Doctor Who: Why Now Is the Perfect Time to Give Jenna Coleman's Clara a Second Chance
Much has been said about Jenna Coleman's Doctor Who companion Clara Oswald since she joined the cast in the middle of Season 7 following the departure of fan-favorite Amy Pond (Karen Gillan). Her appearance in the Season 7 premiere as Oswin Oswald had been a pleasant surprise; it felt like a promise of exceptionally good things to come. She was intelligent, charming, and witty, and she seemed like a perfect companion for the Doctor. The same air of possibility surrounded her portrayal of Clara Oswin Oswald in "The Snowmen," but once Coleman officially joined the series as the Doctor's companion in "The Bells of Saint John," it became clear that there were some lingering issues with her character—namely, that the writers intended for her to be yet another riddle that needed solving, rather than an actual living, breathing human being. She wasn't a character or a companion, but a typical Doctor Who mystery, stretched out over an entire season under the guise of a companion.
In a voiceover during "The Name of the Doctor," Clara said, "I was born to save the Doctor, but the Doctor is safe now. I’m the Impossible Girl, and my story is done." Clara's story wasn't over (it'd barely begun), but the Impossible Girl mystery was finally solved when she jumped into the Doctor's timestream. Unfortunately, that line gave many viewers the impression that Clara's sole purpose in life was to save a man, which I think we all know by now is not exactly how most writers would want one of their characters to be perceived. And now that Peter Capaldi has taken over the role of the Doctor, and Clara's mysterious backstory has (mostly) been unlocked, it's time for Coleman and Doctor Who's writers to ensure that the character evolves into an independent human who's capable of existing outside of what she can do for the Time Lord. If we only have until Christmas with Coleman—rumors of her departure have yet to be confirmed—now is the time for the show to develop her a bit, to dig into her life. And for us, as viewers, to give her another chance.
The simple fact that Coleman entered the world of Doctor Who as a companion to Eleven who wasn't Amy Pond was a major hurdle for the character, which is something I've touched on before. However, as was the case with many companions before her, the character's flaws are largely rooted in lazy writing. Her arc as the Impossible Girl made her into more of a puzzle than a person, just like Amy's arc as the Girl Who Waited sometimes reduced her to being little more than a plot device. But of course, Amy had Rory and they had lives outside and away from the Doctor during their tenure in the TARDIS.
Looking back at the second half of Season 7, it seems that Doctor Who mistook Clara's quick wit and appearance of independence—she was a teacher who didn't travel with the Doctor at all times—for inner resilience. For someone who'd risked her life to save the Doctor time and again, this current incarnation of Clara felt like she was merely reacting to things that happened to her, rather than playing a role in them. She didn't have the strength of, say, Oswin, the first character Coleman portrayed. And she certainly didn't measure up to those who came before her.
Each of New Who's companions have had their strengths: Amy was fierce and sassy, Martha (Freema Agyeman) was intelligent and level-headed, and Rose (Billie Piper), well, she had the advantage of being the first companion of this new era. She was strong in her convictions, and she added an emotional element to the series. But the only companion who I've ever seen as a truly independent, strong, and powerful woman was Catherine Tate's Donna Noble. Donna didn't have her personal life together—like, at all—yet she also never felt like a character who needed saving by the Doctor, at least not in the normal sense of the word. She was confident enough to stand up to him, she wasn't shy about calling him out for being an idiot, and she refused to be anything other than his equal.
Meanwhile, we know that companions can change. Martha—who some fans initially saw as weak but who generally became pretty awesome—eventually realized that her place was not at the Doctor's side and had the strength to depart. And I think Clara could, and should, follow a similar path, especially now that she's no longer starring opposite Matt Smith's younger-looking, "possible boyfriend material" Doctor (and because I want to see her come into her own, not because I want her to leave the show). She's capable of being more than just a flirty girl in short skirts, and she's definitely capable of being more than just the Impossible Girl.
In the recent Season 8 premiere, "Deep Breath," as Clara struggled to come to terms with the Doctor's regeneration, she also found a voice. The moment when she believed that Capaldi's Doctor had left her to fend for herself was a turning point, because it forced Clara to finally become an active participant in her own life. She stopped being the Impossible Girl and became Clara, a human being who needed to figure out how to escape the unfortunate predicament she'd found herself in. By flashing back to a moment separate from her previous journeys with the Doctor, a moment in which she'd learned something on her own without his help, Clara was able to stall for time. She was, for all she knew, on her own—and even though she later came to realize the Doctor would always have her back, as we all knew he would, the short stint we spent alone with Clara and the droid was enough to make Clara feel like she existed outside the realm of the Doctor. All of a sudden, she felt like an intelligent and bold character worthy of traveling with the Doctor.
All of which is to say that somewhere within Clara, there's a spark—and now is the perfect time for Steven Moffat and the rest of Doctor Who's writers to step up and take advantage of the new dynamic between Coleman and Capaldi. If Season 8 really is going to be darker than previous seasons, it should also make a point to develop Clara into a woman who stands on her own, without naiveté. If she can shed her reputation of being a riddle or a damsel in distress, viewers will finally be able to see her as an actual human being. Clara is clever and she has spunk, and if given the opportunity, I think she can become someone we really care about. Doctor Who's writers just need to be brave enough to create a female character who can exist independently of the Doctor, but who also guides and helps him when necessary.
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