Guest Post: The Impossible Girl


Caitlin Smith is, so far as I can tell, the world's leading expert on Clara Oswald. And yes, I'm counting Steven Moffat and Jenna Coleman. She's also, generally speaking, one of the most insightful and interesting Doctor Who bloggers I know, and I'm honored to have her do a guest post for me. She blogs regularly on Tumblr, and is pretty much always this clever.

Oh, and if you missed it Friday, I'm doing my annual post-Christmas sale on books.

When Phil asked me to write a guest post on the Impossible Girl arc, I was surprised and honoured ...and completely lost on where to begin. It's a relatively simple arc, after all. The Doctor is fascinated by who Clara is and how she can be twice dead and yet still alive, and he focuses on solving the problem of Clara, often forgetting the person behind the mystery. He gets called out on this several times over the course of the series - by Madame Vastra, by Emma Grayling and by Clara herself. And of course in the end it turns out that the Impossible Girl is just a construct by the Doctor, and Clara-the-ordinary-girl is the important one.

Simple. There are of course interesting things to say about how the audience is complicit in the Doctor's mystification of Clara, particularly as a response to the common complaint that Moffat's female characters aren't ordinary enough. We, like the Doctor, are unable or unwilling to look beyond the surface, and thus our judgements are as flawed as we are accusing the work to be. 
But what I find particularly interesting, especially in light of series 8, is that the Impossible Girl isn't just a construct of the Doctor, nor of the audience. It's also a creation of Clara herself. It's the first we see of the control freak, of the ego maniac needy game player. The Impossible Girl is the version of Clara that she most wants to be in Series 7.

When we meet Clara, she seems so very perfect. She's clever, pretty and compassionate. She stands up to the Doctor, but not to the point of getting annoying. She's confident, but not arrogant. She's kind and loyal in how she stays to help the Maitland children. She ticks pretty much every box for what many people would consider perfect, and she definitely plays up to the societal expectations of her gender. All of these traits are the results of decisions Clara has made about the person she wants to present to the world. It would be so easy to believe that was the real Clara, because she makes herself so easy to like.

That was the first mask of Clara's we saw, but it definitely wasn’t the last. For the rest of Series 7 we see her hero persona growing and blending with the 'perfect' mask of pre-Doctor Clara. She defeats a sun god with a leaf in "The Rings of Akhaten", revealing not only how much she enjoys being the hero (complete with a deus ex machina), but also how much meaning she can give an ordinary object with the power of her determination. It's little wonder she can do the same to herself.

Clara's love of storybook tropes continues in "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS", when she berates the Doctor with 'Good guys do not have zombie creatures. Rule one basic storytelling'. She knows what sort of story she wants her life to play out as, and what sort of role she and the Doctor each play in that story. This is also when we start to see the 'control freak' part of her personality coming out. It's one of the few traits we see this series, along with the ruthlessness she shows in Hide, that aren't part of the mask she chooses to show the world. In that, they are clues that the Clara we are seeing is not all that Clara is, and that she is very much the one controlling what we see and how we see it.

Clara's determination to play the role of hero culminates in the creation of the Impossible Girl arc itself. Her choice to leap into the Doctor's time stream was as much, if not more, about her own ambition and story and character development as it was about saving the Doctor and the universe. She paraphrases a metaphor from her mum, the woman who taught her how to impart meaning on every part of her life, and comes up with a catchphrase, before dramatically leaping to her doom/heroic climax.

The result of this was then even more creations based on Clara's preferred version of herself. Oswin and Clara Oswin are flirty, adventurous, brave, and just flawed enough to be interesting. They're heroes, as are all her echoes. They are the Impossible Girl Clara sought to become, but could only manage with the help of a little timey-wimey-ness.

Because Clara's own masks can never last. There are always cracks, because there is always more to her than she lets the world see. She's got a bubbly personality masking a bossy control freak, but the bossy control freak doesn't go away just because she's cheery. And so in the end it's not just the Doctor and the audience who are creating walls and distractions between them and the full complexity of Clara Oswald, but also Clara herself.

It's not easy to put all of yourself on show, and as of "Last Christmas" Clara still hasn't quite managed it. She got close towards the end of Series 8 with the sticky notes of what she wanted to tell Danny about, but that got cut short. It's a likely prospect for her arc in series 9, because the Impossible Girl isn't done yet, and won't be until she can just be without hiding behind a constructed version of herself. And to do that she will have to face up to why she's hiding, and what she's hiding from.
The answer to that, I think, goes right back to "Rings of Akhaten" and her 'origin story'. She lost her mum at the age of 16 and everything changed. Even her dad and her relationship with him was different, so she became the person people expected her to be, the person they needed. It gave her control over her circumstances, and her determination and skill at that control made her very, very good at it.

But Clara is also a dreamer, and a bit of an egomaniac, so her wanting to please others and meet their needs soon turned into her wanting to fulfil her own dreams. And when she was given the chance by the Doctor, well that was all she needed to start the transformation from her 'perfect' mask to her 'hero' one. However the masks and the control were also starting to become a habit and an addiction, and we saw the many negative consequences throughout Series 8. The control freak part of her, which had for so many years made her masks easy to maintain, was starting to break through and destroy them. 

Clara isn't masking herself for any particular reason anymore. Not for protection or acceptance or even wish fulfilment. She's travelling the universe with a man who loves her no matter what she does. She has everything she's dreamed of, and she doesn't need to rely on herself to be the consistency in her life. She has the freedom, finally, to let go of the masks, of the control, and just be Clara.
But when you've lived that way for almost half your life, it's not an easy task. There's no longer the need for her to be the Impossible Girl, but to be anything else Clara would have to do what the Doctor and the audience did in "The Name of the Doctor": accept that the ordinary girl behind the mask is just as, if not more, important than the mask.

I don’t expect much will change, because Clara and her masks are almost indistinguishable at this stage. You can’t pretend to be someone for so long without becoming a lot more like them. What will change, however, is her acceptance of herself. And with that, the story of the Impossible Girl will be done.


Anton B 6 years, 1 month ago

Great post Caitlin. episode The Magicians,Apprentice. Do you think this confirms fan theory (including me) that the Doctor intends to attempt to train Clara for Time Lord status? I see a V/Evey situation here (just to tie it back to the Last War in Albion).

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Caitlin Smith 6 years, 1 month ago

I love the idea of that theory, but I'm not sure whether it'll actually happen. I definitely think the similarities between Clara and the Doctor will be a major point in that episode, but whether that's explicit in the plot, or just in their character moments and the themes of the episode, I'm not sure yet.

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elisi 6 years, 1 month ago

Hi Caitlin. I usually only lurk (partly because it takes me time to pull all my thoughts together - I'm on the Jane spectrum where everything is imagery/metaphors and these take time to clarify), but since it's Clara I feel qualified to jump in. :)

What you refer to as 'masks' I attribute to 'mirroring' (different names, same thing) - Clara mirrors those around her, becoming what they need (the perfect nanny to the Maitlands, the perfect Companion to the Doctor... Except when it comes to Danny she falters as she can't manage the balancing act of mirroring both a perfect girlfriend and being the Doctor's companion). But as you say, what lies behind the mirror is what's important... And that's where this gets so fascinating:

She defeats a sun god with a leaf in "The Rings of Akhaten", revealing not only how much she enjoys being the hero (complete with a deus ex machina), but also how much meaning she can give an ordinary object with the power of her determination. It's little wonder she can do the same to herself.
I would take this much further - Clara's use of the leaf is what Phil refers to as 'alchemy' (“As above, so below,” the injunction goes - a declaration that manipulating symbols and manipulating objects is, in some sense, the same thing. That a symbol and a thing are in some sense interchangeable.) All companions get a chance to shine and show off their own skills at the very beginning - a way to prove to the audience that they're 'worthy'. And what's important is that the skills they use are inherent to themselves. Rose saves the Doctor in 'Rose' because of her bronze medal in the Jericho Street Junior School under 7s gymnastic team. Amy saves the starwhale by tapping into her own childhood experience with the Doctor and recognising the pattern in front of her. And so on. The thing about Clara is that she (like River) uses the Doctor's power - the power of manipulating symbols within the narrative in order to change it - and she does so instinctively. This is what - to me - lies at the heart of the Impossible Girl question. How does she do that?

Like you say, the main 'Impossible Girl' arc is simple, and in many ways a red herring. Once the show solves the riddle, it never goes back to it - her echoes have a simple explanation. Her inherent narrative power doesn't. (Unlike, say River's.)

I like your idea of Clara accepting herself as the endgame - nicely mirroring Twelve's arc over the course of S8 - but I keep running up against Clara Who? Yes she is a perfectly ordinary girl (we keep getting hit over the head with this, making it seem as if someone is protesting too much), and yet there is so much more... Clara is The Impossible Girl, and she contains multitudes: She is, always, two things at the same time. And that is why she is impossible.

And this is where I can only really link to my own meta, as this is far too long & complex to delve into here - especially since you've done such a lovely job of paring everything back. But if anyone is interested in my thoughts, my main Clara post is this one: Schrödinger’s Companion. (Written in the summer, so before S8 aired. But I cover all the bases, as I see them...) Also of interest might be my Death in Heaven meta.

(That's all for now, but I'm sure I'll be back.)

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Caitlin Smith 6 years, 1 month ago

Hi Elisi, thanks for your response!

I like the idea of mirroring, but I'm not sure that covers Clara's need to be a hero, which unlike some of her other personas, isn't linked to anyone else's wants. And considering that was the thing that made me come up with the idea of Clara and masks, it's pretty much dictated my interpretations. She definitely gets inspiration for a lot of her other personas from what people want though.

There's some other very interesting ideas in here, specifically about her inherent narrative power and her being constantly two things at the same time - I wrote a meta about the second one at the start of series 8: (sorry for the ugly link - I'm not great at this stuff). It's short and some of the predictions are a little inaccurate, but there are some interesting ideas in it. What I find particularly interesting reading back is that in series 8 "bossy control freak" in many ways became her mask. She embraced that part of herself, but she was still acting, still being a pre-determined version of herself instead of just letting herself be. Or maybe I'm just projecting... (That does tend to end with the most accurate analysis though, so it's not usually a problem).

I found one of Moffat's recent comments on Clara very interesting: "She’s not really very good at living a normal life. The other companions, like most people, like you and me, can be quite good at living normal lives. I’m very happy living my normal life, I’m sure you are too. Going to the shops seems fine for an adventure, but Clara’s not like that". She's not an ordinary girl, but that's because of who she is, not because of her having echoes. She has this instinctive grasp of what infinity means (as shown in Rings of Akhaten), and now that she knows that it's possible, I don't think she could ever do or be just one thing.

I will give your meta a read - I always love reading Clara meta! If I comment on it my lj is flossbucket, so you know it's me.

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arcbeatle 6 years, 1 month ago

One thing I very much love about Clara is the way that she and the Doctor are kindred spirits the way no other companion has been with the Doctor. Sure, other companions have wanted to see the stars, or have adventures and run away, but no other companion (except I suppose arguably Martha or Romana II) has had the same ambition to be a person like the Doctor is. Clara never accepts the limitations of her humanity, and is always aspiring to be more than the life she is leading.

This of course climaxes with Flatline/Death in Heaven where she actually becomes the Doctor, but the build up is an interesting one. Clara masters being a companion quickly, even managing to not run off, but is still narratively limited by being human. As much as you can give a speech about humans being super special compared to the Doctor, the Doctor is still the one in the opening credits whose face appears in the stars. When Clara jumps into the Doctor's timestream though, she places herself narratively and emotionally as the Doctor's equal. From then on, their relationship changes. Clara can snap the TARDIS door's closed. The Doctor trusts her even to the point of changing the Time War. She doesn't just becomes the Doctor by narrative fiat- she works her butt off getting there, and her face shows up in the stars to.

I love what you said about Clara having masks- and whats interesting to me is how this is so similar to the Doctor. Rule one, the Doctor lies, and now so does Clara. She is who she wants to be. I'm even curious if she'll change her name over the course of Series 9 as she truly becomes the Magician's Apprentice.

Romana's plotline essentially had her become the Doctor, and then hop over to another universe cause this one wasn't big enough for the both of them, and I'm wondering if that is where Clara is heading. She loves the Doc, but Clara is ambitious, and as they say a "Bossy Control Freak" ...Kind of like the Doctor. Maybe she'll want her own sky.

Her own stars to have her face in forever.

(PS: wonderful article! See you on tumblr :) )

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elisi 6 years, 1 month ago

I like the idea of mirroring, but I'm not sure that covers Clara's need to be a hero, which unlike some of her other personas, isn't linked to anyone else's wants. And considering that was the thing that made me come up with the idea of Clara and masks, it's pretty much dictated my interpretations.
Ah yes, I see what you mean. But I think we're still talking about the same thing... In mirroring the Doctor (or trying on the hero mask), Clara finds a role that she seems born to play. And she becomes so good at it that the Doctor is forced to put a dampener on her ("You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara. Goodness had nothing to do with it.") which ties back to Amy's Choice:

DOCTOR: Drop it. Drop all of it. I know who you are.
DREAM LORD: Course you don't.
DOCTOR: Course I do. No idea how you can be here, but there's only one person in the universe who hates me as much as you do.

He sees himself mirrored, and does not like it. (She is supposed to be better than him...)

In terms of the journey you outline so well in the meta you linked to (thank you!), then my point is - are her Doctor-y traits due to how much the Doctor is influencing her (putting on a Doctor-mask) or does her self-acceptance help her be more 'herself' (i.e. Doctor-like, removing the mask)? I am inclined towards the latter, mostly because those traits have been there right from the start. Like you pointed out from that Moffat interview - she is very much what the Doctor would be, if he were a 21st Century human girl...

(Oh and I'm right there with you in projecting. Especially with Moffat. Although at the moment I am lost in 'what is real'... Which is at least different. From S7 onwards I was mostly lost in mirrors.)

I will give your meta a read - I always love reading Clara meta! If I comment on it my lj is flossbucket, so you know it's me.
Woo! Thank you - I would love to know your thoughts! I feel I should also link you to my Kill the Moon meta as it has a long section on 'Clara Who?' If you read that between the Schrodinger's Companion & the Death in Heaven piece you'll get an idea of my thoughts. ('If' being the operative word... I write a lot. I call it my ‘meta café’ and tell people to get a drink and refreshments before they start.) But I love meta, and I love Clara - partly because Clara seems to be constructed almost entirely from meta, except the show keeps telling me she's normal... Anyway. I shall stop rambling & look forward to any comments you may leave. :)

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William Silvia 6 years, 1 month ago

I've got to say, if it weren't for the fact that Ace seems to be fulfilling her end of the Master Plan in "Gallifrey", this suggestion would annoy me.

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Peg 6 years, 1 month ago

I'd argue for Donna and for Sarah Jane, too, though, as inherently "Doctor-like." I'd even say that, to me, the Doctor seems to be best and happiest when he's got a companion who reflects closely the weird blend of bold curiosity, courage, and moral conviction, plus a similar sense of possibility. Clara may be better at the "alchemy" of metaphoric transformation: of treating the world as though it truly were a writer's transformational symbol set and getting away with it. But she's still not the first of the Doctor's companions to be truly a soul mate and a serious Blue Box Protege.

The tragedy of Donna is that just as she is able to grasp her dream and truly be the Doctor's peer and full equal, ready to race through the universe at his side forever, all of it is taken from her, even the memory.

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Aylwin 6 years, 1 month ago

Another thing about 7B Clara - between her "perfection", her authorial-character wish to define the kind of story she's in and her own role in it, and the fact that the season climaxes with her managing to insert herself into every single Doctor Who story ever and save the day in all of them, it's pretty clear that complaints of her being a Mary Sue are the intended result of Moffat once again flagrantly trolling online fandom, just like her MPDGness and the Impossible Girl gambit itself.

None of which I much like. Not going to repeat all my previous gripes about the Impossible Girl business and related narrative subtractions, but there's something very smugly self-absorbed about it. In-jokes are one thing, and someone who's taken as much unwarranted internet vitriol as Moffat is entitled to a few jibes, but organising the whole series around a bunch of wind-ups which are pertinent only to a frenetic but small minority of a big and diverse audience, which only a minority of that minority are actually going to appreciate, is overdoing it. It's a disappearance-up-one's-own-fundament, a clever person's equivalent of Levine/Saward fanwank. And even that at least has the plea in mitigation that the common factor of the self-absorbed cult it was intended for was a love of (well, often more of a stalkerish "If I can't have you, no one will!" kind of "love") and familiarity with the actual TV programme in question, rather than a familiarity and preoccupation with a substantially distinct milieu of subcultural production and interpretative cliche.

Thankfully, he seems to have got past that. The fandom-commentary aspect of Season 8 Clara was pitched at a much more reasonable level, as a subtextual add-on to a character and a story that worked on her/its own terms, rather than as something that dominated and deformed the whole.

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Caitlin Smith 6 years, 1 month ago

I think the difference is that Donna and Sarah Jane share the positive traits you listed, but Clara also shares the Doctor's flaws. And it's those similarities that were most noted in series 8 - the "egomaniac needy gameplayer", the lying - they're all less desirable traits that Clara shares with the Doctor.

I also don't think Clara and the Doctor are particularly good for each other in the way the Doctor is with many of his other companions. If you're with someone who shares a lot of the same flaws as you, those flaws are either going to become more pronounced (in Clara's case) or you are going to feel worse about yourself for having them (as it is with the Doctor). That scenario is particularly evident in the scene at the end of Flatline (which is fast becoming my favourite scene in series 8 for that very reason, probably only trumped by the volcano scene in Death in Heaven, also for the same reason).

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Caitlin Smith 6 years, 1 month ago

I do think the Impossible Girl arc as a response to some of the more outrageous criticism was very unsubtle and definitely suffered for that. But then I've also seen people completely misunderstanding even that aspect of the arc, so... But you have a very good point in that the audience is much larger than those people.

It's why I'm particularly glad that Clara's character development in series 8, and probably going into series 9, has built on elements established in series 7. It means that on rewatches, the seeds of Clara's character will be more important than the bluntness of the Impossible Girl arc, and hopefully balance it out a bit. How successful that will be, I'm not sure, but I think it's already working.

Indeed, because I watched with a very Clara-focused view of the show, I picked up on most of those things before series 7 even finished, and so Clara's character was strong enough to not be overwhelmed by the Impossible Girl arc. But obviously not everyone has the insight that comes from seeing themselves in Clara, so I'm still one of the minorities. Still, I think it's worth writing things like this, and most of the meta I write on tumblr, to share what I saw in Clara that made me love her from day one.

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Caitlin Smith 6 years, 1 month ago

I do think we're talking about the same thing too, just different terminology! Although I do want to note that I think Clara's hero persona and her Doctor one are very different. The hero one is very much based on the Chosen One trope - particularly things like Harry Potter and Buffy, which Clara would have grown up with. The Doctor one on the other hand is what we see in Flatline, where saving the day is more important than making people happy. Which, obviously, is an incomplete view of the Doctor, but it's still definitely modeled on Twelve in early series 8, and actually served as a wake up call for him.

I suppose she is still mirroring her childhood heros in the hero persona though! I think I will stick to "mask" for now, simply because it has slightly more connotations of this being an action on Clara's part, not a reaction she happens to be part of. But then I still don't think it's entirely the best word - I will have to keep looking (and thanks for making me want to do that!)

Another read I think you may enjoy considering how you ended this is this meta from a good friend of mine:

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Elizabeth Sandifer 6 years, 1 month ago

It strikes me that one theme of S8 has been to challenge the idea of heroes as "chosen ones" and instead to focus on heroes as self-appointed figures, and on the sorts of people who appoint themselves. And I think one of the interesting tensions about Clara is that she doesn't entirely get or accept that heroes are often a bit fucked in the head.

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jane 6 years, 1 month ago

Lovely conversation, just have to chime in:

I do think there's a difference between Masking and Mirroring. Masking, as I understand through Caitlin, is the process of constructing a front persona, which is largely self-created, and as such is a distorted reflection of her own values. What's telling, though, is what actually gets hidden or suppressed. Amy also wore a mask -- not a mask of perfection, however, but often that of a monster.

Mirroring, on the other hand, is a dialectical reflection -- it's one's reflection of another. And this is something that been emphasized throughout the Moffat era, though of course we saw bits of it in the RTD era as well. Which makes sense -- as Phil has pointed out often enough, the Doctor is a mercurial figure, and alchemically speaking, the Mirror is backed with Silver, a mercurial substance. All of the Revival companions have Mirrored the Doctor to some extent, and he has mirrored them.

A Good Man Goes to War is a beautiful example of mirroring, as all the characters (even the minor ones) mirror each other in some way shape or form. Strax and Rory, for example, as fractal mirrors of the Doctor, exemplifying the union of opposites between Warrior and Healer. Lorna Bucket, Amy Pond, and River Song all along the axis of Water, which is also a reflective surface.

The "Hero" is an archetype that Clara wants to embody. It's not a mask, but a motivation. But she doesn't always know how to "do it." She's been learning from the Doctor, through the process of Mirroring, and yes, resisting the implication put into words by Blaise Pascal: "Man is neither angel nor beast; and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast."

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Katherine Sas 6 years, 1 month ago

Very interesting analysis, Caitlin! What interests me about Clara is that her character is in many ways less instantly recognizable than other companions. From the first few episodes with Rose, Martha, Donna, and Amy, you know so much about them because they're so boldly drawn. What becomes interesting is watching how their life in the TARDIS changes them. With Clara, because of the Impossible Girl red herrings and this "perfect girl" mask that she so carefully constructs, we're only now at the end of her (almost) second season truly starting to understand who she even is. Her journey is not so much about her changing as it is peeling back the layers to see what she's really like in the first place. It's a fascinating route to take, and especially risky because of the charges for the first season that she had no personality. But when you think about it, that's quite realistic - lots of real people seem to have no personality because they keep themselves to carefully guarded. I'll be interested to see where this relationship goes, because (like some of the commentors above) I'm not at all sure that her relationship with the Doctor is totally healthy for either of them, although they do love each other. Can't wait to see where she goes in season 9.

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Anton B 6 years, 1 month ago

I'm not entirely happy with it and it does seem to be the non-televised Ace storyline (with which I am only vaguely familiar) that has inspired the suggestion. On the other hand showing someone being able to achieve Time Lord status through non-hereditary means would let the Doctor off the 'officer class' hook that Danny Pink threw at him. It is the foregrounding of that 'privilege' accusation, the search for Gallifrey, Clara's own relish of the role (particularly in Flatline) and the title of the next episode that makes me suspect this might be the series 9 arc.

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Froborr 6 years ago

River's Time Lady status is congenital, but not hereditary; it's essentially a developmental defect.

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Daru 6 years ago

Great article, thanks Caitlin. I was very surprised and pleased to see Clara returning next series - looking forwards, as I'm sure you are, very much to seeing where they go with her interaction with the Doctor and herself.

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William Higgins 6 years ago

Great article. I liked Clara well enough in Season 7, but she didn't really stand out. But her development in Season 8 has made her my favourite companion of the new series, possibly of the full fifty years. I'll have to go back and watch Season 7 again and see if she comes across better, knowing where she's heading.

I didn't see Season 7 Clara as Steven Moffat trolling his critics. I saw Season 8 Clara as him listening to his critics. The valid charges against him in previous seasons have all pretty much been addressed, I think. His moments of brilliance are as good as they ever were, he's as funny as ever (and Capaldi is just superb at comedy), but now when he misses the mark it's still pretty decent. Doctor Who is must-see TV again.

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