I realized today that Series 9 has been in production for a few months now and I hadn’t even thought about it. I mean, not at all. And that saddened me. At this time last year, we were barely able to hold in our excitement for the next season and didn’t know how we would be able to survive the anticipation until August. What a contrast! This year, I don’t even know when the show is slated to return. A co-worker mentioned that he heard it was this fall, and my first thought was simply, “Yes, that’s a reasonable time.” I didn’t even bother to go look to see if there was a more precise date.
What happened? Was Series 8 that disappointing? I have to admit, yes. I try very hard to keep this blog positive, and because of that, you might notice that I’ve posted very little about Series 8. There were a couple of great episodes – “Mummy on the Orient Express” and “Flatline” had me on the edge of my seat – but for the most part, I found them to be average or below, with a couple of real stinkers. (Sorry, Mr. Moffat, but if you have to tell the media that you believe that despite popular opinion, you think that in a few years that people will realize that “In the Forest of the Night” was fantastic and that it will be emerge to be a classic, you’ve pretty much tacitly admitted that it was terrible.)
But you know, one bad season doesn’t doom a show, at least in my eyes. The presence of some good episodes and interesting themes and plots demonstrates that the show has the potential that captured my imagination two years ago. The thing is, in order for me to have faith in that potential, it also has to demonstrate that something’s going to change, and that, unfortunately, hasn’t been evident.
My problem with the current show centers around Clara. During Series 7b, she was a non-character: simply a chipper, bubbly companion that served as a puzzle for the Doctor to solve, with a personality and skill set that changed depending on what the episode plot needed her to do. Sometimes she was bold and confident, other times she was scared and timid. Sometimes the TARDIS disliked her, other times the TARDIS did what she wanted and talked directly to her (something the TARDIS doesn’t do with any other companion and was explicitly mentioned in “The Doctor’s Wife” that the TARDIS doesn’t do, even with the Doctor). Then she became the Doctor’s savior, making everything he’s accomplished dependent on her, which was both an interesting mechanic and a disappointing deconstruction of the hero. And then suddenly, in “The Time of the Doctor”, she fancied the Doctor, something there was no hint of before this.
Once the Clara puzzle was solved, we hoped that she’d be developed as real person. For the first time since Moffat took over the show, the companion was given some other person in her life to interact with that wasn’t a member of the TARDIS crew: Danny Pink. I’ll admit that I didn’t really like the character of Danny – ill-defined, whiny, kind of always had a deer-in-headlights expression – but it always felt to me that he existed not to be Clara’s life beyond the TARDIS but to provide someone to oppose the Doctor. He was presented as an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD, and yet the PTSD never manifested except in his reactions to the control-happy Doctor; meanwhile, the Doctor, having been designed as soldier-hating, only viewed him as a soldier and refused to consider him anything else.
The writers worked really hard to bring Clara and Danny together – making Clara to basically force herself on him after Danny refused her multiple times, and then again after Danny told her to get lost at the end of their disastrous date – almost as if they couldn’t imagine that these two people would normally hook up. But once they kissed, suddenly they were in love. I remember Clara talking to him on the phone and saying, “I love you,” the episode after that first date, and it was shocking to hear that; no show time was spent showing that their relationship had gotten serious. That’s one of the major problems with Series 9: it tried to give Clara a life and a relationship, without actually developing them on camera. And since Danny was only important as Clara’s hanger-on, he never developed on his own. Danny only appeared whenever they needed to make the point that Clara had a reason to not want to travel with the Doctor, to show Clara lying to one or both of them, or to have Danny argue directly with the Doctor. To me, the only time that Danny actually appeared to mean something to Clara was in “Last Christmas”, in the dream sequence where she’s celebrating Christmas with him. In all other interactions, I wondered why Danny (or Clara, for that matter) was sticking around.
So, Clara’s normal life didn’t work well, but what about her self? She didn’t start well, trying to deny that the Doctor had changed and hoping to find a way to bring the old Doctor back, even though she’s the one person who knows exactly what regeneration means and how the Doctor changes faces and personalities. Then, throughout the season, she fixates on two things: lying and trying to be the Doctor. Multiple storylines dealt with her calling the Doctor to task for what she decided was lying, while simultaneously lying to both the Doctor and Danny. Then she starts trying to be the Doctor without really understanding what being the Doctor actually means. After a series and a half of adventures, you’d think she’d know that the Doctor is a complex blend of exploring, universe-guarding, moral choices, and self-sacrifice, but instead, she thinks it’s a formula that she can follow to lead people out of danger. And when she does successfully follow her formula, she demands to be complimented on her performance.
All in all, Clara comes across as very self-absorbed, obsessive, and controlling. I disliked Rose Tyler because of the way she manipulated her men – the Doctor, Mickey, Adam, Jack – leading them about by their noses and flaring with jealousy the moment they looked away, but Clara actively sets hers against each other to secure their devotion to her. And unlike Rose, who was a teenager with a background that explained how she became the woman she was, Clara had an about-face in personality between Series 7 and 8, as if the writers suddenly decided she needed personality flaws to be interesting and started adding them. There was no character development, just sudden shifts, much like the sudden shift from her first date with Danny to being deeply in love with each other.
Then, at the end of “Death in Heaven”, Clara and the Doctor has one of the best scenes in the entire series. For each character, things have turned out poorly, but the other believes they’ve turned out well. Both characters realize that their lives and their relationship has been terrible for the past year and that it would be better for the other person if they went their separate ways letting the other person think that everything turned out well for them: the Doctor thinks that Danny is alive and that Clara will be happy with him, and Clara thinks that the Doctor found Gallifrey and is going to return to his people. Sacrificing their own welfare, each of them puts on a happy face and tells the other that everything’s great, and they part.
Oh my god: character growth! Two selfish characters (yes, the Doctor was selfish all the way through the series, too) learn to give up what they desperately want, for someone else. It was a gorgeous scene, and with Clara in particular, it strengthened her in a similar manner as Martha’s departure strengthened her… only to be dashed one minute later with Santa appearing to tell the Doctor to go fix her. Yes, it doesn’t completely negate her moment of growth, but she no longer needs to follow through on her sacrifice for the Doctor (and vice-versa). And at the end of “Last Christmas”, everyone’s happy and she doesn’t have a care in the universe again, because she’s back in the TARDIS. She’s not even mourning Danny anymore, because a dream her mind invented told her that she doesn’t need to. I once read an article which talked about how the story arcs of the Eleventh Doctor moved him away from working through moral problems and towards “cheat codes” so that he didn’t have to make choices, and this trend continues in the current show.
And that’s why I am not enthusiastic about Series 9. No, I don’t like Clara, who is returning, but that’s only a very small part of the problem. It’s the writing, the poor plots, and the schizophrenic character and development design that’s turning me off, and all the way to the end of Series 8, that trend continues. Is it likely that it’s going to change in Series 9? I don’t see any evidence of that. I could see myself enjoying Clara if her story and personality and reactions were in any way understandable (I point back to my opinion of Rose, another character I don’t like, but whose story I liked because the character was well-developed and progressed naturally in response to her experiences), but it doesn’t seem likely that their handling of her, or the Doctor or any other character, is going to change. I’ll watch the new series when it debuts, and hope to be pleasantly surprised.