Doctor Who: The Bells Of Saint John (2013) Review

Doctor Who The Bells Of Saint John Breakfast 14

Doctor Who’s seventh season reaches another important milestone with “The Bells Of Saint John”, the opening episode for the latter half of the season, where Jenna Louise Coleman finally makes her proper debut as Clara Oswald. “The Snowmen” did most of the heavy lifting setting up the new status quo for Series 7B (much like how “The Christmas Invasion” really took a heavy load off of “New Earth” back in Series 2), so “The Bells Of Saint John” can afford to be a much more light-hearted episode than its predecessor with relatively lower stakes. And when it comes to companion introductions, this episode certainly provides a change of pace from what we’re accustomed to: we’re usually (re)introduced to the Doctor’s character through the eyes of a companion as they become acquainted with him, but after everything that transpired in “Asylum Of The Daleks” and “The Snowmen”, here we’re introduced to a companion through the eyes of the Doctor for a change, as he seeks her out and tries to make sense of her.

“The Bells Of Saint John” has a pretty simple and straightforward plot, which at this point is what you would expect from a companion’s introductory episode. The monster of the week isn’t the focus here – establishing the Doctor’s co-star and showing off everything she has to offer to the series is – which is a shame, since the main villains of this episode are actually a pretty cool concept, and they feel slightly underused and underexplored. The pacing for this episode is a real slow-burn: the first act takes its time setting up the Doctor and Clara’s current living conditions and putting them in a position where they meet, but from there the second and third acts start to gain some serious momentum as the episode’s main spy theme starts to become prominent, and the Doctor and Clara start to get serious about confronting the omnipresent villains who are terrorizing London.

Doctor Who The Bells Of Saint John Conspiracy 8

After the events of “The Snowmen”, the Eleventh Doctor is still living in solitude by “The Bells Of Saint John”, hanging out with some monks at the moment, trying to make sense of Clara Oswald, the Impossible Girl – who she is, where she came from, and how she can be reincarnated multiple times throughout history. He’s actually starting to become a bit obsessed with her, to tell you the truth. Eventually, their paths cross again by fate, and after all that searching the Doctor did for her between episodes, it’s ironically Clara who finds him when she phones the TARDIS for help with her computer, thinking it’s a tech support hotline. Racing to modern day London where she lives, the Doctor eagerly wants to pick up where they left off in the last episode and be her new best friend – but she has no idea what he’s talking about, and naturally, she thinks he’s completely insane.

That problem sets up the main conflict between our two lead characters for Series 7B. The Doctor sees Clara as an extension of her echoes and wonders if she’s not being entirely truthful about who she says she is, while Clara really is her own person with her own experiences who’s completely ignorant of the fact that she’s had any other lives than her current one. From her perspective, the event that causes her to become reincarnated hasn’t happened yet, and it won’t happen until “The Name Of The Doctor“. In any case, Clara is subsequently targeted by the villains of the week, who want her dead because she knows too much about their evil scheme to trap human souls inside the internet, as food for an alien parasite. The Doctor makes it his personal mission to back her up and help her survive: he’s failed her twice now in two different lifetimes in “Asylum Of The Daleks” and “The Snowmen”, so he’s determined to keep her safe now.

The Doctor started the gradual process of moving past his grief for the Ponds and getting back on his feet in the last episode, and by this point, he’s officially gotten his groove back. He’s back on top of his hero game, if the confident and ruthlessly efficient way he handles Miss Kizlet and her goons is any indication. For the first time in a long time, he gets to show off everything time travel can do when he decides to show Clara the ropes as a potential companion (again), and he clearly enjoys taking her on a fun motorcycle ride across London. Eventually, Miss Kizlet and her team of hackers manage to snatch Clara away from him when he least expects it with a treacherous sneak attack, and they fully intend to subject her to a fate worse than death, just like they have done with hundreds of other innocent people. But the Doctor is most certainly not going to sit around and let that pass, so he decides to go raise some hell.

Coming off the heels of the last episode, where the Doctor was surprisingly brutal to Dr. Simeon, the climax of this adventure provides another example of how my boy Eleven can be one stone cold papa when he wants to be. He sends Miss Kizlet a very special surprise in her office, to persuade her to release all the people she has trapped in her cloud, and after he weaponizes her own killer technology against her, her victims are finally given some justice. The Doctor saves the world and tears down a dangerous shadow organization, and there’s very much a sense that as impressive as all this is, it’s still just a regular day at the office for him. Once London is safe again, he has a personal chat with Clara where he convinces her to fly away with him and see him the universe. He finally has a chance to solve the mystery of her paradoxical nature, but unbeknownst to him, he won’t find the answers that he seeks as Series 7 stretches on, because he’s looking in all the wrong places.

Doctor Who The Bells Of Saint John Cafe 5

After two false starts, where Jenna Louise Coleman played two completely different characters in “Asylum Of The Daleks” and “The Snowmen”, we’re finally introduced to the real, original Clara Oswald who we’ll be spending the next two and a half seasons with in “The Bells Of Saint John”. Like Rose Tyler, Clara is a very divisive companion in the show’s fandom – you tend to either love her or hate her, especially considering how much of a large and influential role she was given in the Moffat era – and thankfully, I quite like her.

Clara is a 21st century nanny who’s currently doing a favor for some family friends of hers, helping them hold down the fort during their time of need, because as everyone knows, she’s a very reliable and dependable lass. But she’s currently hit a rut in her life and she’s feeling unfulfilled, because she always dreamed of traveling and having adventures when she was younger, and she figured she would have done much more with herself by now than hang around her old neighborhood. She’s put all her dreams and ambitions on hold to deal with some important real life stuff (even if she would like to honor the memory of her mom, who shared those dreams with her), and she’s basically waiting for her life to truly begin by the time of this episode. The Doctor shows up at her door one day, babbling nonsense, acting like they’re old friends when they’re not, and generally being quite cryptic – so naturally, she thinks he’s nuts and decides to keep her distance from him. But after the Doctor saves her life from a malevolent group of hackers who tried to murder her, she revises her opinion of him. She decides he’s a weird guy, but he’s not half bad, and he’s a mystery that’s worth sticking around and solving. 

Over the course of this episode, Clara is introduced to a weird, wild and fantastical world where seemingly anything is possible, and to her credit, instead of shutting down and going into denial like a lot of people would probably do in her position, she tries to keep up and take it all in stride. Clara is drawn to the Doctor’s carefree, world-saving lifestyle, despite her reservations about it, because deep down, she loves a good adventure. A failed attempt at uploading her soul to the internet winds up giving Clara some super sweet hacking skills, which she later decides to weaponize against her attackers – using them to give the Doctor an advantage.

Clara is a self-described control freak, and she always feels the most comfortable when she’s the one calling the shots of an operation. Even though this is her first episode, we start to see some early traces of that trait here. When the Doctor tries to hack the men and women who are hunting them, Clara quickly takes over, because she’s confident she can do the job better than he could, despite only having her in-depth knowledge of computers for a day. Later, when the Doctor offers to let her travel with him, and tempts her with everything the universe has to offer someone, she insists he wait another day and give her some time to think it over. This little decision really illustrates a big difference between her and her echoes, who would have leapt at the chance to run away with the Doctor. The real Clara, in general, likes to weigh her options and sit on a really big decision before she does anything major – at least until Series 9, when she gets dangerously reckless. Clara sets the terms and conditions for how she’ll start traveling with him, which really does set the stage for what her relationship with the Doctor will be like in the future.

Doctor Who The Bells Of Saint John Up The Shard 7

The B-plot of this episode devoted to the villains is all about the wonders of modern technology, and how they can be used to cause a lot of damage by those with harmful intentions – which means the main premise of this episode will probably feel incredibly dated after a couple of decades pass. But as an unintentional period piece for the 2010’s, “The Bells Of Saint John” is a pretty accurate representation of how connected humans have become with each other all across the world since the invention of the internet, and it makes really good use of social media juggernauts like Twitter and Facebook.

Malicious predators targeting people through the internet is something we’ve all been taught to prepare for at some point when it comes to basic internet safety – after all, broadcasting your personal life to billions of strangers always comes with a certain set of risks – but in “The Bells Of Saint John”, there’s an extra layer of danger that can only be found in a science fiction series like Doctor Who. Namely, killer wi-fi that attacks you through your computer. The main threat of this episode is a shadow organization led by a woman named Miss Kizlet, that is uploading human souls to the internet with advanced technology and then harvesting them as food for their boss – an unnamed employer / alien parasite that ranks above them all. As you would imagine, Miss Kizlet is an amoral woman who has no problem committing whatever atrocities that she has to to get what she wants – she even uses her tech on her own employees to manipulate them from time to time. She can hack human minds and use them as her puppets. She can hack technology all throughout London, and use it to spy on people or track them down wherever they go.

There is a lot of paranoia fuel to be found with Miss Kizlet’s team, since they can be everywhere in the world, and their influence is far reaching. In theory, they should be a difficult foe to beat, but in actuality, they’re dealt with pretty easily in the last act. They never stood a chance against the Doctor once he decided to get serious and they lost their own protective layer of anonymity, which is a shame, since the ambitious conflict of this episode easily had the potential to be a two-parter. I do appreciate that the villains’ scheme has lasting consequences. They’ve been uploading people to their virtual cloud for a while now, and most of their victims don’t have fresh bodies to return to – they were buried or cremated years ago. The Doctor can save Clara and a few other recent targets, but for most of the poor souls they’ve trapped, a merciful death is the best he can do for them.

As the episode wraps up, “The Bells Of Saint John” takes one last dark turn. The creature that the villains were all working for turns out to be the Great Intelligence, a plot twist that was foreshadowed quite well throughout the episode: the servers they use mirror thoughts and throw them back at people before they kill them, which was the same thing the alien snow did back in “The Snowmen”. The Great Intelligence indoctrinated Miss Kizlet to be his pawn when she was just a child, just like he did with Dr. Simeon, and then he throws her away without a second thought once her usefulness is over. She’s so loyal to him that she erases every trace of him from her mind to cover his tracks. Doing so wipes out her entire adult life and permanently leaves her a child in an adult woman’s body, who will now go to prison for crimes that she’ll never remember committing. Miss Kizlet was a terrible person, and this is certainly a karmic fate for her, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a bleak one to really think about.

Doctor Who The Bells Of Saint John Breakfast 7

“The Bells Of Saint John” is directed by Colm McCarthy, a newcomer to the series who shows a lot of skill and confidence behind the camera. The modern day setting of this episode proves to be a pretty stark contrast to the Victorian London we just saw in “The Snowmen”, and I have to say, from the way its filmed, London looks especially beautiful in this story. A lot of the city’s famous landmarks make an appearance, like Westminster Bridge, the River Thames, and of course, the Shard, which becomes the focus of the climax.

Murray Gold’s score is very rich this week and blends electronic beats with a traditional orchestra to pleasant effect. The Eleventh Doctor’s theme, “I Am The Doctor“, is showcased several times throughout the hour (in “Spoonheads” and “Up the Shard“), and after all the losses and defeats that the Doctor has had to suffer over the last two episodes, those triumphant reprises of his main theme when he manages to gain the upper hand over the villains are very satisfying. Clara’s theme is given another showcase as well and expanded on fully, after it made its proper debut in the last episode, in the track “Clara?“: a whimsical, carefree and romantic piece that underscores the first scene of the Doctor and Clara really connecting, after he’s been tending to her in bed. “A Turbulent Flight” really stands out among Murray’s score, since it’s basically an adrenaline-filled variation of “River’s Path” from Series 5 (another rearrangement of River’s theme appears during the montage of Clara hacking the Shard in the climax). “Bah Bah Biker” is a short but sweet earworm that’s only used once for a scene of Clara and the Doctor bonding, and lastly, “I Might Change My Mind” wraps everything up with a warm, sentimental touch, giving us a few final reprises of Clara’s theme and Eleven’s theme to close out the episode.

“The Bells Of Saint John” is a pretty middle-of-the-road episode of Doctor Who with beautiful production values, that takes a while to truly find its footing, but it does a good of building upon the momentum from “The Snowmen” and setting the stage for the rest of Series 7B to follow.

Rating: 8/10.

Side Notes:

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* “The woman twice dead, and her final message. He was drawn to this place of peace and solitude that he might divine her meaning. If he truly is mad, then this is his madness”.

* “What chapter are you on?” “Ten” “Eleven is the best. You’ll cry your eyes out” I saw what you did there, Moffat.

* Clara is written like your stereotypical boomer character in her first episode, who knows so little about computers that she can’t even connect to the internet, but considering she’s meant to be twenty-seven, that’s a pretty big stretch. Maybe Clara’s parents hated modern technology and warned her to stay away from those devil boxes while she was growing up.

* “I’m ever so fond of Alexei, but my conscience says we should probably kill him” “I’ll inform HR” “Actually, he’s about to go on holiday. Kill him when he gets back. Let’s not be unreasonable”.

* “Are you seriously going to sit down there all night?” “Yep! I promise I won’t budge from this spot” “Well then, I’ll have to come to you”.

* “Imagine that: human souls trapped like flies in the world-wide web. Stuck forever, crying out for help” “Isn’t that basically Twitter?” Man, Doctor Who really doesn’t like Twitter.

* My favorite scene in this episode has to be the Doctor and Clara saving a plane from crashing. I love Murray Gold’s score (“A Turbulent Flight“), the full 360 shot of the TARDIS’s console room, and the fact that Clara never drops her cup of tea through the whole ordeal, like a true Englishwoman.

* “I’m the Doctor. I’m an alien from outer space. I’m a thousand years old, I’ve got two hearts and I can’t fly a plane! Can you?!” “No!” “Oh, fine. Let’s do it together!”

* “What?! I ain’t waiting till breakfast!” “It’s a time machine. You never have to wait for breakfast”.

* “So, what happens if you do find them? What happens then?” “I don’t know, I can’t tell the future, I just work there”.

* “Well, you’re young. Shouldn’t you be doing, you know, young things, with young people?” “You mean like you, for instance? Down, boy”.

* “It’s obscene. It’s murder!” “It’s life. The farmer tends his flock like a loving parent. The abattoir is not a contradiction. No one loves cattle more than Burger King”.

* I understand why Clara couldn’t keep her new computer skills for very long, because they would make her way too OP, but I really enjoyed that montage of her hacking the Shard.

* The Doctor riding his motorcycle up the side of the Shard is a completely ridiculous visual, and I love it so much.

* “You hack people, but me? I’m old-fashioned: I hack technology. Here’s your motivation” Hell yes, Doc.

* It’s worth noting that all three of Clara’s introductory episodes (“Asylum Of The Daleks”, “The Snowmen” and “The Bells Of Saint John”) contain scenes of someone getting mindwiped, which is pretty fitting in hindsight, considering the circumstances of how she leaves the show in “Hell Bent”.

* “Clara? In your book there was a leaf. Why?” “That wasn’t a leaf. That was page one”.

* “Right then, Clara Oswald. Time to find out who you are”.

Further Reading:

Doctor Who The Bells Of Saint John Coda 9

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