Review of Doctor Who: “The Bells of St. John”

Just in time for everybody’s favorite egg-collecting holiday, Doctor Who returns to our screens with an easter egg-laden episode. There are plenty of sublet and not so subtle hints, clues, and allusions to give any Doctor Who fan plenty to geek out on. First off, definitely watch the prequel first: although there are no groundbreaking revelations, it is an intimate look into what The Doctor does in his off hours. And it’s got some fine acting coming from Matt Smith that should not be missed.

“Oh, dear, I’m way past strange. I think I’m probably incredible.” — The Doctor

Two mysterious children run in front of The Doctor. Could they be Rose and Mickey?

Two mysterious children run in front of The Doctor. Could they be Rose and Mickey?

Two children run in front of the camera as the scenes open, who just might be Rose and Mickey at an early age, especially when one of the moms on the playground looks suspiciously like a younger Jackie Tyler. Could Rose, Mickey, and Clara be childhood friends?

And is this Jackie Tyler? Does everybody who knows The Doctor know each other?

And is this Jackie Tyler? Does everybody who knows The Doctor know each other?

The intro segment sets up the episode’s plot, pretty much laying everything out for us. The internet has stopped giving, and has started taking. The Doctor is up against a new enemy — euphemistically referred to as the “Spoonheads” — who “hoover” (British for “vacuum” as in a vacuum cleaner) the digital souls out of people, placing them in a matrix like world to live forever. Clara (not Oswin in this case) Oswald is living as a nanny—a modern day governess— for a family of friends. The Doctor is quite obsessed with her, searching through space and time (but mostly time) to find her. The “quiet room” The Doctor mentions finding in the prequel turns out to be a monastery in the year 1207. That is where he has sequestered himself, until he gets a tech support question out of the blue (literally) from Clara, who needs help with her internet connection. When the Doctor asks Clara about “I don’t know, the woman in the shop,” who could that woman be and in what shop? Possibly Ms. Sally “sad is happy for deep people” Sparrow? There is no other reference, but that makes the most sense. Clara is now set for a virtual run-in with this episode’s villains—remember the wi-fi password RYCBAR123 as “Run You Clever Boy and Remember,” which of course is the phrase she has said repeatedly to the Doctor as clue. And we get an explanation for Clara’s amazing computer skills in “Asylum of the Daleks,” as she is pulled back out of the “Matrix” (they even do a little Matrix code effect at one point) before full assimilation. It’s really sweet the way The Doctor takes care of Clara, but he is a bit nosy: finding her journal, 101 Places to See, he flips through. One thing important to notice is that Clara has marked off each year of her life, except 16 and 23. They are simply missing. She is now 24, so what happened eight years ago and last year? The people working in the Shard—a very tall, recently-completed building in London where much of this episode’s action is set—have been up to no good at least since 2011, when they apparently staged the London riots to cover up their activities. At the end, we get to see that it’s the Great Intelligence back at work again, who will obviously be the villain of this half-season’s story arc. So far, I think it’s off to a superb start: this is without doubt one of the most cohesive and interesting episodes in a while. I was glad to see that The Doctor solved a problem using good old-fashioned technology, rather than the more typical “Peter Pan” methodology of “Come on everybody, just think good thoughts and the scary monsters will go away” the show has relied on for too often. The finale also makes perfect use of UNIT as the jack-booted thugs who come in and clean up after the Doctor. The new opening credits and theme song are without doubt my favorite yet, paying subtle yet loving tribute to the last 50 years. They’ve brought back the face of The Doctor (yeah!) along with other touches like particle-fading text, spinning into plants, and the vortex tunnel. Yes, we saw this at Christmas, I’m just glad they kept it. The new TARDIS console room is growing on me. In the Xmas special, I thought it looked kind of tacky and over-thought. I’m now seeing it for what it is: The Doctor’s merry-go-round. The three rotating rings on the ceiling  are very reminiscent of the op of a lavish carousel, adding to the dizzying excitement as the Doctor prances around jabbing at buttons and yanking levers. And the Doctor’s new outfit? I want that frock coat, first of all, but I’ve never been able to pull off a bow tie myself. That said I’m glad the kept that part of the Matt Smith costume. I also enjoyed the two oblique Douglas Adams references. The first comes when Clara is waiting on the phone for her “technical service”:

Just pick it up, pick It up, pick it up…

Which sounds a bit like the lyrics to “Hot Potato”, the song in The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul

“Quick, pick it up, pick it up, pick it up Don’t pass it on, pass it on, pass it on…”

And the second comes when the Doctor is trying to land the plane that was about to crash into them:

Doctor: I can’t fly a plane. Can you? Clara: No. Doctor: Oh, ah, fine. Well, let’s do it together.

Which is reminiscent of the scene from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the crew of the Heart of Gold attempts to escape a missile strike, despite a jammed navigation system:

Ford Prefect: Can you fly her? Zaphod Beeblbrox: No. Can You? Ford: No. Zaphod: Trillian, can you? Trillion: No. Zaphod: Fine. We’ll do it together.

All we need was for Arthur Dent to pop up and say, “I can’t either.” This episode, like so many season openers before, creates as much mystery as it solves. Clara, is at the center of this mystery, as we unwind how she got the the Asylum of the Daleks. We also have to wonder why the Doctor takes on companions, knowing that things do not always end well for them. In a recent interview, Doctor Who show runner Stephen Moffat commented on this very phenomena:

He is aware that he causes damage to those people or can cause damage to those people he travels with and he puts them in terrible danger. He’s also aware that a relationship or a friendship for him — like it or not — is postponed bereavement and it’s not even postponed that long. You know that he will outlive them, they will die and he will be roughly the same age. So I think those two factors make him very, very hesitant about taking someone on board.

Next Week: “The Rings of Akhaten”

About Jason CranfordTeague

Jason spends his time playing video games with his wife and kids, designing web sites (like GeekDad), and writing books about the aforementioned topics. His most recent book is CSS3: Visual Quickstart available at finer book stores everywhere.

About Jason CranfordTeague

Jason spends his time playing video games with his wife and kids, designing web sites (like GeekDad), and writing books about the aforementioned topics. His most recent book is CSS3: Visual Quickstart available at finer book stores everywhere.

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