Doctor Who episode review: The Bells of Saint John

Moffat’s always been good at tapping into deeply, creepingly scary things, at taking ordinary objects and ideas and making them the kind of thing we stay awake at night thinking about. A shadow, a statue, a crack in your bedroom wall. But it seems that he’s making an attempt to tailor the terror to his audience, because the latest boogeyman is a wi-fi signal that will kill you and upload your ghost to the net. Well played, sir. Well played.

The Bells of Saint John opens with a cryptic message from a man warning us not to click on a wi-fi signal with a strange set of symbols instead of a name. If you click it, they can see you, and if they can see you, they can upload you. You soon realize that the man has also been uploaded, and is part of a bank of screens all holding faces who confusedly repeat, “I don’t know where I am.” We cut to the Doctor, who is hiding out in a monastery. The monks know him and his obsession with finding out the identity of the “twice-dead girl.” He’s even painted a picture of her.

Cool it, Doctor. People will think you have a crush.

Cool it, Doctor. People will think you have a crush.

Honestly, I don’t know what he was hoping to find out about her by cloistering himself, so it’s convenient that she happens to do his job for him and call him on the phone. The TARDIS phone, to be exact. And she’s looking for tech support.

This time, Clara is living in present-day London and nannying a pair of kids for some family friends. The Doctor realizes who he’s speaking to when Clara types in her wi-fi password and makes up a mnemonic to remember it: “run you clever boy and remember.” Are they going to find a way to work this line into every one of Clara’s episodes? Well, not that I’m complaining in this case, since it means that Clara doesn’t have to repeat it on her deathbed. (She does die. Twice. But she gets better this time.)

Please stop dying. You're stealing Rory's act.

Please stop dying. You’re stealing Rory’s act.

The Doctor quickly shows up at Clara’s doorstep and saves her from being uploaded to the “data cloud.” But the people behind the killer wi-fi signal are on to him, especially after he sends them a message that Clara Oswald (and, presumably, humanity) are “UNDER MY PROTECTION.” The glimpses we get of the villains are nice and creepy. The woman in charge of the operation, Miss Kislet, is enjoyably ruthless, admitting her fondness for one of her employees just before ordering his death. And she has a tablet that she can use to hack any person in her office (and later, we find out, any person in London who has been infected with her wi-fi signal) to act the way she has programmed them. She is working for a sentient computer that feeds on intelligent minds, which she harvests for it via her wi-fi signal and her “spoonheads,” robots that roam London and do her dirty work.

"No one loves cattle more than Burger King." Hint: we're the cattle.

“No one loves cattle more than Burger King.” Hint: we’re the cattle.

When Clara wakes up from her shock of almost-dying, she finds the Doctor guarding her from her yard. Their whole dynamic is adorable and a bit awkward. The Doctor doesn’t want to let on that he’s met her before, but he certainly wants to impress her. He reminds me of a boy on a date that he’s been looking forward to. Clara, for her part, calls the TARDIS a snog-box and teases him mercilessly. But her flirting doesn’t come off as if she’s romantically interested – she seems more interested in making the Doctor indignant (he is cute when he’s indignant). There’s been some speculation about a romantic story for these two, and it’s certainly possible with the amount of chemistry they share, but there’s not a whole lot to support it in this episode.

Clara herself is as fun as she’s always been. She’s so confident that she regularly puts the Doctor on the defensive. When she insists that she can track down the people who are running the killer wi-fi signal faster than the Doctor can, he pouts about being an alien with two hearts and twenty-seven brains (Clara calls him on his fib about the brains). But she does it. By hacking the employees’ webcams and matching their pictures to their social networking profiles, she discovers that they’re based in the Shard. Unfortunately, she’s soon cornered by a spoonhead in the shape of the Doctor and uploaded fully, leaving her body dead.

Time for some thrilling heroics! The Doctor speeds through London on his motorbike, rides right up the side of the Shard, and makes a very cool entrance into Miss Kislet’s office.

It's an anti-grav bike. No biggie.

It’s an anti-grav bike. No biggie.

Miss Kislet seems to have the upper hand at first. Clara is fully uploaded, and the only way to get her back would be to download the entire data cloud back into their bodies. To convince her to do just that, the Doctor reveals that he has sent his spoonhead double in place of himself – with the power to upload Miss Kislet just as it did to Clara. Miss Kislet gives the order from inside the cloud, and all the people inside are released back to their bodies.

“You hack people. But me, I’m old-fashioned. I hack technology.”

The ending for Miss Kislet’s operation is probably the most chilling part of the entire episode. UNIT arrives, and the computerized intelligence that Miss Kislet has been working for orders her to revert everyone back to their factory settings, leaving them with no memory of the operation. For most, this sets them back to when they were first hired – they’re confused and demand to know where they are. Miss Kislet goes back even further. When UNIT burst into her office, they find her huddled on her floor, asking for her parents, apparently reverted back to when the computer first spoke to her as a child.

But what about Clara? She’s back safe and sound with the children she cares for. The Doctor makes her an attractive offer – she’s always wanted to travel, but she’s held back by her strong sense of obligation to the children, so with the TARDIS she can have her adventures and be back in time for tea! (I hope that works out better than it did for Rose, who was given the same offer and dropped off back with her family a year late…)

10

So we’re not much closer to finding out what’s up with Clara’s multiple deaths, but we have a great new companion and the show continues to be as wild and fun as ever. And at least the Doctor seems to be as curious about Clara’s origins as I am.

"Right then, Clara Oswald. Time to find out who you are."

“Right then, Clara Oswald. Time to find out who you are.”

Oh yeah, and if you were paying attention to the book Clara’s charge was reading:

Well played, Moffat. VERY well played.

Well played, Moffat. VERY well played.

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