Save the Doctor: Rose and Clara — More Importantly, Davies and Moffat
I’ll preface this by saying that I don’t think everything Moffat does is terrible, and I’m the kind of fan that’s pretty willing to go along for the ride and see where the writer is trying to take me. Something about the resolution to Clara’s storyline just drove home what I don’t like about Moffat’s direction, though, and I have some thoughts about why. (Spoilers for The Name of the Doctor below the cut.)
In basic premise, there are a lot of similarities between Clara’s “Impossible Girl” storyline and Rose’s “Bad Wolf” storyline. Both involve the repetition of phrases and references throughout the Doctor’s timeline, ultimately culminating in the revelation that they were created as a means to save the Doctor’s life. Both involve the companions making a great sacrifice, one they are not sure they will survive, to do so. But the approach to the two was very different, and I think it speaks a lot to how differently the companions have been written in each era (and why, ultimately, I have so much trouble connecting emotionally to Moffat’s companions).
Rose looks into the heart of the TARDIS (by opening it up with a truck, mind you — no clever solutions, no alien technology, no secret codes, just the very human solution of more horsepower) and takes the time energy into herself. She spreads the words “Bad Wolf” across the universe, a trail to lead herself back to the Doctor in this moment. Though the Doctor saves her life by taking the energy back from her, Rose living or dying was not necessary to his being saved; she could have died then and still accomplished her goal.
But now we have Clara, who makes that same decision to try to save the Doctor by playing with the time stream. But this sacrifice is very different: rather than taking control of the time stream, Clara is literally torn apart by it. She is scattered across time in pieces, each piece bound to this need to save the Doctor’s various incarnations, to be constantly yelling his name and hoping he’ll hear her, and ultimately to die (over and over again) unless he manages to save her.
To be fair, Clara knows that this is what will happen, and she makes her own choice to do so. But unlike Rose, Clara’s ability to save the Doctor is defined by the Doctor's actions: to hear her, to listen to her, and to save her life. Instead of becoming a powerful hero, Clara becomes a companion in need of saving stuck on repeat. The Doctor looking for Clara is dependent upon his decision to try to save (and fail at saving) her. Her various incarnations do not know why they are trying to save the Doctor (literally “I don’t know where I am”), and as such they lose their agency.
Rose leaves a message for herself; Clara leaves a message for the Doctor.
Maybe for some that is a subtle distinction, but for me it has been incredibly important in the development of Eleven’s companions. For Nine and Ten, the series revolved around the growth of his companions, and how that growth ultimately made him a better person in return. The importance of the companions was not in any great plot or conspiracy, but in their ability to prove that a person’s capacity for doing great things comes not from the time or place of their birth, not from the extent of their knowledge or education, not from their access to resources, but from within. This is the message that made me fall in love with Doctor Who, and for me the series is at its best when it remains true to that message.
Unfortunately, Moffat’s companions are rarely given the opportunity to own their individual importance and power. In almost all cases, their importance in the universe is not innate, but wrapped up in some larger plot (Amy’s life is disappearing, Amy is part of the Silence’s plot, Rory has been turned into a plastic soldier, Rory is a paradox, Clara is a great mystery). Moffat’s companions lose the story of individual potential for greatness by serving as accessories to the plot, rather than the plot serving as their stage. Their importance feels contrived. And the Doctor consistently treats companions as mysteries to be investigated and solved, instead of people to admire and learn from.
The Time Lords’ great mistake, the thing that poisoned their society and ultimately destroyed them, was believing that their knowledge and technology made them more valuable than the rest of the universe. The interaction of the Doctor and his companions, for me, is a beautiful illustration of humanity demonstrating to the Doctor that what he was raised to believe is incredibly flawed. When he travels alone is when he forgets it, when he goes back to that ingrained line of thinking, when his socialization comes out (The Waters of Mars being the key example). The Doctor needs companions because they make him a better version of a Time Lord.
Ironically, Moffat is making the same mistake the Time Lords did: he’s made the Doctor the most important thing in the universe, and his companions accessories to this end.
I wish Clara could have become a hero instead of a perpetual sacrifice.
I miss the companions that were beautiful and important simply by virtue of being people.