Women in Doctor Who

The women in Doctor Who are an interesting bunch. Over time, almost every imaginable form of womanhood, from the frighteningly intelligent Dr Liz Shaw to capable (if under-dressed) Leela to Rose Tyler. More on Rose later. For every companion that you hate, there will be another that you love. That, for me, is one of the show’s strengths. The companions, male and female, are people with stories and personalities of their own.

I originally planned this post as a discussion of strengths and weaknesses of the female companions as feminist role models. When I got to the end of the first page of A4 and hadn’t finished the introduction, I realised that there was just too much material to work with. Instead, this is something of a statement of intent, if you will. I fully intend to go into more detail on the various characters in future posts, but in a more manageable way. One doctor at a time, perhaps. For now, I’ll stick to a very quick overview of the points I want to cover.

In terms of role-models, there are some very strong ones in place right from the start. The first human to step aboard the TARDIS is Barbara Wright, a strong minded and capable teacher. In the face of the Doctor’s ranting the The Edge of Destruction, Barbara remains calm and logical, and helps the Doctor trace the actual source of the problem. I’d say that’s a pretty good start to the series, from a feminist point of view.

The third Doctor was something of a purple patch for strong women. I’ve already mentioned the wonderful Liz Shaw, but we also get spunky UNIT operative Jo Grant and investigative report Sarah Jane Smith.

I won’t list all the amazing women the Doctor has travelled with, but as a child of the ‘80s there is a special place in my heart for Ace. What isn’t to love about a companion who takes it on herself to act as the Doctor’s bodyguard? If the series had continued, the producers intended to send Ace to Gallifrey to train as a Time Lord herself. Wouldn’t that have made an interesting story?

Of course there are also some less than stellar examples as well. I reserve a special kind of bile for Rose Tyler and the completely unnecessary romance plot that Russell Davies forced upon her. And the less said about poor Mel, the better. She was supposed to be a computer programmer – no small thing in the early 1980s – but she was consistently portrayed as a ditzy twit who was more trouble than she was worth.

To my mind, the problem with Dr Who is not the women that appear in the series, it’s the necessity of using peril as a plot device to drive the stories. At its most simplistic, Dr Who is a show about a semi-omnipotent being who gets into a difficult situation and extracts himself from it using his extraordinary brilliance, resolve and courage. To illustrate the danger of the situation, the (usually female) companion gets into trouble and has to be rescued.

There is an argument that the women could extricate themselves from their difficulties. They are, after all, intelligent, capable characters in their own right. But let’s be honest – the series is called Dr Who. We tune in every week to watch the man who flies the blue box. Given that simple fact, it would be a little unreasonable of us to expect the writers to make women the focus of the series. Instead, we should celebrate the fact that the show continues to provide examples of the very best of humanity. The central message of the show is that everyone has it in them to be exceptional. What could be more positive than that?


  1. Kate says:

    I have to say I was thinking something along these lines as well: how can we find truly feminist female characters in a show that centers itself around a man so inherently superior to anyone (certainly by his own reckoning at least)?

    • I think it’s less about feminist characters, and more about the fact that this can never be a feminist show in its current structure. It has to change fundamentally.

      • That’s the subject of another discussion (and I’m looking forward to it): what would an explicitly feminist Doctor Who be like? All sorts of things to (I would say “unpack,” but I really hate that term!) account for in what feminism means in the show’s multiple contexts, but I guess that’s the primary point of this blog, after all!

        As for fundamental change, do you mean that the Doctor should be a woman? I’m a firm believer that it WILL happen, and it won’t be gimmicky or temporary, but as real as any other male Doctor has been. Anything less would and should be condemned as a cheap move. That said, as we all know from the history of well, everything, fundamental change is never easy nor even complete, but that’s what’s always fueled history to begin with…

        • elleclegg says:

          I’m not sure I agree with you – I don’t think the Doctor will be a woman. I have a vague recollection that it was established at some point that Time Lords stick to one gender. If I’m wrong on this, I’m more than willing to be corrected. It would certainly be an interesting change of dynamic.

          I think it’s more likely that the show becomes an ensemble cast, like it often was in Old Who. That would allow the plot to be distributed across a range of characters. We might even get a female Time Lord (Lady?) again. There are two candidates out there, just from the reboot, not to mention the possibility of Gallifrey finding a way back one day.

          • Andrew says:

            You are wrong on this. Not only has it never been established (outside of reactionary fan product) that Time Lords stick to one gender, but ISTR that The Doctor’s Wife made a reference to his Time Lord friend (the Corsair?) swapping genders between regenerations – whether that was a biological switch or a gender identification switch, or whether the Doctor was even joking is all potentially up for debate, but…

            In spite of that, I’d prefer an ensemble cast as well, and I even thought that was the way we were going with the Ponds, but for me Amy has fallen into the same redundancy trap as S2 Rose, and I just got bored with River (the best part of Night Terrors was, for me, the revelation that George was not yet another iteration of River Song. It had reached the point where her ubiquity was turning her into Roger Delgado’s Master).

          • elleclegg says:

            I stand corrected, and happily so. Thank you.

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  3. Brass Cupcake says:

    > “To my mind, the problem with Dr Who is not the women that appear in the series, it’s the necessity of using peril as a plot device to drive the stories”

    Great insight there. Perhaps that’s why I find my focus strays toward the episodic female characters: they sometimes exist outside that “damsel to rescue” formula. They’re the villains in power, the authority figures trying to resolve the situation, the ordinary citizen stepping up and displaying admirable integrity, the distraught family member trying to cope with a unfathomably strange problem. Frequently these episodic women get to be heroes in their own right.

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  6. fan says:

    First, I grew up watching Tom Baker, my fav doc., for those of you that didn’t, one of his female sidekicks was a female time lord, strong and smart and challenged him at every turn. All of the sidekicks have their moments to shine. I would enjoy seeing Romana come back to the series.

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