The companion is the most important role in Doctor Who. They are the audience character; they put the fantasy of the show into a modern Human context. We’re supposed to relate to them because we’re not supposed to relate to the Doctor.
These days, the companion is often singular, which makes them fifty per cent of the cast. Which is something that can become extremely problematic if that fifty per cent isn’t particularly well written. As the Human aspect of the show, we have to believe they’re real people, and this is done by establishing where they live, who they live with, what they do for a living and how they feel about those things. That’s what made the show’s relaunch so successful; Rose Tyler was introduced before anything else. Within a few minutes, we knew she lived in a council flat with her single mother, working in a department store, but felt as though her life was a bit boring. This created a template many could understand, and that’s what got them into the show. Even Peter Davison said companions weren’t written very well until Tyler, whom many consider to have set the precedent to companions.
Which brings me to Clara “The Impossible Slouffle Girl” Oswald. Her introduction to the show broke the established tradition. Whereas normally the Doctor was feeling a bit down about losing his previous companion, only to bump into a new one, Oswald was given the strange circumstances of her numerous appearances in the Universe. When we eventually meet de facto Oswald, we know she’s taken residence in the Maitland home working as a child minder but has unfulfilled ambitions of travelling the world. As Series 7 Part 2 develops, we learn how she came to exist, and are given an explanation for her numerousness; those other Claras are elements of her self, split-off into personifications of different personality types.
And that is my biggest problem with this character. It’s not that I feel I can’t relate to her, because the reasons I’ve liked companions of the past has been nothing to do with that. What I don’t really like about Oswald is her bland character. The other versions of her we’ve met have all been very vivid, quirky characters, but when they come together, we get… not much. Someone who’s hard to define. We don’t know her weaknesses, or her strengths, because it all seems to come from whatever suits the moments. The past season’s writers have all written their own version of her based on whatever she needs to be, and this creates an inconsistency I can’t say I’ve seen with previous companions.
That being said, Steven Moffat seems to know her. His Oswald episodes, “The Bells Of Saint John“, “The Name Of The Doctor“, “The Day Of The Doctor” and “The Time Of The Doctor” or all the best examples of her, because they’re written by her creator. If I were to marathon those episodes in any order, I’d struggle to find a problem with her.
What strikes me as odd is the fact that one-season companions, such as Martha Jones and Donna Noble, have all been well-written from the start. It’s not that Oswald’s character sucks so much because it’s her first season and the other writers don’t really know her very well, Jones and Noble are proof that doesn’t have to happen. A lot of writers mentioned listening to her audition tape and working from that, yet her non-Moffat episodes still struggle to give me an actual person. Mark Gatiss’ “Cold War” comes to mind as an episode in-which Oswald is written simply as The Companion, who doesn’t need a mould, just a series of archetypes to fulfil.
However, I think I’ve been able to identify the problem. Which is Series 7. The first half was really well executed in my opinion (I also happen to think it’s vastly underrated), as each self-contained episode allowed Amelia Pond and Rory Williams to come into centre-frame, leading up to their departure in the finale. What followed was the next half-season which began with a new companion, with a story arc that needed resolving within eight episodes.
This was a mistake.
Even though the season was broadcast in two halves, it was produced as one. Replacing two very chemical leads with a new, single character doesn’t have to be a risk, but it becomes a risk when it’s happening half-way through a season already in progress. I was watching “Robot” earlier, which is Tom Baker’s first story, and therefore takes-place after the Third Doctor’s regeneration. What I noticed is that the whole new-Doctor thing is quickly brushed-over, as Terrance Dicks rushes to get the plot going immediately. Which works, because Dicks was very good at writing the Doctor, and because Baker was very good at characterising him. Oswald was introduced half-way through Series 7, and the writers approached this with the attitude of carrying-on as normal. Not that that’s their fault; they just fit their scripts into a situation determined by the Head Writer. And since Head Writer Steven Moffat already had an idea for Series 7, which didn’t revolve around the companion, this leads to an inevitable disconnect between character and plot. As soon we establish that Oswald’s an ordinary person, we drift through Series 7 Part 2 like it doesn’t matter.
I like to think this is because the show’s being written for two formats: the first is Netflix, which allows audiences to marathon entire seasons in one weekend. The other is television, the show’s native format. Episodes are shown on a weekly basis, with no determined audience carry-over. Which means the show has to match the two – Netflix is the reason for its overseas success. If someone were to binge Series 7 (or “season” seven as Netflix would call it), which they probably will do, they’ll see a character referenced from episode-to-episode as existing in unusual circumstances which is only brushed-over in the series, and anyone watching on television will see a show where the secondary character is “impossible” but with no reference as to why. Ultimately, this has to be resolved by the finale anyway, but in a way that both mediums can understand. Oswald basically was the story arc, but the show is now a format existing on two major platforms with equal presence, and that leads to the story arcs being reduced to half-presence. Story arcs are not a bad thing. They can work if the writers are confident. Other Netflix shows, like Breaking Bad are proof of this. Even previous seasons, like Season 17 (The Key To Time) and Season 23 (The Trial Of A Time Lord) can show how and how not to write a single story arc across a whole season.
Series 7 Part 2 could have worked as a season in-which the Doctor secretly investigates Oswald’s repeated historical appearances, taking her on what she considers just adventures. But it wasn’t. Instead, we have standalone episodes where the mystery is something we’re always reminded of, but never with any progression. The fact that those episodes aren’t very good anyway are beside the point. The result is a character presented as someone deeply significant and important, but never for any reason. She seems forced and pushed, and the writers looked like they were assuming we’d accept this.
Had the writing team had confidence, we could have had another experimental and artistically risky and ambitious season. Just as Series 6 could have been a season in-which each episode develops the Whodunnit begun at the opener, and works as a thirteen-episode murder mystery, Series 7 Part 2 could have been a season solving a temporal conundrum. It could have gone places. It could have worked. But instead, it became the worst launch for a character we’ve seen; where the introduction is extended over an entire season that fails to actually introduce her very well, both narratively and scripturally. When we eventually get the answer, it seems to all happen at once, rather than being something that was naturally lead-to. And that makes us dislike the character.
I read in interviews with Coleman (whom I think is a wonderful actor, by the way) that Oswald’s character arc in Series 8 will be a double-life, in-which she balances her domestic life – living in a Shoreditch flat with an English teaching job in Coal Hill School and boyfriend, Danny Pink – with her TARDIS life, where she has adventures in-between her daily grind. On paper, this is the best idea for a companion so far. Now that the whole Impossible Girl thing’s been resolved, there’s only a few questions left: “the woman in the shop”, the reason the TARDIS doesn’t like her (unless that was actually answered, who knows), etc. I just hope the writers can deliver on this. Now that we’ve had a season with her, Oswald’s natural strong points might come across better, especially with the new writers, who have an external perspective on the whole thing. Plus, Peter Capaldi’s new incarnation is different enough to create an interesting dynamic with her.
Please, Steven Moffat. Don’t mess this up.