Doctor Who "The Bells of Saint John" Review: The Most Outsourced Technical Support
Doctor Who often presents the viewer with villains in the form of lizard people, soulless robots, creepy toy-like creatures, or hideous monsters. It's can be somewhat childlike or horror movie-ish, sure, but it's part of the fun of Doctor Who. But in this first episode of the second half of Series 7, showrunner Steven Moffat instead evoked a different kind of horror: the fear of what we're giving up by being online all the time. It was a good, disturbing idea for an episode because it taps into our current, adult fears, and not just our childlike ones.
You see, there's something in the Wi-Fi.
You know how when you're in a public space and check to see what Wi-Fi networks are available, you just pick the one that doesn't have a lock on it? Well, this episode warned that whatever you do, don't ever try to connect to a network whose name is just gibberish symbols. Once you've clicked it, they're in your computer and can see you. And if they can see you, they might choose you. And if they choose you, you're dead.
Okay, maybe not actually dead—it seemed that, instead of being killed, the hacked Wi-Fi users were rendered comatose, and their souls/minds/personalities were uploaded to the Cloud. And there was no getting out of the Cloud. The Cloud, with the aid of some sinister henchmen whose personalities were controlled by their even more sinister boss, Miss Kizlet, was being loaded with personalities that functioned as emotional food for "the Client." And we wouldn't know who the Client was until later in the episode.
We were re-re-introduced to our new companion, Clara, on the phone at the home of the family she nannies for in 2013, as she struggled to access the internet. A woman at a shop gaver her a number to call, with the promise that it was "the best helpline in the universe." Where did that number ring? You guessed it: the Doctor's TARDIS. Or, more specifically, the St. John Ambulance sticker on the side of the TARDIS that's been there forever. It turned out to be an emergency phone, and Clara's call reached the Doctor there, even in Cumbria in 1207, where he was hiding out as a monk, tortured by the loss of his twice-dead would-be companion, the aforementioned Clara. This led to an amusing little exchange about tech support always being overseas. When Clara used a mnemonic device that sounded incredibly familiar to the Doctor, he realized who she actually was and rushed to her, banging on her door.
Clara was, understandably, a bit confused. She didn't remember the Doctor in the slightest, and certainly didn't know this weird monk who was acting all familiar. The Doctor went off to change back into his regular Doctor clothes… and now, I will pause for a slightly cynical comment, which you may skip if you so choose.
I am starting to become less entranced with this Doctor's affinity for bowties and fezzes. In the beginning of a series, the Christmas special, the first episode after a series break—I feel like the dapper accoutrements are a bit of a shortcut to having the Doctor charm us. They're supposed to seem inside and adorable, but because they're so expected at this point, I just felt a bit like Moffat and crew were going through the motions here.
But I digress. Clara was almost completely taken by the Cloud, via a Wi-Fi mainstation that looked like a person but with a creepy, swiveling half-head. The Doctor stopped it just in time and sent it a message, which was relayed back to the shadowy Client, who'd been expecting the Doctor to show up all along.
Some flirty scenes between the Doctor and Clara were interrupted when we realized the bad guys (I know it's a clumsy, childish term, but it's all we've got right now) had access, via Wi-Fi, to a large percent of the population, and could bend their will. You'd think that'd be the goal in itself, but it's not—the goal was to provide a steady diet of human minds to the Client. Does it seem inhumane? Not to the staff harvesting the minds. "The abattoir is not a contradiction—no one loves cattle like Burger King."
Clara, with the help of newly uploaded computer genius, ended up figuring out where the bad guys were by hacking into their webcams and then searching Facebook for their pictures—turning the tables and using the same "always connected" qualities that allowed humans to be harvested against the harvesters themselves. They were in the Shard (a massive, 95-story glass skyscraper in London, FYI). Before they could get to the Shard, Clara was taken by the bad guys, in the form of the Doctor as a Wi-Fi mainstation, and uploaded to the Cloud. The only way to save her was to reunite everyone in the Cloud with their bodies. And the Doctor had to make that happen, which he did by uploading Miss Kizlet to the Cloud and then manipulating her henchmen to send the trapped personalities back to their corresponding bodies.
UNIT showed up to shut down the bad guys, but not before Miss Kizlet had one more conversation with the Client, none other than Dr. Simeon (Richard E. Grant) of Great Intelligence, from "The Snowmen" (and beyond). "Don't worry," he assured her—he'd feasted on many minds and grown. She didn't know who she'd be when Dr. Simeon left her side. Sadly, she ended up returning to herself with a small child's mind, wondering where her mom and dad were.
We were treated to a couple more scenes of Clara and the Doctor's flirtation—he asked her to come away with him to see all of time and space, and she called him out on what I agree is getting to be a pretty tired line for a time/space playboy to pick up on a pretty companion. She wants to travel and she clearly likes the Doctor, but she's not that easy. She asked him to come back the next day, and he agreed. Smart girl. If he really likes you, he'll wait.
I really liked this episode when I first finished watching it, but after giving it some time to ricochet around in my head, it started to fall apart a bit for me as a fully executed story. At the beginning, I was literally rubbing my hands together at the idea of a monster living in Wi-Fi and feasting on people's minds, but the plot didn't play out as inventively as it could have, or as darkly. This episode was clearly just setting up larger battles over humanity with Great Intelligence, but I would have liked a bit more teeth in my resolution.
That being said, I think the chemistry between the Doctor and Clara is fantastic. I like the idea of a companion whom the Doctor is clearly smitten with, and any scene with the two of them crackles with electricity. I found myself less interested in the main storyline and more interested in their burgeoning, weird, timey-wimey relationship. Moffat, who isn't always my favorite storyteller, is amazing at writing witty, biting dialogue.
What will happen in future episodes? Will we find out why Great Intelligence needs all those minds for cattle? What does he get out of them? What's the master plan? Will the Doctor and Clara make out? I'm looking for complex, creepy episodes that see their initial ideas all the way to the end, and I'm looking for more flirtation between the Doctor and Clara.
How about you?
– The opening scene was a clear reference to "Blink," and a ballsy reference at that, given that it's one of the best standalone episodes in Doctor Who history. This episode didn't satisfy as a standalone for me, but could be a great foundation for the rest of the series.
– It seems Great Intelligence should have hired a company that would have known to name its Wi-Fi networks something more innocuous, like "Brad's Wi-Fi!"
– Did you check out who wrote the book Summer Falls?
– I kinda wish that this Clara had been good at computers on her own, without having the skills downloaded into her head, Matrix-style (I know Kung Fu!). It added absolutely nothing to the plot to have her suddenly gain all that knowledge—yes, she used it, but she could have used it just the same if she'd been technically apt all on her own, thank you very much. It didn't tell us anything about Great Intelligence's plan, or reveal that she'd been taken into the Wi-Fi, or anything. Also, I thought her Twitter joke was very clever.
– Things we learned about Clara in this episode:
1. She's clever but not great at computers (until now, that is)
2. She really wanted to travel but ended up nannying after she felt the need to help out when a family lost their mom.
3. Her dad is very anti-government
– I'm glad some Sherlocky "typing on screen" made its way to Doctor Who!
– I still love the running gag of the Doctor doing a million things while he's waiting around for humans on Earth. The Doctor invented the quadracycle!
– "Do we need another Londonwide activation? We can't keep passing them off as a riot." Very sly, Moffat!
– Favorite line from the episode: "I'm the Doctor, I am an alien from outer space, I'm 1,000 years old, I have two hearts, and I can't fly a plane. Can you?"
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