A (possibly) familiar argument, now with brand new words…
The Impossible Girl arc was an incredibly smart way of introducing the new companion for the Eleventh Doctor. Setting up Clara as a compelling and wonderful character, it played with the audience’s ideas of what a Moffat era storyline looks like. At its core, it was the ultimate subversion of the tropes we had become accustomed to.
When Jenna Coleman first appeared in Asylum of the Daleks and then The Snowmen, theorising came into full force. Every explanation one could imagine was traded around, from a relative of past characters to a gift from the universe itself. But what they all had in common was that people felt they already knew what to expect. And what they did not expect was that Clara Oswald, the mystery, the woman with the thousand monikers (Soufflé Girl, The Girl Who Can, The Woman Twice Dead…), would turn out to be a normal girl.
With the mysterious beginning of her story behind her, Clara’s arc repeatedly emphasised this fact. This was true right down to her first face-to-face interaction with the Doctor. It is “Just Clara Oswald”, thank you very much. Later, this was echoed in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, when the Doctor exclaimed “You’re just Clara, aren’t you!”. And Emma Grayling’s “She’s a perfectly ordinary girl” speaks for itself, loud and clear. In the Doctor’s obsession with the mystery of Clara, the story clearly takes Clara’s side.
When he disturbingly dedicated his days to painting Clara at the cloister, this was described as “his madness” by the monks. It was not only Emma who questioned whether Clara as an ordinary girl is “not enough”, but also Clara herself who told the Doctor off. She noticed his intrusion into her past and refused to compete with a fantasy, rejected the amazing opportunity to travel all of space and time if it means that she was not accepted for who she is. The Doctor was depicted as wrong and ultimately as scary when he accused Clara of being a trap and Mr Clever talked about how “interested” he was in Clara.
It is a sleight of hand, really, in which the viewer was invited to join the excitement around the large question mark which hovered over Clara, to become engaged in the story of a new companion. But at the same time, we – and the Doctor – were told that this could not really be it. Any attempt of the Doctor to investigate the mystery of her only revealed someone who has experienced loss, who is compassionate, who tries her utmost to be as brave as the adventures she seeks demand of her.
The Impossible Girl arc reached its climax in The Name of the Doctor. “I’m the Impossible Girl. I was born to save the Doctor.” A final red herring to suggest that this arc would play out in a straight-forward manner. There is a grand mystery to Clara Oswald, connected to him like the cracks in time which stole Amy’s family from her, like the Silence who kidnapped River Song from her parents. And this is the episode where the Doctor would finally solve it. Of course, that is not at all what happened.
In context, Clara’s statement shifted, subtly but importantly until it became literal in nature. Splintered in time, Clara’s echoes are born, they live and they die. She gave them their purpose, by jumping into the Doctor’s time stream and saving not only him but with him whole star systems from certain destruction, but it is not her purpose. She is an ordinary person who made the choice to do something extraordinary. Inspired by her mother and a philosophy of soufflés, in the end this was as much of a play with RTD tropes of ordinary women and domesticity as it was with Moffat’s mysteries.
It is important to note that all of this can only happen because the Doctor fails. He does not solve Clara, like a human puzzle box. Secrets do not keep them safe at all, Clara needed to remember what happened in the TARDIS to realise what she is able to do. The Dalek Asylum, Victorian London, they were her own clues. She found the solution as he was dying and helpless. It is the truth, her courage and her self-sacrifice which rescued him. And Clara Oswald became the heroine of a story which spans all of space and time.
However, series 7 was not just a tale of tropes and subversions. It also lay the foundations for Clara’s characterisation and her relationship with the Doctor in a way that is, in retrospect, masterful. She was presented to us as a person with a life she had no plans to leave behind. After all, Clara Oswald lost her mum at a young age and wanted to travel, before staying with the Maitlands as their nanny after their own mother died. There is responsibility there and maturity. She is sentimental, genre-savvy and clever. But it is not only her kindness which shines bright, Clara is much more complicated.
She is someone who will bake the same soufflé recipe over and over again, with the same disastrous results. Overtly she is full of an adventurous spirit, but she masks her fears just like other less desirable traits. And so we experienced her panic and insecurity after she tries to negotiate with the Ice Warrior. We saw her ruthlessness when she is willing to force a severely weakened Emma to risk her life again. Leadership and bossiness exist a hair’s breadth away, from taking charge of a platoon to battling over the control over a laptop and telling the Doctor to “pop off and get us a coffee”.
Sometimes overshadowed by speculation and suspicion, Clara’s and the Doctor’s interactions were characterised by both distance and the strong, warm sense of affection which they would built on in the future. As much as he obsessed over her, the Doctor clearly loves Clara even then. It should not be forgotten that he asked Victorian Clara to travel with him long before he knew of her connection to Oswin. Still, “always brave, always funny, always exactly what I need” shows just how little he knew this Clara, who hid behind smiles, wittiness, and cute dresses.
And so, really, they both came to love someone they did not quite understand yet, behind the mask of a perfect 21st-century woman and the veil of the youthful regeneration of a 2,000-year-old time lord keeping way too many secrets. We still had so much to learn about them. They still had so many adventures ahead.