Doctor Who's "The Bells Of Saint John" Revisited: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Clara Oswald?
For those who have been enjoying Doctor Who since the old days of its fifty-year history, this is old hat. (Or old fez, if you will.) Now even for those that are newer to the show, these beats must be becoming a little familiar. The Doctor swoops in and lures a sassy, clever, adventure-seeking new assistant onto the TARDIS. In order to reach that end, he vanquishes some peril endangering the whole of humanity, often by some elegantly tidy means that seems simple in hindsight but is amazingly clever and unforeseen in the moment thanks to The Doctor's quick-thinking efficiency. Fortunately, Steven Moffat and company have become quite adept at keeping that comfortable formula fresh and fun.
We pick up with The Doctor pondering the mystery of Clara "Oswin" Oswald, whom he encountered in two of his previous adventures ("The Asylum of the Daleks" and "The Snowmen"). He very much wants to bring her on board the TARDIS as his new traveling buddy. Who exactly is this person that he has seen die twice? In both cases she had no knowledge of her other self, but nonetheless her words hinted at some sort of shared consciousness. The ringing of the TARDIS phone interrupts his meditations at a 1207 monastery. Clara is on the other end of the line seeking Internet help. (A lady at the bookstore gave her the number - perhaps this was River?)
This new incarnation of Clara is a contemporary version from our own time and place. She works as a governess (echoing back to her role in "The Snowmen"), and she has no idea why this crazy Time Lord has eagerly shown up on her doorstep and claims to know her. She rebuffs The Doctor's advances, but crisis gives The Doctor an opportunity to win her over. A mysterious corporation has been harvesting human souls through its public wireless network, and Clara is the latest target of one of their shape-shifting hot-spot robots.
The Doctor uses some computer kung fu to put Clara's partially uploaded consciousness back into her body and sends her abductors a message of warning that she is under his protection, much to the chagrin of corporate head Kizlit and her cronies. The Doctor sweetly and gently places unconscious Clara into her bed and leave some jammie dodgers at her bedside for when she wakes. Anticipating this is not the end of the trouble, he appoints himself to vigilant guard duty outside her house.
Upon waking, Clara finds some eccentric charm in this Doctor fellow and decides he is worthy of her stepping outside her front door. Even so, when the evil wifi folks start manipulating local people into shutting out the lights in the surrounding neighborhood and illuminating those in the immediate neighborhood, she still greets his invitation to step inside the TARDIS (a "snogbox," as she calls it) with wariness. The passenger jetliner careening toward them that is using those lights as a target convinces her otherwise.
A nifty action sequence follows: The Doctor lands the TARDIS on the rapidly descending jetliner, leads Clara down the aisle between the passengers rendered asleep by the wifi, averts the crash at the last possible moment, and blocks the wifi signal so that the sleeping pilots can return to duty. I myself was impressed with this quick thinking; dodging the plane would have been such a priority in my panic that it would not have even occurred to me to save the airplane passengers. I suppose that - among more immediate reasons - is why I'm not a Time Lord.
The Doctor brings Clara forward in time to the next morning to leave the wifi syndicate scrambling to find them overnight and takes to the London streets on a motorcycle he had stored in the TARDIS. With so much of the city potentially under control, it does not take long for Kizlit to find them at the public square where The Doctor and Clara are enjoying their breakfast. The Doctor works to find the wifi hub but comes up short in his effort; Clara, however, insists that with the new computer awareness that her brain brought back from her partial upload into the wifi's cloud she can accomplish the task, and she works on it while The Doctor fetches coffee.
Inside the shop, Kizlit shows off to The Doctor in an effectively creepy scene. She speaks through various people and controls and coordinates their actions. She assures him that he cannot save Clara. Outside, Clara is able to ascertain the headquarters for the wifi in the London Shard building, but she is uploaded completely by a wifi hub robot unit disguised as The Doctor.
The Doctor is not deterred, driving his motorcycle directly to the Shard, and once he arrives said motorcycle is revealed to be his vehicle for the zero-grav Olympics. He rides directly up the side of the building and crashes into Kizlit's office. He demands the release of Clara, and she refuses, saying that her complete upload would require a total purge of the wifi's cloud. All its recent prisoners would return to their bodies, but the others would simply die. The Doctor finds this an acceptable alternative to the indefinite torment of their imprisonment in the machinery.
The Doctor reveals his gambit: the rider of his motorcycle was the hacked wifi hub robot still looking like The Doctor, who actually still relaxes at the café enjoying his coffee. He uses its immediate proximity to upload Kizlit herself, and with the compelling motive of releasing herself, she demands the employees succumb to The Doctor's demands. The entire workforce doing this work at the Shard consists of individuals with hijacked minds, and with The Doctor's victory, the ultimate evil force behind this whole scheme frees them all. They remember nothing of what had taken place; Kizlit herself had been a prisoner since she was a very little girl. Without the support of the control she was under for all those years, she reverts back to plaintive wailing for her parents, long since lost to her.
What was said evil force that feasts on human minds? It is The Great Intelligence returned, a bodiless entity recently encountered in the episode "The Snowmen" and far earlier during Patrick Troughton's Doctor Who tenure.
With the day saved once again, The Doctor invites Clara to join him, having finally completed an adventure with her in which she did not die. She plays coy, inviting him to come back the next evening, but we all know how that is going to turn out.
I have heard some mixed grumbling out in the Internet world, but I thought "The Bells Of Saint John" marks another promising installment for Doctor Who. It is always an exciting time when a new companion is brought into the fold, even if the story does has taken three attempts to officially bring her on board. With a real cinematic feel in its presentation, we see that production values have done nothing but continue to improve. The tropes might be replays, but they continue to function at even higher speeds and with more visual panache than ever before.
Who is Clara Oswald? Is she of special significance to The Great Intelligence, or was that a coincidence that it is the antagonist in two of her adventures with The Doctor? How do her various incarnations possess this time and universe-spanning shared consciousness that conquers death? Is her puzzle actually some sort of trap for The Doctor? Is the mystery related to the upload she underwent in this episode, thus making her consciousness downloadable many times over? Is the technological savvy she displayed in "Asylum of the Daleks" related to the tech savvy she acquired from the wifi? How was she able to "die" and be found elsewhere? Is this ability related to the library of uploaded souls where The Doctor first encountered River Song and she last met him?
I suspect we'll find all these answers out eventually. Until then, Clara promises to be a fun companion for The Doctor with a quick wit that disarms The Doctor and gives the show's writers an ample dialogue pallet. As we march forward to the big fiftieth anniversary special and the promised return of David Tennant, Billie Piper, and likely many other old favorites, it is good to have Matt Smith back and Jenna-Louise Coleman stepping into the TARDIS-traveling sidekick role.
"Yes, the Internet. Why don't I have the Internet?"
"I got half past three. Am I phoning a different time zone?"
"Yeah, you really sort of are."
"When you say 'mobile phone,' why do you point at that blue box?"
"Because it's a surprisingly accurate description."
"...and assembled the quadracycle."
"Assembled the what?"
"I found a disassembled quadracycle in the garage."
"I don't think you did."
"I invented the quadracycle!"
"Is it like a snogging booth?"
"Is that what you do? You bring a booth? There's such a thing as too keen."
"It's a time machine. You never have to wait for breakfast."
"I don't take the TARDIS into battle."
"Because it's made of wood?"
"Because it's the most powerful ship in the universe, and I don't want it falling into the wrong hands."
"I can't tell the future. I just work there."
"Does this work?"
"Is this actually what you do? Do you just crook your finger and people just jump in your snogbox and fly away?"
"It is not a snogbox!"
"Sometime after seven OK for you?"
"It's a time machine. Anytime's OK"
Classic Doctor Who Bonus:
This week I wanted to watch Hartnell's "The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve," just for the shared "saint" in the title, but sadly that is one of the episodes the BBC did not preserve. Troughton's "The Abominable Snowmen" also would have been an excellent choice, as that was the early appearance of The Great Intelligence back in 1967, putting over forty years between its uses as a villain on the show. However, that is another adventure that the BBC lost.
Instead I watched Sylvester McCoy's "Dragonfire" in honor of the return of Game Of Thrones this week. This adventure marked the debut of Ace, a companion with a mysterious origin story of her own to match Clara's, if we must name a direct association between the old and the new episodes.
Episodes like "Dragonfire" are what turned me off Doctor Who back in the late 1980s. Running thick are cheesiness and a derivative nature that mixes elements of Star Trek, Aliens, and more. A sequence with a cliff notorious among Who fans seems to defy the laws of spatial geography and common sense. Mel's exit from the TARDIS that makes room for Ace comes across as arbitrary and odd. That said, there is a certain charm in this episode's earnestness, and The Doctor, Mel, Ace, and the recurring space pirate character Sabalom Glitz provide some fun dialogue at points. McCoy's Doctor bungles his way through the proceedings, but ultimately his ingenuity wins out.
The episode deals with exiled criminal Kane who has taken control of Iceworld and has deadly freezing powers to match the environment. The Doctor simply wants to investigate legends of a dragon in the depths of the planetoid, a transit and trading station in deep space, but he and Mel become mixed up in Kane's megalomaniacal plans of murder, enslavement, and revenge. The "dragon" is not much of a dragon, but it is very much one of the costumed creatures we tend to associate with old Who, and as such it is fun in its own context. This is not the best of classic Who or Sylvester McCoy, but I suppose if you have your tongue implanted in your cheek, you might enjoy it. It certainly did make me appreciate those aforementioned production values of "The Bells Of Saints John."
C. Robert Dimitri somehow always knew that he overpaid for his secure wi-fi for a good reason.