The Bells of St John
Review by Paul Bowler
Having retreated to a monastery in 1207 to contemplate the enigma of Clara Oswald, where the Doctor is studying a painting of Clara from the 13th Century which purportedly yields the last message from the girl who has already died twice, the Time Lord is roused from his musings when two monks bring news that the Bells of St John are ringing. He returns to the TARDIS where the telephone in the door is ringing.
The surprise caller is Clara Oswald, a live in nanny from present day London, who is experiencing a problem with her internet connection. A bemused and excited Doctor quickly takes the TARDIS to meet Clara, but she isn’t exactly impressed by the strangely dressed man who has parked his strange blue box outside the house. After taking the time to make a quick costume change, the Doctor is horrified to find that Clara has been attacked by some otherworldly robotic device called a Spoonhead, which is somehow linked to the Wi-Fi network. After preventing Clara’s mind from being downloaded by the Spoonhead, the Doctor is determined to find out who is behind the entity lurking inside the capitols Wi-Fi signals – harvesting human minds and stealing their souls. It turns out that anyone looking at a particular network symbol instantly becomes a target for the sentient network, controlled by Miss Kislet from her high-rise office in the Shard as she plots with her mysterious client to use the Spoonheads to build a Data Cloud and turn the technology of the world against humanity.
Clara wakes up and gazes down from her window to see that the Doctor is still waiting for her by the TARDIS. She goes outside to meet him, suddenly aware that she now understands computers, although she can’t explain how. As the Doctor begins to explain what happened to her Miss Kislet decides to strike back and hacks into the Wi-Fi to send a passenger plane plummeting towards them. After rushing Clara into the TARDIS the Doctor makes a whirlwind trip to the plane, with a bewildered Clara who suddenly finds herself at the controls with the Doctor as the narrowly avoid disaster.
But later, after leaving the TARDIS on the south bank for a quick jaunt around London on the Doctor’s motorbike, Clara manages to hack into the Wi-Fi Network while the Doctor goes to get her a coffee. Miss Kislet uses this opportunity to hack the minds of people in the immediate vicinity, distracting the Doctor long enough for a Spoonhead to sneak up and download Clara’s mind into the Data Cloud. The Doctor races to the rescue on his super charged anti-gravity motorbike, flying up the side of the Shard where he bursts into Mrs Kislet’s office. All seems lost when she refuses to release Clara from the Data Cloud, but the Doctor has other ideas, and cleverly manages to sidestep his enemy when the Time Lord in her office turns out to be a Spoonhead that has been hacked by the Doctor who has been controlling it while he watches over Clara back at the rooftop café. As UNIT troops storm the building Mrs Kislet’s employer is revealed to be the Great Intelligence, who has one last, devastating order for Mrs Kislet to carry out before the building is overrun…
Unaware that his old enemy has return, the Doctor asks Clara to join him on his adventures in time and space. Clara is still not completely convinced, she tells him to come back tomorrow and ask her again before leaving the TARDIS. The Doctor can watch and wait, sure in the knowledge that the adventure is just beginning…
Season Seven resumes in fine style with The Bells of St John, heralding the beginning of a new era for Doctor Who as the soufflé girl/governess Clara Oswin finally joins the Doctor on his adventure in time and space. Ever since Jenna-Louise Coleman first appeared as the fast-talking computer-savvy Oswin Oswlad in Asylum of the Daleks (2012), fans have been captivated by the mystery surrounding the girl in a red dress who didn’t even realize she’d been turned into a Dalek. The 2012 Christmas Special: The Snowmen then offered us Clara the Governess who tragically died again, only to reappear again in the future standing at her own graveside.
Jenna-Louise Coleman is fantastic as the young woman who seems to have some kind of inexplicable bond with the Time Lord. Having already encountered him in two different time zones, this modern day Clara appears to be fundamentally the same person. In fact, although Clara initially seems as dissimilar to Oswin from Asylum of the Daleks as the Governess was in The Snowmen, who each were distinctive in their own right, this present day version of Clara is an altogether more realistic interpretation of those characters. Jenna-Louise Coleman’s engaging performance as Clara is like opening a Pandora’s Box of infinite delights. Clara’s eclectic persona and bubbly personality also yields a will of steel. She is one of the Doctor‘s most quick-witted companions, who dreams of travelling, and is more than capable of looking out for herself.
Mat Smith is on fine form as the mercurial Time Lord who has rediscovered his thirst for adventure, sporting a stylish new purple version of his costume, Matt Smith’s incarnation of the Doctor continues to impress as Clara’s story begins in earnest. Although the Doctor is thrilled to find Clara it quickly becomes apparent that the dynamic between them strikingly different to the one he shared with the Ponds. The Doctor is both captivated and protective of his new companion, single-handedly organising her life at one point as she gazes down at the TARDIS from her bedroom window, and she in turn challenges his preconceptions with a playful feistiness as their worlds collide.
The Bells of St John is one of Steven Moffat’s most ambitious scripts to date. Boasting incredible production values, this is probably about as close Doctor Who has ever come to being a contemporary urban thriller, and is easily one of the most exhilarating season openers so far. Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman make a fantastic team as they race over Westminster Bridge on a Triumph motorcycle, taking in plenty of London’s famous landmarks along the way. The Bells of St John features some spectacular action set-pieces right from the outset, with Clara’s first trip in the TARDIS placing her and the Doctor at the controls of a passenger jet about to crash into the city, while later we witness the Doctor driving up the Shard on his anti-gravity motorbike!
Director Colm McCarthy takes every opportunity to showcase all the sights of London, and it’s great to see the Doctor and Clara in so many well known locations. Celia Imrie gives a chilling performance as the evil Miss Kislet, the administrator behind the Wi-Fi threat; she has some fantastic one-liners and delivers them with a wickedly cruel glint in her eye. The Spoonheads are using the Wi-Fi signals to hack into people minds and take them over, and Steven Moffat skilfully plays on the insidious way modern technology has inveigled its way into our everyday lives, offering a superbly creepy insight into how vulnerable our innate obsession with social media can make us.
The opening scenes where the viewer is warned not to connect to the Wi-Fi network by a hapless victim of the Spoonheads is very chilling, especially as it illustrates how so many people have become unwilling slaves to the Great Intelligence. By taking something as incongruous as Wi-Fi and transforming it into a deadly weapon for an alien invasion, Steven Moffat brings the threat of the Spoonheads into our own homes, turning an invisible signal into threat you cannot see or touch. There are many underlying themes here that point to the many hidden dangers within the internet, one that is exemplified here by the Spoonheads ability to project images from their victims own subconscious – trolling on an intergalactic scale if you will – which exposes how vulnerable we have all become in this age of information technology. It also very clever how Clara is defined by her cynicism towards social media; perhaps mirroring Steven Moffat’s own decision to leave Twitter as he started to find it too distracting.
Steven Moffat has skilfully weaved the early stages of Clara’s ongoing mythology into The Bells of St John, including a number of flashbacks at relevant points for both Oswin and the Governess, as well as posing some tantalising questions for future episodes.
The chemistry between the Doctor and Clara is electric right from the start, the banter between them is great fun, and I’m sure that Jenna-Louise Coleman will quickly become one of the series most popular companions. With the surprise return of Richard E Grant as the Great Intelligence, The Bells of St John is just the start of Clara’s incredible voyage of discovery as the Doctor searches for clues to explain the paradox of the girl without a time or a place.