We’ve made it to the final Audience Identification piece: the era of the great Peter Capaldi. Two of the seasons features Clara and his final season features Bill and Nardole, although the latter barely qualifies. It’s also the era of Steven Moffat, the writer who gave us some of the best ideas in Doctor Who history… and coupled them with some of the worst. So what do we get with these three companions? How are they the audience identification? What can we learn from them?
Clara. Hands down my favorite companion… superficially only; I found her utterly beautiful but morally bankrupt (barring rare exceptions). Her time with all of the Doctors (after finding herself interacting with all of them throughout time and especially spending time with three of them for the 50th anniversary special) has done nothing for how she will interact with the 12th Doctor. What she has learned being with him is how to lie, manipulate, hide things from her boyfriend, cheat and as if that’s not bad enough, the worst of all is that she’s happy about it. She takes it like it’s a thrill to be all of this, constantly trying to one-up the Time Lord as if she can even begin to show the Doctor the splendors of the universe like he could for her. She is proud of herself for being able to manipulate people. When she’s caught red-handed when she unwittingly tells Cyber-Danny everything, the extent of her remorse is hugging him. And keep in mind, this is the same episode that she tries to manipulate the Doctor through domination, by throwing his TARDIS keys into lava. The Doctor proves to be the ultimate role model in his inhuman ability to forgive, but that doesn’t change what she does. Furthermore she is unwilling to entertain her own idiosyncrasies. In Deep Breath, she acknowledges that nothing is more important than her egomania which ultimately is at the heart of why she does what she does to the Doctor: her feelings are more important than everyone else’s. These are all horrible messages for a younger viewer and paint Moffat in a particularly poor light since he created most of what led to this (including that deplorable “rule one: the Doctor lies”). I do not believe for an instant that it’s how we fans are viewed and if we are, I’m glad Moffat is done with the show. I think it’s Moffat thinking he’s creating an interesting character when, in reality, he’s breaking the bond we have with the companion. She is so far from a role model as to be a low-level villain. She adversely affects the Doctor’s moral compass too, sending him on a 4.5 billion year tantrum. She is the cause of him committing murder of one of his own people then waging war on his home world. And let’s not ignore the fact that this Doctor longed to find his own people alive after the time war. Now, after just one incarnation of learning he saved them, he’s on a war path, killing at least one of them? Clara is one of the most dangerous characters in the Doctor Who universe because she’s branded as a “good guy” yet she fails to embody the traits. Even her self-sacrifice in Face the Raven is tainted by the fact that she fully expected to be able to cheat on a deal that was made. Why the Doctor mourns her more than, say, the Brigadier, or Sarah Jane, or Donna… or countless others, is a question that will forever haunt Capaldi’s era.
So after driving a stake into one of the hearts of the series, what could Moffat do for an encore? He gave us Nardole. Nardole is a good character who seems to just be there. He’s funny but has no back story to speak of and when he joins the Doctor in season 10, he’s more of a butler than a companion. We are never really even sure how he survived the beheading from his introductory episode and maybe it’s not even needed. Sure he’s fun to watch, says some hilarious things, but has almost no substance as a character. I don’t think we are meant to relate to him; he’s a balance for the Doctor. He doesn’t represent us and we really don’t have enough to go on to see what we learn. But then there’s Bill…
After the devastation left by Clara, early season 10 trailers showed Bill as another lost cause. And then the season started and Moffat made one final move before his time with the series was done. He gave us a companion to love. Bill is a young woman who wants to learn. She’s even sitting in on lectures that she can’t get school credit for. She has a family and a deep love for her mother who had passed far too young. She’s intelligent and in awe of everything the Doctor shows her. She epitomizes the best traits of a companion. She’s honest and curious, caring and smart, loving and fun. She brings wonder to the series by being surprised and excited by what she sees and she can’t get enough of it. Even as her heartbreaking finale comes to a close, she does for others before focusing on herself; she takes the Doctor’s body back to the TARDIS, the only place she believes he can find peace. Only when that is done is she willing to move on and experience more of the universe. She is a role model and that’s also what it takes to be with the Doctor. If she represents us, we are in good hands. Maybe it shows that we love a show about learning and having fun doing it. Maybe she represents the caring we can have for others and putting them first. Or just being honest. She’s a counterpoint to Clara at the extreme end of a spectrum but that just helps make Bill stand out even more.
Sarah Jane Smith was always my favorite companion, having been the one that I met at the very beginning and, though there have been other greats, none ever rivaled Sarah Jane in my heart, but Bill is a damned close contender for that throne and it would be well deserved if she took it. But then, Bill wouldn’t want that. She’d probably give it up just to honor Sarah Jane and that just makes my point that much stronger.
As we enter the era of the 13th Doctor, the writers will have a hard act to follow. Moffat ended his era as lead writer giving us a truly great companion and we’ll be hard pressed to see her like again. But maybe, if we’re very lucky, and wish really hard, lightning can strike twice… ML
They tried to make the 6th Doctor appealing as a morally ambiguous Doctor, mainly for the benefit of watching his Doctor gradually grow into an embraceable Doctor. On TV that didn’t work out and that was mainly the fault of Michael Grade. But Big Finish made quite satisfying amends. Yet with the 12th Doctor being openly a second chance at the specific Doctor-ish concept for TV, it was the most daring move for the modern Dr. Who, certainly for the conflicts with Clara and Series 9, and I liked Jenna Coleman’s imprint on Clara, because it was remarkably different from previous female companions, even if she could be just as or even more morally ambiguous that the 12th Doctor. It was Peter Capaldi who earns the most credit for making Dr. Who work adequately well. And to be fair, it was the beginning aftermath of the 50th Anniversary so Capaldi and Coleman had that much in their favor.
When we look at how Blake’s 7 succeeded with shades-of-gray anti-heroes, whom we could easily care for as opposed to being bored to death by ‘perfect’ stereotypes, British SF television does put a unique stamp on pivotal SF characters. When we also look at Sapphire & Steel given how Steel was abrasive enough in just getting the job done, even with the two children guest characters who just wanted their parents back, so that Sapphire’s cool charisma could compensate for that, it’s an analogy to the darker territory that was clearly aimed at for the 12th Doctor’s era, certainly for how Knock Knock and Extremis improved on Whoniversal scare tactics. So I was okay enough for the sake of excitingly challenging drama with how Capaldi’s era went, certainly for his great speeches about fear being a superpower, his anti-war speech mirror 2015’s Paris attacks and of course how his 12th-Doctor morality came full circle (in his last scene with Simm and Gomez) with his speech about kindness being worth it because it quite clearly beats the opposite.
As the last male Doctor for a long while at least, even with previous male Doctors still having more adventures thanks to Big Finish, Capaldi will be as hard to match as each of his predecessors. As for Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas, they were absolutely beautiful companions to end Capaldi’s time on Dr. Who, certainly with Bill’s breakthroughs in her period-piece adventures for obvious reasons. Last I heard Nardole might return, imaginably at least for a prequel/sequel. If that somehow gives Alex Kingston a chance to meet Jodie’s Doctor, that will be the icing on the cake.
Thanks again for your reviews.
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When I said Alex Kingston I of course meant River Song meeting the 13th Doctor. I apologize for the error.
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