They've encountered echoes from the past, danced with dragons and fought eldritch horrors. But what's next for Clara and Me? As the dilemmas they face become increasingly complicated, we continue our series preview with Episodes Five to Eight.
Episode Five: The Guardian of Azantia Written by Kate Coleman
Illustrated by Staypee
“Systems failure, trapped crew, crushing pressure of the ocean depths all around us. In other words, the perfect distraction!”
A distress call from the depths of an uncharted ocean propels Clara and Me on a daring escapade to save a trapped team of engineers and historians, there to survey the fabled submerged city of Azantia – once home to a civilisation of astonishing power, their secrets lost to the ages.
But there are worse perils than the failing integrity of their subaquatic base and the vicious hookra fish infesting the surrounding waters to contend with. For the ancient ruins of Azantia, long dormant, hold more than just history...
A particularly thrilling prospect when it comes to writing The Untold Adventures is the way in which it allows us to take traditional Doctor Who setups and use their familiar backdrops to emphasise how the characters and sensibilities of this series distinguish themselves, reflecting upon the conventions of a classic formula. Clara has always shown a certain genre-savviness that defined much of her tenure on the show; especially in relation to how she perceives her own place in the narrative. But such an outlook isn’t necessarily a healthy one. As Steven Moffat once said, “you have to be a bit of a loony” to think in the way she and the Doctor does, and viewing that through the lens of a once-ordinary human woman as opposed to a Time Lord opens up a veritable goldmine of storytelling potential.
Kate Coleman’s story, The Guardian of Azantia, is a more action-driven affair than the preceding episodes. At this point in the series and its arcs, it acts as a fun palate cleanser, the chance to see Clara and Me on a good old-fashioned adventure. But don’t be deceived; it’s for this very reason that the story yields something deeper. Me is not someone accustomed to the galavanting and derring-do that typifies most outings with the Doctor, and so brings a new perspective to proceedings, one that stands in stark contrast to Clara’s, who is so at home in this sort of environment her attitude becomes almost self-aware. It’s an insight into how far these characters have come, and where their journeys may lead them; for better or worse.
The guest cast of the episode further demonstrate this theme. Where does the distinction lie between individuals caught in a terrifying situation, and characters serving as mere archetypes, bit players in someone else’s story? Even jaded by years of travelling the universe, is it ever fair to regard them as the latter? Some of the crew are archaeologists, too, with opposing points of view on the matter. While the story does draw from traditional Who conceits (the premise certainly shares some similarities with Series 9’s ‘Under the Lake’), it’s considering the idea of the base-under-siege as a historical structure, and the characters as the conflicting forces that shape it. But shape it into what?
Episode Six: From Thy Shadow Shall They Pass Written by Taylor Bookout & Zoe Lance
“As he stared into the dark, he did not realise it was staring back at him.”
Marblehead, Massachusetts, a charming coastal town overlooking the Atlantic sea. But its crooked lanes, misty graveyards and hidden coves hold a grim past; folktales that tell of screeching spectres, persecuted witches, subterranean labyrinths haunted by troubled souls.
When Clara and Me decide to visit 1950s America for a bit of fun, they get far more than they bargained for. Halloween night approaches, and a group of local children are being followed by ominous figures of unknown intent. Be these visitors friend or foe, this is a series of events that can only resolve in shadow.
The vast majority of the series, until now, has taken place in the outer reaches of space; in wondrous alien cities, on far-flung planets or abandoned space stations from the distant future. And this isn’t without good reason. But we would be remiss not to allow Clara and Me the opportunity to return to Earth – both past and present – where they may find themselves facing dangers much closer to home. From Thy Shadow Shall They Pass marks first historical episode of The Untold Adventures, one that sees our leads travel to mid-twentieth century USA. What better setting for a TARDIS shaped like an American-style diner, after all?
In coming up with this story, writer Taylor Bookout drew both from her own experiences and various fictional sources. Whispers of the paranormal abound in the realm of small-town America, giving rise to the likes of Stephen King’s chilling novels or Stranger Things’ 80s-inspired pulp horror. From Thy Shadow Shall They Pass is in a similar vein tonally, though is also imbued with inspirations from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and beloved cult movie Hocus Pocus, which itself has connections with Marblehead. And that's to say nothing of the town's own sordid history. The horror roots go deep here, but this is a story about far more than scares. Taylor takes a very Moffat-esque approach to the genre, using it as a means to get in touch with the character’s own personal fears and vulnerabilities.
Her commitment to her job as a teacher may have fallen by the wayside by Series 9, but Clara’s affinity with children has always been an important part of her character. It’s integral to who she is, and where her compassion and courage is at its strongest – she lost her own life because she couldn’t bear to imagine a little girl growing up without a father. A theme so prominent receives a particular spotlight in this episode; something that, after the whirlwind adventure of the series thus far, brings a welcome shift in gear. There’s a strong sense of poignancy that pervades the entire story, intertwined with moments of pathos and quiet contemplation. And by the end, the characters may never be the same.
Episode Seven: Sancta Sanctis Written by Kimberley Chiu
Illustrated by Bianca Maria Costa Barbè
‘God's holy gifts for God's holy people.’
France, 1628. The Black Death has returned, killing thousands and plunging the country into terror – but in the house of Bernard de Nogaret de La Valette, soon-to-be Duke of Epernon, there is nothing but peace, beauty, and a party that never seems to end.
How has the house become so safe and blessed? Are its secrets diabolical or divine? And why, all of a sudden, have its residents started going up in flames?
Immortality. Favourite muse of poets and authors since time immemorial. The ultimate prize or an eternal curse, depending on who you ask. But what of Me, the woman who has lived all there is to live, seen all there is to see, though her memory fades into the abyss like a stream over a waterfall? After enduring through the eons, and watching the last embers of reality flare and fade, who is she? And more importantly, who does she want to be? Before anything else, Kimberley Chiu's Sancta Sanctis is the big Me showcase of the series; delving deep into the character’s point of view, her psyche, her feelings on her travelling companion and her relationship with her own fathomless past.
Having spent an eternity trudging the slow path, Me finally has the chance to enjoy the luxury of a time-traveller, returning to eras that she has already lived through with a new perspective. Clara’s boundless enthusiasm is infectious, as she – in the footsteps of the Doctor – offers her friend the whole of history to experience at their leisure like a selection of delectable chocolates to sample. But when you’ve suffered the harsh reality of war, plague, famine, the very bile of life and the worst extremes of human cruelty, can you ever see history as anything else?
For Clara, there are a number of uncomfortable truths she has yet to face. In her time on Doctor Who, for all her faults, the show never condemned her nor deemed her less worthy because of them; a beautiful, empowering statement that you can be profoundly imperfect and still deserving of love, support and acceptance. But this does mean that there remain a lot of things that Clara hasn’t really had to confront; about herself, her new condition, and her vision of the world. To that end, this is an episode that tries to get under her skin. It starts off quite fun and light, but ends in a very different place – one could say it’s a tale of Clara attempting to enjoy a nice, basic Doctor Who historical and the narrative collapsing under her own issues.
Peter Capaldi once said that Doctor Who is, at its heart, about death, and this story certainly doesn’t prove him wrong. The bell tolls, the clock ticks, the sand trickles through the hourglass. Time runs out for us all, even the time travellers…
Episode Eight: The Improbable Mirror Written by Ruth Long and Sam Maleski Story by Henry Lovett
Illustrated by Valentina
“If you want to learn why so many died here, first… you need to know about Clara Oswald.”
Something awful happened on the planet Leharvo.
People remember, though, after all this time. Details emerge from the fragments of the story: a man about to commit a terrible crime; a secret agent with a vendetta; fire, death, and cocktails with funny umbrellas in them. And two women out of time, on a leisure trip.
But how did these events unfold?
What did Clara Oswald, if that’s her real name, do on that fateful day?
Seeking respite in the wake of their recent adventures, Clara and Me try to recapture some of the simple pleasures granted by the freedom of a TARDIS. But even the most innocent of endeavours can swiftly spiral into tragedy. The events that unfold over the course of The Improbable Mirror allow the writers – Henry Lovett, who wrote the first draft but was unable to proceed due to scheduling conflicts, and co-project lead Ruth Long and Sam Maleski, who used the occasion to continue the trajectory of the previous episode – to try and look at Clara from a distance. The story is told as a fragmented narrative: composed from archive footage, testimonies, letters and news reports. It relies on the point of view of other characters trying to wrap their heads around who exactly she is; especially in relation to their own personal histories and politics.
While The Untold Adventures generally takes, in this first series, a more inward-looking approach, focusing on Clara’s narrative role and struggles, The Improbable Mirror goes to a bit of a different place. It’s probably the most outwardly political episode of the bunch, building on themes present in the Capaldi era, but presenting them in a new context. Really, it’s a story about identity, and that’s a fundamentally political question. But not just that; it’s also a shifting, contested thing. The title of the story is a direct reference to one of the main bases for Clara’s characterisation in the series, project lead Ruth Long’s essay ‘The Impossible Mirror’ – she is, in a way, just that; a mirror reflecting many faces, conflicting desires and agencies. But mirrors, under the right circumstances, can crack. And it’s up to you, the reader, to put the pieces together, and draw your own conclusions.
This is very-much bringing the tensions that have been brewing throughout the series to a head, in doing so forcing Clara, who is a character constantly on the run from herself, to stop for a moment and face the morality of her actions. It’s all about limiting her options: what will Clara Oswald do when her usual tricks no longer work, when she’s confronted with something she’s not used to, and the array of choices at her disposal grow ever narrower? She can make mistakes, we know that. It cost her her life. But when you’re assuming the mantle of a cosmic heroine, the cost may be even greater. The decisions she makes will define who she is; Me knows this, and is going to do her best to steer her friend in the right direction, but who knows if she’ll succeed…
See you on the other side of the looking glass.
Join us next week when we'll be previewing Episodes Nine to Twelve!