When we first met new Doctor Who companion Clara Oswin Oswald—last fall in “Asylum of the Daleks”—she died. It was sad, but she made sure to take the Daleks down with her and really, such is life around the Doctor.
Then we saw her on a completely different time on a completely different planet, with an entirely unrelated life. And again, she died. Now we’ve linked back up with her in the present day and still she has no memory of her previous adventures with the Doctor. Why has she shown up in three completely unrelated places/time periods? How did she come back to life? Why doesn’t she remember the Doctor?
We have precious little information to go on, but there is one theory that explains what Oswin is:
Spoilers ahead for all current episodes.
For the purposes of this theory we need to refresh ourselves on the definition of a meme. To put it as simply as possible, a meme is an idea that spreads from person to person within a culture. What I propose is that Oswin herself is, specifically, the personified result of one of the most powerful ideas, i.e. memes, ever expressed in the universe. She is literally inspired by, and thus focused on, the Doctor himself.
On the face of it this sounds a little too high-concept for a show that, in only its second episode, made a joke out of a fake alien race by dubbing them “The Repeated Meme.” But current showrunner Steven Moffat is no stranger to weaving such complex concepts into Doctor Who. After all, he’s introduced River Song, a woman whose timeline is perpetually out of order with the Doctor’s. He’s had our hero escape the death of the universe by hiding in the memory of his companion, only to later hide inside a robot version of himself to ensure that he would die. When taken altogether, a concept like the Doctor traveling with the personification of an idea sounds positively straightforward.
Additionally, Moffat is notorious for being inspired by, and subsequently inspiring, internet culture. The plot of “Blink” hinges on it, “wibbly wobbly timey wimey” is now an instant nerd-identifying phrase, and I don’t know about you, but I now cannot hear the word “spoilers” without hearing Alex Kingston’s purr. (Not that that’s a bad thing….) There is no question that Moffat would be well aware of what a meme is and how much of a science fictional notion the concept of memetics is, at its core. An idea that propagates itself? That’s 90% of a Doctor Who episode pitch right there. (It’s also hard to imagine Moffat not being delighted at knowing Oswin is a meme on the show while watching Oswin become a meme on Tumblr.)
But why would Moffat need to create such a complicated companion for the Doctor when having someone simply stumble in to the TARDIS is just as entertaining? The answer to this can be found in the long game that Steven Moffat has been seeding all throughout the Eleventh Doctor’s adventures. The fifth season ended with his enemies banding together to prevent him from destroying the universe. The sixth season began with the Silence hunting him, Amy, and Rory through time and space, at which point he declared outright war on them so he could retrieve Amy from their clutches. The sixth season ended with the Doctor realizing he had become too noisy and too eager to jump to the offensive (we learned that there are worlds where the term “doctor” now means “mighty warrior”), and he swore to “disappear” and let the universe handle itself.
In the beginning of the seventh and latest season, we began to see how poorly he’s handling his decision to disappear. He’s kidnapped by the Daleks and realizes that they wouldn’t be nearly as deadly if he hadn’t been constantly forcing them to adapt to his assaults. We discover that the time he’s spent traveling without Amy and Rory—or any companion—has made him embittered to a dangerous point. In the very next episode he sends a genocidal poacher to his certain death, then in the one after that he tosses out a penitent war criminal to the robot hunting him. Then he loses Amy and Rory for good, despite his best efforts.
In “The Snowmen” we come upon a Doctor who has made good on his vow to disappear. He’s parked his TARDIS in the clouds of Victorian England, changed the interior of his ship to something much harder and colder, and has refused to see anyone or interfere in anything unless they answer a series of impossible riddles. The Doctor has well and truly retired.
And how well has that ever gone?
So far, each of Moffat’s completed seasons has ended with the Doctor dying or becoming inactive, and that choice has been reversed every time by powers beyond his own. At the end of the Eleventh Doctor’s first season, Amy remembers and wills the Doctor back into existence, despite his erasure from the universe. At the end of his second season, in “The Wedding of River Song,” River points out that the static that the Doctor has been hearing is actually countless races from around the universe lamenting his forecoming death. And it’s here that she utters a line straight from showrunner Steven Moffat’s pen, a line key to this theory:
“You’ve decided that the universe is better off without you. But the universe doesn’t agree.”
Moffat is never shy about pointing out how wonderful the Doctor is and how vital his presence is on both very personal and universal scales. In “The Wedding of River Song,” Moffat makes that idea into a wish that the entirety of existence shares. And what is a wish but an ideal to be strived for? If a meme is an idea that spreads from person to person within a culture, how powerful does it become when it’s an idea that spreads beyond cultures, to touch every corner of existence?
The universe doesn’t want the Doctor to stop, it wants him to keep going. And that desire has resulted in the spontaneous creation of Oswin.
Think back to when Oswin first appeared in “Asylum of the Daleks.” Sure, the Daleks had already kidnapped the Doctor, but what actually prompted him into action? Hearing Oswin’s voice in distress.
Oswin did not survive that encounter, but the Doctor kept going, kept moving around with Amy and Rory—until he lost them and settled into a bitter, motionless retirement. What finally rousted him from that? Oswin hunting him down and uttering the only word that could draw him out.
She did not survive that encounter, either. But thanks to the events of “The Snowmen,” Oswin has now presented a mystery for the Doctor to solve, prompting him to head back out into time and space in hopes of finding her. At the beginning of “The Bells of Saint John,” we see that the Doctor’s search has run its course. He’s found no trace of Oswin and has shut himself up in a 13th century monastery to paint portraits of her and generally obsess. We are told he might never leave, in fact, just as Oswin randomly rings the TARDIS’ phone. In a flash, the Doctor is back in action and foiling a plot by the Great Intelligence so he doesn’t lose her a third time. And even when he’s successful, and asking Oswin to come travel with him, she puts him off by telling him to ask “tomorrow.”
Three times now, Oswin’s appearance has prompted the Doctor back into action. And it is most likely no accident that each time the Doctor interacts with Oswin he finds himself irresistibly drawn to her. She’s literally an ideal—one designed to draw the Doctor back into action time and time again. The universe doesn’t agree that the Doctor should stop, and Oswin is the result of that wish. She will always manifest where he is needed next, even if she dies.
Or, as the Doctor himself put it in “The Snowmen,” as he hands Oswin the key to the TARDIS:
“I never know why. I only know who.”
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and nevers knows how, he only knows what.
The original version of this article appeared on Tor.com in January 2013.