After three months of waiting, it’s back! Doctor Who kicked off its second half to Season 7 last night with a cracker of an episode. “The Bells of Saint John” is a fun, uncomplicated, to the point adventure with plenty of humor and just a hint of mystery. Still searching for ‘the woman twice dead’, The Doctor happens upon her in modern day London after she places a call to, “the best helpline in the universe,” – him. There’s something in the Wi-Fi and it’s uploading people; they’re getting stuck like flies in the world wide web.
The whole scope of this episode feels smaller, and that’s a nice change from the wildly epic and grandiose farewell of The Ponds. It could be be because the vast majority of it takes place within London, or it could be because as Companion-introducing episodes go, not much introduction was needed. We, and The Doctor, have already met Clara Oswald, and this modern version shares more than a few traits with her other selves. Like Oswin, after she’s first kidnapped by a spoonhead, the cybernetic servant servers of the uploaders, she becomes a computer genius. Like Clara the governess she too is helping to care for someone else’s children. And like both of them, this modern day Clara completely baffles The Doctor with her defiant, confident manner. She’s with The Doctor on her own terms, and this time, it was him who came for her not the other way around.
Unlike almost every Companion before, Clara doesn’t drop her life and go racing after The Doctor into the TARDIS. Or snogbox – “It’s not a snogbox!” – how soon until that’s on a t-shirt? She makes him work for her companionship, as he is all to eager to do. It’s adorable watching him settle her in for bed and then sit outside the house, guarding her. The Doctor is determined for things to go right this time, for her to not end up dead. The rapport between Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman is just as good, if not better than we’ve seen in their previous encounters. Clara takes as good as she gives, handling the whole alien on your doorstep with his ‘mobile phone’ – “a surprisingly accurate description” – in stride. This girl’s so British, that even while racing through a crashing airplane she doesn’t once spill her tea.
The pace of “The Bells of Saint John” transitions easily from frantic action – computer hacking, motorbike chases – to quiet subtle moments – chats from the window, tea by the TARDIS; and a lot of this can be credited to the excellent direction of Colm McCarthey. (Look forward to him directing an episode of Sherlock‘s third season.) The threat of the uploaders has a surprisingly real quality to it because everything they do is wrapped up in the technology already permeating every facet of our lives. They attack through the Wi-Fi, and as The Doctor tells us we’re basically living in a Wi-Fi soup. The spoonheads prove to be effective and eerie Who monsters. The uploaders’ downfall comes by way of social media, which I found rather funny. Clara uncovers their whereabouts through hacking the webcams to see who works for the uploaders, then scans sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc. to see what and where those people listed as their workplace. Once discovered and defeated, the uploaders’ client, revealed to be The Great Intelligence last seen in “The Snowmen”, orders they all restore to factory settings – something we’ve all done at least to some device – essentially wiping their minds of any and all time spent in the service of The Great Intelligence. A devastating move when you realize some people, like the woman in charge Miss Kislet, had been working for The Great Intelligence since childhood, and once reset is nothing more than a frightened little girl in the body of a much older woman.
As straightforward as this adventure is – find Clara, rescue Clara, discover who’s uploading people and why, then stop them – “The Bells of Saint John” isn’t without its air of mystery. Littered throughout the episode are clues to whatever will be this season’s bigger picture. First, there’s the girl in the shop who gives Clara the phone number of the TARDIS. And does so knowingly. Who could this be? I’m suspecting Rose since we only yesterday learned Bille Piper would be returning in the 50th Anniversary special. This could be her somehow guaranteeing The Doctor finds Clara. Why? Who knows, but she’s obviously an intriguing mystery The Doctor can’t wait to solve. And what’s the significance of the number 23? It pops up twice in the episode: it’s the number at the end of the Wi-Fi password, rycbar123, Clara types incorrectly – she types 24 – and in her book where she listed her age, 23 is skipped. If you remember from “The Snowmen”, November 23rd was listed on Clara’s tombstone as her birthday, and if you’re up on your Who history you’ll know November 23rd, 1963 was when Doctor Who first aired. All this cannot simply be coincidence, this is Steven Moffat we’re dealing with! And did you catch the author of the book one of the children was reading? The book to which Clara asked what chapter they were on and when they replied ten, said, “Eleven is the best. You’ll cry your eyes out.” It was a book written by Amelia Williams.
“The Bells of Saint John” was exactly the kind of episode you want at the beginning of a new season. Fun and engaging, it set the tone for The Doctor and Clara’s coming adventures, and laid the framework for whatever mystery we’re awaiting to unfold. Next episode, “The Rings of Akhatan” looks to be a completely different kind of story, one far more alien and fantastical than what we saw here. But I’m no less excited, I can’t wait to see Clara out in the universe to see how she handles all the wonders, and dangers, The Doctor will introduce to her.
Doctor Who airs Saturday nights at 8pm EST on BBC America.