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Doctor Who and the curious portrayal of the companion

On August 4th, the identity of the next Doctor was announced in a half-hour televised special that aired live around the world. The longest-running science fiction television show in history, there’s no doubt Doctor Who has shifted from cult classic to international phenomenon in the last few years. But with a wider audience comes greater pressure to modernize and update the series in a way the show’s roots, and its writers, may not be comfortable with.

Before the announcement that Peter Capaldi (The Hour, The Thick of It) would be the next Doctor, speculation on the internet was wild. Many fans of the show—called Whovians—were calling for a person of color or even a female Doctor. Idris Elba, the star of Luther, and Helen Mirren were both hopeful fan favorites. It was not to be: the twelfth Doctor was destined to be another white male. Capaldi was actually the bookmaker favorite well before the announcement was made, so it hardly came as a surprise. Why, then, the demand for a “different” type of Doctor? Is it necessary that the Doctor reflects diversity?

The premise of this admittedly somewhat silly show certainly smacks a bit of British imperialism: a benevolent alien of superior technology travels through space and time helping humans and repeatedly saving the earth. Why? Who knows. The Doctor is always British (even the people calling for Twelve to be a different type of Doctor conceded that it was unthinkable he be anything else), and by and large the people he picks to be his companions are white, British women. Yet viewers outside the UK haven’t demonstrated an issue with the core male Britishness of the series until recently, and perhaps part of the reason lies with Steven Moffat.

Moffat, one of the best televisions writers on either side of the pond, was ranked in The Guardian’s Top Media 100 this year and wrote possibly one of the most perfect episodes of television ever produced, BBC Sherlock’s “A Study in Pink.” He started writing for Doctor Who in 2004 under the vaunted auspices of Russell T. Davies, and his DW episodes were frequently nominated for Hugo, BAFTA, and Nebula Awards. He was also voted Whovians’ favorite writer in Doctor Who Magazine (yes, there’s a magazine—what did you think?). Moffat’s episodes in the Davies era were known for being dark, clever, and twisty, elevating the fun camp factor and making it easy to ignore the show’s low-budget special effects.

Here’s the thing with Moffat: he grew up watching, and loving, Doctor Who. And he wasn’t the only one: many of the writers and the actors in the series reboot—including the “Doctor” himself, David Tennant—did, too. Like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas with the Indiana Jones movies, the people working on Doctor Who under Davies’ stewardship took something cheesy they loved from childhood and revived it with their talent and the love they had for the show, turning it into a better version of itself.

The Davies’ era of Doctor Who also expanded the show to include a wider variety of characters. Companions weren’t just exclusively young, attractive British females anymore, but people of varying ethnicities, ages, genders, and sexual preferences. Plus, the women who traveled in the Doctor’s blue box had their own things going: Donna, his no-nonsense bestie, made it clear she wanted to go back to her normal life; Martha left the Doctor when she realized he would never return her feelings for him; and even Rose—arguably the most clingy of Eleven’s companions—had people in her life completely unconnected to the Doctor. Davies’ Doctor Who was hardly an equal opportunity treatise, but it did modernize the show successfully while remaining true to the original spirit of Doctor Who by more fully populating the series’ world.

Then 2010 came along. Tennant was out, in the guaranteed-to-make-you-start-sobbing-like-a-baby finale “The End of Time.” Davies was out. Moffat was now head writer, the show’s budget clearly went up, and Matt Smith was the new Doctor. It was a whole new era of Doctor Who.

Smith wasn’t as good an actor as Tennant, but Moffat made up for it with full-on paradoxical, wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey, what-the-heck-just-happened, mind-blowing episodes. Doctor Who became must-see viewing, with episodes so powerful that fans would cry during the endings FOR NO REASON, just because they were that beautiful. Moffat was known to tease Whovians with obscure, puzzling statements about might happen next, fueling an internet-driven obsession with every bon mot that fell out of his mouth.

Yet by the second season of Smith’s tenure as the Doctor, there were some little blips of dissatisfaction among the Whovians, which turned into a somewhat distant roar by Smith’s third season. The Doctor’s companions, Amy and Rory, had overstayed their welcome, and many accused Moffat of being a sexist and writing storylines with objectified, one-dimensional female characters. When rumors began to circulate that Smith was passing on the sonic screwdriver, it was quietly agreed in certain circles that now would be a good time for Moffat to pass on the reigns as well. Whovians weren’t just hoping for a different Doctor, but a different type of series.

The way women have been portrayed on the show is currently the biggest objection to the Moffat-era of Doctor Who. Although the show has an extremely broad audience—appealing to every age from five to fifty-plus, and to nearly every nationality and background—at its heart it’s a female escapist fantasy. The Doctor swoops in and takes some lucky woman out of her hum-drum, boring life into one of adventure. Even better, he can drop her back off at the exact same place and time (-ish) that she left. Amy Pond wasn’t the first companion to jump ship before her wedding, and she probably won’t be the last.

So what makes Moffat’s treatment of this well-established trope so annoying to his viewers? Maybe it’s the self-congratulation factor. He’s quoted as saying,

I find it bizarre that science-fiction is the one branch of television to push the idea of strong female characters. And I only call it bizarre because strong women aren’t fiction.

No kidding, Moffat? Thanks for the heads up. The implication is, of course, that Doctor Who is one of those shows with “strong female characters.” Yet to Whovians, this quote is cruelly ironic. For one, what is a “strong female character”? This phrase is utterly meaningless and largely only used by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. “Strong” is not a character trait. Are male characters ever described as “strong”? No, they’re brilliant, difficult, easy-going, or a thousand other adjectives that describe them as actual characters with dimensionality. “Strong” female characters, meanwhile, are not only treated as anomalous—how unusual, a woman who knows kung fu!—but as either desperate to be taken seriously, or cartoonishly “feisty,” all while still remaining essentially passive.

That nearly perfectly describes the character of Amy Pond, called “The Girl Who Waited.” Although Amy is a stereotypically feisty ginger, she constantly waits for the Doctor to rescue her, first as a little girl and then over and over and over again through three seasons. That’s hardly an expression of female agency, is it? The other major female character during the first three seasons of Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor is River Song, who was originally a female adventuress familiar with the Doctor’s future regenerations. Between her introduction as a minor character during the Davies era to a major supporting character under Moffat, River Song went from one of the most intriguing characters on the show—a woman with her own things going on, whatever they were—to someone whose entire life is defined by the Doctor and whose every action is performed because of him. How very not interesting.

Amy’s successor, Clara, is even less fully-realized. “The Impossible Girl,” Clara was compelling as Oswin in “Asylum of the Daleks,” where she died only to reappear in the Doctor Who Christmas Special that same year. Since the Doctor rarely meets people as impervious to death as he is, he invited her onto the TARDIS so he could investigate her further. As the second half of the season played out, however, Clara remained curiously one-note. The reason for this was revealed in the season finale: she isn’t actually a character at all, she’s a plot device used to unite all the Doctors for the fiftieth anniversary special, “Day of the Doctor,” which will air in November. While one admires Moffat’s cleverness in creating a storyline that believably ties all the Doctors together, it would also have been nice if Clara had something to do other than traipse through space-time saving the Doctor’s ass for eternity.

Moffat’s shallowly “strong” female characters, coupled with some rather damning quotes (most recently he said, “I like that Helen Mirren has been saying the next Doctor should be a woman. I would like to go on record and say that the Queen should be played by a man.” We’ll hold our breaths…), has undermined the fandom’s love of Moffat. There’s no doubt that he’s still a great writer, and a great writer for Doctor Who—but the current Doctor Who is one white guy’s vision of the show, and it’s getting stale.

Of course, that isn’t completely Moffat’s fault. The UK is notorious for producing TV shows penned by an entirely male staff. Since Moffat took over, not a single episode has been written by a woman; and since the series reboot, only one woman has written for Doctor Who, which puts both Davies and Moffat on the line. With pressure from fans and the influence of Doctor Who around the world, now would be the perfect time for the producers to start breaking down some glass ceilings and making it a point to hire female writers. The producers can claim they look for “good Doctor Who stories, regardless of gender,” as Marcus Wilson stated in an article in The Guardian; but one finds it difficult to believe no women have appeared capable of meeting that criteria, especially considering the  show’s large female fan base. To add insult to injury, a recent special, “The Women of Doctor Who,” claimed that even though the show was about the Doctor, the stories it told were largely women’s stories. Yes, women’s stories but without any women to actually tell them. Brilliant.

Of course, the plus side is that the women of Doctor Who aren’t just sexualized objects—right? For most of the show’s fifty-year history, having the Doctor become romantically involved with his companions has been completely taboo. This probably started because 1. he’s an alien; and 2. the first Doctors were considerably older than their companions. That convention has been shaken up a bit in recent years, particularly during the reign of Tennant; but the Doctor has still only “romantically” kissed two people: Dr. Grace Holloway in the 1996 television movie, and River Song in “The Wedding of River Song.” The Doctor remains more or less asexual, and Smith’s interpretation of the character treated any suggestion of sexuality in the female characters with the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old boy.

Smith’s goofy innocence is part of his charm, but just because the women in the Doctor’s life aren’t sexual objects doesn’t mean they aren’t objectified in other roles, like that of mother (think of River Song’s rather toothsome catchphrase, “Hello, sweetie” and how she frequently acts like the Doctor’s babysitter) or sister or surrogate daughter.

When fans asked for a female or person of color Doctor, what they were really asking for was a show where that wouldn’t be as unthinkable as Moffat seems to believe it is. It’s doubtful Moffat or the producers recognize this, however, and thing are unlikely to get better with the new Doctor (although Capaldi’s considerable acting chops could improve the quality of the show considerably). Kicking Moffat off as head writer won’t necessarily ameliorate the situation, either, though hiring more female writers might do so. Either way, Doctor Who sets the standard for science fiction shows, and the producers would do well to add some variety into the mix.



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