Friday, 17 July 2015

The Many Faces of Clara Oswald

“Clara is just a plot device in a skirt!”

This is a criticism which was thrown a lot at Clara in Series 7. One which holds water at a glance. But especially given what we learn about her character in Series 8, I believe there is plenty of room for interpretation in both hers and The Doctor’s actions and attitudes which, even if not intentional, may help someone enjoy her arc on a deeper level.

First I want to address the criticism of Moffat that his companions, and Clara in particular, aren’t normal enough; to do that I think we need to look at The Doctor. One of Eleven’s defining character traits (or tawdry quirks) has been picking out details which aren’t what they seem – he is exceptionally analytical and a strategic thinker. But he has been known to miss the obvious by wanting to make it clever. Emotions also get the better of him, and following The Angels Take Manhattan, he is both grieving and has lost the people who usually call him out for making those mistakes.

Even under normal circumstances it would be very much in-character for Eleven to be attracted to someone who is a ‘puzzle’, just as it was in-character for Nine and Ten to latch on to ‘normal’ humans in an attempt to rebuild a sense of belonging following the Time War. But here, Eleven’s grief gets the better of him and he distracts himself via his fascination with the mystery of the impossible girl – overcomplicating it and frequently forgets the woman behind it.

Now there is a lot of wiggle room in this post, but this I definitely think was intentional because The Doctor is called out for it repeatedly, by Emma Grayling, Clara herself, and Madame Vastra. But even as late as Nightmare in Silver it is clear he is preoccupied by the version of the impossible girl he has constructed. And because he does, so do we.

But post-Series 8, I can’t help but think part of the reason why we as an audience and The Doctor fall for this so well is because Clara is complicit in in too. It’s not just The Doctor being paranoid or obsessed, Clara IS suspiciously perfect when we meet her in The Bells of Saint John. Smart, witty, caring. Maybe it’s me being a cynical Sandra, but given what we learn of her as an “egomaniac needy game-player” in Series 8 I think it’s very significant that she so directly ticks the boxes. She’s trying to.

When The Doctor meets Clara, she’s a 20-something who is a bit lost. She quite clearly has aspirations higher than looking after the Maitlands but something has set her back. The death of her mother, perhaps? Not enough light is thrown on the events surrounding that but I suspect that Clara sought comfort in being there for other people; from the control that gave her over her circumstance (note how determined she is that she’s “still going”). From that moment, she was putting up a mask, and she became terrifyingly good at it.

What The Doctor offers her at the end of The Bells of Saint John is not just an escape into the unknown. Compared to being trapped by her situation at the Maitlands, The Doctor represents freedom and also control over her circumstances. She doesn't even agree to travel until after getting The Doctor to ask her again, on her terms.

But what happens then? Clara doesn’t need to please everyone at home if she’s travelling through all time and space. While hinted at in Bells, The Rings of Akhaten makes clear that Clara is a fan of stories and their tropes. She inspires Merry with a tale from her own childhood, and recognises the power of symbolism where The Doctor does not when it comes to defeating Akhaten. With only The Doctor to impress (I hate to say it but she does quite clearly fancy Eleven) and a wealth of fairy tale tropes to fall back on, it seems that Clara starts to develop a persona as a classic hero: going as far as defeating an ancient god n her first adventure! I've said before that Akhaten could have served well as a series finale, and may well have benefited from Clara's sadly overlooked backstory with her mother having more room to develop. A young girl heroically saves the world by coming to terms with the death of her mother; emotional gestures expanded into universe defining events. That is the essence of Doctor Who for me and Clara begins embodying those ideals here.

After Akhaten we have Cold War. This is one of my least favourite episodes but the experience screams to the very self-aware Clara one thing: “You are out of your depth!” There's a trend in Series 7 of Clara deliberately putting herself into scary or dangerous situations and evaluating herself afterwards, and it begins here: She’s quick to volunteer herself to stand up to Skaldak and play hero but, as Grisenko points out, she’s the monkey and not the organ grinder. The claustrophobic atmosphere reinforces her terror. She’s not as naturally brave or bold as previous companions, but Clara's savvy allows her to recognise this, and her thirst for control compels her to address it.

Which leads us directly into Hide. After struggling with fear, she faces it head on. Scared and really enjoying it. There’s a lot to say about Hide which gives us a great insight into Clara – her unique wisdom shines repeatedly; her passion is shown in her struggle to accept “we’re all ghosts”; her ruthlessness comes forward in quite a scary way towards Emma when she needs the well re-opened. Her aggression towards an exhausted Emma here is like nothing else we see of Clara, and it betrays the high standards she expects of the world around her, the story she expects it to tell, and the control she is compelled to exercise when things go wrong. While I have my issues with Hide too, it does an excellent job of Clara finding her place as a companion. She realises some realities of The Doctor and accepts her fears at the same time, and I don't believe any other companion would have taken lessons from this adventure as Clara does.

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS makes one of the clearest cases for Clara actively trying to fashion herself, and does so while again showcasing her attachment to stories. Her control freak emerges as she assaults The Doctor for not fitting the role she’s expecting him to, for it is “Rule one, basic storytelling”! It’s also worth noting that The Doctor is made aware of his poor attitude towards Clara in the ‘snarl’ scene when he realises she at least isn't knowingly a trap for him. While still obsessed with The Impossible Girl, he is noticeably nicer to her from here.

Something I think is very telling of Clara’s personality is that she would rather take the Maitlands on the TARDIS than allow them to rat her out. Again, it’s an exercise in control and it foreshadows the issues she will have with Danny in Series 8.

Nightmare in Silver and The Name of The Doctor both show Clara at her peak. She explicitly plays leader in the former (with notably greater success and confidence than before), at times seeming to forget what danger she and her wards are in (which resurfaces in the otherwise pants In the Forest of The Night). But it’s not until the latter she becomes a hero: a selfless sacrifice to save the universe and her love interest, she even makes her dramatic exit with a catchphrase! She has kept up the perfect 21st century woman mask, but by this point it has blended seamlessly with her idea of the hero. This leads to the creation of her echoes in The Snowmen and Asylum of the Daleks: which are almost caricatures of Clara’s bravery, confidence, and - in different ways for both echoes - her ability to put up a mask.

I won’t go too deep into her arc in Series 8, but the addiction to adventure she admits to in Mummy on the Orient Express, the troubles she has in maintaining a double life in The Caretaker, and the habit of lying throughout are all foreshadowed in Series 7. Her enjoyment of danger, her flashes of ruthlessness, and of course the existence of the masks in the first place all lend themselves to the actions and arguments she has in Series 8. The relatively uncompromised nature of the Twelfth Doctor and her growing comfortability as companion is what allows her to push those boundaries.

What interests the most about Clara is that her positive traits and her flaws emerge from the same place: Her wisdom, savvy, and perfectionism can make her an effective carer, teacher, and altruist. But under stress, can equally make her bossy, ruthless, and controlling. It's a very realistic and interesting way to build a character and while I don't always like Clara, I don't believe it's fair to call her a badly written character.

What will happen next excites me. Following Dark Water, she pretty much could get away with anything and The Doctor would stand by her. Losing Danny severs most of her deeper connections with Earth.  From small hints of promo I think we’re going to see the halcyon days of their relationship, and Clara might possibly become a bit lost and consumed by it. I wouldn't even be surprised if she starts to develops into a more reckless person, if the implications of the climax of Last Christmas are anything to go by.