TV Club

Doctor Who recap: The Bells of Saint John reviewed.

The search for Clara Prime begins!

Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman in Doctor Who

Photo by Adrian Rogers/BBC

In Slates Doctor Who TV Club, Mac Rogers discusses the Doctor’s travels via IM every week with the show’s bloggers and fans. This week he’s chatting with Teresa Jusino, Chick who Unravels Time, who writes the Teresa Jusino Experience.

Mac Rogers: I’ve watched “The Bells of Saint John” twice now, and my take is that while it is definitely Steven-Moffat-Who by the numbers, it’s very good Moffat-Who by the numbers. We’ve got the “Are you my mummy?“-style catchphrase in “I don’t know where I am!” We’ve got the Teselecta-style machines in creepily emotionless human shape (with swiveling heads right out of “The Beast Below“). We’ve got the Doctor interacting with the new companion as both a child and as an adult (symbolically through Clara’s 101 Places to See book and literally through this Web-only prequel). And we’ve got a “Blink”-like ending with the Doctor turning the villains’ qualities against them. But if “Bells” is boilerplate Moffat, I still found it exciting and suspenseful throughout. How do you rate it?

Teresa Jusino: It’s funny that you mention all those other episodes of Moffat’s, because the one this made me think of was “Silence in the Library.” Moffat seems fascinated by the idea of human souls/personalities/essences/whatever and where they go (or where they could go). Can people be captured electronically? What good would that do, and what purpose would this serve? Are people really people if they don’t have a physical form? I loved the fact that “The Bells of Saint John” allows us to really see a through-line in Moffat’s Doctor Who work. That said, I have a bit of trouble with Clara being quite such a puzzle. Don’t get me wrong, she’s charming and smart, and I, like the Doctor, am very curious about who/what she is. But I don’t necessarily care about her. And I’m not so sure the Doctor does either, except to appease his own curiosity, and that bothers me.

Mac: I can see that. How well do we know Clara so far? We do learn that she feels a responsibility to care for Angie and her grieving family, but we don’t have a strong sense of why she would stay with them for a whole year. What was her relationship to the mother, to Angie, that she would make that kind of commitment? And if her defining quality is that she cares for people who need her, why does the Doctor say more than once, “You don’t seem like a nanny?” There’s always the chance for the show to dig deeper into Clara over the next several episodes, but I agree, I’d like to be more into her as a character than into her mystery.

Teresa: Well, yes, I’d hope so!

Mac: I did appreciate that Miss Kizlet (a brilliant guest turn from Celia Imrie) and her fellow “hacked humans” presented more of a genuine threat than I’ve felt like the villains have in recent stories. The idea that clicking on the wrong Wi-Fi connection could suck you into a horrible everlasting purgatory is a terrific Doctor Who notion and shows Moffat’s Stephen King-like love of making objects and places in ordinary life frightening. The gradual buildup to the airplane attack—first we see the “Spoonhead,” then we see the lights come on in all the nearby houses, then we see all the lights in the rest of London switch off, and then we see the airplane bearing down on them—that’s a real showcase of Moffat’s gift for building menace gradually before unleashing peril.

Teresa: Actually what I thought “Bells” did well was the other thing that sci-fi does best, which is comment on society. The line where the Doctor is describing the situation as “human souls trapped like flies in the world wide Web, stuck forever, crying out for help,” and Clara responds with “Isn’t that basically Twitter?” was great! And the whole concept that this is such an easy way to trap humanity—through tech, because we’ve all become so dependent on it—is one that can stand to be explored over and over again. 

Mac: I found myself wondering how much of the inspiration for “Bells” came from Moffat’s own experience on Twitter, one I have to assume was unhappy because he decided to leave. I found Clara’s initial cluelessness about the Internet hard to believe, given that she’s an apparently sophisticated cosmopolitan 24-year-old. But I liked the way she outwitted Miss Kizlet and her underlings with the new computer-savvy she brought back with her from Wi-Fi Purgatory. When she used a combination of webcams and facial recognition software to track down where the bad guys worked—because they’d all put their workplace in their Facebook profiles—I had to cheer. That said, at some point I’d like to see her be heroic in a way that isn’t derived from a quality that was forcibly inserted into her.

Teresa: Agreed. Also, since there are things that we’re already starting to see in common between the Claras (like being a governess who wants to travel), I do have hope that we will get to know “Clara Prime”—whoever original Clara is or was.

Mac: I love “Clara Prime”! This season will be the Search for Clara Prime.

Teresa: Yay! I’m coining a fandom phrase!

Mac: In your essay for the Doctor Who anthology Chicks Unravel Time (freshly nominated for a Hugo Award; congrats to all involved!), you make the case for the William Hartnell Doctor of the 1960s as the adolescent version of the character, regardless of his elderly appearance. I’m torn about how to interpret Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor in terms of where he is on the maturity scale. Given his gawkiness with women and his enthusiasm for motorcycles, cookies, and fun outfits, do you think the Doctor is entering a second adolescence, or is he an older guy having a millennium life crisis and trying to look cool in front of young people?

Teresa: I’m definitely more on the side of millennium life crisis. Any awkwardness with women strikes me as that of an older man who’s been “out of the game” for a while. He’s only actually awkward around younger women, which makes complete sense for an older man: “You’re hot. At the same time, you’re young enough to be my child, and I am not a creepy pervert. ACK!” And yes, he still has a childlike sense of wonder, but that seems to signify an older man who’s sure of himself and his interests and doesn’t feel the need to apologize for them.

Mac: Let’s get into the deep-geek stuff. First of all, who was “the woman in the shop” who gave Clara the number to call the TARDIS? Almost certainly River Song, but since that’s so obvious I feel like I have to consider other options. Any chance it’s Sally Sparrow? We did see her working in a shop at the end of “Blink.” Or Kate Stewart, working undercover? And whoever it was, how would they know to give the Doctor’s contact info to Clara?

Teresa: I would say it’s probably River. It’s always River. And as Alex Kingston is scheduled to return this season …

Mac: I definitely got a thrill when the children’s book the younger brother was reading was written by “Amelia Williams.” Amy Pond’s still out there! But we’re also seeing that something’s going on with numbers. In Clara’s 101 Places to See book, we see on the page where she’s written down her age each year that she hasn’t written down 16 or 23. What happened during those missing years? Also, when she’s trying to type in the password for the Wi-Fi—RYCBAR123—she can’t quite make herself type the 23 at the end. Cue Jim Carrey? But more seriously, I thought that must have something to do with the Doctor Who 50th anniversary being on Nov. 23.

Teresa: I also want to talk a bit about the prequel you mentioned, because I did see it, and I immediately resented it after I watched it. It’s a bit annoying to me that important story information be put in a random webisode. My feeling is if it’s important to the story, it should be contained within the story—I shouldn’t have to go searching for extra bits. When Lost was on, I was obsessed with the supplementary online material. I visited the fake websites, I tried to solve the associated mystery, I read that really bad book Bad Twin … and yet, none of it was needed to enjoy the show I was watching. Had I not seen any of it, Lost would’ve still been Lost. But having actual, important pieces of story that can only be found by searching other videos and stuff online? If it turns out that the little girl is more important than that and something she said in her conversation with the Doctor is key to understanding the mystery … Yes, I did watch it, but I shouldn’t have been expected to.

Mac: Fortunately the revelation of the identity of Miss Kizlet’s mysterious “client” was well within the episode proper. And how cool was it that the client was unveiled as the Great Intelligence, now having permanently assumed the always welcome appearance of Richard E. Grant? When it comes to recurring villains from the classic series, it’s hard to think of a deeper cut than the Great Intelligence, which menaced the Doctor in 1967’s “The Abominable Snowmen” and 1968’s “The Web of Fear” and made a surprise return in this past December’s Christmas special, “The Snowmen.” It’s interesting, between Doctor Simeon in “The Snowmen” and now Miss Kizlet in “Saint John,” we’re seeing the Great Intelligence as an evil mirror of the Doctor, first visiting people in childhood and profoundly influencing the rest of their lives. What do you make of the often nostalgia-averse Moffat bringing back such an obscure villain? And do you think we’ll get to see some Yeti?

Teresa: I have to admit I rolled my eyes. Sorry! You say Moffat’s nostalgia-averse, and I’m like, “What?” All current Doctor Who seems to do (not just the Moffat era, but Davies, too) is rehash old villains from Classic Who: Daleks, Silurians, Sontarans, Cybermen. Moffat’s definitely been better about creating new threats: the Weeping Angels, the Vashta Nerada, the Silence, all genius and horribly frightening. But then he insists on going back to old stuff. For what? To appease the fans of Classic Who? It’s a huge universe. The Doctor could swing 50 cats and never hit another Cyberman again if he really didn’t want to. I long for one, just one season of Doctor Who with completely new aliens and monsters.

Mac: Speaking of nostalgia, any thoughts about Saturday’s news that 10th Doctor David Tennant and Billie “Rose” Piper will be back for the 50th anniversary special in November?

Teresa: I’m very happy about it! What I’d really love is if Christopher Eccleston would get involved. I know it’s never going to happen, but Nine was my first Doctor, and to have him not be a part of things when I loved him so much? Argh.

Mac: The thing I idiotically want to happen—even though there no chance— is a 50th anniversary confrontation between Paul McGann’s eighth Doctor and Richard E. Grant’s Great Intelligence: Weirdest Withnail and I reunion ever.