The thing that really stands out about this melancholy and lyrical pair of episodes is how much they appear to be setting up and playing into, even more than the first four, the seasonal arc regarding the departure of Clara. In fact, I don’t think there’s been a series so focused on the impending exit of a companion since series two, which teased Rose’s exit with the notion of the “valiant child who will die in battle” and Rose’s own ironic (and hubristic) assertion that “people keep on trying to split [her and the Doctor] up but they never, ever will.” With Martha and Donna each in residence for only one full season, their stories were more or less told in one fell swoop. Leaving only five episodes in series 7, the Ponds’ exit (though certainly foreseen and foreshadowed) happened a bit more suddenly in the narrative. In contrast, series 9, like series 2, seems to be gearing up for the kind of big, emotional climax of something like the devastating “Doomsday.” In a sense, the whole series will be about the finale in a fundamental way.
Whereas Russell T. Davies made use of irony in writing out Rose–i.e. having her repeat with increasingly absolute confidence and even desperation that they will never be separated–Moffat seems inclined to emphasize the inevitability of Clara’s departure. Which just goes to reinforce Moffat’s overall aesthetic of metafiction, really. While Davies trades on the dramatic irony of the audience knowing something the characters don’t (namely, the Billie Piper had decided to leave the show), Moffat writes the characters as basically aware of the cycles of the show. Clara knows that there will be someone after her, and even finds that thought somewhat comforting. The Twelfth Doctor laments these cycles, but he also accepts them:
I’m sick of losing people. Look at you, with your eyes, and your never giving up, and your anger, and your kindness. One day, the memory of that will hurt so much that I won’t be able to breathe, and I’ll do what I always do. I’ll get in my box and I’ll run and I’ll run, in case all the pain ever catches up. And every place I go, it will be there.
There’s real poignancy in how his contemplation of the loss of Ashildr (and by implication, Clara) leads his thought back to Donna, and so to the revelation of the message implicit in his current face. And so, in defiance of fate, he saves Ashildr, something he knows to be, if not wrong, then decidedly dangerous.
Things become rather more complicated in part two, when we catch up with the wonderful Maisie Williams’ character. She’s become this strange melange of Doctor Who archetypes. Like the Doctor, she’s a long-lived immortal and therefore alone. She adapts to her ever-changing surroundings, abandoning/forgetting her old name and life, cutting all ties that would keep her from running from her past. She’s of course explicitly compared to Captain Jack Harkness, another human to have immortality thrust upon him against his wishes, but also like him she’s resentful of the Doctor’s abandonment. Like Elton Pope, Jackie Tyler, Lorna Bucket, and countless others, she’s been left behind. “I’ll be patron saint of the Doctor’s leftovers,” she declares with mingled warmth and bitterness. But of course, she’s also a companion, taking Clara’s place in this week’s adventure, learning that common lesson that it’s rather difficult to stay angry with the Doctor when you actually spend time with him. Or rather, he serves as her companion, teaching her the same compassion he’s been retaught many times over the years.
Hybridity is of course the recurring theme here. Missy talked in the premier about seeing the “friend in the enemy, the enemy in the friend.” Of course we saw Clara encased in the Dalek shell, a motif we’ve seen before. We know the Hybrid seems to be a monster coming down the pike, if not the season’s Big Bad. “Enemies are never a problem,” Ashildr asserts. “It’s your friends you have to watch out for. And my friend, I’ll be watching out for you.” All this means that we’re prompted to “watch out” for Clara, and the ambiguity is pointed. You “watch out” for people you care about, people you want to protect. You also “watch out” for danger. Although the Hybrid was presented as half-dalek, half-Time Lord by Davros, I’m laying down my bet now that Clara will have some part in it.
We’ve really only ever had one other companion-lite episode that I can think of in New Who: the chillingly bleak “Midnight.” Just as Doctor-lite stories tend to be about the Doctor’s influence in a particular way, so these stories–by the companion’s conspicuous absence–become about their role in the story. They are a key element, as essential as the Doctor. Fun and kick-ass as Lady Me is, she and the Doctor are not compatible. They are like the magnets that repel each other because of their similarity. “We need the mayflies,” the Doctor tells her. “They know how beautiful and precious life is because it’s so fleeting.” The laws of life (and alchemy) demand the union of opposites that attract. Lady Me declares the endless cycle of death and rebirth “boring,” but it’s also the opposite of stagnation. “I’m not going anywhere,” Clara assures the Doctor, but maybe she should. As the Doctor once eloquently put it, “Everything has to end sometime. Otherwise nothing would ever get started.”