The Bells of Saint John

15-episode set
Region A/1
15-episode set
Region B/2
Standard DVD
8-episode volume

See below for purchasing options
(Doctor Who Story No. 237, starring Matt Smith)
  • written by Steven Moffat
  • directed by Colm McCarthy
  • produced by Marcus Wilson and Denise Paul
  • music by Murray Gold
  • 1 episode @ 47 minutes
Story: When the bells of Saint John begin to ring, the Doctor believes he finally has his first clue to the location of the real Clara Oswald. But if an insidious mind-draining internet scheme has its way, she may soon lose all sense of where she is herself....

DVD Extras for this story on the 15-episode box sets include:

  • Behind the Scenes featurette (4 min.) with Matt Smith (The Doctor), Jenna-Louise Coleman (Clara Oswald), writer Steven Moffat, and
    executive producer Caroline Skinner.
  • "The Companions" documentary (45 min.) adding Arthur Darvill (Rory Williams), John Barrowman (Captain Jack),
    Noel Clarke (Mickey Smith), David Tennant (The 10th Doctor), Karen Gillan (Amy Pond), and Freema Agyeman (Martha Jones).
    Contains footage of "The Bells of St. John" read-through Sept. 2012.
  • The Nerdist: Matt Smith Satellite Interview #1 (6 min.)
  • Prequel Scene - The Bells of Saint John (3 min.)

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have
already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide to the season instead.

Will the real Clara Oswald please stand up?

This adventure works as a piece of the ongoing story of Season 33, inheriting momentum from "The Snowmen" (the previous story) and propelling the viewer into the following stories with more, but somehow it only feels like a fun, necessary pit stop on the road to greater things.

Media Metaphor

The primary sci-fi idea of the piece is all centered on internet use. In terms of its realistic credibility, it is on quite shaky ground. Borrowing jargon and graphics for uploading and downloading suggests that some form of copying would be taking place... which would naturally steer the drama towards the concept of identity theft as we saw in "The Almost People" (story no. 222). What Moffat really wants here is just one unique version of every person, with a struggle over his or her location and individual integrity.

The execution of the idea directorially is problematic as well when it comes to the spoonhead robots needed to complete this sci-fi process. They really become quite obvious by moving so slowly and suspiciously - suggesting that a very small percentage of their intended victims would actually get scooped up properly, while smashed robots, media attention with pictures, and organized responses from U.N.I.T. become more common.

The premise also gets muddled over the number of people caught up in this, and how deeply. Later sections want to suggest a near-total Matrix-like control over anyone and everyone, which never really gets set-up believably at any point.

Ultimately, the internet idea works best on the level of being a metaphor. Marshall McLuhan's book on Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man very cleverly points out how many of our technological advancements in creating new media, including such things as basic as the alphabet, industrial career specialization, and evolving forms of physical transport, all managed to change the way humans functioned in the world, how we viewed it, how we viewed ourselves and our personal boundaries. Each technology altered the speed and ease and style with which we could communicate with each other and our environment, sometimes radically, and the types of things we believed were important and entertaining and paid attention to evolved. Many of McLuhan's predictions about television turned out to be more true for the personal computer and the internet - a difference he did not predict in 1964. But the basic premise is that humanity's very nervous system extends electrically through a technology like the internet, and when use of this becomes the day-to-day norm for a person, other more basic aspects of our lives like our physical presence atrophy and become less used, less important, less skilled. How often do we come across people in public who are so absorbed in whatever they are doing with their portable devices that they seem to have no clue where they physically are or what is physically happening around them? Steven Moffat's story here plucks a nice archetypal thread with that theme, and plays up the fear factor a bit while running with it. A worthwhile exercise.

And on the whole, this metaphor is better fleshed out and better used than similar ideas about television back in "The Idiot's Lantern" (story no. 177). Additionally, one wonders if some of the abilities Oswald displayed back in "Asylum of the Daleks" (story no. 231) are completely explained by what happens to her here, or merely being hinted at? Stay tuned to find out more.

Partnership Charm

In a lot of ways though, the internet plot is just a typical adventuresome Doctor Who backdrop for the central focus of the story: The Doctor and the real Clara's "first date". Internet metaphors for their relationship are at work here again, in the sense that the Doctor's already been chatting with her avatars in "Asylum of the Daleks" and "The Snowmen", with "The Snowmen" metaphorically containing the first photo of her that he sees. The Doctor also feels that he has already got to know her, but like so many people starting out in any relationship (but especially internet ones), he has allowed himself to fill in too many of the blanks with characteristics from those alternate/fantasy versions of her (as people often do when they let their imagination run away too freely), and he sabotages his early attempts at good relations by not being on the same page as her, open to who she might uniquely be face to face.

Of course, there are many more metaphors that can be read into this tale, including the sequence of the Doctor trying to convince Clara to enter what she calls his "snog-box", followed by the whirlwind airplane sequence that eventually turns her world upside-down, which then fast-forwards into "the morning after". Only Moffat knows at this stage how much of this script was intended as relationship metaphor, or whether or not it tops "The Empty Child" (story no. 168, also by Moffat) in the sheer number of metaphoric references.

Thankfully, the episode remains fun and entertaining enough while focusing on these two. Smith and Coleman work well off of each other. They are compelling and hold the show together, infusing it with an infectious dose of the fun factor. Good stuff.

Business As Unusual

The visible antagonistic forces of the tale have a cool concept to work with and employ some clever stratagems not seen before on this show, but for the most part they are simply cookie-cutter corporate placeholders, and as such not all that interesting. Celia Imrie does alright with the major adversarial role of Miss Kizlet, thankfully avoiding the head-bobbing stereotype, but remains of limited interest. The real question of course is, who is "The Client" that they work for?

The reveal of the Great Intelligence is very good, with a few lines from a ghostly visual of Richard E. Grant helping to seal the recognition factor and indicate this villain's path of growth. We can assume that the Intelligence spawned in "The Snowmen" has continued to grow side by side with humanity during "The Abominable Snowmen" (story no. 38) and "The Web of Fear" (story no. 41), and now that it has reached the age of information, it has naturally found expression in digital form. Thus its place in Doctor Who chronology is working excellently, and this tale gets a huge boost in audience interest with this last minute reveal. But in this story, we've really only just been teased - "The Snowmen" was a more satisfying struggle with the Great Intelligence. Anticipation for yet another adventure with the Doctor vs. the Intelligence is firmly planted here, but will the next encounter deliver? This was a good lightweight encounter, but really leaves us wanting something bigger and more substantial.....

Director Colm McCarthy seems very ambitious and innovative, but sometimes this noticeably comes at the cost of polish. His attempt to disguise a cut just before the Doctor charges into the airplane remains noticeably jarring instead, since Matt Smith's body position just doesn't match believably - which is a pity since it was novel to go from outside the TARDIS to inside and back out to a whole new location all in one smooth camera move. Veteran fans like myself instinctively feel nervous when we see the TARDIS doors left open amongst an actively curious crowd, such as immediately after the Doctor emerges on a motorcycle. We wonder if the Doctor will remember to both close and lock the door, or if this "mistake" will be seized upon by the villain or otherwise create some kind of plot complication. Today it's just a continuity problem glossed over with mismatched shots, revealing sloppy and/or rushed direction. Then there's the whole problem of these slow and jerky base-station robots being able to fool and subjugate people, which becomes bizarre when one is shown to be able to imitate the Doctor with such quick, fluid charm and wit and agility.... until we learn what it is. Then, inexplicably, it returns to slow and jerky movements. Very weird.

Murray Gold produces one of the best and most unique and iconic scores of the season for this story. Of course, his themes for Clara have appeared before, most notably in "The Snowmen", but I think they are refined to their definitive versions here as we meet the real, actual traveling companion for the Doctor. The score also remains one of the most varied and successfully upbeat ones of the season, and is in strong competition to become my favourite of Season 33. Good stuff.
Music by Murray Gold
A full suite of music from the story
is available on the 2-disc audio CD album:
Doctor Who: Original Music from
Season 33 (aka "Series 7", 2012-13)

More info & buying options

Well, Steven Moffat has another winner on his hands as this turns out to be one of the better stories of the year. Though not quite as polished as "The Power of Three" (story no. 234) which also used a contemporary setting, this one has a stronger vein of keen anticipation running through it as it keeps the audience interested and on the hook to find out what will happen next and how future developments will unfold, which ultimately gives it a slightly better ranking. And the momentum into the next story is working quite powerfully indeed.....

International Titles:

Deutsch: "Die Glocken von Saint John"

Magyar: "Szent János harangjai"

Français: "Enfermés dans la toile"

Русский: "Колокола Святого Иоанна"

Italiano: "Le campane di St. John"

It is curious to see which languages decided to translate the name "John", and which left it in its original English. Meanwhile, the French cut through to a more obvious layer of this story, calling it "Locked in the Web".

This story has become available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Season 33 Box Set
15 episodes

NEW for
Sept. 24, 2013.

NEW for
Sept. 24, 2013.
Blu-ray U.S.

NEW for
Sept. 24, 2013.
Blu-ray Canada

NEW for
Sept. 24, 2013.

This 5-disc DVD box set includes
13 regular episodes, 2 Christmas specials,
4 audio commentaries, documentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and additional scenes.

The Blu-ray version has identical content in high definition spanning 4 discs.

This Region A/1 version (U.S. & Canada) is new for September 24, 2013.

Season 33 Box Set
15 episodes

NEW for
Oct. 28, 2013.
Blu-ray U.K.

NEW for
Oct. 28, 2013.
The Region 2 box set has identical content to its North American counterpart, except that it also has one additional extra feature called:
  • As Good as Gold

This Region B/2 version (for the U.K.) is new for October 28, 2013.

The music CD is new for September 9, 2013.

Check out this companion 2-disc Audio CD as well:

Doctor Who: Original Music from Season 33
(aka "Series 7", 2012-2013) by Murray Gold

More info & buying options (2-disc album)

This story is also available in an 8-episode volume with minimal extra features.
The U.K. version also includes the episode "The Snowmen"; North American versions do not.
Click on the Amazon symbol for the location nearest you for pricing and availability:

Standard DVD:
NTSC Region 1 - U.S.
NTSC Region 1 - Canada
PAL Region 2 - U.K.
Region A/1 - U.S.
Region A/1 - Canada
Region B/2 - U.K.
Bonus features vary from region to region.
You may get "The Companions" documentary (45 min.)
You will get some of the prequel scenes, but not all.

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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "The Rings of Akhaten"

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