Caitlin Smith is, so far as I can tell, the world’s leading expert on Clara Oswald. And yes, I’m counting Steven Moffat and Jenna Coleman. She’s also, generally speaking, one of the most insightful and interesting Doctor Who bloggers I know, and I’m honored to have her do a guest post for me. She blogs regularly on Tumblr, and is pretty much always this clever.
Oh, and if you missed it Friday, I’m doing my annual post-Christmas sale on books.
When Phil asked me to write a guest post on the Impossible Girl arc, I was surprised and honoured …and completely lost on where to begin. It’s a relatively simple arc, after all. The Doctor is fascinated by who Clara is and how she can be twice dead and yet still alive, and he focuses on solving the problem of Clara, often forgetting the person behind the mystery. He gets called out on this several times over the course of the series – by Madame Vastra, by Emma Grayling and by Clara herself. And of course in the end it turns out that the Impossible Girl is just a construct by the Doctor, and Clara-the-ordinary-girl is the important one.
Simple. There are of course interesting things to say about how the audience is complicit in the Doctor’s mystification of Clara, particularly as a response to the common complaint that Moffat’s female characters aren’t ordinary enough. We, like the Doctor, are unable or unwilling to look beyond the surface, and thus our judgements are as flawed as we are accusing the work to be.
But what I find particularly interesting, especially in light of series 8, is that the Impossible Girl isn’t just a construct of the Doctor, nor of the audience. It’s also a creation of Clara herself. It’s the first we see of the control freak, of the ego maniac needy game player. The Impossible Girl is the version of Clara that she most wants to be in Series 7.
When we meet Clara, she seems so very perfect. She’s clever, pretty and compassionate. She stands up to the Doctor, but not to the point of getting annoying. She’s confident, but not arrogant. She’s kind and loyal in how she stays to help the Maitland children. She ticks pretty much every box for what many people would consider perfect, and she definitely plays up to the societal expectations of her gender. All of these traits are the results of decisions Clara has made about the person she wants to present to the world. It would be so easy to believe that was the real Clara, because she makes herself so easy to like.
That was the first mask of Clara’s we saw, but it definitely wasn’t the last. For the rest of Series 7 we see her hero persona growing and blending with the ‘perfect’ mask of pre-Doctor Clara. She defeats a sun god with a leaf in “The Rings of Akhaten”, revealing not only how much she enjoys being the hero (complete with a deus ex machina), but also how much meaning she can give an ordinary object with the power of her determination. It’s little wonder she can do the same to herself.
Clara’s love of storybook tropes continues in “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”, when she berates the Doctor with ‘Good guys do not have zombie creatures. Rule one basic storytelling’. She knows what sort of story she wants her life to play out as, and what sort of role she and the Doctor each play in that story. This is also when we start to see the ‘control freak’ part of her personality coming out. It’s one of the few traits we see this series, along with the ruthlessness she shows in Hide, that aren’t part of the mask she chooses to show the world. In that, they are clues that the Clara we are seeing is not all that Clara is, and that she is very much the one controlling what we see and how we see it.
Clara’s determination to play the role of hero culminates in the creation of the Impossible Girl arc itself. Her choice to leap into the Doctor’s time stream was as much, if not more, about her own ambition and story and character development as it was about saving the Doctor and the universe. She paraphrases a metaphor from her mum, the woman who taught her how to impart meaning on every part of her life, and comes up with a catchphrase, before dramatically leaping to her doom/heroic climax.
The result of this was then even more creations based on Clara’s preferred version of herself. Oswin and Clara Oswin are flirty, adventurous, brave, and just flawed enough to be interesting. They’re heroes, as are all her echoes. They are the Impossible Girl Clara sought to become, but could only manage with the help of a little timey-wimey-ness.
Because Clara’s own masks can never last. There are always cracks, because there is always more to her than she lets the world see. She’s got a bubbly personality masking a bossy control freak, but the bossy control freak doesn’t go away just because she’s cheery. And so in the end it’s not just the Doctor and the audience who are creating walls and distractions between them and the full complexity of Clara Oswald, but also Clara herself.
It’s not easy to put all of yourself on show, and as of “Last Christmas” Clara still hasn’t quite managed it. She got close towards the end of Series 8 with the sticky notes of what she wanted to tell Danny about, but that got cut short. It’s a likely prospect for her arc in series 9, because the Impossible Girl isn’t done yet, and won’t be until she can just be without hiding behind a constructed version of herself. And to do that she will have to face up to why she’s hiding, and what she’s hiding from.
The answer to that, I think, goes right back to “Rings of Akhaten” and her ‘origin story’. She lost her mum at the age of 16 and everything changed. Even her dad and her relationship with him was different, so she became the person people expected her to be, the person they needed. It gave her control over her circumstances, and her determination and skill at that control made her very, very good at it.
But Clara is also a dreamer, and a bit of an egomaniac, so her wanting to please others and meet their needs soon turned into her wanting to fulfil her own dreams. And when she was given the chance by the Doctor, well that was all she needed to start the transformation from her ‘perfect’ mask to her ‘hero’ one. However the masks and the control were also starting to become a habit and an addiction, and we saw the many negative consequences throughout Series 8. The control freak part of her, which had for so many years made her masks easy to maintain, was starting to break through and destroy them.
Clara isn’t masking herself for any particular reason anymore. Not for protection or acceptance or even wish fulfilment. She’s travelling the universe with a man who loves her no matter what she does. She has everything she’s dreamed of, and she doesn’t need to rely on herself to be the consistency in her life. She has the freedom, finally, to let go of the masks, of the control, and just be Clara.
But when you’ve lived that way for almost half your life, it’s not an easy task. There’s no longer the need for her to be the Impossible Girl, but to be anything else Clara would have to do what the Doctor and the audience did in “The Name of the Doctor”: accept that the ordinary girl behind the mask is just as, if not more, important than the mask.
I don’t expect much will change, because Clara and her masks are almost indistinguishable at this stage. You can’t pretend to be someone for so long without becoming a lot more like them. What will change, however, is her acceptance of herself. And with that, the story of the Impossible Girl will be done.