The Doctor: a God Among Women?

This guest post was written by Chris Emslie. Chris is a poet and editor living in Scotland. He blogs intermittently at Q.L.P. but spends most of his time yelling at his relatives for saying things they don’t realize are offensive. He co-edits the online poetry journal ILK and frequently gets angry at the TV. Who aside, Chris loves Buffy, True Blood and Dead Like Me. Also he tweets.

God and the doctor we alike adore
But only when in danger, not before;
The danger o’er, both are alike requited,
God is forgotten, and the Doctor slighted.

John Owen

*

“It’s always the women.”

Some of the many ‘dying words’ of Doctor Who arch-villain The Master. These come in the 2007 episode ‘Last of the Time Lords’, immediately after he is shot by Lucy Saxon, the human woman he seduces, marries and—ostensibly—brutalises and drives insane.

This scene is dominated by a tearful farewell conducted exclusively between men, but there is more to note here. While the  Doctor in this scene is literally all forgiveness and light, the only dangers to the Master’s life come from wronged and vengeful women: Francine Jones and Lucy Saxon. The impulse to revenge immediately casts these women as morally inferior to the Doctor.

This unspoken assertion of the Doctor as the superior / rational man among hysterical / inferior women is symptomatic of a larger trend in the series’ history. What are unendingly termed ‘strong women’ are permitted space in the narrative to display their charm / wiles / independence, but only to a point—only so long as they do not present a sustained challenge to the Doctor’s supreme position at the centre of the Whoniverse.

The best examples, distressingly, can be found in the rebooted series, from 2005 onwards. The Doctor’s female cohorts might flirt with equality, but it cannot last. In ‘The Parting of the Ways’, Rose Tyler is granted superhuman abilities by her contact with the heart of the TARDIS, but at a cost: the power will kill her without heroic male intervention (“I think you need a Doctor”). Similarly in 2008’s finale ‘Journey’s End’, Donna Noble achieves the vaguely-defined ‘metacrisis’ that puts the Doctor’s Gallifreyan brainpower in her ickle human (read: female) head. But again, the sudden upsurge in agency is too much for Donna. Indeed, she gets so close to true equality with the Doctor that she has to be punished—“all those wonderful things she saw” have to be stripped from her, reducing her to the bridal archetype she represented at her inception.

More recently, River Song has been repeatedly been billed as ‘[more than] a match’ for the Doctor.  She almost succeeds in killing him, and her ‘human-plus-Time-Lord’ physiology removes the impassable disadvantage of species. But let’s stop and consider the fate of the Time Ladies (or variations thereof) who have given equalling or surpassing the Doctor a real shot:

  • Romana Mk. I is shown as stuffy and narrow-minded in comparison to the Doctor, and only outsmarts him very occasionally. She regenerates into the more submissive Romana Mk. II, who conveniently departs for E-Space and never comes back—at least not in the television series.
  • The Rani is arguably a cautionary tale against allowing Gallifreyan women access to education (they’ll only end up as evil geniuses, ultimately dropped without much ado from the programme).
  • 2008’s ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’ gives us Jenny, genetically a female offshoot of the Doctor. She is born a morally misguided killing machine, reformed by the reason of a Doctor at his most literally patriarchal, and then swiftly killed off, resurrected and sent on her merry way.
  • And then we have River Song herself. She has all the makings of a true equal, on the Doctor’s own turf: she is ingenious, heroic, brave and appealing. Her knowledge of the Doctor’s personal future puts her at an unprecedented advantage. This is balanced initially by her being homicidal—no one can be that badass and morally righteous but the Doctor—and latterly by her domestication. Okay, ‘domestication’ might be a strong word. But the bulk of River’s considerable ability is used to preserve the Doctor’s place on his pedestal, cohesion of reality be damned. The woman who almost defeats him gives up her regenerations to save him because (of course) she has fallen in love with him. Is anyone else noticing a trend in Steven Moffat’s writing here? And of course, River’s threat to the Doctor’s role as patriarch is neutralised by the fact that we know from her first appearance that she is doomed to die, while he can potentially live forever. Take that, woman!

Let’s end with a nice, light-hearted moment from 2006, when Rose Tyler meets Sarah Jane Smith, the celebrated damsel-in-distress from the days of the third and fourth Doctors, in ‘School Reunion’. Sarah-Jane ribs the Doctor:

“You can tell you’re getting older [...] your assistants are getting younger.”
“I’m not his assistant!” Rose rightly protests.
“No?” Sarah Jane shrugs and smiles to herself.

We cannot help but infer from this brief exchange that Rose thinks herself equal to the Doctor. Quite reasonable, really, to assume that about your best friend. Sarah Jane’s smile tells us that Rose, like countless other women to have travelled with the paragon Doctor, will inevitably learn otherwise.

*

18 comments

  1. Nightsky says:

    Ayup. Also note Ambrose, from The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood, unambiguously cast as the villain; and the rational man/ hysterical woman dynamic between Malokeh (the scientist) and Restac (the soldier). The latter is particularly striking (to me, anyway), as I’m not nearly as fond of Malokeh–who experiments on people like an underground Mengele–as the script and the Doctor are.

  2. Kmasca says:

    Yes, like Nightsky I immediately thought of Cold Blood. That episode particularly made me raise an eyebrow because the Doctor’s praise of Malokeh was partly based on a sentimentality towards children (because, you know, he doesn’t cut them up without anaesthetic like the adults), and Ambrose was trying to act in the interests of her child. Very clear double standard.

    I actually don’t think “domestication” is a strong word for what happens to River. The end of Forest of the Dead is a very literal domestication, although it looks more incongruous in retrospect than it did at the time. If this is a trend of Moffat’s, though, I think it’s a relatively recent one; I’m watching Press Gang at the moment and I don’t think the female characters fit that pattern at all.

    • Brass Cupcake says:

      > “That episode particularly made me raise an eyebrow because the Doctor’s praise of Malokeh was partly based on a sentimentality towards children (because, you know, he doesn’t cut them up without anaesthetic like the adults), and Ambrose was trying to act in the interests of her child. Very clear double standard.”

      I’m quoting Kmasca here, but my reply is in response to Nightsky as well. I appreciate seeing that I’m not the only one who reacted that way.

      I was sitting there arguing with the tv: “Dude! A militant alien race kidnapped her son, experimented on him, and left him in stasis that from his perspective was akin to fear and abandonment — and she’s wrong for trying to protect and rescue her son??!! If she just sat around people would be calling her a negligent and irresponsible mother who didn’t love her son enough. She clearly didn’t enjoy the violence and tried to avoid actually killing the Silurian. Why is everyone shaming her for this??”

      “Meanwhile Malokeh — Mr. I’m-Going-To-Dissect-Our-Prisoners-While-They’re-Conscious — gets praise and a free pass for EVERYTHING he did prior??!! Did The Doctor suffer brain damage?”

      There were some very problematic gender issues going on in that storyline, regardless of the writers’ intentions.

  3. Chris Emslie says:

    I can’t believe I missed the ‘Hungry Earth’ episodes–the double standard is glaring. There were a lot of other points I wanted to make (i.e. how all of history has to be rewritten when a woman of colour is seen to supplant the Doctor as Earth’s saviour) but didn’t want the piece to run on too long.

    And I confess that I can’t generalise about Moffat’s attitudes to women (and didn’t mean to), but the Who / Sherlock storylines about women [not] beating the male protagonists at their own game seemed just too similar.

    This is another case that could be solved by making Helen Mirren or, say, Naomie Harris, the Twelfth Doctor. Make it happen, BBC!

  4. I don’t agree with your characterisation of Romana I at all! Yes, she’s a bit stuffy at first, but she also brings in a huge, paradigm altering idea, which is that the Doctor, whom we have previously seen as the most knowledgeable person in the world, isn’t actually all that intelligent or qualified compared to the rest of his race.

    Romana is constantly one-upping him with knowledge and cleverness, even as the Doctor counters that by being more practical and “street-smart” (planet smart?) than she is. It makes for a very interesting progression, and works almost as a subversion of his relationship with Leela, where he represented intellect and she was instinct.

    When Romana regenerates, her new self is a lot less aggressive about how she outsmarts the Doctor (I’ll even agree with ‘more submissive’), using wit and charm to get around him rather than arguing, but she has also grown into a more confident and experienced character that’s more of a reflection of him, and we still have moments in most episodes where she gets to be more capable than he does, even if they are fleeting. Also the payoff for being less arugmentative is that she makes fewer mistakes in real life situations. Their partnership is certainly the most balanced that Tom Baker’s Doctor ever had, and shows him at his least patriarchal.

    Also, Romana isn’t casually written out, she leaves because she has found work that is important to her and has nothing to do with the Doctor – and because travelling with him has shown her that she’s not ready to go back to the dry academic life she left on Gallifrey. It’s an empowering choice for her, and something rare in a companion – the first time since Liz Shaw in 1971 that a companion is seen to choose her own work over being with the Doctor.

    I agree with everyone about the awful gender politics in Cold Blood, though. They gave us excellently designed female Silurians and then made the women the bad guys. Weirdly that one is my daughter’s favourite in that season (she always loves the anti-fan-favourites) and I always want to stop and analyse the gender issues in it. Possibly I don’t need to any more – she’ll have the lecture nicely ingrained by now.

    My thoughts on the River story are probably too complicated to put down here, but I do think that now that both ends of her story are covered (the ones where she’s new and the ones where the Doctor is new) all the stories left to tell about her are the glorious middle where they really can be equals – or at least, can take turns having the upper hand. I will be interested to see how that comes out.

  5. Chris Emslie says:

    Those are really well-made points, Tansy. Don’t get me wrong, I love Romana and think she has possibly the best relationship with the Doctor of all the companions. What I’m trying clumsily to get at is that it might be because she is so evenly matched with the Doctor that she was written out. As a regeneration-ready Time Lady, there was no need to do so if Lalla Ward had had enough of the role (note River is conveniently denied this). OK, so we should have new companions all the time and we couldn’t have had Romana forever, but my point is this: she should be the model (at least in terms of equality) after which subsequent companions were based. Using Romana as a benchmark, we can see that this isn’t the case.

    Also, in ‘City of Death’ Romana’s academic upper-hand is constantly dismissed by the Doctor in favour of his expansive artistic maleness. Almost every suggestion she makes is immediately refuted and she only gets to shine when paired with comic-relief Duggan.

    As an aside: from what I’ve heard, the pseudo-canonical Romana III is a cold, calculating, morally dubious incarnation of her. No fear of her winning audiences over the Doctor, then.

    I do think Romana deserves a better rep than the article gave her (I concede I limited the point). She represents a crucial fork in the path of Doctor Who’s feminism. It just saddens me that the show seems to have gone the wrong way from it.

    • It’s possible that was the case, but Romana was with the Doctor for quite a long time, and your article did rather imply she was written out quickly! In fact she only left two stories before the Doctor himself regenerated.

      I don’t know anything about Romana III, where is she from? I have very much enjoyed the hugely feminist audio series Gallifrey, though, which is all about President Romana II with Leela as her companion.

      I agree that Romana is a fantastic model for companions, though not that she should be the benchmark necessarily – Ace, for instance, is a completely different kind of companion, and feminist in her own way. She’s not an equal to the Doctor in intelligence or experience, being only sixteen, but she has fabulous qualities.

      I think the idea of a companion who offers a different perspective to the Doctor is key, and different skills. As long as she’s better at him at SOMETHING, and that’s an important something. The trouble of course is that it’s then left in the hands of individual writers – Douglas Adams wrote some great witty dialogue, but he never did provide much in the way of interesting roles for women his work.

      I don’t think Romana would work for every Doctor – she worked brilliantly with Tom Baker, because his character was all ego and needed some puncturing, but I suspect she wouldn’t have worked as well with Peter Davison, who treats all his companions, male and female alike, as children, in order to disguise how very young and gentle he appears. She would have kicked Sixth Doctor arse, though, and probably given him a much better balance than they managed with Peri.

      The audio version of Shada which redoes the sotry with President Romana (on a brief holiday) and the Eighth Doctor is wonderful, and shows the adaptability of her character. I really wish they’d bring her back.

      • Nick Cox says:

        My thanks to everybody here for points I hadn’t considered about the gender issues in The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood Thanks also to (IIRC) contributions made by Deb and Liz on 2MTL which made me see the problem of River being defined by the Doctor. I think Steven Moffat has a rather clumsy approach to female characters in Who and I wish there were more women writers and production staff to counter the trend.

        I have a theory about the Doctor’s fractious relationship with Romana and her ‘academic superiority’. Both she and the Master were said on screen to have higher academic results than the Doctor; both characters also have obvious aristocratic qualities, as do most other Time Lords apart from the Doctor. I suspect that, in Gallifreyan terms, the Doctor was a ‘scholarship’ boy from a lower-end of the Gallifreyan class system. His natural talents were overshadowed by his humbler origins and his impatient intelligence meant that he got lower academic scores out of laziness, rebelliousness or just being too darn contrary in his outlook, and had he applied himself and not had upper-class prejudice to overcome, he would have scored better than any Time Lord.

        It also relates to my academic thesis on Pertwee’s Doctor: if you’re not British or from the generation that watched him first time round, he certainly does appear posh and authoritarian. If you are British and remember the 1970s, he has all the characteristics of a vaudeville conjuror: his dress, his pseudo-posh accent, his sleight of hand tricks, ‘assistants’ rather than companions, his name (many vaudeville conjurors and Punch and Judy performers went by ‘Doctor’ or ‘Professor’), and the fact that Vorg and Shirna are analogs of the Doctor and Jo and Vorg assumes he’s ‘one of us’ and drops his facade to talk to him.

        The Doctor spends his first 3 incarnations being old and grumpy “like you do when you’re young” as Ten said, but on turning into Tom Baker he embraces the rebellious university student he had been and even returns to Gallifrey to thumb his nose at his old tutor.

  6. Bumble Toes says:

    “The Rani is arguably a cautionary tale against allowing Gallifreyan women access to education”
    LOL. This needs to be a fridge magnet or a key ring.

    As for Moffat, yes. Annoying I really do believe that he believes he’s not sexist and these are strong women for the reasons he portrays.

    Cold Blood/The Hungry Earth I saw it as a ‘reverse of the gender roles’ having the women wanting to ‘protect’ their people and the men wanting to ‘take care’ of their people.

    • Part of the Doctor’s character from the very beginning shows him being arrogant, autocratic, assured of his own self-importance, stubborn, prickly and – at the beginning of the series – refusing to admit he was wrong or apologize. I’d argue that interpersonal power politics isn’t a well-developed character interaction, especially in a show like Doctor Who that needs to accommodate the Doctor.

      As far as I can tell, most writers default to the male dominant/female submissive model – possibly making the women act out of character – because as much as they want to leave them with the dominant personality they can’t quite follow through. That’s what I think happened to both Amy and River, with Moffat. River especially starts as equal and while the storyline attempts to preserve that, the follow-through is lackluster.

      Personally, I think it’s a matter of ‘dominant women, how do they work?’ and the writers having no idea so they just wing it. Add to that the question of ‘How do we make a strong female character? She should be able to fight, right? She’s supposed to be dominant to be strong, right? Let’s make her dominant. There. STRONG.’, and not really grasping what a dominant personality can do for a character or that a submissive character can also be strong.

      @Bumble Toes – That’s how I read Cold Blood/The Hungry Earth thing also. That the soldierly-minded one was the female and the tender was the male, albeit with dubious care-taking skills. I remember being mildly amused that they chose to make the woman a militant.

      • Brass Cupcake says:

        > “Personally, I think it’s a matter of ‘dominant women, how do they work?’ ”

        I had to laugh at that for it’s perfect summation. Like magnets, women are just so damn foreign and confusing.

        • Brass Cupcake says:

          oops. “its” not “it’s”

        • Nick Cox says:

          Seconded. It’s frustrating that gender politics in Doctor Who advance at such a slower pace than everything else because one of the biggest things I love about the show is how I find it morally and politically enlightening. Barbara Wright was a great character; they nearly got Jo right; Romana was good, if a little too posh; Tegan (as my wife pointed out) would have been better if Janet Fielding had been the model for the character; and Ace was, I think, very well realised indeed. Why has the new series taken a few steps back?

    • Whups! Apologies, Bumble Toes, your post got my full reply. Sorry about that. ^_^;;

  7. Danika says:

    Hmm, I didn’t see Jenny that way. She was a soldier, yes, but I think she made the Doctor question his own morality. He was quick to write her off, and she made him face that she could not be so easily dismissed. She made him reconsider his easy dichotomy between Jenny as soldier and him as a peaceful person, pointing out his solider-like qualities. And she was resurrected, off to have adventures of her own! I don’t think that’s necessarily inferior to him. (I really want her to come back at some point.)

    • Rolf says:

      Danika: Agree with you on Jenny — and it would be great if she returned and had a spin-off series (like Sarah Jane.)
      I don’t buy the general theme here that the female companionshave been weak NuWho Companions like Donna, Rose (yes!), Martha have been strong on their own and Classic Companions such as the Romanas, Nyssa, Sarah Jane (of course), Tegan and further back to Zoe, who once accused the Brigadier of being chauvinistic. She was a smarty and sassy.

  8. I think this just goes to show that women should not be underestimated. We can be strong when we want to and we pretty much can do things other men cannot do.

  9. Nightsky says:

    @Nick: I’d LOVE to read your thesis; it sounds fascinating. Pardon if the request seems forward or weird.

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