Warning: Spoilers. Lots and lots of spoilers.
We all knew that Jenna Coleman was making her exit from Doctor Who this season after a long and impressive performance as Clara Oswald that spanned the lives of two Doctors. The only question was how she was going to exit the Tardis, and, well, the odds were always leaning toward her untimely death. “Face the Raven” finally did it, though. Rest in peace, the Impossible Girl. We will remember you.
Why, though? Why does it seem like every one of The Doctor’s companions has to go out like this lately? True, Clara is the first full-time companion to actually, totally die at the end of her tenure, but most of the others end tragically. Rose Tyler gets trapped in an alternate dimension, Donna Noble has her memory wiped, and the Ponds end up thrown back in time in easily the laziest reason for a heartbreaking finale. Only Martha Jones just up and walks away.
Which is weird, when you think about the show’s long history. In the beginning, the Tardis was more like the magic wardrobe in the Narnia books. People stepped into it and were whisked away to who knows when and where. Only chance brought them back to their proper time and place when their adventures were over. Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright simply left when they were done. Ditto my favorite companions, Ben Jackson and Polly Wright. They leave the Second Doctor practically on a whim. Sarah Jane Smith, Tegan Jovanka, Leela and more either pick their lives back up where they left them or call some new port home with little more than a few backward glances at the Tardis.
Oh, there were a few tragedies. Adric’s death comes to mind, and I always thought Jamie McCrimmon’s memory wipe was every bit as sad as Donna’s. These are standouts rather than the norm.
When Doctor Who returned to television, the people responsible for bringing it back were writers who had contributed to Who lore through the various novel lines that had sprung up between 1989 and 2005. These novels, particularly the New Adventures line, tended toward a grimness that you rarely saw on the show proper. You get titles like Jim Mortimore’s Eternity Weeps, in which Liz Shaw dies a terrible death from a virus that turns oxygen in human blood to sulphuric acid. In that same book, the Seventh Doctor is directly responsible for the deaths of 600 million people in order to save the Earth.
You can see a lot of those same sensibilities in stories like “Doomsday” and “The Last of the Time Lords” during Russell T Davies's time as show runner and continued under Steven Moffat, who has four apocalypses under his belt, if my math is right. Everything becomes big, and contemporary and most of all obsessed with emotional casualties.
It also changed the Big Finish audio stories. No Doctor can hold a candle to the Eighth Doctor when it comes to the terrible fates of his companions. That list of names he rattles off in “The Night of The Doctor” webisode? Only one of them left the Tardis alive, and the one who did The Doctor thinks is dead. The Eighth Doctor had been going strong with Charley Pollard since 2001, but by 2007 and “Absolution,” a pattern was set where getting in the Tardis with him was often a death sentence.
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What’s kind of unnerving about it is that it’s turned the fandom into tear junkies. Along with Harry Potter and maybe Firefly, Doctor Who is the only fandom I know that continuously goes out of its way to make the saddest memes possible. It’s a competition to see who can make the most people feel the deepest hurt, and the show and radio plays have begun to reflect that. They feed us the tragedies of the companions like drug dealers.
Which brings us back to poor Clara and going numb. How many times can Clara die before our capacity to feel overloads? Sacrificed herself in the Dalek asylum, falls to her death from the clouds above London, leaps into The Doctor’s timestream and becomes an infinite number of additional sacrifices. When she faced the raven at the end, it felt hollow and sad and pointless. It felt like rock bottom.
There’s this little speech Charley gives in “The Next Life” about a villain from her first adventure, “Storm Warning.” A man named Rathbone had tried to kill her but had fallen to his death from an airship. Charley remarks that she has now seen so much death and blood that she cannot even remember Rathbone’s name anymore. He’s just one of many since she started traveling.
That’s what Doctor Who felt like in “Face the Raven.” At this point, the most surprising thing to me would be if the next companion actually managed to survive.