Yes, the female companions of the Moffat era are smart, strong, capable, multi-talented, capable, prone to saving the day, etc.
But this is just the job of the companion. Even the worst of the classic series companions – Victoria, Dodo, etc – gets to be smart, strong, capable, etc when required. They don’t tend to save the day in the classic series, but they always do what is needed and expected of them. It’s a tautology: the companions do the companion things more or less successfully. That’s not something that’s entirely untroubling, but – for good or ill – it’s how this works. In the revived series, a great deal more is expected of the companions. It’s actually worrying just how much is expected of Martha. But the point is that they all step up because that’s what they’re in the text to do. The ones that don’t, fail to be companions (i.e. Adam).
You also have to look at what they do and what happens to them on top of their basic role as companion. Rose rejects the roles of shop worker, daughter, girlfriend, etc. in favour of gradually becoming a committed social actor. Sadly, she is reabsorbed into such roles by the end (a major disappointment). Martha throws herself into the role of social actor to a huge extent, ultimately rejecting the Doctor because he cannot satisfy her level of newly self-created level of self-esteem. Donna escapes her emotionally unsatisfying family life and work life to, once again, become a social actor. The theft of this from her is horrific, and is clearly meant to be. It all goes wrong by the end of the RTD era, with them all married off, etc. But this, however awful (and it is crushingly awful), is still a relatively late development.
The early-to-mid Moffat-era companions, by contrast, are given the arrangement of their domestic lives as their main extra-curricular activity (so to speak) on top of their ‘duties’ as a companion, right the way through.
Amy’s character – i.e. what she does, says and thinks on top of all the fulfilment of ‘companion duties’ – is focused upon getting married or not getting married, being a mother or not being a mother, having a domestic home life or not having a domestic home life, being a wife, saving her marriage, etc, etc etc. The Doctor actually intervenes, several times, to ensure that her personal life runs along the proper lines. Whereas, in the RTD era, the Doctor was a force that (selfishly) drew the women out of the confines of personal and work life and into the wider arena of social action, in the Moffat era the Doctor actively tries to provide Amy with a perfect, middle-class domestic idyll. House. Car. Marriage. Etc.
River is ostensibly an archaeologist, or sometimes an assassin, but her character arc (if the random string of things she does can be called a character arc) is all about her assimilation into stability via her romance with, and marriage to, the Doctor. Far from dragging her out of domesticity into social action, the Doctor saves her by dragging her the other way…and she does the same to him.
Clara, it must be admitted, is a little different. She’s got hardly any personal life at all, and has her duties on top of this absence. They are initially employment duties which seem to meld strangely with her companion duties (i.e. the kids in ‘Nightmare in Silver’).
She’s interesting actually, because she’s an inflection of the true neoliberal ideal of the female as both domestic provider and multi-tasking worker. Her work is domestic. But she also plays whatever role is required of her by whatever episode she’s in. She is fractured into multiple selves, all of whom perform necessary tasks. She’s even shown to literally moonlight between two jobs in ‘The Snowmen’.
The objection that she doesn’t revolve around the Doctor because she chooses to enter his timelines and save him, and that she is therefore her own woman and the solution to her own riddle, flounders on the realisation that she has, essentially, accepted a job or a duty and the fracturing of self that this entails.
Admittedly, Clara is not depicted without a certain occasional ambivalence towards the idea of absorbtion into the workforce as a multi-tasking, multi-skilled drone with multiple jobs. In her debut proper, ‘The Bells of Saint John’, she is caught in a vast corporate machinery of soul-sucking employment. However, ultimately, the inescapability of neoliberalism is arrived at, once again, as she enters a similar kind of self-fracturing machinery of work by her own choice. The ‘good’ machinery rather than the bad. The ultimate irony here may be that the self-fracturing machinery of work in question, the supposedly good machinery, her ultimate destination, turns out to be the Doctor himself.
No, actually, that’s not quite an irony… because this has always been latent in the companions, to a greater or lesser extent, almost since day one. Remember above, when I said that it wasn’t entirely untroubling that companions had to fulfill certain demands and do certain jobs simply in order to remain functional within the texts as companions? Clara may be the final and open acceptance, on the part of the show, of one version of what the companion is: a precariously employed worker with great and various demands made upon them because of their (usually) voluntary decision to serve the Doctor. She is the moment when that troubling, duty-laden, ideologically market-based conception, triumphs over the others.
Does this mean, then, that the pre-Clara Moffat companions are actually the most liberated from this syndrome, given the emphasis placed on their private lives aside from their ‘duties’? Well no, I don’t think so. They are still dragged away from the role of social actor – the potential positive flipside of the ‘Doctor’s happy worker’ model – by their entanglement within extremely gendered conceptions of personal/emotional life. They are dragged away from being either workers or social actors by also being women.
The better course to have taken would have been to trump RTD’s failed (self-betrayed) project to fully embrace the companion as transitioning from the truncation of personal life under neoliberalism into independant – sometimes emancipatory – social action. Instead, one way or another, Moffat does the exact opposite.