The latest season of Doctor Who has been terrible, and there is one person to blame: Clara
I fell in love with Doctor Who relatively recently with the arrival of the Doctor's latest actor, Matt Smith and the marvelous “Impossible Astronaut” storyline that took viewers on a sweeping journey through space, time and spacetime with lovable characters and epic battles. Everyone has their first doctor, and the first story that gets them hooked. These were mine.
The current season, unfortunately, has not come close to living up to that precedent, and it's being dragged down by one of its lamest characters in years.
It was extremely disappointing to go from that high point to the current season where I've found the series falling into a creative drought. The show had just (mostly) abandoned three major characters (Amy, Rory, and River, all of whom were powerful tools for leveraging the Doctor's wit,) and in their place came Clara.
Are you there, Doctor? It's me, Clara
At first blush, Clara seemed to be a perfectly decent person, but as the episodes wore on it became abundantly clear that Clara was barely even a character. Clara is the show's most recent major problem. One reviewer called her a “cardboard cutout,” and multiple episodes prove that statement to ridiculous extremes.
For instance, in the episode “Cold War,” the Doctor is engaged in negotiations with a Martian warlord while trapped aboard a Soviet submarine in 1983 (it's a long story.) Clara is chosen as the person to speak to the enraged warlord (because she's non-threatening, of course.) Rather than let her speak for herself, the Doctor outfits her with an earpiece and she's told to repeat everything he says verbatim, which she does dutifully.
Her character is reduced to a ventriloquist dummy.
In the latest episode, “The Crimson Horror,” she literally spends half of the 45 minute story frozen expressionless like a doll. Most of the character's problems aren't as readily apparent as those two symbolic examples though.
She's introduced to the show as a mysterious recurring character who continuously dies and is born again in different time periods. The Doctor takes her under his wing in order to learn who or what she truly is.
It's an interesting conceit, but the show has gone out of its way to void all of her previous incarnations by explaining that this version of Clara is a completely unique and new person. So everything that had been learned about the character's personality prior to this is essentially meaningless, and they're starting from scratch.
That might have been fine if they'd devoted appreciable time to actually getting to know the new Clara. However, it is now six episodes into this eight episode storyline, and we know nothing about her. Her defining characteristics are that she is obedient, nurturing, and…that's about it. She works as a nanny when the Doctor first meets her, and that sums up the extent of her character thus far: a concerned caretaker.
She has no living family to miss or to miss her. She has no attachments of any kind. She has virtually nothing in her life that makes her recognizably human. Ultimately, this may be a plot point hinting at her true identity (maybe she truly isn't human after all) but it's not an excuse for hinging the show around a weak, uninspired, unmotivated character. We have to have some reason to care, and right now there are none.
There's a reason why Doctor Who always features companions, characters who travel with the Doctor on his adventures. They give the viewer something recognizably human to latch onto, to identify with in the midst of insanity. They are our eyes and ears into his world. Thus far, Clara has failed in that capacity, and that role has had to be filled by one-off single episode characters who have managed to be more fleshed out in their lone appearances than Clara has been in six combined.
There's Stepashin, the fiercely patriotic Soviet submariner who colludes with the previously mentioned Martian warlord to ignite the Cold War. There's Tricky van Baalen, the space junk miner who is tricked by his brothers into thinking he's a non-human, sentient android after an accident in order to allow his brother to control the family business. Or even the comparably thin Alec Palmer, the ghost hunting psychologist haunted by a past as a saboteur in World War II. These characters are motivated, sympathetic, and human. That's more than we can say for Clara.
When you contrast Clara with past companions it becomes clear just how badly her character has been mishandled.
Take, for instance, the previous co-star, Amy Pond. By the end of her first episode we already have a huge amount of history with the character. She meets the Doctor as a child and agrees to fly away with him in the TARDIS, but the Doctor makes a mistake and comes back 12 years later instead of 5 minutes later.
In the intervening 12 years, Amy talks and dreams about the Doctor constantly. She's bullied for it and sent to psychologists. Though only a few minutes of time have passed in the show, we already understand one of the primary influences of her entire life, and sympathize with her struggle to be believed and taken seriously.
The theme of Amy's tenure on the show is that she essentially lives her life with us on screen. From the time she's a child we have an understanding of what life has been like for her, and through her adventures on the show we watch as she develops through some of her life's most defining moments. She discovers the universe, she gets married, she becomes a mother, she grows old more than once.
The show focused on building Amy as a character by putting her through true joy and suffering. The show was stronger for it. By contrast, Clara feels abandoned, as though the writers knew how to tell the tale of her mysterious origins, and how to reveal her identity in the upcoming finale, but had no ideas for the intervening time. These middle episodes have felt like place holders, one-off stories with no true ties to the plot or developments for either the Doctor or Clara.
There are only two episodes left to go until the season finale, and so my hopes are relatively low for a strong turn around. However, the show has one more ace up its sleeve, and it's going to have to save the entire season: an epic-looking episode penned by none other than sci-fantasy legend Neil Gaiman, whose previous work on Doctor Who has been brilliant.
Unfortunately, it may be too late, even for a luminary like Gaiman to save a show with no particularly interesting characters. Clara may yet have an interesting pay off, but it will take nothing short of a miracle to make it happen. The Doctor will survive these missteps, but this season has been a low point in the history of the show.