Doctor Who: the companion takes charge

Doctor Who. the brilliant, long-running British sci-fi classic, is a vexing show when it comes to one element: the companions.

Basically, the companions of the time-traveling alien are stand-ins for the audience. The companion 1) allows the Doctor to explain, in exposition form, whatever is going on, and 2) serves to humanize the Doctor. And the companion is typically female.

There’s a well-worn cinematic trope called the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This is a character who is bright, bubbly and friendly, there to help the male protagonist achieve some measure of enlightenment. She has little if any inner life. She’s there simply to be the protagonist’s foil. Think Audrey Hepburn’s character in Breakfast at Tiffanys, or Natalie Portman in Garden State.

Doctor Who is ripe for Manic Pixie Dream Girls. The Doctor is a lost soul, a mournful (white) man searching for meaning and purpose in life. You would think Doctor Who would be bursting with Manic Pixie Dream Girls. But this show has mostly avoided falling into that trap. Let’s run down the companions (in the new Doctor Who era) and why they haven’t reached Manic Pixie Dream Girl status:

Rose Tyler was plucky and not afraid to hold her tongue. But she was too poor, uneducated and unrefined to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Rose

Martha Jones was closer to being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in that she was in love with the Doctor from the get-go. But she’s black (which doesn’t fit the archetype made by/for white guys) and way too educated (a doctor).

Martha

Donna Noble was my favorite companion, but she was nowhere close to being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She was too old, too physically imposing, and too rude. In short, she was too much her own person.

Donna

Amy Pond comes closest to being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl compared to the previous three. But Amy had a well-documented childhood that was messed up by the Doctor’s brief appearance and then disappearance. As a result, Amy 1) had a past. Manic Pixie Dream Girls barely exist as characters in their own right. And, 2) her past left her pretty messed up. Manic Pixie Dream Girls are supposed to be blank slates. Amy was definitely not blank (even if it was due to the meddling of our hero).

Amy Pond

And then there’s Clara Oswald.

If anyone was built to be a Manic Pixie Dream girl, it was Clara (played by Jenna Coleman), the pretty, brown-haired, pretty, perky, sarcastic schoolteacher. She was introduced under a veil of mystery (as two different characters centuries apart). She was known as the Impossible Girl; Clara Oswald helped save the Doctor by fragmenting herself across his multiple time streams. Her sole purpose was to save the Doctor, literally. You cannot get more Manic Pixie Dream Girl than that. She fit the definition. Hell, the definition could have been written about her.

Clara

But then something strange happened.

The incarnation of the Doctor that she saved (Matt Smith) died. And when the new one (played by Matt SmithPeter Capaldi) came along, she was strangely cold to him. Kind of weird for someone who had seen several versions of the Doctor. But she hasn’t just been cold: she has often battled him for control. That is NOT a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

So what happened?

I read a news snippet where Doctor Who head writer Steven Moffat explained that Clara Oswald does not see herself as a supporting character in the Doctor’s story. Clara Oswald sees herself as the protagonist, every bit as smart and wise and worthy as the Doctor. In fact, HE is the supporting character in HER story (Hence the brilliant Clara Who opening in one episode).

Peter Capaldi

This is a great inversion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. I don’t know if I completely buy it for one reason: with his control of the time-traveling machine the TARDIS, the Doctor is the one who dictates the agenda; he controls the storyline. But even if the Doctor truly holds power, Clara does not acknowledge this. Clara Oswald is a supporting character who refuses to support. Not just that, she demands support (which may be why she was so angry when her Manic Pixie Dream Boy shed his pretty face).

If this is true (which I am leaning toward), then we should all be asking who Clara’s next companion will be.

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