I really wanted to like Clara Oswin Oswald. And I suspect that a lot of Doctor Who fans did, while others still do.
Between her introduction in “Asylum of the Daleks” as Oswin the brilliant and somewhat snarky Soufflé Girl and her assertive, plucky, and empathetic incarnation in “The Snowmen” as Clara Oswald — governess by day, bar maid by night — we had the makings of not only a mystery, but a fascinating character in her own right.
Imagine: a person that can simultaneously exist in different areas of space and time. She has no time machine, or special powers, or any other kind of anomaly. What’s more is that, starting with “Asylum” she is a genius in a grim science-fiction story while, in another time of “Snowmen” she is a woman seeking a troubled Doctor seemingly out of no other impulse but sheer curiosity: a force that inspires her to ascend into the clouds to find a blue box in a fairytale.
Then consider the premise that Clara exists in many other timelines and that even if they are all echoes of one person throughout time, they are nevertheless part of an individual’s entire existence. Just imagine what each iteration of Clara has gone through: how many skills, experiences, and lifetimes she gathered. It would stand to reason, after all, that she did something in space and time beyond waiting for The Doctor to show up so that she could be with him: you know, beyond the overall plot arc assigned to her.
Perhaps we might have gotten a character who was a combination of Oswin:
And the Victorian Clara who, according to Neil Gaiman, was originally supposed to be The Doctor’s Companion:
So what did we get instead? We initially got a hapless Mary Sue stalked by the Eleventh Doctor and a mentality divided between skirting around the issue of what a strange conundrum Clara Oswald is, and yet more unconsummated romantic tension between The Doctor and another Companion. Because, you know, we haven’t seen that before. And for all there are even hints that Clara gets greater access knowledge from her time interfaced with the Great Intelligence’s “Spoonhead” network she is mainly a human female extension of The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver.
But there was evidence that Clara, and her dynamic with The Doctor was still salvageable. Jenna Coleman and Matt Smith managed to show some chemistry, or at least evidence of a strong emotional bond between these two characters. Perhaps if The Doctor had spent less time trying to unravel her mystery and realized that she was just Clara Oswald, and was more important because of that thought alone, they could have moved on.
Instead we finally discover how Clara can exist in other times and still be human, a realization come to at The Doctor’s personal time-stream when she states, in some of the most poorly thought out words ever:
For me, though I didn’t want to admit it to myself at the time, that was the beginning of the end of my hopes for Clara Oswin Oswald. Unfortunately, it pretty much summed up everything she had been after her previous incarnation’s death in “The Snowmen.” She is just a character that revolved around The Doctor, just a part of him: a woman dependent on a male character’s existence as opposed to also standing up in her own right. And while it is true that Companions are judged by their relation to The Doctor in any season, this was a moment that could have been written a lot better had there been more character-development on Clara’s part.
And never mind the fact that this wasn’t even followed up on: that there wasn’t an episode or a minisode dealing with the fall-out of Clara realizing what happened to her and coming to terms with it, or even addressing the fact that The Doctor had an incarnation she never saw before that point. For that matter, we don’t really even get to see the consequences of what happens when she falls through, scatters in, and survives The Doctor’s time-stream. I mean, you would think there would be some psychological effects of some kind. These are issues that could have been dealt with or at least touched upon at the beginning of “The Day of The Doctor”: to actually show some flow and continuity instead of a jarring situation where the characters seem to have moved on and found themselves in a different situation.
But now I’m digressing into plot as opposed to what I really wanted to see: character-writing. Perhaps, in the end, these two elements are not that far removed from one another.
So between “Day of The Doctor” and “Time of The Doctor” we, again, get little show of continuity save in a “tell, but don’t show” situation. Matt Smith, before his departure, has said that he could have done another year of Doctor Who. And I can’t help but wonder if another year of the Eleventh Doctor with Clara Oswald — in which he wasn’t trying to figure out what she was — and where they both figure who they are — might have made something of a difference in their character dynamic. Or not.
And then we have the regeneration.
After The Doctor’s regeneration into Twelve, Clara can’t seem to get over the fact that he looks like an older man now. Remember: she just went through the Time Lord’s personal time-stream, met previous incarnations of him, saw him actually age on Trenzalore, and actually existed as different people with other experiences. The parallel was right there. Had there been some more organic character development, maybe Clara having always in some way been able to draw on the memories of her other selves — or echoes — or only been able to after “Name of The Doctor,” his transformation might have taken some getting used to, but she could have seen The Doctor she had always really known beyond appearances and mannerisms.
Unfortunately, again, in “Deep Breath” Madame Vastra seemed to all too correctly deduce that Clara pined for her lost young boyfriend.
Moffat might have you believe that this was never intended, and Peter Capaldi himself wanted to portray a character that wasn’t involved romantically with his Companion. But the groundwork had already been laid out. Between Clara’s previous “milady doth protest too much” claims that he wasn’t her boyfriend and The Doctor’s proclamations of “Clara, my Clara!” that romantic bond already existed. It was there: or at least portrayed as such by the actors. So this subtext was either retconned away, the Eleventh Doctor always thought of her as something of a fascinating object, or the Twelfth Doctor’s feelings had changed and this — again — wasn’t really explored.
In addition, I think the show writers began to realize that once they revealed the true nature of Clara’s existence and pretty much eliminated that mystique, they now had to do some actual character development beyond its suspension in the 50th Anniversary and Christmas Specials.
All right. So the dynamic changes. Moffat and his crew decide, at this point, to give Clara more of a life outside of The Doctor. They began it when they gave her a job as a schoolteacher in “Day of The Doctor”: which is a natural extension of her work with children as a nanny. And she even gets a love interest in the form of Danny Pink. None of these things negate her relationship with The Doctor either. She has her time-travelling interest in The Doctor and her romantic arrangement with Danny while also having her own career where she actually learns how to take responsibility for her own actions, and realize that her students depend on her.
But of course, because of all this, Clara suddenly develops a potent case of shallowness and insensitivity. When she isn’t taking pot-shots at Danny’s military past, or constantly brushing him off to go sailing into the stars, she never even bothered to tell The Doctor about Danny, or wondered if this might actually change something in their dynamic. She becomes abrasive and rude when she’s not being outright entitled or completely self-righteous about Danny calling her on her behaviour, or The Doctor not acting the way she wants him to act.
Mainly, it seems to become about her.
Because, you know, apparently it would taken too much time and effort to show Clara struggling between these relationships, thinking about others, and actually having some honesty occur: where she, Danny, and The Doctor actually talk about what is going on. Moffat could have worked with this tension and conflict. Remember “Kill the Moon” where Clara delivered what was probably hoped to be an epic verbal beat down on The Doctor’s behaviour complete with the threat of actual physical harm?
Remember how before that, when The Doctor left her to decide what happened to the creature in the moon and it just seemed as though, after all of Clara and the other characters’ arguing with him, that he just got fed up with it all?
They could have talked about that because, from what I saw, that conflict was partially due to the fact that Danny Pink was brought into their relationship without Clara really talking about it with The Doctor, or asking him how he felt about that. Instead, The Doctor is portrayed as genuinely not understanding why Clara is so upset: and not being affected by this one way or another. It just feels disingenuous: because there is what Moffat and his team want to happen, and then there are the places where the character dynamic wants to go, or at least adapt itself into going.
And that would have happened if we saw Clara and Danny actually befriending each other and get to know one another. I’m not saying that there wouldn’t be conflict, but a sense of chemistry instead of that forced feeling of Danny being added onto Clara so that we, the audience, would know that she is “over” The Doctor.
Then we have Clara’s lies and hypocrisy. She lies to Danny about who The Doctor is, then she lies to The Doctor about Danny supposedly being all right with their travelling after she tells Danny that they are done. And even though The Doctor is “a part of the Earth” and Clara seems to think she has the power to tell him to leave it, when he quotes her words right back at her “In The Forest of The Night,” apparently this doesn’t take away from the fact that she still thinks he should leave to save himself: because those words only seem to work when Clara wants them to do so.
But, for me, I think the death-knell came with “Dark Water.” You know the sequence: where, instead of asking for The Doctor’s help, she decides to betray him and force him to help her by threatening his age-old home to get a man back, whom apparently she is love with and “is the only person she will ever love” …
Steven Moffat has stated that, in this iteration of The Doctor’s and Clara’s relationship — as journeying with a time-traveller, that there should be actual consequences in doing so. Yet what consequences did Clara suffer as a result of her actions: especially in “Dark Water?” The Doctor kicked people out of his TARDIS for less than what she did in that episode. And barring that: The Doctor is Clara’s friend. She was there in all parts of his life. In fact, the only episode that I truly respected her in this iteration was “Listen” where she was there at both Danny and The Doctor’s very beginnings and provided them insight, inspiration, and strength while, in turn, she gained a whole other understanding of them. You know: character-development … or so it seemed at the time.
So why, realistically speaking, could Clara fall in love with a man she clearly doesn’t respect and then suddenly betray her best friend and threaten everything that made him who he is?
And even here, there was promise. We saw that Clara was part of Missy’s plan: that Missy had brought her and The Doctor together from the very beginning. Hell, we even saw that nice snippet from “Death in Heaven” where Clara tells a a Cyberman that “Clara Oswald doesn’t exist.”
But nothing happened with that, aside from it going to an extremely obnoxious and derpy place that doesn’t even convince a basic Cyberman.
It’s just like Moffat teasing that Orson Pink, the time traveller in “Listen” was just from a branch of the Pink family and not necessarily Danny and Clara’s descendant. Both have tension built up and both end with equally disappointing conclusions.
All of this is just downright frustrating to watch and I have to admit that while I was losing patience with Clara after “Kill the Moon” I lost all respect for the character after “Dark Water”: and the fact that she seemed to have learned nothing from her actions and that even after that she continued to bully The Doctor into other decisions.
Clara and her character dynamic has become more convoluted than any “Timey wimey, wibbly wobbly stuff” and I can sympathize with just why some Classic Doctor Who fans cannot stand the romance written into the program. In fact, I think it’s no coincidence that Steven Moffat, the very writer that created the “Timey wimey” idea of time-travel to explain away all temporal inconsistencies, would apply this same philosophy to character creation and relationships in his own run.
But, ironically, with time and patience we could have seen a very different Clara Oswald. As I said before, the ingredients were all there. The Doctor could have met her in more timelines. He might have tracked her down to 2013 where she was in a mental institution after being overwhelmed by all of her other memories. Perhaps he takes her out of there and, together, they explore how she can integrate those memories and just how this was all possible. Maybe The Doctor could have actually been Clara’s boyfriend because heaven forfend that he have a different relationship with a new Companion. Imagine how the rest of those events could have played out: with River Song wanting her husband to actually be happy and live on, and the impact of Clara saving The Doctor — again — by using her own sense of agency to jump into his time-stream without those very unfortunate words.
Or maybe Missy created Clara. I mean: just how did Missy know about Clara to begin with? Perhaps Victorian Clara died and Missy took her essence in the Nethersphere and used her hypnotic powers, which are canon, to re-engineer her into a new personality that would be The Doctor’s worst enemy. After all, Missy seemed to like violating the human dead for her ends. I mean, imagine The Doctor travels with Clara for all that time and even thinks he’s figured out how she existed in other times, only for her to betray him and claim that she had been Missy’s agent the entire time? It might have explained why the TARDIS was so dead set against her being there.
And just think of one sequence, modelled after the minisode “Clara and The TARDIS” where the TARDIS forces Clara to see all the echoes of herself: her past selves at different emotional points, her molten undead selves from “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” and even her iterations in other timelines to seemingly hurt her and protect her Doctor, but also to snap her out of that malignant, treacherous self and get her to accept those parts of herself, and take control of her own life.
Perhaps Clara dies to save The Doctor and every time he goes to another timeline or world he has to be reminded of the fact that he will never see her again. But if you don’t want to go all potentially Women in Refrigerators on this, maybe she just leaves after finishing her own A Game of You: discovering her own sense of identity separate from The Doctor and both her and him realizing that he is not the person she fell in love with any more and she has to move on.
At the very least, when she betrayed the Twelfth Doctor he should have helped her get Danny back while telling her that there was a price for her actions: namely, never being allowed to travel with him again.
When I first started thinking about all this, I thought that Clara Oswald shouldn’t have been the Twelfth Doctor’s Companion. If anything, she felt like more a part of Eleven’s life and could have fit into that dynamic a lot more efficiently. But after a conversation with a friend of mine, I saw that she was just a reflection of both incarnations of The Doctor. Eleven’s Clara represented all of his wonder and his need for her. Twelve’s Clara is all the former in addition to his angst, conflict, and uncertainty magnified a thousand-fold: the ephemeral breath on Virginia Woolf’s mirror instead of the refracted crystal of herself that she could have been.
I guess what I’m really trying to say here is that Clara Oswald’s main problem is the fact that she just isn’t written well. There were so many storytelling and character-driven possibilities that just weren’t even explored. The attempts to develop her character have been awkward and jarring to say the least and just thinking about some of her more lucid moments and what could have been just makes the experience all the more painful.
I will admit: when I heard that “Last Christmas” might be Clara’s last show, I felt a tremendous sense of relief: even as I feel some dread that due to rumours about Jenna Coleman wanting to return, she will be back. Despite some particularly touching moments, the character of Clara has gone from being a sonic screwdriver supplement to an attempt at a haphazard marionette portrayal of an actual human being.
It’s just sad. Clara started off with a lot of potential but it became clear that no one really knew what to do with her. Clara Oswin Oswald deserved much better than what she got, and I hope that Steven Moffat gives her at least the dignity of “Last Christmas” being her final adventure and letting us, and The Doctor, remember what could have been and finally move on.