The Circle in the Square (Doctor Who)


(Content note: This post references childhood sexual abuse, the objectifying male gaze, and the repression and processing of traumatic events in general.)

Given that, let’s start with something really abstract.  A symbol, and a pretty basic one as far as symbols go.  A circle, circumscribed by a square.  Simple geometry.  And the Circle in the Square is by no means a hugely important or influential symbol in Western esoterica – it’s minor enough to take some digging to uncover, and what’s uncovered isn’t exactly consistent.  Which, you know, is kind of part and parcel for abstract symbols. 

The first thing that might come to mind is a problem of geometry – “squaring the circle” refers to creating a square of the same area as a given circle, using a finite number of steps with only a compass and a straightedge.  It was eventually mathematically demonstrated to be an impossible problem, which is actually kind of delightful given the subsequent esoteric usages -- for if such fusion is technically impossible, its success is necessarily transcendent, pointing to Ascension. Anyways, in basic symbolism, the Circle represents the infinite, the cyclical, the eternal, totality and perfection.  The Square, on the other hand, represents material reality, the four corners of the earth, and subsequent limitation.  As such, the Circle in the Square can represent a “union of opposites,” if you wish, or at the very least the immanence of the divine. 

This basic analysis makes sense of the Masonic use of the symbol – and we should note that the primary symbol of Masonry consists of a square-edge and compass, used for making squares and circles.  Anyways, as W.L. Wilmshurst describes in his 1922 book The Meaning of Masonry, “Deity, symbolized by the all-containing circle, has attained form and manifestation in a ‘square’ or human soul.  It expresses the mystery of the Incarnation, accomplished within the personal soul.”  This, we should note, isn’t just divine immanence (as opposed to a Manichean separation of the earthly and the sacred), but is specifically rooted in the human experience. Wilmshurst goes on to liken the metaphorical squaring of the circle to a kind of "regeneration," an "ascension into heaven" that accompanies the "necessity of self-dying—not, we repeat, the physical death of the body but a mystical death-in-life of everything except the body” which is fundamental to understanding the esoteric mysteries.

There are also sources like Elliott Wolfson’s Circle in the Square, which delves into the symbolism of the Kabbalah, and specifically into its gender implications.  According to Wolfson, the Circle (with its curviness and suggestion of a hole) actually symbolizes the female, while the Square symbolizes the male, with the placement of one in the other not only suggesting union (alchemical or otherwise) but a particular hierarchical relationship. 

And yet, despite such inconsistencies and problematic implications, there’s nonetheless the same underlying principle at work, namely the integration of what are seemingly, if not opposites, non-overlapping magisteria.  Which is not unlike what Doctor Who does for a living – namely, smashing together disparate genres in new and interesting ways.  But I would argue that the recurrence of the Circle in the Square symbol over and over again (as demonstrated by the accompanying images), primarily in the Moffat era, has, in fact, a very particular sort of meaning that reflects a more modern sensibility when it comes to alchemy: namely, the integration of the subconscious and the conscious mind.  Not to say that this is an original take on the union of the divine and the material body – on the contrary, it’s rather Jungian.  But this is the sandbox that the show has to play in, for after all, in Doctor Who there are no deities, only varyingly strange extraterrestrial aliens and monsters, material all. 


The Beast Below

I want to start with The Beast Below not so much because it demonstrates most clearly the principle described and how it’s marked by the Circle/Square symbol (Time Heist may well be much more effective in terms of clarity), but to illustrate just how ingrained this dynamic has been in the show since the beginning of the Moffat era. Now, in The Beast Below we have a Star Whale as our central metaphor, and the plot is largely concerned with the exploitation of it by a police state, which brings up all kinds of class and hence societal implications.  And this is all well and good.  But as there are many layers to Starship UK, so are there many layers to this story as well.  For example, the Star Whale is also a metaphor for the Doctor, which Amy realizes at the story’s climax to resolve the plot.  Obviously, then, the Star Whale isn’t a fixed metaphor; it can be apt in many different ways.

One of those ways, I’d argue, has to do with the relationship between the subconscious and the conscious mind.  Consider, for example, the poem in the opening teaser:

A horse and a man -- above, below
One has a plan, but both must go
Mile after mile -- above, beneath
One has a smile, and one has teeth
Though the man above might say hello
Expect no love from the beast below.

So, sure, we could read this as relating to Starship UK (the man above) and the Star Whale (the beast below), one carrying the other, but it’s also an apt description of how the conscious mind rides upon the subconscious, which is where all our fears and traumas reside.  Notice that there’s a disconnect between the man and the horse, that they may be at cross-purposes.  When it comes to people, just because someone’s smiling doesn’t mean there isn’t some kind of unresolved terror lurking within. 

I think this reading is rather bolstered by the other part of the poem at the end of the episode, which rather than being read by a little girl on a television screen is instead presented by a grown woman in voice-over:

In bed above, we're deep asleep
While greater love lies further deep
This dream must end, this world must know
We all depend on the beast below.

In other words, even in the denouement of the story, there’s still the acknowledgement of a disconnect between what’s above and below – we above are still asleep, still in a dream.  But now, what’s “below” is no longer a source of terror or malevolence, but some kind of “greater love” that we all depend on.  And this, frankly, doesn’t match up so squarely with the plot.  In the plot, there’s no longer a dream; everyone becomes aware of the particular sociopolitical edifice upon which they all stand.  Nor does it really relate to the “Doctor as Monster” metaphor – again, this is clearly pointed out by Amy.  And then there’s the fact that this part of the poem is also juxtaposed with The Crack, which I'd argue is a metaphor in itself for any kind of deep-rooted trauma.

Actually, the poem works really well in terms of the metaphor of the relationship of the conscious mind to the subconscious.  The first half of the poem is a warning, while the second is an admonition, a directive for how we are to proceed, either for ourselves or for our understanding of the primary character arc of Series Five, namely that of Amy Pond – it’s the sort of admonition that’s more effective at the beginning of a season than at the end -- the Dream must end, but it hasn't, not yet.  And speaking of Amy Pond, I find it terribly interesting that the first part of the poem is read diegetically by a little girl, while the second half is extradiegetically in voice over by an adult – not only is there an advancement of maturity, both in who’s reading the poem as well as the poem’s consideration of “the beast below,” but there’s also an implication of “ascension” – as indicated by Amy floating in space at the beginning of the story, delivering a voice-over, which is eventually mirrored at the end. 

But the most concrete evidence for this metaphor being one of consciousness actually comes from the plot itself.  Everyone in Starship UK, upon coming of age, chooses to forget.  They forget the trauma of what lies below (and make no mistake, the beast below is having a repeated traumatic experience).  They have to.  Because that’s what we have to do to function as adults.  We have to compartmentalize our childhood traumas, long before we have the maturity to deal with them, because otherwise we’d be unable to get on with our lives.  So here we have an overt expression of repression, of locking away our memories until a later time, if at all. 

It’s very interesting, I think, the role that television sets play in this episode.  Earlier in the story, Amy’s in a room that displays on the TV set a “universal” trauma, insofar as the arrival and subjugation of the Star Whale is something that everyone has to deal with.  Mind you, in a show like Doctor Who, where the metaphor of something like a Star Whale has already been demonstrated to be apt in several ways, we can very well call it “universal” in that it lacks such real-world specificity that it can be easily personalized for whatever individual childhood trauma one holds.  Anyways.  Behind Amy is a Circle in the Square motif on the wall, but we only see the lower half of the symbol – the “below” of it.  In front of her, the buttons for “Forget” and “Protest” (the “opposite” of forgetting) are likewise designed as Circles in Squares.  And she chooses to Forget, a quite reasonable option when thinking through the metaphor.

But at the episode’s climax, Amy remembers.  Just as the images on the television screen flashed across her eye, so too do her memories, not just of the “programme” but of her actual experiences, right through her respect for the decision to get involved when it comes to children crying.  (She, of course, is wearing her nightie, like a regular Wendy Darling.)  And to resolve the situation, she takes the Queen of England -- representing our highest executive functions, mentally speaking -- over to another TV set, another representation of the universal trauma, and presses her hand down on another Circle in the Square, this one labeled “Abdicate.”  Which is a fancy way of saying “let go.”  For that’s the other way forward when dealing with trauma – not to bottle it up, but to let it go and deal with it.  And “dealing with it” here has a particular connotation, for the Beast Below is not something we can escape, or separate ourselves from, as the poem attests, and as indeed the story attests, for the Beast Below is “growing through the mechanisms of the entire ship.”  No, “dealing with it” can only happen through integration, which in turn relies on acceptance, the determination of the conscious mind not to turn away when deeply buried traumas are manifested by the subconscious. 


Time Heist

Hard to know is the deity of Abraxas. Its power is the greatest, because man perceiveth it not. From the sun he draweth the summum bonum; from the devil the infimum malum; but from Abraxas LIFE, altogether indefinite, the mother of good and evil.

Smaller and weaker life seemeth to be than the summum bonum; wherefore is it also hard to conceive that Abraxas transcendeth even the sun in power, who is himself the radiant source of all the force of life. Abraxas is the sun, and at the same time the eternally sucking gorge of the void, the belittling and dismembering devil. The power of Abraxas is twofold; but ye see it not, because for your eyes the warring opposites of this power are extinguished.

What the god-sun speaketh is life.

What the devil speaketh is death.

But Abraxas speaketh that hallowed and accursed word which is life and death at the same time.
-- C. G. Jung, Septem Sermones ad Mortuos

As mentioned earlier, Time Heist presents a simpler clarity regarding the psychological process I’ve described as what’s indicated by the Circle in the Square.  So let’s get right into it.  First, the Doctor, Clara, Psi and Saibra have all agreed to a memory wipe – they have chosen to forget.  Their mission: rob the bank of Karabraxos. 

Now, before we get any further, Karabraxos is a very interesting name, evoking as it does the god Abraxas.  The Gnostic philosopher/prophet Basilides posited a god called Abraxas who was conceived as being more transcendent than the traditional Judeo-Christian god, who the Gnostics took not as the most divine of emanations but rather as a mere demiurge. Abrasax embodies both polarities of Good and Evil, being quite effective at both. As such, Abrasax is effectiveness, beyond good and evil, and is as close the Pleroma of Being/Not-Being -- or Everything/Nothing -- as anything could be while still retaining some semblance of being "distinct" from the All.

So Abraxas signifies a union of opposites, and a divine one at that, which is very much in keeping with the esoteric symbolism of the Circle in the Square.  This, then, is the context into which our heroes descend.  And it’s very much a descent: they literally work their way down into the underworld of this place, deeper, deeper, deeper still.  And they don’t all make it – both Saibra and Psi (seriously, what a name) end up committing “suicide” before they can be consumed by their own guilt.  But the Doctor and Clara manage to enter the vaults, and this is where the symbolism becomes paramount.

Literally speaking, the key to opening the vault is portrayed as a Circle in the Square.  And the vault door itself is also a Circle in the Square.  The Vault itself is a metaphor, along the same lines as The Library. The Library is analogous to The Akashic Records, the sum total of all divine knowledge, perhaps even the whole of the Universe, the recognition of the All upon death. But rather than putting it on the astral plane, as in theosophy, both the Library and the Vault reside at the bottom of an Underworld -- deep in the subconscious mind. "Psi" is not a gratuitously chosen name. 

Now, given that the Circle in the Square represents the union of Flesh and Spirit, of the Divine which is manifest in the world, a union that is found through the PAIRS OF OPPOSITES -- Fire and Water, Birth and Death, Above and Below, Past and Future -- let’s examine the power of negation.  For Psi, the thing he needs out of the vault is a negation, something that makes him the opposite of who he is -- namely, the man who forgot. He needs to remember, in order to be reunited with his family. As such, he's a mirror of the Doctor, the man who regrets, the man who forgets, the man who is alone. His salvation is through anamnesis.  For Saibra, the thing she needs out of the vault is also a negation, something that makes her the opposite of who she is -- namely, the woman who mirrors. She needs to stop reflecting the people around her, so she can emanate her own self, her own identity. Perhaps this is why we see her take on the form of Clara, and points the way forward for Clara's own development; Clara has been a reflection of all companions, particularly in The Name of the Doctor, perhaps at cost to her own "self."

And this is exactly what is found in the vaults, something to help Psi remember, and something to help Saibra stop mirroring and just be herself.  And soon after these boons are found, Psi and Saibra are resurrected.  They return from the Upperworld (for their suicide devices were simply teleporters) and they’ve achieve the integration they’ve so desperately needed.

The bird struggles out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird then flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.
-- Herman Hesse, Demian


The Rings of Akhaten

Now, we could argue that the process described in Time Heist doesn’t specifically reference childhood trauma, and we’d be correct – what Psi and Saibra have gone through isn’t put in such precise terms.  But such is not the case with Rings of Akhaten.  Once again we get an integration story, this one very much rooted in the issues of childhood and trauma, specifically Clara’s.  And it comes at it from several angles.  First there’s the story she tells the little girl, Merry:

CLARA: Everyone's scared when they're little. I used to be terrified of getting lost. Used to have nightmares about it. And then I got lost. Blackpool beach, Bank holiday Monday, about ten billion people. I was about six. My worst nightmare come true.
MERRY: What happened?
CLARA: The world ended. My heart broke. And then my mum found me. We had fish and chips, and she drove me home and she tucked me up and she told me a story.
(FlashBack to Clara’s childhood)

ELLIE: It doesn't matter where you are, in the jungle or the desert or on the moon. However lost you may feel, you'll never really be lost. Not really. Because I will always be here, and I will always come and find you. Every single time. Every single time.
(end of FlashBack)
MERRY: And you were never scared again?
CLARA: Oh, I was scared lots of times, but never of being lost.

So Clara’s had a traumatic childhood event, but it’s been more or less healed, thanks to her mother.  But this is subsequently complicated by her mother’s early death – Clara’s no longer a child, but she’s still very young.  And her response to this loss is to, in essence, step into the role of her mother.  She becomes a nanny to other children.  She looks after Merry, comforts her.  She even claims her mother’s words: “Oh my stars!”  And, of course, there’s the whole bit of not running away, not when there are children crying.

But this isn’t quite integration – because we can’t be the people we’ve lost, for then we’re not being ourselves.  Clara hasn’t let go yet.  She clutches up to her breast the 101 Places to See book her mother gave her, and wears her mother’s ring on her finger.  She’s still holding on.

DOCTOR: Okay, time to let go.
CLARA: I can't.
DOCTOR: Clara, you have to.
DOCTOR: Because it really hurts.

We’re going to step a bit to the side here and talk about Merry, the little girl who sings.  In this era of Doctor Who, aliens are almost always metaphors for aspects of our main characters, and while Merry looks like a fairly ordinary little girl, she’s still marked as an alien with those golden ridges on her face.  So let’s consider how Merry is a sort of mirror for Clara.  Merry is concerned with getting the song right, that if she doesn’t get it right, bad things will happen.  And sure enough, when bad things happen, Merry believes it is somehow her fault.  Well, Clara’s got self-described control issues.  Which is perfectly reasonable when your childhood trauma is centered on being lost (not knowing where you are means you have lost control) and you’ve lost the anchor who held that trauma in check. 

So Merry’s desire for perfection is a reflection of Clara’s control issues.  But again, “holding on” doesn’t lead to integration.  When we get to the climax of the episode, Merry and Clara go back to the amphitheatre, and Merry sings a song to Grandfather – perfectly.  We can tell from Merry’s expression that she’s nailed it, and Clara’s expression is one of complete approval.  But this doesn’t resolve the story.  No, it’s only when Clara returns to the pyramid (where the Circle/Square motif is laid out on the floor) and lets go of the symbol for her mother – at this point she’s already let go of the ring (a symbol of eternity) to get the “motorbike” to make the crossing – that emotional catharsis is finally completed.  Clara, who always wants to hold on (consider the dialogue with the Doctor above), needs to embrace the pairs of opposites, which for her means “letting go.” 

Now, you might be thinking that there isn’t anything to do with memory here, and if you weren’t thinking about it before you’re probably thinking about it now.  Well, in the denouement, we get this bit of dialogue:

CLARA: You were there. At mum's grave. You were watching. What were you doing there?
DOCTOR: I don't know. I was just making sure.
CLARA: Of what?
DOCTOR: You remind me of someone.
DOCTOR: Someone who died.

Clara has just remembered that the Doctor was present at one of her traumas, the one upon which the whole episode hinges, the death of her mother, which is really the moment that Clara could no longer be a child.  And this is reflected in what the Doctor says – he’s reminded of someone, someone who died


The Doctor’s Wife

Before I get to the more emotionally significant moments of integration in the Moffat era, I want to touch on a point in the show where the Circle/Square motif is most closely aligned to the “traditional” esoteric interpretation of the union of the Divine in the Material Body.  Which is what we get in The Doctor’s Wife.  This is the story that gets as close to a conception of The Divine as we’ll likely ever get in Doctor Who.

Now, very early on we get another instance of the Circle in the Square, when the Doctor gets a Time Lord distress box from The Corsair.  On the box is a circle, specifically an Ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail, which is a very interesting symbol in its own right.  The Ouroboros is very recognizable alchemical symbol, representing not just the circle of eternity or a sequence of cycles, but an unending process of death and rebirth, without beginning or end.  Jung calls the Ouroboros “a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow”  (which also ties into Abigail’s Xmas carol where she sings, “Let in the light of your bright shadow!”).  It’s particularly interesting that this symbol belongs to “The Corsair,” who according to the Doctor is  someone who in particular has been both male and female, another union of “opposites” insofar as gender is typically (though incorrectly) constructed as a binary.  That the Ouroboros appears as a Circle in the Square is therefore terribly apt, and serves as foreshadowing for what is to come.

And what’s to come is, of course, the TARDIS.  We’ve already seen in The Big Bang that the TARDIS kind of exists in every time and place throughout the Universe, all at once.  So when she explodes, she explodes everywhere and everywhen.  She is, in essence, congruent with the Universe, at one with it, even while manifesting in individual times and places as far as our puny five-dimensional minds can grasp.  It’s also interesting that the Doctor says she’s an 11-dimensional being – for there are 11 dimension in M-Theory, a theory in physics that unifies all the superstring theories of quantum physics.  I’m not really conversant in such physics; what I find notable here is this principle of grand unification.

Even more interesting, I think, is how this story hinges on the “out of body experience,” not unlike the “mystical death-in-life of everything except the body” reference at the beginning of this post.  First the physical body of the TARDIS exits the known universe which she is congruent with.  Then her “spirit” is removed from her shell and deposited in the empty vessel once known as Idris.  This is as close to an “out of body” experience that a TARDIS could have, I’d think.  And she recognizes quite soon that she’s dying – she will, in fact, experience death in the end. 

DOCTOR: The House? What's the House?
AUNTIE: House is all around you, my sweets. You are standing on him. This is the House. This world… we walk on his back, breathe his air, eat his food.

The TARDIS, who is definitely gendered female (which may be true of all TARDISes given she calls all the other (dead) ones her “sisters”), is juxtaposed with a similar entity called The House.  Auntie gives the impression of the House as something that’s “all around,” as if the entire world were the living body of the House, which is not unlike our description of the TARDIS existing everywhen and everywhere at once.  However, the House only resides in an asteroid, which is presented as a sphere.  Notice that the House eats TARDISes (hmm, the snake eating…) but this time, rather than eating our TARDIS, he possesses her.

So the House isn’t really a manifestation of the Divine, but rather something like a Demiurge to put it in Gnostic terms.  The Demiurge isn’t the creator, but rather an artisan, a craftsman, someone who fashions and maintains the physical universe.  This aspect of the House is expressed through Auntie and Uncle, who are refashioned over and over again.  In many systems of Gnosticism, the Demiurge is malevolent, obsessed with exercising power over the physical universe, whereas the Divine is also congruent with and creator of the non-material realities of the “Pleroma” or “the All.”  This malevolence of the Demiurge is also reflected in the House.

Mind you, the TARDIS isn’t the creator of the Universe – she might be a conduit through which the Universe renews itself (which we’ll get to later), but she’s essentially a mirror of the Doctor, someone who simply wanted to see the Universe and so she stole a Time Lord and ran away.  But she’s still far more Divine than the House – she’s compassionate, taking people where they need to go.  The House, on the other hand, enjoys torturing Amy, ransacking her memories to expose her fears of abandonment and then putting her in the place of the “monster” who abandons others, a completely different form of running away; the House ultimately revels in Amy’s self-hatred. 

So how does the TARDIS return to herself?  Through the iconography of the Circle in the Square, that’s how.  When she and the Doctor take off in a patchwork vessel, it’s shown as a glowing Sphere, a three-dimensional Circle, following the three-dimensional Square of the Police Box.  For a backdrop we have The Rift, which is presented as galactic vulva, through which death and rebirth is conferred.  To enter the box, the TARDIS needs access to a control room, which can only be entered through memories – for Amy to unlock the door, she has to remember the code of Crimson (the rubedo stage of alchemy, presented as a crimson tarp),  Eleven (our Doctor’s number, and the TARDIS’s dimensionality; Amy remembers a birthday cake, which marks the cycle of circling the sun, another Ouroborus), Delight (in contrast to the sadism of the House, and remembered by Amy as her Wedding, which is also symbolic of union and integration), and finally Petrichor (which decouples the principle of union from duality, for there’s nothing opposite about dust and rain, but pay attention to the etymology of the word, which invokes petro- “relating to rocks” and ichor, which is "the fluid that flows like blood in the veins of the gods"; in other words, we get an invocation of the Divine). 

The Sphere materializes inside the Box – a perfected form of The Circle in the Square.  And then the TARDIS is resurrected, which necessarily entails her death, which could only be accomplished through being “alive” in the first place, in the body of a once-living person.  As we said before, for the TARDIS this form of “embodiment” is in essence her own out-of-body experience.  And once she’s reclaimed herself, the Divine residing once more in its own multi-dimensional body, she can reintegrate her experience of her proper “other” (the Doctor) with hopefully a deeper understanding than she had before.  For I certainly believe the reverse is true as well.


Nightmare in Silver / Day of the Doctor

Not every instance of the Circle in the Square motif points to the singular events of a particular episode.  Part of what the Doctor needs to integrate in Series Six, for example, is the fact of his marriage to River Song (which of course is also wrapped up in a “death” and rebirth) and so the very title of The Doctor’s Wife indicates there’s another level in which to read the episode, namely as a metaphor that points to the season-long (or longer) arc.  Acceptance of the TARDIS as his “wife” isn’t explicit in the episode per se, but it’s nonetheless suggested, and should help the Doctor to cope with the inevitability of his fate, which is probably more what he chafes at than marriage itself.  Well, that and his desire to avoid the pain of loss, which a relationship with River will ultimately mean, knowing that she’ll die in the Library.

And if there’s one thing the Doctor understands too keenly, it’s loss.  Ever since the Time War, he’s been the “man who regrets and the man who forgets.”  He carries the burden of wiping out his own people.  All those children, all those children who burned… sounds a bit like what humanity faced in The Beast Below, actually.  This, then, is the trauma that he’s buried deep inside himself, something deeply repressed.  So repressed, in fact, that the version of himself that pressed the button is disavowed – that part of himself can’t even be called “The Doctor” anymore. 

This is, of course, something that’s eventually resolved in Day of the Doctor, but first I want to go back to Nightmare in Silver, because it’s playing with the exact same themes, albeit at a remove, essentially functioning as metaphor for what the Doctor’s going through himself (as the picture shows, it’s the Doctor in the Circle/Square motif, not Porridge).  And it’s interesting, I think, that Porridge wiped out an entire galaxy to kill the Cybermen, Qlippothic monsters, second-rate Daleks. Porridge, out of his own trauma and shame, has in turn disavowed himself and refuses to be acknowledged as the leader of his people, in which his identity is all wrapped up. This, all while the Doctor’s subconscious has been taken over by a “mirror image” of himself, the Cyber Leader.  Oh, and then there’s the kids, and the Doctor’s guilt over their endangerment. 

So there are a lot of parallels between the Doctor’s deep-rooted trauma and the situation with Porridge.  But the more interesting parallel is between the Doctor and himself, and this battle with Cyber Control over the philosophical value of emotions, which is played out over a chess board with the children at stake.  Well, it’s not an interesting battle in of itself – it’s been done many times before – but there’s a particular resonance here when taken in context of the Doctor’s trauma at destroying his own people, as if he’s fighting his own emotions just in the hopes of forgetting them; this, then, is the real temptation the Doctor faces.  Just as it is Porridge’s, though here Porridge is trying to be forgotten, and unfortunately for him he can’t be.  For him, integration means accepting his choices, not running away from them.

Now, there’s some particular imagery that links this episode to Day of the Doctor, another symbol besides the Circle in the Square.  That symbol is the Jewel in the Lotus.  We see Porridge in the final shot sitting under a geometric glass dome, surrounded by what appears to be black petals.  In Day of the Doctor, the Moment presents the “big red button” in the form of a Red jewel in a lotus.  The first appearance of the Moment, though, is that of a box… with a circle inscribed on the side.  That these two symbols are basically synonymous is rather apt, I think – for both have as a principle this moment of union, of integration, though the Jewel/Lotus symbol isn’t so laden with duality as the Circle/Sphere. 

Perhaps, then, that’s an indication that the Doctor has gotten past the duality of his choice to activate the Moment.  Through meeting his past/future selves, he comes to accept the choice that he has made, and this in turn frees him up to think outside the box and create a different choice that nonetheless honors the one he planned to make and hence had to experience the first time round.  He still has the memory of burning all those children, even though he ultimately found a way around it in the end.  It’s a funny thing, to have the memory of trauma and to be freed of it being continually traumatizing.

Finally, I’d just like to point out that when the War Doctor accepts his choice in the Tower of London (which, of course, is a place that wipes your memory), the shot is framed with the head of a Cyberman foregrounded, and a new one at that, a design that had only appeared in Nightmare in Silver at that point.


The Eleventh Hour / The Pandorica

So with all that laid out, let’s go back to the beginning of the era, to The Eleventh Hour and take a look under the hood.  First off, it’s laden with Circle/Square imagery – the Atraxi Eye in the TV set, a particular clock, and of course all those Zeroes framed in boxes around the world, including all kinds of other timepieces.  Obviously, the first shot out of the gate isn’t unaware of its own tropes.

And then there’s the shot of Prisoner Zero emerging from a Circle/Square prop in the hospital.  This is not a feature of the hospital proper – it’s definitely a crafted prop.  It will reappear in several episodes, like The Girl Who Waited (the robot Rory sits on it) and The Wedding of River Song, where it’s behind the Doctor’s head on the Moon of Callisto B.  I think it’s also the same casing used in that shot in Nightmare in Silver.  So here’s a prop that’s been reused over and over again, fashioned to a particular esoteric design from the beginning of the era, pretending to be some kind of vent thingy that allows Prisoner Zero access to the hospital, but which really allows us to get a shot juxtaposing the Circle in the Square with Prisoner Zero himself.

Now… here’s where it gets squicky. 

Prisoner Zero has been “in” Amy’s house since she was a little girl.  When she finally enters that room as an adult, what does she find?  A phallic symbol covered in viscous goo, and a monster that’s fairly phallic in its own right.  To me, the subtext is practically screaming childhood sexual abuse.  Which her parents or guardians failed to protect her from.  We see that she’s often left alone, hence her issues with abandonment.  It may help to explain her sexual advances on the Doctor after the Crash of the Byzantium.  This, I would argue, is what the “crack” in her wall actually points  to – two parts of space and time that should never have touched, pressed together.  A trauma that should never have happened.  It could be any trauma, really – the image of a Crack is non-specific enough that it could stand for anything.  Anything.  Getting diddled by the babysitter.  Bit by a dog, or accosted by the gardener.  Hell, losing your parents. Ostracized by your peers, or at war with your own body.  Whatever it was that happened that shouldn't have happened, but still happened.

This is all subtext, I realize that.  But what a subtext.  I’m not suggesting that it was the Doctor – the figure that emerges from that “forgotten” (i.e. repressed) bedroom in that old house isn’t the Doctor, it’s another man, the angry man with a dog.  Later, in the first climax of the episode, Prisoner Zero practically tries to gaslight Amy, who’s rendered unconscious, by pulling up an image of her holding hands with the Doctor (and again the Circle/Square motif is present) as if to implicate her, but the Doctor’s able to help Amy dig deeper into her subconscious and identify the real monster who’s terrorized her since she was a little girl. Those shots of her rummaging around in her memory are jagged, edgy, difficult.

This isn’t really resolved at the end of the episode, not in terms of Amy’s emotional development (though I think there's progress in how she's objectified by the Male Gaze when she first appears in her police outfit, how she finds a different interpretation of that when she's told to "look in the mirror" when entering the hospital, and how she enjoys the Female Gaze when the Doctor puts on new clothes -- while she's definitely objectifying his body, the camera isn't, which is more indicative of the position of the text). Fair enough -- it’s a part of her season-long arc, this issue of exploring the subconscious and how it manifests itself.  It’s something that’s worthy of a season-long arc.  And this is the season-long arc, this whole process of the Squaring the Circle.  We get memory wipes in The Beast Below. Amy defuses Bracewell in Victory of the Daleks by appealing to his deeper memories of Dorabella, and of course the Daleks’ “progenitor” (doesn’t that have sexual connotations?) has forgotten that the Daleks trying to activate are really Daleks.  Amy’s subconscious is invaded by an Angel at the Crash of the Byzantium.  The girls at Signora Calvierri’s school forget who they are as they are systematically abused.  The Dream Lord is a manifestation of the Doctor’s subconscious self-hatred.  Amy “forgets” Rory when he dies (abandoning her) at the end of the Silurian two-parter.  Vincent recognizes that she’s buried a trauma deep within her.  The spaceship in the Lodger can tell whether someone subconsciously wants to stay or leave. 

Likewise, Amy facing issues of abandonment runs throughout her tenure.  The Doctor threatens to leave her in The Beast Below.  She’s left behind in the Byzantium, possessed by an Angel no less.  Left behind… but now of her own free will, in Venice – she’s beginning to work through her issue.  The Dream Lord forces her abandonment in Amy’s Choice, where she also has to face the possibility of being abandoned by Rory’s death… and when it actually happens in Cold Blood, she emotionally shuts down.  Even in The Lodger she’s abandoned in the TARDIS.

These are huge themes for Series Five, and inform Amy's characterization throughout her run.

So, in the season finale, we get the Pandorica.  A cube, where every side presents a Circle in the Square.  The Pandorica “contains a memory of the Universe,” the Doctor says.  But the Pandorica is also constructed from Amy’s subconscious, from her memories -- Pandora’s box was her favorite myth, just as the Roman invasion of Albion was her favorite history lesson.  It’s in this episode that she’s rendered first unconscious, and then dead -- Rory begs her to run away, but she won't.  Hello, abandonment issues. So she dies.  But the Pandorica, a three-dimensional Circle in the Square, provides the opportunity for rebirth.  She is remembered by that light, and she ends up traveling back in time to when she was just a little girl, drawing herself to this symbol of integration.  Which, we should note, is guarded by Rory.  The man who won’t abandon her, who stays by her side for two thousand years, and because he’s an Auton he won’t ever fall asleep, either – no forgetting either.  No wonder she calls Rory the most beautiful man she’s ever met. 

Amy dies, and she is reborn.

I keep going on about Death and Rebirth.  What is it about this theme?  Our heroes, they die and are reborn all the time.  I can only take this as a metaphor.  In such mythology, death is really pointing to the death of the ego, a moment of ultimately letting go, a moment of being rendered utterly powerless… and in that moment of letting go, I think it’s possible to let go of the trauma as well, and in so doing provide a modicum of healing.  Not that the trauma is forgotten, not that the trauma isn’t still a landmine, only that it can now be dealt with and hopefully accepted. 

Even the Doctor has to encounter the notion of self-sacrifice, when he flies the Pandorica into the exploding TARDIS, so that a “memory” of the Universe can be restored to itself. 

I was once told a story about “sacred wounds,” in the form of a parable about an acorn.  An acorn is necessarily wounded to become a tree.  It splits open and changes as a shoot within burrows its way up to the light, only to be buffeted by rain, wind, and sun, and yet all these forces only make it stronger.  It grows, and grows, and becomes a tree, but it could never be a tree without that initial wounding.  I think we’re all wounded, in some way, collectively in every kind of possible different way.  Which is what makes the Crack such a versatile metaphor.  It can be that wound, a wound made sacred through our own effort and growth and development.  But it doesn’t specify exactly what that wounding actually is (though obviously I believe the specifics of Amy’s wounding have been hinted at). 

But why, why make such a wounding sacred?  For me, it’s so that the wound doesn’t hold such power over me anymore.  It’s simply a way to keep it from hurting so much. You can call it the trick of a con-artist, and I wouldn’t argue with you.  But then, the Doctor is a trickster, is he not?

Anyways, when Amy is captured by the Silence in Day of the Moon, sure she’s scared, but she still has faith that someone is coming for her.  When she “ascends” to Demon’s Run, she’s once again traumatized, but she is still able to tell the story of reunion (and when she’s abandoned yet again by the Doctor at the end of A Good Man Goes to War, she’s able to be proactive in demanding an explanation).  It’s the abandonment that must be healed again in The Girl Who Waited, which is also functioning as a way for her and Rory to deal with the necessary abandonment of their daughter.  Amy hurts, but is able to get on with her life after being dropped off at the end of The God Complex.  Her choice at the end of Angels in Manhattan is all the more painful because she must choose who she will abandon.  Just because she’s integrated the issue doesn’t mean it doesn’t rear its head over and over again, but now she’s able to face this fear without repressing herself. 

That’s what the Circle in the Square is ultimately all about, and why I love this era so dearly.  This, I think, is the best use of Mythology.  We can use it to help us become whole, by processing what's been repressed at just enough of an arm's length that it doesn't have to hurt too much. 

Myths are stories that never happened, but are always happening.  Just because we know they're fictional doesn't mean they aren't true.

As above, so below.


Daniel Harper 6 months, 2 weeks ago

A truly fascinating analysis, even to someone such as I who has absolutely no knowledge of esoteric symbols. I must go back and re-watch some of the Moffat era it seems, perhaps with a closer eye.

I'm really intrigued by your idea of Amy as a survivor of sexual assault. Without oversimplifying (and with the knowledge that this kind of statement can be read as horribly offensive very easily), an Amy with that in her background makes a lot of sense: her playful sexual aggression, for instance, becomes a way of regaining agency over her sexuality as an adult. It also helps explain her attraction to the boring, stable-as-a-rock Rory while being drawn also to the mysterious manchild Doctor.

Keep it up. I'm definitely interested in reading more analysis from you on this level.

Link | Reply

Megara Justice Machine 6 months, 2 weeks ago

I have nothing else to offer but my praise, this was great stuff.

Link | Reply

Polly 6 months, 2 weeks ago

Greetings! My friend, I can't imagine that simple circle in the square can present so many information. Thanks for this interesting topic. I will definitely recommend your site to all my friends. Please keep it good posting. But also, professionals at can help you decide any paper tasks as soon as you need.

Link | Reply

Kiki Basco 6 months, 2 weeks ago

Great read, although I doubt the alchemical symbolism is intentional. But who cares about intent when you get posts like this?

Jane, are you by any chance a fan of Sam Kieth? His comics are literally swimming in square/circle/circle-in-square imagery. Zero Girl in particular plays with these ideas in both a Jungian sense (literally-- the protagonist asks Carl Jung for advice) and as a metaphor for sexual abuse (the comic centers on a relationship between a 16-year-old and a 32-year-old), but it pops up everywhere in his comics. Not just in the content, but in the form, because comic books are a medium full of shapes and he both can and does manipulate things like the shape of thought bubbles. Great stuff.

Link | Reply

New Comment


required (not published)


Recent Posts





RSS / Atom