In his TARDIS Eruditorum entry on “A Good Man Goes to War,” Phil Sandifer laid out the theory of narrative substitution, which he 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, 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 inescapable 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 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 Ashildr.
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.