So, Face the Raven happened, and the general consensus seems to be that it was quite good even if you didn’t like Clara. To be honest, I think that Clara ended up doing pretty okay a lot of the time for someone who started literally as a plot device, but even if you disagree, her death worked.
Inasmuch as she’s had a consistent character (and god knows she hasn’t), her decision that she could deus-ex-machina the shit of a life-or-death situation fits very well. Plus, if you’ve always hated her as someone often operating outside of narratives instead of as a character within them, then it makes even more sense. It’s like Clara always knew she was created from a Big Bang of crappy dramatism, so that’s what she generally brought to the stories, even if it didn’t really work. Imagine the last time you were in a large conversation and realised with horror that everyone had insight to contribute apart from you, so you said what seemed like the most relevant thing and everyone just stared. Much of the time that was Clara’s ‘companion-life’, and we were the ones staring, feeling bad for her but also wishing she’d go away so we could stop feeling bad for her, because it’s effort and we wanted to have a good time.
Yeah, she’s the 21st century Adric.
It’s probably best to follow the link if you don’t know about Adric and want further details, but suffice to say he was generally felt to exist on a spectrum from ‘unengaging’ to ‘piss-clown’. And then he died. Nobody specifically travelling in the TARDIS with the Doctor had died since the 60s (Katarina and Sara Kingdom), and even then their tenure was so short that the established show mythology sort of stumbles apologetically over them, so when you first watch his swansong episode it hits you like a pickaxe. However, once you watch Earthshock with that knowledge, it changes from a hokey, plot-holey mess held together by cobwebs and unicorn dreams to a bunch of silly action serving a higher purpose – to basically sum up this poor guy that everyone just wants rid of, and give them, with sobriety and dramatic consistency, what they want.
In the link above, an unpopular companion goes to their death with their eyes open, knowing it’s a potentially awful idea, but totally reliant on their own talent and brilliance to save themselves – sound familiar?
The point of the comparison is that THIS, dramatists, is how you kill characters. They’ve got to die in a way that makes sense. It’s why colossal bodycounts or supporting characters created entirely to be tragic aren’t very moving. They’re the most basic representation of ‘how artists elicit sympathy’, with the hilarious consequence that it appears either cynically manipulative or the viewer disengages entirely and ends up enjoying it on a visceral level.
Earthshock and Face the Raven avoid this because they actually think about how the character is most likely to bring about their own downfall, and much as we might claim to enjoy watching this, we don’t. We don’t really enjoy watching another person destroyed by their personality, because that’s probably how we’re going to go out as well, and the only way to avoid/delay it is to properly examine ourselves and learn from mistakes and change, and that’s hard. Even if we succeed, fate might be capricious and grotesque, or we might end up so very stuck in the cleft stick of a world bigger than us that we simply don’t have the power to choose how we die. And then we’ll never know if we were right. Or brave.