Review by Mark Bousquet
“THE BELLS OF SAINT JOHN” – Series 7, Episode 7, Episode 232 – Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Colm McCarthy – Snog box! It’s the official kick-off for the second half of Series 7 and it’s once again New Companion Time. This isn’t the first, or even second time we’ve met Miss Clara Oswin Oswald, only this time it’s allegedly the real deal. She’s not a Dalek and she’s not a Victorian nanny. Heck, she’s not even an Oswin, yet, but just plain old Clara Oswald, living with a friend’s family and watching over the kids because their mummy died. The Doctor is looking for her by waiting in place. Which actually works. Because The Bells Of Saint John Start Ringing And Clara Is On The Other End.
I have never driven a supercar, so what follows is a hypothetical experience.
Imagine getting behind the driver’s wheel of, say, a Ferrari F12berlinetta. The Ferrari dealership is perhaps a little worried about Frank Slade and Robin taking their fleet out for a spin, so they’ve put an inhibitor on the engine, preventing it from going over 80 MPH. This will inevitably disappoint you, because what’s the point of owning an F12 if it can’t go any faster than a beat up, 15-year old Ford Taurus?
You bring the car back to the dealer and politely tell him it’s not for you. But then later, after dinner, after driving home in your perfectly proper BMW 760Li, you start remembering how the F12 hugged the corners, how the steering was so responsive it seemed to operate on telepathy, how the pedals seemed to be part of your feet instead of separate from them. You start to wonder if maybe, just maybe, that dealership wasn’t worried about someone taking the F12 out for a joyride but wanted a potential customer to appreciate the rest of the car.
Who notices the interior when your romping down the highway at 175?
But at 85 … at 85 you’ll pay more attention to how the seats sit, and how the dashboard looks, and how the engine purrs instead of being overwhelmed by its roar. So you call the dealership back, tell them you want a second test drive, and this time when you get behind the wheel, you discover the inhibitor is gone and you get the full experience. Before you’ve brought it back that second time, you know you’ve bought it.
That’s how I feel about THE BELLS OF SAINT JOHN, the half-season opener that kicks off the back-half of Series 7 and formally introduces us to Clara Oswald. I was pleased but not thrilled with the episode on its first watch but when I watched it a second time, I liked much more. The third time I liked it even better. I still don’t love the episode, but I like it quite a bit. It’s the handling and the braking and the interior that I like, though, not that roaring engine.
BELLS is a surprisingly restrained episode. With all of the build-up to Clara’s official first appearance I was expecting BELLS to hit the ground running and bury us in an avalanche of rapid fire dialogue and clever sayings and over-the-top action. Usually, that action involves running, but the trailers for BELLS promised a motorcycle so while I wasn’t expect that bike to, I dunno, drive straight up the side of a massively tall building, I was ready for some weaving in and out of traffic.
There is action in BELLS, and it’s fair to say this is much more an action episode than a horror episode, despite the arrival of new monsters called Spoonheads. (My mind kept bouncing back and forth between playing Soundgarden’s “Spoonman” and Phish’s “Fluffhead.”) Yet this isn’t a fast moving episode. The motion is rather pedestrian and the dialogue between the Doctor and Clara is turned down from what we’ve seen previously in ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS and THE SNOWMEN. There seems to be a determined effort on writer Steven Moffat’s part to give us Clara the Normal Girl rather than Clara the Super Girl, and I’ll be honest, I find that a little disappointing.
Look, Clara is still a fantastic character and Jenna-Louise Coleman imbues her with the right amount of heart, intelligence, cheek, and charm. Had I never seen ASYLUM or SNOWMEN, I’m sure I would be equally as in love with her as I am having seen those episodes. But I liked that she wasn’t normal. I liked that she could talk fast and sharp and that her intelligence hid a naive underside who never thought to ask how she was able to make her souffles.
What we get of the “official” Clara Oswald clever, but normal girl who is, in no way, the Doctor’s equal.
Until she magically is.
Clara is a normal girl serving as an unofficial nanny to a family in contemporary London. She’s a friend of the family who happened to be staying with them when the family’s mother passed away, and she’s been living with them for the past year, helping them with daily activities as they help her mature. Clara has a wonderful book entitled “101 Places to See” which she intends to fill up with her travels. These travels have been postponed while staying with the family because she won’t leave them as long as they need her. This year has clearly given her time to mature because how could it not? She’s helping to care for the kids and the house while careful not to try to be the kid’s replacement mother.
While all of this is going on, the Doctor is sitting with some monks back in 1207 thinking on the “Impossible Girl” who’s died twice already. The monks inform him that “the bells of Saint John are ringing,” which turns out to mean that the phone on the outside of the TARDIS (which is hidden away underground) is ringing. The Doctor answers it and it’s Clara, who’s trying to figure out where the internet went. The Doctor doesn’t realize it’s her, at first, and it isn’t until the family’s daughter tells Clara their internet password – RYCBAR: Run You Clever Boy and Remember – that he immediately takes off to find her.
Couple things here. One, I love, love, love the idea of the Doctor hanging out with the monks in 1207, but it is kinda silly. He’s got a time machine and a sonic screwdriver – you’re telling me he can’t point and zap some government records to find her? But whatever, the visual is cool and maybe he just needed time to ponder the mysteries of the lovely Miss Oswald’s penchant for dying. Two, I do like how Clara’s other lives are being mirrored in this life. She’s computer illiterate at the start of the episode, but after being downloaded by the Spoonheads into their computer, she gets an upgrade so that she becomes wicked smaht, kid, like she was in ASYLUM. Additionally, she’s working as a nanny, mirroring her time with the Latimers in Victorian London, and in this episode we see where she gets the “Oswin” moniker.
So often in Moffat’s run there are seemingly important ideas tossed into a show only to be quickly tossed out of everyone’s mind. I like that he’s already circling back on himself here, showing that there’s a resonance from ASYLUM and SNOWMEN at play. When you toss in the reveal that Richard E. Grant is playing the Great Intelligence, which builds off his role as Dr. Simeon in SNOWMEN, maybe (just maybe) we’re going to get the grand narrative of Steven Moffat play out before our eyes this time around.
While BELLS doesn’t fly, there is a lot of really good, really smart stuff going on. The relationship between the Doctor and Clara isn’t white hot, but it’s on its way. Clara is, of course, a little weirded out by the arrival of a monk to her house but what I really love is that she lets us in on the fact that she trusts the Doctor before she lets him in on it. We can see that she’s warming to him after he saves her from the Spoonhead upload but she doesn’t stop giving him a hard time. While it is a bit disappointing that she’s awed by the TARDIS being bigger on the inside (instead of cleverly pointing out that it’s smaller on the outside as she did in SNOWMEN), she still gets the better of him through romantic and sexual insinuations that make him uncomfortable, such as her repeated reference to the TARDIS as a “Snog Box.” She’s still a young woman who thinks fast, like when she notices that the strange girl inside her house is actually the girl from the cover of the book one of the family’s kids was reading.
Ah, the book. Let’s talk about that book. It’s called Summer Falls. Heard of it? No? That’s understandable, but maybe you’ve heard of the author, one Amelia Williams.
It’s a nice, subtle touch by Moffat to indicate to us that the former Amelia Pond who grew up to be Amy Pond who got married and sent back in time to become Amelia Williams did have a life of her own. There’s also a nice reference in the dialogue when Clara asks the kid what chapter he’s on, and she tells him Chapter 11 will be better than Chapter 10 because he’ll end up crying.
It’s the growing relationship between the Doctor and Clara that makes this episode good. The plot is rather basic and solved ridiculously easily. It’s got a bit of the ARMY OF GHOSTS/DOOMSDAY vibe to it, with sharply dressed business people doing evil things and taking over people’s bodies, and the conclusion is literally as simple as Miss Kislet, the Head Evil Woman saying, “You can’t download Clara now that she’s fully uploaded,” and the Doctor saying, “Yes, I can.” There’s some inventive action, though, with the TARDIS jumping into a falling plane, and a clever ending with the Doctor sending the Definitely Not Called a Ganger or a Teselecta But Effectively the Same Exact Narrative Thing copy of himself after Miss Kislet.
Matt Smith is fantastic and I fear that he’s already reached that point of awesome dependability that his performance can be overlooked because it’s so steady that it’s easier for people to concentrate on the storm happening around him than on what he brings to the table. I wish he wasn’t so concerned about Clara’s safety because it does add a bit of a bubble to his logic about taking her with him. It’s less humane but potentially more interesting if he looked at Clara more as a puzzle rather than a person needing protection, but Clara’s willingness to give him cheek over things should keep the balance right.
There’s plenty of unanswered questions, of course, beyond the mystery of Clara Oswin Oswald. I’ve given my Crackpot Theory before (most fully in the LET’S KILL HITLER review) that I believe Moffat’s ultimate revelation will be that the Time Lords are behind all of the Doctor’s troubles, but in the short term, we’ve got the Great Intelligence put in place in SNOWMEN and then used again here as the Big Bad for Series 7b. As I discussed on the Earth Station Who podcast last week, I think we’re going to find the Cybermen have a strong connection to Clara, given the placement of “their” episode as the penultimate episode of Series 7. Moffat charged Neil Gaiman with making the Cybermen scary again, so maybe they’re the army of the Great Intelligence who will outstrip their creator.
The more enticing mystery brought up by this episode is who gave Clara the phone number of the TARDIS to call in the first-
Yeah, I know. It’s River.
THE BELLS OF SAINT JOHN is not an all-time great episode, but it is a really solid, really mature episode with lots of small things to appreciate on multiple viewings. My favorite moment in the episode comes when the Doctor and Clara are on his motorcycle and he answers her question about why they’re on a bike by saying, “I don’t take the TARDIS into battle,” and she replies, “Because it’s made of wood?”
Love it. Can’t wait for THE RINGS OF AKHATEN.
Originally Published March 31, 2013