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?