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Doctor Who “The Bells of Saint John” Review

Bells 1
Hooray! It’s back! Doctor Who has returned to our various screen-types and has delivered an episode that looks so phenomenal it almost doesn’t look like it belongs on Doctor Who. “The Bells of Saint John” introduced Clara Oswald Proper (Jenna-Louise Coleman) in a story that was supremely modern in both its storytelling and presentation. It also features some of the best Doctor-companion repartee in quite a long time. The Ponds were fun, but Clara’s ability to banter is unmatched. Let’s dive right in!

Steven Moffat is known for making the everyday threatening. This time, he’s done it with something that surrounds everybody all the time, whether they like it or not: Wi-Fi. It’s everywhere and we can do nothing about it, so what if it was hostile? What if it had control of us all? What if it had these weird camouflaged servers with empty, hollow heads? Creepy-ass, right? As far as a villain goes, the Spoonheads and the corporate people who control them are fairly pedestrian, but the threat is very compelling. And when, at the end of the episode, we find out they’re being controlled by the Richard E. Great Intelligence, it gives me a great deal of hope that he (and it) are going to play a much larger role in this season’s activities. Hooray for references to 1960s, and specifically Patrick Troughton, stories. There’s probably going to be a lot of that this year.

The direction of this episode is nothing short of gorgeous. This is Colm McCarthy’s first foray into the world of Doctor Who, and he’s not slated to direct any more this year. However, he’s directed episodes of very London-centric shows like MI-5 and Hunter, so he’s one of the best people for directing an episode that so perfectly utilizes the city’s sites and geography. I just went to London last autumn and saw all of the locations shown. It’s exactly like that. The throwaway joke about Earl’s Court, when the baddies are looking for the TARDIS, was quite funny. (There’s a real police box outside the tube station there… I took a picture by it.) Moffat’s other show, Sherlock, uses London exceedingly well, and I never imagined Doctor Who would feel so… REAL. This gives me hope for what an eventual feature film COULD look like.

The real story here is the relationship between Clara and the Doctor. Coleman and Smith have chemistry to spare. It was more volatile in “The Snowmen,” but here it’s no less engaging or fun to watch. Seeing the Doctor really care about looking out for Clara and attempting to save her (finally) is wonderful. Smith never fails to surprise me with how he plays the Eleventh Doctor. It’s maybe the most varied and nuanced of all the Doctors ever. He goes from silly to serious so effortlessly. I love that Clara doesn’t fall for the Doctor’s usual lines and isn’t afraid to call him on his BS. In a series populated by tough chicks, it’s nice to see one who actually IS tough and not just made to look that way.

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The mystery behind Clara is nowhere near close to being resolved, which I love. We hear, possibly, the origin of the name “Oswin” and we see her do things that each of her previous “versions” have done (look after children and be very good at computers). I was initially concerned about having another companion who is mysterious and with a complicated past, but it’s different enough, and the character is certainly different enough, that it’s not a distraction nor does it feel like a retread. Clara is the only companion thus far in the new series with a completely clean slate, seemingly no relations, and definitely nothing going on for her beyond wanting to travel. I’m really looking forward to where she goes this year.

The more I think about this episode, the less I feel I have to say, but the more I think I enjoyed watching it. It’s not got a very complicated plot, it’s not a huge mystery, it doesn’t have very engaging villains or monsters, but it does have a huge amount of character and it’s never boring or dumb. It’s just a really good episode, a decent story with exceptional dialogue, direction, and performances. There’s a reference to Amy (the book the son is reading is written by Amelia Williams), a small reference to UNIT, which you know I love, and there’s a small setup for what will probably be the main baddie for the rest of the series. One thing that may (and I’m sure will) come back into play is this mysterious woman from the shop who gave Clara the Doctor’s number that rang the eponymous “Bells of Saint John.” Might be River, might be Amy, might be Clara herself from the future, might be someone totally different; it’ll be interesting to see who. So, to sum up: very good episode, would watch again, +++++.

Next week, we have “The Rings of Akhaten,” written by Neil Cross and directed by Farren Blackburn, both of Luther fame. Looks pretty weird and definitely very alien, which was rather lacking in Series 7a. Until then!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McylxgOQBbA&w=615&h=346]

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48 comments

  • I think the shop person could be most anyone. I think that Martha would definitely say the line, “it’s the best help line.” Clara said it was a woman in the shop, but I don’t think she really said the woman worked in the shop.

  • I think the shopgirl could be rose!
    And did anyone notice it was written by AMELIA WILLIAMS? ( Amy-Amelia pond-Williams) BTW Williams is rory’s last name

  • @Shonsu, I’m glad I’m not the only one who noticed this. It was in the most recent episode “Hide” at the end as well. It’s probably nothing, but I notice it every time and I wasn’t sure if it meant something more.

  • RE: Birds chirping
    Not only was it in that episode but I’ve noticed it off and on throughout lots of other episodes. Oddly enough even in episodes before Amy’s Choice. Those same birds were heard chirping when Rory was in the hospital talking to the hospital doctor.

  • so after watching this for the … i’ve lost count of how many…time, i noticed when the doctor is reading off the messages he took when clara was passed out, he says angie is staying over at nina’s. same name oswin the dalek mentioned in assylum…hmmmm

  • My theories on possible shop people:
    Jenny, the Doctor’s daughter (my personal favorite option)
    Sally Sparrow
    Martha Jones (Or is it Smith? Jones-Smith?)
    Rose, back from Pete’s world
    Gwen Cooper
    Donna Noble
    somebody from UNIT
    River Song
    Craig/Sophie
    another iteration of Clara

  • Did no one else think the “shop girl” who gave Clara the number could be Rose? A stretch I know but to me she was the most obvious shop girl that came to mind. Especially since Rose will be back in some capacity for the 50th anniversary episode.

  • No! I don’t want clara to have anymore connections to the ponds i laughed when they died and was glad they were trapped i’ll admit i don’t mind rory but i hate amy so much anyways i think the girl in the shop may have been the “rose” in this episode like all the other episode have had rose this one had a hint to rose

  • As interesting as the Doctor is perhaps a brief meeting only a few min long wouldnt make somebody remember him more then a decande later.

    Also as for the skipped year perhaps it has to do with thats when her friend died and she ended up staying for a year.

  • Re: woman in the shop… I’ve heard theories that it’s the following ladies:
    – Rose (but she’s in a different universe, and definitely up to bigger and better things than shopwork – unless she has, as suggested and as has happened before, crossed over to help out another companion? Plausible, given Piper signing on to the 50th anniversary ep)
    – Sally (but she never had the Doctor’s number… unless he dropped in for tea one day and gave it to her? I’m thinking Sally is the answer because we KNOW she works in a shop, and Moffat originally wrote her)
    – Donna (nope. No memory. No way would she have his number. Plus she’s the best temp in Chiswick, she can do better than shopwork)
    – Martha (nope. Medical degree. High up in UNIT. No need to work in a shop)
    – River (I can’t see her working in a shop… she’s too much of a primadonna for that. Plus, setting her “husband” up with a younger, sexier woman? Can’t see it.)
    – Susan/Romana/random Time Lady (eh, no evidence against it I guess, but no evidence for it either…)

    ALSO the whole thing about her skipping 23 and going straight to 24 in the list of “ages” in the book? This makes me think of the way she mistyped “23” in the WiFi password, writing “24” instead. I think the whole 23/24 thing is going to be important in the future.

  • Loved the ep, the chemistry is amazing and it was so full of easter eggs and hints that makes it worth watching over. As for possible people for the woman in the shop what about the doctors cloned daughter its going back to the days of the 10th but at the very end of the episode she did finally regenerate and blast off into space and we have yet to hear whats come of that. Only reason I dont want that to be the case is it seems as tho the Doctor has a thing for Clara, he acts like a teen crushing hard for the first time, like the way he was awkward trying to figure out how to leen while inside the tardis

  • I wonder if the woman in the shop was Susan from the original series. There have been a lot of roses scattered throughout the Clara episodes and Susan’s real name (Arkytior.) meant “rose” in High Gallifreyan. I feel that makes more sense for the 50th anniversary than Rose and Ten coming back

  • Woman in the shop could also be Martha Jones. Most likely River or Rose. RE: Donna can’t remember. If she remembers, her mind will burn and she will die.
    On the other hand….the 50th is coming soon and LOTS of prep work is going into making it an ABSOLUTE BLOCKBUSTER. Could Romanna have escaped the Time War, or possibly the Doctors mother (as seen in End Of Time)?
    Chew on that bone for a while.

  • I totally think that the girl in the shop that gave Clara the doctor’s number is Rose. Think about it, what did Rose do before she met the doctor. She worked in a shop. She makes several comments about “just being a girl in a shop.” She has crossed dimensions before to help out the doctor’s companions. That would be awesome if rose and the human 10th doctor were back.

  • “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of Saint Clemmons…”

    I guess (having read a score of reviews and commentaries) I’m the only one to connect the plethora of London cameras and the Big Brother Great Intelligence to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.

  • I’m going with Sally Sparrow for the woman in the shop. Esp. since she’s from a Moffat episode.

    Wilf and Rory’s dad would be other folks in London who know the Doctor. OK – and also Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, but she wouldn’t be working in a shop.

  • Am I the only one who noticed the birds chirping when Clara was in the house? They sounded exactly like the birds from the “Amy’s Choice” episode. I don’t know if I was reading too much into that part of the episode, but it seemed like the birds would randomly stop chirping and then begin again at certain points, and I wondered about that.

  • I love the idea of Sally Sparrow giving Clara the Doctor’s number, but Sally never had a phone number. The only companion still in London who possibly could have his phone number is….Donna Noble. Thoughts? Discuss.

  • AltRose didn’t go back to working in a shop, she worked at Torchwood, she made a joke about working in a shop to the doctor at the end of doomsday.

  • I absolutely loved the episode. As someone who’s always on the computer, always looking for Wifi, the opening truly and honestly freaked me out, there were some great jokes, and it was exciting. I would watch it again.

    If the revelation of Kinslet being a small child when she meet the Intelligence, and asking UNIT “Where are my mummy and daddy?” wasn’t included. Anything involving the elderly and a child being taken away from their parents tugs at my heartstrings. Combine the two in this way (even though Kinslet isn’t “elderly,” she certainly has lived a full life), and my heart is beaten, pulverized, a flushed down the toilet. It makes perfect sense, and I’m glad it was included, but my god. I just can’t handle it

  • It may be absurd for me to think this, but when she said “woman in a shop” I automatically thought Rose. Before Nine met Rose she was working in shops, and when Rose was taken over to the alternate universe she went back to working shops. It may be absurd of me to think that….

  • I rated this episode as above average (my review is here: http://www.nerdist.com/2013/03/doctor-who-the-bells-of-saint-john-review/). It was well put together, and the main characters have chemistry coming out of their ears, but the story didn’t achieve the highs seen in The Snowmen. Still, there was a whole lot of promise established in this story, and we now have two active plotlines to follow for the rest of the season (the Great Intelligence and Clara).

    I’m starting to think that Clara is being built by someone, and it may not be for the Doctor’s benefit. Note that she got her mad computer skills in this episode — computer skills which came into play in “Asylum of the Daleks”.

    And who was the woman who handed Clara the tech support number that ended up calling the TARDIS phone? The way the episode was structured, we were pretty effectively misdirected away from that.

  • I LOVED IT!!!!!!! Tom Bakers scarf was the best Easter Egg. I didn’t notice Amelia Williams wrote the book either
    Can’t wait until next week.

  • Once Clara was reuploaded she should have known where she was, because she’d already been there, and she knew who the Doctor was, so why did she start saying, “I don’t know where I am” over and over again? The boss lady kept her knowledge when she was uploaded, so everyone doesn’t go brainless when they get uploaded.

  • Love it. Set for record. =)

    ‘Cept the Doctor Who ‘female doctor’ discussion about it being canon.
    Matt Smith’s Doctor in ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ mentions another Time Lord that also male and had female regeneration’s.

  • Could the lady in the shop be River Song? I don’t feel like her story is over yet. Though it would create quite an interesting triangle between the Doctor, Clara, and River.

  • Anyone catch the book the kid was reading? “Summer Falls” by Amelia Williams…

    “Which chapter are you on?”

    “Ten.”

    “Eleven’s the best. You’ll cry your eyes out!”

    Foreshadowing, much?

  • Great episode, you also missed the reference to the 10th Doctor. When the boy said he’s on Chapter 10 of the book; Clara said that’s her favorite chapter and that he’d cry his eyes out (in ref. to the 10th Doctor and Rose saying goodbye).