Companion Tropes 5
When we are first introduced to Clara she is a mystery, a woman who the Doctor sees die, and then finds again, alive and well, somewhere else. She also happens to be a young, female, cute mystery who gives the Doctor a focus after the loss of Amy. She is a manic pixie dream girl.
We have to be very careful here with that definition of Clara, because she most definitely moves away from it during the Twelfth Doctor era (and becomes something far worse), but those are her origins. Let’s take a look first at the meaning of the trope, and where it comes from. It’s a relatively new one.
In 2007 a film critic named Nathan Rabin coined the term, writing that “a Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists to help the protagonist achieve happiness without ever seeking any independent goals herself.” He was criticising what he saw as a popular movement in films, which he saw as being more about the writers living out their fantasies rather than developing characters who are realistically real people. The manic pixie dream girl exists only to achieve something within the story arc of a male character, defined by his existence, devoid of her own goals. Rabin eventually disowned the term, once it had been skewed and misunderstood by other writers and used to describe any quirky female character. By accident the term became sexist. A strong female character became automatically defined as a manic pixie dream girl, and bashing the portrayal of strong women was far removed from the original intentions of the term, which were all about critiquing male writers who used female characters as male fantasy fulfillment.
The term still has its uses if utilised carefully, and it applies strongly to Clara. A manic pixie dream girl is often ultra-competent and can have magical origins. There are elements of both these things with Clara. She is certainly one of the most capable companions the Doctor has ever had, and her ability to pop up anywhere in time, despite being killed off already, appears initially to be some kind of a magical existence. This aspect of Clara is presented to us clearly in The Snowmen, which is steeped in the iconography of fairy tales.
Clara exists as a mystery for the Doctor to solve, and he becomes obsessed with solving that mystery, giving him a focus in his post-Amy world. The reason for his obsession, of course, is that she is the embodiment of his childhood hero. She imprints herself on him during his childhood, and represents everything the Doctor wants to become: popping up throughout his life, she is an accidental adventurer in time and space, who dies and comes back to life, without even needing to use a magical box to achieve that, hence the magical overtones, the hint of the pixie. The character trope is at times an awkward fit for Doctor Who. The hero is always attracted to his pixie dream girl, and we get moments such as the Doctor perving over Clara’s tight skirt in Nightmare in Silver, which feels completely wrong for the character of the Doctor as it is just such a prosaic, human male reaction. Then, in Time of the Doctor, Clara confesses her attraction to the Doctor, just before he changes and becomes an older man.
And that’s where we come to the development of the character beyond the pixie. That doesn’t cancel out the trope. In fact, manic pixie dream girls often fit within the character type only initially, before developing into something more than that. It’s a fascinating deconstruction, because the Doctor regenerates and finally reaches a point where he will fit within the story of a manic pixie dream girl to perfection. He becomes the miserable, brooding hero whom the dream girl needs to draw out of his own sad world by being all manic and wonderful and magical, and showing him that life is worth living. That is what should happen, but instead Clara refuses to fit into the trope just as the Doctor becomes the perfect fit for it. She starts to have her own motivations and goals beyond just being the Doctor’s mystery girl. Unfortunately that ends up painting the Doctor in a very bad light, because instead he becomes the ex who won’t let go, while she becomes the mentally abused woman who keeps going back to her abuser. So as I said, it’s fascinating, but nasty too, a shattering of the trope in the most brutal way possible. The manic pixie is twisted, broken and finally destroyed. RP