Tuesday, November 11, 2014

How to Ruin A Female Character in One Easy Step

I love and staunchly defend female characters in my favorite television series. Why? Because they need defending, quite frankly. There are a lot of male writers and a lot of female writers who try to do justice to characters -- who portray women as layered, vastly complex, and intensely passionate. I love those writers. But there are a lot of writers who write the women in their television shows or movies more like archetypes than actual human beings. They write the mean cheerleaders and the nerdy girls and the "sluts," and the overachievers and if you line up these women from these movies and television shows side-by-side, you'll find that a lot of them look fairly identical. There is nothing that distinguishes one of them from another. That's when I get upset and frustrated and just plain sad.

Doctor Who has always had an array of strong female characters. There was Rose Tyler, a seemingly unassuming girl who worked in a shop and loved to eat chips, but who eventually became the defender of Earth. Then there was Martha Jones, brilliant and beautiful scientist who didn't abandon The Doctor in his time of need but ended up being brave enough to walk away from him. Donna Noble was loud and wonderful -- a woman who wanted to be something more than a failure in the eyes of her mother and who ended up saving the entire world and never remembering how remarkable and integral she was. Then there was Amy Pond, the girl with the dreams and her Raggedy Doctor; a woman who learned how to better love Rory and herself. And we had River Song, the kick-butt action hero of the group who also was vulnerable and cheeky. Then there was Clara Oswald, the souffle girl and the enigma and the sassy (tiny) woman who challenged and fascinated The Doctor. Now, none of those women was perfect. I'm not here to argue that Doctor Who always does a perfect job at portraying women -- sometimes it fails rather spectacularly, sometimes women are portrayed as just okay, and sometimes the female portrayal is awesome. But since the show is pretty vast, it DOES do a great job at incorporating an array of women at least.

Clara was in the running for my favorite companion (Rose Tyler will always, probably, be my favorite), and if you read that sentence again, you'll notice that I use the past tense. That -- as you also probably gathered from the title -- is because this season of Doctor Who ruined Clara Oswald for me (and my extremely intelligent best friend and co-Who viewing partner, Simi, who will be referenced quite frequently in this post). So below, I'm going to talk a LOT about Doctor Who, a lot about Clara, and a lot about the writing of this season. After all, series eight definitely followed a how-to book in the writing room: How to Ruin A Female Character in One Easy Step.

So how do you accomplish that? Let's begin!

#1: Remove everything unique about the character and have her "journey" be focused on pursuing a man, thus weakening her character and increasing the potential for contradictory behavior, "love triangles," and "Edward Cullen-ing."

Do you remember when Clara Oswald was an enigma? When she challenged The Doctor, but loved him, just the same? Do you remember when Clara was this small but bold force to be reckoned with? I'm sure that some people argue she still is and they'll cite episodes like "Dark Waters" and all the yelling that she does at Twelve throughout the series as evidence of that. But let me tell you something, friends: Clara Oswald isn't strong, in my opinion, from a writing standpoint. And she's not unique. At least not anymore.

When Clara was introduced to Doctor Who, she was introduced as a mystery to be solved by Eleven. And that was fine because Clara was interesting. She had substance. Most importantly, though, she had morals and standards and codes and a personality to rival any other companion. I knew that the dynamic between Clara and The Doctor would shift in series eight because of the introduction of Capaldi. And when I watched "Deep Breath," I was severely disappointed in the regression of Clara as a character. She was petty. She was childish. She wanted her young, cute Doctor back and the only reason she (reluctantly) accepted Twelve was because Eleven called her and told her that she needed to.

Was this the same woman who stopped three Doctors from destroying Gallifrey just a few episodes before? Was this the same woman who clung to the edge of the TARDIS because she deserved a proper goodbye? Was this the same resilient, compassionate woman we had seen throughout her journey with Eleven? I asked myself those questions during the series eight premiere and the episode disappointed me with its answers. Still, I love Doctor Who so I gave the series the benefit of the doubt -- it's difficult to introduce a new Doctor and an old companion. They would fix it. Clara would grow and progress and continue to become the strong, self-sufficient, loving, and loyal companion I fell in love with.

But then something happened. Then Danny Pink was introduced. Let me pause for a moment because I have to ask myself this question: what was the point of this character? Why did Danny need to exist in this series of Doctor Who and why, moreover, did Clara Oswald -- the woman who jumped into a freaking timestream knowing full well she could die and be splintered and never return whole again from her journey but she did it anyway because SHE LOVED THE DOCTOR THAT MUCH AND WANTED TO SAVE HIM THAT MUCH -- need a boyfriend? Danny Pink was not necessary in series eight and here is why: when you look at the purpose he served (I use that term loosely because I argue that he served no purpose), that role could have been filled by any other character in the series.

Thematically in series eight, Doctor Who was a hot mess. Yes, there were questions of identity. Yes, there were themes of war and of soldiers. Yes, there were questions of morality (but there are always questions of morality in this show) and lying. But they were strewn about in each episode, not really ever quite coming to a sensible resolution. Moreover, the questions themselves were never really answered. It's the Doctor Who method of operation, I know. You can argue that Moffat has been doing this for years, you can argue that Russell T. Davies did it before him. And I would likely agree with you.

But much like Community's later seasons, the writers were better at hiding gaping holes in other season than they were in this one. The characters were better written, more coherent and unique. In series eight, the writing butchered Clara Oswald and as a result, I was so focused on the poor writing that I was able to take a step back and see just how many holes there were that I had never noticed before because I had been fangirling over how amazing Clara Oswald was and how great Eleven was and how great everything was to actually take notice and realize how... well, NOT great things were.

(And look, don't get me started on the "theme" of Missy/heaven, which was not really a theme or a plot point, but served more as a coda for a few episodes, was dropped for a few more, and then centered on for an entire two-part finale.)

But back to Danny Pink, for a moment: the writing of Danny/Clara sunk this season for me and actually, it more than just sunk the season. It made me bitter toward Clara. It made me angry toward Danny. And it had me aching for Twelve who, by the end of the finale, I just wanted to hug and never let go. (That's positive, at least. Don't say I never said anything positive about this season!) Moffat tried to make Danny and Clara the new Rory/Amy or the new Mickey/Rose. Here's the problem with doing that: Rory and Mickey were infinitely more fleshed-out, more sympathetic, and more real than Danny Pink. Furthermore, Rory and Mickey served as AMAZING counterparts to Amy and Rose. Rory Williams made Amy more bearable in times where she was too harsh or calloused (also, Rory was freaking BRAVE). Mickey was heroic but also sympathetic -- Jackie and Rose really loved him and he didn't berate Nine or Ten (Nine and Mickey made fun of each other endlessly, but it was lighthearted and there was always a mutual respect there). Mickey accepted Rose traveling with The Doctor. He knew he could never have the same relationship with her that he once did.

(And then he found Martha in the end and it was perfect and wonderful and amazing.)

Let's break down the reasons why a female character gets butchered in a series (any series) because of a man:

A) Her stories focus on her relationship, not her as an individual. Everything about Clara post-dating Danny in this series about Doctor Who was about... Danny. A few episodes in ("The Caretaker"), we were expected not just to believe that Clara was in love with Danny but now, somehow, we had to love him too. And why were we expected to love him, class? Well, because Clara did! That makes sense, right? (No, no it does not.)

Rose's journey and Donna's journey as companions was quite similar: they embarked with The Doctor because they wanted more out of their lives. They wanted to never have to go back to working in shops or being temps. They wanted to live life and live it to the fullest and they knew that staying on Earth couldn't do that. Martha wanted to feel special and valued and the moment she realized she would never be completely valued by The Doctor the way she needed to, the way she DESERVED to, she left. (All of the applause for Martha freaking Jones having the same strength Felicity Smoak did in walking away from the person she loved most because she knew she deserved better in life. Seriously, chills.) Amy Pond? Amy Pond wanted adventure with her Raggedy Doctor -- her constant companion and best friend. Eleven was Amy's security blanket. He's the only Doctor who has ever spanned a companion's entire life and that is why Eleven and Amy were always bonded in a way that no other Doctor and companion possibly could be. Amy and Rory wanted adventures but they wanted to save the world and save people and FEEL things.

I don't understand why Clara needed a boyfriend this year. The best reasoning I can come up with is that Moffat didn't want to introduce a potential romance between an older Doctor and a younger companion and so he threw an additional character in to make things less awkward. (Which made things worse because Clara Oswald never needed a boyfriend and WHY SHOULD SHE? SHE IS AMAZING AS SHE IS.) My problem was that Doctor Who told us that Danny was a fix to something that wasn't broken in the first place; that he was the missing piece of a puzzle or of Clara's life. In reality, her entire "journey" (if you want to call it that) was about struggling between lying to Danny about traveling with The Doctor and being a normal schoolteacher (... which she suddenly loved so passionately and we were expected to believe would never want to leave?).

Was there a Clara story -- really, was there? -- this season that wasn't a Danny/Clara story at its core? (No. The answer is no.)

B) Introducing love interests is tricky at best, because in a series that features people traveling with another man, you risk Edward Cullen-ing your love interest. It's like Clara Oswald was a puppet controlled by Danny Pink this season. My best friend Simi and I have always watched Doctor Who together and this year, we both were severely disappointed in the series' trajectory with Danny/Clara.

When Simi brought up this excellent point, my blood boiled: whenever Danny was around, Clara NEVER defended The Doctor. On two occasions ("The Caretaker" and "Death in Heaven" at the graveyard), Danny mocked Twelve with salutes and calling him "sir." (The scene in the TARDIS still induces rage from me, so much so that Simi and I had to spend an extra HOUR after the episode ended until our voices were raw yelling about it.) And in those moments, Clara didn't try to stand up for her supposed "best friend." She never told Danny -- in front of Twelve -- what kind of man The Doctor really was. Instead, she stayed mute and let Danny decimate The Doctor.

That enrages me because I'm supposed to believe that Clara Oswald -- the woman who so staunchly defended and protected and loved Eleven -- would care so little for Twelve because he has a different face that she would let someone in her life tear him down, repeatedly, and say absolutely NOTHING. It infuriates me. Oh, yes, in private, Clara talks about her "love" for The Doctor. But when it comes time to put that love into practice -- to put her belief in him into practice -- she fails him every time in series eight. Why is that? Why is that necessary? Did she fail him continually in series seven? Or was she loyal and patient and loving and strong and good and hopeful and determined and resilient?

See, in series eight, Clara Oswald became this petulant child of a character, waffling back and forth between her desire to travel and Danny Pink. In turn, the show managed to Edward Cullen-ize Danny, somehow making Twelve the target of his anger and bitterness. Those moments where he mocks Twelve? The moments he insults him and berates him? Danny's mistrust of him? Where do they stem from? Self-hatred, perhaps, but I think they stem from the fact that Clara constantly goes off on adventures with him. Danny gives Clara this weirdly possessive ultimatum in "The Caretaker" where he tells her that if things ever become too unbearable with Twelve -- because my god, Twelve just treated her SO horribly, you know? (I am inflecting. That is not how he treated her at all.) -- that she needed to tell him.

... Why? Why did Clara need to tell Danny Pink what was happening between her and The Doctor? Why did he care? Why was it any, frankly, of his business? Oh, right. Because he's the love interest and we are supposed to believe that because he is her love interest, his weird possessiveness and insistence that she tell him if it's becoming too much to travel with The Doctor or they're through -- yes, he gives her an ultimatum and it made me ragey -- comes from a place of caring. Which, I'm sorry, but everything about that scene and the episode and Danny Pink himself screams "Edward Cullen."

And for the record, did you see Rory making ultimatums when his fiance -- HIS FIANCE -- traveled with Eleven? No, we saw Rory standing up for himself and for Amy and for their relationship but we never saw the The Doctor as some obstacle in their romance. The disappointing and maddening thing about series eight was that Doctor Who told us that The Doctor was a threat to Clara's ultimate happiness and to LOVE and ultimately, Clara chose Danny over The Doctor each time. Moreover, it told us that Danny was being romantic and that he "cared" about and "loved" Clara so much that he wanted to control her time spent with The Doctor. The series Edward Cullen-ized him for me, quite frankly: to the untrained eye, he was supposed to be this loving, trusting, caring boyfriend but in actuality, he was weirdly possessive over a woman HE HAD NOT BEEN DATING ALL THAT LONG TO BEGIN WITH and threatened by The Doctor. So instead of maturity, Danny displayed possessiveness and Clara chose him over The Doctor, even in those moments in the graveyard.

C) Clara's regression due to her relationship with Danny caused her to spiral until she was literally a walking contradiction and a weak character. I abhorred the writing ins series eight because it made Clara a walking contradiction which did not, in fact, make her a stronger character but a weaker one. At the end of the finale, I literally turned to Simi and said: "Why does Twelve love her so much anyway? Why even bother saving her when she keeps turning her back on him after giving that 'loyalty' speech to Cyberman!Danny?" (Simi couldn't give me an answer.)

Why is it, may I ask, that Clara was so loyal to Eleven but not Twelve? Eleven and Twelve are the same person -- same Doctor, different face -- but what frustated me so much was that Clara seemed to magically forget that The Doctor has never been a saint. Eleven lied to people for the sake of the greater good. Eleven wasn't a saint or a hero. Eleven could be self-sabotaging and yet at the very end of his life ("The Time of the Doctor"), Clara clung to him and would not let him be alone. Why, then, the about-face in series eight with her? Why did she suddenly seem to have no memories of the man she once knew and loved and traveled time and space with? Why did she reject him? Why did she look him in the eyes -- this man she knew so well that in "The Day of the Doctor", told The War Doctor that she could see HER Doctor in his eyes -- and then turn around and stab him repeatedly in the back this season? Why did she refuse to say, for certain, what kind of man he was?

And why did Clara keep coming back after yelling at him? ("Kill the Moon" and "Mummy On the Orient Express") The problem with this series was that Clara's "strength" in turning away and choosing to live a life with Danny and not travel with The Doctor was undercut by this desperate return she always made. She lied to Danny to travel with Twelve, lied to Twelve to protect Danny, lied to herself about how much she loved Twelve, and just kept waffling. (And then, what about the moment that Clara thought she drugged Twelve and forced him to bring Danny back by throwing away all of the TARDIS keys into the lava of a volcano? Ugh, that scene was heartbreaking to watch because Clara pushed herself further and further to the edge of her morality -- for DANNY -- and then broke everything about herself she believed in. She would have hurt The Doctor because he didn't do what she wanted him to and I know it's not fair to compare because they were different circumstances, but God, you never saw Amy Pond behave that way when she lost Rory or Rory behave that way when he lost Amy in "Amy's Choice." We've seen companions do some desperate things but they were all pretty within their characterizations. We've never seen a companion go from zero to sixty quite like Clara did this year.

She loved Twelve and wanted him until she didn't. And Twelve -- bless his heart -- kept coming back for her. At the end of the journey, Clara said that Twelve made her feel special and Twelve said that she made him feel special which is... the biggest load of crap I've ever heard. They both spent their very last moments lying to each other (him about finding and visiting Gallifrey and his future plans; her about meeting and reuniting with Danny). What, might I ask, was so strong about Clara's final moments? What was strong about her character? (Nothing. Nothing was.) And the thing that pains me is that Twelve thought she was the kind of person who would love him no matter what. Clara loved him until he changed faces. Then she saw him, not as her beloved Doctor, but as a stranger. And she continued to treat him like that -- like a strange person who she held at arm's length -- the remainder of the series.

I took issues with the writing of Clara's character this season because she wanted The Doctor to allow her to make her own decisions but then when he did, she berated him (like in "Kill the Moon," for instance) and threatened to leave. Could you imagine if The Doctor hadn't "abandoned" the women? Clara still would have been telling him what he should do -- like she did in "The Day of the Doctor" when the three Doctors paused in pressing the red button to destroy Gallifrey because Eleven noticed that she was crying. The companions have always had this knack for reminding The Doctor of his humanity. They tell him what is good and what he knows is right and he does it. The moment that the fate of the world is left in the hands of Clara, she grows irate with The Doctor. Because he trusted her and "abandoned" her and she almost made the wrong decision. He knew that she wouldn't, because you see... The Doctor had immense faith in Clara this season (to the point of self-harm, as Missy/The Master noted astutely in the finale), while Clara had no faith in herself and no faith in The Doctor... this man who she supposedly cared for and who made her "feel special."

(And look, Clara has some abandonment issues which are understandable, but also made her resilient last year -- you know, that fear actually made her a stronger character because it taught her to fight back against it -- but this year, those issues made her an annoyance, to me, because of all the waffling).

D) The writers proved to me this year that the only way Clara could be interesting anymore or of value as a companion was if she has a boyfriend to make her interesting, and that ultimately Danny would always be more important to her than the man she jumped into her own timestream to save. The whole Danny/Clara of it all was the focus of series eight, so much so that it eclipsed the questions of whether or not Twelve was a good man (questions only actually uttered in about two episodes before the finale), and made The Master's re-emergence feel like a half-baked coda (we spent a few episodes in a row in "heaven," dropped it for a few more until we really didn't care about it and then BAM, the entire two-part finale was centered around a thing we -- or I, at least -- wasn't really all that curious about to begin with). The thing is, we've had companions before -- married companions -- who have traveled with The Doctor in new Who and though the stories were about them, they were also about humanity. They were about suffering and love and loss.

Why couldn't series eight be more of the same? (Oh, right. Because Danny Pink was horrible. #sorrynotsorry) The problem with this series of Doctor Who was that it ruined Clara Oswald for me. It regressed her from this powerful, take-charge, strong character to a woman who allowed Danny to impact her treatment of The Doctor, allowed her bitterness and anger over... nothing and everything to waffle between traveling with him and quitting altogether, and then eventually, when we left Clara, she said farewell to her supposed best friend in the entire universe by lying to him. Twelve lied to her, too, of course, and there's at least some irony in the fact that their relationship began with immense trust and ended with the complete and utter decimation of that trust.

How brilliant of Doctor Who series eight to end on that note, really: Twelve and Clara didn't trust each other anymore. The Doctor has withheld a lot from companions in the past and the companions knew it, but this is one of the rare times in which both Doctor and companion completely bold-faced lied to each other right until the end of the journey (and I think parts of them believed the lies to be true, which is why the end of "Death In Heaven" felt different than just them both pretending they were okay). It was a sad note to end on, for me, and -- as I said earlier -- even the insistent "special" lines felt very hollow and flat to me. Because Twelve and Clara parted both lying to each other and probably themselves because they couldn't be vulnerable with each other anymore. Clara had made her choice in the graveyard and she chose Danny. Twelve had made his choice and it was to be alone. What did Clara really learn this season about herself and The Doctor? Moreover, what did Twelve learn about Clara?

Painfully, Eleven regenerated into Twelve and all throughout "Deep Breath," he just wanted Clara to look at him and see the man she had always seen -- the man she would have gone (and did go) to the ends of the earth for. But when she looked into his eyes, it broke both of his hearts because she couldn't see HER Doctor anymore. And Twelve spent the entire rest of the series trying to be the man Clara always saw; a new face with a slight shift in personality, but still... same Doctor. Different face. But Clara kept pushing and pushing and Twelve kept running toward her and she stabbed him in the heart and the back each time. She lied to him. She yelled at him. She strung him along thinking he was the most important thing to her when in reality, he wasn't.

That's why Doctor Who and I were in a fight this year. Because the writers took a brilliant and bold female character and reduced her to something poor and unrecognizable. I don't know the series eight Clara. I loved the series seven Clara Oswald. I wanted to hug that girl and never let her go. But when I look at Clara in series eight, I don't even see that woman anymore. I don't even see SHADES of that woman anymore

And, to be quite frank, even though I am mad and frustrated and upset with the writing, I'm mostly just sad because that companion I loved so dearly is no more. That's what bad writing can do to female characters -- it can take a beautiful, complex, dynamic woman and smash her right in front of your face as if she was a porcelain doll. We are the only ones left, then, to pick up the broken pieces.

So this piece is probably going to be divisive but I wouldn't have written it if I wasn't certain of my stance on Clara and this season of Doctor Who. What are your thoughts? Do you think it was stellar, okay, or poor year? Can we all agree though that Capaldi is awesome? And Jenna Coleman, too, for that matter?

Hit up the comments below and let me know what you think. Until then, folks! :)


  1. Hi! I found this article when I googled "Danny Pink ruined." Because obviously I knew we couldn't be alone...

    My husband and I just finished our annual DW rewatch this week - including Round 2 of Series 8. And the more we discussed it, the more angry we got about the season as a whole. It was so awful ("Listen," "Time Heist," and "Mummy on the Orient Express" are my only allowances, to various degrees). Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi were both BRILLIANT. But Moffat and the whole writing team need to be slapped.

    Danny Pink was, no exaggeration, the worst Doctor Who character ever, and for other reasons we hadn't even considered until reading this article, especially #2 in bold up there. Thank you for writing this. You hit the nail on the head over and over and over. Ugh.

    I will say, though, I am curious if you did a review of Last Christmas. We LOVED that episode - so much so that we watched it twice in a row - and it almost, almost redeemed the whole season. At the very least, it made me genuinely excited to move on to Season 9, to see the relationship between Clara and Twelve as it should have been allowed to from the beginning. *Crossing fingers*

  2. Sorry, by #2 in bold, I meant B). Same difference. ;)

  3. They ruined Clara and it made me so sad and angry. Thanks for writing this.