The introduction of Bill reminded me why I love Doctor Who and hate Clara
I’ve made no secret of my feelings regarding the character of Clara Oswald. I am not a fan.
In fact, I hate Clara. She’s like a pickle in ice cream or sugar on a hamburger. She made Doctor Who worse and I’m glad she’s gone.
To be fair, “hate” is a strong word. I “hate” cancer, I “hate” child abuse. Clara is just annoying. Really annoying, but still. The character was badly written by a group of writers that had no idea what to do with her, overseen by a producer who is a good storyteller but writes like he has never met a genuinely strong woman in his life so he just kinda makes one up. Clara made many of the episodes she was in worse (especially those with Peter Capaldi’s Twelth Doctor), and given that she was bewilderingly the focus of the show over the star many, many times I was glad to see her go.
All of that said, she did have some redeeming qualities. I also want to make it clear that this isn’t about Jenna Coleman, who I actually like. I know that may seem like a contradiction, but it’s not. She had flashes of brilliance in Doctor Who (her debut in “Asylum of the Daleks” was especially strong), she was great in the mini-series Titanic, and I’m looking forward to seeing her as Queen Victoria in Victoria.
I think Clara is awful, but it’s not Coleman’s fault.
Recently, Doctor Who premiered a two-minute video introducing Pearl Mackie as the new companion, Bill. The clip was filmed specifically for the announcement – proper filming on season 10 won’t begin until later this year – but in that two-minute clip, Bill showed more compatibility with the Doctor than Clara did in three years. It was a good preview for season 10, but it reminded me why I hate Clara in the first place – hence this article.
The role of the companion has changed. In the classic Doctor Who, the companions served three purposes: To give the audience more of the story while the Doctor is busy, to give the Doctor someone to explain the plot to, and to get captured so the Doctor can save them. They were a trope, showing very little growth or depth – pretty standard stuff for older TV.
In the relaunched Who, the companions became the audience’s window to the Doctor. They still act as a sounding board for the wilder plot points and they still help to define the Doctor, but the companions are real characters now. They change as they travel with the Doctor, and the actresses (and handful of actors) are the co-stars, even if they aren’t the focus.
Not to sound like the “I liked the band before it was popular” guy, but Doctor Who was my favorite show as a kid. Part of what appealed to me about it was that unlike many of the other shows of the day, the good guys didn’t win by being better at fighting.
I’m all for a good action show, but there’s a logical fallacy in ongoing fiction where the heroes are the ones that can always, always beat up the bad guys. That works in movies for the most part where it’s a single event, but in TV shows where week after week the conflict is resolved with violence, it just feels like lazy storytelling. It also creates a simplistic view of life, but that’s a different story.
The Doctor was always a character that found another way. He always outsmarted his opponents or tricked them into letting their own machinations undo them. The audience puts faith in the Doctor being better than the bad guys and finding a noble way to win. He can’t just wing it or it belittles the achievement and begins to feel like his victories are really just a string of accidents.
And that’s why I hate the character of Clara. Or at least part of the reason.
The Doctor is thousands of years old at this point, and more or less a god. If he always needed someone to bail him out, he would have died a long, long time ago. Every time the companion saves the Doctor it diminishes him a bit. Do it a few times and you have a clever twist on the familiar story. Do it several times over multiple seasons and you’re left wondering how the hell the Doctor is still around and why we should believe in him to begin with.
Clara saved the Doctor – multiple Doctors – repeatedly. Sometimes she came in at the end and saved the day, sometimes she led the way from the start. From her magic leaf in “The Rings of Akhaten” to being the leader in “Robot of Sherwood” to teaching the Doctor about fear in “Listen” to episodes like “The Caretaker” and “Flatline” that were entirely about her, she was the star. It’s one thing for the character to be designed to save the Doctor by traveling through his timeline, it’s another to have her randomly and repeatedly be the only reason the Doctor is still alive. Again and again.
Clara was also the victim of poor decisions from Moffat.
She became such the focus during season eight, Capaldi’s first season, that she muted the Twelfth Doctor’s otherwise impressive debut. Her story with Danny Pink was more the driving force of the season than a new, brilliant Doctor coming into his own. It was the Clara Oswald show, guest-starring the Doctor. He was by far the more interesting character, and Capaldi’s performance was more creative and interesting than Coleman’s, and yet we saw far, far more of her wrestling with dating Danny than we did the new Doctor deciding who he was.
Even the season finale involving the memorable return of the Cybermen and the Master/Mistress was secondary to Clara’s emotional journey. The ninth season was much better in regards to this, but it was too late by then.
Some of the blame there is Coleman’s. She initially planned to leave at the end of season eight, but changed her mind at the last minute. If you watch the season thinking it’s building to her exit, it actually works a little better. Having her return deflates it. The same is true in Capaldi’s first Christmas special, which Coleman again planned as her finale and again changed her mind.
It was also just a matter of personality. That’s a little harder to quantify and I hesitate to use words like “smug” to describe Clara, since that is more of an opinion. There was an imbalance with her character though.
My favorite co-star of the modern era is Donna, who embodied the best characteristics of a Doctor Who companion. She was curious and brave, yet her biggest attribute was her heart. She became the conscience for the Doctor, much like another beloved companion, Rose. Both companions were also funny and had a whimsical attitude about it all. Clara, despite her odd funny situation and sarcastic remark, was never funny.
The previous companions had fun while traveling with the Doctor and seemed excited. Clara approached her travels like it was a duty, even an addiction – something the story even played up. She never seems to fully enjoy herself, and as a fan that quickly became irritating. Even her much-hyped exit was frustrating and felt like a cheat.
I’m glad that Coleman is doing well and I look forward to seeing her in other things. Her tenure as a companion though was at best mixed, and that’s being generous. In her two-minute debut, Bill already looks more intriguing, brimming with life and joy, complementing the Doctor rather than constantly saving him. Despite the danger, she seems to be having fun. She seems to bring a joy to the role that Clara was lacking. Capaldi’s Doctor will shine next to Bill – or at least that’s how it sems from the very, very brief intro video.
I would like to say that this is the last time I’ll rant about Clara, and maybe it will be. At least on this site. So for now though, I’ll leave you with 10 minutes of Strax hitting Clara in the head with a newspaper. Enjoy!