A demand for agency on Doctor Who

Doctor Who, the show that I consider the best of sci-fi, is back on our screens this weekend. In the tradition of holding the things that I love to a high standard, I’d like to take a look at the women in the show, and how they are treated and written. When I set out to examine the women of the show in depth, a song by British musician and comedian Mitch Benn, called “Doctor Who Girl,” immediately sprang to mind. Here’s a selection of the lyrics: 

Be my Doctor Who girl,
We’ll make a real good team,
I’ll do all the thinking,
You’ll look good in shorts and scream.
Give me someone to rescue,
Get changed and give us all a twirl,
Keep quiet and never argue,
Be my Doctor Who girl.

Be my Doctor Who girl,
Follow me a lot,
Ask me heaps of questions,
So I can explain the plot.
Say you’ll stand beside me,
Say you’ll help me save the world,
Fall and twist your ankle,
Be my Doctor Who girl.
 

Even as misogynist as this song is, I can’t help but like it. It is, after all, a parody written by a comic. It’s obviously tongue-in-cheek, and hopelessly nostalgic. Oh, and it’s catchy. But it also reveals some of the larger problems of gender in Doctor Who. Written during the “wilderness years” when the show was off the air, it’s a homage to the old series, which started in 1963 and ran until 1989. The new series is different, right?

Well, I’d certainly like to think so. I want to believe that the best show I’ve ever seen on television is progressive, that it treats women with the respect they deserve. Unfortunately, it’s pretty apparent upon closer inspection that those are all wishes are just that, wishes. Doctor Who--even New Who--has a long way to go before it treats women according to my feminist standards.  

Transient

For starters, there’s the fact that in the new series, all the primary companions are women. Sure, there are men aboard the TARDIS--Jack, Mickey, and Rory--but they’re always secondary. Jack is mostly used as a foil against the Doctor’s morals, and it isn’t until Torchwood that he gets the screen time he deserves. Mickey is the dumb boyfriend, the incompetent idiot, the comic relief--throughout his tenure, despite the fact that he leaves Rose, does some brilliant fighting and work, and marries Martha. And though Rory is a companion in his own right, it couldn’t be clearer that the Doctor’s primary relationship is to Amy. It wasn’t always so in Old Who. But for the purposes of 2005 onward, the companion is a woman.

They are wonderful, brilliant, and sassy women. Yet no matter how talented, clever, or strong they are, they inevitably become damsels in distress more than once, fulfilling a plot point so that the Doctor can rescue them and therefore confront the villain or monster. And they are in good part eye candy. As much as I like Karen Gillan, there’s been very strong evidence (ie, words from Moffat himself) suggesting that the reason she got the part has a lot to do with the fact that she’s gorgeous, thin, and tall. Billie Piper started off her career as a teenage pop star. Case in point.

Oh, and the Doctor is always a man. In spite of the establishment in canon that Time Lords can change sex at regeneration (thank you Neil Gaiman), the suggestion that the next Doctor be female has generally been met in the mass media with horror (though with delight and total seriousness from a good section of fans).  

Last year, a contributor to Doctor Her ran the Bechdel Test on every single New Who episode 2005-2012. The results were scary. Season 4 gets the only result that could be called acceptable (a 2.8 out of 3, with only one episode not passing the test). The Davies era averages out to a 2.7/3. Moffat’s tenure gets a 2.1/3. Ouch. Not doing too well there.

This may all seem unimportant. Why does it matter what characters are included, and how those characters are treated, as long as Doctor Who is a good show? The primary companion of late, and thus the point of identification for the audience, is a woman. And if the character that the audience is supposed to identify with is in the end shafted, marginalized, and made to be unimportant or powerless, that is a serious problem for every member of the audience, male and female. It is a serious problem for the show.

To assess the extent of this problem, I’d like to take a look at the major female characters we’ve met since 2005 and see how each weighs up.  

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Rose Tyler

I have a soft spot in my heart for Rose. Maybe because she was my first companion. Maybe because she was nineteen, roughly the age I started watching the show. Or maybe because she ran away from her unsatisfactory life and dead-end job without looking back. She is fierce, she is stubborn, and refuses to give in. She is always talking to the people around her, especially the average people, the working-class women that the Doctor sometimes overlooks.

The problem is, she seems to lose it all when she loses the Doctor. Or, I should say, when two men (the Doctor and Pete) force her into a universe without him. She rebels, blowing holes in more than a few universes to warn him that reality is collapsing, and to be with her Doctor again. Her reward? To be forced back to that universe, with an almost-but-not-quite Doctor copy, and told to be happy with it. And here’s the biggest problem. Because it’s the Doctor, again, making the decision he thinks is best for her, in a very patriarchal way. And the funny thing is, Russell T Davies had a problem with this too. He couldn’t justify it. It was what he needed for the plot, in order to get Billie Piper off the show again, and dispose of the CloneDoctor he’d created, but it didn’t work for the characters. For Rose. Because she traversed realities to get back to her Doctor. How could she give him up? Because the real Doctor manipulates her into doing so, and by the time she can protest, the TARDIS has faded away.

So much for agency.

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Martha Jones

I think it’s fair to say that Martha is the most brilliant of the New Who companions. She’s well on her way to becoming a doctor when we first meet her. Not only is she smart, though, she’s excellent at keeping her cool. She’s the only one in the hospital who doesn’t just gawp or scream when they’re transported to the moon--she reasons that if they got here, they can get back. She accepts the Doctor’s help with a certain amount of dubiousness (“You have to earn that title, as far as I’m concerned”) and is utterly unfazed when he tells her he’s an alien.

Unlike Rose, she’s not running away from her life, she’s merely taking a temporary holiday from responsibility--particularly the responsibility of having to settle a family feud. Which makes her time with the Doctor an utter shame, because she ends up having to take care of him instead. From dealing with the rudeness of a guy on the rebound in The Shakespeare Code, to helping him sort out his repressed feelings about the Time War in Gridlock, to providing financial support in Blink, to taking care of a thankless John Smith who treats her as a servant in a racist era in Human Nature, Martha runs the gamut of responsibility for the Doctor. And that doesn’t even include the entire year she spends walking the ruined and devastated Earth, telling people that there’s this one man who can save them. In the end, it isn’t the Doctor that saves them. It’s Martha Jones. And she barely gets acknowledgement for it.

Most people see Martha’s departure as her “getting out” of a friend-crush that would never be reciprocated. I see that as a secondary matter. I think that first and foremost, she was choosing her own welfare, and her family’s welfare, over the wonders of traveling with the Doctor. It’s a banal choice, and it’s one that he doesn’t really understand. In the philosophy of RTD, where the most wonderful thing in the world is to travel with the Doctor, the person who voluntarily walks away from the Doctor is crazy. How could she choose to leave the TARDIS? But here’s the thing: that philosophy doesn’t work for everyone. Traveling is great, but home is amazing too. Martha’s home, with a family and a career, is one she values, and rightly so. Because within the next few years, she works for UNIT, Torchwood, and goes freelance.

Martha is by no means a weak character. In fact, her choice to leave the Doctor makes her incredibly strong. But the writer’s emphasis on her crush on the Doctor makes her seem one. It takes away her power, her agency--something of which she has plenty--so that in the eyes of many fans, she is reduced to a lovesick girl. And that frustrates me, because she is so much more than that.  

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Donna Noble

Though the Doctor really can’t have an equal, Donna comes closest to it out of all the companions of the Davies era. He refers to her multiple times as his best friend. She is unafraid to give him back exactly what she gets, and more. She questions his knowledge, his omniscience, and the ramifications of his actions as a Time Lord. In turn, her travels with him give her incredible spirit, purpose, and growth as a person. She becomes more sensitive, and shows the Doctor that it’s okay to hurt, and to feel. Their companionship is so beautiful because they need each other. Without the other one, disasters happen, as Midnight and Turn Left show.

And then it is Donna who gets shafted most of all. She gets catapulted to the highest realms of knowledge, power, and cleverness with the DoctorDonna metacrisis. She saves the universe, while the Doctor stands helplessly by. But then she “can’t handle” the power. Because there “should never have been” a human (female) metacrisis. So the Doctor not only strips her of all her power, he strips her of all her knowledge and memories of him and her travels and adventures, despite her forcibly protesting and shouting “No! No! No!” Smells a bit like consciousness-rape, doesn’t it? When we next see her, she’s defaulted to the same about-to-be married that she was when we first met her. She’s just “making do,” dreaming of a better life, a more adventurous life, that she’s not even consciously aware of.

So there we have it. Donna Noble, whose departure also features no agency. She is robbed of her memories and her personality. Those two very things that make us so human, and the Doctor who professes to love humans, takes them away against her will, because he decides that a life without them is better for her than a death where she goes down fighting. More to the point, it’s better for him. If he can tell himself that Donna is living a happy life, or that Rose has a Doctor of his own, he can feel better about the decisions that he made for his friends.  

The RTD Era

So, we have relationship manipulation, complete dependency, and mind-rape. That’s the Russell T Davies era, folks. We’re off to a bad start.

Transient

Amy Pond

I’ll be upfront here. I’m not an Amy Pond fan. I love her, but I don’t feel the same connection to her that I do to the other ladies who have spent time with the Doctor.

That said, there’s a lot to like about Amy Pond. One thing to love is her feistyness. When the Doctor presents her with two choices in The Eleventh Hour (run home or stay and help me), she refuses to take either of them, and demands to know more about him and who he really is. I love this part of her, I really do. But this trait is often cited as the main thing that makes Amy awesome. And here’s the thing. A kick-ass, sassy female character is not necessarily a strong feminist female character. And I believe that Amy’s sassiness is sometimes used against her.

The other thing to love is her sexuality. She takes charge of it. She works as a kiss-o-gram. She makes out with the Doctor the night before her wedding. She has clearly decided to hell with the patriarchal rules. But again, the rub: the patriarchal rules still apply to her. Everyone vocally disapproves of her turn as a kiss-o-gram. “You were a little girl five minutes ago!” the Doctor scolds. If that’s not a cue that the audience is supposed to disapprove of Amy’s deviant sexuality, I don’t know what is.

And then there’s Amy’s relationship with Rory. It’s clearly not perfect, but the fact that the Doctor feels that he is entitled to “fix” that, first by taking them on a honeymoon to Venice, and then by constructing a horrific dream world to force Amy to choose her fiance over traveling, is horribly controlling and paternalistic.

When you begin to put together parts of Amy’s life, it gets scary real fast. However much she presents herself as a modern woman, very little of her life is actually under her control. Little Amelia grows up without any parents, or much of a family, thanks to the crack in her wall sucking them away. She “forgets” Rory, then “remembers” him, then magically has her parents and her fiance restored to her in one glorious restoration of the universe that she had no say in. Shortly afterwards, she and Rory conceive a child, but she doesn’t even know she’s pregnant, because her body is stolen from her and her consciousness is placed in a Flesh body. Let me repeat that. She spends nine months being pregnant, and about eight of those months, her pregnancy is co-opted by a religious order who wants to use her body as a farm to harvest a child with quasi-Time Lord DNA. She is then imprisoned just as she goes into labor, and gives birth to a baby girl, Melody. Her daughter is stolen from her, without her knowledge. She is then dropped off at home by the Doctor, who doesn’t search for her child like he promised, because he doesn’t need to, it’s okay, because she’s River Song! And then she discovers that she’s actually been best friends with her daughter growing up, and so “raised” her daughter. And then, while her body was held prisoner, the Silence made it impossible for her to have more children, which is at least part of the reason she and Rory got divorced.

If you made it through that last paragraph without screaming in frustration, you’re a better person than I am. Ever since Amy’s pregnancy was revealed, I have been fuming, and few people have understood why. Yes, River/Melody was Amy and Rory’s biological child, conceived by them of their own will (with some extra time vortex genes that they were not aware of). But apart from that, it looks a whole lot like the Mystical Pregnancy Trope, which Anita Sarkeesian has done an excellent video on. Though she has been pregnant since before the beginning of season 6, she doesn’t know it, we barely see it, and she is not physically affected by it until the final days. Pregnancy is not an occurrence, it is a process. Yet for Amy, it is a here-today-gone-tomorrow thing. Thanks to intervention by the Silence, Amy essentially serves as the incubator for a weapon that can be used to destroy her best friend. She has no control over the situation. Her pregnancy is a plot point, and Amy, as a character and as a woman, is reduced to no more than her biological function. Yes, women can have babies. Amy can have babies. That does not mean that Steven Moffat should take advantage of this for the purposes of his story. He is enacting reproductive terrorism on her, as Laura Shapiro calls it. And it makes me sick.

If that’s not sexist, I don’t know what is.  

Transient

River Song

From her first appearance in Silence in the Library, River presents the Doctor, and thus the audience, with a conundrum: she knows just as much as he does. More, when we first see her. This is a challenge to the Doctor’s ego and to the show’s format, because both the Doctor and the audience are used to the Doctor knowing the most, and always being in charge and saving the day. The Doctor reacted pretty negatively to her at their first meeting, and so did much of the audience. She’s sexy and brilliant. She knows the intricacies of space and time, and travels the universe with the same ease that he does. She can fly the TARDIS. She knows his future. She’s his equal. And it’s been years since the Doctor had one of those. He felt a little threatened by her.

So, there has to be some way to neutralize that threat. Initially, it’s negated because she’s a killer sociopath. He has the moral high ground, and in another act of paternal goodness, shows her the good and “right” way to live her life. He has domesticated her, “tamed” her.

And if we’re talking about unhealthy relationships, River tops the list. Her life revolves around the Doctor--literally. Before she is even born, she is groomed to be a weapon to kill him. He is present shortly after her birth, at her kidnapping. He flits in and out of the life of her friends growing up. She finally meets him, and tries to kill him. She’s then converted by him, and spends years of her life researching him as part of her dissertation. She is forced to kill him, in what is called a “fixed point in time,” and is put into prison for it. She escapes to go on adventures and he spirits her away occasionally for dates, but she still is in prison, doing time for a crime that she was forced to commit. She admits that the days she doesn’t see him are a waste.

And of course, River’s love for the Doctor results in all her abilities being turned to his purposes. From giving up her regenerations, to shooting down the Silence, to pretending her wrist isn’t broken merely to soothe his pride, she devotes enormous amounts of energy to sheltering the Doctor and keeping him on a pedestal. “Never let him see the damage. And never ever let him see you age. He doesn't like endings.” In the end, she gives up her life so that he can have a future in which she serves him. Her life is the Doctor, and as much as I love romance, that is just wrong.

River is a strong female character. But she is a strong female character with one purpose: to serve the Doctor. And that hurts, because under another writer, she could have been so much more.  

The Moffat Era

So, Steven Moffat: writes companions who are either reduced to their biological function, or exist only for the Doctor. Even worse.

The Verdict

I love Doctor Who to pieces. But it can’t be denied that the writers treat their female characters with undisguised misogynism. The show could be so much better, so much more, if the writers started writing women who are not only feisty, but women who have agency over their own lives.

It’s too early to tell where Moffat will take the character of Clara Oswald. I’m trying hard to be optimistic, to believe that he can deviate from past experience, to hope that he can for once make a companion who can make her own choices, rather than the Doctor or the villains making those choices for her. But based on the dying-over-and-over trope we’ve seen so far, it’s not likely.

I’ll still be eagerly watching on Saturday when the show returns to TV. But I think that we have earned the right to better female characters. And rather than just hoping that the male showrunners will give us better, I demand better female characters. I hope you’ll join me.