Clara: A Case of Missed Potential

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Guest contributor Andrew Bohman on Clara as a Doctor Who companion.

clara-montage-faceApril of 2012 not only marked the beginning of a new series of our favorite show, but it also introduced a brand new companion. When I heard that Jenna Coleman would play the part, I felt neutral since I didn’t know the actress. Companion casting doesn’t matter quite as much to me, as I usually just worry myself about who the Doctor is going to be. “As long as she’s not annoying,” I thought. However, when Asylum of the Daleks aired, I was pleasantly surprised. To begin with, I was taken aback that she turned out to be a Dalek in the end and was killed off in her first episode, but what surprised me more was that I actually took to her right off the bat. Never before had that happened with an assistant, for me.

Most of the time I feel basically neutral about the Doctor’s companions, even with the most popular. While they usually have some special characteristic that the Doctor likes, for the most part they seem more or less ordinary with a dash of extraordinary bravery and sense of adventure. But not Clara, or Oswin, as she called herself then. Her personality was outgoing yet not at all to the point of being annoying, and she also displayed wit and charisma among other likeable character traits. What impressed me the most was that she was a genius, able to hack into the Dalek Pathweb—a feat that not even the Doctor could accomplish. That kind of intellect is something that should be more prevalent in assistants.

Out of all the Doctors’ companions, most are intelligent, though not many are geniuses. We could use someone more charismatic and flat out brilliant like the Doctor—but of course not quite as good as him. However, he did in the past have quite a few companions that were nearly his equal in intellect, if not in some areas superior, such as Zoe, Romana, River, and the Doctor/Donna, if that counts. Even so, they have some (minor) problems. Zoe was a bit arrogant and felt herself too superior to the Doctor, Romana didn’t have that sharp edge or a personality that really stood out as much, River doesn’t stay with the Doctor for extended periods of time and hence isn’t a true companion, and the Doctor/Donna was very temporary and, naturally, too much like the Doctor. But Clara doesn’t have any of those problems, at least it didn’t seem so, and that’s why I was initially so excited about her.

Then came The Snowmen. In this episode, what stuck out to me the most was her personality. That lighthearted charm and wittiness shined through once again, along with the hint of a feisty edge that so many of the Doctor’s best companions possess. She also had a strong flair of independence, much like River, a dose of perceptiveness, and that generous dash of curiosity which the Doctor seems to love in his assistants. Despite her lack of knowledge in this episode, she still came across as extremely intelligent. The scene on the roof proved that to both the viewer and the Doctor, as did many others. For me, The Snowmen was Clara’s finest episode. By the end, though I was baffled at her death, I was almost certain that she would become my favorite companion. That, however, was sadly premature…

the-bells-of-saint-john-pics-batch-(2)When part two of the series came along, I eventually became disappointed. After The Bells of Saint John, she began to decline. Clara’s personality and mind seemed ever so slightly dampened from the preceding episodes. I was confused as to why she knew absolutely nothing about computers, but I soon was relieved when she suddenly became a computer genius from being inside the Great Intelligence’s network. As the Doctor put it:

“You were uploaded for a while. Wherever you were, you brought something extra back, which I very much doubt you’ll be allowed to keep.”

After that episode she never used her computer skills nor did she use her genius much again. Was all that knowledge somehow taken away from her as the Doctor mentioned? I realize that when she was split throughout the Doctor’s time stream her variations were all probably different, accounting for the stronger intellect and personality in the first two episodes. The “stream” of Clara from Asylum could have retained the computer knowledge from The Bells, which would make some sense, but why have it that way? Why make the streams better than the main Clara which travels with the Doctor?

However you look at it, her potential for the later episodes was not used to its fullest. When The Rings of Akhaten aired, she seemed to be reduced to almost normalness. Her personality became a shadow of what it used to be, and she didn’t really do a whole lot through the entire episode, save some emotional support (not to undercut the emotional support in any way) and providing some plot devices such as the ring and the leaf. Same with the next few episodes. This was even written into the episode Hide when the Doctor asked Emma about just “what” Clara was, referring to the apparent paradox, to which Emma replied:

“She’s a perfectly ordinary girl. Very pretty, very clever, more scared than she lets on.”

doctor-who-series-7-hide-promo-pics--(20)Cringe! Perfectly ordinary? I know the context there is more towards her being “impossible,” but the same principle applies. It’s not as if she suddenly became a bad assistant, but she gradually— almost seamlessly— went from being brilliant to, as Emma said, “perfectly ordinary.” We don’t need another ‘ordinary assistant’, as we’ve had plenty of those in the past. Clara had just a few separate moments of glory, and the rest is just “clever” rather than flat out “genius.” The opportunity for a gem of an assistant was strongly present, yet she was underused and under-written. Instead, all the focus went to her being the Impossible Girl which just provided a rather intriguing story arc for the season. That’s all well and good but not at all ideal.

I believe the reason for all of this is mostly in the hands of the writers, naturally. Steven Moffat has clearly stated how he “gives the show” to each writer per episode. This is a respectable philosophy, but it can be dangerous. When Moffat wrote Clara for the first few episodes, she turned out brilliantly. Then the various writers took over the show each episode and seemed to write her part for “the assistant” rather than for Clara. That is, her scripting seemed rather generic. Just about any past assistant could have played the part for most of the 7B episodes and it would have fit (though not in context, of course).

Now don’t get me wrong, Jenna Coleman is a fantastic actress. She plays Clara excellently, as the first few episodes prove especially. She isn’t to blame for the misuse of her character, as there’s only so much one can do with their script.

So, though I’m disappointed as to how Clara was handled so far, we still haven’t seen the last of her. There’s a whole new season left with her as the companion, and I sincerely hope the writers will all handle her better and live up to the original potential. Now since she’s been split apart through the Doctor’s time stream, everything that was in the first two versions of her will hopefully be present in the “main” Clara, since they’ve shared the same experiences up to that point. Unfortunately I have my doubts in that area, since Moffat and the other writers will probably be spending most of their efforts developing the new Twelfth Doctor’s personality rather than hers (if Capaldi doesn’t already have it created by then), and her character should have reached its fullest in Series 7B. All in all, I think Clara has turned out to be a very fine companion, though I wish she had been given that extra nudge to absolute brilliance.