How series 7 was ruined by the lack of a real companion
First, let me start off with a disclaimer. Or, rather, several of them. I do not hate Doctor Who. In fact, I love it. I’m critiquing it because I believe that it, like everything else in the universe, has flaws, and I want it to get better because I believe that it can be even better. I also do not hate Stephen Moffat. I do not like some of the things that he’s written, or planned, or done to Doctor Who. But I’ve never met the man, and hate is quite a strong word.
I cannot believe that I had to blatantly state all of that. But onward. To the real story.
On the whole, series 7 of Doctor Who was a disappointment.
The disappointment started out with one really bad decision--to split the series in half. It’s almost hard to remember that it began way back in September with the Ponds drawn-out departure. As I pointed out in my original review of The Angels Take Manhattan, those stories were fairly bland. They were fun romps, but were barely more than that. The Power of Three was a beautiful exploration of the Doctor’s tragic inability to stay in one place and his attempts to do that for the sake of Amy and Rory, but it lacked any sort of plot, yet felt rushed nonetheless. The departure of the Ponds was full of beautiful moments, but as a whole gave us little reason to care.
Rather than show the audience how deeply the loss of the Ponds affected the Doctor, Moffat let him disappear up to his fairytale castle in the sky. We were allowed to see his temper tantrums, his sulking, his isolation, but not his profound sense of grief. And that, I would say, is a mistake. People need to grieve. Viewers need to grieve, even for their characters. And we were denied that chance, leaving us unsatisfied, and making the Doctor, in our eyes, seem less.
While Ten barely aged during his incarnation, Eleven has now somehow aged upwards of 200 years. He’s had not just isolated adventures, but huge swaths of his lifetime and personal development happen offscreen. Away from the viewer, and a secret. His travels with River, his adventures before his “death,” and now his “Dark Days” after the Ponds. I used to believe that this show was inviting us into the TARDIS to become companions ourselves, to spend some time with the Doctor, to get to know him as much as any companion can. Now, it seems Moffat’s just determined to dangle a carrot that we can’t ever reach in front of our collective noses. As an audience member, I feel cheated.
But I digress. From there we stumbled into the continual mystery of Clara Oswald. Note that I did not say character, or companion, or assistant. Because she really fulfills none of those requirements. Mostly because she has no character.
Like many people, I enjoyed Oswin Oswald the Dalek. She was clever and funny--but more than that, she legitimately challenged the Doctor, and topped him, and did so for ambiguous reasons. I like ambiguity. Clara Oswin Oswald the Victorian Governess was also intriguing. She didn’t just stumble into a mystery and be rescued, she was actively determined to solve it, to the point of trying to recruit the Doctor and climbing up to the TARDIS. And her dual roles of barmaid and governess spoke of ingenuity and resourcefulness, not to mention agency. I wanted to know how she got to that position, and why she kept both jobs. What was it about switching between the worlds that this Clara loved so much?
I eagerly awaited our introduction to the modern-day Clara. Her previous two incarnations were cool companions, fun to be around, and complex characters, and I had every reason to think that the modern Clara would be the same. I looked forward not only to the adventures and fun romps that Doctor Who brings on a regular basis, but the tender moments and poignant questions that the show has been so good at.
I quickly became dissatisfied. When the TARDIS phone started ringing in The Bells of St. John, the Doctor didn’t seem to care who it was he was speaking to--until Clara brought up the phrase that clued him in, and then suddenly he had to meet her. He was unwilling to help the person he talked to, but he’ll gladly run to the rescue to figure out the puzzle.
When she postpones his offer to travel with him, he spends the intervening time between picking her up the next morning traveling back to her personal past, watching her parents’ meeting, their date, and her mother’s death. This is not the equivalent to asking for references or googling someone’s name. Spying on multiple instances of a person’s past, just to “figure them out” can only be called stalking.
That was about when I started to get annoyed. Just as the Ponds’ episodes with the Flesh were only a cover for the Doctor to learn more about Flesh Amy without telling her, the ghost hunt they went on in Hide was merely an excuse for the Doctor to ask the psychic Emma if there was anything weird about Clara. He seems genuinely disappointed when she says no, as if having a cool person for a companion isn’t enough--she has to be something “special” as well.
And then came Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, an episode that I had counted on being amazing. But the excitement of all the fascinating areas of the TARDIS interior that we were able to glimpse was immediately superseded by the angry conversation that the Doctor has with Clara as they’re standing on the edge of a cliff as he believes they’re about to die.
It’s kind of a horrible moment. The Doctor, in his frustration and desperation to solve a mystery, turns kind of abusive towards Clara, blaming her for all the things that he can’t figure out. And then, when he rewrites time to save their lives, he can remember everything--and she can’t. And in a rather perverse moment at the end of the episode, he asks her if she trusts him--and why wouldn’t she? He’s effectively erased her memory, and they can keep traveling on, without the baggage of the awkward moment coming up to embarrass the Doctor. And it's not like this is the first--he's lied to her this entire time about why he asked her to travel with him. He thinks she can't be trusted with the facts of her own identity, and he has to protect her from those "secrets." It's disgusting.
Until, of course, the memory comes up again as they journey up through the TARDIS tomb in The Name of the Doctor. And when Clara remembers the conversation they had, and demands to know the truth--“What do you mean that I died!”--he evades the question until the Whisper Men turn up and they’re forced to run. He doesn’t bring up the topic again, because why would he? He’s been avoiding telling her about it for quite awhile now. To quote the Mary Sue:
Instead we were promised a central mystery: who was Clara and why had identical versions of her popped up elsewhere in history? But instead, of, say, a half season of Clara and the Doctor working together to travel time and unravel her true identity, we got a season that has almost completely lacked companion-specific qualities in any way. Since the Doctor hasn’t actually told Clara that he has an ulterior motive in taking her on as a companion, she hasn’t been able to participate in that aspect of the plot. When it does come up, it’s been furtively, at the end of an episode, or quickly, in a way that characters can’t stop to consider it, and reveal of it has even been part of a retconned timeline.
And then, in one really weird, uncharacteristic* gesture, Clara steps into the Doctor’s timestream to undo the harm that the Great Intelligence has done.
Born to save the Doctor? Excuse me? No one is born for anything. Everyone is their own person. It’s called basic human rights.
As great as the glimpses of Clara running around in old footage were, it didn’t occur to me until the second time I watched the episode--she does very little actual saving of the Doctor, the thing she’s supposedly born for.
Maybe it’s good that she has a Grand Purpose as Ordained by the Universe. Because she’s got little else. I said it was *uncharacteristic for her to jump the Doctor’s timeline to sacrifice herself for him. It might be more characteristic if she had some character to her. But she doesn’t. Because we know nothing about her. We can see she’s bossy sometimes--but only in the way that young women are supposed to be bossy, acquiescing to the Doctor most of the time. Her mother is dead. She’s a nanny, but mostly by accident. Most of the time she’s just sassy and cute. She’s said she wants to travel, but Dalek Oswin and Victorian Clara showed a whole lot more willingness to take risks and go places than she has.
Because she has no character, no personality, there’s literally no reason for her to sacrifice herself for the Doctor. Sure, she likes him, thinks he’s cute and clever, enjoys traveling with him--but she only does it every Wednesday or so. It’s not like Rose, who found “a better way of living your life” when she stepped into the TARDIS, or Martha, who spent a year as an outlaw in order to tell the world who they should be grateful for, or Donna, who realized that she was at her personal best with the Doctor. There's no sense that Clara is actually attached to the Doctor, not even as his friend. Why, then, would she die for him?
Likewise, I’m not so sure why the Doctor is so protective of Clara, other than the fact that she died twice for him already. Why does he like her so much? It’s kind of telling that in this prequel to the finale, Eleven’s choice of words to describe her were “perfect,” “brave,” and “funny.” While good qualities to have, those do not make a person. Those make a blank slate. Those make a generic companion. And indeed, she is generic. Because if she is “born to save the Doctor” then nothing else matters. She is a plot device. She doesn’t need to have a personality, a real past, real motivations, real dreams. Because her fate is the only thing that makes her important and special.
And then, in his own timestream, the Doctor says this:
How many times have you saved me, Clara? Just this once, just for the hell of it, let me save you.
Actually, the Doctor has saved Clara in almost every episode we’ve seen her in. And here he asserts his authority to rescue her--not because he cares about her, but “for the hell of it.” Because she is his Impossible Girl. She’s been a puzzle. She’s been a plot device. Now she’s a prize.
But she’s never been a person.
A million thanks to Erin "Tippy" Tipton for the fantastic quote that became the title and theme of this post.