We Whovians are prone to a linear view of social justice progress in Who: a more or less direct march from the Bad Old Days to the present enlightened times. Only trouble is, it’s nonsense. Classic Who was occasionally way ahead of its time… and current Who is sometimes appalling.
Case in point: who’s the worst character, from a feminist standpoint, to grace Doctor Who in a long time? For me, any of the screaming women of yore is preferable to Abigail from “A Christmas Carol”, and the 2010 Christmas special itself is a small master class in paternalism and women as property.
When we meet Abigail, she is being kept as collateral against a loan, like a pawned watch or something. Women and poor people have a long and ignoble history of being viewed as the property of others; a system that makes this explicit without ever criticizing it is marching straight into Problematic Land. Viewers are meant to sympathize with Abigail (and, presumably, the other frozen people), but the classist and sexist collateral system is never even examined within the context of the story, much less denounced as the abomination it is.
Worse yet for Abigail, she continues to be a prop long after she wakes up. She’s consistently othered:
- Young Kazran: Abigail’s crying.
- The Doctor: Yes.
- Young Kazran: When girls are crying, are you supposed to talk to them?
- The Doctor: I have absolutely no idea.
Girls! They’re so mysterious! Not like proper people!
Abigail functions, in fact, as nothing so much as a toy: the boys take her out of her box once a year, play with her, and then put her back in her box. Her feelings are foreordained by the script. She falls for Kazran because he needs saving. She defends him to her family. She completely lacks any agency at all. The Doctor and Kazran treat her remarkable singing ability as theirs to use, not hers. I’m reminded of a similarly odious bit in Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile where the protagonist discovers that a prisoner under his care has magical healing powers and immediately starts a plan to smuggle him out of the prison so he can heal someone. His opinion is never asked; it’s just assumed that he’ll do the healing. He’s not a character, he’s a plot device.
We’ve talked before about Moffat’s unfortunate tendency to draw women from buckets of stock characters: the vamp, the shrew, etc. Abigail is another of these: The Ingenue. If she has any character traits beyond being sweet, she does not make them known. To her generic niceness we can add Friend To All Living Things, Tragically Ill, and Beautiful Singing Voice, for a complete package of Victorian Novel Heroine. Not only has Moffat gotten Abigail from stock, he’s gotten her from stock that was discredited 100 years ago.