‘Doctor Who’ or ‘Clara Who?’
Connor Johnston addresses claims regarding Clara’s “overly significant” role on the show.
Series 8 of Doctor Who has undoubtedly seen an immense level of development and increased presence in the characterisation and writing of Clara Oswald. Sadly, with this influx of attention and improvement there entails a risk that such investment on Clara’s part might take away significance from her many predecessors as well as taking focus off the Doctor himself in his own titular series.
Complaints from certain members of the fandom echo the idea that not only is Clara’s role in the grand narrative of Doctor Who trumping the companions of yesterday’s, but also that the show seems so “overly focused” on Clara that it in essence feels like a series of “Clara Who” rather than Doctor Who. In today’s article we’ll be addressing why I believe these calls are slightly unjustified and that the extent of her role in the show is possibly more familiar than it seems.
It’s All About Perspective
To get my stance out straight away on the matter: No. I don’t believe Clara is characterised to overshine either the Doctor or other companions – not at all. What I do believe is that the contrast between her role in Series 7 and Series 8 has made it seem like she’s had more of a pronounced role this series when actually her development has just been more gradual. For example if you take two glasses of warm water – both at the same temperature, they feel the same to your touch. If however you touch a glass of cold water (Series 7 Clara) before the second glass of warm water, it will feel much hotter to your senses; not because the temperature has changed from the first glass of warm water, but because of the contrast achieved. Hopefully you’ll be able to salvage the point I’m attempting to make (or rather end up a little thirsty) and you’ll see that this contrast is achieved for many reasons; the first being perspective.
Clara in Series 7 is an extraordinary mystery – both to the audience and the Doctor. As such, the amount of character development she indubitably did achieve (Believe it or not – she did) isn’t as initially noticeable due to the fact we are more invested in solving the conundrum rather than appreciating the character. This is for me what makes the “Impossible Girl” arc so rewarding: because with the revelation that Clara hasn’t been the puzzling plot device we were led to believe all along, our perception of the series is completely and utterly changed upon a rewatch. This ensures a completely unique experience in what is usually classed as a repetitive one – a feat in my mind that should be appreciated a little more than it is). Due to the aura of ambiguity to the character, Series 7B was different to other series in it’s feel due to the fact it was being told through the point of view of the Doctor, not the companion. With this, the initial connection the audience feels for a companion through their digestion of the Doctor is lost. It’s an unconventional and long term plan for an unconventional and long term companion – but given the success of Series 8 so far, I’d say it’s a plan that’s slowly, but surely paying off.
Now that Clara’s taken on the traditional expanded development of the companion, she is the window that the audience can peer through and connect to the events of the show through due to Series 8 playing out very much through her own point of view. However, it still feels different to a certain degree in regards to the perspectives we’ve grown accustomed to in the last few series. This doesn’t mean that the focus on Clara is necessarily more than the focus on past companions – but is to be attributed to a less straightforward influence. The companions of New Who have been instantly the most relatable characters on the show for the audience – in the sense that more than anything, we can connect with their humanity.
Looking at the Doctors of the past decade; Peter Capaldi is easily the most “alien” and “enigmatic” incarnation by a mile. Where his predecessor, Matt Smith, achieved the alien nature of the Doctor through his awkwardness, the twelfth Doctor’s realisation of this characteristic is through his somewhat “abruptness”, “cold attitude” and “approachability”… but without losing the occasional charm and lovable qualities that make this THE Doctor. Due to this stressed foreignness of this incarnation, many may find it hard to constantly connect with him, meaning that most of their links to the show are through the character of Clara. This is the origins of the widespread feeling among fans that we are becoming more intimate with Clara and her character rather then Capaldi’s: due to the level of familiarity with the new Doctor being restricted intentionally to achieve not only a contrast between the twelfth Doctor’s character in regards to his predecessors, but also in regards to his relationship with the audience.
An Impossible Impact?
From everything to leading the Doctor to the correct TARDIS, to in essence inspiring the Doctor to become the hero he is in her mind in the concluding scenes of “Listen”, Clara has undoubtedly had quite a substantial amount of impact on the Doctor’s life. Yes Clara has been elevated in that respect – but that does not at all mean she “trumps” any companion that the Doctor’s had before. EVERY companion has had a significant impact on the Doctor’s characterization, looking at New Who alone we can see that each companion has been exactly what the Doctor needed at the moment in time – Rose Tyler saved his war-hardened soul, Martha Jones saved him from heartbreak, Donna Noble and Amelia Pond saved him from loneliness and seclusion, Rory Williams and River Song both reminded the Doctor of how dangerous his reputation can be to both his enemies and his friends – and during this series, Clara Oswald is saving him from himself; both by guiding him as he gets used to and develops his new incarnation and being strong enough to call the Doctor out on is actions and attempt to contain him when he crosses the line. Clara is what the Doctor needs right now so of course she is important! But no more important then her many many predessesors who have each left their definet mark on the Doctor’s character; just as much as Clara will have when she eventually departs.
The Lone Saviour?
Clara Oswald in the Series 7 finale was revealed to be the woman who was “born to save the Doctor” – and in a completely brave and selfless sacrifice, she did more than enough to live up to the name. These courageous actions may seem great in the immediate scheme of the show – but that is only due to the scale of the Great Intelligence’s threat. Not that her actions are cheapened in anyway, but saving the Doctor is not an uncommon feat for the Doctor’s most recent companions. One need only look at EVERY single new series finale bar that of Series 2 and Series 6 for examples of this occurring.
One complaint that I’m personally struggling to be as tolerant of, is the insisting that Clara seems to be continuously saving the day week after week this series – that in the way of the last few plots, she’s even eclipsing the Doctor’s ability to be the “hero” in his own show. Regardless of the Doctor’s very clear distaste in being labelled a hero, one only needs to look at the individual resolutions of the plot to see how incorrect this call is and realise that while Clara’s role in assisting the Doctor has significantly increased then her parts in Series 7; it still rarely breaches the description of a supporting role. The Doctor is still very much the driving force of victory in both the 2013 Specials and Series 8.
- The Day of the Doctor: Clara acts in a way in which any companion or friend would have done; overwhelm by shock and heartbreak over the impossible decision the Doctor is about to make. She doesn’t forcefully change the Doctor’s mind or come up with a solution to save Gallifrey: She reminds him of the reasons she adores and admires him: Because he’s never cruel or cowardly, never gives up and never gives in; and it is the Doctor who finds another way to bring a permanent end to the Time War without the murder of billions of innocents.
- The Time of the Doctor: The extent of Clara’s role here is simply begging the Time lords to help the man she’s seen help so many others. If anything this doesn’t stress her role in saving the Doctor’s life, rather a tribute to the impact the Doctors had on hers and her desperation to not accept a man who has spent 900 year fighting for the lives of the innocent should go without reward.
- Deep Breath/Robot of Sherwood: The level of Clara’s value to “saving the day” hardly surpasses gaining information to strengthen the substance of the plot. With the final resolution being at the hand of either the Doctor in “Deep Breath” or a joint effort in “Robot of Sherwood”.
- Into the Dalek: Clara does contribute to the resolution significantly by rebooting the Daleks memory, but only using the knowledge the Doctor had already explained to her earlier in the episode – and once again it was the Doctor who persuaded the Dalek with his thoughts to destroy the rest of his fleet.
- Listen: “Listen’s” conclusion is unique in the fact that in essence there is no day to save. Rather Clara consoles a child, a young version of the Doctor, inspiring him to become the hero she sees him to be and to not see fear as a destructive voice by echoing the words she heard the Doctor himself use to inspire Rupert.
- Time Heist/The Caretaker/Mummy on the Orient Express: When it comes to the amount of involvement Clara had in the resolution of these 3 episodes, they scarcely exceed the description of following the Doctor’s orders and supporting, lying for and backing him when required.
- Kill the Moon: Logically speaking, “Kill the Moon” is the ONLY episode this series where the resolution can be attributed mainly to Clara’s actions – and even then is it a title she shares with Courtney! Not to mention the incredibly difficult situation having to make this decision put Clara in.
This week sees Clara take a more dominant position in the structure of the plot – as we are faced with an episode that sees the Doctor trapped in the TARDIS and Miss Oswald herself taking on his iconic façade. An episode where the companion takes a prevailing role over the Doctor is not a new idea, but one that has used many times before. “Flatline” looks to be the first time a ‘Clara Who’ comment may be justified – but no more than a “Donna Who” would be suitable during “Turn Left”, “Pond Who” during “The Girl Who Waited” and even a “Martha Who” during “Human Nature”.
The list of benefits that come from a format like “Flatline’s” is almost never ending. An insight into how the Doctor acts when trapped completely alone – that is seeing how the desperation and helplessness effects his attitude – a taste of what a Clara spin-off would be like, a plot to see Clara really step into and exhibit her newly developed independence and strength… The list literally can go on forever! It’s for these reasons and many more “Flatline” was recently voted my own personal “Most Anticipated Episode” of Series 8 Part 2.
The Danny Dilemma
Similarly to the reasoning behind the first point of this article, I believe the reason that Clara’s life outside the TARDIS might feel more upfront then that of other companions is due to the striking contrast to the level that this was explored in her first series and not a contrast to the exterior lives of her forerunners.
In comparison to Rose, Martha or Donna who each had basically their whole family as supporting characters for their time on the show, the most Clara had at her disposal were 2 children she babysat who realistically only featured heavily in one episode, and a trio of immediate family members she hosted for Christmas – who (bar the brilliant and lovable Granny Oswald) failed to make any substantial or memorable performances. While some have branded this exclusion somewhat detrimental to their initial reception of Clara, I personally felt that the decision to wait until her second series to make a substantial dip into Clara’s personal life and more primarily her blossoming relationship with Danny Pink was one made for the better.
Another new addition to Clara’s era is the interconnectedness and maintaining of her career successfully throughout her time aboard the TARDIS which has proven to create an interesting dynamic and overwhelming potential in regards to its setting (already legendary in Doctor Who history). This is without doubt the first time a companion’s career has been so integrated into the shows narrative.
At the end of the day, an individual’s opinion on whether Clara is being overused this series or not is completely objective to both one’s appreciation/fondness of her character as well as the Doctor’s new cold, alien ambiguity. This article was never going to change that, and it never aimed to. Hopefully however, I’ve explored today that the focus and impact of Clara’s is nothing to overshine or “trump” her predecessors – nor to steal the show from the titular role from the Doctor himself; simply a unique take on the companions role that aims to leave a definite and unforgettable legacy behind when the unfortunate but unavoidable day comes when we bid Jenna Coleman adieu. This series, Clara is a character that is a topical and relevant audience substitute who, like us, slowly edges closer getting to know, getting to trust, getting to gain affection for and getting to be challenged by this new, enigmatic and alien incarnation of the Doctor.