Journeys end, but hell bent we continue on

In her TARDIS Eruditorum entry on “A Good Man Goes to War,” El Sandifer laid out the theory of narrative substitution, which she identified as the definitive technique of Moffat’s tenure as Doctor Who showrunner. A narrative substitution is, as the name implies, the substitution of one narrative for another; specifically, it is the creation of an expectation that a story will be one kind of narrative, only to reject that narrative (usually on ethical/political grounds) and tell a different kind of story.

In “Face the Raven”/”Heaven Sent”/”Hell Bent” (which I am choosing to treat as a single three-part story despite “Face the Raven” having a different writer and director than the other two) there is a series of substitutions, each rejecting the previously established story as an insufficient answer to a single question: how do we get rid of Clara?

Which is a question that needs to be answered. Jenna Coleman, her actress, is leaving the show, and even if she weren’t, every companion has to leave eventually. And it’s not like it hasn’t been explored before; both Oswin Oswald and Clara Oswin Oswald, “echoes” of Clara that predated her first true appearance on the show, died at the ends of their episodes, “Kill the Moon” has Clara announce her departure after a fight with the Doctor, the Series Eight finale ends with what appears to be a final goodbye between the Doctor and Clara as they each pretend to no longer need the other, and the following Christmas special contains a sequence in which the Doctor meets and says farewell to an elderly Clara.

But each of these departures was rejected as inadequate. The problem of Clara is that she was originally introduced as a narrative substitution; she is presented as a mystery (“Why is the Doctor meeting identical women with similar names in very different times and places?”) and the Doctor (and audience) is then rebuked for treating a person as a mystery when the answer turns out to be “She’s a perfectly ordinary person who made a very brave and dangerous choice.” The downside of this substitution was that Clara had to spend an entire half-season appearing to be the most generic companion ever; it’s really only after the Eleventh Doctor regenerated into the Twelfth that we could finally start seeing how extraordinary this “perfectly ordinary person” could be. Clara is a fierce protector of both the people she loves and the innocent; she is someone whose heart has been broken and healed; someone who loves children and teaching, fights fiercely for justice, loves traveling and experiencing new things, has an open mind, lies glibly, can see the humanity in a grotesque alien and the monstrosity in someone who looks completely human, and uses words as her main weapon.

She is, in short, the female Doctor fans have been clamoring for (well, the fans worth knowing, anyway) for years. All she’s missing is a TARDIS, immortality, and a companion of her own.

Given that, how can we say goodbye to her?

Well, she’s a human daring to be the Doctor. A mere mortal posing as a Trickster God. So that gives us our first answer; in “Face the Raven” she has Rigsy transfer the death sentence laid on him by Mayor Me to herself, hubristically assuming that she will be able to cheat the inevitability of death itself (since that is clearly what the Raven represents here). But she can’t; only a true immortal like the Doctor can. Her hubris is lethal; as Me reveals when the Doctor persuades her to lift the sentence, the complex rules of the Raven mean that Me could have lifted it from Rigsy, but now that he has transferred it to Clara she cannot. (Why Rigsy can’t is not explained, but must simply be accepted, the rules of death being as immutable and unfair as death itself.)

And then the first narrative substitution kicks in, as the Doctor rejects that Clara has done anything wrong, rejects the very moral schema in which hubris is a punishable crime (as of course he would and should), and instead begins learning and planning to go after the (unidentified at this point) people who used Me to bring this about and get his attention. Hubris has been rejected as a narrative, but instead we are getting a simple fridging: Clara dies not because of who she is and what choices she made as a character, not in a way that is at all respectful of her agency, but as a plot device to move the Doctor’s character along to the next plot point in his story.

Clara is having none of that, and soundly rebukes the Doctor before his rampage has even begun. Instead we get her death as the anti-fridging; she embraces that her choices have brought her to this point, orders the Doctor not to take revenge on her behalf, steps out proudly to stand and face the Raven where all others have run, and dies on her feet.

“Heaven Sent” opens with the Doctor trying to reject this again, announcing that he is doing exactly what Clara told him not to, ordering the unseen creators of the castle to fear him. But this is quickly subsumed by the puzzlebox of the castle itself, which by the time the Doctor finds clothes hung by the fire, identical to the sopping wet ones he’s wearing, and then after putting the dry clothes on replaces them with his own wet ones in exactly the same position, is clearly that Moffat standard, a complex but very clever puzzle with a timey-wimey solution.

And then it isn’t, as it becomes clear that this puzzle has no solution. This is just the Raven again, the inevitable death, the futility of trying to escape. The castle, the Doctor realizes, isn’t a puzzlebox but a torture chamber, specifically designed to make him suffer. It is a reification of his grief for Clara, the inescapable prison of mourning someone who is lost. Only that’s not a narrative that can survive long in Doctor Who either; he imagines Clara telling him to move on, and futility is answered not with the cleverness to solve a puzzlebox, but the determination and sheer bloody-minded stubbornness to punch the same spot in a diamond wall for billions of years. There is an old and rather inaccurate saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result; here we see that cleverness is only enough to figure out the trap. Actually getting out requires insanity, doing something completely futile so much that it stops being futile.

Which brings us back to the revenge narrative. The Doctor may have let go of Clara, but he did so with the rage and passion to push himself through a wall of diamond and into the next episode; in “Hell Bent” that same rage provides the motivation and his secret knowledge of the Hybrid, the mystery dangled in front of us all season, his leverage in conquering Gallifrey.

And then the whole narrative up to this point, both the “Face the Raven” substitution and the “Heaven Sent” substitution, is rejected. The Doctor doesn’t really know what the Hybrid is better than anyone else, and he hasn’t been trying to avenge Clara; all of this was a plan to bring Clara back. To use Gallifrey’s resources to pull a Chrono Trigger, returning to the frozen instant of her death to snatch her away from the Raven in a way even it can’t follow. His plan succeeds; he and Clara work together to descend into the Cloister, steal a new TARDIS, and run away.

But then Clara’s heart doesn’t resume beating. Another substitution, as this becomes a story familiar from the Russel T. Davies era of the show, a story of how being with the Doctor is wonderful, but ultimately unhealthy. The Doctor is all about escape, which is precisely what he and Clara were doing on Gallifrey, “stealing a TARDIS and running away.” And escape is not always possible or advisable; “Hope is terrible on the scaffold” as Ohila tells him. He has to let go of Clara; she is dead, has been dead for billions of years, and the Doctor is tearing the universe apart in his denial of it. As Me points out, the two push each other to extremes, which is probably why Missy got them together in the first place.

This was a recurring problem of the Davies era. The Doctor changes his companions, opens to them an entirely new world. Rose ultimately threw herself into that world completely and was swallowed up by it. Martha ultimately rejected it completely, choosing to leave the Doctor and live out her life on Earth, even joining UNIT, an organization which exists to maintain a barrier between the world of the Doctor and “normal” life on Earth. And Donna… Donna was an ordinary woman who proved extraordinary given the chance, a normal human who became the Doctor. Like Clara, she wouldn’t stay forever, but would never leave. She’d rather die than lose her experiences with the Doctor–so the Doctor took the choice away from her, wiped away her memories, destroyed what she’d become in order to keep something that looked like her alive.

Now, briefly, we see Moffat telling the same story, and he rejects it. Firmly and absolutely, Clara refuses to become the next Donna. The past is hers, and she will not allow the Doctor to take it away from her. She would rather die; that is her choice, and her choice is really all that matters here. The confrontation between the Doctor and Clara, their argument over the neural block, is a profound rebuke to the staggering violation the Doctor committed against Donna in “Journey’s End.” Like her death in “Face the Raven,” Clara refuses to allow her agency to be stolen from her in order to give the Doctor something to be sad about in the rain. Her past belongs to her, and so do her present and her future.

So: Clara retains her agency. Both vengeance and grief are rejected when they are more about the Doctor’s story than about saying goodbye to Clara. And death is an inevitability that cannot be cheated.

But this is Doctor Who, and summer can last forever if you steal a time machine. Clara’s death is a fixed event, which means that until she decides to finally go back to Gallifrey (which, I suspect, will be around the time her memory fills up and she realizes her choices are to die or to become like Me), she cannot die. So she steals a time machine and goes off to explore the universe with her companion, Me.

Like I said, all she needed was a TARDIS, immortality, and a companion. The Doctor-Donna was wrong, the hubris of the Tenth Doctor made flesh, and had to be destroyed. The Doctor-Clara is wrong, the hubris of Clara Oswald made flesh, and it is glorious.

After all, another word for hubris is rebellion; another word for reaching above your station is transcendence. Clara Oswald rejects your narrative, and substitutes her own.

Bravo, Mr. Moffat.

Edited 7/6/19: Corrected El Sandifer’s name and gender and made a couple of other minor grammatical edits.

Thoughts on Kill the Moon

So, uh, this latest Doctor Who episode has been a bit controversial, hasn’t it? Much of that controversy seems to fall into three camps:

  • The episode is taking a strong anti-abortion, misogynistic stance.
  • The episode is pro-choice, and emphasizing that pro-choice means pro-choice, in favor of people having options and making their own decisions.
  • The episode isn’t about abortion at all and people are getting upset over nothing. As in most debates, this seems to be the angriest group.

My own view? I think it comes down to how you choose to read a particular relationship that can be taken either way. We’ve got the creature hatching, the people of Earth, and the three women with the bomb, and they can be read at least three different ways. First, the creature hatching could be just another unknown alien who is wrongly feared and turns out to be harmless if left alone, putting the people of Earth in their usual position as angry xenophobes and the women with the bomb in the position of the Doctor and companions, advocating an ethos of wonder and life and all that good stuff–as usual, with one rejecting and having to be taught by the others. There are a couple of arguments for this read, which is the read in which the episode is not about abortion: first, that the alien is in the process of being born, and abortions do not normally occur during labor, and second that the creature is hatching from an egg, which means there is nobody (more accurately, no body) whose autonomy is being violated by its presence. The abortion read is thus an unfortunate implication in an episode that’s really about pretty much the same things as “The Beast Below” or any of umpteen other stories in Doctor Who‘s run.

However, there are counterarguments to both the arguments I just mentioned. First, late-term abortions are performed when the pregnancy is life-threatening, and there is a risk that the destruction of the Moon will cause serious damage to the Earth and its people, so neither of the arguments I cited in the previous paragraph necessarily hold. This leads to the second read, in which the creature is a fetus being incubated by the Earth, putting the people of Earth collectively in the position of its mother. They choose to abort, and are overruled by Clara, Courtney, and the scientist (was she even named? I never caught it if she was), who act in the position of the anti-abortion government and force the Earth to carry through the risky and difficult labor. The strongest support for this position are Courtney’s repeated declaration “It’s a baby!” and refusal to even consider killing it as an option, and Clara’s teary rejection of being given a choice as patronizing. Read this way, the episode is pretty clearly repeating the misogynistic arguments of anti-choicers, denying the agency and autonomy of the collective mother in favor of the moral judgment of a tiny minority.

But there are arguments against this reading, too, the biggest being that the first read makes both Clara’s final confrontation with the Doctor and her ensuing conversation with Danny afterthoughts, while the second badly misunderstands what Clara is saying in that confrontation–she’s not angry that the Doctor left her to make a choice on her own, she’s angry about him denying her information that would have been useful in making her choice and his general condescending attitude. Which brings us to the third way to understand the relationship between the three players: to see the hatching creature as a fetus threatening the well-being of the women on the moon, and the people of Earth as voters in a democratic government that nonetheless lacks the moral authority to tell those three women what to do in regards to a choice that impacts them directly. In this read, the episode is emphatically pro-choice, as it says not even a popular vote with (note the visual pun) one hundred percent turnout can legitimately tell a person what to do when their bodily autonomy is on the line.

And I do think this is the strongest reading, for a number of reasons. One is that visual pun, and another that shows up a bit later: the button Clara and Courtney press to cancel the bombing is, as indicated by the bombs’ display, the ABORT command. Further, the women standing around the bomb fall rather neatly into a couple of archetypes involving trios–and yes, I know I’ve been rather hard on archetypal readings in the past, but that’s because I find they are often used in constraining and limiting ways; I’m all for making characters serve as multiple contradictory archetypes simultaneously or otherwise using them in ways that multiply, rather than restrict, available readings.

One way to read the trio of women is as representing Women with the tired old “triple goddess” routine. They slide quite neatly into the roles: Courtney is a child, and hence the Maiden; Clara is the next-oldest and takes care of children for a living and the possibility that she has children on Earth in 2049 is floated, making her the Mother; the scientist is the oldest of them, starting to show wrinkles, and emphatically rejects the notion of having children, making her the Crone. It’s a reductive and excessively reproductive way of defining Women, but perhaps a reproductive approach is not entirely inappropriate when discussing reproductive rights.

Contradicting and coexisting with that read is one in which they represent a single woman via Freudian nonsense: “disruptive influence” Courtney serving as the id, the scientist–professionally rational and the one endorsing going with the judgment of society as a whole–as the superego, and Clara mediating between them as the ego. Again, a silly way to construct a person, but still a read reasonably well supported by the episode. In this read it’s interesting that the “It’s a baby!” attitude is associated with the unreasoning, over-emotional aspect, while “I fail to see the moral dilemma” is associated with the most rational aspect. This is pretty accurate where the abortion debate is concerned. Admittedly, the waters are somewhat muddied by Clara’s decision not to destroy the creature, but again, that’s because in this read the episode is attempting to navigate the nuance between being pro-choice and rejecting the anti-choice narrative that pro-choice activists are genocidal fetus-haters.

Ultimately, though, all three of these readings seem reasonable and supported by the text, as I’m sure are a multitude of others. This is a justified controversy, and I think a good one, as it seems likely to, in among the usual fractious debates, produce some conversations worth having.

In the Heart and Mind of the Universe, There Is a Reason

Doctor Who Series 3, episode 2, “The Shakespeare Code,” poses serious issues for a long-time, committed and discerning fan such as myself. On the one hand, as a fan I very much want it to be good, or at least to find something to enjoy in it. On the other, as a person whose taste has been shaped by past experience of works of this type, it would dishonor the memory of my favorites to not recognize when something fails to live up to them.

And look, I’m no purist. I understand that art requires trying new things, that it is necessary to experiment. At the same time, it is the nature of experimentation that most attempts fail to accomplish their goals–indeed, that is the point, to try out things that might or might not succeed and discard the ones that do not. If we pretend that a failed experiment is not a failure, then we have missed the point of experimentation. True, it is just as bad to fail to recognize something good just because it’s unfamiliar, but I don’t think that’s the issue here. I’ve had and enjoyed mint ice cream with peanut-butter sauce and raspberries; it takes some getting used to, but once you understand what it’s doing, it’s actually quite delicious.

But I’m sorry, try as I might I cannot figure out how I’m supposed to enjoy or even appreciate this. This goes beyond experimentation or even challenging our expectations; I have to seriously question the judgment of the people responsible for making it. Have they ever even eaten ice cream? Do they know what it is?

Consider: Even the simplest hot fudge sundae is a study in delicious contrasts. Thick, sticky sauce, so dark a brown it’s nearly black, dribbling down the sides of a creamy mound of bright white ice cream. Hot, bittersweet, rich chocolate shares mouthspace with cold, sweet, refreshing vanilla. But here we have no such contrasts–quite the opposite, as the episode takes pains to make the 16th century as familiar an experience for modern-day Martha as possible, from the Doctor’s speech early in the episode comparing people on the street to their 21st-century equivalents, to the depiction of William Shakespeare as a pop-cultural icon.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with challenging definitions in art, at least in principle. Can you make a sundae without ice cream? Well, frozen yogurt seems like a reasonable substitute. Maybe sherbet, perhaps even a sorbet, as long as they have toppings. But would a bowl of chocolate sauce and sprinkles be a sundae? Is it still a sundae after the ice cream has melted? Those seem like reasonable avenues for exploration.

But “The Shakespeare Code” isn’t even edible! You might be able to make the case that 44 minutes of sitting, spoon in hand, as frustration mounts is an artistic experience of some sort, but it certainly isn’t an ice cream sundae by any stretch of the definition I can imagine!

Like I said, it makes me seriously question the judgment of the BBC. I get that Doctor Who is one of their longest-running properties, and maybe they’re concerned about getting stale, but it got to be so long-running because of fan loyalty. Now, I don’t want to be one of those “entitled” fans here; I get that the BBC owes me nothing, but at the same time I don’t owe them anything, either. It’s not a matter of owing something, but of cause and effect: if you want to retain your fans, you have to give them something to like. And people love ice cream! It’s been one of the most popular desserts for decades, and for good reason. So you can’t just go around, presenting something that is blatantly not at all an ice cream sundae, and expect to retain viewers!

This is typical Davies, and sadly, I can say with some authority (having seen the entirety of the new series to date) that Moffat does no better. They both seem utterly determined to provide viewers with no ice cream whatsoever–indeed, ice cream is barely even mentioned anywhere in their runs! It makes me seriously question why I continue to bother watching—I don’t know who they think they’re making this series for, but it’s obviously not ice cream aficionados any more.

If it ever even was.