Ring Them Bells: Review of ‘The Bells of St. John’

Beware of spoilers, sweeties. 

While not strictly an “Easter special” in the same way as the annual Christmas specials, the newest episode of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat’s “The Bells of St. John,” ticked the important boxes of this particular holiday. This episode is all about rebirth and renewal, both in the literal sense for Clara, who remains unaware of her multiple lives scattered throughout time and space, and in a more metaphoric sense for the Doctor, who has been given a new lease on life thanks to his fresh new companion and his self-assigned cause of her protection. Indeed the episode ends with a kind of harrowing of hell: The Doctor releasing the souls of humanity trapped in a “living hell” in the Wifi.

And what of that strange title, “The Bells of St. John”? As it turns out, they refer to the rarely-used telephone on the outside of the Doctor’s TARDIS.  The location of Clara Oswald proving to be a difficult task as shown in the prequel, we find the Doctor living in a Cumbrian monastery in the thirteenth century. Failing to find Clara, the Doctor has decided to live a monastic life of what? – meditation and contemplation? – allowing for fate or chance to bring her to him, which of course it does. When the monks hear the police call box telephone, they inform the Doctor that “the bells of St. John are ringing.” According to policeboxes.com, this designation was common on traditional British police boxes:

Adjacent to this sign on the right door was the St John Ambulance Association badge, indicating that the police box contained a first aid kit.

First aid and ambulances, indicating the need for a doctor, appropriately. Someone has given Clara the TARDIS’ phone number, instructing her that the number would lead her to the very best help line, which is quite an understatement. Something, or someone, it would seem, wants them to find each other. This kind of passive, receptive attitude, in which the Doctor sits back and lets some other force direct him where he needs to go, is very unusual for our normally proactive Doctor, and it’s a hopeful sign. Let’s hope that this zen attitude persists for a while, because I suspect that having Clara around is going to once again trigger his “saving people thing,” and we’ve seen how dangerous that can become.

The WiFi and spoonheads are some more great Moffaty villains, transforming what modern people take for granted into something insidious and dangerous. Modern technology is never very far away from Big Brother, and Moffat plays with our paranoia so delicately. Most chilling of all was harsh Miss Kizlet’s regression from cold villainess back to a scared little girl, which is presumably who she’d been when first taken over by the Great Intelligence.

Speaking of the Great Intelligence, it was a pleasant surprise to see that thread picked up once again, and it would seem that the thrust of this season is leading towards some confrontation with it. Whether this has anything to do with Clara remains to be seen. There were a few other moments which seemed to hint at future developments, such as Clara’s bright red leaf pressed into her travel book. I’m sure the Doctor’s tasting of it, his puzzled look, and his later question to Clara about it indicate that it is not just any old normal Earth leaf. More unsettling is Clara’s acquisition of advanced computer skills over the course of the episode. She is “a total screaming genius” with computers, remember? She also dubs herself “Oswin” for the first time. Might it be her adventures with the Doctor which somehow turn Clara into the Oswin Oswald we’ve seen in “Asylum of the Daleks”? Given how her story ended, this is not a good sign, and I’m sure the Doctor will do everything he can to prevent this coming true.

Wherever their relationship goes in the future, Clara seems to be having a positive influence on the Doctor in the present. Early online reviews indicated that new companion Jenna Louise-Coleman had renewed Matt Smith’s energy, but to be fair every new companion does this. The Ponds were great characters, but I think the ideal tenure for companions is about one to two seasons, and it was time for the show to introduce a new dynamic. Not only does Smith’s Doctor seem lighter but also a bit more caring, a bit more human. Every bit as eccentric, but with a renewed ability to care for his human friends. This is lovely to watch, but also a little worrisome. None of the modern Doctors have been as attached to humanity as the Tenth, and this consistently led him into quite painful situations. Still, it’s nice to see Eleven once again willing to let himself get close to another person.

Speaking of the Ponds, the BBC has revealed that the book being read by one of Clara’s charges, called Summer Falls, will be released as a tie-in, and viewers may recognize the author: One Amelia Williams (nee Pond, we’re meant to infer). Also quite familiar are the trio of children featured on the cover, resembling both the Doctor, Amy and Rory but also that other famous trio of modern children’s literature, Harry, Ron and Hermione (especially given that the girl and second boy have switched hair color). It’s interesting to note that the girl features in prominence, and also that Amy has adopted both her fairy-talesque given name of Amelia (the name favored by the Doctor) and her husband’s surname. I take this as an indication of her growth out of adolescent Amy Pond into someone both in touch with her childhood and embracing a new maturity. And it’s nice to see the arts being celebrated on the show, as well. I don’t know if we’ve yet had a companion who was particularly artistic or creative, but Amy has taken her amazing experiences and turned them into literary adventures to share with other children. (Final Note: Moffat would say that the “eleventh chapter is the best,” but should we be worried that it will “make you cry your eyes out”?). 

Overall, this episode was exciting and fun, a great kick-start to the second half of series 7, for which I have the highest hopes. Great moments for the hall of fame include the killer Twitter joke, the Doctor materializing the TARDIS in the plane to stop it from crashing at the last possible second, his accidental invention of the quadrucycle, and his antigrav motorbike. The success of this episode and what we’ve seen of the rest of the season so far, all leading into the 50th anniversary, give me great hope that this year may be one of the very best.

50th Anniversary News: For this of you who’ve not heard, David Tennant and Billie Piper have been confirmed by the BBC to be involved in the 50th Special, and I could not be more pleased. (This was released Saturday, so no April Fools fake-outs: That would just be a cruel joke). Whether this is the Tenth Doctor and Rose in the midst of their earlier adventures, or the “Pete’s World” Rose with her half-human metacrisis Doctor has not been revealed, but I’m sure Moffat will do them justice in either case. I don’t see Moffat as the type to reuse story ideas or characters just because, or in deference to fan pressure, so I have confidence that he will use them tastefully. I also suspect that this the first of several such announcements to come.

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About Katherine Sas

I graduated from Messiah College in 2009 with a B.A. in English Literature. I'm a student of all things arts and humanities, in particular Tolkien, the Inklings, and the fantastic and imaginative tradition in storytelling.
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