Jenna Coleman’s tenure on Doctor Who set records as far as companions go, as she appeared in more separate television stories than Karen Gillan and spent more time assigned to the show than Janet Fielding (Frazer Hines remains the actor who has appeared in the most separate episodes). You can measure things in a lot of different ways, but regardless, it’s clear that Coleman was a big part of Doctor Who for a long time.
So why was Clara so…bad? I don’t mean Coleman was bad. She’s a gifted actress who managed a unique rapport with four separate Doctors, and that’s something only Elisabeth Sladen or Nicholas Courtney could previously say. There are many great Clara moments I’ll fondly remember.
However, she simply never grew as a character. Nothing ever stuck with her and nothing ever changed who she was. She drifted from being a mystery to being part of a very lackluster love triangle to finally being a proper companion. It took the writers two whole seasons to do with Clara what they can usually accomplish in two episodes with anyone else.
Consider the four other main companions and how their stories played out. Rose was a shopgirl whose life felt empty and meaningless, but then she realized her own heroic potential and was left to be that hero in a world without The Doctor. Martha was in love with The Doctor, who didn’t love her back, and she learned to accept this. Donna was terrified of not mattering in the world and eventually became the most important woman in it. Amy was afraid to commit to her husband, but stranded herself in the past away from everything to be with him.
Some of these arcs are stronger than others, but they all have a basic form. Clara never did. The entire payoff for the reveal of how the three different versions of her we saw happen was completely overshadowed by the appearance of the War Doctor and the lead-up to the 50th anniversary. Then, it was her job to nurse us through the regeneration of a new Doctor, but she was left with nothing to do or be in a season of scripts that were often mediocre at best. While Danny Pink was a good character, he never joined the Tardis crew, and as a result the love triangle that the show tried to build was hamstrung around the Coal Hill School rather than in the middle of adventures.
Once Series 9 came on and Peter Capaldi seemed to finally have his feet firmly planted in the role (banging out badass guitar solos as he stood), Clara and he brought out the best in each other right up until her stupid, stupid death. You could argue that as someone “born to save The Doctor,” Clara's new-found reckless streak was a way for Clara to define herself apart from him, but as she ultimately ended up traveling around space and time with someone else, even that doesn’t work. There’s simply no indication that Clara was changed significantly by meeting The Doctor, and that is a cardinal Whovian sin.
The show also wasted the best versions of her character. Who didn’t fall in love with Oswin in “Asylum of the Daleks?” Soufflé Girl was strong, smart, funny and absolutely adorable, and Coleman played her ups and downs perfectly. She seemed the perfect candidate to replace Amy and Rory until she committed suicide.
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Then came Victorian Clara in “The Snowmen,” and she was even better. Her double life as a serving girl and posh nanny had shades of Lady Christina, and her ability to reach a grieving Eleven melted all our hearts. According to Neil Gaiman, this was actually the original version of the character, and that may be why she’s the strongest of the bunch. In later episodes where Clara Prime would don Victorian costumes, as in “The Crimson Horror” and “Deep Breath,” these were usually the places she would best fit in.
By contrast, Clara Prime was a pale imitation of her other aspects. She was colder and more severe, and she insisted on keeping a distance between her and The Doctor by not traveling full-time with him. Sure, Amy and Rory did something similar near the end of their tenure, but that was after months, maybe years of adventures. Clara wanted to see the universe, but only on her terms, and it made her feel slightly condescending. Maybe that’s why her reckless streak in the last season stuck in my craw. Had time travel and fighting monsters become boring to her?
I think Clara as a character became a victim of very bad timing. Steven Moffat crafted a fairly interesting mystery in her, but he used it for a twist ending that dragged her into “Day of The Doctor” having to carry the companion load for three different actors. On top of that, I’m not sure anyone expected Matt Smith to quit the role when he did, and suddenly Clara is there to hand us over to a new Doctor. A few episodes into Series 8 would have been the best place to let her go, but if Capaldi had been badly received, a new companion might have been a change too much.
Fond as I am of Jenna Coleman, I doubt Clara Oswald is going to go down in many people’s books as a favorite companion, even just of the revived era. She simply carries too much baggage, and she’s a prime example of why characters should not be written simply to fill holes in The Doctor’s stories. Whoever runs with The Doctor next, I hope he or she can just be him or her.