Doctor Who's Latest Big Mystery Wasn't Much of a Mystery at All

As the season finale once again showed, the "Who-is-Clara-really" storyline didn't feature real character progression—just recycled sci-fi tropes and sexist overtones.
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When last we left our hero—The Doctor of House Gallifrey, Eleventh of His Name, Predator of the Daleks, Scourge of the Cybermen, Lord of Time—he had just emerged from a nice, long mope. His previous traveling companions, Amy Pond and Rory Williams, had been zapped back in time to live out their lives without him. So he parked his time machine on top of a cloud in 1890s London so he could wear a crumpled hat and have a sad.

Then he met Clara Oswald, a woman (or as the show repeatedly insists, though the actress who plays her is now 27 years old, a "girl") leading a double life as a barmaid and a governess. She was brave, beautiful, smart, fast-talking, plus she snogged him, so naturally he invited her to travel with him—and then she got killed by an ice monster. Galvanized into action, the Doctor defeated the alien threat to London—and then discovered that he'd actually met the same woman once before, in the future, where she'd also died.

The Doctor's quest to unravel the mystery of who Clara really is and how the same person keeps popping up at different points in his life is the ostensible plot arc for the second half of the seventh season of the revived Doctor Who. Only it isn't an arc; that term implies movement, and showrunner Steven Moffat's structuring of the half-season gives viewers precious little of that, outside of camera movement and, you know, running.

The Doctor mostly just muses to himself about the mystery as he meets, saves, befriends and begins traveling with a 2013 version of Clara. The one time he actually asks her about it, it's in the most aggressive way possible, scaring the crap out of Clara towards the end of "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS"—but then there's a reset button, so she forgets. The explanation has to wait until the finale, which aired Saturday night, and it's not particularly satisfying.

The mystery ultimately wasn't really a mystery: It lacked any sense of tension or progress. Unfortunately, the same can be said of the lead characters. Both the Doctor and Clara remained completely static throughout their adventures, each holding the other at arm's length. Matt Smith as the Doctor and Jenna-Louise Coleman turned in consistently strong performances, but the two characters' reluctance to engage fully with each other also kept viewers at an emotional remove from both of them.

Both the Doctor and Clara remained static throughout their adventures, each holding the other at arm's length. The characters' reluctance to engage with each other also kept viewers at an emotional remove.

That's not to say that Series 7B didn't have its moments. Smith's monologue in "The Rings of Akhaten" to a hungry, star-sized alien was as powerfully delivered, and with far more emotional weight, than his other famous speech to a sky full of badness in "The Pandorica Opens." The herky-jerky glimpses of the Crooked Man in "Hide" made that rubber monster far scarier than it had any business being. And, as is usual with Who these days, great performances abounded, including from such distinguished guest stars as David Warner, Warwick Davis, Liam Cunningham, and Dame Diana Rigg.

But none of this added up to even one standout, all-time-classic episode. Unfortunately, Moffat's tendency to tell rather than show continued, as did his penchant for repurposing his own good ideas. ("I don't know where I am" is the new "Hey, who turned out the lights?") He and his writing team also evinced an increasing tendency to borrow from other iconic sci-fi/fantasy tropes. The format of Who has always allowed it to dabble in pretty much any genre, but this season, several moments stood out as cut-rate knock-offs.

Smith's back-and-forth dialogue with himself in "Nightmare in Silver"? Andy Serkis did it better in The Two Towers. The death of Victorian crime-fighter Jenny Flint in "The Name of the Doctor" while she was on the psychic conference call? Beautifully shot, wonderful acting job by Catrin Stewart—but not as effective as the unplugging sequence from The Matrix. The Whispermen? Cool looking, but derivative of the much scarier Gentlemen from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Hush." (The Whispermen kill you by stopping your heart. The Gentlemen steal your voice—and then cut out your heart. And both were heralded by a creepy nursery rhyme.)

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Ted B. Kissell is a writer and editor based in Southern California. He is the former editor of OC Weekly and has written for The Los Angeles TimesOutside Traveler, and American Way.

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