Previously on Domesticating the Doctor, we looked at our hero’s distaste of the domestic sphere throughout the Classic Years (with a brief holiday from it when he was Jon Pertwee), we looked at the three Mother-in-Law characters from the RTD era and how this new, rebooted version of our hero coped with jam, Christmas dinner and housing estates, we delved back into pre-war Britain with a very human Doctor, we poked holes in his new Moffat era family with Marrying the Ponds and then examined the final act of that relationship in Divorcing the Ponds.
As it turned out, the new companion of 2012 provided me with a brilliant coda to my Domesticating the Doctor series – a girl with an egg-whisk in her belt who moonlights as a Victorian governess!
Thank you, Mr Moffat. I’ll take it from here.
To me, the most baffling element of Asylum of the Daleks was not what the hell Jenna-Louise Coleman was actually doing there, five months before we expected her to arrive. It was: how does the Doctor know that you require fresh eggs and milk to make a soufflé?
I mean, seriously. It took him nine hundred and one years to get the hang of jam.
Coleman’s character of Oswin Oswald is explicitly domestic, from the cozy home she has set up for herself in the belly of a crashed spaceship to the egg whisk she wears in the utility belt of her little red dress. She even dictates letters home to her Mum. It’s all a cruel trick, of course, but it’s a clever one. Oswin is hanging on to the precious shreds of her remembered humanity, and the burnt birthday soufflé that was ‘too perfect to live’ is a part of that illusion.
Domesticity – the place we live, the everyday tasks that heroic stories tend to ignore – is an important aspect of humanity. We don’t all have to be 1950’s housewives who make perfect soufflés, or even switch on an oven, but to me the most interesting science fiction (and indeed the most interesting history) is that which explores how people actually go about their daily lives.
Oswin is living inside a Dalek shell. She’s not a human any more. But her plaintive cry of “Eggs, eggs, exterminate,” shows how much it hurts that she’s not human. The memory of ordinary things is all that is keeping her going. So her fantasy is a Robinson Crusoe wonderland in which her isolation becomes a safe haven with a comfy couch, endless wi-fi, her favourite music, and occasional attempts at baking.
It’s Amy who dubs her ‘Souffle Girl,’ a name that the Doctor later remembers and associates with Oswin. It’s the soufflé-burning aspect of her personality that fans have grasped more readily than, say, her love of the opera Carmen. The idea of a Dalek who wants to cook a soufflé is absurd, but there’s a sadness behind the many egg whisk jokes that have whirled around the internet since Oswin’s debut.
All she wanted was to be herself again, and to survive. Instead, our job is to remember her…
But wait, there’s more!
In The Snowmen we are introduced to Clara, a bright-as-a-button Victorian governess (and occasional Cockney barmaid) who is smart and educated enough to blag her way into a refined job in a fancy house, but drops into her commoner accent when under stress.
The governess is an absolute embodiment of Victorian domesticity, and in a story which subverts other narrative expectations of the Victorian era, especially when it comes to conventional marriage and the truth behind the iconic Sherlock Holmes stories, Clara is pretty much the perfect governess.
Many fans compared her turn in this story to Mary Poppins, who belongs to the later Edwardian era but certainly has much in common with the arch, unflappable Clara. As “Miss Montague,” she spouts nonsense when it suits her, but with great conviction, and she demonstrates her knowledge of how Victorian households are supposed to work down to the finest detail, only to stomp on those rules.
(also it’s worth noting this story includes two examples of the governess trope: the good governess who is the heroine, and the evil stern governess who tortures little children and throws people off clouds)
Clara protects the children, her prime job, but otherwise has little deep attachment to the social conventions of her time. She isn’t especially shocked by Vastra and Jenny’s relationship, she loses patience with keeping up the facade in front of her stuffy employer, and she answers the call of adventure over and over, almost before that call is voiced.
And oh yes, she leaps upon carriages, climbs magical staircases in the clouds, and believes everything she sees no matter how wondrous it appears. Add to this the “serious silliness” she speaks to children, and if Clara was not female, it wouldn’t be Mary Poppins we would be comparing her to, it would be the Doctor himself.
Much discussion has happened around the Doctor in The Snowmen, and how he spends a large part of the story not acting like the Doctor – refusing the call to adventure, batting away potential companions, sulking, insulting his friends and oh yes, can we talk about the fact that he has parked the TARDIS in a semi-permanent position?
We often see the action hero who deals with grief and tragedy by walking stoically off into the distance. Since flitting about randomly is the Doctor’s usual response to everything, the fact that he mourns Amy and Rory’s loss by settling down is rather telling. He has even redecorated his TARDIS interior, in a grand clean sweep that many would recognise as a classic post-breakup gesture.
More than anything, in The Snowmen, we see how hard it is for the Doctor to avoid his own narrative. He can’t travel in the TARDIS because she always takes him where he needs to go and that means new adventures, new friends, drama and peril. So he stays in this place where he has friends already, but the kind of friends he can trust to take care of business in his retirement, friends who take no for an answer when he continually refuses to help people, and in the case of Strax in particular, friends who require no emotional energy from him.
You get the impression that Clara isn’t the first companion to have auditioned her way into his path over however many weeks-months-years the Doctor has been parked above Victorian London. Plucky young women may well have been hurling themselves at him on a regular basis, for him to be so quick about calling for the Memory Worm.
Madam Vastra works here as a kind of anti social secretary, standing between these plucky youngsters and the Doctor as a final barrier to keep him from the narrative that is trying to batter at his stubborn shield. Clara is only able to break through by choosing a word that has significance to the Doctor, seemingly by coincidence. “Pond.”
(On rewatching I might add, we don’t see her choose that word personally which allows for the charming possibility that Vastra herself is on Clara’s side)
Domesticity in The Snowmen is particularly represented by Madam Vastra and Jenny, who are now formally married in a time when lesbians were presumed by law to not even exist. While this is largely played for humour in the story, particularly in Vastra’s unabashed acknowledgement of her wife (on the grounds presumably that the stuffy Victorians also have to deal with the fact that she’s a green lizard woman so why not get it all over with at once), it also represents significant character development for Jenny.
No longer the maid sleeping with her mistress, Jenny now dresses differently as the lady of the house – and this is not only one in the eye for Victorian society because she and Vastra are both women, but also because of the generally deplorable sexual vulnerability of women in domestic service at that time. Maids were often seduced by the men of the houses in which they worked, and were far more likely to end up pregnant, unemployed and homeless than married to their former employer. Jenny’s done pretty well for herself – and it’s one more sign of Vastra’s flouting of conventions.
This brings us back to Clara, who exists both inside the domestic circle and yet has the strange, unexplained freedom to fling it off like a coat any time she wishes. Her snog of the Doctor in the corridor of her employer’s house is deeply inappropriate, not only because she is supposedly a young unmarried woman of that era, and because she barely knows him, but especially because of her position in that house – they make a joke of the Doctor being her gentleman friend, and his abashed insistence that they were kissing rather than fighting a monster (not realising apparently that this is a pretty scandalous thing to admit to in this era) but a real domestic servant would be turned out on the street for such behaviour.
I don’t think this anachronistic feeling is remotely accidental. Whenever Clara openly shucks off the governess voice or anything else that goes along with that job, it feels like she is stepping out of a role. Part of the reason we compare her to Mary Poppins is because like that famous nanny, she doesn’t quite fit into the world we see her in. She behaves as if she is outside it all, beyond the constraints of the era.
This adds to the Doctor’s general discombobulation about Clara. He can’t predict what she will do, which alarms and intrigues him. Part of it is that she is not behaving in the way that Victorian ladies (or indeed lower lass women) do, but there’s also that pesky domestic goddess aspect to her which makes her even more of an enigma – ladies with domestic concerns are difficult for him to get the hang of at the best of times.
But Clara makes no sense to him regardless of whether she is acting within or without the bounds of her society. When she first sees inside the TARDIS, her first words are opposite to what we’ve always heard before – it’s smaller on the outside. More to the point, she’s the first person to respond almost instantly with practical questions about how life on board the TARDIS works.
Is there a kitchen? It’s actually an important question. Apart from the food machine in the early days, and Tegan and Turlough providing a massive tropical fruit plate in The Five Doctors, there’s been little examination of how the day to day functions are achieved within the TARDIS. It’s there in the books and audios – one of my favourite Doctor Who scenes of all times is at the end of the audio The Settling where Ace and Hex, recovering from the trauma of Cromwell’s battlefield, quietly make tea for each other, walking to the library to pick lemons from a tree that grows there because there isn’t any freshmilk in the fridge.
The juxtaposition of the domestic with the alien is one of the loveliest, cleverest things that Doctor Who does, and yet we so rarely see domesticity shown within the TARDIS herself. The new design in fact, was planned to be “less whimsical” than the previous version, and manages to be the starkest version of the console room since it was just a white room with roundels on the walls. Never mind a kitchen, there’s not even anywhere to sit down!
Rose had to take her washing home, presumably because she never found a laundry in the TARDIS. Amy and Rory weren’t allowed a double bed. But Clara, we are certain, would have made use of the damn kitchen if she had been given half a chance. If only the Doctor had remembered that crucial point about closing the TARDIS door when he has friends over…
Clara doesn’t just die in this story. She is snatched out of the one place that Doctor Who viewers are conditioned to believe is safe. The frozen monster who represents a far less cuddly version of the Victorian governess actually reaches right into the console room to grab her, and she ends up falling to her death.
Young ladies die a lot in Victorian novels. It’s a common literary trope. They also lie wanly on couches due to mysterious illnesses. But even as Clara lies wanly on the table about to expire, she is not behaving like a traditional Victorian miss. There’s something strange about her, and we don’t get to know what it is…
The most interesting thing about Clara as a companion is that she has died twice and we haven’t even met her yet. Two highly successful auditions, and the Doctor was willing to hand over the TARDIS key to her before the second adventure was even over. But without wanting to spoil anyone, there was a tidbit in the most recent Doctor Who Magazine which suggested modern Clara’s job at least will make her eligible for a further essay in this series… no word yet on her baking skills, but we can only hope she gets to wield an egg whisk at some point in the next couple of years.
Of course, with one story in the impending season named Journey To The Centre of the TARDIS, it looks like we are going to get to poke around the latest version of the Doctor’s home, just in time for the 50th anniversary. Does this mean that Clara will be the first companion since the 1980’s to get her own room in the TARDIS that we will actually see?
I’m laying a bet now on her preferred decorating style: vintage.
[Crossposted at Doctor Her]