Tue
Jan 22 2013 11:00am
New Doctor Who Companion Oswin is a Living Meme

Doctor Who's Oswin Oswald meme theory

You’ll forgive a Doctor Who fan if these days we get caught up in wondering just what is going on with the Doctor’s newest companion, Clara Oswin Oswald. We met her for the first time last fall in “Asylum of the Daleks,” became enchanted with her, then watched as she was obliterated along with an entire planet.

Then we saw her on a completely different time on a completely different planet, with an entirely unrelated life. Why has she shown up in two 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:

A meme.

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.

Doctor Who's Oswin Oswald meme theory

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.

Finally, in the latest episode (“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 of without you. But the universe doesn’t agree.”

Doctor Who's Oswin Oswald meme theory

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 scenes at the end of “The Snowmen,” we know that she once again lives in what appears to be the present day...and that the Doctor now knows to keep an eye open for her reappearance.

Twice now, Oswin’s appearance has prompted the Doctor back into action, and as we see at the end of “The Snowmen,” as Clara Oswin Oswald offers the same last words that she did in “Asylum of the Daleks,” he’s about to embark a third time. 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.

Furthermore, it is mostly 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.

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.”

Doctor Who's Oswin Oswald meme theory


Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and nevers knows how, he only knows what.

45 comments
Jenny Thrash
1. Sihaya
I assume her purpose is to bring the Doc full circle. She may even have been spread around time in space by the TARDIS, a bit like "Bad Wolf." The confluence of Oswin's last name with the *other* fiftieth anniversary may bring the Doctor to earth the day before the show airs. The Doctor will find that he's back in the history books, but in a somewhat altered state. "The Doctor, oh yeah, great set of children's stories." He will find that he's literally a legend, and one with staying power.
John R. Ellis
2. John R. Ellis
I'm still going with the "aspect/agent of the White Guardian" hypothesis others have put forth.

But this one is quite promising.
Douglas Freer
3. Futurewriter1120
My theory is that Clara is someone the Doctor needs but after being converted by the Daleks, her spirit refused to die and was reborn where he would be next, which would be Victorian London, but just like all reincarnation stories, grew up without memories of her past life. She gets reunited with the Doctor, but just like last time, dies and gets reborn at a much later date under the same circumstances.
She's someone the Doctor needs to evolve but the catalyst keeps dieing and has to be reborn.
Ashley Fox
4. A Fox
Mmmm. Interesting.

To add to the ideal aspect, the part I am firmly supporting. Was watching the Pandorica Opens recently with my little one. Couldnt help but notice that the Doctor's speech re Amy being irresitable, how she didnt make sense ect could very well apply to Oswin.

I still cannot help but feel there will be some connection to River Song/'s death.
Andrés David Aparicio Alonso
5. adapar
@Sihaya: what other anniversary? JFK's? I don't understand :/
Douglas Freer
6. Futurewriter1120
@adapar: Sihaya does mean JFK since the premire was on the day of the assassination.
Ashley Fox
7. A Fox
huh? JFK? Whats that to do with anthing? Surely they meant the aniversary of Doctor Who, the programme? That would make the latter part of post make sense...where the Doctor is showing up before the first filming of Doctor Who.
alastair chadwin
8. a-j
A Fox@7
The very first episode of Dr Who was postponed for a week because of the assassination of JFK.
William Frank
9. scifantasy
Just to spell it out in case anyone missed it, the reason the Kennedy assassination is relevant to Clara/Oswin is that the assassin (I'm just going to sidestep the conspiracy theories here) was Lee Harvey Oswald.
Ashley Fox
10. A Fox
Ahh, cheers a-j for saying that politely. Didnt know. Being British and under 30 means that Kennedy doesnt mean that much to me: just another american who got shot and had very unsavory role in McCarthyism.

So has that association, with Oswald, been confirmed? It seems a bit... bizarre.
John R. Ellis
11. SeeingI
Good theory! Personally I think she's a trap created by the Great Intelligence, who, after all, was trying to find a way to take human form.
Alan Brown
12. AlanBrown
I think the idea that Clara is a reaction from a universe which does not want to see the Doctor retreat into a shell is intriguing.
I just wish you hadn't hung the word 'meme' on your idea. To me, that particular word means "tired and overused analogy that has been stretched in so many different directions that even Mr. Dawkins has grown tired of it."
Jenny Thrash
13. Sihaya
The premier was on the day after the assassination of Kennedy and a day before the death of Oswald, Kennedy's killer. The episode was also rebroadcast a week later.

At first I thought the association strange, and a tough one to handle tastefully. On the other hand, the Doctor travels to witness history alot, even unpleasant history. And while one commentor thinks JFK is "just another American who got shot," he played an important role in world history for alot of reasons, not the least of which is that he kicked off the race to send a man to the moon. Combine men in space with science fiction like Doctor Who, and the sixties became the decade that (directly or indirectly) created *alot* of science fiction writers, astronauts, scientists, phycisists, and STEM-related people who affect us today.
Ashley Fox
14. A Fox
The space race owed far more to German Nazis, and then to the Soviets, than it did to JFK. And surely the start would be with Eisenhower?

The part of my comment re JFK that you choose not to qoute touches upon this.

shrug. America tends to heavily propagandise history, with the USA at the centre. (That doesnt mean posters here are). This led me to question whether this was an example of that, fuelled by coincidence. Or whether it actually had merit. I've not yet seen a convincing argument. I'd be interested to read one.

EDIT: To add, from what I can gather the news report only delayed DW by a few minutes (9). Not a week. it wasnt shown in the USA for another 14months.
Jenny Thrash
15. Sihaya
Eisenhower oversaw the beginning fo the space program, but JFK announced the program for the moon, an undertaking that had been judged to be too expensive and just downright logistically impossible (and that many of his own people still thought was mad). He escalated space exploration to what was pretty much a declared race, ensuring an elevated long term investment in astronomy, physics, engineering, etc. I won't engage your argument about Americans. I don't really care.
Ashley Fox
16. A Fox
JFK is a footnote in the space race. He did not declare it, it did not even begin in his presidancy (Sputnik). The moon as a goal was set up to give the US a chance to regain face after they had been trailing behind the USSR.

This lauding of JFK ect is an attempt to obfuscarate where the intel came from, and other events that were happening at the time.
Jenny Thrash
17. Sihaya
Oh geez, now you're just on the crazy train. "My left hand does not matter, because evidence shows I also have a right one." Nevermind.
Ashley Fox
18. A Fox
As fond as I am of that song, it is not literal nor am I crazy. And there is much laughter at the irony.
Dave Bell
19. DaveBell
Kennedy was the man who made the political commitment to going to the Moon. He's the one who stood up and said that it was going to happen.

I want to see Strax and Madam Vastra on the grassy knoll
John R. Ellis
20. Darkclaw
The problem I see with this theory is that is blown to bits down the road when the actress leaves and a new companion comes aboard.
John R. Ellis
21. RiverVox
Fascinating. I like the idea that she's "The Companion" regenerating as "The Doctor" does, and created by the universe or, could it be, by the TARDIS herself?
John R. Ellis
22. Red-Cat
@A Fox, you thank one poster "for saying that politely," and then move on to impolitely libeling JFK. You obviously don't like JFK, but you can hardly say "He did not declare it" when he said clearly, in 1962, "I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency... We choose to go to the moon in this decade."

In any case, this forum is for discussing Doctor Who, not American politicians, so maybe we can return to that discussion?
John R. Ellis
23. MrMightyMax
@Sihaya
And actually, in the first episode of the modern series with Eccleston you see a pic of him at the Kennedy assassination.
John R. Ellis
25. buckenator83
Well in "Rose", the 9th doctor was seen in the crowd in a photo just before the assasination of JFK, when rose visits the guy whose done research about the doctor. And with the show originally supposed to premiere on the day of the assasination (but delayed), it would be a fitting subject for the 50th anniversary show. Considering that guy standing next to the doctor in the photo looks a but like Ianto Jones from Torchwood, could we have a huge doctor who universe special bringing together All 11 doctors and torchwood.
John R. Ellis
26. Suicidal Idiot
Don't forget that Lister, Rimmer, Chreighton, Kochanksi and The Cat were all there too....
John R. Ellis
27. JoeM
For those mentioning the "delay" over the Kennedy assassination (from Wikipedia):
It has been written that the transmission of the first episode was delayed by ten minutes due to extended news coverage of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy the previous day; whereas in fact, it went out just eighty seconds late. Due to it being felt that the coverage of the events of the assassination as well as a series of power blackouts across the country may have caused too many viewers to miss this introduction to a new series, the BBC broadcast it again on 30 November 1963, just before the broadcast of episode two.
John R. Ellis
28. JCohn
The Doctor is already married to someone who would not share him easily.

She regenerates - almost like a Time Lord.

Ergo, this is his and River's daughter.
John R. Ellis
29. Joy V. smith
I like that theory, JCohn.
John R. Ellis
30. Applebyter
My first thought on seeing her again was "Doctor's Daughter"
John R. Ellis
31. Skott
"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.”"

Not to be too pedantic (but I'm a sci-fi fan, so of course I will be), but the Doctor met the Adherents of the Repeated Meme. We don't actually know what meme they worshipped.
John R. Ellis
32. Baloden Zan
I think she is Jenny the clone of The Doctor.
John R. Ellis
33. JCohn
Let's do anagrams!

Clara Oswin Oswald

Sonic Lord Was a Law
John R. Ellis
34. NBee
I'm very much hoping that she is not the Doctor's daughter, as she did kiss him. :-/
John R. Ellis
35. Riambra
Ok here is MY two cents. Clara Oswin Oswald is a projection of a child, one specific child. That child being Charlotte Abigail Lux (Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead). At the end of Forest of the Dead the child tells River "Aren't I a clever girl?" Also the Doctor left RIVER'S DIARY in the library which details all his future adventures. With a little help from River (who knows the Doctor should never travel alone) CAL is able to project an okder version of herself into the universe in order to keep the Doctor motivated. Just a thought....
Jenny Thrash
36. Sihaya
#34 - Hey, why does Star Wars get to be the only franchise with kisses that turn out to be terribly awkward in hindsight?
DarlaSilvereye Walsh
37. jwinpa
A product of CAL from Silence in the Library, nice idea Riambra, I like it.

A meme, also a great idea.

But remember Moffit is evil, I'm sure he has great plans for Clara that we can not comprehend. I think she is part of a plot by something even more powerful than the Silence to damage the Doctor in some way.

But, also knowing the Doctor, when the Clara trap is sprung, the Doctor has done something to Clara to defuse the trap.

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm ready for Moffit's evil plans (I hope).
John R. Ellis
38. blueangel1432
My two cents, I think Clara is CAL or a program designed by CAL. All children in CALs database of all time and space were all the same ( made it easier to store) so it doesnt have to be Charlotte, it could be He and Rivers daughter or She could be simply bait and I think that's more likely. I think that Riversong may have essentially built and sent 'Clara' with information to draw the doctor out and to follow her. She can die over and over because shes essentially a program, she can be a Dalek, She can be a woman, And she's loaded with exactly what the doctor needs to hear because River is feeding her/it info.... I dont think its the doctors daughter b/c clearly (to me) the "Clever Girl " is tied to the library, as for the Universe sending her....meh. Maybe but I think its too broad a thing to trace back to I think she's something specific sent and resent from someone specific.
John R. Ellis
39. Masterjace
I have been thinking about a lot of differnt things, such as Donna being a part Timelord, the Dr Donna. And what happend after she got married, had kids. Were they also TL's or have any powers? I agree about the Silance in the libreay thing and it could be the Dr. and Rivers child or one of the there. We see all three at the end but no father. Alos thinking about where did the Master go? And could he be making a slow return, as Oswin? I often refer to Oswin as Co2, how about the othere Dr traped with Rose in the othere time line? What is its all connected to them, and leading the new Dr. to go and get them out for some reason. I would like to see Torchwood involved too. Jack has such a great back story they could bring back the entire cast and do more stories before there deaths. Even in the early 1800's when he first lands back on earth looking for the Dr. I am rewatching all the episodes from Rose to Snow men over this weekend to look for clues. I will post them if I come up with anything that looks promising.
John R. Ellis
40. Mogz
When I first read this article I thought "No way. It's a cool idea, but it'd never happen"
But then I remembered "The Last of the Time Lords", the season finale for Series 3, and how the combined thoughts of every person on Earth combined to restore the Doctor to his normal form as well as giving him the power to control the space around him for a short time.
Clara could very well be the personification of the Universe's wish to return the Doctor to normal. The only question is what will happen to her when she is no longer needed.
AI1
41. AI1
This is a wild stab in the dark. Could it be that Clara IS by some measure, the Tardis? True that at the end of "The Doctor's Wife" she says both hello and goodbye to the Doctor but we now know that the Tardis can inhabit a form albeit for a short time. To some extent this would explain the Doctor's and Clara's instant attraction and familiarity. He is very quickly wholly positive and protective of her (like Rory and Amy) as he "recognises" his fascination with her, she is more reserved so far. Clara is also connected to the Great Intelligence in that it reflected her actions, interests, ambivalence, and emotional state--so is this an indication that Time Lords are analogous to the traditional magicians in that the magician's power is not derived from themselves but from their ability to summon a spirit and contain it? The "spirits", the Tardises in this case of which there were many in the past, are therefore ambivalent about the magician--beholden in that they can act in the here and now, but resentful of their imprisonment to the will of another for the most part. This latter said because in "The Doctor's Wife", the Doctor is angry with the Tardis/Idris (the name Idris means "firey leader or prophet") saying that she didn't always take him where he 'wanted to go' (insisting on her servitude) and Idris says she always took him where 'he needed to go', declaring her leadership nature.
Would this explain why the Great Intelligence--clearly reflecting Clara (the snow becomes "salty rain" when she cries while dying) also tries very hard to kill the Doctor? An expression of the severe ambivalence of the relationship? Are the Silence, a "religious order" devoted to this Prophet?
Name Breakdown:
Tardis: Time and Relative Dimensions in Space
Idris: fiery leader or Prophet
Clara: bright, famous
Oswin: God's Friend
Oswald: Divine Power

No real theory here just random thoughts I decided to pass along.
AI1
42. AI1
Just read my own post and another thought occured. We know the Doctor can project outwardly aspects of himself--the Dream episode (forgotten the name)--so is Clara the Doctor's projection of himself?
Cain Latrani
43. CainS.Latrani
A lot of interesting theories here, but I suspect that the answer to the mystery of Clara will come at the Fields of whatsit. He kept asking her to say Doctor Who over and over, and according to blue head in a box guy, that's when silence will fall, when the question is asked at the fields.

Whatever causes Clara to coexist in multiple times and places, likely happens there. A temporal fracturing if you will.

And yes, I do think Clara is actually existing in multiple places in space time simultaneously.

However, I'm just spinning ideas, based on my own observations. Hopefully, Moffett won't telegraph this as heavily as he did the identiry of River Song. I prefer a good mystery to an obvious one.
John R. Ellis
44. Nabicus
While these are all very clever ideas I believe that Clara is the product of the doctor skirting the law that you cannot alter a fixed point in time (as he's done several times). I believe Clara is somehow the result of that, she's a fixed person time, wherein there will always be (has to be) a Clara Oswald.

"Paradoxes always have a way of working out".
John R. Ellis
45. Unipeg
I like the suggestion that Clara is a fixed person in time. The only problem is she is not the same person at all. Even her name is different each time. In the future she is Oswin Oswald. In the past she is Clara Oswin Oswald and in the present she is Clara Oswald. Even her personality is different. The only thing the same is her face and her last name. I would believe they are all just related but that would be too easy coming from Moffat.

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