The Soapbox: “Dr. Who” Has A Lady Problem

To say that I am a fan of the British sci-fi show “Doctor Who” would be and understatement.  Not only do I have “DW” viewing parties at my apartment, I own a sonic screwdriver, I’ve eaten fish fingers and custard (a “DW” inside joke), I waited for hours to get a glimpse of the show’s stars when they shot an episode in New York, and I even traveled to London to go to the “Doctor Who Experience.”  Despite some missteps (cough, “Daleks in Manhattan,” cough), “Doctor” Who won my heart(s) long ago, and I keep coming back for more adventures in that blue box.

But then I saw the promo art for season seven in which the titular character of the show, the Doctor, looks darkly determined while carrying his unconscious companion Amy in his arms. (“DW” has always referred to the people who travel with the Doctor as “companions.”)  If my life were a preview for a romantic comedy, this would have been the moment you heard the sound effect of a record scratching to a stop.  What the what?!  Is “DW” really going there? Portraying Amy as merely a victim for the Doctor to save?

It gave me pause, and it made me think about the way the show has portrayed (or betrayed) its female characters in the past.

A bit of background for the uninitiated (although, if you’ve read this far I can’t imagine you not being somewhat initiated): “Doctor Who” is a show about an alien from the planet Gallifrey who goes by the title The Doctor.  The Doctor is a “Time Lord” who possesses a TARDIS, a machine that can travel anywhere through time and space.  Added bonus: if the Doctor is fatally wounded, he regenerates into another body (and another actor takes over the role).

As he is the last of his kind and alone in the universe, the Doctor is always searching for companions to travel with him.  These companions are (with a few exceptions) attractive, clever, young girls.  His most recent companion is Amy Pond (the knocked-out knockout in the promo picture). Steven Moffat, the current lead writer of the show, explained to Dr. Who Magazine (yes, such a thing exists) why the companions tend to be young, attractive women this way:

… [Y]ou are always going to have the same sort of person, just because it’s the same man choosing them, and it’s the same person being chosen. I think the function of a companion is pretty simple. I don’t think that’s very difficult. It’s just a question of who credibly is going to agree to go in the TARDIS? Who’s going to do it? Is it going to be a mother of 15 children? No. Is it going to be someone in their 60s? No. Is there going to be a particular age range? I mean … who’s going to have a crush on the Doctor? You know, come on! It’s more than a format. It’s evolved from good, dramatic reasons.

So the reason each of these women are traveling with the Doctor is because they are all in love with him; with the exception of Donna Noble, who we’ll come back to, I would say that is true in the modern version of the show. Rose loves the Doctor and rips a hole in the universe to be reunited with him. Martha pines after the Doctor and even takes a job as a maid to protect him. Amy snogs the Doctor on her wedding night (and despite the fact that she does marry her fiancé, Rory, there is still ambiguity as to what her feelings for the Doctor are).  And River Song gives up her wicked ways (and all of her regenerations) to save him, a man she’s just met. That’s a whole lotta ladies turning their lives inside out for love.

When they’re not doing things for the Doctor, they’re talking about the Doctor.  I’m not sure if you are familiar with the Bechdel Test, but it states that a film/TV show/book/etc. is feminist if it features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. [Update: I’m getting some critiques on my definition of the Bechdel test. To clarify, the test looks for at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man as a barometer for representing women in a significant, autonomous way within the piece of art. You can read a good explanation for the Bechdel test over at Feminist Frequency.] “Doctor Who” fails this test over and over and over again.  Rose asks Sarah Jane for advice about The Doctor. Amy begs River for spoilers about The Doctor’s future, and so on.  The show’s creators would want us to believe that its female characters arespirited, independent women but these spirited, independent women sure do have one thing on the brain.

In her insightful blog piece, “Is ‘Doctor Who’ Bad for Women?”, writer Shana Mlawski puts it best:

Consider the following story.

Far away from here, but not too far, there’s a fairly average girl living a fairly average life.  She’s attractive enough, and she’s no idiot, but, for all intents, our heroine is a normal person with a normal family, normal friends, and a normal life.

And she hates it.

Lucky for her, it’s not going to last long.  Just then, who should arrive in her life but a supernatural mystery man who ushers her into a new, magical life she could not previously access.  Despite his attractive exterior, said mystery man is actually more than a hundred years old, and, for some unknown reason, he enjoys hanging out with this much younger woman and drawing her into potentially-fatal situations.  Our heroine loves it—loves him.  As their adventures continue, their relationship quickly evolves (devolves?) into a deep intimacy (disturbing co-dependence?).  Even so, our mystery man and heroine don’t actually have sex with each other.

Let’s play a game.  Name the mystery man.  Name the heroine.

Did you say the Ninth and Tenth Doctors?  Did you say Rose Tyler?  Yeah, those answers work, I guess.  But I wasn’t thinking of them.

I was thinking of Edward Cullen.  I was thinking of Bella Swan.

I was describing “Twilight,” people.  FRIGGING “TWILIGHT.”

It may be uncomfortable to think that the Doctor’s companions are comparable to the passive, pathetic Bella Swan, yet I don’t think Shana is that far off: All of their lives revolve around a man. Even my favorite companion, the loud and opinionated Donna Noble, loses her purpose when she loses the Doctor.  At the end of season four, the Doctor is forced to erase all Donna’s memories of their adventures together (for very complicated reasons).  In one of the most heartbreaking moments of the show, Donna begs him, “Don’t make me go back. Doctor, please! Please don’t make me go back.” And once she does “go back” does Donna live a more extraordinary life?  No.  She marries the first bloke she finds.  Her grandfather explains, “Yeah, he’s sweet enough. He’s a bit of a dreamer. Mind you he’s on minimum wage. She’s earning tuppence, so all they can afford is a tiny little flat. And then sometimes I see this look on her face. Like she’s so sad. And she can’t remember why.” Donna is an extraordinary person — someone the Doctor credits with saving worlds — but without him her life is tiny.

I still love “Doctor Who” and I anxiously await its premiere on Sept. 1 on BBC America. But sometimes I can’t help feeling a little disappointed by the good Doctor.  I hope that when Amy leaves — as she is slated to do this season — the new companion is a little more … autonomous.  I mean, for Gallifrey’s sake, Amy’s room was covered with Doctor fan art! Give us someone who has a life outside the TARDIS, who is excited for the adventure but doesn’t need the Doctor to define her.  Bring back Jenny, the Doctor’s daughter, or Romana, a Time Lady the Doctor was involved with, and let’s have some women who are equal to our hero on the show.

I do have one idea: perhaps the ultimate solution for making the show’s female characters less like accessories and more like people would be to have the Doctor regenerate into a Time Lady.  The UK’s Daily Mail recently reported that Steven Moffat has said, “It is a part of Time Lord law that it can happen.  I put the reference in (a past episode) to the fact that a Time Lord could potentially turn into a woman.”   They’ve already teased us with Joanna Lumley playing the Doctor in a comic short, after all.  And Helen Mirren has gone on record saying she wants the job.  What more do you need?!

As a female fan of the show, I sincerely hope we don’t have to wait 11 more regenerations to see that.