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?