After multiple episodes of watching the Doctor fruitlessly shake his tiny fist at the why-are-there-multiples-of-her mystery that is Clara “Oswin” Oswald, the seventh season finale of Doctor Who at last takes on the big question: the hell is up with Clara?
Cue “Gallifrey, a very long time ago,” where Clara pops up to tell the First Doctor, just before he steals the TARDIS (and if that isn’t inserting Clara into the seminal moment, well, I don’t know what is), “Sorry, but you’re about to make a very big mistake.” Sassy, starting to tell the Doctor what’s what on Day One! Also, who, where, what, how? Let’s let Clara try to explain:
“It’s like I’m breaking into a million pieces, and there’s only one thing I remember. I have to save the Doctor” As if in a dream, intervening Doctors rush by Clara; only One and Eleven will ever interact with her. “I blew into this world on a leaf,” Clara declares, referring to the “hey, don’t get hit by that car — you know what, marry me!” wafting leaf that got her folks together. “I’m still blowing.”
Oh, how I guffawed! I mean, for real, that wasn’t the best phrasing. Ahem. Back to the mystery!
“I don’t think I’ll ever land,” she continues as we watch flashes of Victorian Clara (not that one, but that one) and Oswin Clara. “I’m Clara Oswald, the Impossible Girl. I was born to save the Doctor.” Well, that’s us told! Mystery solved! Except, wait, what?
Steven Moffat wrote this episode. *pauses* Just so we’re clear.
“Do you hear the Whisper Men?” a haunting voice asks (in London 1893, so expect the Paternoster Gang, okay?). “Do not hear the Whisper Men, whatever else you do. For once you hear the Whisper Men, they’ll stop and look at you.” Hoh-lee-guac-a-mole, that’s already the scariest bit, and I haven’t even seen the Whisper Men yet (though at this point I was already imagining them as those horrifying Gentlemen from BtVS’s “Hush”, given the nursery-rhyme warning especially).
Our creeper-rhymer prisoner tells Madam Vastra “a word from you could save me.” “Then you may rely on my silence,” she returns sharply, because damn, he’s killed at least fourteen women. Nope, nothing he can say will save his neck! “The Doctor!” Welp, those are the magic words. “In the babble of the world, there are whispers, if you know how to listen,” he says ominously. Told the Doctor has a secret, Vastra snaps, “He has many.” Not the one “he will take to the grave”: “It is discovered.” Uh. That can’t be good.
Vastra and Jenny Flint spring into action, organizing “a conference call” with invitations and candles. Hey, where’s Strax? Where he is on all his weekends off: at some place in Glasgow where guys to go beat each other up for fun. Wow, we’re starting the barely-sublimated male homoeroticism early days this ep, huh? When a telegram summons him back home, he asks his companion to knock him out cold, as one does.
“Sleep well, my love,” Vastra and Jenny wish each other before they slump at a séance table. “We’ll trap them where the Doctor ends/The trap is set for the Doctor’s friends,” eerie voices intone. They wake in a dream-state location tea party and are soon joined by Strax, who grumbles, “I was in the middle of destroying some very pleasant primitives.” You can get back to your date later, Strax.
Who else is coming? “The women.” Hmm.
At the Maitlands, Clara’s all set to blow another soufflé! I bet the Maitland kids eat pizza a lot. “This time I will be soufflé girl,” Clara says (reminiscent of her Oswin incarnation), noting that her mum said, “The soufflé isn’t the soufflé, the soufflé is the recipe.” Gosh. I kind of think the soufflé is the soufflé (this could be a clue as to why Clara’s efforts fail all over the place).
Whoops, Angie almost forgot to hand Clara her letter, which instructs her to open it when alone.
Vastra has enclosed a candle which will “release a soporific” to put Clara in a trance state, but “I have taken the liberty of embedding the same soporific into the letter you are now holding.” Ahahahahaha! That’s both creepy and awesome. Despite the inspiration-for-Sherlock-Holmes backstory for Vastra and Jenny, she’s a bit like BBC Sherlock‘s Mycroft at times; I can see her kidnapping the hell out of people in her coach.
“Time travel is always possible in dreams,” Vastra explains on Clara’s arrival. Say what now? *becomes a lucid dreamer* Just waiting on the one last guest with the gigantic hair. Ladies and Strax, Professor River Song! Though offered tea, River is soon sipping champagne. “How did you do that?” “Disgracefully,” River says with glee.
Now, the party don’t start ’til River walks in!
Sure, the Doctor mentioned Professor Song, but “I never realized you were a woman,” Clara notes. Gosh, gee, Clara would never ever think an expert the Doctor mentioned might be a gal! Strax’s “Well, neither did I,” is silly Sontaran gender-confusion diversion; if we’re going the petty jealousies between people in the Doctor’s life route, there are cleverer ways to go than this.
Here’s creepy!prisoner’s bargaining chip: “Space time coordinates,” River knows, because she’s awesome. It’s the location of “the Doctor’s greatest secret.” And hey, if anyone thought differently, the Doctor doesn’t share his secrets with anyone, nohow, contrariwise! “If you’re still entertaining the idea that you’re the exception to this rule,” River tells Clara, “ask yourself one question: what is his name?” Burn! But hey River, your mum got tripped up by this same question.
Guess who does know the Doctor’s name? River, baby! Clara looks slightly bamboozled at River’s claim she “made him” and revelation he’s “a little more than a friend” (well, mostly wide-eyed, which is sort of a thing for Coleman) while Jenny seems uneasy. “He never contacted you?” Vastra asks River, who says “He doesn’t like endings.” He sure doesn’t.
Creepy!prisoner bought Vastra’s attention with one word: Trenzalore. While River demands Vastra explain, Jenny tries to interrupt, realizing “someone’s broken in” where their bodies are. “Sorry, ma’am, so sorry,” Jenny breathes, crying. “I think I’ve been murdered.” She fades out of the liminal space. Oh my god, this was a beautifully done devastating moment, but Jenny dying is NOT OKAY! *breaks the teapot*
“You’re under attack,” River exclaims, she slaps Vastra and throws champagne on Strax, waking them in their respective locations surrounded by Whisper Men. Hey, they ARE reminiscent of “The Gentlemen” of Buffy fame, though their Victorian garb replaces the Gentlemen’s mortician-style suits, and the Gentlemen’s defined skull-faces are replaced with blurs of white visages, only their toothy maws defining them.
Moments later, the Whisper Men menace Clara and River, causing the face of Walter Simeon (he of the Great Intelligence) to appear and utter a message for the Doctor: “His friends are lost forevermore/Unless he goes to Trenzalore.”
Clara returns from this stress-fess to find the Maitland kids have tricked the Doctor into letting them slip out to the cinema by pretending he’s it in Blind Man’s Bluff. “The little…Daleks!” the Doctor exclaims. Clara mentions River, who the Doctor acknowledges as an ex (Clara wide-eyes again). When Clara explains the message, Matt Smith performs an absolutely lovely quietly emotional reaction, breaking into tears in the most heart-breaking way before he pulls himself together and rushes to the TARDIS.
“I’ve heard the name of course,” the Doctor mutters of Trenzalore, though he never wanted to find out. “River would know, though, River always knows,” he says absently, and though I wish we heard more about River ALL THE TIME I like how quickly he slips back into counting her as so crucial in the game here. Time to link up Clara psychically to the TARDIS: the coordinates will be in her memory.
Trenzalore is the Doctor’s version of Avalon, his own “place no time traveler must go in all of space and time”; it’s where he’s buried. But he has to save Vastra and Strax, “Jenny too, if possible,” because they cared for him during the dark times. Oh endangered Paternoster Gang! D: How do they save them? “By breaking into my own tomb.” Yikes!
The TARDIS rebels against landing on Trenzalore, fighting the Doctor crossing “my own timeline in the biggest way possible.” When she shuts down, they look at the desolate cracked lava-marked planet below, while the Doctor muses “I always thought I’d retire, take up watercolors or beekeeping or something” (you and Sherlock, Doctor). Should they jump? “Don’t be silly; we fall!” It’s off with the Anti-Gravs and boom goes the TARDIS to the surface!
Because the Doctor’s time-traveled more than anyone else, his grave is “potentially the most dangerous place in the universe.” Okay, this makes no sense whatsoever to me, but *Moffat-hand-waves explanations*. “It’s a battle graveyard,” he explains to Clara, with the bigger gravestones denoting higher ranks. Uh, what’s that there GINORMOUS looming TARDIS? Who’s the highest ranking ever? “Hell of a monument,” Clara comments. It’s the real TARDIS, size-leaked (the bigger-on-the-inside seeps out to the outside, savvy?):
A wild River appears! “Don’t speak, don’t say my name,” she pleads to Clara, to whom she is linked because the “conference call” “kept the line open.” “River,” the Doctor breathes; he’s seen her gravestone.
While whispers murmur, “This man must fall, as all men must/the fate of all is always dust,” Clara echoes River’s instructions that “maybe it’s a false grave”. Indeed, says the Doctor: “They’d never bury my wife out here.” While Clara wide-eyes that, River helps, suggesting her grave “is the secret entrance to the tomb,” which Clara obligingly echoes.
Elsewhere on Trenzalore, Vastra demands Strax, “Get [dead Jenny] back for me!” He scans Jenny and finds “complete cardio collapse.” I’m ready with my box of tissues and contemplating breaking out the chocolate…when Strax just zaps his little scanner and makes Jenny live. Um. That rather took the air out of the shock of her death and Vastra’s obvious immense grief. But what, am I going to complain Jenny Flint’s alive? No way, man!
“I see you’ve repaired your pet; never mind, I was only attracting your attention.” It’s Walter Simeon, face of the Great Intelligence, and all around jerkwad. He welcomes them to “the final resting place of the cruel tyrant, the slaughterer of the ten billion,” the tomb of the Doctor. Mister G.I. does the classic villain-POV take on the hero’s story, mentioning various foes the Doctor killed, giving him such names as “the storm, the beast, the Valeyard.”
Meanwhile, in the catacombs journeying to the main part of the TARDIS tomb, Clara asks hey, “how come I met your dead wife?” The Doctor admits, “I sort of made a backup” (referring back to River’s epilogue, her fate saved in a database in the biggest library in the universe). “He left me like a book on a shelf,” River says for only Clara to hear. “He doesn’t like endings.” Urk. What happened to the Doctor who always respected death as an appropriate end to life?
“I am information,” Simeon as the Great Intelligence explains, tearing off his skin like a silicon mask to reveal he’s a void inside. Wow, The G.I. really is the ultimate narcissist.
The Whisper Men are his proxies, always ready to act as forms to host him.
Still in the catacombs, Clara reels, connecting to past echoes of “things I’m not supposed to remember”: the telepathic circuits are awaking memories. While Clara’s assaulted with the information the Doctor kept from her, we hear whispered, “The girl who died, he tried to save/She’ll die again, inside his grave.” Freaking scary things are always scarier in horrifying rhymes! *hides*
“Here I am, late to my own funeral,” the Doctor quips as he comes upon the Whisper Men, Mister G.I., and the Paternoster Gang (we get a tiny moment of his relief at seeing Jenny alive).
The G.I. orders him to “speak, open the door to your tomb”; the Doctor’s true name will act as our Open Sesame. Though the Doctor refuses, the G.I.’s orders “stop their hearts!” of the others, setting the Whisper Men to attack. “Doctor? Doctor Who?” the G.I. roars before the Doctor yells, “please!” and the door to the control room and the Doctor’s final resting place cracks open! Uh. Anyone else think that “Please” might be the Doctor’s name for a sec? No? Me neither. *coughs*
Ah, okay, River spoke the Doctor’s name (“the TARDIS can still hear me”). “Do you know what’s in there?” the Doctor scowls at “Mister G. Intelligence” “For me, peace at last; for you, pain everlasting. Won’t you invite us in?” The cloister bell clangs as the Doctor opens the console room to reveal ivy-covered equipment and an interior consisting of a crackling core of electricity. “What were you expecting, a body?” the Doctor asks. “Bodies are boring!” “Time travel is damage, a tear in the fabric of reality.” What they’re seeing is the scar tissue of his journey through the universe. Okay, that’s absolutely fascinating, so hats off to Moffat there.
When the Doctor pulses his Sonic Screwdriver at the column, we hear different Doctors voices from “my own personal time tunnel” from all his days, even the ones he hasn’t lived yet. He stumbles, reeling from his own paradox. Meanwhile, the G.I. edges closer: “the Doctor’s life is an open wound, and an open wound can be entered.” It will destroy the Doctor by rewriting his entire history, “turn victories into defeats, poison friendships, deliver pain through every breath,” allowing the G.I. to “take revenge on every second of your life,” even as it is itself destroyed.
The Whisper Men howl, vanishing, while the Doctor seizes as if he’s in cardiac arrest. Flashes of Simeon forcefully inserting himself into multiple moments, with various incarnations of the Doctor, appear. Vastra points out the inevitable: “a universe without the Doctor, there will be consequences.” Jenny disappears AGAIN, because the Doctor saved her originally.
Ugh, it’s a terrible narrative trick, killing and reanimating female characters with the snap of a finger for quick-punch emotional illustration of the hero’s suffering. While poor Vastra scans the disappearing star systems, imagining how many worlds the Doctor once saved will now be destroyed, Strax heaps on the angst by turning against Vastra, forgetting they are comrades.
“I have to go in there,” Clara declares. River pleads with her not to, because “the time winds will tear you into a million pieces, a million versions of you living and dying all over time and space like echoes.” Okay, Clara’s been echoing River herself this episode, while River is herself an echo of her original, a copy of herself from CAL’s library. So River knows from being an echo!
“But they’ll be real enough to save him,” Clara decides, going back to the saying about soufflés being recipes and not soufflés (and I am never going to look at a soufflé again without feeling miffed). Clara instructs them to get out of here “and spare me a thought every now and then.” “In fact, you know what?” she says, “Run, you clever boy, and remember me.” And we have narrative continuity!
“I don’t know where I am, I just know I’m running,” Clara says over more flashes of various Claras. “Sometimes it’s like I’ve lived a thousand lives in a thousand places.” “I’m born, I live, I die, and always, there’s the Doctor, always I’m running to save the Doctor…I’ve always been there…right from the very beginning.” “Don’t steal that one,” she tells One, about to nab a TARDIS. “Steal this one, the navigation system’s knackered, but you’ll have much more fun.”
Okay, time out. I completely understand the temptation to re-work the ENTIRE HISTORY OF DOCTOR WHO — Moffat, after all, famously wanted to run the show since he was seven years old — but it’s astonishing hubris to make your own companion/character-invention the driving/saving force of the whole series from beginning to end.
The ret-con possibilities also burn juuuust a little. Think about past risks and sacrifices, for instance, Rose absorbing the heart of the TARDIS. The incredible jeopardy she undertook to save Nine is still one of my favorite parts of NuWho. But does Clara’s always-everywhere-saving-the-Doctor feat overwrite that? Did Rose have to pull Bad Wolf if Clara would have jumped in to re-write and save the Doctor at every dangerous turn?
Also, are we now calling time of death on companions who were precious because of how very human they are/were? In this take on Clara, she’s become completely essential to the Doctor’s very existence. Is the only way to act as a companion now to be an Impossible Girl who jumps inside the Doctor’s very core, spending their entire and possibly multiple lives in service of saving the Doctor?
Finally, I’ve spent every episode since the Christmas special wanting more from Clara, and that means more than just solving what the Doctor finds mysterious about Clara. This isn’t more textured characterization for Clara; it’s hand-waving away backstory and experiences and very human lifetimes, the things that past versions of the Doctor have considered so extraordinary. It’s turning her into a fractured self, all in order to keep the Doctor’s history safe. Every life Clara’s echoes have is defined by its meaning to the Doctor and his timeline. Is this the ultimate fridge-ing of a female character, having her live and die potentially possibly a thousand times and certainly over the course of nearly a thousand years, to give the Doctor more meaning but leave herself, like Simeon as the Great Intelligence, not much more than a void inside?
Ugh, okay. Back to the episode.
“Clara’s got one advantage over the Great Intelligence,” the Doctor vows as everyone/everything is “restored” through Clara’s sacrifice. “Me.” “Save her, but for god’s sake, be sensible,” River pleads, and suddenly the Doctor reaches out to grab her, realizing she’s hear and actually hearing what she’s saying. If she’s “always there to me” then why hasn’t he ever spoken to (copy) her? Because it would hurt too much — not her, though, but him! Gosh. If River “could have coped” with the pain, could he not have absorbed some of the pain himself, because by god, sometimes I think the Doctor is COMPLETELY MADE OUT OF PAIN? It’s such a terrifyingly lonely but also callous conclusion to come to, that he never acknowledge this echo of River, easing her hurts, because he would hurt too much.
They kiss, and I’m such a huge fan of River with the Doctor that even though I have lots of issues to work through with how he’s handled her “storage” and continuation, I can’t help but feel touched. It’s all credit to Alex Kingston and Matt Smith here; they take a fraught situation and tease out the simplest most heart-felt core.
She asks him to finally say goodbye, “like you’re going to come back.” He takes a breath and is brave for her — I really actually loved that bit, that he stands up and does this on her behalf — telling her casually he’ll see her around. “Oh, and there’s one more thing,” she says. “Isn’t there always?” he replies. And really, this CAN’T be the end of River Song forever and ever, because I love her to pieces. “If Clara’s really dead,” she asks him, then “how can I still be here?” After all, she’s appearing through her link to Clara (the “conference call” thing, which only kinda-sorta makes sense, but the episode runs with it like crazy, so we’ll just keep on keepin’ on with it). How, he asks. “Spoilers,” River says mischievously, and ho ho, fanservice moment! “Goodbye, sweetie,” she coos before she dissolves.
The Doctor turns to the other three waiting for him (I loved the comment that since they can’t see River, it probably looked really weird when he and River kissed). Just taking that whole crossing-his-own timeline thing TO THE EXTREME, the Doctor steps into his frayed and electrified entombed self.
“I don’t know where I am,” we hear Clara say as she falls to a wind-swept desolate plane inside the Doctor. “But the Doctor is safe now.” Uh. So she just went through and in her echoes, lived however-many-lives to save the Doctor in all his incarnations. “I’m the Impossible Girl, and my story is done.”
But then the voice of the Doctor calls out, and she can see “all your different faces,” all the ghosts of his incarnations. His time stream is actually collapsing in on itself (that can’t be good) but he’s not leaving until he’s got her. “I’m sending you something, not from my past, from yours,” he calls out as Clara’s parents’ leaf materializes, floating toward her. “Hold tight, it will take you home…because it’s impossible and you’re my Impossible Girl.”
Just this once, he says, he’ll save her, but she has to trust him. His “just one more step” seems to me like a parent speaking to their child, and Clara’s stumbling toward him is very much like learning to walk. God, I wish we’d seen more explicit unfolding of the parent-child flavor of the relationship between the Doctor and Clara. I mean, I can eke it out, but I’m working hard here without what could be a potentially amazing take on their dynamic if the show decided to explore it.
As the Doctor embraces Clara, there’s a man standing nearby, facing away from them. “Who’s that?” Clara asks. The Doctor reluctantly explains “he’s me” but “I never said he was the Doctor.” Choosing “The Doctor” was a promise he made. And he, the man with his back turned to them, “is the one who broke the promise.”
When Clara starts to stumble, the Doctor picks her up bridal-style.
“What I did, I did without choice,” we hear from the man facing away, “In the name of peace and sanity.” “But not in the name of the Doctor,” Eleven replies scornfully. As he and Clara leave, the man turns to face us, and onscreen we see the words that made thousands upon thousands of Whovians shriek and run immediately to message boards to puzzle out a new mystery:
“Introducing John Hurt, as The Doctor.” I think I can safely say on behalf of many other fans: are you — what the — THE HELL?
Wooooweee pthooooo — you know what, I’m reeling here, we’ll cut the theme music short this time.
Okay, so John Hurt is an unofficial incarnation of the Doctor, because in all of Clara’s no doubt difficult and painful lives all in aid of saving the Doctor, she never saw this one. If he acted “not in the name of the Doctor” is he the one who destroyed so many in the Time Wars? Is he a regeneration of the Doctor that failed, giving rise to a new regeneration (thus putting him in the middle of the Doctor timeline/partly resetting the Doctor count)? Or is he responsible for something else reprehensible in the Doctor’s future, that perhaps makes him “the beast” or “the Valeyard” the Great Intelligence mentioned? OH MY GOD, what is going on? Seriously? WE HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL NOVEMBER 23RD?
Guys, it’s been an utter pleasure recapping this season and discussing all these narrative conundrums and issues with you! Please do join in below to tell me what you thought of this episode, the solution to Clara’s mystery, and what awaits us in the new version of the Doctor when we finally return for Season 8!