Women who waited…

I’m increasingly sensitive about how older women are portrayed on TV.  So few of the programmes I love, when I think about it, give me  images that I can recognise or respect.  Either they are solely defined by being somebody’s mum or somebody’s wife, or they have independent lives which appear to preclude them being somebody’s mum or somebody’s wife.

Dr Who is no exception.   There are reasons why companions are in general young (and I note the exception of Barbara, from the very first DW).  Older women have ties and responsibilities, and though they might yearn to travel in time and space (and they do yearn, oh, they do) they can’t just take that leap, without looking back.

So, where are the older women on Who?

There are, of course, mothers.  The power of motherhood has been a bit of a theme recently, notably in the 2011 Christmas special, which merits a blog post of its own.   But what seems to be a NuWho phenomenon is that companions now have mums.   There’s a reason why fantasy narratives tend to keep parents, particularly mothers, out of the way.  They ask awkward questions, they want to know where you’re going, and if you’ll be back in time for tea.  A bit like Buffy’s mum, Joyce Summers, who attempts to ground her daughter on the night that a vampire apocalypse looms (OK, on one of the nights…), with the words, ‘I know. If you don’t go out, it’s the end of the world. Everything is life and death to a sixteen-year-old girl!’.  Jackie Tyler, Sylvia Noble and Francine Jones all contribute to the narrative primarily by getting in the way, inadvertently, through their fears for their daughters and mistrust of the Doctor, or through naivety.  Of the three, it’s Jackie who emerges most fully from the stereotype, to play, albeit briefly, a more active role alongside Sarah Jane, Mickey and Jack. Jackie and Sylvia are played for laughs, however, Jackie for her sexuality, which we are clearly meant to find ridiculous, and Sylvia for her prudishness (she wouldn’t allow webcams as they were ‘naughty’).

Of course, companions do become older women, eventually.  Sarah Jane Smith is our icon here, the one whose post-Tardis life we know most about. In ‘The Death of the Doctor’ (Sarah Jane Adventures) she and Jo Grant compare notes on other past companions, all clearly changed by the experience of travelling with the Doctor, and now working for the benefit of humanity.  Sarah Jane speaks movingly in ‘School Reunion’ of the pain and loss she felt when he left her behind, and Jo’s reaction when she realises Sarah Jane had seen the Doctor shows that she too had felt abandoned.  There’s a hint that ex-companions do the things they do in the hope that he will be aware of them, and that they will see him again.   Fair enough.  The Doctor (so far) is a man, a charismatic, unpredictable, extraordinary man.  Those who travel with him, whether or not they harbour romantic or sexual feelings for him, whether or not they maintain a healthy scepticism and have the confidence to challenge him, however their connection with him ends, are scarcely going to forget him, nor are they likely to encounter anything in the rest of their lives that will eclipse those experiences. ‘We get a taste of that splendour and then we have to go back’ (‘School Reunion’).

There are a few women who don’t fit either category – neither ex companions nor companions’ mums.   They’re not quite allies, nor yet adversaries.   Harriet Jones (backbencher, PM, ex-PM)  is forthright, good in a crisis, brave and the stand-off between her and the doctor left me unsure whose side I was on.  That kind of moral ambiguity is relatively rare – one could disagree with her actions AND dislike profoundly the Doctor’s way of bringing her down.  And Adelaide Brooke (‘Waters of Mars’,  pioneer, explorer, grandmother,  opposes the Doctor at his most hubristic, taking her own life to negate what she sees as his arrogant irresponsibility.   The parts that these two play in the narrative didn’t absolutely require them to be women, but I’m glad they were.

And then, of course, there’s the girl who waited.  ‘Old Amy’, who grew old(er), alone.  She needs a post to herself, I think.

So, what do I want from DW in the future?   I don’t want the companions’ mums to retreat back to invisibility, but I’d like them to be less of a joke.  Sadly, more Sarah Jane is no longer possible.  But more of the ex-companions – the women who were plucked from regular lives, plunged into intergalactic mayhem and then dropped back again into ordinariness, who then put their energies into trying to change the world, even if they didn’t have the power to save it.  More Harriets and Adelaides, yes please.   Women who are on the right side in the old good v. evil thing,  but who are confident enough in their knowledge, their wisdom, their judgement, to say no, even to the Doctor.

And should there be a vacancy for a more mature woman, say, around 54ish, untested in actual combat situations but mad organisational skills, to hop aboard the Tardis, can I be first in the queue?





  1. tansy says:

    I would love to see Rory’s Mum! Sadly that’s probably less likely to happen now… but wow, she’d have to be a pretty awesome lady.

    I’m a huge supporter of Jackie Tyler – I love her to bits, and I think that while her sexuality was sometimes played for laughs, it was always brought back with emotional depth – even in that last scene with Rose in End of Time, where you see her making a joke of it herself, and Rose not letting her, is hugely powerful. Also, while she was the voice of criticism against the Doctor, it was a valid opinion, and particularly in Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, she had one hell of a point.

    I love older women in the TARDIS and would like to see more of it – both Donna Noble and River Song had at least a decade on Barbara Wright, though (the actresses, anyway) who I think was 30 in her first episode. Also “older” as I mentioned in my own recent post is a bit of a vague term. Older than who? Barbara at 30 was older than Susan, and visibly younger than the Doctor – Donna and River both appear to be older than the Doctor despite his 900+ years. It does make a difference. I would ADORE to see Donna with Matt Smith’s Doctor.

    Romana, of course, didn’t look her age, but was the oldest companion the Doctor has had, even giving Wilf a run for his money. But was younger than the Doctor…

    In the Big Finish audios, Evelyn Smythe is spectacular, and shows that an “older” woman with the right Doctor makes for a fabulous combination. She has less patience for the Sixth Doctor’s pomposity, and he himself credits her with improving his personality and way of interacting with people. I was shocked though to listen to her first episode and realise that she was calling herself “old” when only in her mid fifties. That’s not old to me! On the other hand, she was surrounded by first year students, so understandable she’d feel that way – I used to even in my mid twenties.

    Her health issues (mostly a heart condition) were interesting too, because even though she looked older than the Doctor, the fact that she saw herself as having a very limited lifespan also gave her a different perspective on life to him, with multiple centuries under his belt, but no reason not to think he would live for centuries more.

    Also, not to spoil things or anything, but she had a fantastic romance in the course of her adventures, while is lovely, and she got to be rather more than mid-50’s in her career as Doctor Who companion.

    Anyone who is interested in the older companion question and hasn’t seen Tom Baker serial “Stones of Blood” should check it out – Professor Rumsford in that is not only utterly adorable, but made Tom Baker think that an older female companion would be brilliant in the TARDIS. I’m not certain but I think this story is the first time people started really talking about that as being an awesome, interesting idea – and it took Big Finish to actually test it out!

  2. tansy says:

    Oh, and another comment – a friend suggested to me that a brilliant way to honour the character of “Brigadier” without Nicholas Courtney would be to have Sophie Aldred turn up playing the grown up Ace, now holding that rank with UNIT. I can’t stop thinking about how excellent that would be!

    Though bringing back Brigadier Winifred Bambera on TV as they did at Big Finish would also be fantastic…

  3. cathannabel says:

    Yes, ‘older’ is obviously a very imprecise term! In general, I’d say 40+ (however young that sounds to me personally) because that tends to be the point at which women in the media find their gigs going to younger ones. It’s partly perception though – Barbara seemed older than she was, perhaps, because of the whole teacher thing which gave her a more defined status? Donna (as distinct from Catherine Tate) is mid-30s, and whilst her comparative maturity (in relation to Rose, amongst others) certainly shows, she’s somehow still waiting for her real life to begin, which makes her seem younger.
    I love Jackie too, and you’re right about the way in which her sexuality is treated later on with more respect – I’d forgotten that.
    As for River, I thought of including her but decided that she was a special case – another post perhaps.
    Brigadier Ace? I’ll salute that!

  4. Anna says:

    I´d loved this post, Catherine. Thanks ever so much for writing down this words which, for most Doctor W women fans, are the never-spoken-when-commenting the episodes opinions. I´d love to know what´s your opinion on Sherlock´s women…

  5. Nightsky says:

    Bernice Summerfield, a companion from the books and audios, is another sterling example of what you have in mind. Heck, she’s been spun off into her own continuity for over a decade.

    Part of the genius of the new series, I think, is that it tackles the questions that the classic series went out of its way to avoid: what kind of person leaves home behind at the drop of a hat to go travelling the universe? Does her family know that she’s exploring spacetime? Do they know the awful risks she’s taking? Does she keep in contact with her old life? Does she expect to go back to it? What happens when your time in the TARDIS is over? How do you go from nonstop adventure to an ordinary life?

    The classic series skirted most of the family drama by having the companion start out with few or no ties to their home. The post-TARDIS adjustment was likewise elided by the companion being either 1) returned to her status quo ante, or 2) stranded in the alien society of her choice (hope that marriage works out!), and in both cases basically never crossing paths with the Doctor again.

    Practically all classic series companions have few or no ties to their homes.

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