by A. L. Belmont
With the last two companion departures, a great deal of discussion has sprung up about whether Steven Moffat is justified in apparently killing off companions and resurrecting them within a short time frame. There are a lot of assumptions implicit in the argument against resurrection, so in this article series, I’ll analyze what I think are the five key assumptions.
It turns out that a big part of the “should dead characters stay dead” controversy stems from Moffat’s “disquieting tendency” to revive dead characters (because apparently, though I learned in statistics class that two points make a line and three make a trend, in the Who fandom, two points make not only a trend but an extremely distressing one on par with rising global temperatures and political polarization). So this third part examines the roles of death and resurrection in Clara and Bill’s arcs and asks whether either was necessary.
Assumption 4: That the combination of death and resurrection was not appropriate for either Clara or Bill
First, though, I’d like to introduce a couple of terms.
I personally tend to analyze fictional characters in two ways. I’ll call the first the next-door neighbor perspective (not a great name, I know, but hey, we’re only pretending to be philosophers here). We talk about characters as if they were our next-door neighbors, thinking of them like real people with independent personalities making autonomous decisions. Commentating on them is like mild gossip: What was Clara thinking when she did such-and-such? Has Bill grown up since we first saw her? So-and-so did this or that—were they right to do that?
The second way is the puppet theater perspective. We treat characters as bundles of concepts, including name, background, personality, dialogue, and development. We see them ultimately as entities subordinate to the whims of their puppeteers, the writers. Commentating on them is more a commentary on the writers’ skill and motives: How realistic does Moffat make Clara? How consistently or clearly does RTD develop Rose? Should the writers have let so-and-so act the way they did?
Note that we only have the luxury of seeing characters from a next-door neighbor perspective if the writers put on good enough puppet theater. After all, only when the characters feel real can we feel comfortable talking about them as if they are autonomous. Note also that when we talk about character endings, we talk about them differently under each framework. If we take a next-door neighbor perspective, we ask of a character ending: Did the character’s experiences, growth, virtues, accomplishments, etc., make them worthy of the ending they got? In other words, did they get what they deserved? If we take a puppet theater perspective, we ask instead: Was it necessary for the author to give the character an ending of which they were worthy/unworthy, and why or why not? In other words, did they have to get what they got?
The Who fandom is overall heavily inclined towards the puppet theater perspective—you can see it in the number of criticisms leveled at Moffat, RTD, “the writers,” and so on, as opposed to the characters themselves. We don’t say “Clara made a dumb decision,” we say “Moffat is a bad character writer.” However, when I analyze Clara and Bill here, I’m going to take instead a next-door neighbor perspective. The main reason is that Moffat’s skill in portraying death-resurrection sequences is not in question so much as the appropriateness of that sequence for the characters and the show, and so I’m choosing the framework that lets us focus on the characters. Another reason is that in analyzing Bill and Clara from a next-door neighbor perspective, I hope to demonstrate that they are well-written characters. As I said, we can productively analyze characters from a next-door neighbor perspective only if the puppet theater is good. If we can commentate on Bill and Clara as if they had coherent worldviews, made their own decisions, had their own priorities, etc., then that must mean they were well written, or at least not as badly written as some might say. Now, some might say they weren’t likable, but likable doesn’t equal well-written. Some hate Clara as viscerally as they’d hate their own real-life enemies, but wouldn’t that mean Clara was vividly and coherently presented?
I am not a Clara hater, or a Clara lover. If I take a puppet theater perspective, I can see why I’m so indifferent to her: all the pieces to her character are there but not quite sown up to my taste. I bring this up because I’ve noticed that most defenders of Clara’s “Hell Bent” ending are Clara fans, and while that’s perfectly fine, it gives the impression that you can only appreciate her “Hell Bent” ending if you liked her. With this analysis, I hope to show that it is possible not to like Clara and still see her “Hell Bent” ending as a conclusion she earned.
In series 8 and 9 (and even 7, if you agree with Ruth Long’s assessment), Clara grows from a really smart human to an individual selflessly saving lives using their own intelligence, aka a Doctor-like individual. I am not making this up. I determined this pattern of development by combing through transcripts of series 8, and to a lesser extent series 9 episodes. (The main reason series 9, excepting the finale, doesn’t factor as much into my analysis is that series 9 basically strengthens the foundation laid in series 8. Also, I haven’t gotten there on my rewatch yet.) This section will be quote-heavy because I want to show how plainly Clara’s growth is signposted to those who doubt she’s grown at all, or those who think she’s grown but don’t quite remember how.
“Deep Breath” begins with a Clara not just disoriented but personally accosted by the Doctor’s regeneration:
“CLARA: He doesn’t look renewed. He looks older.
VASTRA: You thought he was young?
CLARA: He looked young.
VASTRA: He looked like your dashing young gentleman friend. Your lover, even.
CLARA: Shut up.
VASTRA: But he is the Doctor. He has walked this universe for centuries untold, he has seen stars fall to dust. You might as well flirt with a mountain range.
CLARA: I did not flirt with him.
VASTRA: He flirted with you.
VASTRA: He looked young. Who do you think that was for?
Her reaction doesn’t scream “egotistical” on first watch, but Vastra prods to the heart of Clara’s discomfort with the regeneration. The new man was never the young flirty man he seemed in the first place, but Clara’s still upset. And even though Clara gets that regeneration doesn’t necessarily restore physical youth, she feels lied to, and she’s letting that feeling of deception color how she treats the Doctor:
“DOCTOR: You can’t see me, can you? You look at me, and you can’t see me. Have you any idea what that’s like? I’m not on the phone, I’m right here, standing in front of you. Please, just—just see me.”
Even at this immature stage, however, she has insights into human (or I suppose half-human) psychology:
“CLARA: Destroy me, then. And if you don’t, then I’m not going to believe a single threat you make from now on. Of course, if I’m dead, then I can’t tell you where the other one went then. You need to keep this place down here a secret, don’t you? Never start with your final sanction. You’ve got nowhere to go but backwards.”
Unlike in “Flatline”, Clara’s quick thinking here isn’t explicitly compared to the Doctor’s, but it’s far beyond most ordinary people in this situation (1). Her leadership potential is made clear once again in “Robot of Sherwood”, when the guard mistakes her as leader of the mischievous trio while Robin Hood and the Doctor squabble. And she phlegmatically manipulates the Sheriff into revealing his backstory:
“CLARA: People are so much better at sharing information if they think the other person has already got it.”
Thus far, we know Clara is quick on her feet, authoritative, and self-centered. At the same time, we don’t know yet that she could be fully like the Doctor, because she’s not mature enough to understand that these traits, while useful in time-traveling adventures, can be horrible in everyday life. Exhibit A: “The Caretaker”. She might have been kept the situation in “Robot” under control, but her arrogance misleads her into thinking she can use time-travel-adventure logic with interpersonal relationships as well:
“CLARA: I can’t keep doing this. I can’t do it. Yes, I can, I can do it, of course I can do it. I’ve got it all under control.”
Her quick thinking deflecting Danny’s concern, helpful when dealing with the Half-Face Man, comes off as condescending:
“CLARA: We are rehearsing a play. Shh, shh, shh, shh. A surprise play. And, er, you see, the vortex thing is, is a lighting effect. Very clever. And that thing is, is one of the kids. In fancy dress. Really, really good fancy dress.
DANNY: How stupid do you think I am?”
Taking the initiative in proving her fidelity by giving Danny the invisibility watch ends with Danny and the Doctor squabbling in the TARDIS. Doctor-like qualities are a double-edged sword—useful in adventures, potentially debilitating in real life. Episodes 6 through 9 are (in my opinion) a massively underrated mini-arc about reconciling these two, the Doctor and Clara working together to turn her liabilities into assets. In the process, she goes from unusually smart human to actual Doctor-lite. It’s a prelude to the series 9 finale.
“Kill the Moon” has been interpreted as everything from an abortion allegory (apparently unintended) to Harness being a troll. However, I think it sheds some important light on the Doctor and Clara’s relationship, especially in the wake of “The Caretaker”. The Doctor claims to be doing humanity a favor, but I think he’s also hinting he’s doing Clara a favor:
“CLARA: I am asking you for help.
DOCTOR: Listen, we went to dinner in Berlin in 1937, right? We didn’t nip out after pudding and kill Hitler. I’ve never killed Hitler. And you wouldn’t expect me to kill Hitler. The future is no more malleable than the past.
CLARA: Okay, don’t you do this to make some kind of point.
DOCTOR: Sorry. Well, actually, no, I’m not sorry. It’s time to take the stabilisers off your bike. It’s your moon, womankind. It’s your choice.”
Politics aside, I don’t buy that the Doctor, who hasn’t even made that many decisions on behalf of humanity (think about it: Martha saves him in “Last of the Time Lords”, the Master’s the one who shoots Rassilon in “End of Time”, Donna mucks up the Dalek ship in “Journey’s End”), suddenly thinks he’s been spoiling them by making all their decisions for them. I think it’s more likely he thinks he’s been spoiling Clara. He summoned the Paternoster Gang and fought the Half-Face Man in “Deep Breath” he orchestrated the time heist in “Time Heist”, he saved Clara and Danny’s asses in “Caretaker” by neutralizing the Skovox Blitzer. Until “Caretaker”, Clara was just his convenient sidekick. But Clara becomes too uppity for his taste, thinking she can fix everything but making it worse. So he spites her attitude by passive-aggressively sticking her in a leadership role, like “You like being in control? Here’s control.” Meanwhile, when Clara lashes out at the Doctor, she speaks both for humanity and for herself:
“CLARA: Do you know what? It was—it was cheap, it was pathetic. No, no, no. It was patronising. That was you patting us on the back, saying, you’re big enough to go to the shops by yourself now. Go on, toddle along.
DOCTOR: No, that was me allowing you to make a choice about your own future. That was me respecting you.
CLARA: Oh, my God, really? Was it? Yeah, well, respected is not how I feel.
DOCTOR: Right. Okay. Er.
CLARA: I nearly didn’t press that button. I nearly got it wrong. That was you, my friend, making me scared. Making me feel like a bloody idiot.
CLARA: Oh, don’t you ever tell me to mind my language. Don’t you ever tell me to take the stabilisers off my bike. And don’t you dare lump me in with the rest of all the little humans that you think are so tiny and silly and predictable. You walk our Earth, Doctor, you breathe our air. You make us your friend, and that is your moon too. And you can damn well help us when we need it.”
“Making me feel like a bloody idiot”—Clara is forced to confess she’s out of her depth when it comes to making a decision for humanity. With great power comes great responsibility, and Clara may think she’s well disposed to being an authority figure, but she’s not emotionally ready for that responsibility. With “Don’t you dare lump me in with the rest of all the little humans”, she makes a valid point that she’s a lot more capable than most ordinary humans, but with “You can damn well help us when we need it”, she goes from “me” to “us”, lumping herself back in with other people and thereby acknowledging the unpleasant truth that she isn’t mature enough to be more than a sidekick.
Between “Kill the Moon” and “Mummy”, Clara almost lets her bruised ego walk her off the TARDIS. However, the high-stakes decision-making of “Kill the Moon” still interests her. “Mummy” is often cited for casting Clara’s adventuring as an addiction, but the scene in question implies another addiction: saving the day through impossible means, the way the Doctor does. Observe the antecedent of the pronoun “it”:
“CLARA: I know it’s scary and difficult, but do you love being the man making the impossible choice?
DOCTOR: Why would I?
CLARA: Because it’s what you do, all day, every day.
DOCTOR: It’s my life.
CLARA: Doesn’t have to be. Is it like—
DOCTOR: Like what?
CLARA: —an addiction?
DOCTOR: You can’t really tell if something’s an addiction till you try and give it up.
CLARA: And you never have.
DOCTOR: Let me know how it goes.”
“Flatline” sees them tacitly making up their conflict, the Doctor gently guiding Clara through a process that might transform that double-edged sword into a single-edged one. He hands her the sonic and the psychic paper. He also teaches her to channel her love for being in control:
“DOCTOR: Clara, this is a vital stage. This little group is currently confused and disorientated, but pretty soon a leader is going to emerge. You need to make sure that leader is you.”
She also puts her manipulativeness to more productive use:
“DOCTOR: So what’s next, Doctor Clara?
CLARA: Lie to them.
CLARA: Lie to them. Give them hope. Tell them they’re all going to be fine. Isn’t that what you would do?
DOCTOR: In a manner of speaking.”
She’s a quick thinker already, but the Doctor guides her through his thought process: the aliens dissected the human victims, who are now in the walls, and they won’t negotiate. I think seeing the Doctor’s example helps her massively when she has Rigsy fool the Boneless through his artistic talent:
“CLARA: Rule number one of being the Doctor. Use your enemy’s power against them.”
Having gotten this far, though, we would be doing something wrong if we didn’t note that Clara’s grand scheme is just to bring back the Doctor. She’s not the Doctor yet. However, she saves lives using no weapon except the ones the other side brought and takes compassion on the little man (saving Rigsy with a hairband), and how much closer can you get?
By the time we arrive at “Face the Raven”, Clara has survived the sewers of Skaro, navigated bootstrap paradox ghosts, and witnessed her Zygon duplicate stand down from a war with Earth (2). She’s been fully inculcated with the Doctor’s thought process, and she is now experienced at managing crises on her own, so she no longer falls back on the Doctor like she did in “Flatline”. In fact, she wants to keep the Doctor as much out of the way as possible:
“CLARA: No, this is us talking the opposition into their own trap. This is Doctor 101. We’re buying time. We get all of the aliens on our side in the next half an hour, and then we reveal I’ve got the chronolock, not you, and boom! We buy ourselves more time to find the real killer.
RIGSY: The Doctor would never let you do this.
CLARA: Doctor 102: Never tell anyone your actual plan. He’ll have a tantrum when he finds out.”
She’s got a plan, she makes sure it’s executed right to the best of her knowledge, and she convinces Rigsy to follow through, thereby saving his life and family. And her plan would have worked—she would have finally saved the day just like the Doctor, if it hadn’t turned out the situation wasn’t the false murder accusation scenario they expected, but simply a ploy for the Time Lords to capture the Doctor. Clara’s taking the chronolock turned out to be not only useless but uninformed:
“ASHILDR: I guarantee the safety of Clara Oswald. She will be under my personal protection. That is absolute.
ASHILDR: Clara, I made a contract with the Shade when I put the chronolock on Rigsy. I promised it a soul and only I can break that contract. When you took it from him, you changed the terms. You cut me out of the deal.”
Who is to blame for Clara’s death? As Ashildr/Me was the one who unintentionally used misleading language that led Clara to make false assumptions, it’s a little bit her fault. The Doctor certainly blames the Time Lords for concocting Rigsy’s fake death sentence to begin with. I do think Clara was rash in refusing to consult the Doctor, who knew about quantum shades and could have dissuaded her early on. However, I hesitate to say that she was arrogant. I don’t think she was looking down on the Doctor’s potential advice, I think she wanted to contribute her own slice to the plan, which is reasonable considering he’s been training her to act on his level. I also hesitate to say she had an exaggerated opinion of her ability to save the day and acted recklessly. Remember, Clara’s plan was to buy time to find the real killer so that Rigsy wouldn’t be wrongfully executed. At this time, she had no reason to believe Ashildr/Me was going to remove the chronolock from him regardless. To the best of her knowledge, if she didn’t take the chronolock and they couldn’t find the real killer in time, Rigsy would die and Ashildr/Me would kick them out. In fact, if it was just a normal false murder accusation, and Ashildr/Me could indeed remove the chronolock from her, Clara’s plan would have worked, and it wouldn’t have mattered that she didn’t consult the Doctor. She had no way of knowing she made the wrong call! I think we define “reckless” as opposed to “necessary risk” retrospectively, after we know how the situation plays out, so I don’t like saying Clara “got reckless” because she was indeed anticipating consequences, just not the right ones. On balance, her death was a perfect storm of miscommunication, making too many assumptions, wanting to be independent, and the situation turning out very different from what was expected. She was very, very unlucky.
A lot of people say Clara’s death is “poetic” or “beautiful,” as a reflection on the randomness of bad luck or the riskiness of life with the Doctor. I don’t think it’s very beautiful, but I think we can agree that we feel how we do because Clara did not deserve this death. The thing is, she and the Doctor were personally invested in her growth, so a death mostly out of her control grates severely with that. We saw her mature from demanding that the Doctor undo Danny Pink’s death to gracefully accepting her own: “There will be no revenge. I will die, and no one else, here or anywhere, will suffer.” We saw her overcome pure love of authority and control freakiness to concoct a plan to save the day. Surely she hasn’t undergone this maturation only to die because of bad luck. At the very least, she needs some closure, some sort of one-on-one with the Doctor about her progress, and her “Hell Bent” resurrection grants her that. The Doctor acknowledges he wasn’t really a moral paragon compared to the woman who’s accepted her self-sacrifice and what she stands for:
“CLARA: I’ve never asked you for that, ever. These have been the best years of my life, and they are mine. Tomorrow is promised to no one, Doctor, but I insist upon my past. I am entitled to that. It’s mine.
DOCTOR: Oh, Clara Oswald. What am I doing? You’re right. You’re always, always right.”
As for that infamous ending with Ashildr/Me and the TARDIS? Well, in her fourth-to-last line, Clara says:
“CLARA: We all face the raven in the end. That is the deal.”
Besides, she repeats in the episode, “I don’t want this,” “I was dead and gone. Why would you even do that to yourself?” “What if the universe needs me to die?” It’s not like she’s forgotten her self-sacrifice and is braying with glee at being able to travel with impunity. She’s keeping in mind that “Gallifrey” is her ultimate destination, even if it’s “the long way round”. Her last scene is short, but I see it as her seizing the chance to finally save the day perfectly, just like the Doctor, with no bad luck stopping her this time. It’s an opportunity her growth has earned her.
Now let’s pop out and assume a puppet theater perspective. Why did Moffat and Dollard choose death? Why didn’t they shut her in an impenetrable prison or do something ponderous that’s not death? Hell, why did anything bad have to happen to her at all if she got a happy end anyway? First of all: Putting characters through adversity allows us to learn more about them. We see how much Clara’s grown just by watching her accepting a death that wasn’t entirely her fault, asking Rigsy not to feel guilty, and insisting that the Doctor let her go. Her reaction sets a new milestone in her maturity that we could only get by pushing her to an extreme. Second: why can’t that extreme be death? If we move away from the idea that death in fiction is sacrosanct, death is as good as any other ponderous fate to make the point that Clara is unfairly screwed but accepts it. Death might even be better because as the opening lines of “Heaven Sent” reveal, the Doctor puts a lot of emotional value on death. If Clara dies, he reacts far more extremely than if she were merely (“merely”) put in prison or something non-fatal, and that makes for a more character-defining story on his side.
Clara’s death stops her growth short, but it also redeems her, helping her earn a resurrection that allows her to finally become a Doctor-like individual. In the end, she got what she deserved. I suppose whether you think she should have gotten what she deserved depends on whether you think fiction should prioritize portraying death as unfair and arbitrary like it is in real life, or whether you think fiction may take liberties with death if it means constructing a more logical character arc. We’ll return to that question after we discuss Bill.
Bill’s a much simpler story. Bill is nothing if not thoroughly sympathetic—funny, smart, brave, and above all, eager to learn. For all their many faults, I think “Pyramid” and “Lie of the Land” present her with tribulations that force her to confront herself and change, much like “Caretaker” through “Flatline” did to Clara. “Pyramid” sees Bill panic and give up the planet while counting on the Doctor to rescue her, and even though a lot of people have complained that the Doctor haranguing her into shooting him was out of character, I think there was at least a little genuine frustration that she expects him to fix her mistake. Once they talk to Missy, Bill fully understands that since she screwed up, she has to make things better. That’s when she ties up the Doctor and risks her neck changing the broadcast. “Eaters of Light” sees a much more assertive and brave Bill assure the Romans that they have to get out from underground and reunite with the Doctor, which I don’t doubt is a byproduct of her growth in “Lie of the Land”.
Like Clara, Bill dies from bad luck. It’s even more clear than with Clara that she doesn’t deserve this. But there’s an additional slight that her death is primarily a means to get the Doctor, Missy, and Nardole deeper into the spaceship. It doesn’t snap the Doctor the way Clara’s death did, maybe because the Doctor isn’t as close to Bill, or he’s learned his lesson, or he’s too busy worrying about Missy. Simm’s Master suggests the Doctor won’t forgive Missy for what happened to Bill, but we never see Missy and the Doctor talk about Bill (though it’s worth noting that the Doctor lets Simm Master taunt Bill and only tells her not to let him “rile her up”). That raises the question of: Why didn’t Moffat use some non-lethal ploy to get the TARDIS crew deeper into the spaceship?
There are puppet theater reasons why Bill’s death was useful—it’s a great excuse for a story with Mondasian Cybermen, which Capaldi has always wanted and which would nicely bookend Missy’s tenure, which began with an alternate Cyberman genesis story. Well, and the death of the most popular companion since Donna and Amy sure snags those short attention spans.
I do think Bill’s death fits thematically in an episode that sees living people physically enhancing themselves and eradicating their perceived weaknesses until we’re not sure they’re really living people anymore. The following episode uses death as a metaphor for dramatic change, with the Simm Master killing Missy because he hates what he will become, and the Doctor not wanting to die and regenerate because he doesn’t want to change. Bill becomes a Cyberman, and maybe it’s not literally death, but it’s too much a change for her, and she feels she could only live a meaningful life as a human. From a next-door neighbor perspective, she neither deserved the death nor needed it to reveal something new about herself, as Clara’s did. But from a puppet theater perspective, her death fits nicely with the themes of “World Enough and Time” and “The Doctor Falls”.
What about Heather resurrecting her? Zooming out again to the puppet theater, I admit it was pretty out of left field. But I get a weird sense that it’d get just as much flak if it didn’t happen, because then everyone would be like, “Why couldn’t water girl from episode 1 save her? Alert! Alert! A plot hole has been detected!! Exterminate Moffat!!!!!” (Poor guy never wins.) So there’s a puppet theater reason: tying up the loose end in “The Pilot”. Honestly, though, I think most of us agree that she deserved a happy ending. In Alasdair Wilkins’ words:
The basic reason I think it succeeds is that Bill suffers enough over the course of “The Doctor Falls” that I want to see her released from her torment. The episode takes the horror of her situation seriously enough that it feels like a relief rather than a cheat when it ultimately finds a way to undo it. […] Bill has been such a brilliant, joyous premise this season, and so it feels right to let her go off with the woman she loves to explore the universe.
Given that Bill died, I think she had to be resurrected. Her character has been all about the joy of learning, and to borrow the language of those who believe resurrection cheapens death, ending her journey with a fatal accident cheapens her life. It assumes the genuine curiosity that’s driven her through the series and her little growth arc in episodes 7 and 8 are worth surrendering to get the Doctor and Missy down a spaceship. Her “Doctor Falls” resurrection, then, recognizes the meaninglessness of her death to her and restores meaning to her life. With resurrection, Bill gets a conclusion befitting her sincerity, curiosity, and even the small growth arc she had. Bill’s death may admittedly have been for show—although I say thematic showiness is the good kind of showiness—but her resurrection turned the focus back on her and what she was all about.
To those who think Clara and Bill should have either stayed dead or not died at all, I hope I have offered a satisfying enough explanation for why I think death and resurrection were appropriate for both. Of course, there may be future companions for whom resurrection does no favors, but I do not think Clara or Bill (ha) fit the bill.
I know, however, that my argument hinges on a vast assumption. I said that neither companion deserved their respective deaths. However, in real life, death doesn’t care how fulfilling a life you lived, how accomplished you’ve become, or how much you’ve grown. My assumption is that Who has the right to paint a reality where death may be unfair, but that can be fixed. Many argue contrarily that Who does not have that right because as a family show, it has an even higher obligation to teach children life lessons, like how to cope with real-world, undeserved, unfair, indiscriminate, and permanent death. To which I say: Bring on the next essay.
(1) I suspect the reason Clara came off to many as a Mary Sue was that she just happens to be adept in the things companions need to be: quick on the uptake, manipulative when she needs to be, excellent leader. Also, she jumped into his timestream, saw child Doctor, got a TARDIS, etc. Whether Clara is a Mary Sue is debatable, especially if we factor in her far less fleshed-out version in series 7, but I’m pretty sure Mary Sues don’t grow as characters, and what did I just write an essay about? Her growth. Oh.
(2) Interestingly enough, the Zygon two-parter revolves around a character who looks like Clara and has some of her personality, yet Clara herself is mostly absent. It makes me suspect we’re supposed to see Bonnie as a proxy for Clara. Article for another time, perhaps…