Yep, we’re talking about time travel. This is gonna be a fun one. And, uh, spoilers for much of Clara’s time on Who, I guess.

Whenever a show starts dealing with time travel, any conscientious audience member will readily point out the impending danger of paradox. That is, “You’ve screwed up and now the universe is ending,” paradox. This might be part of the reason why stories like “Time’s Arrow” (of Star Trek: The Next Generation) treats time travel like a closed loop, wherein anything that will occur has already occurred. That a) sets up a cool mystery and b) saves the writer a headache.

In Doctor Who, however, most moments in time are in flux, while only select moments are fixed and can’t be changed. (Except, not exactly. Don’t question it.) The difference is down to plot convenience the episode. Leaves us plenty of opportunity for paradox.

Moffat’s era probably tacked the idea of paradox more head-on than the Davies era tended to, with whole series arcs being dedicated to “OMG A PARADOX!” In one scene, the Doctor even provides a little thought experiment about one of the famous types of paradox.

As the Doctor says, this story of a time traveller having to publish Beethoven’s music because it turns out that Beethoven never actually existed is an example of the bootstrap paradox. I’ll even save you a google:

Named after the story By His Bootstraps by Robert A. Heinlein, the bootstrap paradox is a sequence of events in time in which Event A is the cause of Event B, which is then, thanks to time travel, the cause of Event A.

In this casual loop, as it’s also known, the time traveller only knows about Beethoven because of his music, but the music only exists because the time traveller himself wrote down and published it. Every event in the loop is caused by an event also contained within the loop. This is the bootstrap paradox.

There are a few types of paradox you’ll come across in time travel fiction, like the grandfather paradox, or the predestination paradox. The bootstrap paradox—or ontological paradox—is interesting because, even as a throwaway gag, it’s all over Doctor Who.

No, really. In “The Shakespeare Code” the Doctor references plays which have yet to be written. In “Unicorn and the Wasp” the same happens with Donna and Agatha Christie novels, leading Donna to joke that she should have made Agatha sign a contract. The Doctor is able to preserve River because he gave River his sonic screwdriver, but he only knows to give her the screwdriver because his past self saw that he had given her the screwdriver.

And now, we’re on to Clara.

Some argue that she stopped being interesting after her true identity (being born to save the Doctor and all that) was revealed. I’m neither here nor there on that. But that storyline—the impossible girl storyline—is a complete story and character arc for her which is arguably entirely a bootstrap paradox.

Let’s get wibbly wobbly.

We first meet Clara as Oswin Oswald in “Asylum of the Daleks” where, plot twist, it turns out that she herself is a Dalek, her mind has just rejected this. Regardless, she spends the episode helping the Doctor and his friends through and out of the asylum while talking about how she passes the time making soufflés. (Eggs. Stir. Min. Ate.)

The Doctor next meets Clara in the Christmas special “The Snowmen” where she’s living a barmaid/governess double life in Victorian London, and she helps him to fend off the Great Intelligence. He gets that “this is a companion” vibe that he seems to get with some people, and so wants to take Clara on his travels with him.

Unfortunately, Clara is killed. But, once she is, a combination of her middle name—Oswin—and the fact that she shares Oswin’s catchphrase makes it clear that she and Oswin are one and the same.

Clara finally becomes the fulltime companion when the Doctor meets her in the modern day and she once again helps him defeat the Great Intelligence. This time, he definitely recognises her. This is where the whole “Clara’s impossible girl storyline is a bootstrap paradox” thing comes in.

So let’s briefly go through this and try not to get too muddled with all that time travel junk, eh?


The Doctor and Clara travel for a while until we reach the thirteenth episode of Series 7: “The Name of the Doctor.” A bunch of stuff happens, but the relevant thing is that Clara enters the Doctor’s timestream.

Long story short: She’s scattered throughout his life to save him at different points in time. Sometimes he spots her, sometimes he doesn’t, and therefore two “echoes” of her have now been encountered. (Only the two, though. Obviously.)

This is why some argue that her impossible girl storyline is a bootstrap paradox.

I have to bring up that this is just one argument, because Clara is probably the most divisive companion so far. Some people love her, some people downright hate her. And plenty think that the Doctor only travels with modern Clara because of the mystery created by meeting Victorian Clara and Oswin.

All that out there, let’s say for argument’s sake that the Doctor does only decide to take modern Clara along with him because of the impossible girl mystery—at least at first. She’s only at Trenzalore because she travelled with the Doctor, meaning that he only meets echoes of her because he asked her to travel with him, yet he only asked her to travel with him because of those echoes. All events in the loop are caused by other events in the loop.

But wait. There’s a wildcard: Missy.

When the Doctor first meets modern Clara, it’s because she rings the TARDIS (the Doctor answering a phone that we established in “The Empty Child” doesn’t work, but that’s whatever) thinking it’s a helpline. As it turns out, “the woman in the shop” who gave Clara that number was Missy, a female incarnation of the Master.

This is where it gets extra wibbly wobbly. The idea that the impossible girl storyline is a bootstrap paradox is fun. But, it’s thrown out of whack by the fact that Missy brought the Doctor and Clara together. So, why did she choose to do that? Her motivation for bringing the two characters together is kind of what will make or break this paradox.

The previous Master story in the show was “The End of Time”, at the end of which the Master is stranded on Gallifrey at the end of the Time War. The Master regenerates into Missy between “The End of Time” and Series 8. In Series 8, she has this Masterplan (ha) which ends in the Doctor, as her plan goes, coming round to her way of thinking and conquering the universe with a Cyberarmy. She also claims, though she’s lying, that she knows where Gallifrey is.

The problem is that this whole thing is murky because every Moffat season arc since he started as showrunner is confusing and gives us all a giant collective migraine. Many point out that Missy’s reason for wanting the Doctor and Clara together is kind of … underwhelming. And, yeah. It’s a Moffat series arc. Underwhelming happens.

But, there’s one other thing to consider before we finish.

“The End of Time” leaves the Master, along with Rassilon and his Infinity Gauntlet, back on Gallifrey right at the end of the Time War  … where they all assume that they’re going to die.

But they don’t.

The 50th Anniversary Special, “The Day of the Doctor”, which incidentally takes place not long after Clara is retrieved from the Doctor’s timestream, ends with the Doctor changing his mind. Saving Gallifrey. He doesn’t destroy it. He moves it. It’s because of this that the Timelords—including, of course, the Master/Missy—survive and Missy is able to screw about making Cyberarmies.

How does Missy escape? Some think she manages to get hold of a TARDIS, though she does seem to need a vortex manipulator by the time we encounter her again. Some think she escapes through “Gallifrey Falls No More”, the painting we encounter in “The Day of the Doctor”. It’s difficult to look for answers when you’re not digging through an endless sea of novels, short stories, comics and audio plays which may or may not be canon.

But, the important question is: Is this part of the same loop as the impossible girl loop? Is Missy wanting to bring the Doctor and Clara together part of the same neverending loop?

Well, if Gallifrey wasn’t saved, there would be no Missy. But, would Gallifrey have been saved if not for Clara? Well, if she absolutely had to be at those points in his timestream in order to save his life, then, no it wouldn’t. She never saves his life, then he’s dead before he can save Gallifrey. As we learn, the other Timelords are back and forth on the use of the Moment, but the Doctor might have been the only one who would have moved Gallifrey like that, as he used thirteen regenerations of himself to do it.

So: The Doctor takes Clara with him, but only because of the previous echoes, but the previous echoes only exist because the Doctor took Clara with him. More, the Doctor only took Clara with him because Missy gave Clara the number of the TARDIS, but Missy only survived to give Clara the number because of the Clara echoes.

How many loops is that? Does it count as just one? Because personally, I think it … kind of wibbly wobbly does? But why don’t you let me know in the comments below? I kind of have a headache from all this time travel talk.

Either way, thanks for reading! Wanna check out my latest book review while I’ve got you?

Clara Holds Leaf


2 thoughts on “Clara Oswald and the Bootstrap Paradox

  1. I love this post. Just recently watched Alice Through The Looking Glass and have noticed a Bootstrap Paradox in that (A term I didn’t know existed before reading this) One thing’s for sure, if The Doctor could do whatever he wants, the whole universe would be full of these!

    Liked by 1 person

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