The Doctor is back! After three months of thumb-twiddling, the beloved British series returned in style last night with an episode that showcased many of the things that make Doctor Who so much fun. The Doctor was out of his post-Ponds funk, new companion Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) was clever and charming, and the both of them were facing off against mobile robotic internet platforms that can download your brain out of your body. Heck, we even (almost) got to see the TARDIS’ garage!
When last we left the Doctor, he had been dragged out of retirement by a mysterious Victorian governess named Clara…only to have her die and the Doctor realize that somehow, impossibly, this Clara seemed to be the same girl he had encountered as an unwitting Dalek in the season premiere, “Asylum of the Daleks.” The Doctor loves a good mystery even more than Scooby Doo & company, and as we catch up with him we learn he’s become obsessed with the riddle of the “girl twice dead.” Unfortunately, the search doesn’t seem to be going well, as the time lord has been hanging out in a monastery in 1207, painting pictures of Clara and brooding. Then everything changes when the bells of Saint John begin ringing.
While that name conjures images of church bells, they actually refer to a more puzzling situation: they are the ringing of the phone inside the TARDIS’ police box camouflaged exterior. As the Doctor points out, that shouldn’t be possible, and neither should the next thing. The Doctor picks up and finds himself speaking to one Clara Oswin Oswald, a modern-day governess who tried to dial up a tech-support help line and instead got a centuries-old time lord with floppy hair.
The Doctor shows up on her doorstep in the here-and-now, and is quickly dismissed as a lunatic. But it’s a good thing the Doctor is determined to figure out why he keeps running into different versions of this same woman across time and space, because it means he’s on hand to take on the monster of the week, the bizarre but accurately named spoonheads. You see, there’s something living in the wifi, and it’s both taking control of people and downloading their minds clean out of their body. Intrigued by Clara as he is, the Doctor can’t let a thing like that slide, so soon he’s dragging her along on a quest to put a stop to all this evil wifi nonsense.
“The Bells of Saint John” is a highly entertaining Who romp, and a significant improvement over the wheel-spinning of the season’s first batch of episodes. Now the Doctor is back on the job and in fine form, saving the day with his usual mixture of steely resolve, devil-may-care impulsiveness, and sheer luck. Showrunner Steven Moffat deftly adds some new clues to the season-long mystery that is Clara while also serving up a clever monster-of-the-week and showcasing the return of an old enemy that will likely serve as the “Big Bad” of the remainder of the season.
When Moffat is behind the keyboard and firing on all cylinders, he can make Doctor Who magic that generates instant classics like “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink.” Unfortunately, he seems to be a much better writer than he is a showrunner, an idea fully on display in the season’s opening episodes. One of Moffat’s biggest strengths is his ability to conjure up the sort of fantastic, insane ideas that you’d expect from a show about an ageless madman who skips around time and space in a blue police box. He fires out several in “The Bells of Saint John,” from the whole “evil wifi” concept, to a villain dialing her lackeys’ loyalty up via a handy tablet app, to the Doctor landing the TARDIS in the middle of a plane that was just about to crash into him and Clara.
Speaking of the Doctor’s new companion, she made a great first impression in her first two incarnations, and she again proves that she’s got the makings of a classic Who companion. She’s clever, she’s funny, and she frequently gets the Doctor flustered, which is always good for a laugh. She also becomes even more intriguing near the episode’s end, when the Doctor offers her his usual “come with me, all of time and space awaits” pitch…and she shoots him down. Not totally, mind you, but she does tell him to come back tomorrow, a response that catches the time lord completely flat-footed. Coleman is wonderful in the role and has good chemistry with Matt Smith, so I can’t wait to see how the character shapes up over the remaining episodes.
There are numerous possible clues as to the mystery of Clara, but there’s no way to tell what will be significant this early on. The Doctor only realizes it’s Clara on the phone because she drops the phrase “Run you clever boy,” a sentence the Doctor has encountered before from her earlier selves (and a phrase that we see the Doctor has been painting in his monastery hidey-hole during the episode’s opening). Will it serve as some sort of important season-long Easter egg, much like “Bad Wolf” in the show’s first modern season? Time will tell. It’s also interesting to see that, yet again, the Doctor doesn’t find Clara, she finds him, even without intending to. Over and over, the universe is placing this woman in the Doctor’s path. One of the biggest questions of the season is, why?
“The Bells of Saint John” is quite simply a blast, and often hilarious. The sequence where the Doctor covers up the TARDIS’ sudden materialization by pretending to be a street magician was perfect, capped off with him taking donations in a fez and then riding a motorcycle out of the TARDIS while the surrounding crowd claps in admiration. It also demonstrates the great contradiction of the Doctor, a ridiculous, screwball bundle of energy in one scene, then quietly powerful and dangerous when he needs to be. The episode also has a great throwback reference to Matt Smith’s first episode in the role. After he rescues Clara, he sends a message back to the villains: “Under my protection.” It’s a tip of the hat to the Eleventh Doctor’s brilliant “Is this world protected?” speech from “The Eleventh Hour,” and it neatly implies that the Doctor isn’t warning the bad guys that Clara alone is under his protection, but rather that the whole planet is.
And the dialogue. This one had more classic lines than the entire first half of the season combined. A few of my favorites, bereft of context:
- “Because it’s a surprisingly accurate description!”
- “I found a disassembled quadrocyke … I invented the quadrocyke!”
- “The abattoir is not a contradiction. No one loves cattle more than Burger King.”
- “Did you even hear the word antigrav?”
- “You don’t run out on the people you care about. Wish I was more like that.”
- “It is not a snog-box!”
All in all, “The Bells of Saint John” was a return to form for Doctor Who, and neatly set up a very promising remainder of the season. Here’s hoping Moffat and his writers can keep it up.