Tag Archive for old who

The Girl Who Fell Out Of The World: or, The Importance of Being Tegan

Before we begin: Janet Fielding is battling cancer. I’d like to take a moment to wish her the very best of outcomes, and to point you all to her online support group slash charity page: projectmotormouth.org.uk

Actor Janet Fielding as Tegan Jovanka, in a screencap from the 1982 serial "Black Orchid". In this closeup, she is wearing a flapper-style green headband ornamented with a pink rose, and is smiling or laughing at the camera.

Actor Janet Fielding as Tegan Jovanka, in a screencap from the 1982 serial "Black Orchid". In this closeup, she is wearing a flapper-style green headband ornamented with a pink rose, and is laughing at the camera.

Mouth on Legs

Tegan Jovanka, everyone’s favourite trainee Australian flight attendant, is one of the Doctor’s longest-serving companions. She even eclipses the legendary Sarah Jane Smith, though only by a couple of weeks (and SJS was in more episodes). She’s pretty inarguably the Fifth Doctor’s companion, serving in all but two of Peter Davison’s televised serials. But you’d never know it from fandom. What is it with Tegan? Why is her sarcasm “stroppy” and “mean-spirited”, while Donna Noble’s is endearingly sassy? Why is her ambivalence about adventuring across time and space versus forging her domestic, Earthbound life–her real life–”whiny”, when Amy Pond’s very similar arc is portrayed much more sympathetically? I think it’s time to take another look at Our Tegan, the Classic Who companion who most clearly anticipates the New Who companion, and this time see the seeds she planted.

I hate those transmat things. I’d be afraid of coming out puréed.

Me, I had a soft spot for Tegan from early on. In “Castrovalva”, the newly-regenerated Fifth Doctor is looking for a Zero Room–a place, he says, that’s cut off from the rest of the universe. Tegan snarks that if she’d known that’s what he wanted, she would have suggested her native Brisbane. And lo, my little heart went “pwing!” What kid raised in suburban or rural environs–convinced that their parents had deliberately chosen the least interesting place on earth for them to grow up in– wouldn’t feel a twinge of empathy?

I love moments in Who that ground the fantastic in the earthy, that reach right past the high concept of the show to reveal how real people might react in such bizarre circumstances. I love the moment in “Forest of the Dead” where Donna, bewildered at the revelation that her life is a Matrix-like simulation, snaps, “But… I’ve been dieting!” All her discipline and willpower, and she could have had the chocolate cake anyway. Who wouldn’t feel frustrated? I love Martha worrying, in “The Shakespeare Code” whether Elizabethan London is a safe place for a black woman, and I’m annoyed that the Doctor brushes off her valid concerns.

And Tegan, with her shots at Brisbane and her entirely understandable wariness of this strange new world she finds herself in; Tegan, who never travels with a fellow human aboard the TARDIS; Tegan provides that essential grounded viewpoint.

Tegan’s character establishes itself early, and is remarkably consistent: she’ll speak her mind even when her voice shakes, she tries to be self-reliant to the extent that she won’t always ask for help when she needs it; she hides her fear and vulnerability behind a facade of snark and bravado. In short, she has a lot in common with one of the best-liked recent companions: Donna Noble. The two redheads are characterized by their fiery natures–both have tempers, neither is willing to take the Doctor’s crap, and both almost delight in puncturing his self-importance. Both remind the Doctor of the impact his plans have on the ordinary people caught up in them; indeed, they each almost consciously take on the mantle of the Doctor’s conscience. Both women were abducted aboard the TARDIS for their first experience(s) with the Doctor; leave when the Doctor finally returns them to their own time; and, later, dissatisfied with what had, pre-Doctor, been perfectly satisfying lives, chose to return for more adventures. [1]

So why is Donna beloved while Tegan, generally, isn’t? Is it the quarter century that elapsed between the two? I think that’s a large part of it. Nyssa and Tegan are both good examples of some of the problems with the way womens’ roles were written in the early Eighties: one was sweet and childlike; the other, adult but shrewish, and guess which one was allowed to be intelligent? Nor was the series at the time very interested in the companion’s story. We learned much more about Donna’s past, her family, and her character in one year than we did about Tegan in three, and the depth of Donna’s character helped make her sympathetic. So where Donna was a well-rounded character with flaws and strengths, Tegan, despite her much longer tenure in the TARDIS, is much more of a cipher.

I happen to think that human lives are just as valuable as yours!

Tegan’s original character brief is… kind of offensive.

Tegan is twenty-one, an attractive and intelligent Australian trainee air stewardess, whose brash confidence in her own abilities actually conceals inner insecurity, a state of affairs that becomes clear in moments of stress. On her way to her first real flight she accidentally blunders into the TARDIS and thus finds herself being inadvertantly [sic] abducted by the Doctor. Characteristically her inner bewilderment at the new situation in which she finds herself causes her to assume an attitude of overweening self-assertion, and she begins to take charge of the Doctor and Adric. During the course of three stories, Tegan’s superficial self-assurance will build until it becomes a real problem for the other two occupants of the TARDIS, and it will need drastic action on the part of the Doctor to put things to rights and show her the error of her ways. She may or may not continue with the Doctor thereafter.
(“Doctor Who – The Eighties” by David J Howe, Mark Stammers, Stephen James Walker; p.13.)

Oh, joy: the Uppity Woman Who Receives Her Well-Deserved Chastisement At The Hands Of A Wiser Man. (See, also, a remarkable fraction of the plots involving Lois Lane in mid-century Superman.) Way to smack down any female character who thinks herself a man’s equal!

But what’s remarkable here is how little of Tegan’s planned arc made it into production. Tegan had her flaws–rashness, a short temper, a bad habit of lashing out at people when she felt overwhelmed or frightened–but I think it’s very hard to argue that she was arrogant, much less that she “took charge” with “overweening self-assertion”. She makes her opinions known, but defers to the Doctor and Nyssa, less brash than she but more experienced. Certainly her comeuppance, as planned in her character brief, never happens.

Long shot showing Tegan exiting the TARDIS. Her inexpert landing has left the TARDIS sticking out of a hill at a strange angle, but she is proud to have landed it intact. Screencap from the 1981 serial "Castrovalva".

Long shot showing Tegan exiting the TARDIS. Screencap from the 1981 serial "Castrovalva".

Tegan gets away from the bitch in the character brief as early as her debut story, “Logopolis”. We meet her as she heads to Heathrow to begin her new job as a flight attendant, a job she is clearly looking forward to. She seems eager for independence, for a chance to prove herself in–yes–a man’s world. Tegan herself identifies her desire to fix her own car as feminist self-reliance.

Even when Tegan stumbles into the TARDIS and gets lost, she manages to maintain much better composure than might be expected of a human confronted with the overwhelming implications of a dimensionally transcendent alien spacetimeship. (Remember that, unlike nearly every other companion, Tegan doesn’t have the Doctor as a tour guide.) She is clearly terrified, but doesn’t let her fear disable her. She knows that she is in some sort of craft: she realizes that the console room is the equivalent of a cockpit; she tries to use the communication devices at the console; she reasons that there must be a pilot aboard, and asks to see that person. She, in short, displays a rather astonishing degree of analytical ability and sang-froid–and that’s just in her first serial.

Peter Davison’s been heard to say that he thought Nyssa was the companion best suited for his Doctor, but I think he’s wrong. Nyssa may have been the one the Fifth Doctor got along with, but Tegan–spiky, ornery, brave Tegan–was the one he needed. It’s Tegan who wants to know why the Doctor can’t go back and save Adric (“Time-Flight”), in a scene that–as the companion confronts the Doctor over a heartbreaking failure to save a fellow companion–is right at home in the new series:

Tegan: Aren’t you forgetting something important, Doctor? Adric is dead.

Amy: Save him. You save everyone. You always do. That’s what you do.
The Doctor: Not always. I’m sorry.
Amy: Then what is the point of you?

 

It’s Tegan who who commits to freeing the Frontios colonists when the Doctor is trying to butter up the villain (“Frontios”), Tegan who’s willing to throw knives at people in the Doctor’s defense (“The King’s Demons”). And, finally, it’s Tegan whose departure forces the Doctor to admit that his hands are bloody. The Doctor doesn’t last long without her–two serials after she leaves, he regenerates.

Tegan vs. Eurocentrism

"McArthur's Universal Corrective Map of the World": a 1979 world map by an Australian cartographer that is oriented so that it has South at the top.

"McArthur's Universal Corrective Map of the World": a 1979 world map by an Australian cartographer that is oriented so that it has South at the top and Australia in the center.

Beneath its glossy science fiction trappings, Doctor Who is a direct descendent of Victoriana: specifically, the Victorian traditions of the gentleman adventurer and the gentleman inventor. This is not an era known for its transgression or its diversity, and Who has at times struggled to rise above the colonialist subtext of “nice white man from advanced civilisation arrives to save backwards civilisations from themselves”.

As our own Courtney Stoker has put it, Doctor Who is:

… not a particularly progressive, transgressive, or subversive show. It’s just a show about a White dude who wields all the power and paternalism of a British imperialist force…

John Nathan-Turner’s reasons for creating an Australian companion probably didn’t include venturing outside Doctor Who‘s comfort zone or introducing a non-European perspective–accounts of the era suggest that he was mostly interested in selling the show to Australia.

But Tegan does bring a non-British, non-European perspective to the TARDIS, maybe most notably in “Four to Doomsday” when she can communicate with Kurkutji, a temporally displaced Aboriginal Australian, and the Doctor can’t.[2] The scene has some problematic elements that imply a screenwriter who seems not to have thought much about either linguistics or Australia’s diversity of languages, including the odd implication that Kurkutji’s language hasn’t changed over 40,000 years (by contrast, a mere 10,000 years separates English from Proto-Indo-European), and the extraordinary coincidence that Tegan happens to know that one particular language among the hundreds native to Australia. But Tegan’s achievement remains: she can do something that the Doctor cannot, and it is extremely important to the story.

It’s tempting to wonder how much of her pointed refusal to be impressed by the Doctor is that, from her perspective, he may well be the Ultimate Pom: representative of an allegedly superior culture who condescends to hang around hers.

It’s stopped being fun, Doctor

What does Tegan want? Does she want to stay with the Doctor or leave? Certainly she’s one of the companions most ambivalent about traveling with the Doctor. But her story is nearly unique among the companions: she stumbled aboard the TARDIS without meaning to, and the Doctor’s attempts to take her home repeatedly failed. She never asked for adventure; it was thrust upon her.

But how do you reconcile a life of adventure with a mundane Earthbound life? This is a major theme of the new series and its spinoffs, but it’s in Tegan’s story that we see it first broached.  The confident young woman we met in “Logopolis”, looking forward to her new job, has her horizons so shattered by her adventures that (per “Arc of Infinity”) she doesn’t last three months as a flight attendant.

So she returns to a life of adventure. This time she wants to be there. She seems happier, now that it’s her choice; she’s more of a participant than a bystander. She is increasingly concerned with the lot of the little people caught up in the mayhem that surrounds the Doctor, and is increasingly determined to give them a voice.

And things start going wrong. Gradually, Tegan realizes that the exhilaration of adventure is not worth the psychic toll it’s taking on her. She’s seen too much. She’s… outgrown him.

So she makes the excruciating choice–the only possible choice–and leaves. On her own terms, with her head held high. Brava.

 

There’s a woman in Australia… fighting for Aboriginal rights

I’m of the opinion that Who has, ultimately, just one lesson for us to learn, over and over again: we are the same.

Tegan learned it.

[1] It’s pretty common in the new series for companions to alternate time with the Doctor and time at home: Rose, Mickey, Martha, Donna, River, Amy, and Rory have all had adventures, left the Doctor, and then come back to have more adventures. But it was vanishingly rare in the classic series; I think Tegan’s the only example. (Sarah Jane didn’t come back until the new series.)
[2] Interestingly, this translation oddity didn’t make any sense at the time (I think it’s the first time the translation magic didn’t work) but does fit in remarkably well with current Who canon, which holds that the TARDIS can’t translate exceptionally old or obscure languages. (“The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit”)

Caroline John

The actress Caroline John, who played Dr Elizabeth Shaw alongside John Pertwee’s Doctor, has died.

Elizabeth Shaw was an inspiration to me when I was young. She showed me that women do not have to fit into traditional roles. Of all the companions, she was one of the few that treated the Doctor as an equal rather than a demi-god.

You can read her obituary in The Guardian.

“Battlefield” and the Woman Warrior

Shou Yuing, Brigadier Bambera, the Seventh Doctor, and Ace pose with the Whomobile.
A Black woman of middle years, wearing camouflage and a beret with the UNIT insignia, gazes forthrightly at the camera.

This is Brigadier Winifred Bambera. Your argument is invalid. (A Black woman of middle years, wearing camouflage and a beret with the UNIT insignia, gazes forthrightly at the camera.)

What happens when two great British institutions–Doctor Who and King Arthur–finally meet?

Why, you get a darn good late-80s serial (first serial of the IMHO criminally-underrated season 26), with heaping helpings of mytharc for both sides, AND simply loads of women. Two of them are even women of color!

Some aspects of the story are problematic, true. As wonderful as it is to see Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart again, UNIT’s decision to recall him to active duty in order to deal with the events of this story feels like a slap in the face to his successor, Brigadier Winifred Bambera. (Yes, she threw the Doctor and Ace out on their asses. That was the correct decision given what she knew at the time.) Now, you may argue that Lethbridge-Stewart was the person best equipped to deal with the person claiming to be the Doctor, given their shared history, but it’s still a usurpation of Bambera’s command. She did not ask for him, or even for help; she asks only for information on the Doctor. Both in-universe and in terms of the story, having Lethbridge-Stewart around puts Bambera in the uncomfortable position of being technically in command but being expected to defer to someone else. Nor is it really warranted–there being no indication that Bambera poofed into existence ex nihilo on Lethbridge-Stewart’s retirement, she presumably got to her position by rising through the UNIT ranks, which means she’s been a few rounds at the Rodeo of Weird that is UNIT life, and shown herself equal to it. UNIT should have realized that Lethbridge-Stewart won’t always be around to run interference between UNIT and the Doctor, and trusted Bambera to work out a solution. UNIT’s treatment of Bambera, IMHO, edges uncomfortably close to what TV Tropes calls “Quickly Demoted Woman“.

Interestingly, the story’s villain is also a woman: Morgaine. Despite, y’know, the evil, she’s a surprisingly nuanced character. Her titles–The Sunkiller, Dominator of the Thirteen Worlds, and Battle Queen of the S’rax–establish her as a formidable warrior, and that’s the role she occupies for most of the serial. But she’s also a mother; and her breakdown in part 4 when she learns of Arthur’s death makes it clear that she loved him deeply.

Morgaine also has her own notions of honor and honorable combat. That connects her to Ancelyn, the knight… and, not coincidentally, to the UNIT soldiers as well, all of whom embody the highest chivalric traditions of honor and duty. (Compare that to their much more ambiguous portrayal in the new series.) The serial even advances the idea that UNIT is superior to Ancelyn’s forces: Ancelyn has an important lesson to learn in humility (another important chivalric virtue) when he brushes Bambera off as a “peasant” and promptly gets his ass kicked; Bambera needs no such lesson herself.

Finally, there’s Ace and Shou Yuing, the footsoldiers. Ace gets a lot to do in this serial–including, awesomely, emerging from the lake bearing Excalibur aloft–and it’s her self-awareness that saves both herself and Shou Yuing from Morgaine’s trap. But Shou Yuing, as a character, is barely sketched in. We know she and Ace share an interest in explosives. We can see that she’s smart and brave. But that’s about it.

Really, though, there are too many secondary characters around to really flesh out any of them. The rest of the supporting cast–crusty archaeologist Peter Warmsly, psychic innkeeper Elizabeth Rowlinson and her husband Pat Rowlinson–get evacuated halfway through and are never heard from again. And it’s a shame, because all of them (and especially Shou Yuing) are fun characters, and we could have gotten to know them a lot better.

But there are moments of great win, as well. The Doctor’s declaration that Ace is much more important than any old alien artifact is breathtakingly sweet. It’ll be undermined over the course of season 26 (and even further in the New Adventures), but it’s lovely to hear the Doctor say something he needs to say a lot more often, and Sylvester McCoy’s performance is perfect.

It’s also terrific to see Bambera and Ancelyn’s relationship evolve. Ancelyn tries to write off Bambera when he first shows up, but after Bambera kicks his ass in combat… Ancelyn, to his great credit, responds with maturity and grace, and thereafter the relationship between the two warriors is one of deep mutual respect.

Shou Yuing, Brigadier Bambera, the Seventh Doctor, and Ace pose with the Whomobile.

Shou Yuing, Brigadier Bambera, the Seventh Doctor, and Ace pose with the Whomobile.

Finally, there’s a little grace note at the very end: the Doctor, the Brig, and Ancelyn are staying at the Lethbridge-Stewart house to clean up and cook supper, and none of them seem particularly bothered by this; meanwhile Bambera, Mrs. Lethbridge-Stewart, Shou Yuing, and Ace are going into town to have some fun. It’s nice to see the “men get to play after the adventure’s done, but women still have to do chores”  thing subverted– especially fitting in a serial that has a lot of great women.

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.

*

Women in Doctor Who

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?