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Clara Oswald Series 9 – Moving On

(Part of a series of “feminist takes” on Doctor Who companions. Spoilers for Doctor Who Series 8 and 9.)

When I watch Doctor Who, I live vicariously with both the Doctor and the companions. The Doctor gets to have power and to talk smack to the ruling class. The companions, meanwhile, get to take a break from their regular lives and go on a thrilling extended vacation. That’s my expectation, anyway. And when it’s broken I get seriously pissed off.

I like to see companions take a journey of personal growth and end up somewhere different-and better-than where they started. For me, the bar was set by Nyssa, who departed from the Tardis to hunt for a cure on a plague planet. (I’m deliberately not considering the possibility that the plague kills her.) Few companions have been treated that well, though. They’ve been killed, married off, suffered memory loss, simply been abandoned, or gotten stranded in time. And when I’m living vicariously through the companion, that’s disappointing.

In Series 9, Clara Oswald departs. Does the show do her justice? I’d say yes. She continues on the trajectory established in the Series 8 episode “Flatline,” in which she temporarily takes on the Doctor’s name and token of power to act like him. But as Clara becomes more and more like the Doctor, she’s also punished for it. She’s seen as a danger junkie. And in “Face the Raven,” her actions kill her. Definitively. We watch her die. Many fans are sad. I’m not sad. I don’t get sad when companions have bad endings: I get furious.


But two episodes later, in “Hell Bent,” we see her again. How is this possible? We’re in a time travel show. Clara is snatched out of time, just moments before her death, and in between one heartbeat and the next she has an infinity to explore. (She’s “in-between-finite,” a term I learned from you-tuber Vi Hart in an entertaining discussion of Pi.) She ends up with a Tardis and the ability to defer the moment of her death as long as she likes. In her last scene, she spins off in the Tardis to have adventures. She gets to fulfill her destiny as a wandering adventurer. Sweet.

Even sweeter: fanfiction writers are taking the scenario and running with it. On sites like Archive of our Own, Fanfiction.Net, and A Teaspoon and an Open Mind, people are paring up Clara and her traveling companion Ashildr and writing stories like crazy.

And so the story goes on.



Feminist Take: Clara Oswald Series 8

(Spoilers for Doctor Who Series 8)

In Doctor Who Series 8, companion Clara Oswald came into her own. The actress, Jenna Coleman, simply shone. She was strong, brittle, funny, powerful, beautiful, unique. And she continued to maintain her life outside the Tardis. But the storyline itself betrayed her by pitting her accomplishments on board the Tardis against an otherwise compelling relationship with a richly characterized man. In so doing, it failed both Clara Oswald and Danny Pink.

From the moment we meet Clara Oswald in Series 6, she is something more than human. She’s a human/Dalek hybrid who has resisted Dalek conversion better than anyone ever–so well that she takes over the Daleks’ telepathic world. She is plainly and simply human in the beginning of the first episode of Series 7, but in the middle of the show, she gets a brain upgrade of alien origin that makes her hyperintelligent. She’s off on a hero’s journey, and it’s amazing. Through it all, she never fails to maintain her connection to her “real life,” the life Human Clara had chosen for herself before becoming entangled with the Doctor.

Then the end of Series 7 hits and Clara has another upgrade of alien origin, one that splinters her throughout time and space to live a thousand different lives, playing the hero in each of them. She also literally enters the Doctor’s essence, getting to know him arguably better than any other companion–so much so that in later episodes she starts to become the Doctor.

So what is in store for her in Series 8? A smackdown. She starts a relationship with a man named Danny Pink, a former soldier with his own complicated past and his own heroic journey to undertake. Just as in Series 7, she attempts to keep her home life and Tardis life separate. But two people won’t let her: the Doctor and Danny Pink.

The Doctor, upon regenerating, has become more unstable than usual, and gone farther into an ethical gray zone. Toward Clara, he acts as a toxic combination of jealous boyfriend, protective grandfather, and military commander. He interferes in Clara’s life in “The Caretaker,” where he first meets Danny Pink and first starts to denigrate him by calling him a P.E. teacher when he actually teaches math. (We’re never told whether this is racism–Danny is black–or jealousy or just because Danny was a soldier, but my money’s on racism.)

Danny sees the abusive aspect of this relationship and names the Doctor, accurately, as a military commander. He predicts a moment when the Doctor will push Clara too far, and when that moment does come, he’s ready as a friend with a hug and some solid advice. But he oversteps himself and in so doing enters abusive-boyfriend territory.

Here’s the conversation that takes place after “The Caretaker.”

Danny says “I know men like him. I’ve served under them. They push you and make you stronger until you’re doing things you never thought you could. I saw you tonight. You did exactly what he told you, you weren’t even scared, and you should have been.”

This is a lovely, chill-down-the-back moment. Danny’s right.

Clara shrugs it off: “I trust him. He’s never let me down.”

Danny replies. “Fine. If he ever pushes you too far, I want you to tell me because I know what that’s like. You’ll tell me if that happens, yeah?”

Clara promises to tell him. So far, so good. Stop right here, and it’s a brilliant setup for the drama of the season.

But then Danny says, “If you break that promise, Clara, we’re finished. . . because if you don’t tell me the truth I can’t help you, and I could never stand not being able to help you. We’re clear?”

This is emotional manipulation. Instead of stopping at giving the her emotional support of a friend, an equal, he’s insisting on being her protector. And she never once calls him on it. She spends a fair bit of the season lying to him–going off with the Doctor and telling him she’s not–and I can only assume it’s because Danny has threatened to break off the relationship. This is not acceptable behavior.

Worse, Danny never acknowledges that Clara has been doing anything of import in her adventures aboard the Tardis. And we never see him asking about her past. Apparently, he’s satisfied with the half of Clara that likes to teach and hang out with him. Meanwhile, Clara’s perfectly willing to give Danny the impression she’s something less than she is. That shows a lack of respect for him.

While Clara and Danny are having their strange, dysfunctional relationship, Clara’s heroic journey is charging forward, full-steam ahead. In “Kill the Moon,” she confronts the Doctor to call him on his B.S. A few episodes later, in “Flatline, she literally takes on the role of the Doctor, complete with moniker, sonic screwdriver, and her own companion. She has a moment of epiphany when she asks herself, “What would the Doctor do?” and then corrects herself: “No. What would I do?” She has come fully into herself as a hero.

Then what? Two episodes later, in “Deep Water,” she gets a smackdown. Danny has confronted her about lying and said (finally!) that he’s okay with her traveling in the Tardis, as long as she doesn’t lie to him. So she starts off ready to confess everything. There’s an opportunity for them to finally have it out, for Clara to lay claim to her personal growth and accomplishments . . . but before she can manage it, Danny is suddenly killed (fulfilling the “Black Man Dies First” trope, by the way.). Clara is devastated. She finishes out the season as an emotional wreck. Her heroic journey is cut short.

There’s an age-old question this season appears to be playing out, badly. Can a woman be a good wife/mother/girlfriend and have her own life, too? Apparently not. We should just stay at home and let our men protect us.

This treatment wasn’t fair to Danny, either. It sidelined his own heroic journey, which was actually one of the most moving if you look at it in isolation. As an ex-soldier who left the army after accidentally killing a young boy, he became the one man to defy orders and save the Earth from Cybermen, and then, given the chance to return to life, sent the young boy instead.

I doubt the showrunner, writers, and editors meant to send the message they did. I think Danny’s sudden possessiveness, which destroyed Clara’s storyline for me, was just a slip-up. And that’s embarrassing. The show can and should do better.

Looking forward, in Series 9, it does. Mostly. But that’s a topic for another time.



Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s Companions

I’ve been working off and on over the years to create little bits of feminist analysis on the Doctor Who companions and thought I’d share them here. There’s a demand for “strong female characters” in our popular media, and the show has responded to it. Has it succeeded or failed? Both, of course. If there is a Feminist Ideal, and could a character live up to that ideal without being overly perfect, or contradictory, or both? I found myself in the strange position of judging the female characters. (Are they strong? Do they get to be the protagonists? To what extent are they the equal of the Doctor? Which stereotypes do they fit into, and which do they resist?) How catty of me.

So here are my links. None of them represent The Final Word on feminism, the companions, or anything else. They’re what I saw, as I saw it at the time.

Zoe Heriot from the Patrick Troughton years, seasons 5 and 6. I fail to provide any criticisms whatsoever, because she was the first companion I ever saw and I simply adore her. She’s in black and white, she’s a screamer, and she’s the best.

Amy Pond in “The Eleventh Hour.” The Doctor meets the little girl Amelia Pond, and this visit marks her for life and transforms her into his perfect traveling companion. He leaves in his TARDIS, promising to return in five minutes, but instead returns when she is a grown woman. Was this accidental, or deliberate? Whose purposes did it serve?

River Song in “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.”  Fan reaction has been mixed for this character, but I argue that she is powerful throughout. I might be reading more into this character than I should, but hey, it’s fun.

River Song after “The Time of Angels” and “Flesh and Stone.” I waffle back and forth between saying she’s a stereotype and saying she isn’t, and between saying she’s powerful and saying she’s not.

Clara Oswin Oswald after “Hide” and again after “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” and again after “The Crimson Horror.” Honestly, I don’t know what to think about her. Clara Who?

Clara Oswin Oswald in Series 8, written immediately afterward and again upon more reflection. She’s both extremely powerful and strangely mired in a bad relationship that depends on her pretending to be something she’s not.

And finally, Clara Oswin Oswald’s departure in Series 9.



zoe at tardis console


Fun this week

Much too much heavy thinking on this blog lately. Mental health break! What’s been fun in my life?

Last Tuesday’s Clarion West reading. Elizabeth Bear boggled my mind when she explained her writing schedule. Four hours of writing a day. Wow.

Friday’s Clarion West party. I got to chat with cool people, eat ridiculously delicious desserts, and drink in a view. Anybody can get invited to these, at least for next year. How did I get invited? By supporting Clarion West financially last year. Support the writeathon this year, and you’ll get invites for next year.

Visit from some family and a gorgeous, though way too long, hike through one of Seattle’s enormous parks.

Lots and lots of Gilmore Girls. My spouse and I usually just watch SF/F shows: Buffy, Angel, Orphan Black, Supergirl, Battlestar Galactica, you name it. (I left off Doctor Who because that’s mostly my obsession.) Then somebody said that Gilmore Girls was this amazing feminist class struggle thing and we started watching it, and for a while we kept expecting vampires to jump out at us, except they didn’t. The show is all about relationships: the single mother and her daughter; the daughter and her mother; the daughter, mother, and wealthy grandparents; boyfriends and fathers; and an entire small town.

Three great books, one of which ends on a cliffhanger. I won’t say which one, but the cliffhanger did not help my mental state one bit! I would ask the author to please, please, please write a follow-up.

Dragonheart by Cecelia Holland. Vivid and primordial story of a castle by a sea, a dragon, and a cursed princess. The quote on the front of the book by Kim Stanley Robinson says the book takes these images and “plunges them right into your unconscious,” and he would not be wrong.

Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown. Wow, wow, and wow! When the Jewish “modern girl” in 1935 New York gets accidentally knocked up, what’s she going to do? Especially since her 42-year-old mother is in the same situation. I feel like I got plopped down right in their little apartment and met all their friends and relatives. Everything about mothering felt genuine to me, too–all the ambivalence, the love, and the hard work. Overall, a remarkable read, fun without being candy, deep and thoughtful without being a downer. I want more.

(As a side note, it also had an odd resonance with Gilmore Girls and with all the things I’ve been pondering about shadow work.)

Doctor Who: Borrowed Time by Naomi A. Alderman. The Doctor and his companions Amy and Rory must save people who borrowed time and must pay it back . . . at compounding interest. A sharp and stinging critique of capitalism, also funny and with heart. It’s unfortunate that I skimmed this book before reading it–my son read it first, and I was helping him with his homework by looking for a character who changed in the course of the book. Enjoyable nonetheless!

The Terrible Zodin – Doctor Who fanzine I’ve just barely started to read. Like it!

– Kristin

modern girls cover

Shadow Work by Ivan Illich

In my previous post, “Mothering in the Shadow,” I introduced some concepts from the book Shadow Work by Ivan Illich, published in 1981 and available in full online. Overall, the book is a mixed bag, but it introduces groundbreaking concepts that have serious potential for feminist, environmental, and anti-capitalist movements. So I’ll give a short introduction to Illich and his ideas, briefly touch on their flaws, and then move on to a discussion of how the ideas could be used.

About Ivan Illich

Among other things, Illich is a medieval historian. It gives him a unique perspective on modern life: much we take for granted about the world around us is socially constructed. Although he has a tendency to glamorize past societies, he can see economic systems in ways others don’t.

How he defines work

Most basically, what he’s saying is that wage labor created another kind of labor: unpaid activities that make wage labor possible in the first place, or shadow work. There is also a third kind of labor, subsistence work, which competes with wage labor.

Shadow work includes all kinds of unpaid labor: transportation to and from a job, the maintenance of automobiles, the work of purchasing commodities, the housework and other supporting activities a wife does to enable a husband to do wage labor, and childrearing, which supplies future wage labor.

Subsistence work would be playing a guitar instead of buying a record, growing a backyard garden instead of going to the supermarket, and feeding a baby at the breast instead of from a bottle.

How he defines economies

He sees economies as having three dimensions. The first is a continuum between left and right — communism and capitalism. To him, they’re flawed in the same way. Both do what he calls “welfare” – though meaning something different than our current welfare system. To him, “welfare” means distributing industrialized products that are ultimately inferior to their subsistence counterparts, but which then take the place of those counterparts.

The second is a continuum between hard and soft — that is, most technologically advanced to least. Again, he doesn’t necessarily see a difference in value between the two.

The third is from consumption to production — that is, from market economies to subsistence economies. This one is very important to him. Illich believes people are better off “when a community chooses a subsistence-oriented way of life. There, the inversion of development, the replacement of consumer goods by personal action, of industrial tools by convivial tools is the goal. There, both wage labor and shadow work will decline . . .” (p. 14)

The flaws in his ideas

Don’t take me as an expert on Illich, because I’ve only read one of his books, and only one time through. But as far as I can tell, he’s much too taken by subsistence economies. In his body of work, he disparages modern medicine and universal education in such a way as to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

He is also naively unaware of how power operates. Any attempt to convert a market-based economy to one based on subsistence is going to be opposed by the ruling class, which has military and propaganda on its side. Wage labor and shadow work won’t decline on their own.

Next up, although he says he doesn’t see much difference between capitalism and communism (“the capitalist and the commisar”), most of the book deals with the market economy and wage labor.

Finally, as much as I love his separation of shadow work and subsistence, there’s a relationship between them that he hasn’t parsed. If shadow work is everything that supports a wage laborer, subsistence work like backyard gardening would also support a wage laborer, by making the person cheaper to feed.

The takeaway for feminism

So yes, Illich’s analysis has flaws. At the same time, it was groundbreaking to observe that there is a whole category of work that our economy ignores.

Feminists have been talking about this for a long time but with a slightly different focus. Feminists have complained that men work for pay and women do housework and childcare without pay. But that leads to an easy mistake: the idea that making men and women equal will somehow make this unpaid labor go away. But we’ve found that it doesn’t. Women have entered the workforce and men have stayed at home, and the unpaid labor is still a problem. Because women bear children and are their first caregivers, no matter how much we work toward gender equality, we are still saddled with work without pay.

So what happens if we take a good, hard look at all the shadow work that gets done? Not only childrearing and housework but transportation, volunteer jobs — everything? People of every gender should be outraged at all the free labor we’ve been snookered into doing for the benefit of the one percent, without getting even our basic needs done in return.

The takeaway for anticapitalist work

I’ve spent a lot of time with people who want to abolish capitalism but don’t have the least idea how to go about it. They’ve put a lot of work toward that end, but they’ve still been stuck with myths about how our economy works. Without a clear understanding, how can they know whether what they’re doing is actual resistance, or just shadow work under a new guise?

Meanwhile, the unchecked growth of the economy is continuing to lead toward environmental devastation and the fulfillment of a prophecy made in the 1970s that sometime within the next hundred years we will suffer a collapse of our economy and our population. Capitalism might well abolish itself, in which case we need to be ready to replace it with a workable replacement. And subsistence has to be part of it.

Failures of capitalism to provide for the common good of countries are already happening, of course. What happens then? Does a subsistence economy step in? For example, in 2001 the economy collapsed in Argentina and communities found new ways of coping–the book Horizontalism, ed. Marina Sitrin, tells that story. Where else has the economy failed, and what have communities done to make ends meet? We can look at history all we like, but we won’t understand the answer until we know how subsistence work plays a part.


Worth the read

All in all, this book is well worth the read. Absorb it with a grain of salt, or maybe a teaspoon. And a glossary. (He makes up words, or takes words from contemporary thinkers, and uses them without properly defining them first. He also takes words with commonly accepted meanings and assigns them new meanings, also usually without defining them. )

In keeping with his opposition to the commodification of labor, he doesn’t appear to have copyrighted it, and it is available for free download here.

Picture of a shadow on the floor


Elementary School “Book Swap”

This month I hosted a “book swap” for my child’s elementary school. It’s an idea that’s been rolling around in my mind for quite a while–I initially thought it would be great to have a book exchange party in which my kids and their friends could swap books they liked. But one thing led to another . . .

The book swap was much easier than I expected, and a lot more fun! Here’s a quick recap of what I did and how I went.

First, I approached the principal and the PTA with the idea. They suggested that I do the book swap in conjunction with a PTA “family partnership night.” Those happen regularly and involve games and free pizza. So I signed on to host the family partnership night and got some help. Then I sent out communication to the school well ahead of time, including both online and paper announcements. I was hoping for lots of people and lots of books!

Then I found some books to prime the pump. It turns out that there are usually tons of books for lower grades, but not so many for higher grades. I went to a thrift store and found some appealing upper-grade books for about a dollar each. It would alternatively have been a good idea to solicit donations from middle-schoolers. I also reached out through my local “Buy Nothing” Facebook group and left a box in the office so people could donate books early. Finally, the kids and I worked on clearing our own shelves.

The day of the event, I showed up early to order the pizza and to put out signs on the cafeteria tables, so that the people who brought in books could organize them roughly by grade level (pre-K through 1st, 2nd & 3rd, and 4th & above). I didn’t have to do the organizing myself because the kids were all over it.

We had a gorgeous spread of books by the time we were done! It was heavy on the picture books and light on the books for fourth graders and above, but there were at least some.

Kids were allowed to take 2 books each to start off with. Once everybody had taken two books, it was more of a free-for-all. When we were done, about half the books had been taken and half remained.

And that was it! Really fun and easily manageable.

I asked other people on the Soup for Teachers Facebook page if they’d done anything similar, and people have. Here were some of the responses I got:

  • One school hands out “book bucks.” Kids who bring books get one “book buck” for each book they bring in. But every student gets a “book buck,” whether they brought books or not.
  • Another school takes donations and then uses volunteers to sort them. Each student then gets the same number of books.
  • Another school does the swap during school hours, classroom by classroom. They get books from a variety of places, from the thrift store to the spring library sale to Goodwill. Then students visit, one classroom at a time, and each student takes one book.

Has anybody else done a book swap for a school? How did it work? Would you do it again?


image from

New Who to Try

The question came up: “What’s the big deal about Doctor Who? I’ve watched a couple episodes and couldn’t get into it at all.” Tastes differ, and not everybody is going to like it. But if you’re one of the people who might like it and might not, here are some episodes worth trying.

They’re not necessarily my favorite episodes, but they’re ones that might be good for a new viewer.

I’ve only included episodes through the end of Series 8, leaving out Series 9. I would not recommend that series as a starter.

Ninth Doctor – Christopher Eccleston

Rose. This episode kicked off the first series of New Who, introducing the various characters. It’s fun and exciting and silly.

Aliens of London / World War III. Smart political satire mixed in with fart jokes.

Father’s Day. This is a good one for people who like sentimental stories and stories where time travel is explored in new and interesting ways.

The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances. This two-parter won a well-deserved Hugo award.

Tenth Doctor – David Tennant

The Girl in the Fireplace. Adventure in which time travel lends emotional depth to the plot.

The Runaway Bride. Comedy-horror. Actress Catherine Tate is magnificent.

The Shakespeare Code. If you like Shakespeare, you’ll enjoy visiting the actual Globe theater. The monster plot is fun too.

Blink. Seriously frightening monsters. Also, time travel done well.

Partners in Crime. Comedy-espionage with monsters made of human fat.

The Fires of Pompeii. Apocalypse story, as you visit Pompeii and see why it burned.

The Unicorn and the Wasp. The Doctor and Donna meet Agatha Christie and together they solve the classic drawing-room mystery. Also, giant flying wasp.

Midnight. This is a one-scene psychological drama.

Eleventh Doctor – Matt Smith

The Eleventh Hour. This episode features a new Doctor, new traveling companions, and a new storytelling style. It’s sweet and funny and a good place to start.

Victory of the Daleks. Not a bad Dalek episode to start out with. It encapsulates the scariness and the silliness of the number one Doctor Who monster.

The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood. Antiwar plot.

Vincent and the Doctor. A visit with Vincent Van Gogh. Bittersweet, as the Doctor and his traveling companion both know his ultimate fate.

The Lodger. It’s your classic romantic comedy, except for the scary something on the top floor.

The Curse of the Black Spot. Pirate story!

The Doctor’s Wife. Neil Gaiman wrote this one. The time machine finally gets to speak for herself, and she’s amazing.

The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People. Good sci fi with dopplegangers.

Night Terrors. Proper scary. Don’t show it to your kids.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. Adventure. Dinosaurs. Spaceship. Fun.

The Snowmen. Victorian thriller.

Hide. Ghost story set in the 1980s.

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. This is if you like your time travel hard core and don’t mind getting dizzy.

The Crimson Horror. Lovely Victorian crime drama. Starring Diana Riggs as the villain.

Twelfth Doctor – Peter Capaldi

Deep Breath. This episode features a brand new Doctor, who is much more cantankerous than the last several.

Time Heist. Your classic bank heist fun.

Kill the Moon. This is a strange episode. It features the Doctor abandoning the fate of Earth to three generations of women.

Flatline. Homage to Flatland.

From left to right: Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi. From

From left to right: Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi. From



Some of the Doctor Who companions, 1963 to present. From


And, of course, the time machine.




Visions of Eternity in Doctor Who: “Heaven Sent”

(Spoilers for Doctor Who Series 9).

The Doctor Who episode “Heaven Sent” is arguably the scariest Doctor Who episode ever to air. It’s the only one where the Doctor, the man who “saves us from the monsters” is completely and believably terrified. He’s trapped in a torture chamber designed specifically to frighten him into divulging a secret. It’s a horrific clockwork castle with rooms that not only move but also  reset themselves at regular intervals, offering him the same nightmares over and over again. When he reaches the end of the nightmare, he dies, forgetting everything, and the whole process starts over again.  It takes him four and a half billion years to escape and face the people who put him in there: the Time Lords.

It’s frightening enough on its own, but it’s also a metaphor for the Doctor’s entire existence. As a Time Lord, he was entitled to a small number of regenerations, where his old body is utterly consumed by fire and a new body is born. By the end of Series 7, the Eleventh Doctor had used them all up and settled down to a comfortable retirement. But the Time Lords stepped in to intervene, and gave him a bunch more regenerations. How many? Who knows! It could be ten, or an infinite number, or four and a half billion.

This knowledge haunts the Twelfth Doctor, as we see in the episode “Kill the Moon.” The Doctor, threatened with shooting, says,

Oh, well you’re just going to have to shoot us, then. . .  You’ll have to spend a lot of time shooting me because I will keep on regenerating.  In fact, I’m not entirely sure if I won’t keep on regenerating forever.

He says it with such cold fury that we see this knowledge hurts badly. In fact, it’s a plausible explanation for why the Twelfth Doctor wakes up so irritable and caustic. He knows he’s trapped.

He’s trapped, and he’s alone, just as he will be in the clockwork castle. “Immortality isn’t living forever,” he explains to Clara. “That’s not what it feels like. Immortality is everybody else dying.”

The Doctor does eventually get out of the clockwork castle trap set by the Time Lords. In the episode “Hell Bent,” which follows “Heaven Sent,” the Doctor ends up on Gallifrey. He battles the Time Lords and rescues Clara, then escapes Gallifrey, lets go of Clara, and completes his grieving process. In the end, he takes off in his TARDIS, all set for the next adventure.

But the metaphor of the clockwork castle stands. And “Hell Bent” reminds us of that metaphor through a series of visual echoes, scattered throughout the show.


The first visual echo is the Doctor eating a bowl of soup and then setting down his spoon. In the clockwork castle, he drops it in shock as he realizes he might have to go on like this forever. On Gallifrey, he uses the act of eating soup as an accusation to the Time Lords. When they ask him to “drop his weapons,” he puts down his soup spoon.

The second echo is the moment when the Doctor puts on his coat. In the clockwork castle, he comes into a room with a fireplace after having jumped into the sea. He finds a velvet coat drying on a rack, takes hold of it, pauses, and puts it on. Then he leaves his wet coat on the same rack to dry. After he dies, the next version of himself who comes out of the transporter will find that same coat. In “Hell Bent,” he enters the TARDIS without the velvet coat. He had taken it off when facing down the Time Lords, as a symbol that he was setting aside his role as the Doctor. Now that he’s in his TARDIS, he takes hold of the velvet coat, pauses, and puts it on.

The third echo is a gruesome one. In “Heaven Sent,” after he has been mortally injured by a monster known as the Veil, he returns to the transporter room, which like the other rooms has reverted to its original state and is therefore holding his pattern. It has no power, so the Doctor burns up his current body in order to provide the necessary energy. To do so, he pulls down on a metal handle that is just like the handle he pulls on in “Hell Bent” to dematerialize the TARDIS.

What is the message we are left with here? Is the universe itself an endlessly repeating hell for the Doctor? Did the Time Lords trap him in the land of the living by giving him an infinite number of regenerations?

I think that yes, this metaphor is part of the message of “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent.” And this isn’t the first time such a metaphor has appeared. In the sixth series episode “The God Complex,” a minotaur is trapped in a spaceship that picks up passersby, sets them loose in a maze that looks like a hotel, scares them into turning to their faith, and feeds their faith to the minotaur. The Doctor frees the minotaur, saying:

An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocent, drifting in space through an endless shifting maze. For such a creature, death would be a gift.

The minotaur says something only the Doctor can understand, and the Doctor steps back in shock, saying, “I didn’t mean me!”

Despite his protests, the Doctor does understand the parallel. He also feeds on the faith of his companions, and upon occasion, they also die. He takes the metaphor to heart and drops Amy and Rory off at home, to have their own domestic adventures without him.

He tries to, at least. Like the minotaur, he can’t seem to leave his companions alone. He returns for Amy and Rory and they continue having adventures until tragedy strikes. Likewise, he keeps coming back for his companion Clara, even though he knows she’s risking her life, until she is definitively killed in “Face the Raven.” Even then, he can’t let her go.

And his inability to let go of Clara is what keeps him trapped in the clockwork castle. He could leave at any time simply by telling the Time Lords what they want to know, but instead he chooses to withhold that information for use as a bargaining chip in order to cheat death and save Clara.

In “The God Complex” and “Heaven Sent,” then, we have two visions of eternity, and both are horrible. In one, the Doctor is a monster who can’t release his companions, and in the other, he faces billions of years of torment alone. Is a third vision possible?

It definitely is, and I hope future showrunners will build it. If the Doctor has to face eternity, he shouldn’t have to face it alone. He deserves the company of equals who are also immortal — and who are not his enemy.

The Doctor has been depicted as the man who is always alone, but this is not fundamental to the mythology. In the beginning of the show, he traveled with a granddaughter and her two teachers. In other words, he traveled with family. He was almost never left alone until New Who, and his companions almost never died. 

Of course, actors always leave their roles, and companions always leave the Doctor. But few of these partings have to be forever. People can reappear either on-screen or off. The character of River Song, for example, died in “Silence of the Library,” but her past self continues to show up.

Series 9 has in fact given the Doctor some company in the universe. In the episode “The Girl Who Died,” the Doctor, tired of losing people, finagles immortality for a woman named Me. And in “Hell Bent,” Clara becomes not infinite but in-between-finite. Her death is a fixed point in time. But her body has been magically paused “between one heartbeat and the next,” and she is now free to roam the universe on her way back to her regularly scheduled death.

The Doctor never has to be fully separated from River, or from Me, or from Clara. River wanders all over time and space, and he’s bound to encounter her sooner or later. Me apparently sticks it out until the end of the universe and then moves backward in time to do it all over again. As for Clara, although Clara must stay away from the Doctor, she continues to live with him as a story, or a beautiful song.

So perhaps that moment in “Hell Bent,” when the Doctor puts on his coat and pulls the handle for the dematerialization circuit, is not so grim after all. Maybe, as he’s getting ready to explore the universe, he’ll be in good company. It’s the next second of eternity, and the Doctor has barely begun.

– Kristin


By Robbert van der Steeg (originally posted to Flickr as Eternal clock), via Wikimedia Commons

Ambiguity in Doctor Who: “Hell Bent”

The character of the Doctor in the Steven Moffat era is a trickster. As the Matt Smith incarnation says, “Rule One: The Doctor lies.” In the Doctor Who episodes “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent,” the Doctor’s lie is critical to our literal understanding of events.

Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t watched these two episodes, you don’t want to hear what I’m about to say.

The narrative arc in Series 9 hinges on a monster known only as “the Hybrid.” The Hybrid, as prophesied, is a combination of two powerful warrior races that will either bring peace or fracture time itself. What is the Hybrid? And who knows its true nature?

Perhaps the Doctor knows. In the episode “Hell Bent,” he ends up in a torture chamber where he is repeatedly interrogated by a creature who kills him if he does not confess the truth. He makes two statements. The first is a confession, which means it must be true. The second is not a confession and may or may not be true.



Long before the Time War, the Time Lords knew it was coming. Like a storm on the wind. There were many prophecies and many stories. Legends before the fact. One of them was about a creature called the hybrid. Half-Dalek, half-Time Lord. The ultimate warrior. But whose side would it be on? Would it bring peace or destruction? Was it real or a fantasy? I confess, I know the Hybrid is real. I know where it is and what it is. I confess, I’m afraid.

Possibly true:

Hello again. No more confessions, sorry. But I will tell you the truth. The Hybrid is a very dangerous secret. A very very dangerous secret. And it needs to be kept! So I’ll tell you nothing.

After escaping the torture chamber, he makes two more statements about the Hybrid.

He tells the Gallifreyans:

The Hybrid is not a half-Dalek, nothing is half-Dalek. The Daleks would never allow that. The Hybrid, destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins… is me.

That statement alone could mean two different people: “me, the Doctor” or Me, the woman that the Doctor immortalized. In fact, both “me’s” do end up standing in the ruins of Gallifrey.

But he later implies to Clara that he does not know the identity of the Hybrid, saying:

It doesn’t matter what the Hybrid is. It only matters that I convinced them that I knew. Otherwise they’d have kicked me out and I’d have nothing left to bargain with.

Finally, when he reaches the universe where he finds only the woman Me, she asks him about the Hybrid. He reiterates that he does not know and offers several theories, and then she offers an interpretation that he acknowledges is plausible.

Me suggests that the Hybrid is a combination of the Doctor and Clara, traveling the universe together. Her two pieces of evidence are the damage to time that he has wreaked in trying to save Clara, and the fact that Missy, “the lover of chaos,” brought Clara to him. He accepts this and allows himself to be separated from Clara.

As viewers, we are also asked to accept this interpretation of the Hybrid. And we do, but only because it’s the most recent one given. The Doctor does not know what the Hybrid is. In the torture chamber, he pretended to know so that he could ultimately escape and save Clara. He was motivated, then, by his love for his friend. A plot of epic proportions narrows itself down to a touching personal event.

But there’s another, deeper reading. In the torture chamber, the Doctor allowed himself to be killed billions of times rather than reveal the secret of the hybrid to Rassilon, the power-hungry President of the Time Lords. When he said the secret was too dangerous ever to be told, the Doctor was telling the truth.

It can get even scarier. The Doctor had three options in the torture chamber: tell the truth and theoretically escape, refuse to tell the truth and allow himself to die the final death, or follow an escape route that requires him to be killed and resurrected billions of times. He takes this last option so that he can save Clara.

Well, suppose the Hybrid is Clara herself. She’s been a Dalek — twice — and has in certain ways become the Doctor. She fits the exact wording of some of the prophecies, which is that the Hybrid is a Dalek/Time Lord combination. If Clara is the Hybrid, then the Doctor’s determination to save her is still personal, but the personal has become an epic struggle for the future of the universe.

That interpretation also changes the meaning of all Peter Capaldi’s interactions with Clara. At the end of “Flatline,” the first episode where Clara is shown explicitly becoming the Doctor (of sorts), Capaldi concerns himself largely with Clara’s moral development. This effort continues throughout Series 8 and 9 and culminates in “The Zygon Inversion” when she does help bring peace. Suppose he knew she was the Hybrid of prophecy, and he spent all that time helping her find the right path. It’s only one of many possibilities for the Hybrid, but I confess I like it best. It gives all the Doctor’s interactions a deeper layer of meaning. There’s more to the world than we can ever see.

Which lie did the Doctor tell? Did he know or not? Who is the Hybrid? Is it still out there, ready to fracture time or bring peace? It will probably always be a mystery. And that’s delicious.

Update #3 to the Feminist Take on Clara Oswald

A couple years back, I started a series of “feminist takes” on Doctor Who companions, including Amy Pond, River Song, and Clara Oswald. I looked at ways they were, or were not, poster children for feminism.

But after three posts on Clara Oswald, I just plain gave up. She was such a squirrelly character that I couldn’t say anything definitive about her. As far as I’m concerned, she breaks feminist analysis. Maybe it’s a mistake to give characters “poster child” awards.

Here’s a recap of my commentary from Season 7. In the first post, I suggested that the character of Clara was suffering from a Bechdel test failure, but that even so, she was pretty amazing — in face, a mirror of the Doctor.

In my next post, I looked at the interactions between Clara and the TARDIS, arguing that it passed the Bechdel test and helped explore her character. But I also felt she was too perfect and not recognizably human. (I wonder if that’s why some fans have had strong negative reactions to her: maybe she’s an uncanny valley character.)

In the last post, I admitted defeat. I thought Modern Clara was a cardboard cutout of a person, but when you combined her with Dalek Clara and Victorian Clara, you got a rich characterization. But I decided to hold my opinions for later.

I didn’t put a post together after the stunning reveal of “Day of the Doctor.” To be honest, I didn’t know what to say. It was just beautiful and strange and blew my mind.

After “Day of the Doctor,” I believed everything Clara said and did. Dalek Clara and Victorian Clara suddenly made sense. Modern Clara did not. Modern Clara was acting like the post-transformation Clara. That’s going to bother me every time I watch Series 7. But it’s a critique of the narrative, not of the feminism. So I didn’t make an update.

Clara was amazing through most of Series 8. She was part human, with all the frailties and strengths a woman would have. But her character was also merging with the Doctor’s. I loved that. As a Doctor Who fan, part of me has always wanted to run off with him in the TARDIS and be his “Doctor Who Girl” (nod to Mitch Benn). And part of me has always wanted to be him. So I got to live vicariously. The episode “Flatline,” where she gets to play the part of the Doctor while he’s stuck inside her Mary Poppins carpetbag, was funny and amazing and thought-provoking too. Loved it.

Also fabulous: Series 8 Clara is transformed. She’s jumped into the Doctor’s – what? Mind? Time stream? She’s been thousands of people who were just as amazing as Dalek Clara and Victorian Clara. After that transformation, I believed every “too good to be true” moment.

Not so great: the narrative didn’t respect her transformation. She got this weird plotline in which she was trying to have a normal life with this Danny Pink character, but she kept lying to him, and she was blamed for all the lies. The Verity podcasters suggested it was an addiction storyline, which I guess it was. But why? Why expect that it would ever be possible for post-transformation Clara to live a normal life? The disconnect jarred me. But once again, it’s a critique of the narrative, not the feminism.

Now here we are in Series 9. This is the “Clara is going to die” series. Also the “Oh, and then she didn’t” series. But in “Face the Raven,” she really did. Except the actress is going to appear in the series finale, “Hell Bent.” How-what-who-I-don’t-even-know-what’s-going-on.

So I have nothing to say, really. I’m on a roller coaster and it’s about to plunge into the depths of the unknown. Maybe when the ride stops, I’ll have something sufficiently feministy to say.

Maybe not.