Is Clara the new River Song on Doctor Who?

Illustration for article titled Is Clara the new River Song on Doctor Who?

Way back in the prehistoric era when David Tennant still piloted the TARDIS, we met a woman whose whole existence was a mystery. And then she died, right before the Doctor's eyes. Now, the Doctor's found a new woman whose existence is, once again, a mystery. And once again, he's seen her die. Is Clara the new River Song? Spoilers ahead...


Tonight's brand new Doctor Who episode, "The Bells of St. John," introduces Clara Oswald for the third (and probably final) time, after her appearances and sudden deaths in two of last year's six episodes.

This is clearly another one of Steven Moffat's attempts to deconstruct the "companion introduction" process somewhat, to keep it from getting boring. Rather than just another "bright cute person meets the Doctor and gets drawn into an adventure" story, Moffat wants to make the companion's introduction more fancy and more unpredictable — which is a good thing, for the most part.

So the main difference between Clara and River, of course, is that Clara doesn't know anything about what's going on, and she's even more in the dark about the "multiple deaths" thing than the Doctor is. At the same time, Clara has the same kind of nagging, potentially universe-shattering mystery that made River Song work as a character.

And here's a prediction — the reason why Clara appears to be scattered throughout time and space will turn out to have something to do with the Doctor himself. Because these sorts of mysteries always do. The Doctor never just stumbles on a mystery that is something bigger than him or completely separate to him. The Doctor will wind up doing something, probably in the season finale, that will cause Clara to become Jaggarothed. There will be a scene where the Doctor realizes what he's destined to do, and he will feel weird about it. You heard it here first.

In any case, once again the Doctor's running around with a woman whose death he's already witnessed, and it underscores the vulnerability and sadness of Matt Smith's Doctor. It's also very effective in adding a much-needed touch of drama to the spooky action in "Bells of St. John," since the baddies want to make Clara's deaths a trifecta and the Doctor is even more desperate than usual to stop them.

Time Lords just naturally become mad monks

At the start of "Bells," the Doctor is hiding out at a monastery in 1207, after Young Clara told him that finding a quiet place might help him find what he's lost, in the little mini-prequel. (Incidentally, I don't get why people are saying the Doctor meeting Clara as a child means she's just like Amy Pond and Reinette — unless one or both of them later realize this happened, it's just a vaguely funny thing that happened. It doesn’t drive the story of Clara at all.)


Time Lords just love to become monks, I guess. The first Time Lord we ever met on the show, other than the Doctor, was so into the monk thing he adopted that as an identity long after he left medieval England. Even though, as the Doctor learns in this episode, monks are not cool.

In any case, the Doctor is busy obsessing about Clara, "the woman twice dead," and painting her portrait and stuff — when Clara calls him on the TARDIS phone, the titular "bells of St. John." (Kind of sad the TARDIS didn't sound the Cloister Bell instead, which might be more appropriate for a monastery.) Clara's having trouble getting on the wifi on her laptop, and she somehow calls the TARDIS thinking it's a helpline. Luckily, Clara's wifi password consists of the words she spoke the first two times she died, so the Doctor figures out it's her.


From then on, the race is on to keep Clara from dying all over again. In her haste to get online, she's associated with the evil wifi network that eats people's brains, and she's been marked for mind-ingestion. She won't let the Doctor in because he's a strange man in a monk costume, and by the time he's a strange man in a nice coat instead, her brain is already being eaten by the wifi base station, which has disguised itself as a character from a children's book.

The fear of a third Clara death piles up on top of the actual creepiness of the wifi brain-eathing thing — as we mentioned the other day, this is very much a classic Moffat creep-out. There's a thing you must not do ("don't click" replaces "don't blink") and a dreadful fate that befalls the unwary: getting trapped in the wall of screens, endlessly repeating the catchphrase "I don't know where I am." It's not unlike the thing of being "saved" in "Silence in the Library," except these people aren't in a happy VR fantasy world. This is pure erasure, having your "soul" stolen by the computer.


The Doctor saves Clara from having her mind uploaded, of course, and sends the office drones who are doing this one of his swaggery messages: "Under my protection." There are two things that bothered me about this: 1) He's sort of implying the rest of the human race is fair game, as long as they leave this one alone. (Although not long afterwards, he says the whole business ends tonight.) 2) Isn't he supposed to be pretending to be dead? Every time the Doctor makes one of these grand declarations, he's spitting on River Song, who spent years being despised by people like those clerics and her jailers, for a murder she didn't commit.

But moving on.

A jolly battle of wits

Once "Bells" establishes that terrible things are afoot and Clara is marked for brain-suckage, it wastes no time in shifting gears into a jolly cracking adventure. I love a good battle of wits, and this is a pretty great one, all told.


The baddies, over at the Shard, decide to use their wifi powers to put a whole planeload of people to sleep and crash the plane into Clara's house. The Doctor uses his TARDIS to materialize on board the plane, and guide it to a more or less safe landing, in a pretty bravura sequence.

The Doctor then jumps forward in time to the next morning, so the baddies will have been up all night searching for him while he and Clara are still fresh. The baddies, meanwhile, pick up the Doctor and Clara almost immediately using their facial recognition software and various wifi-enabled cameras.


When the Doctor takes Clara for lunch, she uses her computer to search for the villains behind all of this — because she's somewhat conveniently gone from computer klutz to computer genius, thanks to her failed upload. Run with it. Meanwhile, the Doctor gets into a staring contest with Ms. Kizlet, the head of the Shard, who can take over the body of anybody who's been claimed by the evil wifi — including the newscaster on television, which doesn't seem terribly discreet.

Clara finds the wifi monster's lair, but then one of the evil wifi base stations shows up, disguised as the Doctor, and it eats her brain before she can say "DHCP." Check and mate — except that the Doctor goes to confront the baddies himself. Sort of.


The Doctor packs two tricks up his sleeve — first, his fancy motorbike, which came last in the antigrav Olympics, actually does have anti-gravity powers, allowing him to ride up the side of the building. Woot. And second, it's not actually the Doctor at all, it's the wifi base station disguised as the Doctor, and he sucks up Ms. Kizlet's brain.

And, since all the minions in the Shard have handy brain-hacking controls with a slider function, the Doctor can hack the minions so they'll obey Ms. Kizlet's instruction to re-download all the stolen brains. (Note to evil overlords: if you put a D&D-style set of numerical personality indicators on your people, probably best to make them less easy for anybody to reconfigure randomly.) In any case, it's always nice to see the Doctor win because he outwits the baddies, rather than because someone realizes that they love someone.


Two loose ends

First, there's the identity of the mysterious "client" who was consuming all the brains that the Shard was nabbing. As anyone who read the BBC's press release last week knows, it's the Great Intelligence, now voiced by Richard E. Grant himself. This is a much older version of the disembodied mental energy blob, after the events of "The Snowmen" but also "The Abominable Snowmen" and "The Web of Fear." This Great Intelligence has been defeated by the Doctor three times, and plans to use all that stolen mental energy for a fourth attempt.


The second loose end is Clara herself. The Doctor doesn't tell her the whole story about how she died in the far future and the 19th century and now there's a third bit of her. (The inclusion of the word "shard" in the episode seems appropriate.)

Instead, he just invites her to come traveling, because she had a picture book of great places to visit in her apartment, including a pressed leaf representing the first place. She was all set to go traveling, we discover, but then her mother died and she decided to stay and look care of her half-siblings. (Update: As various people have pointed out, it wasn't Clara's mother, it was the mother of this family she's friends with.) And now, she can't just take off traveling because she's got a responsibility to the family — except the Doctor promises he can have her back a few hours after he left, which is one of those promises the Doctor should never, ever make.


Clara doesn't immediately go off traveling with the Doctor, but instead tells him to come back tomorrow — which sort of comes across like she's playing hard to get, to be honest.

Like River Song, Clara is a beguiling mystery that the Doctor is itching to delve into. Unlike River Song, she can't taunt him by saying "spoilers," because she knows less than he does about what's going on. So the only way she can tease him, or turn that mystery into flirtation, is by being slightly (but only slightly) unobtainable. This feels like Moffat trying to make her attractive, rather than anything the character herself is deciding.


So how does the evil wifi fit into the wider themes of Moffat's era of Doctor Who? It's sort of like being cursed by a witch, so it goes along with the "dark fairy tale" thing. Wifi is like ubiquitous information, all around us, which we can't see but which we nevertheless are affected by — so it's sort of like one of Moffat's other monsters that draws power from being unseen. And the Great Intelligence turns out to be yet another menace that the Doctor has empowered by going to war with it.

In any case, this was a pretty fun take on the "companion introduction" story, and it seems with Clara, the third time is the charm.




A nice review. I agree with all of the Clara stuff; it was indeed a nice deconstruction of the companion introduction, but it did kind of feel like Partners in Crime. And something about the way that the mystery of Clara was reiterated for the 3rd time instead of built on kind of bothered me. I'm sure that, in the fullness of time, it'll be fine. I just kind of expected something a little more concrete, even if still mysterious.

The Doctor doesn't tell her the whole story about how she died in the far future and the 19th century and now there's a third bit of her.

Hey, didn't the Doctor destroy Skaro in 1963? I'm not usually one to concern myself with continuity in Doctor Who (because I've always contended everything is canon in Doctor Who... and I mean literally everything), but that's a pretty huge thing to do. Or maybe I just want them to do something fun with that continuity error.

Also, why did Clara's age skip 23? I almost expected (after seeing that) her to have skipped 4, 8, 15, and 16 as well, in an orgy of sci-fi crossover.

Here's what really bothered me about the episode. At one point, the secondary bad guy asks who's on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace (hilariously), etc. They all raise they're hands. And then they all say that they've posted where they work on their social media pages. So far, so good; I totally love the look into the evil henchpeoples' lives of that scene. But, at the end, they're all freed from the mind control of the GI (who is apparently trapped on holiday) and they don't remember any of the events of their lives from when they became involved in the nefarious scheme. That presumably means these henchpeople didn't have free will; so why did they post to these various social media sites?

My final comment, and this one I may be totally crazy on - in the scene where Clara hears the child coming down the stairs, there's a scarf hanging on the wall behind here. And that scarf... it kind of looked like all of the 4th Doctor's scarves got together and had a baby, and that's what was on the wall. Kind of makes me want to go back and see if there's a cape, or recorder, or something in the previous episodes. Of course, god forbid we start seeing a whole lot of question marks everywhere.