Tag Archive for Sarah Jane Smith

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 who waited…

I’m increasingly sensitive about how older women are portrayed on TV.  So few of the programmes I love, when I think about it, give me  images that I can recognise or respect.  Either they are solely defined by being somebody’s mum or somebody’s wife, or they have independent lives which appear to preclude them being somebody’s mum or somebody’s wife.

Dr Who is no exception.   There are reasons why companions are in general young (and I note the exception of Barbara, from the very first DW).  Older women have ties and responsibilities, and though they might yearn to travel in time and space (and they do yearn, oh, they do) they can’t just take that leap, without looking back.

So, where are the older women on Who?

There are, of course, mothers.  The power of motherhood has been a bit of a theme recently, notably in the 2011 Christmas special, which merits a blog post of its own.   But what seems to be a NuWho phenomenon is that companions now have mums.   There’s a reason why fantasy narratives tend to keep parents, particularly mothers, out of the way.  They ask awkward questions, they want to know where you’re going, and if you’ll be back in time for tea.  A bit like Buffy’s mum, Joyce Summers, who attempts to ground her daughter on the night that a vampire apocalypse looms (OK, on one of the nights…), with the words, ‘I know. If you don’t go out, it’s the end of the world. Everything is life and death to a sixteen-year-old girl!’.  Jackie Tyler, Sylvia Noble and Francine Jones all contribute to the narrative primarily by getting in the way, inadvertently, through their fears for their daughters and mistrust of the Doctor, or through naivety.  Of the three, it’s Jackie who emerges most fully from the stereotype, to play, albeit briefly, a more active role alongside Sarah Jane, Mickey and Jack. Jackie and Sylvia are played for laughs, however, Jackie for her sexuality, which we are clearly meant to find ridiculous, and Sylvia for her prudishness (she wouldn’t allow webcams as they were ‘naughty’).

Of course, companions do become older women, eventually.  Sarah Jane Smith is our icon here, the one whose post-Tardis life we know most about. In ‘The Death of the Doctor’ (Sarah Jane Adventures) she and Jo Grant compare notes on other past companions, all clearly changed by the experience of travelling with the Doctor, and now working for the benefit of humanity.  Sarah Jane speaks movingly in ‘School Reunion’ of the pain and loss she felt when he left her behind, and Jo’s reaction when she realises Sarah Jane had seen the Doctor shows that she too had felt abandoned.  There’s a hint that ex-companions do the things they do in the hope that he will be aware of them, and that they will see him again.   Fair enough.  The Doctor (so far) is a man, a charismatic, unpredictable, extraordinary man.  Those who travel with him, whether or not they harbour romantic or sexual feelings for him, whether or not they maintain a healthy scepticism and have the confidence to challenge him, however their connection with him ends, are scarcely going to forget him, nor are they likely to encounter anything in the rest of their lives that will eclipse those experiences. ‘We get a taste of that splendour and then we have to go back’ (‘School Reunion’).

There are a few women who don’t fit either category – neither ex companions nor companions’ mums.   They’re not quite allies, nor yet adversaries.   Harriet Jones (backbencher, PM, ex-PM)  is forthright, good in a crisis, brave and the stand-off between her and the doctor left me unsure whose side I was on.  That kind of moral ambiguity is relatively rare – one could disagree with her actions AND dislike profoundly the Doctor’s way of bringing her down.  And Adelaide Brooke (‘Waters of Mars’,  pioneer, explorer, grandmother,  opposes the Doctor at his most hubristic, taking her own life to negate what she sees as his arrogant irresponsibility.   The parts that these two play in the narrative didn’t absolutely require them to be women, but I’m glad they were.

And then, of course, there’s the girl who waited.  ‘Old Amy’, who grew old(er), alone.  She needs a post to herself, I think.

So, what do I want from DW in the future?   I don’t want the companions’ mums to retreat back to invisibility, but I’d like them to be less of a joke.  Sadly, more Sarah Jane is no longer possible.  But more of the ex-companions – the women who were plucked from regular lives, plunged into intergalactic mayhem and then dropped back again into ordinariness, who then put their energies into trying to change the world, even if they didn’t have the power to save it.  More Harriets and Adelaides, yes please.   Women who are on the right side in the old good v. evil thing,  but who are confident enough in their knowledge, their wisdom, their judgement, to say no, even to the Doctor.

And should there be a vacancy for a more mature woman, say, around 54ish, untested in actual combat situations but mad organisational skills, to hop aboard the Tardis, can I be first in the queue?