Doctor Who: The Bells of St. John

Doctor Who returned to our television screens today with the episode “The Bells of St. John,” offering a wonderful bringing together of old and new. Spoilers ahead.

The bells of St. John turned out to be an interesting detail. While most of us were busy thinking about the famous nursery rhyme, the St. John Ambulance logo on the TARDIS provided the key. The Doctor is living in Cumbria in 1207 in a monastery. He is still seeking solitude and quiet, to try to decipher the final message of the girl who died twice. And then a monk comes with news that the “bells of St. John are ringing” – which turns out to be the TARDIS phone!

It is Clara on the other end, and that opens one mystery they are sure to resolve. She got the number from a woman in a shop who recommended this as the “best helpline in the universe.” The call leads the Doctor to where Clara is, after she uses the phrase “Run you clever boy and remember” as a mnemonic device to help her remember the wi-fi password in the house where she lives.

Meanwhile, we also learn that the souls of people are being uploaded by an organization which seems like it could be official and governmental, but which we soon discover works for an unnamed client. It is only at the end that we discover who the client was – the Great Intelligence!

For those interested in the intersection of religion with Doctor Who, there were numerous elements of interest – from the monastic setting of the Doctor (and even the St. John reference, however indirect its connection with religion), to the god seen in one of the early shots of wi-fi usage, to the reference to “souls” rather than minds or something else being uploaded. The depiction of humans as like cattle for the Great Intelligence, who thus cares for human beings much as a farmer would for animals, takes a familiar religious metaphor and problematizes it. The idea of a god-like entity living in wi-fi is reminiscent of details in novels by Dan Simmons.

Apparently monks aren't cool. No surprise there.

There are lots of interesting little details which are probably significant, and so you'll want to watch it again and look at details.

What did you like most about the episode? What questions did it raise, and do you have any speculations about the answers to them?

For me, I think that “Doctor Who” in fact sounds like the Doctor's actual name, and that is why he likes hearing it said aloud so much. And it is interesting that we saw a hint of this back in the William Hartnell era, when a supreme and seemingly all-knowing computer referred to the Doctor as “Doctor Who” – the only time he is so referred to on the show, other than in the credits.

In other news – in case you haven't heard – David Tennant and Billie Piper are returning for the 50th anniversary special!


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  • John Hawthorne

    My wife and I started watching Dr. Who in 1975 on WTTW Chicago. Always great to find fellow Whovians with such an eye to detail and symbolism!

  • David

    I think, interestingly, the Doctor is more of a monk than is given him credit for: he lives in a remote location (the TARDIS is remote from everywhere and everywhen, technically), he’s let go of all of his family and most of his friends, he’s in constant contemplation. He’s more of a monk than he would care to admit.

    Perhaps it’s that Matt Smith is an atheist, but despite him being my favorite Doctor, I tend to notice that his Doctor has more jabs at religion than usual. Perhaps it’s simple sensitivity, but it seems like his Doctor/era is far more condescending/hostile than other times during the show. Dunno, don’t know Moffat’s religious orientation. Just an interesting note.

    • Riley

      Doctor Who has a long history of atheism. Moffat, Davies, Eccleston, Douglas Adams, Mccoy, the list goes on and on.

  • Drwhofan

    I enjoyed the humour. Both the Doctor and Clara had some good lines and there’s already a great spark between them.

    I’m wondering if the fact Clara was uploaded is connected to her being raised from the dead? Maybe a copy of her was ‘archived’ by the great intelligence, or somehow merged with it? There’s a kind of artificial life theme developing- the great intelligence managed to ‘save’ a governessess personality and turn her into that ice woman. And Oswin was kind of an artificial personality, inside a Dalek. I’m guessing the Intelligence is the main villain for this season.

  • Traci

    Loved it!! I couldn’t help but see a connection between the spoonheads and the courtesy nodes in The Library, as well as a connection between caring for humanity like a farmer and saving humanity by uploading them to the hardrive.

  • Jack Collins

    I was disappointed. The plot was derivative (even of other episodes this season), and I found myself much less in love with this incarnation of Clara/Oswin. Maybe it’s because I work at a helpdesk, and I can’t forgive anyone who would call and say “I can’t find the internet.” Also, since when does the Doctor not take the TARDIS into battle? He’s landed it on the bridge of a Dalek mothership just to tick them off.

    • Yes, I think that either there will be more to it than that, or it was just a lame ploy to get the Doctor to ride a motorcycle out from the TARDIS. But it was at least the latter, and I’m willing to accept a bit of inconsistency in exchange for seeing the Doctor as magician street performer and motorcycle enthusiast! 🙂

      • Jack Collins

        Meh. After Strax and the memory worm, I had higher expectations.

    • Ren

      After the Cold War episode I’m noticing a theme; the Doctor is afraid of losing the TARDIS. I don’t know why, but he’s become hesitant about bringing it anywhere remotely dangerous. Though I have a guess. I think he may be afraid of losing it because he continues to lose companion after companion. If he were to lose the TARDIS he’d be crushed. I had a similar fear after my grandfather passed away. I was afraid of losing anything remotely important to me. I think the Doctor is acting liking an over protective parent b/c he can’t stand to lose anymore important things/people in his life. Somehow I’m hoping this plays a larger role in the coming episodes!

      • Thanks – that’s a very interesting and insightful observation!