Archive for Old Who

You’re a beautiful woman, probably: My life as an ace Who fan

Some weeks ago, the Daily Fail wrote a spectacularly condescending article on a new book of social justice Who criticism, Doctor Who and Race. There’s a lot to dislike in the Fail’s piece, but I want to draw your attention to one of its most cynical and effective tricks: an insistence on a binary. In writer Chris Hasting’s view, you’re either with the Doctor or against him. He pits evil killjoy academics determined to suck the fun out of everything against a venerable, beloved British institution. On one side, checking your privilege and learning to acknowledge the problematic. On the other, kneejerk affirmation that Doctor Who rocks. Hastings’ readers knew which part they’d been assigned. Result? A book with important points to make will almost certainly get less exposure than it deserves.

We’ve written about moving beyond fandom binaries before–here’s my own piece. There’s another fandom binary that revolves around whether the Doctor is a sexual being, and the players in this one (as I experience it, anyway) are “prudish anoraks terrified by sex” vs. “sensible adults”.

This puts me in a bit of a bind. I am aromantic asexual, and, yes, it is important to me that the Doctor be asexual. In a world where people like me either don’t exist or need to be cured (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, that one episode of House), I like knowing that there’s one character who’s like me. When, in “City of Death”, the Fourth Doctor tells Countess Scarlioni “You’re a beautiful woman, probably”, it’s a beautiful shock to me because I can relate so completely. When Tegan, in “Enlightenment”, steps out in a beautiful Edwardian ballgown and shows off for the Doctor, clearly expecting his jaw to drop and his eyes to bulge out of their sockets, and he kind of glances her up and down as if to say “Yep, that’s an appropriate dress for a party”, and then turns away and starts down the hall–that, again, is me. Whereas today, we have a married Doctor kissing people (sometimes against their will) and going “Yowza”. Under Davies and, especially, Moffatt, I have less and less room to pretend that the Doctor is ace.[1] That hurts. We have a tiny handful of asexual characters out there–most of whom are never identified as ace–and now we can’t even have those?

Worse, fandom is not exactly a refuge: I’ve sometimes said that Doctor Who fandom is the only place I feel that asexuality and feminism are somehow in conflict. I don’t object to shipping. (Why would I?) What I do object to is what I experience as fandom insisting that shipping represents an advance over the old “prudish anoraks terrified by sex” days–that because, broadly speaking, shipping is associated with female fandom, therefore enthusiasm for shipping is feminist; and its opposite, preferring an asexual Doctor, is somehow anti-feminist. And when fans ritually denounce the sad caricature of the stereotypical fan as mid-thirties and virginal… well, as a mid-thirties virgin fan myself, I’ve had about enough of it. (Should I carry around a sign explaining that I’ve had offers? Maybe have a t-shirt made? Would this make me less pathetic, or more?)

I suppose I’m asking for a bit of room: room to not ship Sherlock/John, room to think UST is really overused in new Who. (Does everyone have to fall for the Doctor? Is romance the only way male and female characters can relate?) Room to imagine a Doctor Who that kinda sorta includes me–because right now, it’s feeling a lot like when I was a kid and suddenly all the other girls wanted to make Barbie and Ken kiss. I didn’t want to make them kiss. I wanted them to go on adventures.

[1] Matt Smith, bless him, is on record as thinking the Doctor (or at least his Doctor) is ace.

The Girl Who Fell Out Of The World: or, The Importance of Being Tegan

Before we begin: Janet Fielding is battling cancer. I’d like to take a moment to wish her the very best of outcomes, and to point you all to her online support group slash charity page: projectmotormouth.org.uk

Actor Janet Fielding as Tegan Jovanka, in a screencap from the 1982 serial "Black Orchid". In this closeup, she is wearing a flapper-style green headband ornamented with a pink rose, and is smiling or laughing at the camera.

Actor Janet Fielding as Tegan Jovanka, in a screencap from the 1982 serial "Black Orchid". In this closeup, she is wearing a flapper-style green headband ornamented with a pink rose, and is laughing at the camera.

Mouth on Legs

Tegan Jovanka, everyone’s favourite trainee Australian flight attendant, is one of the Doctor’s longest-serving companions. She even eclipses the legendary Sarah Jane Smith, though only by a couple of weeks (and SJS was in more episodes). She’s pretty inarguably the Fifth Doctor’s companion, serving in all but two of Peter Davison’s televised serials. But you’d never know it from fandom. What is it with Tegan? Why is her sarcasm “stroppy” and “mean-spirited”, while Donna Noble’s is endearingly sassy? Why is her ambivalence about adventuring across time and space versus forging her domestic, Earthbound life–her real life–“whiny”, when Amy Pond’s very similar arc is portrayed much more sympathetically? I think it’s time to take another look at Our Tegan, the Classic Who companion who most clearly anticipates the New Who companion, and this time see the seeds she planted.

I hate those transmat things. I’d be afraid of coming out puréed.

Me, I had a soft spot for Tegan from early on. In “Castrovalva”, the newly-regenerated Fifth Doctor is looking for a Zero Room–a place, he says, that’s cut off from the rest of the universe. Tegan snarks that if she’d known that’s what he wanted, she would have suggested her native Brisbane. And lo, my little heart went “pwing!” What kid raised in suburban or rural environs–convinced that their parents had deliberately chosen the least interesting place on earth for them to grow up in– wouldn’t feel a twinge of empathy?

I love moments in Who that ground the fantastic in the earthy, that reach right past the high concept of the show to reveal how real people might react in such bizarre circumstances. I love the moment in “Forest of the Dead” where Donna, bewildered at the revelation that her life is a Matrix-like simulation, snaps, “But… I’ve been dieting!” All her discipline and willpower, and she could have had the chocolate cake anyway. Who wouldn’t feel frustrated? I love Martha worrying, in “The Shakespeare Code” whether Elizabethan London is a safe place for a black woman, and I’m annoyed that the Doctor brushes off her valid concerns.

And Tegan, with her shots at Brisbane and her entirely understandable wariness of this strange new world she finds herself in; Tegan, who never travels with a fellow human aboard the TARDIS; Tegan provides that essential grounded viewpoint.

Tegan’s character establishes itself early, and is remarkably consistent: she’ll speak her mind even when her voice shakes, she tries to be self-reliant to the extent that she won’t always ask for help when she needs it; she hides her fear and vulnerability behind a facade of snark and bravado. In short, she has a lot in common with one of the best-liked recent companions: Donna Noble. The two redheads are characterized by their fiery natures–both have tempers, neither is willing to take the Doctor’s crap, and both almost delight in puncturing his self-importance. Both remind the Doctor of the impact his plans have on the ordinary people caught up in them; indeed, they each almost consciously take on the mantle of the Doctor’s conscience. Both women were abducted aboard the TARDIS for their first experience(s) with the Doctor; leave when the Doctor finally returns them to their own time; and, later, dissatisfied with what had, pre-Doctor, been perfectly satisfying lives, chose to return for more adventures. [1]

So why is Donna beloved while Tegan, generally, isn’t? Is it the quarter century that elapsed between the two? I think that’s a large part of it. Nyssa and Tegan are both good examples of some of the problems with the way womens’ roles were written in the early Eighties: one was sweet and childlike; the other, adult but shrewish, and guess which one was allowed to be intelligent? Nor was the series at the time very interested in the companion’s story. We learned much more about Donna’s past, her family, and her character in one year than we did about Tegan in three, and the depth of Donna’s character helped make her sympathetic. So where Donna was a well-rounded character with flaws and strengths, Tegan, despite her much longer tenure in the TARDIS, is much more of a cipher.

I happen to think that human lives are just as valuable as yours!

Tegan’s original character brief is… kind of offensive.

Tegan is twenty-one, an attractive and intelligent Australian trainee air stewardess, whose brash confidence in her own abilities actually conceals inner insecurity, a state of affairs that becomes clear in moments of stress. On her way to her first real flight she accidentally blunders into the TARDIS and thus finds herself being inadvertantly [sic] abducted by the Doctor. Characteristically her inner bewilderment at the new situation in which she finds herself causes her to assume an attitude of overweening self-assertion, and she begins to take charge of the Doctor and Adric. During the course of three stories, Tegan’s superficial self-assurance will build until it becomes a real problem for the other two occupants of the TARDIS, and it will need drastic action on the part of the Doctor to put things to rights and show her the error of her ways. She may or may not continue with the Doctor thereafter.
(“Doctor Who – The Eighties” by David J Howe, Mark Stammers, Stephen James Walker; p.13.)

Oh, joy: the Uppity Woman Who Receives Her Well-Deserved Chastisement At The Hands Of A Wiser Man. (See, also, a remarkable fraction of the plots involving Lois Lane in mid-century Superman.) Way to smack down any female character who thinks herself a man’s equal!

But what’s remarkable here is how little of Tegan’s planned arc made it into production. Tegan had her flaws–rashness, a short temper, a bad habit of lashing out at people when she felt overwhelmed or frightened–but I think it’s very hard to argue that she was arrogant, much less that she “took charge” with “overweening self-assertion”. She makes her opinions known, but defers to the Doctor and Nyssa, less brash than she but more experienced. Certainly her comeuppance, as planned in her character brief, never happens.

Long shot showing Tegan exiting the TARDIS. Her inexpert landing has left the TARDIS sticking out of a hill at a strange angle, but she is proud to have landed it intact. Screencap from the 1981 serial "Castrovalva".

Long shot showing Tegan exiting the TARDIS. Screencap from the 1981 serial "Castrovalva".

Tegan gets away from the bitch in the character brief as early as her debut story, “Logopolis”. We meet her as she heads to Heathrow to begin her new job as a flight attendant, a job she is clearly looking forward to. She seems eager for independence, for a chance to prove herself in–yes–a man’s world. Tegan herself identifies her desire to fix her own car as feminist self-reliance.

Even when Tegan stumbles into the TARDIS and gets lost, she manages to maintain much better composure than might be expected of a human confronted with the overwhelming implications of a dimensionally transcendent alien spacetimeship. (Remember that, unlike nearly every other companion, Tegan doesn’t have the Doctor as a tour guide.) She is clearly terrified, but doesn’t let her fear disable her. She knows that she is in some sort of craft: she realizes that the console room is the equivalent of a cockpit; she tries to use the communication devices at the console; she reasons that there must be a pilot aboard, and asks to see that person. She, in short, displays a rather astonishing degree of analytical ability and sang-froid–and that’s just in her first serial.

Peter Davison’s been heard to say that he thought Nyssa was the companion best suited for his Doctor, but I think he’s wrong. Nyssa may have been the one the Fifth Doctor got along with, but Tegan–spiky, ornery, brave Tegan–was the one he needed. It’s Tegan who wants to know why the Doctor can’t go back and save Adric (“Time-Flight”), in a scene that–as the companion confronts the Doctor over a heartbreaking failure to save a fellow companion–is right at home in the new series:

Tegan: Aren’t you forgetting something important, Doctor? Adric is dead.

Amy: Save him. You save everyone. You always do. That’s what you do.
The Doctor: Not always. I’m sorry.
Amy: Then what is the point of you?

 

It’s Tegan who who commits to freeing the Frontios colonists when the Doctor is trying to butter up the villain (“Frontios”), Tegan who’s willing to throw knives at people in the Doctor’s defense (“The King’s Demons”). And, finally, it’s Tegan whose departure forces the Doctor to admit that his hands are bloody. The Doctor doesn’t last long without her–two serials after she leaves, he regenerates.

Tegan vs. Eurocentrism

"McArthur's Universal Corrective Map of the World": a 1979 world map by an Australian cartographer that is oriented so that it has South at the top.

"McArthur's Universal Corrective Map of the World": a 1979 world map by an Australian cartographer that is oriented so that it has South at the top and Australia in the center.

Beneath its glossy science fiction trappings, Doctor Who is a direct descendent of Victoriana: specifically, the Victorian traditions of the gentleman adventurer and the gentleman inventor. This is not an era known for its transgression or its diversity, and Who has at times struggled to rise above the colonialist subtext of “nice white man from advanced civilisation arrives to save backwards civilisations from themselves”.

As our own Courtney Stoker has put it, Doctor Who is:

… not a particularly progressive, transgressive, or subversive show. It’s just a show about a White dude who wields all the power and paternalism of a British imperialist force…

John Nathan-Turner’s reasons for creating an Australian companion probably didn’t include venturing outside Doctor Who‘s comfort zone or introducing a non-European perspective–accounts of the era suggest that he was mostly interested in selling the show to Australia.

But Tegan does bring a non-British, non-European perspective to the TARDIS, maybe most notably in “Four to Doomsday” when she can communicate with Kurkutji, a temporally displaced Aboriginal Australian, and the Doctor can’t.[2] The scene has some problematic elements that imply a screenwriter who seems not to have thought much about either linguistics or Australia’s diversity of languages, including the odd implication that Kurkutji’s language hasn’t changed over 40,000 years (by contrast, a mere 10,000 years separates English from Proto-Indo-European), and the extraordinary coincidence that Tegan happens to know that one particular language among the hundreds native to Australia. But Tegan’s achievement remains: she can do something that the Doctor cannot, and it is extremely important to the story.

It’s tempting to wonder how much of her pointed refusal to be impressed by the Doctor is that, from her perspective, he may well be the Ultimate Pom: representative of an allegedly superior culture who condescends to hang around hers.

It’s stopped being fun, Doctor

What does Tegan want? Does she want to stay with the Doctor or leave? Certainly she’s one of the companions most ambivalent about traveling with the Doctor. But her story is nearly unique among the companions: she stumbled aboard the TARDIS without meaning to, and the Doctor’s attempts to take her home repeatedly failed. She never asked for adventure; it was thrust upon her.

But how do you reconcile a life of adventure with a mundane Earthbound life? This is a major theme of the new series and its spinoffs, but it’s in Tegan’s story that we see it first broached.  The confident young woman we met in “Logopolis”, looking forward to her new job, has her horizons so shattered by her adventures that (per “Arc of Infinity”) she doesn’t last three months as a flight attendant.

So she returns to a life of adventure. This time she wants to be there. She seems happier, now that it’s her choice; she’s more of a participant than a bystander. She is increasingly concerned with the lot of the little people caught up in the mayhem that surrounds the Doctor, and is increasingly determined to give them a voice.

And things start going wrong. Gradually, Tegan realizes that the exhilaration of adventure is not worth the psychic toll it’s taking on her. She’s seen too much. She’s… outgrown him.

So she makes the excruciating choice–the only possible choice–and leaves. On her own terms, with her head held high. Brava.

 

There’s a woman in Australia… fighting for Aboriginal rights

I’m of the opinion that Who has, ultimately, just one lesson for us to learn, over and over again: we are the same.

Tegan learned it.

[1] It’s pretty common in the new series for companions to alternate time with the Doctor and time at home: Rose, Mickey, Martha, Donna, River, Amy, and Rory have all had adventures, left the Doctor, and then come back to have more adventures. But it was vanishingly rare in the classic series; I think Tegan’s the only example. (Sarah Jane didn’t come back until the new series.)
[2] Interestingly, this translation oddity didn’t make any sense at the time (I think it’s the first time the translation magic didn’t work) but does fit in remarkably well with current Who canon, which holds that the TARDIS can’t translate exceptionally old or obscure languages. (“The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit”)

Verity!

Completely self-promotery, but I wanted to point you all at Verity! (or the Verity podcast), a brand new Doctor Who podcast featuring six women. Our first few episodes are up, including a teaser, a practice ‘get to know you’ episode, and the first real one, in which we review The Snowmen.

The mission statement of Verity! is to add more female voices to the Doctor Who podcasting community, and to chat with our friends. We hope to bring more reviews, meta-discussion, humour and wildly differing opinions to the table over this anniversary year, covering Classic as well as new Who.

Hope you give us a listen and enjoy!

The Voices:

Email: veritypodcast@gmail.com
Podcast: RSS
Blog: RSS
Twitter: @VerityPodcast

Barbie Takes Up Cosplay

[crossposted at smallthingsmakemehappy.com]

The picture shows eight dolls of differing genders, ethnicities and ages dressed as the first eight doctors.

Eight dolls, dressed as eight doctors.

When Tansy Rayner Roberts mentioned a few months ago that the Doctor Who Pattern Book included guidelines for doll costumes, I decided to snap up a copy and start sewing suits for my own collection of 1/6thfigures.

The picture shows a Barbie doll dressed as the fifth Doctor, with a red-haired fashion doll dressed as a femme Turlough.

Turlough and the Fifth Doctor.

The book contains knitting instructions for a cardigan, trousers and top intended to fit Action Man. For non-UK readers, Action Man is a toy soldier (similar to GI Joe in the USA). The knitter can vary the colour of wool used to create different Doctor outfits. My mother followed the pattern to knit the cardigan worn by the second Doctor, above; it was simple and quick to make. As I’m stronger at sewing than knitting, I raided the remnants box and improvised all the other items of clothing.

The way fashion dolls are gendered and racialised presents problems from a feminist perspective, as do the consumerist values doll manufacturers promote. But dolls are also eminently hackable and easy to queer. Rather than stick rigidly to Action Men—whose military masculinity is already a curious choice for modelling the Doctor—I dressed dolls of differing ages, genders and ethnicities.

So far I’ve only had time to make Classic Who costumes (I balked at doing all the assistants as well, but couldn’t resist trying a femme Turlough, pictured right). Doctors nine to eleven are on the list…

Radical Inclusiveness: or, Why Hufflepuff is the Best House

We spend a lot of our lives being told that we’re not good enough. (Enough for what, the obvious question, doesn’t come up nearly as often as it should.) You don’t get to do X–sorry, you just don’t meet The Qualifications. Thirteen women met or exceeded NASA’s requirements for the Mercury program, except that NASA required experience as a pilot. The women started pilot training. NASA changed the rules to require experience piloting military aircraft, and the military at the time didn’t let women fly. See how neat that is? Sorry, we’d love to qualify you for spaceflight, but it’s these requirements, see?

And the truth, then and now, is that a lot of The Rules are bullshit, and are there to keep the “wrong sort” out. Therein lies a bit of the genius of Doctor Who, by the way: the Doctor is a trickster figure, who isn’t always bound by rules, who has the power to distinguish the sensible rules from the bullshit ones. The Doctor has invited princesses and hooligans aboard the TARDIS, and he’s treated them the same. That’s a powerful message. There’s no entrance exam. You don’t need experience piloting any sort of aircraft. You’re companion material just as you are. Not just inclusiveness, but radical inclusiveness. Not only Hollywood-anyone, but anyone-anyone.

It makes me think of the least defined and most overlooked house in Harry Potter, Hufflepuff. Nobody seems to know much about Hufflepuff for the first few books; they’re just sort of… there, unlike Gryffindor (brave!), Ravenclaw (smart!) or Slytherin (inbred elitists!). It isn’t until book five that we finally find out what the organizing principle behind Hufflepuff House is:

Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those
Whose ancestry’s purest.”
Said Ravenclaw, “We’ll teach those whose
Intelligence is surest.”

Said Gryffindor, “We’ll teach all those
With brave deeds to their name.”
Said Hufflepuff, “I’ll teach the lot
And treat them just the same.”

Catch that? Hufflepuff isn’t the house of last resort; it’s the only house that deliberately eschews bullshit entrance exams. Because fuck them; there’s no guarantee that they’ll produce a better wizard or whatever–it’s the Hogwarts curriculum and the student’s own work ethic that determines thatand every indication that they both raise meaningless walls between people who really should be working together and create feelings of inadequacy in at least some of the students in them. You don’t have to prove yourself, in Hufflepuff. You want to learn? That’s all that matters. Pull up a chair and let’s do magic.

And that, in the face of a relentless onslaught of stories about the chosen one, the special one, the one marked by destiny to do great whatever, is a radical notion. One that Doctor Who, thanks to its trickster hero, is uniquely qualified to propagate. And that’s why my fondest hope for a companion is an unlikely one–one unlike companions of the past, maybe one selected by the Doctor before s/he has a chance to prove him/herself.* Because you know what’s bullshit? It’s our stories telling people who are female/Black/Native/Asian/queer/disabled/whatever that the best they can hope for is to be inspiration and help to the people who really matter to the story.

It’s time for us to call it bullshit, loudly, and say that everyone matters. No more tests. No more proving yourself. You’re fine. You’re exactly what the Doctor ordered, not despite whatever’s slowing you down, but because of it.

(Continued at Radical Inclusiveness 2: or, Dear Mr Moffatt.)

* It’s true that some past companions have stowed away–I mean, “self selected”. But, as I’ll discuss when I finish my piece on Tegan, the show never really explored the ramifications of this, and I’d really like it to.

 

Time Ladies: The Fanart

With our remit, what are the odds we wouldn’t feature Gladys’ excellent manga-flavored renditions of all eleven Doctors as women?

The first six Doctors, as women, drawn by Gladys.

Doctors seven through eleven, as drawn by Gladys

Doctors-as-women art isn’t new (in researching a post on femme Doctors, I found examples from 1985) or uncommon (anymore), but IMHO Gladys excels here at giving suggestions of personality to the Doctors that are similar to, but distinct from, their male counterparts. One has a suggestion of great warmth behind all her poise. Six, with her blonde curls coming undone from her bun, looks like she’s just paused to gather her thoughts before unleashing her tremendous intelligence on your ass. Ten I imagine as a mad librarian.

RIP Mary Tamm

Another iconic companion from the classic years of Doctor Who has passed away. Mary Tamm, who created the role of the Time Lady (or indeed, Time Lord) Romana, died this morning at the horribly young age of 62, after a long battle with cancer.

My childhood has taken a battering over the last couple of years! Romana I was one of my all time favourites. She was created very much as an equal to the Doctor, indeed as an intellectual and academic superior, though he tended to win out when it came to street or “planet” smarts.

Mary was a graceful and accomplished actress who was still working in the industry, and indeed recently recorded a season of audio plays as Romana, along with Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor. Many condolences to her family and friends.