by Ruth Long
This has not, by any means, been an easy article to write. It has involved a lot of (at times uncomfortable) introspection, unpacking and examining so many emotions, fears, regrets and hopes from the past five years. But as we enter a new year, a new chapter in my life and Doctor Who’s, and say farewell to another, it feels like the right time to do this, before moving forward.
In casting a woman in the titular role, Doctor Who has done something truly amazing. For a character portrayed by male actors for over half a century, it’s a bold, brilliant and monumental step forward that is rightly being celebrated by many as a progressive new direction in which to take this landmark of science fiction and British television. Chris Chibnall’s vision in this regard is one to be applauded, and I eagerly look forward to experiencing the next era of the show alongside a generation of children who will grow up knowing, and being inspired by, a female Doctor.
But in the jubilation following this becoming a reality, it would be remiss to overlook how we got here; we came the long way round, after all. The significance of the past few series in particular, under the stewardship of Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi, cannot and should not be dismissed. And so as a part of that I would like to share with you one fan’s story and relationship with this fictional universe, more specifically my own. Because Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth incarnation of the Time Lord, though a remarkable milestone for the franchise, will not be my first female Doctor.
When Doctor Who returned to our screens in 2005 I was still very young. Like a lot of children at the time, I soon became enamoured with the exciting adventures of this extraordinary alien and his companions. Playground games at school frequently involved fleeing from imaginary Cybermen, or outwitting whatever monster had appeared in the most recent episode. I remember watching each week curious and excited for what would happen next. But even then, looking up to the Doctor as I did, I often dreamed of a girl hero, someone like me, doing what he does. My ten-year-old self came up with the idea of ‘Nurse Who’ (an entirely sincere term to me then, not like the derogatory way it’s used today), who travelled through time and space in a royal red telephone box saving the day with sonic screwdriver in hand. Not the most original of concepts admittedly, but I loved picturing stories with her, drawing her escapades in old notebooks. Many years on, I still think of that image. I had no idea it would one day come true.
I stopped following the show in my early teens with the departure of Russell T Davies and David Tennant, opting to jump off at such a substantial point of change. I wasn’t ready, perhaps, to embrace that pivotal element which remains at its foundation. I was only vaguely aware of the subsequent run led by Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill; a trailer or promotional image here and there, friends mourning the loss of “the Ponds”, the announcement that an actress I somewhat recognised from Waterloo Road was to be the new companion. It was all playing out in the background while my life was becoming rapidly more complicated.
I won’t go into detail, but it was during this time that my twin sister became severely ill. Those years were a blur of difficult appointments, school meetings and tearful nights holding onto the hope that things would get better. By the beginning of 2013 I’d left college due to the stress of my current circumstances, resolving to return and restart the course that September, and my sister had been admitted to hospital for the second time. I was drifting, looking for a job to occupy the months ahead, and overall, feeling pretty lost.
One uneventful afternoon, on a whim after it cropped up on BBC iPlayer, I decided to revisit the programme I’d barely touched since 2008. Watching the Series 7 opener ‘Asylum of the Daleks’, I finally got a taste of what I’d missed. In the grand scheme it may not go down in Who’s history as a veritable classic, but I was struck by the quality of the storytelling, production and acting. There was something about this episode, however, that truly stood out. Right from the brazen notes of Carmen’s Habenera declaring her arrival, I fell completely in love with the witty, eccentric young woman who fought off Dalek conversion by burning soufflés and blasting opera music.
Oswin Oswald was (as I presumed at the time) a one-off character with such personality and performed so magnetically that her single guest appearance left a lasting impression with me. I felt genuinely gutted at her fate in the episode; she would have made one hell of a great companion, I thought. Cue me shortly discovering that she was, in fact, none other than Jenna-Louise Coleman, about to join the Doctor full-time aboard the TARDIS for the upcoming series. Not only that, but in each of her introductory stories she appeared as two different, equally charming people… before dying. Twice. Well, after such an unusual debut I couldn’t not watch on and learn what this perplexing character was all about.
Clara Oswald is certainly not a conventional Doctor Who companion, if there even is such a thing. Her entrance onto our screens was a succession of challenged expectations and subversions, a theme both prominent and consistent throughout her tenure. But it was this that first endeared me to Clara: she was enigmatic, terribly clever, quick-thinking, brave and most of all, kind. In other words, someone very much like the Doctor. It’s a great shame, I think, that the nature of her opening arc in the series, intended as a deconstruction of the ‘mystery woman’ narrative, was more effective in preoccupying the audience with the puzzle-box of the Impossible Girl than allowing us to fully engage with a character that has always been so much more than the plot device she’s often labelled as.
Sadly, it seems that some were never able to look beyond this formed conception from her early episodes, which I believe is why the character is still subject to criticisms that she is ‘generic’, ‘two-dimensional’ or a ‘cardboard cut-out’. In my opinion such accusations, especially when one accounts for Clara’s development during the Twelfth Doctor’s era, can be proved demonstrably false. Indeed, I would argue that she is one of the most complex and nuanced individuals to ever set foot in the famous blue box.
Returning to 2013, I greatly enjoyed the adventures of the Eleventh Doctor and Clara, which provided a welcome measure of escapism among the other goings on in my life. But it wasn’t until the following year that I would discover just how much of a profound impact Clara Oswald and Doctor Who would have on me. My sister was still in and out of hospital, and I was tackling a formidable pile of college assignments with rather mixed success. It became evident as time wore on that I wasn’t as physically capable as I used to be; I struggled with concentration, and was increasingly absent from college because of my symptoms.
That summer I was diagnosed with a chronic health condition, which though validating, came as a heavy blow nonetheless. In the following months I was constantly having to confront my own limitations. I could do far less than my peers, worked much slower and even the simplest of tasks exhausted me. Feelings of frustration, isolation and inadequacy began to creep in as I kept hitting the stubborn divide between what I wanted to do and what I could do. I know that compared to many with similar conditions I’m very fortunate, but it was still a hard adjustment, and to this day is something that remains an unavoidable part of my life, of me.
It was during this period of coming to terms with everything that I discovered two crucial things. The first was a love for writing; not the academic science-based writing of my coursework, but an engagement with and commentary on storytelling. The Twelfth Doctor was set to dominate our screens in all his grumpy-browed Scottish glory, promising a challenging, different approach to the character and his companion. And I, like many fans, was brimming with speculation and anticipation. This prompted me to get involved in the Doctor Who community for the first time since getting back into the show, initiating with the contribution of an article to one of the more well-known fan sites. You can probably guess its subject. But the content of the article doesn’t matter so much as what it lead to. Not only was this the first step in me finding a new passion, but it opened a door to the second, and even more important thing: the community itself.
This anecdote isn’t unique to my situation – it’s one that rings true for countless others – but I’ve gotten to know some of the most talented, special individuals, made some of the most wonderful friends from all over the word, through Doctor Who, and especially through my love of Clara. These people have helped me tremendously in ways I can’t fully express. They’ve made be a better, wiser, more empathetic person, and have encouraged me to take chances, dream big, and never give up. They are a consistent source of kindness, optimism, and hope. I owe them all so much.
If Clara’s first series was dedicated to dismantling the convoluted theories in lieu of a simple, selfless act of sacrifice by an ordinary girl with grand ambitions, Series 8 explored her deepest flaws and insecurities. I have rarely seen a female character portrayed on television who is so lovingly flawed, and in this particular way. Egotistical, bossy, a bit arrogant; someone who has trouble being honest with others and herself; whose fears and personal issues put a strain on her relationships; who is impulsive, emotionally-driven, perhaps a little insensitive at times. And yet, the narrative doesn’t decry her for it, punish her, deem her unworthy. For she is totally and completely forgiven, and unconditionally loved. Because if the Doctor can have these flaws, you bet Clara can. And she’s all the more magnificent for them; they make her tangibly, achingly human.
Clara has always held ideas above her station, never content to remain within the bounds of the roles ascribed to her, ever pushing against the limits of the possible. The heroine of her own epic story, she redefined what a companion could be, and Series 9 brings this arc to its zenith. “Why can’t I be like you?” she asks the Doctor, confronted with the reality that despite what she might believe, she isn’t the title character, and in aspiring to be something more, she finds herself on a cold street, facing an age-old symbol of death. But that’s not where it ends, of course it isn’t, because that’s never been the message of Doctor Who, nor of Clara Oswald. No, these stories will not leave you to fall: they will make you fly.
When I saw “Face the Raven” for the first time, I was heartbroken. It was a beautiful story, but an immensely tragic one. A tough reflection of the real world, one could argue, a cautionary example of someone gambling with their own life and losing, accepting the consequences with courage and dignity. After all, life rarely succeeds in being a fairytale. But that’s where the Doctor comes in. This is the show where tears signify hope, fear is a superpower and achieving the impossible just takes a little bit of imagination and a whole lot of love. And so instead of hitting the ground, Clara joins the stars. I watched in elation as she got the ending I hadn’t dared to believe might come true. I’ll never forget that feeling.
Today, two long years and another spectacular series later, things still aren’t easy. I’ve still got my condition, and am continuing to find the best ways to live with it. Though my sister has come far, she’s still fighting her own battles. And yet, I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in a very long time, ready to face the future with enthusiasm and purpose. What’s more, along with an exceptional team of people, I’m channeling my passion for writing, kindled by the character of Clara, into a project continuing her adventures. Because that’s the magic of her story: it’s become ours to tell.
I believe Doctor Who, at its very core, is about three things, and this past era has captured them perfectly. We see it in the Twelfth Doctor’s profound kindness, Bill Pott’s enduring optimism, and Clara Oswald’s ceaseless hope.
Twelve, the sensitive, the merciful. The man who doubted and questioned himself, who was abrasive on the outside due to his own insecurities, but through the lessons of those dear to him grew to be the most compassionate Doctor of them all. He will hold the hand of his greatest enemies and lead them out of the shadows; he will travel to the deepest hell, burn himself in a cycle of perpetuity, break through a wall harder than diamond, and render himself blind to save the people he loves. Kindness. His Doctor can be found in an intricate painting of a smiling face, the melody heard as the wind catches two towers, photographs of someone long gone, a mournful song playing on a guitar, a final stand taken without hope, witness or reward, soldiers laying down their weapons for one miraculous night. The Doctor at his most vulnerable, his most courageous, his most selfless, and his kindest.
Bill, a remarkable, inspiring young woman unashamed to be who she is. Regardless of what the universe may throw at her, she remains incorruptibly, joyfully herself. At a time when the world felt more hostile and complicated and confusing than ever, Bill Potts arrived to light the way. Optimism, its own form of hope. Bill, the friend, the questioner; never ceasing to believe in better, and challenging others to do the same. There is a striking honesty to her, unburdened by masks or pretence; when she doesn’t understand, she smiles, delighting in the unknown instead of fearing it, finding childlike wonder in the discovery of new things. Defiantly, brilliantly and beautifully optimistic.
Clara, meaning ‘bright, clear, illustrious’, born on the 23rd of November and woven throughout the show’s entire history. A romantic, a dreamer, a storyteller; there in the darkest hour for a frightened little boy in a barn, three weary warriors on the edge of devastation, and on so many occasions, an old man ready to give up; who even death cannot extinguish, no matter how hard it may try; who has been a constant companion during one of the most difficult periods of my life. Hope. Clara, a character created not to be more important than anyone else, nor more powerful or more special, but to be emblematic of the spirit of Doctor Who itself. An ordinary, extraordinary, deeply imperfect human being who stole a TARDIS and ran away into an infinity of possible stories. A proud declaration that absolutely anyone can be a Doctor, so long as you remember never to be cruel or cowardly, and if you ever are, to make amends; to run fast, laugh hard, and above all, be kind. You can’t get more hopeful than that.
When I think of Clara, I think of tearful nights holding onto the hope that things would get better; of incredible people who have gotten me through the darkest of days; of unconditional love regardless of my own shortcomings or the ones of those I care about; of breaking free of my limitations in unexpected ways; of endless new stories that I get to tell; and of the little girl all those years ago fantasising about Nurse Who. I ended this year at a crossroads; tired, drained, apprehensive at what lay ahead. Twice Upon a Time for me, like Peter Capaldi’s dear Doctor, was a gentle journey of contemplation and acceptance, a chance to let go and begin anew. I have loving family and friends to support me, a past to reflect upon, memories to treasure. And just when I needed her most, as ever, there she was. The very last time we see Clara Oswald onscreen, she stands as a shining ray of light amidst a desolate battlefield. And that, quite frankly, is what she always has been, and always will be, to me.
Thank you Steven Moffat, thank you Jenna, Peter and Pearl, thank you Doctor Who, and thank you Clara, for giving me hope.
Thank you, Clara, for being my Doctor.
Ruth “The Lazy Cat” Long (http://the-lazy-cat-bakes-souffles.tumblr.com/ ) is the world’s leading expert on Clara Oswald and has contributed to multiple works on the character, including the book “101 Claras to see“.