About a half an hour before this episode aired I got into one of those Twitter debates that can eat up your evening. A friend of mine was singing the praises of Russell T Davies, and how the show has gone downhill since then. I respectfully disagreed (while also screaming “THE DALEKS ARE TERRIBLE”), especially at one point when he referred to Moffatt’s run on the show as being particularly sexist compared to Davies’. I, again, disagreed. And I still do.
But my god is there something wrong with Clara “Oswald” Oswin.
Since the arrival of Clara I’ve been a fan. Jenna-Louise Coleman’s performance has been enjoyable, bringing a screwball comedy element to proceedings that made episodes like “The Snowmen” a laugh a minute. The way her character was introduced was also intriguing, a sense that she was a Companion unlike anything we had seen before – how could she be dead, but alive? What does she remember? How much is this Clara like the other Clara’s? And why do the themes of parenting, child-minding, and orphans keep coming up?
As her journey with the Doctor has progressed I’ve still enjoyed Clara, enjoyed Coleman, and enjoyed the banter she enjoys with the Raggedy Man.
But this evening’s episode made me ask myself an uncomfortable question: is Clara really anything beyond what I want her to be? Is she a woman — a real, living woman — or is she just a mystery wrapped in a quip wrapped in a summer dress?
The answer is yes and it is no, and I’m starting to think it depends on the writer.
I’ve talked at length before about the structure of how Doctor Who is run, and how it puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the show runner to hold the entire process together. As head of the franchise, Steven Moffatt is responsible for sourcing writers to work on episodes, as well as writing key episodes himself. Each of these writers works alone, and Moffatt is responsible for making sure that any arcs are kept going and that no episodes contradict each other.
He, and I imagine one or two more, are also responsible for script editing on what ends up on screen. For those outside the television industry, script editing can sound like a fairly light touch game – fix the grammar here, cut the length there, maybe bring out some more clarity or more character in this section etc.
In truth, in the five, six, seven, whatever number of drafts between the origination of an idea and the shooting script, there can and will be huge changes. Characters can disappear, whole story arcs cut out, endings completely changed. Screenwriting is as much, if not more, about hard graft and making things better than having the talent to come up with the good ideas in the first place. It is a tough, messy affair, where a lot can go wrong — and a show-runner should be on hand to keep things from going off course. Is Moffatt a weak show-runner? Is he having difficulty running Who and Sherlock and is that affecting the writing? I couldn’t tell you.
But I do know that in “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” the writer appeared to have no real knowledge of who Clara Oswin was. Which is problematic when she’s half your cast.
And I’ve gotten ahead of myself again. In a sort-of spiritual sequel to last year’s Neil Gaiman-penned episode “The Doctor’s Wife” (in which the TARDIS inhabited a young woman named Idris), the TARDIS is a severely damaged when a salvage ship snatches it while its defences are down. The Doctor and the salvage crew consisting of two brothers and an android have to go into the broken TARDIS to find Clara, before she succumbs to toxic fumes or some such time-lock shenanigans.
Fans who’ve been wanting to see more of the inside of the TARDIS should be plenty satiated by this episode. We get a glimpse of the famed swimming pool, an observatory, as well as a tense scene in which Clara runs from a molten foe through the multi-storeyed library. Never has the infinity of the TARDIS seemed so, well, infinite.
The first half of the episode seemed solely concerned with laying out the episode’s concept in fairly predictable ways. While the Doctor teams up with the three manly men (well, two men and an android), Clara runs around like a headless chicken, ticking off rooms in the TARDIS for our benefit more than hers. She’s being chased by some severely burned, horrific creature, but here Clara is frustratingly inactive. She goes from room to room, illogically not really searching for anything in particular. She stumbles across a book that has the Doctor’s name in it, because that seems about right, yeah, whatever. And she keeps looking at a burn on her hand that — as the episode wore on — might as well have said “IMPORTANT PLOT POINT” (as it turned out, it might as well have).
Eventually the Doctor and the salvage crew (who’ve made things worse by trying to steal things) find Clara, and the Doctor manages to get to the TARDIS’ exploding engine room in time to send a message back through time to stop this from ever happening in the first place.
Now let it not be said that I’ve ignored this episode’s strong points. Breath-taking visuals abound, especially when seeing the Eye of Harmony, the TARDIS’ exploding star power generator. The engine room explosion was also gorgeously rendered, a sort of scatter of shrapnel frozen in time. Ditto for the great moments when Clara and the Doctor saw themselves, echos of their past and futures, and when the Doctor realized that they were being chased by dead versions of themselves (and those monsters were damn scary too).
There were also some very strong ideas — about what a living ship might do when damaged, about how people treat others like objects, and about the nature of what can and can’t be unwritten.
All very heady Whovian fare.
However. The ideas in this episode and the execution in this episode went down vastly different paths, and no more than what happened (or didn’t happen) with Oswin Oswald.
First of all, treating her like a damsel in distress made much of the “wow” factor of seeing the TARDIS mildly annoying. Why wasn’t she looking for help? Why wasn’t she using those tech skills she’s famous for? And why was she suddenly not afraid when she got a chance to look at that Time Lord book? Coleman and the writers keep trying to craft Clara as this capable young woman, but nothing in what they present of her actually shows that.
In “The Bells Of Saint John” she had her Facebook moment, but was otherwise along for the ride. In “The Rings Of Akhaten” she was motherly, but her biggest moment of ingenuity was giving away a leaf. In “Cold War” she talked about an alien’s daughter. There’s a level of emotional intelligence at play here, but it doesn’t gel with what we’ve seen of her before. Is it too much to ask to have a Companion that gets herself out of trouble?
Secondly, and hugely, was the revelation that happened near the end of the episode. Clara has known for some time that the Doctor is hiding something from her, and finally he laid it all out — the previous Clara’s, his curiosity over who she is, his mis-trust of her. It also explains why the Doctor of this series is not to be trusted: when he referred to Clara as “salvage” earlier in the episode, it belied how he still thinks of her as a thing. A huge revelation. Massive. He had an ulterior motive picking her up. Everything she knew about him is wrong – and who were these women? Is she going to die? Is she them?
But how did Clara react? Well, she didn’t really. She kind of shook it off, got a hug from the Doctor, and on they went.
Narratively, it’s easy to see why this happened. The writer, Stephen Thompson, knew that the episode was going to hit the reset button. So why go on with it. But Clara, the character, did not know she was going to be reset. You can’t colour her reaction because you know it won’t be important.
We have now seen how Clara reacts to the Doctor telling her the truth, and it was a nothing reaction. A kind of vague, bland “meh”. And what’s worse is that I imagine they’ll treat this as a big reveal in a future episode, at which point she’ll act accordingly — because there’s not a reset button featured in the episode.
Thirdly, and this is not so much for Clara but for everyone, that reset button. Now I’m a fan of Star Trek: Voyager so I’ve had to put up with a reset button or two in my time (not to mention about a dozen self-destruct buttons), so I can put up with it. But if you’re going to do the reset button, respect the reset button. To reset time, to take back time, to take back a day, to lose your experiences, your memory, your knowledge, it is a big thing.
Respect the reset button. And tame the characters.
And, as in all things, check how Buffy did it first.
Many things happened in this episode that were important, and then they un-happened. But in the moments when they did, I saw a version of Clara that was frustrating — running from trouble without forming plans, trusting the Doctor when she knows he’s lying to her, laughing him off when he confessed a dark secret.
It’s not that she felt wrong for Clara, she felt wrong for a human being — like she lacked internal logic. Like the writer didn’t know her very well.
And that’s true of us, as well. We don’t know Clara. We see the best in her because Coleman does a strong job, and we want to see the best. And it’s fine to not know a character fully, to have information doled out, but the writer — the heart of story-telling — must know this person inside out. They must be able to see the full iceberg at all times. And it felt like Stephen Thompson didn’t. Like Steven Moffatt didn’t tell him or, worse, Steven Moffatt didn’t know.
I’m sure they will pick up the pieces of Clara in coming weeks, but this episode – despite its bombast, great visuals, and nerdgasm trips to previously unseen places — left a bad taste in my mouth.
Maybe I can wash it out with a reset button.
– I didn’t even talk about the fate of the Van Baalen brothers, which was also ludicrous. It turns out that the android wasn’t actually an android but a third brother who they’d tricked into believing he was an android as a joke. Apart from the sheer narrative hoops we had to jump through for that to make sense, they did it as a joke? AS A JOKE? In what universe does that approach realistic character interaction?
– The idea of time folding in on them was great, and would have been much stronger if it had been the anchor of the episode. The TARDIS is exploding, Clara, but be careful, time is leaking out and you have to work with your past and future selves to save the day — which of course would have involved visiting those rooms along the way, and the zombies would have appeared naturally.
– I know I’m just a dinky little blog, and shouldn’t anger the gods, but sweet Jesus am I getting sick of reading The Guardian’s reviews of Doctor Who. Every episode, no matter what, is an “instant classic” with “incredible revelations” and “stunning performances”. To quote The Incredibles, “if everyone’s special then nobody is.” Have some standards.
– Speaking of “stunning performances”, the Van Baalen brothers ranged from mediocre to terrible in their acting. It was painful to watch at times.
– And speaking of the Van Baalen brothers, the fact that I kept forgetting that the android was an android either points to me being a racist or the fact that Who doesn’t cast enough black actors.
– Next week it’s Vastra and co. investigating a mysterious village in Victorian times. Fingers crossed it will all have actually happened by end of episode.
– The TARDIS: 90% corridors.