fun, as the 11th Doctor seems to be enjoying himself as he investigates Clara; stopping the theft of minds seems almost like an afterthought, since the Doctor appears much more interested in not losing Clara to the Great Intelligence rather than stopping the alien’s plan for its own sake. But that’s Moffat-Smith for you.

If there’s one thing Moffat excels at, it’s creating amazing, strong and charismatic female foils for the Doctor. And he really put a lot of work into his new assistant. Clara is cut from the same durable cloth as Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), but she’s a unique design all her own. The unflappable Clara is clever without being snarky, and manages to defy the Doctor without being rude about it. Coleman plays Clara with such disarming charm and with a playful glint in her eye that she could almost be a Time Lady. And the charismatic Coleman carries her stunning beauty with an ease that makes her feel more like the lovable girl next door rather than a supermodel.

Another Moffat-Smith trademark is working in references to favorite characters, and in this story, we discover that Summer Falls, the novel Clara loaned to Artie, was written by Amelia Williams – whom we all knew as Amy Pond. And who but River Song could possibly have given Clara the phone number for the TARDIS?

Now, the story is not perfect and vital information was purposely withheld. We don’t know for sure why the GI wanted a huge supply of human minds — unless it was to replenish his swarm. And while Kizlet and company were defeated somewhat easily, what’s to prevent the GI from starting up again tomorrow. The most frustrating part was that the Doctor did not learn his old enemy the Great Intelligence was behind this plot.

DW7bellsdoctor1The best sequence, however, was the Doctor and Clara aboard the crashing jet airliner. The Doctor can operate a TARDIS, which was designed for six pilots, all by himself, but he never learned to fly an Earth plane? Nonetheless, the scene crackled with energy as the Doctor got some boring expositional stuff out of the way in an entertaining way. Kudos for the handheld camerawork that put the viewer right there on the plane and in the crammed cockpit.

TIME-SPACE VISUALISER:

  • Clara uses the mnemonic device “Run You Clever Boy And Remember” to recall the password to the Maitland family wi-fi. When she used this phrase in “Asylum of the Daleks” and “The Snowmen,” was she unconsciously trying to recall something?
  • Further, Clara comes up with the moniker “Oswin” as a user name. How is this related to the Dalek identified as “Clara Oswin” in “Asylum of the Daleks”? Is that some kind of user designation for a Dalek operating system?
  • The title refers to the St. John ambulance badge on the door of the TARDIS.
  • This is the second time that the TARDIS telephone has rung. The last time was during “The Empty Child” – also written by Moffat.
  • The TARDIS phone really should not work, because the TARDIS really isn’t a phone box; the shell is part of the vehicle’s camouflage. There shouldn’t even be a phone behind the panel (which itself shouldn’t open).
  • The TARDIS officially has a garage.
  • The Doctor takes notes with pencil and paper.
  • Why didn’t we see the translated name of the sinister wi-fi network translated when the Doctor was around?
  • What has the Great Intelligence been doing since “The Web of Fear”? Why did it use Simeon’s face?
  • It’s clear that Jammie Dodgers are this Doctor’s version of jelly babies.
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