It’s official: Clara Oswald has left the building, and Clara’s final season of Doctor Who is coming to a close—making her, depending on how you chart it, one of the longest-running companions in history. But even with all that time on the show, it never felt like Doctor Who knew how to solve a problem like Clara.
There will, of course, be major spoilers below for the most recent episode of Doctor Who, “Face the Raven.”
From the very beginning, Clara was a mystery to Doctor Who. Her first surprise appearance (and seeming death) as a future starship crewmate in 2012’s “Asylum of the Daleks” had people reeling with questions as to where the character would go—especially when she pulled a similar trick in her “debut” episode, “The Snowmen”—only to reappear again in “The Bells of Saint John” as a 21st century London nanny. There was a fever pitch of theories as to how theses seemingly disparate characters interconnected, something the series stoked by giving Clara the ominous nomenclature of “The Impossible Girl” with every possible chance.
The problem was, there was very little actually to Clara in her first season (the seventh of the new series) outside of that mystery title. We learned so little about her as a person, and despite having some stellar turns, actor Jenna Coleman had little to actually go on with Clara’s character. Clara wasn’t really there: The Impossible Girl was (as the show frequently reminded us, as if saying the words would will the concept into being interesting), and when that mystery reached its natural conclusion in “The Name of The Doctor”—that Clara managed to scatter “shards” of herself across The Doctor’s timestream to save his many lives—there was no real sense of satisfaction to it. When all there was to Clara was a mystery, what’s left when that mystery is gone?
On the plus side, this complete lack of any idea of where to take Clara allowed the show to rework her as showrunner and head writer Steven Moffat saw fit. When she returned with the new Doctor in the show’s eighth season, it was almost like introducing a completely new character. No longer a nanny, Clara was an English teacher, slowly building a life for herself outside her adventures with the radical new incarnation of the Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi.
Actual elements of a multifaceted character started coming in—a shifting relationship with the curmudgeonly new Doctor, a sense of confidence in her adventures and her career, and a love life with fellow teacher Danny Pink. We got elements of Clara at her best—the compassion she displays to the younger Doctor in “Listen”—and her worst moments—her control freak meltdowns in “The Caretaker,” or her anguish at The Doctor leaving her behind in “Kill the Moon.” But this all steadily evolved throughout the season, as Clara, at first horrified at the steelier man the Doctor had become, slowly learns to become more and more like him, in the realization that this attitude is often needed to make the decisions that the Doctor so often has to make.
This all comes to a head in “Flatline,” an episode where Clara literally has to take on the role of the Doctor to save the day. As Charlie Jane Anders acknowledged in her review, it was a lightning rod moment for Doctor Who: for the first time since its return, the heart of the show was in the exploration of a major character arc, not a mystery or a plot to be solved, and Clara was that character. In the space of a season, she’d gone from having almost no character at all to being the major focal point of the whole series—one that actually managed to pay off, even if it meant an unfortunate end to the idea of Clara’s relationship with Danny Pink, a plotline that, like many things associated with Clara, never quite hit its full potential.
It was worth it, though, because at last Clara felt like she had been put on an interesting track after a year of wasted potential as “The Impossible Girl.” Most importantly, it finally gave Clara the arc she deserved: one that was her own. It was all about her as a character and a person, rather than an ancillary plot device for the Doctor to understand and solve. The spark that was there in Coleman’s performance from the beginning was finally allowed to flourish.
But the show faltered again. Part of this can blame can be placed on Jenna Coleman herself—the actor had originally decided to leave at the climax of season 8, only to ask to leave at Christmas, and only then to ask to stay on for the currently-airing ninth season—leaving the writers with another 12 episodes of Clara. In the season 9, Clara has wavered between the unrealized version of the first season, and the character arc of her excellent sophomore season. Still, it was a frustrating compromise that didn’t really click until her (seemingly final) end.
Without much to build up to, Clara’s main focus in season 9 so far has been a sense of recklessness in her traveling. Her realization that she needs to be more like the Doctor has driven her towards a reckless confidence that no matter how dire the situation is, the Doctor will find a way to save her. It’s an interesting evolution of her arc from season 8, but one the show hasn’t really explored, outside of a the occasional line acknowledging that the Doctor is concerned with her lust for danger... at which point Clara dies from her own Doctor-inspired recklessness in “Face the Raven.” The moment itself is sold amazingly well by Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi, and there’s enough to it that it feels like a valid exit for Clara. But it’s still there, niggling away at the back of your mind: it’s an a good exit that somehow happened to come after eight episodes of nothing.
It’s the holding pattern that’s followed Clara throughout her lengthy tenure in the show—a promising glimpse of something here and there, interspersed with long periods of stalling, waiting for that next “a ha!” moment to happen. Clara could have been a character that earned her two-and-a-half seasons of tenure. But with what feels like a season-and-a-half’s worth of story to her, we spent a lot of time with her that never actually amounted to anything for the character—something made all the more frustrating because when Clara was used well, in service of her own story rather than the Doctor’s, she could stand with the best of Doctor Who’s vast array of companions.
Ultimately, whether if you agree or not that her death resolved her story satisfactorily, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that much of Clara’s time on Doctor Who was wasted figuring out who she should ultimately be. A time-scattered mystery? An Impossible Girl? A teacher with a life outside the TARDIS? A Doctor-lite? A reckless, and ultimately tragic, adventurer?
Clara spent so much time trying to be all these different things, it somehow feels like, after nearly four years, we still never really got to know her as simply Clara Oswald—a tragically missed opportunity for a character that had such great potential.