In my psychology class last year, we learned about an experiment that examined individualistic vs. collectivistic cultures, and I think it works as an apt analogy for how Davies and Moffat approach companions.
This experiment compared American and Japanese students. It asked them to describe themselves, first objectively and then how they saw themselves around different people. The Japanese students were puzzled by the first task, while Americans had a harder time with the second, the implication being that those from societies that prize individuality see themselves separate from the people around them, while those from cultures that value working together and harmony will view themselves in relation to the people around them. To reiterate: this is exactly what is happening in Moffat and Davies Who.
I rewatched “The Beast Below” recently, and was struck by the sheer awkwardness involved in a lot of Eleven and Amy’s interactions. He’s a little cruel, she’s a little standoffish, and they don’t seem to have that lovely click Donna and Ten, for example, had from the beginning. But that is purposeful on Moffat’s part; where Davies makes the companions old friends from the beginning, Moffat builds relationships from the ground up.
Look at, for example, Rose. No matter where in her run we see her, we know immediately who she is. She’s gutsy, she’s working-class, she has an obnoxious mother, she was in gymnastics as a kid, her favorite color is pink, she’s kind, she acts fast in a crisis, she doesn’t like school, she works at a department school, she has lots of friends, and she’s unsatisfied with her life. I can reel those off, twelve years after it first aired, with very little trouble, because that’s who Rose is. She changes and she grows, she stops being unsatisfied with life, but we as the audience know pretty well how she’ll react to any given scenario. You may like her, you may not, but you know her.
The same is true for Martha and Donna. Martha is a doctor, smart, ambitious, selfless, perfectionistic, patient, practical, middle-class. Donna is a temp, adores her grandfather, insecure, loud, bossy, enraged by injustice, protective of children, blunt, short-tempered.
But then we get to Amy. She’s a kissogram, she’s an orphan, and she has a boyfriend. Other than that? Amy is brave, except when confronted by Weeping Angels—then she devolves into an incapable mess. She is terrible at relationships—then she talks down a suicidal man. She’s hot-tempered and fiery, until the Doctor scolds her, upon which she shows admirable restraint and says…nothing. “Misogyny!” shout the haters. “Eye candy! Sexy Lamp!”
But what the haters don’t see is that Moffat’s companions, while nebulous when looked at without context, come into sharp relief against the backdrop of their relationships. They are completely different with different people because Moffat Who is very collectivistic; where Davies creates memorable characters within five minutes and makes us fall in love with them immediately, Moffat introduces us to relationships, defining the people we meet by how they interact with others. “We’re the Thin Fat Gay Married Anglican Marines. Why would we need names as well?” the Fat One says in “A Good Man Goes to War.” Indeed.
To take a representative example, in series 5 (Moffat’s first series), only “Time of Angels” and “The Beast Below” don’t have a big plot point surrounding a relationship. The rest do: Amy/Rory, Eleven/River, Amy’s crush on the Doctor, Craig/Sophie, Amy/Vincent, Amy and Bracewell, Guido and Isabella, and the Mack family. By contrast, in series 1, Davies’ first, only “Father’s Day,” “Boom Town,” and “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances” involve relationships that aren’t Nine/Rose—and TEC/TDD were written by Moffat. In addition, every Moffat companion to date has had a serious romantic relationship that lasts at least one season and is treated as an important part of their arc. In the Davies era, on the other hand, only Rose has one that lasts for more than two episodes. Martha suddenly starts dating Tom and equally suddenly marries Mickey, and Donna is engaged to an arachnophile and then marries a computer simulation. Neither has much screen time dedicated to romance.
Looking at Amy again, this relationship theme holds true. Amy has a set of basic traits that are displayed differently to different people. For instance, she is recklessly brave in the presence of others—particularly, in the presence of Eleven and Rory. She lost her entire family for a season and then lost her child, so when she’s isolated it takes all that bravery for her to keep from breaking. Amy Pond can waltz right into vampire school, sass a bunch of Daleks, and shoot a tranquilizer gun at a bunch of dinosaurs. But lock her away from the Doctor and Rory, or put one of them in danger, and she loses the ability to cope. Hence her sobbing during “Day of the Moon,” her instant capitulation to the Angels once Rory’s gone, the shaken response to the Dream Lord: Amelia Pond cannot take being alone. Who is Amelia Pond? That question becomes a lot easier when you frame it as: who is Amelia Pond with her friends? Who is she when alone?
This system works well for other traits too. Amy is flirty, except with her husband. With him she is serious. This is because her sexuality is her defense mechanism against those who ridicule her mind: she will be noticed for something. Call her crazy and she’ll be sexy to make up for it. Rory always takes her seriously and she does him the courtesy of doing likewise. With the Doctor, it’s not until mid-series 6 that she is truly done being afraid that he’ll abandon her, upon which she stops flirting with him as well. Thus the sudden drop in innuendo and general sexiness in the last half of her run: it’s not because she’s married, it’s because she interacts with Rory more.
The system holds true with Clara as well. Part of the problem with her introduction in series 7 was that time jumped too fast. Moffat’s characters depend on relationships, but we didn’t see enough of Clara’s relationship with the Doctor to be able to truly define her. Where Amy and the Doctor grew slowly more comfortable with each other and we saw some inconsistencies disappear while others grew stronger, with Clara we didn’t see enough of the beginning awkwardness to know what is “normal” for Clara and what is her being bros/romantic/sexually ambiguous partner-for-life with somebody. That changed in series 8 because Danny Pink made an appearance.
See, with Danny, Clara takes the lead in the relationship. She asks him out, she leaves when he annoys her, she comes back confidently, she flirts and flirts again when he fails to pick it up the first time. With the Doctor, on the other hand, she’s physically brave but a total coward when it comes to actually discussing anything important. Inconsistency? No. It’s just the same trait expressed differently around different people. Clara lies to Danny—about what she’s doing. She lies to the Doctor—about who she’s with. Again, same basic characteristic, different relationship. This is where having that extra connection for Clara is extremely helpful in ascertaining her true nature: when all we see is the Clara around the Doctor, we can’t be sure if that’s the Clara in her natural habitat. Once we see her with somebody else, we realize—or have our suspicions confirmed—that Clara, more than most, wants control over people’s perceptions of her and changes her behavior based on that.
We see this same sort of thing with Bill. Moffat improved on Clara’s introduction by a) letting us see the evolution of the Doctor and Bill’s relationship over a few months, and b) giving her another relationship right away. Bill is a dynamic character but again there are inconsistencies: Bill is sharp and asks questions nobody else would think to ask, except when her crush tells her to look into a scary puddle. Where was the skepticism then? The answer: she’s skeptical with her professor, but naive with her gf. I’ll expect to see more of that as Bill’s arc continues: she’ll be an idiot around romantic interests, sharp as a tack around the Doctor, and we’ll get to know her better as the Doctor and Nardole do.
Moffat and Davies aren’t any better or worse than each other; they merely define their characters using different parameters. Davies sees his characters as individuals, consistent both externally and internally. Moffat defines his characters by those around them, consistent with internal logic but varying depending on external circumstances. All the companions are beautiful, dynamic people with fascinating and complex relationships, and we as a fandom should recognize the fundamental difference between Moffat and Davies and acknowledge that their differences do not mean that one or the other is lesser.