Tag Archive for doctor who

Companions in Comics: Miranda, the Doctor’s Daughter

This post contains spoilers for Lance Parkin’s novel Father Time and the comic Miranda.

A girl in school uniform stands surrounded by aliens.

The first issue of Miranda, published by Comeuppance Comics.

How might the adventures of a Time Lady differ from the Doctor’s? One answer to this question is offered by Miranda (2003), a comic devoted to the Doctor’s daughter.

My previous three posts focused on companions in Doctor Who Magazine. Miranda is a very different kettle of fish. The publication was launched independently, marketed at Buffy fans, and unlike the long-running DWM, expired before its fourth issue. (The reasons remain unclear, but this statement from publisher David Whittam suggests the cause may have been lack of funds). So the following critique comes with caveats. Miranda is an unfinished story, and can’t be judged in its entirety. Still, its relationship to Doctor Who raises some interesting questions from a feminist perspective.

The character Miranda was originally developed for Lance Parkin’s book Father Time (2001). I want to devote some attention to Father Time for contextual reasons. This well-written, unsettling, novel describes the Eighth Doctor adopting Miranda—a little girl with two hearts—and raising her on Earth. Although she is brought up to believe she is human, the Doctor knows that her birth father was a tyrannical Time Lord who was murdered in an uprising while she was still a baby. There are hints, never confirmed, that the tyrant may be a future regeneration of the Doctor. Until Miranda’s teens, she is unaware that she is both heiress to the universe and an assassination target for her father’s former slaves. In the mean time the Doctor does his utmost to keep her in material comfort, primarily by becoming a millionaire entrepreneur. He also articulates a depth of feeling for her that we rarely see expressed towards companions. Parkin describes the inspiration for the book as follows:

The Doctor can do all these fantastical things, but he’s not quite a full human being, he’s not quite emotionally literate. As I’ve said before, when I’m writing a Doctor Who book, I think of the most absurd non-Who like idea that I can, and try to get it to work. And the idea here was an image of the Doctor hugging a young girl, and saying ‘you’re my daughter, and I’ll always love you.’ It’s just not the sort of thing he does. So how did he get there? I was really worried about Miranda stealing the limelight, but in the end she’s a wonderful mirror for the Doctor – she really helps define him.

Quoted from a 2006 interview with the BBC

Parkin overstates the incongruity of the Doctor as paternal figure; after all, the First Doctor was introduced as a grandfather. However I agree that a Doctor who commits to “always loving” his daughter feels unfamiliar, for reasons nicely explored by Tansy in her posts on domesticity. The scenario suggests a permanent bond, or a personal tie placed before his public, itinerent, adventurer role. That’s quite a far cry from the mentor-like, but temporary relationships he often forms with young companions.

As Parkin claims, Miranda is a “mirror” for the Doctor; she possesses the same abilities, the same mannerisms… and the same class privileges. The domestic setting gives a new emphasis to the Doctor’s economic independence. His ability to cosset Miranda derives from material riches that are unavailable to other people in the book. Many of Miranda’s reported thoughts express a sense of superiority over her friends. This self-regard is focused on her extraterrestrial levels of intelligence and physical strength, but there is a clear class dimension to a young rich girl feeling innately superior. It is interesting to note that, unlike many companions, Miranda is not offered as a point of identification for readers–even though much of the story is related from her point of view. Instead she comes very close to functioning as a female equivalent to the Doctor. And while his love for her is moving, as a pair they regularly feel alienating and exclusionary. It is intriguing that the Doctor becomes harder to like as he ostensibly becomes more human by putting Miranda first.

If Miranda ceases to be a “mirror” for the Doctor, it is in the treatment of her sexuality. As a teenager she veers between feeling asexual and attempting to fit in with her peers by mimicking their sexual behaviour. Her asexuality is not maintained into adulthood. Rather, her indifference to sex is presented as a temporary adolescent confusion. Worryingly, her first genuine desire is for her would-be alien assassin, Ferran. The attraction partly derives from recognising him as an equal with powers comparable to her own (powers which her human boyfriend does not possess). That might be all well and good without the threat of murder. It troubles me that Miranda’s lust for a man who can match her becomes entwined with lust for a man who wants to kill her. By contrast, the Doctor pursues a quasi-romantic relationship with at least one human woman, seemingly at ease with the inequalities in his favour. There is little challenge to the idea that men should dominate women within the context of heterosexual relationships.

In the comic, also written by Parkin, much of the story’s peril derives from threats of (implicitly sexual) violence to Miranda, which include Ferran’s attempt to coerce their marriage. This is curious as the comic, in theory, has a female-friendly goal. Unlike Father Time, where Miranda is included to illuminate our understanding of the Doctor, the comic makes Miranda the protagonist and doesn’t refer to the Doctor at all. Parkin stated in 2002 that the strip aimed to provide “stories with aliens and robots and fast-paced action, but with a strong female central character” .

Yet the comic’s artwork, combined with certain narrative choices, make Miranda seem much more vulnerable here than in Father Time. She enters the story as a newcomer to space, ignorant of her ancestry; this tried and tested trope for getting readers up to speed with an alien world removes many of the privileges she possessed on Earth. Her physical strength no longer seems exceptional, and she knows less than everybody else. A more vulnerable Miranda would be fine, but isn’t really explored in terms of her feelings or reactions—a feature I’m willing to give a pass because we only have three issues to assess here. We can’t know how her character would have developed.

Miranda’s visual presentation is more problematic. All three issues of the comic are attractively drawn with dynamic panel layouts, but Miranda’s posture sometimes borders on the Escher-like contortions that have become so familiar to comics readers over the past decade. More generally, she’s drawn for the implied male reader’s titillation. In issue two, for instance, Ferran attempts to spy on her in the bath, resulting in illustrations like these (click to enlarge the picture):

Miranda rises from a bath. She is naked and on all fours. In the next panel she dries herself with a towel.

Miranda in the bath.

Her dialogue regularly opens an ironic gap between her thoughts and the image, but that just strikes me as an attempt to have your cake and eat it. See, for instance, her comments on an attractive male acquaintance, while the focus of the panel is clearly on her own body:

Miranda is drawn from behind, so that her rear is the focus of the image. She is saying to a friend, "Oh right...Um...Someone should watch his bum...er... his back. I'll go."

Miranda viewed from behind.

So to come back to the question I asked at the start of this post: how might the adventures of a Time Lady differ from the Doctor’s? On the basis of Miranda, the likelihood of being sexually objectified is a lot greater. How depressing. The comic has so much potential that isn’t realised, partly because of its untimely end. I can heartily recommend Father Time, though.

Quick Hit: #YestoFemaleDoctor on Twitter

A tweet today from SFX Magazine’s Twitter account started the #yestofemaledoctor and #notofemaledoctor hashtags (the latter is about as douchey as you would expect).

A tweet from @SFXmagazine reading "So oustide of a Who con, is the world either #yestofemaledoctor or #notofemaledoctor ? Tweet now" Click the picture for the original tweet.

It’s started a fairly interesting conversation on Twitter that you might want to check out. Some of the highlights:

A tweet from @maria_siulee reading "#yestofemaledoctor science fiction that can cross time & space but not gender is a pathetic failure of imagination" Click the picture for the original tweet.

A tweet from @cnstoker reading "And while we're at it, #yestoDoctorofcolor. This isn't the US presidential elections. We can have both. #yestofemaledoctor" Click on the picture for the original tweet.

Tweet from @erinpuff

A tweet from @erinpuff, reading "I'm team #yestofemaledoctor, but not with Moffat as showrunner! A team of awesome feminists needs to stage a coup first." Click on the picture for the original tweet.

It’s encouraging that so many Who fans would like to see a lady Doctor, and would like to see a feminist Doctor Who. (They’re not, after all, the same thing.) I think we’re probably a long way from actually having a Doctor who is a lady, or a person of color, or (dis)abled, or trans*, because fans don’t run things, or worry about ratings and appealing to the lowest denominator. But it’s nice to know that even if they aren’t listening that hard, the fans are telling the BBC what we want, and it isn’t a show that participates in oppression.

The New Companion?

Apparently there will be an announcement tomorrow about the new companion (or later today for those of us already dabbling with Wednesday)! A press conference and everything.

So state your guesses now, and your wishlist.

Who do you want as the next companion?

What qualities do you THINK the next companion will possess?

Male/female
Racial appearance
Straight/queer
Human/alien/robot
Contemporary/historical/future
Madam De Pompadour/Canton Everett Delaware III/Captain Jack Harkness/River Song
Giant cabbage on shoulder

UPDATE: And here she is: Jenna Louise Coleman. Soap star, white, conventionally pretty, slim, etc. The exciting bit is that buzz suggests she might be playing a non-human. She will appear first in the Christmas Special which will be the 6th episode in the new season.

Companions in Comics: Can Frobisher Lay an Egg?

One of the delights of Doctor Who comics is that they offer different creative opportunities from television. In 1984, Doctor Who Magazine introduced Frobisher: an alien companion who seemed tailor-made for the format. He belongs to a shape-shifting species, and habitually assumes the form of a wise-cracking penguin. Perhaps the TV programme could have rendered his characteristics well, but I doubt it, given the show’s record of dubious special effects. In the strips Frobisher becomes a very effective source of irony and visual gags. More covertly, his shape-shifting also raises interesting questions about the comics’ treatment of gender.

Frobisher features in forty-eight issues between 1984 and 1987, as a regular companion to the sixth and, briefly, the seventh Doctor. Occasionally he crops up in later comics, prose fiction and Big Finish audio stories too.

Like many companions, he has a life he wants to leave behind. At the outset he is a jaded gumshoe, working under his original name of Avan Tarklu. He intends to capture the Doctor and claim a substantial reward. Of course they end up travelling together instead. En route Tarklu adopts his new moniker and hints at the recent failure of his marriage. Although Peri accompanies them on several adventures, much of the time the Doctor and Frobisher travel alone, providing a rare instance of a long term male-male pairing in the TARDIS. Their interactions are fun, yet bring a few depressing implications; Frobisher’s friendship with the Doctor is closer to a buddy story than the father/child dynamic we normally see with female companions.

But is Frobisher male? I want to consider that more closely.

Over three years of strips, Frobisher metamorphosises into forms as varied as telephones and hamburgers, human beings and birds. He also periodically acquires a disease called monomorphia, where he is no longer able to change his form at will. Throughout these many transformations, Frobisher is framed as a male character. His gender identification is by no means clear from the dialogue (my suspicion is that the authors didn’t distinguish between identification and presentation in their thinking). But we are led to read him as male. When Frobisher wears clothing, it is always normatively masculine clothing. If he appears in humanoid form, he tends to adopt roles – like the gumshoe – that are culturally marked as masculine roles. And even when these markers are absent, the Doctor, and all the other characters, consistently refer to Frobisher as “him” and “he.”

Big Finish would later be willing to confront the possibility of shape-shifters changing gender; Frobisher’s wife Francine, for instance, temporarily presents as a man in The Maltese Penguin. The comics shy away from this idea. I suspect the authors were trying, with partial success, to uphold the gender binary. Categorising Frobisher as male within that binary is a conservative act: the majority of characters from the mid-eighties comics are also framed as male, with the implication that female characters are less interesting, compelling, or important. But the act is not wholly conservative. Consistently assigning one gender to a shape-shifting character has subversive potential, in queering associations between assigned gender and morphology.

The relative silence on Frobisher’s gender identification, rather than assigned gender, also gives us some freedom of interpretation. As a demonstration I want to look closely at a particular incident in the story Time Bomb, which was first published in issues 114 to 116 of Doctor Who Magazine. The story relates how a time cannon hits the TARDIS, propelling Frobisher and the Doctor into prehistoric Earth. Previously the cannon has been used by aliens called Hedrons to eliminate genetic imperfections in their species. The genetic waste is transported alongside Frobisher, and on arrival, he mistakes it for an egg he has laid in shock.

This picture shows a drawing of Frobisher, lying on the ground with a spherical object between his legs. He is saying, "Doctor, I feel sick, something terrible has happened... I've laid a blasted egg. That's what! And it's all your fault!"

Frobisher thinks he's laid an egg. From Doctor Who Magazine, published by Marvel Comics.

As a joke, this sequence makes me uneasy. The humour is premised on combined misogynist, ablist and transphobic assumptions (“Haha, childbirth is like incontinence! Haha, you can’t be male and give birth!”). But there is plenty of potential for resistant readings. It interests me that online references to the incident, like this one, suggest that Frobisher has misunderstood penguin physiology, as though his shape-shifting is a type of impersonation that can be held up to an external standard of accuracy. Can’t we instead wonder whether Frobisher identifies as male at all? Perhaps Frobisher doesn’t even present as male here, if we take that to mean appearing normatively masculine; as cartoon penguins go, Frobisher looks androgynous to me. Assuming Frobisher does identify as male, maybe his reaction is a sign he construes a fluid relationship between gender and physiology? Perhaps he knows he can lay eggs, even if he hasn’t this time? Might his understanding of what it means to be male encompass that capacity? Alternatively, perhaps laying an egg is incompatible with his gender identity, and the anger and anxiety he shows here is an expression of dysphoria? Certainly Frobisher has lots of moments of feeling trapped in a body that he wants to change.

Ideally, it wouldn’t be necessary to address unsatisfactory representations with resistant readings. I hope in later posts to discuss less problematic portrayals of queer characters.

But in the mean time: all the above questions make as much sense as Frobisher not understanding how penguins work; and they can be accommodated just as easily by the text.

Lucy Saxon: But He Was So Good To My Father

This is heavily edited from the original post.

“There was a time when we first met, I wondered…
But he was so good to my father.”

Lucy Saxon
“Sound of the Drums”

For me, this short, rather simple line does not just sum up Lucy Saxon in a nutshell but it’s possibly one of the scariest line in all of nuWho. This was the line that revealed seemingly normal woman was not Harold Saxon’s wife but The Master’s. She is aware and supportive of his evil deeds.

That one line shows us The Master’s ‘in’ to get Lucy’s loyalty but it’s the past tense that is really unsettling. Instantly I assume The Master killed his father-in-law and Lucy is oblivious. It’s logical. By giving Lucy reason to grief, he can comfort her and gently slide into the the hole in her heart and take over that power vacuum.

Lucy is an important part to the new introduction of The Master as a shorthand of how they see humans. Where The Doctor befriends humans, falling in love with some and generally treats them as equals ignoring or ignorance of any Time Lord privilege where The Master marries a woman through manipulation only to help him achieve his end goal.

Though Lucy is used as a plot device (character arc device?), abused by the character she spent most of her scenes and have very little lines, she is not neglected as a character. Alexandra Moen is acting if small background screen she’s in. She has a character arc. True, most of that is off-screen in the year between Sound of the Drums and The Last Timelord but we are given hints of the physical, mental, emotional and possibly sexual abuse she’s gone through without it going too dark for the kiddies and hints to her strengths and weaknesses in her actions and the few times she’s allowed to talk.

I always felt that Lucy would be excellent for companion in End of Time. After rejecting Lady Catherine in Planet of the Dead, The Doctor needed a reason to be working with someone and stopping Lucy from killing The Master seems in character, even for the Timelord Victorious. Lucy would be a brilliant way to show The Doctor what he’s becoming going down the Time Lord Victorious path because she already seen where it leads. It would be an interesting an new dynamic of a Doctor and companion genuinely not liking or trusting each other but helping each other through issues.

Have The Doctor raise the question what Lucy might be like if she met him first.

Have Lucy raise the question what Rose, Martha and Donna would be like if they met The Master first.

And give Lucy a chance to say those words with understanding in her voice:

“There was a time when we first met, I wondered…
But he was so good to my father”

Female Power & The Curse of Fenric

One of the nice things about the Seventh Doctor era is the wealth of strong and interesting female supporting characters. Ace, like Mel before her, is a companion who tends to seek the company of other young women, making instant bonds of friendship and allowing for Bechdel-approved shenanigans. The Curse of Fenric, ostensibly a story about a (male) ancient evil returning for a final duel with his enemy the Doctor, surrounded by soldiers on a military base, turns out to be a story that explores several different aspects of female power.

I find it interesting how many descriptions of the story’s plot online talk about the Haemovores (kind of watery vampires, though act more like zombies in many instances) come out of the water, without acknowledging how they got there. Right at the start, we are introduced to two fun loving Cockney girls who have been evacuated from London (thus probably under 18) and who ignore their uptight landlady’s warning to go swimming at the local beach.

Now, if I know my British wartime social history, a pretty major reason not to go swimming at this time was because of mines and barbed wire set up to stop Germans landing on the shores, but in this case, there’s a far more paranormal reason for the warning, and either a fog, gas or otherworldly presence turns those girls into watery vampire creatures with long fingernails. There’s an odd vibe about the landlady’s fears for and attacks upon the girls, and you could read the whole turning-into-Haemovores thing as a punishment for wayward young women, but the upshot of the whole affair is that the two most ‘human’ and personalised monsters terrorising the village are women. There’s also a fabulously powerful and chilling scene in which we see a whole cabin full of Wrens (female naval clerks) transformed similarly into creeping, long-nailed monsters (who mock, threaten and overpower several male characters in the narrative of the story)

Ace doesn’t go into the water, and escapes the same fate of her friends, despite mocking peer pressure from them. Does that make her a good girl, not a bad girl, thus the only one who “deserves” to survive? Possibly. But this whole story is about how deeply she trusts the Doctor and listens to what he tells her (except when he tells her not to bring explosives on a day trip), and how that maybe isn’t something he entirely deserves.

There’s a raw, sensual vibe in this story which is lacking from most Classic Who. Not only is there a sense that the slightly wicked Cockney girls have become sinister, predatory femmes fatale, but we also see Ace herself getting in touch with her sexy side, flirting with a guard to clear a path for the Doctor (though I have to say her methods of flirtation are bizarrely esoteric – it’s fun to see her playing up the woman of mystery, though) and embarking on a deep romance-of-meaningful-gazes with the Soviet Captain Sorin.

The most important relationship in the story, though, apart from that of the Doctor and Ace, is the friendship Ace forms with Kathleen, the only Wren to escape the horrors of the Haemovore invasion. Kathleen represents the women who went out to work to serve their country during WWII while their menfolk were abroad, and the kind of problems they faced in juggling this with family responsibilities – in this case, lacking suitable daycare, she has to bring her baby on to the base and keep her in a basket under her desk.

There’s an adorable scene in which Ace is surprised to hear Kathleen is married, not having heard mention of the husband before, and is taken aback at Kathleen’s horrified reaction at the thought that Ace could POSSIBLY have thought she was an unmarried mother. It’s a nice snipped of social history and how values have changed, reminiscent of the sort of conversations-with-girls-from-other-times-and-places that Rose often has in New Who.

Kathleen’s baby Audrey shares a name with Ace’s mother, which brings up her dark, angry feelings about her Mum all over again (this is a running theme through Ace’s whole story and yet we never really get the details about why things are so bad between them, nor do we get any real closure to the relationship apart from what’s offered in this story). It’s important to see such a strong emotional arc for a companion, something we rarely got to watch in Classic Who.

Just look at the other 1980’s companions: Nyssa only got to show occasional flashes of emotion in response to the horrific killing of her father and the theft of his body by the Master, and Tegan likewise had to mourn her aunt very briefly but didn’t get a lot of follow through. Peri had very powerful emotional issues with her stepfather which were dropped after her first story, while Turlough got to save up his entire emotional/personal arc until his very last appearance – which suggests the writers hadn’t thought of giving him one until that moment.

Ace, however, is a bundle of angst, frustration and rage issues, and it’s lovely to see that depicted. Far more than the slang they dropped into her scripts, it’s the aspect of these scripts that makes her feel like an actual teenage girl.

There’s a scene I had entirely forgotten, possibly because it was a cliffhanger accidentally edited out of my old VHS, but there is a scene where the Doctor, Sorin and Ace are lined up to be shot by firing squad, and it’s a very compelling bit of characterisation: the Doctor is talking nineteen-to-the-dozen, trying to get them to relent in the case of the very young Ace, whereas she faces what she thinks is her death with a single screaming outburst “Mum, I’m sorry!”

The more I think about it, the crankier I get that we never saw Ace face her Mum when she went home, in the story after this one.

The other women in the story (and yes, it does pass the Bechdel Test several times over because Ace and Kathleen talk about issues as well as the Doctor & Kathleen’s gone-to-war husband) are Miss Hardaker, the aforementioned landlady who spends most of her time telling the Cockney girls how wicked they are (another Bechdel scene!), until they retaliate by eating her (honestly, it’s hard to fault them for that, given how determined she is to be proved right that they’re evil) and Nurse Crane, who spends most of the time hovering around her patient, the wheelchair-using Dr Judson, until he turns evil and kills her.

I found their final scene quite fascinating in an awful way, as he, possessed by the all-powerful Fenric, turns upon her and accuses her of patronising him and treating him as a child, basically harassing this poor woman for doing her job. I know that people can be incredibly patronising towards those with disabilities, and there were signs that she was that sort of person, but it wasn’t like he was not in a position of power over her as her employer, and he certainly treated her like an indentured slave throughout the story. Why did he have a nurse at all if he didn’t like it? (you can argue this is Fenric, not Judson, but he does seem to be conveying the real character’s inner thoughts) Her death is an ugly end to a disturbing relationship, though performed very well by both actors (and ironic that the actress Anne Reid, who played Nurse Crane, returned to Doctor Who to play the straw-sucking vampire alien in Smith and Jones).

So yes, lots of women in this story, and sure LOTS of them end up dead, but there’s also a whole lot of material exploring power relationships between women, which I found crunchy and compelling. This is such a strong story for Ace, whom we see not only being very physically capable (the scene where she climbs down her dinky metal rope ladder only to be surrounded by Haemovores and have to physically punch, kick and pound her way through them until help arrives is really quite extraordinary) and despite her general placement as someone from a poor, underprivileged and didn’t-respond-well-to-education background, we also see her using her smarts in this. Sure, she twice figures out important information and accidentally gives it to the wrong person, but the fact that she figures it out on her own is important.

I really enjoy the early scenes where we see Ace positioned as an intellectual equal to Dr Judson – he may be a learned professor and a genius of his time, but her basic comprehensive education from the future has made her a match for him, with ideas that are revolutionary in his time period now being take-it-for-granted facts and skills in hers.

Then there’s the other huge aspect of this story, which is that Fenric and the Doctor both hold a significant amount of information about Ace’s past which she is only now becoming privy to – and that much of this is revealed at a point where the Doctor has to be deliberately cruel to her in order to break her faith in him.

Faith, incidentally, is dealt with in a fascinating way in this story, with the origin of the ‘crucifixes scare vampires’ myth taken to a broader interpretation, where faith in ANYTHING keeps the haemovores at bay. The story of the vicar who has lost his faith because of British war atrocities is a minor but vital subplot, and we see indications of faith expressed in ways that tell us so much about their characters: Sorin believes in the Russian Revolution, and Communism. The Doctor believes in his companions, and mutters the names of early friends (Susan, Ian, Barbara, etc.) to keep the monsters at bay. (This is one of those things I only learned from fandom because it never occurred to me as a kid watching the show that his words were intelligible)

Ace, of course, believes in the Doctor, and at a crucial moment when he needs the Haemovore to be freed so it can turn upon Fenric’s current host and save the day, he has to break her. This scene was remembered by many when a similar plot twist was used in recent New Who story “The God Complex,” and rightly so. Ace learns all at once that the time storm she thought she herself had accidentally created in her school lab to send her into space was part of Fenric’s design; that she is one of his descendants through bloodline, and that Kathleen’s baby which Ace had adored is really the mother she hates. Worse, she discovers that the Doctor always knew this about her.

A softer, more sympathetic revelation comes later, and we see the Doctor churned up by having hurt Ace, but at the same time it is very clear that he has always been playing the role of protective patriarch to her, and she has been the child.

She forgives him rather quickly, at the behest of the narrative, but I do have a deep soft spot for the scene in which she takes off and leaps into the water (now safe from haemovores but rich with metaphorical significance) and literally swims out her angst. It’s a nice symbol for her having time to think about what has happened (how else do you convey this on screen – frowny face montage?), and decide whether or not she is going to allow all this new knowledge to destroy her friendship with the Doctor.

When she returns to him, cleansed and cheerful, they start again. It feels like an imperfect and overly simplistic end to her emotional arc – and indeed there’s one more story to come that addresses Ace’s past and her angst before Classic Who ends altogether with Ace’s story unfinished, but it does feel like a new beginning for these two beloved characters, and suggests that from now on it will be more of an adult partnership rather than a father-and-child relationship.

RAELI’S (Age 7) REVIEW:
I don’t like this Doctor much, but Ace is my favourite now.

====
PRODUCTION NOTES
“Curse of Fenric” (1989)
Season 26: Production Code 7M

Writer: Ian Briggs
Director: Nicholas Mallett
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel

Starring:
THE DOCTOR:
Sylvester McCoy
ACE: Sophie Aldred

NuWho, poverty, and class: Or, the poor women are totally screwed

Kate’s great post on Rose Tyler reminded me of my own love affair with Rose. Rose gets a lot of flack in the fan community (mostly because she had the gall to be loved by the Doctor), but for me, she was revolutionary. I had never before seen a show that featured a working-class young woman as its heroine. When I was growing up poor, the best representation I got was Roseanne.

In Doctor Who, Rose’s background is never swept under the rug, or made the butt of a joke. Even when Cassandra calls her a “chav” in “New Earth,” the show doesn’t align us with her opinion. Cassandra making negative comments on Rose’s appearance after she jumped out of her own body, a trampoline of skin, appears almost laughable. Further, she has always been depicted in the show as a snob. She is, after all, Lady Cassandra. Her classist remarks come off as petty, not observant. And I loved this about the show. Rose was poor and a heroine. She was depicted as bright, adventurous, and badass.

Unfortunately, as I watched Russell T. Davies era end, I noticed a pattern in the stories and outcomes of the poor vs. privileged companions in NuWho. And that pattern was not nice to the poor companions.

Rose lives in government-subsidized housing. She has an entry-level retail job in “Rose” (2005), and no higher education to speak of. She is stuck in a dead-end job, with a dead-end boyfriend, and not a lot of prospects for the future. Then the Doctor comes along. With his infinitely-large house, the TARDIS; his unlimited possibilities for travel and adventure; and his obliviousness about money.

That last bit always got to me. I think that the Doctor thought it was charming of him, how he never understood money. But I couldn’t find it charming at all, any more charming than I find rich people in the U.S. who say things like, “But $500,000 isn’t even that much money!” Not having to think about money is a privilege the Doctor shares with the upper class in Rose’s world. Not bothering to think about money and the effect it has on this race he claims to care so much about? That felt pretty cruel to me, as I watched him travel with a companion who was poor.

So Rose is saved from a bleak future by a Daddy Warbucks with a time machine.

Compare this with the story of Martha Jones. Martha has her own problems, being stuck in the middle of her parents’ bickering after a nasty divorce. But Martha is also in a position of extreme privilege. Her family clearly has significantly more money that Rose’s, and Martha can even afford to live alone. She is going to medical school, and loans are never really mentioned, even when she jets off with a time traveler. (That would be my first concern: Am I going to have bill collectors on me by the time I get back?) Martha doesn’t have to be saved by the Doctor, but that’s not just because she’s older or more mature than Rose. It’s because she doesn’t have too much to be saved from.

Donna’s story, on the other hand, is very similar to Rose’s, only Rose is 19 and Donna is played by 42-year-old Catherine Tate. Donna is living in a multi-generational home, for financial reasons. (We can tell this in part because Donna’s mother seems very unhappy with Donna living in the house, but never seriously suggests she moves out, probably because she knows that’s a financial impossibility.) Donna’s career looks like what Rose’s probably would have been 30 years in the future; she works a series of dead-end temp jobs, without much hope of a “real” career. Donna is smart, but we don’t hear about her having a college education. Her best hope of a normal, middle-class life is getting married to someone better off than herself.

Is it any wonder that both Rose and Donna say they will stay with the Doctor forever? I’ve heard fans say that this is out of character for Donna, because she isn’t young and in love. But Donna has as little to look forward to in her working-class life as Rose does. Of course they both want to stay with the Doctor; he represents a life unburdened with thankless and unfulfilling work, living paycheck to paycheck. It’s not just adventure that companions get to look forward to, it’s a life in which money doesn’t matter.

Being poor and on food stamps myself, I can see why Rose and Donna would jump at the chance to stay forever.

Unfortunately, neither of them get to stay forever. While I understand that has to be a production decision, I railed as a viewer against what I would term the “classed outcomes” of the companions in NuWho. I can’t include Amy in this analysis, because her ending is still up in the air, so let’s look at the other companions’ outcomes.

For Rose, the privilege the Doctor carries offers her a “happily ever after” ending. Her father returns (sort of), she gets the lover and partner she wanted (sort of), and is returned to her world (sort of) with new-found family wealth and influence. I would argue those “sort of”s are important, however. Rose is still trapped in an alternate dimension. I don’t know if we can gloss over that quickly just because her mom and best friend are with her. She doesn’t even officially exist in this world, so how can she thrive there? Is she going to be able to go to college without a birth certificate or ID? Is she going to be able to work? Are we supposed to believe her father’s money will smooth all that over? And this universe was supposed to be a dystopia, and now we’re to believe everything’s fine and awesome for her?

Rose’s dad is not really her dad; this man never even fathered a child, and had completely different experiences than her real one would have had, if he had lived. And Rose’s Doctor is not the Doctor. He is supposed to be an improvement, a man who can make a real life with her, but last time I checked, Rose wasn’t hankering for a white picket fence and children. She won’t get to live in the TARDIS again, or have time-traveling adventures, or get to help save the world. And none of that was a choice made by her.

Donna’s fate is even worse. Donna forgets everything, and thus everything good that came from her experience with the Doctor–her growth and her friendship with him–is gone. She returns to her unhappy life and her temp jobs. She loses her zest for adventure. And in the end, the best we can hope for her is a happy marriage to someone richer than she.

Compare these fates to Martha’s. Martha returns to the security she always had. (I would argue that security is precisely why Martha can leave the Doctor, while Rose and Donna had to be forced out.) She gets her medical degree and has her choice of careers. She is in a position of power at UNIT when we see her again. And had she forgotten the Doctor, like Donna did? She still would have been fine. It would have been sad, but it wouldn’t have devastated her life. She would still have gotten her M.D. She would still have gotten a rewarding job. She still would have had her independence and security.

On one hand, I think that the fact that the poor companions get shafted in Doctor Who is the result of their being shafted in real life. How much can adventuring experience help you if you don’t already have the security of a good education and financial stability in real life? But on the other hand, Donna didn’t have to be the one to lose her memory. Rose didn’t have to be the one trapped in an alternate dimension. Martha didn’t have to be the one hired by UNIT. And yet.

For the Russell T. Davies era at least, the poor women are totally screwed.