I was so looking forward to Christmas. The tenth series of Doctor Who finished with an astonishing cliffhanger, revealing the First Doctor — played by Game of Thrones’ David Bradley — would play a fundamental role in the multi-doctor Christmas special later this year. But it was all ruined by a particular casting decision.
No, it’s not the news of Jodie Whittaker as the new doctor. I think she’s an excellent choice. The first Doctor Who producer was female; the first director a gay Asian, the person who gave it its bizarre theme/identity was also a woman. Doctor Who was formed in diversity. Not only that, but the entire point of Doctor Who, throughout its run has been about change, innovative ideas, supporting minorities and rejoicing in the original and the unusual. Did all the naysayers learn nothing in fifty years?
No, the thing that ruined Christmas (In July) was the announcement of Clara Oswald’s appearance. why was Clara so… bad? I don’t mean Jenna Coleman’s was bad. She’s an accomplished actress who managed a unique rapport with four separate Doctors, and that’s something only Elisabeth Sladen or Nicholas Courtney could say. There are many great Clara moments I’ll remember. However, she never developed as a character. Nothing ever stayed with her and nothing ever changed who she was. She drifted from being a mystery to being part of a dull love triangle to being a decent companion. It took the writers two whole seasons to do with Clara what they achieved in two episodes with Pearl Mackie’s Bill.
Consider the four other main companions and how their stories played out. Rose was a shop girl whose life felt empty and meaningless, but then she realised her own heroic potential and was left to be that hero in a universe without The Doctor. Martha was in love with The Doctor, who didn’t love her back, and she learned to accept this. Donna was terrified of not mattering in the world and became the most important woman in it. Amy was afraid to commit to her husband, but stranded herself in the past away from everything to be with him.
Some of these arcs are stronger than others, but they all have a basic form. Clara never did. The entire payoff for the reveal of how the three separate versions of her we saw happened was eclipsed by the War Doctor and the lead-up to the 50th anniversary. Then, it was her job to take care of us through the regeneration of a new Doctor, but she was left with zero to do or be in a season of scripts that were often uninspired. While Danny Pink was a good character, he never joined the Tardis crew, and as a result the love triangle that the show tried to build was hamstrung around the Coal Hill School rather than in the middle of adventures.
Once Series 9 came on and Peter Capaldi seemed to have his heels planted in the title role, Clara and he brought out the best in each other right until her stupid, stupid death. Perhaps as someone “born to save The Doctor,” Clara’s newfound reckless streak was a way for Clara to define herself separately from him, but as she ended up wandering around space and time with someone else, even that doesn’t work. There’s no indication that Clara was transformed by meeting The Doctor, and that is a cardinal Whovian sin.
The show also threw away the best versions of her character. Who didn’t fall in love with Oswin in “Asylum of the Daleks?” Soufflé Girl was tough, clever, humorous and charming, and Coleman played her ups and downs perfectly. She appeared the ideal candidate to replace Amy and Rory until she committed suicide.
Then came Victorian Clara in “The Snowmen,” and she was even better. Her double life as a serving girl and posh nanny had suggestions of Lady Christina, and her ability to reach a grieving Eleven melted all our hearts. According to Neil Gaiman, this was the original version of the character, and that may be why she’s the strongest of the bunch. In later episodes where Clara Prime would don Victorian fashions, as in “The Crimson Horror” and “Deep Breath,” these were the places she would best fit in.
Clara Prime was a pale imitation of her other characters. She was colder and more austere, and she insisted on keeping a distance between her and The Doctor by not travelling full-time with him. Sure, Amy and Rory did something similar near the end of their tenure, but that was after months, perhaps years of adventures. Clara wanted to see the universe, but only on her terms, and it made her feel condescending. Maybe that’s why her reckless streak in her last season bothered me so much. Had time travel and fighting monsters become boring to her?
I guess Clara as a character became a victim of terrible timing. Steven Moffat crafted an alluring mystery in her, but he used it for a twist ending that dragged her into “Day of The Doctor” having to carry the companion load for three different actors. I’m not sure anyone expected Matt Smith to leave the role when he did, and Clara was there to hand us over to a new Doctor. A few episodes into Series 8 would have been the best place to let her go, but if Capaldi had been badly received, a new companion might have been a change too much.
Fond as I am of Jenna Coleman, I doubt Clara Oswald will go down in many people’s books as a beloved companion, even just of the revived era. She carries too much baggage, and she’s an excellent example of why characters should not be written to fill holes in The Doctor’s stories. Whoever runs with The Doctor next, I hope he or she can just be him or her.