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.