Doctor Who came back from a brief hiatus this weekend with a rather unremarkable episode revolving around a plot to steal human minds over wifi networks in order to feed a mysterious client. Its main purpose seemed to be to introduce Clara Oswald as a companion rather than occasional character, though she still hasn’t committed to traveling space and time in his ‘snog box,’ as she so quaintly put it.
Oswald in this episode was frankly disappointing. We’ve seen her cunning, resourceful, smart, wily, and heartbreaking in prior episodes (and have yet to learn her secrets), but in this episode, she was just another pretty damsel in distress. No surprise there—showrunner Steven Moffat wrote the episode, and that’s what the man specialises in. A pale plastic imitation of the Clara Oswald we’ve seen in prior episodes moved woodenly across the screen here, almost never having a chance to do anything interesting.
First she was too inept to access a wifi network, then silly enough to get herself partially uploaded into an evil wifi network, then foolish enough to do it again after the Doctor had already saved her once. The rest of the time she seemed to spend lounging around on various items of furniture looking pretty and vacant, like a doll waiting for someone to play with her. The one moment when she showed any initiative and spunk was when she was using the skills she’d accidentally acquired during her time in the wifi network.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh on poor Clara, but I would so love to see a different theme with the Doctor’s modern companions. In the original series, not all of them were winsome young women designed to be viewed as love interests. They were in fact rather diverse in nature, and the same could be done again if the creators could pull their heads out of the paper bags they appear to have stuck them in. There’s no good reason to trap the show in a series of endless stupid romances.
And to constantly deluge viewers in a tide of pretty and mostly white girls with long locks who seem to need rather a lot of rescuing. While some may gain some independence, skills, and fire over time, that’s very much credited to the Doctor, rather than being something they’re allowed to develop on their own. And in all cases, we’re reminded continually that they have a strange reliance and dependence on the Doctor, not just as the source of all their adventures but also as their ultimate rescuer.
Only a handful of women on the show seem to be allowed to exist and move independently of the Doctor, let alone defy him. At first, I thought Clara might stand a chance of being one of them, could become, in fact, a woman on her own who travels with the Doctor as an equal, as it seemed River Song once could. But instead, this episode reduced her to yet another in a long line of companions made dull, ordinary, and lacklustre, all the better to allow the Doctor to shine and reflect his greatness upon them as they slowly become better by slow virtue of his presence.
The Doctor is already obsessed with Clara, as has been proved over the course of the last couple episodes. How long will it take for her to become besotted and start pining after him, subjecting viewers to awkward borderline romance for however many episodes we have to endure before she goes away and is replaced by yet another slim, sleek-haired white girl with big sensitive eyes and a ‘gosh golly, how would I ever survive without the Doctor?’ smile?
And will we be subjected to more frankly creepy scenes of the Doctor lurking around a sleeping Clara to tuck her hair back and shower her with flowers and leave biscuits on her side table? Because I really hope the answer to that question is ‘no.’ I wasn’t aware that Doctor Who/Twilight crossover fic was making its way into the writers’ room, but apparently it has, as that was a rather classic Edward in Bella’s bedroom at night but we’re supposed to think it’s romantic Because True Love scene, and it left me with a deep sense of the chills and not much else.
The Doctor’s characterisation, as a man (well, alien) essentially doomed to travel space and time alone, is fascinating; and I would like to see an exploration of his search for companions and his embrace of their humanity and the fallibilities that come with it, including the inability to regenerate. Isolated from his kind, the Doctor is alone in a very large universe, and it’s the companions that make the show so exciting, but must so many of them be women stripped of all personality and agency who end up falling in love with him?
Is there a way to explore the Doctor’s emotional complexity that doesn’t involve using women as plot devices? It’s bad enough when it’s done as part of an episode, as it so often is—even worse when it’s a core part of the show’s framing. Moffat’s run on the show has been rightly criticised for treating women absolutely atrociously, and this episode was further proof that he’s clearly not fit to be at the helm of such a beloved franchise. It’s time to dump old Stevie, my friends, and move on to someone who really knows how to make a television show with style.
Bonus points if she’s a lady.
Photo by Tama Leaver, under a Creative Common Attribution 2.0 Generic license.