The Bells of Saint John

Story No. 253
Production Code Series 7, Episode 6
Dates March 30, 2013

With Matt Smith, Jenna Louise-Coleman
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Colm McCarthy
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Caroline Skinner.

Synopsis: Something has invaded the Wifi.


The name should've been "The Beginnings of the Woman Twice Dead or "An Old Enemy is taking over New Who". Take your pick, Moffat! by Clement Tang 16/4/13

Surprised by the incredibly long title of this review? Well, that's because there's a lot going on. From an old enemy appearing to a strange anomaly in the from of the new companion. Spoilers abound in this, so I'll try not to do too much. Let's start with the negatives. Umm, was there a reason for the scenes in 1207? Really unnecessary. What was the point? The monks and all that? Really? Even the painting seems a bit misplaced. Another negative? If the story was about the Wifi, then why was Clara such a centerpoint in this story?

Speaking of the Wifi, I know the main enemy is supposed to control people like they did with the certain mountain creatures (that's the only clue I'm giving you about them), but uploading them to the Wifi permanently is extremely weird. Can't you just alter their personalities completely, then put them back into their bodies? Moffat's losing it. Very underwhelming story.

Okay, positives. Jenna-Louise Coleman is now a regular (well, she started since the Christmas Special, but whatever) and she is great. There is so much chemistry with her and Matt Smith (who is a great actor as always) and now I find myself wanting more of this team. Plus, after two and a half years of Amy and Rory, it's a refreshing change.

Another positive is minor, but it's the old nod to the main enemy. Haven't seen them since the Second Doctor. A nice nod, Moffat. I'll give you that. Oh, another is the dialogue. It's witty. I'll give him that.

In the end, pretty underwhelming story, but thanks to the acting, at least it's better than, say, Warriors of the Deep, and it's definitely better than the likes of Timelash.


Rushing Past by Mike Morris 6/12/15

"Consumer item gone evil" is the go-to plot of New Who, taking up the position that "Base Under Siege" held for the scruffy Chaplin chap, or "A Bit Like That Agatha Christie Book With All The Racist Titles" in the days of the bloke with the scarf. Mannequins, Christmas trees, mobile phone networks, diet pills, satnav, non-specific black boxes that don't do anything... if you live in the world of Doctor Who, kids, you're probably best off avoiding the purchase of anything at all. Your cutlery drawer might kill you at any moment.

So this time it's WiFi gone evil. Yeah yeah, I know how this works...

Actually, you don't. Not really.

The Bells of Saint John is an odd confection, full of elements that are familiar enough in their way, but at the same time it's not quite like anything that's gone before. It's got a rollicking pace and bags of creativity. It's also, well, bonkers. In short, there's an awful lot going right, so much so that I'm tempted to overlook the things that go wrong... almost.

OK, let's get the big problem out of the way early; there's an issue with the plot, or rather, the gaping void where the plot should be. Loads of things seem to happen in The Bells of Saint John, but they don't form much of a narrative. This is something of an ongoing trend in the series and it applies to this story's prototype, Asylum of the Daleks: all the effort and complexity goes into the setup, but the story itself is pretty much bouncing from one set-piece to the next. In Asylum of the Daleks we're given all the elements early on - the Daleks prison planet! Nanogenes! Oswin! - and then the rest is just a bunch of wish-fulfillment scenes with Daleks in. Here it's even more extreme; the pretitle sequence is really fantastic, but the only real subsequent question is "who's doing this?" and the answer is more or less "some yuppies".

So, in spite of the non-stop action, this is one story where it feels like Moffat is chucking stuff into the script to keep it going; the result is that it can be exhausting rather than exciting. The title gives the game away, really; calling this story The Bells of Saint John is like calling The Two Doctors "Fishing for Gumblejacks" (this is the only televised Doctor Who story whose name I sometimes struggle to remember). There's great emphasis put on the Doc being all broody with some monks, but then he just gets a phone call and buggers off. It doesn't go anywhere. There's fun to be had on the way but, by the time we went from a captured jumbo jet to breakfast via a motorbike and sidecar, I was finding it a bit wearying.

Okay, so it's short on plot and compensates by chucking random set-pieces at the screen. That's what's wrong with it. It's a mess, in its way - but it is at least a hot mess, and that leads us on to the good points.

First, it's bursting with ideas. The spoonheads are properly unsettling. They're obviously going for playground-game scariness with the way they repeat sentences back to the characters, but this does make sense as a sort of rudimentary camouflage. The scenes of Celia Imre (one of those actresses formerly filed under "why the hell hasn't she been in Doctor Who yet?" hacking her employees are both funny and conceptually nasty. Sure, it's done with a lightness of touch ("have you just hacked me?" asks an employer, like he thinks Celia has borrowed his stapler without asking) but the idea behind it is really unpleasant. "Black Comedy" is the phrase I'm looking for here.

Imre is superb, as she always is. It would have been easy to soak this part in melodrama, but she plays it as a practised city-type who's learned to enjoy the nastier aspects of her job. Her confrontation with the Doctor ("the abbatoir is not a contradiction") is delivered as a business pitch. In a sense, she's not so much a real adult, she's a collection of business mannerisms - but even that fits, given what we learn at the conclusion.

Also, at a time when television in general - and Doctor Who in particular - feels the need to signpost absolutely everything it's doing at all times, this story actually has an example of that old-fashioned thing called "subtext". Clara's joke about Twitter is a light hint of the parallel being drawn between contemporary society and disembodied souls floating around a digital hell. The Doctor's final lines ("I'm old school, I hack technology") also gently highlight a notion with which the story toys: that in the way it rewires our brains, communications technology actually "hacks" people rather than the other way round.

So it's about how technology causes alienation. Wi-Fi, and the ubiquitous link to the internet it brings, is hoovering people out of the real world and into a horrifically limited cyber-realm. Miss Kizlet steals her workers' identities, but those people are still putting where they work on social media, going through the motions even though they don't actually have any friends any more. Doctor Who is fond of human creativity, but here, it's the humans that are the drones. The Bells of Saint John doesn't labour this point; it's just there for us to make the link if we want to. I found that rather refreshing.

However, more than anything, this is Clara's introduction. I'll talk about her role as The Impossible Girl at a later date; all I'll say here is that some of us would prefer to be puzzled (or beguiled or excited) by Clara herself rather than the plot function she represents, and there's the problem. What we get in The Bells of Saint John is a terribly generic companion, one who gets all the usual scenes that all the new series companions get (the bit where they toy with her kissing the Doctor, the bit where we meet her 'family', the bit where she saves the day). The Doctor guesses Clara's backstory and then rattles it off in a few seconds, which tells you a lot. Her most distinctive quality is a complete lack of techno-savvy-ness, and even that gets dumped halfway through the episode. (Clara the techno-genius, meanwhile, has been completely forgotten. Does the conclusion wipe Clara's new-found computer whizzkidness? Presumably yes, but then how come Oswin was a genius? Surely we should know this.) Basically, you can sum her character up in three words: good-looking, confident, northern. (I prefer to go with Pretty, Witty and TV-Gritty.)

In retrospect, Jenna-Louise Coleman is doing an amazing job with limited material. She plays against some of the more flirty aspects of the script - look at that scene where she talks to the Doctor out of her bedroom window, when many performers would have asked "Are you going to stay there all night?" as if they were admiring the wonderful man's noble self-devotion, but Coleman just asks it like he's half-mad. Plus, she tries to make her character distinctive through little touches. Clara doesn't hold her mug of tea by the handle (in other words, she holds it the right way). Her accent only really breaks through when she's agitated (non-UK viewers might need to be informed that, for a certain kind of middle-class northerner, this is so accurate it hurts).

I've been equivocal about Matt Smith in the last few stories, so let's be clear and say that, in this one, he is superb. He's picked up on the big question of why the Doctor is lingering over a new coat and gadding about in a motorbike; for the first time in his life, he's actually trying to impress a lady. What we're seeing is the Doctor with a teenage crush, who's beguiled by Clara before he's even met her. So obviously she gets to see him in his best coat and tie, she gets the motorbike ride, she gets him waiting faithfully at her front door like a hopeful puppy. The story's even structured so that, after their first (tumultuous) night together, he takes her for breakfast; at the conclusion, he effectively asks her on a date.

While preparing for her to kiss him. Then she looks at him like he's a pillock. Joyous.

And in the middle of this we get to see Matt Smith say "I invented the quadricycle," and his look is enough to make the entire season worthwhile, all on its own.

Sometimes, at the end of a really good story, I find myself thinking "I wish the show was like this all the time." This is the precise opposite: I really wouldn't want the show to be like this very often, but it's a bucket of fun while it lasts. It's got scenes you could only get from Doctor Who. The lead character talks to the villain through a random bloke on the street eating chips, then drive his motorbike up the side of a Renzo Piano building. The Doctor walks into a cafe and sees the villain's voice hop from person to person. A little girl from Clara's book comes to life. Characters are changed with an iPad, and an old woman is transformed back into a crying child. It's not careful, and sometimes you might even say it's a bit cynical, but it's also vibrant, and that counts for a lot.

Yes, it's certainly true that the elements aren't strung together as well as they should be, but when the story's operating at its best that doesn't really seem to matter - and even when it doesn't work, it doesn't seem to matter too much. All in all, The Bells of Saint John is a triumph - even if it is the sort of victory that sometimes leaves you questioning the winning side.

"Rebooting... please wait" by Thomas Cookson 4/2/16

I've had frustrations with Moffat's era, but there's also much I've liked. However, Day of the Doctor left me regretting him ever getting the job because that criminally missed opportunity could never be redressed. But maybe now Matt's gone I can nostalgically revisit those moments we got off to a bad start.

That's what this story was. As the crucial next step from the Clara Mystery, it just felt too like a reckless flying leap. Overall, the problem was everything was the wrong way round, or a cumbersomely disorganized mess to get from A to B. The story felt like an impatient rush as though written from the most hyperactively restless, bored child's perspective.

A perfect example being how first they're in the street, then a plane nearly crashes on them, then they land on the plane, then land somewhere and get some money, rev out an antigravity motorbike and tail up the spire with it. This alone made the story lose me, my investment and my patience, and left me with a 'please sod off soon Moffat' frown on my face all through the season.

This story just seems to follow the oddest narrative path. It's about the internet wi-fi as a silent killer, but instead of playing out like a slasher horror with people being picked off one by one during the episode till Clara's turn happens, the story makes its opening teaser the briefest montage version of this and then the story drops it.

Moffat seems to be fixated with complicating ways to get the viewer and the Doctor back into the story via the most cumbersome, most convoluted way round. Logically, what should happen here is the warning message in the teaser would get picked up by the TARDIS and the Doctor would start investigating from there.

As for Clara, well I just don't get why the Doctor would be either hunting her, or retiring into contemplation as a Monk. If he's intent on finding her again, then frankly it'd make more sense if he just carried on as normal until he met her again at random by the law of coincidences that had brought them in contact twice before.

I don't get the need for Matt's Doctor to become a monk, other than to have the Doctor making a big deal about Clara's splintering in time representing some crisis of existentialist understanding (even though Black Orchid didn't). Or it's just possible that the Doctor knew that carrying on as normal and meeting Clara Number 3 might simply set in motion the events leading to her death again, so he was being contemplative and careful until he got involved. But such serious intent is neither stated nor supported by how childishly frivolous the domineering story tone is. Rather, I think it's like how Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country was originally going to start with the retired Enterprise crew being pulled from their separate low-profile lives and jobs (Scotty lecturing, Uhura a radio-talk-show host) and re-recruited. Then it became decided the scenes were extraneous and would've taken up too much time.

In an episode half that length, with too much to cram in as it was, it got in because script turnarounds are so quick and Moffat has too much power and too many yes-men. And perhaps it's true this very approach Doctor Who has long had occasionally has led to moments of rare rawness and catharsis, even in the better moments of Resurrection, Trial and The Parting of the Ways. But it's also led to messes and going off the rails.

Even in incidental moments, it's still the wrong way round, which just might be more down to the director than the script. When the plane is brought down by the wi-fi, intending to use it as a ground-to-Earth missile to kill Clara and the Doctor, we barely glimpse it as such from the ground before already the Doctor's whisking us off into its cockpit. The result is it becomes less involving, more detaching and thus more transparently trailer fodder.

The worse example is when the TARDIS lands at the Embankment, still seen from Clara's perspective, and they emerge to find a crowd of spectators who the Doctor already seems to know will be there, with his fez out ready to collect their donations for the magic effect. The scene makes little televisual sense, is dropped in at random and is therefore obviously only in because Moffat had offered eager fans a chance to be in the story for a scene.

The flying quadricycle wasn't quite as silly on second viewing, and in fact did give me a genuine sense of vertigo. But it's still brought out of nowhere; it's certainly not a Chekov's antigrav, in a way that renders it an unannounced Moffat showoffy party piece, and a particularly childish one at that.

Plotwise, the solution was neat and clever enough and should have sufficed for me. Even if it was recycling old Moffat ideas such as the Doctor using a robot decoy again, the plot playing out as The Empty Child with wifi and baystations instead of gasmasks, and even much of Power of Three was reused with the heart-attack victims instantly revived.

But I still think where it suffered was in Smith and Clara's meeting together. The story is so rushed and quickfire that there's hardly any chance for any brewing chemistry. Essentially the Doctor is playing a time-travelling stalker with a good heart and pure intentions, which is the 1980 masterpiece film Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. Reeve playing a man allured by an emotive picture of a beautiful actress from the silver-screen era and yet saddened by knowing of her having passed away years ago. But he finds a way to go back in time and meet her when she was young and alive. We see Reeve's emotional strength and conviction and struggled rehearsals for making his first introduction to her, making the first connection, securing a place in Jane Seymour's life against bulldog managers and working carefully through boundaries. We hear Jane's own fears of this stranger and yet her growing willingness to give into his alluring mystery, letting her shields down, confessing how her life has made her fearful and wary, having been at once sheltered and protected, yet exposed to an actresses' life that can be frightening when it comes to being inundated with the creepier side of mass adoration and male attention. A story that's outreaching and warming. About passion, fear and hope. About respectful restraint, and yet also about daring to connect.

I have a horrible feeling Moffat thinks it's that easy and the story's done there because he's the Doctor and she's bound to think he's awesome.

The problem is a typical Moffat one. Their first meeting is composed of the kind of awkward comedy from Matt and snarky quick-fire comebacks from Clara that feel utterly scripted and instantly destroy all sense that this is a genuine, worrying meeting between two strangers. Oh and shame on you Moffat for the crass misdirect of Clara's 'rycbar', which has no story bearing but to be a misdirect.

After the utter mishandling of Amy's non-existent post-natal trauma in Series 6 was a compounding of the somewhat forgivable original sin of how Moffat took the focus too much away from her when he first introduced her in The Eleventh Hour. For reasons I couldn't put into words, I felt with The Snowmen maybe Clara would rectify this problem. Clara actually felt like a character the writer was invested in enough for her to effectively carry the whole story and do it well.

My theory of who she was was based on how Moffat's Curse of Fatal Death, and particularly The Big Bang, had hinted perhaps the universe is a sentient entity that needs the Doctor and thus will bend the rules and create lifelines or life-rafts for him or for itself so that he can save it. Perhaps Clara was created by the universe to give a despairing Doctor hope again, after he lost Amy and Rory. The girl who died twice is essentially the girl who gives the Doctor hope of a second chance.

Clara wasn't the most realistic representation of a Victorian barmaid, but I could believe in her in the same way as Blackadder. A modern, knowing figure in ancient times who's wittier and shrewder than the society of the era around them. I would actually have really liked Victorian Clara as companion.

There were, however, worrying moments of her being an unbelievable cipher. Like the memory-worm routine, where any real woman would've run a mile rather than waiting around curiously just to keep the joke going.

Here I just stopped believing in Clara. She seemed to be reincarnated into a less-interesting, more-generic modern woman. The Doctor, a total stranger, starts banging at her door aggressively, and then actually sets up camp outside her house, and she acts completely fine with it without feeling any need to call the police, in a way I can't imagine any real modern woman being. The problem is there's little conversation, and, when Clara jokes about the TARDIS being a snog box, it's impossible to believe she's being won over into trusting him. It feels instead like she's pre-programmed to trust him and banter with him and be cool with his potentially very worrying behaviour because Moffat wishes it.

Whenever I watch The Living Daylights where James ostensibly stalks the cello-playing girl home without her knowledge, I always feel slightly, somewhat inexplicably uncomfortable. Yes he's protecting her from hit squads, but it's an instinctive unease I feel. James isn't exactly a full-blooded character, nor is his female prey, so it's easier to only see something subversive and sinister about his coldly obsessive behaviour.

Likewise, the backstory of how Madge met her husband in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrove left me thinking what on Earth was Moffat thinking? I don't think happily married Moffat personally is maladroit when it comes to women, but I think he likes writing male characters who are, which allows him to indulge certain old wish-fulfilment fantasies. I think Moffat needs to grow up and face reality, rather than regressing further into childishness. Women don't respond to this kind of potentially menacing behaviour even agreeably, let alone well. Let's not pretend otherwise.

Regarding Somewhere in Time, for this story to work and not feel so malevolent, it should build on a sense of emotional gravity drawing these characters together. Moffat doesn't seem to have that gene anymore. He now deals in ridiculous hyper-jumps rather than drawing things and characters slowly together like he used to.

It's a story where set-pieces are more important than plot. The Doctor joins the monks' order for no other reason than a later gag about how 'monks aren't cool'. Moffat's lost his old subtlety and focus and is now just invoking overblown random overkill that has no bearing on the plot.

Perhaps it's Moffat's fannish inferiority complex compelling him to try aping RTD's obnoxious, overblown style, as if desperately saying 'see, this is the same show'.

Perhaps I didn't judge this fairly given the whole split season, leaving audiences caring gradually less and less. I suspect the recession has something to do with it. Maybe the BBC's cash cow has become too expensive and they're downsizing it again.

Maybe if the previous episode had been The Girl Who Waited, the long gap would've made me impatient and made more ride on this story than usual. The trouble is, it's carrying too much and riding too fast.

As Clara's introduction and Great Intelligence's nefarious takeover plot, it's the same story as The Snowmen, except unbearably rushed and crammed in less runtime. Confirming my theory of Davison-fan Moffat favouring appalling character reset buttons and regression over growth and development.

Kill him when he gets back. Let's not be unreasonable. by Evan Weston 1/4/20

After teasing us gently with Asylum of the Daleks and then outright leading us on with The Snowmen, Steven Moffat finally decided to go all the way and show us the real Clara Oswald with The Bells of Saint John, which serves as the official introduction for her character. It's the first of its kind since The Eleventh Hour, and if it's a bit messier than Amy Pond's big entrance, we can still safely confirm that Moffat is 2 for 2 when it comes to companion intros. Both episodes trim down the necessary ingredients for a successful first outing down to the bare essentials, and the result is one of the more satisfying Earth-based Doctor Who episodes in the new run.

The story itself gets a bit of the short shrift, though, as some details just don't make much sense. There's something in the Wi-Fi, and it's sucking people's souls out of their bodies... or something. I never really understood this part of the episode, but I suppose the science behind the Great Intelligence's plot isn't important. The problem with this is that Moffat uses the confusion over the villains' plan to adapt their abilities based on what the script needs. You figure taking control of the pilots, for instance, would have been more useful in crashing the plane then just doing it automatically. Later, though, they have the time to take over even a hobo walking by the Doctor on the bike. Then, they suddenly lose the ability to track their own technology, and the Doctor is able to sneak his own Spoonhead right into Kizlet's office. Plus, nobody noticed thousands of people just dropping dead?

It's all a bit too flimsy, and that's a shame, because the people behind the plan are quite sinister indeed. There's Richard E. Grant making a cameo as the masterminding Great Intelligence, and his presence as the main villain is predictable but much appreciated. Count two solid appearances for the GI in a row. His face for most of the episode is beloved British actress Celia Imrie as Miss Kizlet, a sadistic piece of work, who feels like a real threat to the Doctor and Clara. She's one of the better villains in a season full of good ones, and she keeps us interested in the main plot even with Clara's development hanging at the forefront. Her little tablet of mind control, combined with her snappy, nasty dialogue, makes for a scary modern lady. Her reduction to a childlike state at the conclusion of the story is a deeply disturbing end, as well.

Her minions in the office are whatever, but the Spoonheads are the marketed monsters for the week. They are nicely worked into the plot, especially when the Doctor Spoonhead kidnaps Clara (Matt Smith with no back of the head was certainly a sight to see), but they're never autonomous and so feel like a bit of a plot device instead of actual characters. Their use at the end is gloriously simple, though. Even if it is a little cheap on Moffat's part, using the Spoonhead to stop Miss Kizlet is a brilliant conclusion, and while the organization is a bit easy to defeat, the revelation of the Doctor sipping coffee across from Clara is still a jaw-dropper.

Clara, for her part, is a mixed bag in The Bells of Saint John, as she is for much of Series 7. In this one, I'd posit she's more good than bad, though, and a lot of that comes from Jenna Coleman's snappy performance. Clara's depth, or at least Moffat's attempt to introduce some, is lost as the series progresses, but in this story we get a girl stuck between loyalty to those she cares about and a desire to go off on a wild adventure. The Doctor, for obvious reasons, provides an escape route. More than any other companion except maybe Rose, I absolutely believe that Clara would run off with the Doctor, and she happens to be adorable about it the whole time. However, she does spend a good portion of the episode out of commission, and the guest writers to come find even less use for her.

While Clara isn't much more than a two-dimensional character in a lot of ways, Coleman's chemistry with Matt Smith's Doctor cannot be denied. I'm a bit sick of the companion having a relationship with the Doctor (who, in this incarnation, is married!), but their flirty banter is deliciously entertaining, and Coleman is more than a match for Smith's spitfire dialogue. Smith, for his part, has really come into the role. He's always been good, but while he was a bit timid and generic in Series 5 and even into Series 6, he now absolutely owns the part. The Eleventh Doctor has his own quirks and mannerisms, and Smith knows how to use them perfectly. It's a shame we couldn't get him for one more series - a post-mystery run with the Eleventh and Clara would have really had potential.

To this point, The Bells of Saint John is a fine companion introduction, with a flawed yet fun narrative. But what really make this episode fly are its action scenes, courtesy of director Colm McCarthy and the phenomenal folks at The Mill. The plane scene, Clara's first flight in the TARDIS, is absolutely extraordinary. It comes so quickly and feels so intense, but it's produced and written so smoothly that, yeah, it totally makes sense that the Doctor and Clara are now inside the plane that's coming to kill them. Similarly, the Doctor's ride up the Shard in an anti-gravity motorbike is so indescribably awesome as to keep my jaw suspended in motion. Series 7 is a testament to the incredible production values of this show, and The Bells of Saint John keeps the hits coming.

It's also a great homage to James Bond films, the "genre of the week" spoofed by the show. Kizlet is a terrific Bond villain, with a very Bond villain-like plan, and the Doctor as 007 is such an awesome concept that I can't believe they hadn't done it before. Clara is both the Bond girl and Q rolled into one, with her damsel in distress-ness combined with resourcefulness and sudden technological skill, which oddly isn't used again in the series. The way the Doctor takes down Kizlet is very 007 as well, and, while you had to figure the UK's signature television show would eventually pay tribute to its signature film franchise, the results are terrific.

The Bells of Saint John is a fun-filled romp of a story, introducing the main version of Clara Oswald while spinning a lightning-quick sci-fi spy yarn that feels like a smooth summer breeze. It definitely stumbles with its plotting, and at times it's a bit severe, but that doesn't stop The Bells of Saint John from being one of the most purely entertaining Series 7 episodes. The run starts to lose its way from here, as Clara's character issues become more pronounced and a few guest writers flub their endings, but that concern doesn't exist with this zippy, zany funfest. It's just too bad he couldn't say, "The name's Doctor. The Doctor."