A Seat on the TARBIS: In Defense of Danny Pink
Any series as popular and venerated as Doctor Who has its fair share of divise characters, but there have been few met with such split opinions as Season 8’s Danny Pink. Unlike the show’s usual misstep of foisting a useless white man onto the audience and expecting him to be embraced because white, Danny became the avatar of the wasted potential of an incredible companion by being a blank slate. Even the hosts of popular Whovian Podcast, TARBIS (Time and Relative Blackness in Space), have denied Danny, only the third major Black character on Doctor Who, a passenger seat on their ship. Given the lens of time, it’s beneficial to revisit Danny Pink’s run on the show and parse whether he was a failed character, or a character failed by factors outside his own control.
Who is Danny Pink outside of Clara?
What are his likes and interests? Yes, he’s a teacher and was a soldier, but that’s what he does not who he is. There is a glimmer in “Forest of the Night,” as we see him as an indefatigable fighter for the children, but great with kids sounds more like a Tinder profile than character description. We don’t even get to see his relationship with Clara for the most part. Instead, we’re told they’re in love by everyone around them, though this show has given more depth to supporting character’s love lives in single episodes than Danny and Clara’s entire arc. Danny simply was. He emerged whole cloth as a character with a convenient backstory only to be revealed when necessary, but he remained a two-dimensional character with nothing to invest in besides Samuel Anderson’s face, and that’s why so many don’t like him.
Imagine how differently much of the fandom would feel about Mickey Smith had he been killed by a Dalek at the end of Season 1. His growth and maturity would be largely wiped out, the lingering depiction of him reduced to a clingy, whiny, Rose-obsessed fanboy instead of the complex, compassionate, and loyal man we know him to be. It has been a continued failing of the show in how they write Black male romantic partners — or quite frankly Black supporting characters in general (Grace and Penny deserved better!) — but we learn more about Mickey in the first ten minutes of Episode 1 than we do about Danny all season. Rather than show us the man Clara fell in love with, whose faults and triumphs could stand on their own, he’s an accessory to the plot. Mercifully, there are a few meaningful glimpses into his true character, which reveal just how much there is to like about Danny.
“The truth please, just this once.”
Danny’s plea to his girlfriend/soulmate/true love Clara Oswald for honesty above all else, is at once the simplest and most heart-breaking distillation of his character. While the writing staff forced him into an antagonistic role in Clara’s continued relationship with Peter Capldi’s Doctor, his motivation as someone who wants — and deserves — honesty from their partner, is plain.
Danny’s narrative journey comes to a head with both Clara and The Doctor when he finally learns the truth about her travels through space and time. As a romantic partner, he’s put off to learn Clara has been lying to him and withholding information for their entire relationship, he’s troubled by the difference he sees in her when she’s in life or death situations with The Doctor, and he reacts in kind to the Twelfth Doctor’s continued abrasive tenor towards him. These are all valid responses, however the devil’s in the details and if there’s anything Season 8 showrunner Steven Moffat struggled with, it was nuance and development.
Instead of taking the perfect opportunity to showcase the supposed strength of the relationship between Danny and Clara, the conflict was used as a narrative springboard to develop the notion of Clara’s growing recklessness. That’s a character arc worth exploring, and indeed was done to great effect in Season 9, however Moffat chose to do so at the expense of any growth for Danny. The audience never gets to see Danny and Clara’s relationship, so there was no reckoning with how Clara’s second life affected their shared one. Instead, he was just a wet blanket on the adventure everyone else was here for. Still, Danny made his peace with Clara’s world, even if he wanted no parts of it himself, as long as she was honest about it and would tell him if The Doctor ever pushed her too far.
Danny not wanting to join the TARDIS was a disappointment but, despite the show’s attempts at lampshading, it’s understandable why a Black person might not want to travel to the past. It was him injecting himself into Clara and The Doctor’s relationship that has proven a major point of contention with his character. While couched in the larger conversation of Clara’s repeated (and continuing) lies to her alleged love, Danny set the terms that he needed to be able to help Clara for their relationship to continue despite her never asking for or demonstrating any need for help or his protection. Clara is a fiercely determined and uniquely competent grown-ass woman who has the agency to make her own decisions. As realistic and grounded in concern for a loved one as it may be, that type of protectionism among equals and partners always deserves to be called out.
But he was right…
By the time Danny dressed down The Doctor in “The Caretaker,” he had already spent half the episode being slighted both directly and indirectly and rightly decided to slap back. Not only did Danny have to reckon with the realization that his partner had been lying to him for months, there was the cringe-inducingly racist refusal of The Doctor to accept him as a Math teacher, insisting he taught Physical Education. Granted, in Moffat’s mind this most likely had more to do with his low-esteem of soldiers than because he was Black, but the lack of diversity behind and in front of the cameras leaves that up to the most charitable of assumptions. In either event, it’s yet another microaggression against Danny’s character that he swallowed for the sake of Clara’s relationship with her friend before getting into a realistic argument with an antagonistic third party.
A better written episode would have had Clara call out The Doctor for his (season-long) behavior, particularly because she knows him best, but that shouldn’t be a demerit against Danny. If there was any exploration into his character or backstory, his insistence on being able to help Clara (even if she didn’t ask for it) could be an understandable motivation instead of irksome encroachment. There’s more than a hint of Arthur Darvill’s Rory in his willingness to call out The Doctor when he’s overstepping, but the biggest difference is that their relationship got to evolve and grow to the point where it felt organic as opposed to an abrupt escalation of tension. Ultimately, that is Danny’s biggest impediment to being liked; he’s not a fully-fleshed out character, he’s a plot device.
Tossing aside both projected successes and failures, we’re left with just the truth, for once. Danny Pink is a loyal, mature, and devoted man who gave his life to do the right thing and keep Clara safe. He also suffers from human foibles, and on more than one occasion projected his own trauma and fear onto Clara, who should have been respected by her partner (and The Doctor) as independent enough to choose her own path. The frustrating potential thrown away only makes the disappointment more galling, but most of the lingering resentment towards Danny should lie not in who he was, but in the moments he was denied by the writing staff to be himself. At the end of the day, Danny Pink overcame Cyberman programming through the strength of his love, and had the courage and wherewithal to aid The Doctor in stopping Missy. That’s got to be at least worth a guest pass onto the TARBIS.