Friends and neighbors, welcome to my TED talk.
Surely we are all familiar with pop culture's favorite pastime, guessing which men each Taylor Swift song is about. But few have given adequate consideration to my thesis: that that several of Taylor's songs are actually about Doctor Who characters. Admittedly I am only half-serious about this. But reader, I am very very half-serious.
I intend for this to be just the first in a series of posts considering the Whovian origins of songs from Taylor Swift's oeuvre. To begin with, I submit Exhibit A: the song Marjorie, off her 2020 album Evermore.
Now, if you're well versed in Swiftie lore, you've probably already got objections at the ready. After all, I can hear you cry, "Marjorie" is textually, explicitly about Taylor Swift's grandmother, opera singer Marjorie Finlay!
What this blog post presupposes is... what if it isn't?
Under my reading, the song is actually about the relationship between the Twelfth Doctor, as portrayed by Peter Capaldi, and his companion Clara Oswald, played by Jenna Coleman. In this piece, I will prove definitively that Taylor wrote this song about these two time travelers, and how they parted in Clara's last regular appearance on Doctor Who in the 2015 episode "Hell Bent".
About "Hell Bent"
Go ahead and skip to the next heading if, like me, you already have the plot of "Hell Bent" permanently seared into your brain. But if you haven't seen it, or don't remember it all that well, read on. I'll summarize the broad plot, or at least the parts of it that are relevant to my analysis of this song.
"Hell Bent" aired in 2015, as the finale of Capaldi and Coleman's second series together as co-leads on Doctor Who. A couple of episodes earlier, in "Face the Raven", Clara had died, caught in the crossfire of a plot by the Time Lords against the Doctor. As "Hell Bent" begins, the Doctor has made his way back home to Gallifrey with two purposes in mind: First, to confront the Time Lords responsible for that plot, and second, to use their tech to pull Clara out of her own timeline a second before she died.
The episode also features a framing device: the Doctor sits at the counter in a Nevada diner, narrating what happened on Gallifrey to a waitress. That waitress happens to be Clara. It's not clear at first what's going on in these framing scenes, but the viewer is likely to suppose that Clara's memory has somehow been erased, and the Doctor is telling her this story as a way of testing her memory.
Continuing the story: back on Gallifrey, the Doctor succeeds in rescuing Clara from the moment of her death, but this misuse of Time Lord technology threatens the fabric of reality. The Time Lords will not stand for this, and insist that Clara returns to face her fate. The Doctor and the newly rescued Clara steal a TARDIS and flee. In order to hide Clara from the Time Lords, and in hopes that the problem will just go away on its own, the Doctor plans to erase Clara's memories against her will. When Clara discovers this plan, she is horrified, and attempts to sabotage the memory wipe device.
After some heated discussion, it becomes apparent that the sabotaged device might backfire and wipe the Doctor's memory instead of Clara's. Or it might not, it could work as the Doctor had originally intended. Realizing that their relationship has become destructive, and that neither of them is willing to let go of the other, The Doctor and Clara agree on a drastic action to end their friendship: Let the memory device do its work and erase one of their memories, although they don't know which of them will be affected.
As it turns out, the Doctor is the one whose memory is wiped. Back in the diner, we now realize it's Clara who's been testing his memory, not the other way around. The Doctor remembers the events, and the name Clara, but he can't remember anything about Clara, leaving him clueless that the waitress he's speaking to is the same as the person he's speaking about.
Their conversation done, Clara dematerializes the diner, revealing that it was actually the stolen TARDIS. She is off on adventures of her own, knowing she will someday have to return to Gallifrey and be returned to the moment of her death. The Doctor is left behind in the Nevada desert, where he finds that Clara has left him with his own TARDIS. On the side of his TARDIS is a mural memorializing Clara, painted by Rigsy at the end of "Face the Raven". Seeing the face of the waitress on the TARDIS, the Doctor understands who he was just talking to.
The Doctor enters his TARDIS and finds a message left by Clara on his chalkboard (more on that message in a bit). He takes off, the TARDIS dematerializes, and the paint flakes away, dissolving the image of Clara.
Verse: Never Be So Clever
So, what do this episode and this song have to do with one another? In my opinion, quite a bit, starting with the opening lines:
Never be so kind, you forget to be clever
Never be so clever, you forget to be kind
If you're familiar with the general arc of the Twelfth Doctor's character, you are probably already seeing where I am going with this. Don't these words sound like they could have been addressed to the Doctor himself?
The Doctor is often said to be "Clever". That alone wouldn't be much of a connection, but the word has extra weight in the context of his relationship with Clara. Early in Clara's run, when she was traveling with Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor, the mysterious connection between Clara and the Doctor was signaled with the recurring line "Run, you clever boy, and remember." In "Hell Bent" we get a pointed reference back to this motif, with Clara's message on the chalkboard: "Run you clever boy and be a Doctor".
"Kind" is another word often associated with the Doctor, and the Twelfth Doctor in particular. Actually, it's a bit more closely related to episodes after this one, in the latter part of Capaldi's run. In "The Doctor Falls", the Doctor memorably pleads with the Master to "just be kind". And in his final episode, "Twice Upon a Time", the Doctor's big speech prior to his regeneration includes the lines "Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind," and "laugh hard, run fast, be kind."
There's a strong tension between the hard edge of "clever" and the soft empathy of "kind", and this tension defines the Twelfth Doctor's arc. During his early episodes, he leans far too hard on the "clever" to the detriment of "kind", and so he acts haughtily superior. It's abrasive and sometimes even, dare I say it, cruel. But he becomes a more balanced, clever and kind Doctor over the course of his tenure, due in no small part to Clara's influence.
Actually, scratch "influence", a better word might be pedagogy. It's no accident that Clara is a schoolteacher by trade. The Twelfth Doctor and Clara are each teacher to the other at different times throughout their run, and "Hell Bent" gives them both "teachable moments", for instance the Doctor's speech to Clara as he is being mind wiped, and Clara's chalkboard message to the Doctor.
So, these two opening lines mirror the world of the show and slot nicely into the relationship between these characters, both in their didactic "lesson" format and in the content of that lesson. The second voice opens with another variation on the lesson:
Never be so polite, you forget your power
Never wield such power, you forget to be polite
For the Doctor, the clever/kind dichotomy aligns quite well with the power/polite dichotomy: often the Doctor's cleverness is his power, and the Twelfth Doctor's failures to be kind are often also failures to be polite. The "forget to be polite" line reminds me of Clara's use of apology cue cards to prompt the Doctor to be polite when it does not come naturally to him, and the "forget your power" line brings to mind Clara's directive to the Doctor in "Heaven Sent", to "get up off your arse and win".
So although the wording in this verse isn't as directly connected to the show, and the resonance isn't as specific to this one episode, it still makes for a good fit with the Doctor and Clara.
Pre-Chorus and Chorus: And If I Didin't Know Better
Something interesting happens in "Listen", an episode from Capaldi's first season, that we hadn't really seen in previous episodes of Doctor Who. And then it happens again in "Before the Flood." In both cases, we see the Doctor standing in his TARDIS, giving a lecture to... well, it's not clear. To nobody in particular? To the viewer?
Finally, in "Heaven Sent", we get some additional context for how we might interpret these apparent fourth wall breaks. "Heaven Sent" is the episode immediately following Clara's death in "Face the Raven", and immediately preceding the episode we're currently discussing, "Hell Bent". In that episode, the Doctor is trapped in a prison without his TARDIS. But nevertheless we see scenes of the Doctor delivering monologues in his TARDIS, reminiscent of those in "Listen" and "Before the Flood". This time, however, we can see who he is speaking to. It's an illusory figure of the absent Clara, whose face is turned away from him.
The Doctor explains:
There's a storm room in your mind. Lock the door and think. This is my storm room. I always imagine that I'm back in my TARDIS, showing off, telling you how I escaped, making you laugh. That's what I'm doing right now.
So in "Heaven Sent" (and, we might suppose, the earlier scenes in earlier episodes), the Doctor wasn't lecturing to nobody. He wasn't even necessarily in TARDIS, he's just imagining that his in the TARDIS, speaking to Clara. Clara still exists to him, even when she isn't around anymore.
In the pre-chorus of "Marjorie", Taylor reflects on the hazy, indistinct ways in which those who have left us can still remain with us.
And if I didn't know better
I'd think you were talking to me now
If I didn't know better
I'd think you were still around
The connection to the diner framing device in Hell Bent is striking, isn't it? The Doctor sits in the diner, talking to Clara but unable to fully realize that he's talking to her.
And then into the chorus:
What died didn't stay dead
What died didn't stay dead
You're alive, you're alive in my head
There's a strong literal connection here. Clara died, but this episode sees her brought back, in reality if not in the Doctor's head. In the Twelfth Doctor's final episode "Twice Upon a Time", when his memories of Clara are restored, he says "you're in my head".
Early in the episode, when Clara (as the diner waitress) asks the Doctor if the story really happened, he says "Every story ever told really happened. Stories are where memories go when they're forgotten." Later, the Doctor plays a tune on his electric guitar: a rendition of "Clara?", Clara's musical theme from the Doctor Who score. When he plays this melody, Clara suggests, "You said memories become stories when we forget them. Maybe some of them become songs."
In "Marjorie", when the pre-chorus repeats, the word "talking" is replaced:
And if I didn't know better
I'd think you were listening to me now
And if I didn't know better
I'd think you were singing to me now
Clara is physically present with him in the diner, talking to him and listening to him. But his internal memory of Clara, even while repressed, is still singing to him, in the form of Murray Gold's Doctor Who score.
Bridge: The Amber Skies
And now to the bridge:
The autumn chill that wakes me up
You loved the amber skies so much
These days, Doctor Who doesn't have such a consistent schedule, but it was once typical for the show to premiere in the autumn and run through early December. This season aired that way, with "Hell Bent" closing things out on December 5, 2015. Clara and the Doctor are both creatures of autumn by birth: Clara is textually born on November 23rd, which happens to be the anniversary of Doctor Who's premiere in 1963 (and therefore the Doctor's "birthday", to the extent he has one). Clara is also often associated with the image of a fallen leaf, a keepsake of hers which played a role in the 2013 episode "The Rings of Akhaten", and has been referenced in a few other episodes.
And of course, Gallifrey, where this episode is primarily set, has an amber-colored sky.
I should've asked you questions
I should've asked you how to be
Another reference to the life lessons--in this case, the regret that there wasn't time for more. I'm reminded a bit of the scene where the Doctor's memory is fading, as he urgently babbles out whatever last words he can think to impart to Clara (something of a dry run for his regeneration speech in "Twice Upon a Time").
But that raises an interesting question: just whose perspective does this song inhabit? My interpretation so far has mainly placed the song in the Doctor's perspective, whereas these lines seem more like they'd be in Clara's voice, since the Doctor doesn't seem quite as concerned with asking stuff as he does with saying stuff.
The answer, of course, is that it's a hybrid.
One of the things I like about this era of Doctor Who is that the Doctor and Clara feel like full co-protagonists, who equally shoulder the weight of the show's heroic mantle and moral authority. Previous iterations of the show have featured a heroic Doctor as the the central figure, and a companion who exists to push, challenge and provide external perspective. This is not to criticize that dynamic, which has produced some amazing characters that I love dearly.
But this was the first time I felt that the show had two bona fide heroes, engaged in dialogue (sometimes rather contentious dialogue) with one another, resulting in a sort of dual protagonist that was greater than the sum of its parts. In "Hell Bent", the Doctor repeatedly considers the legendarily powerful "Hybrid" feared by Gallifrey, and what it might truly be, ultimately coming to the conclusion that that "Hybrid" might not be a single creature at all, but a relationship between two people that takes on a life of its own. "Marjorie", in my interpretation, is a song about that hybrid.
Asked you to write it down for me
Should've kept every grocery store receipt
'Cause every scrap of you would be taken from me
The "every scrap" line for some reason reminds me of the image of the mural of Clara on the side of the Doctor's TARDIS, the paint flaking off as it dematerializes. "Asked you to write it down for me" evokes the chalkboard message.
Watched as you signed your name Marjorie
Well, yeah. Okay. Be like that.
In A Way, She's A Hybrid.
Look, this is clearly a very personal song for Taylor. And it would be kind of low of me to hurl accusations that she's been passing off a Doctor Who filk song as a heartfelt tribute to a beloved late relative.
But why can't it be both?
The emotional lives we share with our friends and families are not cleanly separable from the emotions we feel about the fictional people who appear on our television screens. Taylor knows this as well as anyone. Speaking to Billboard in 2019, Taylor reflected on 2008's "Love Story", her first massive global crossover hit:
A lot of that was like stuff I saw on a movie, like Shakespeare, like stuff I read mixed in with some like crush stuff that had happened in my life. And so as a writer you try to expand moments. You try to take a micro emotion or a feeling you had for two minutes in the day and you take that and you zoom into it and you try to explore it.
In "Love Story", Taylor explores the drama and emotion of a very real teenage crush, through the narrative lens of Romeo and Juliet. I don't think it's that far fetched to propose that, in "Marjorie", Taylor could have been processing her grief and admiration for her late grandmother by way of one of her favorite Doctor Who episodes.
Like a Hybrid.
As I've said, my thesis that Taylor is secretly writing songs about Doctor Who is only half-serious. My full-serious thesis is that you can find new things in one work of art if you look at it through the lens of another. So, for your consideration, I give you "Hell Bent" through the lens of "Marjorie", and vice versa.
Also, Taylor. If you're reading this, and I know you are, if you haven't seen Doctor Who then you should give it a watch. It's a good show, I think you'd like it.
: Oh don't you worry, we'll be coming back to the Master in future blog posts. Taylor's got a LOT to say about them. ↩︎
: Nor is it a coincidence that, in the season following Clara's departure, the Doctor becomes a professor to his next companion, Bill Potts. Student/teacher relationships are central to the Twelfth Doctor's arc, in a way that calls back very nicely to the Doctor's first ever human companions, the schoolteachers Ian and Barbara. But I'm off on a tangent... that'd be a whole different blog post. ↩︎
: Okay, actually, this is the Doctor's imaginary internalized Clara, but still. ↩︎