Clara Oswald, played by Jenna Coleman, first appeared as two separate but linked one-off characters in 2012 and became a series regular from 2013 to 2015, straddling the Doctors of Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi. She arrives accompanied by an elephant in the room which we had better look at directly and early.
Although Jenna Coleman was a reasonably attractive young woman, Clara aroused intense hostility from some sections of the viewing audience. This was partly the result of the circumstances in which the character was created: Elisabeth Sladen had just died, the actress who played the longest-running and best beloved of all the Doctor Who girls, and a lot of the series’ enthusiasts were in mourning. Her middle name was Clara, and, yes, there was an intentional allusion in the name of the new Doctor Who girl. I’m not sure whether I’m irritated or relieved that they bungled the pronunciation (it was closer to the English ‘Claire’ than the Spanish ‘Clara’), and while I believe Lis would have taken the tribute graciously, I don’t honestly think she’d have liked it. But to attempt to create a following for Jenna Coleman’s character by exploiting the legacy of her illustrious and adored predecessor can only really be described as crass.
This wasn’t just publicity: it was baked into the character. In her second introductory story, the 2012 Christmas special, she was used as a way of getting the Doctor out of his deep mourning over the loss of her immediate predecessor, Amy, and back into his proper function of saving the world. Likewise, the implication seemed to be that viewers who were sad about Lis were supposed to get over her and find a new enthusiasm for Clara. Unsurprisingly, not a few people rather resented this.
But maybe it’s a mistake to talk of anything at all deeply imbedded in a character who must be one of the most inconsistently and superficially conceived series regulars ever. At this time it was felt that the Doctor’s traveling companions needed to have a strong grounding in the real world; so Clara dips in and out of the TARDIS, forever going back to her ongoing ordinary life with a job and a boyfriend that ate up screen time. Partly this was because Doctor Who was being increasingly driven by the commercial imperative to create an expanded universe of spin-offs, so that the television series intentionally built in wide gaps in its own continuity, thus enabling the spin-offs to fit in comfortably as part of the same overall narrative. One of several problems arising from this was that the ongoing relationship between the two central characters became fragmented and casual. But the ordinary life to which Clara always returned was itself fragmented, or at best jerkily developing: in her first series she’s a family friend looking after a widower’s children; in the next, she has become a schoolteacher, with no attempt to make a connection with her previous life or ‘sell’ the change to the viewer, whose acceptance of the missing through line is simply taken for granted.
And of course Clara was embroiled in the ongoing effort not only to make the Doctor Who girl a role worth playing (an admirable objective), but to make her the series’ principal character, supplanting the Doctor. In effect, they wanted the female lead to be the male lead, to the extent that one 2014 episode not only began with Clara introducing herself as the Doctor, but substituted her image for his in the title sequence: the fundamental series conception of a primary and secondary regular was turned on its head, apparently for reasons of contemporary gender politics. The same thing might explain the growing use of the trope of Clara slapping the Doctor in anger, something it seems women are now allowed to do (or be shown doing) to men, but not vice versa.
Double standards are to the point, because there was something a little schizophrenic about the way she was presented as attractive. In ‘The Snowmen’ (2012), she insists on the Doctor going up a ladder first to stop him looking up her skirt (which is a long 1890s one with a bustle at the top, so there’s unlikely to be anything to see anyway). In ‘Into the Dalek’ (2014), she discourages him from passing comment on her hips as they crawl through a tunnel; he tells her they are fine because she is ‘built like a man’, which doesn’t go down altogether well, and is obviously not at all true.
But a few episodes later, in ‘Listen’, she finds herself, through a time travel paradox, looking at her departing self, and remarks admiringly on her own rear aspect. And in ‘Nightmare in Silver’ (2013), the Doctor himself describes her as ‘a mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that’s just a little bit too tight’.
Well, not always tight…
So are straight male viewers expected to enjoy watching her physical charms, as has been the case with decades’ worth of previous Doctor Who girls, or on the other hand are we supposed to feel uncomfortable and ashamed for doing so? And if we are meant to avert our ‘male gaze’, why are we given anything to gaze upon in the first place?
And she does, however incidentally, get her bottom smacked on screen – twice!
In ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’ (2013), she has spent much of the episode running around the TARDIS in mortal peril in a flirty little skirt.
In the final scene, she has just had a wash and changed into a different flirty skirt, while the Doctor has been busy cleaning up. Part of their closing banter involves him giving her a passing flick on the rear with his duster.
Later the same year, in ‘The Time of the Doctor’, Matt Smith’s final episode, she calls him in to have Christmas dinner with her family, because she has told them about her imaginary boyfriend and needs someone to take on the role. (If that sounds like a sitcom scenario, well, by now that was part of the series dynamic, and indeed part of its problem.) When she introduces him as the boyfriend, he does what he imagines boyfriends are supposed to do, and gives her a playful smack on the bottom.
This didn’t continue with Capaldi’s Doctor (when the other-way-round slapping business got started, and the non-imaginary boyfriend was introduced), but that wasn’t necessarily because the erosion of the series’ traditional dynamic had gone further by then. It was more to do with the different relationship Clara had with Matt Smith’s Doctor.
No, not like that. There was a mildly flirtatious dimension to it, which is the only context in which it is now considered acceptable for a woman to be given a jolly good smacked bottom.
But a few fan artists went further, in more ways than one.
So finally the Capaldi Doctor gets his hand in! Meanwhile, schoolteacher Clara was imagined in a classroom confrontation with her pupils.
With any other Doctor Who girl, you might well say that’s straying from the core of the character, the things that make her a regular in this specific series rather than a random human being who could be in any series; but then, isn’t that exactly the problem I’ve been describing?
But let’s end by looking on the bright side. And one bright side of Clara Oswald, and of Jenna Coleman, is:
For the first (and the final) part of this ‘pre-posterous’ series, go here.