Tag Archive for the doctor

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.

*

Why do we watch Doctor Who?: A fan scholar’s perspective

Cross-posted at Geek Feminism.

This line from ellecleg’s last post really got my attention:

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.

It got my attention because I really wonder if many fans watch Doctor Who for the Doctor. It seems unlikely, given how irreverent most fans are towards source material (the TV, films, or books they are fans of). Fans are all about re-interpretation, re-invention, and analysis based on their own experiences. That stuff doesn’t start with their fan and slash fic, with their cosplay, with their fan vids. It starts with their actual experience of watching the show. And ellecleg’s point was that most of us understand we’re watching a show about a White dude with a British accent, and so to complain that the female characters aren’t up to snuff is silly, since we all tune in knowing they’re secondary anyway. But I would hypothesize I great deal of female viewers don’t tune in to watch the Doctor at all.

Yes, the female characters are secondary. But that’s a production decision. And fans don’t generally let production decisions get in the way when there is still something to scavenge from the show. This is the beautiful thing about fans: they don’t let creators tell them how they get to experience the show. I mean, the creators often do tell us how to experience the show (*cough, cough,* George Lucas), but fans don’t comply. And I would say that fans don’t just ignore the voices from on high that directly tell them “You can’t read it that way,” but they also ignore plot details, the structure of casts, and other elements in shows that tell them how to read it indirectly. So even though the companions are definitionally sidekicks to the Doctor, plenty of women will still read those companions as the heroes. They’ll still read the Doctor as a genderqueer character they can relate to. And they can do all that while complaining that Doctor Who needs a lady protagonist every once in a damn while.

In John Fiske’s Understanding Popular Culture, he describes a study done on female Charlie’s Angels fans. I don’t know if you remember that show, but the endings of the episodes were awful. Fiske claims,

The narrative closure of each episode is strongly patriarchal, as is the pleasure offered by the visual style of the program, and a textual or ideological analysis would conclude that patriarchy is recuperating signs of feminine liberation. Yet many women have reported reading Charlie’s Angels selectively, paying attention to the strong women detectives and almost ignoring the signs of the patriarchal closure. Some said that they would typically leave the TV set before the end of the episode and thus avoid altogether one of the main moments of patriarchal narrative power. (143)

That last bit made me laugh out loud when I first read it. The women who saw Charlie’s Angels as a pro-woman, feminist show, just walked away during the part of the show that put the ladies back in their place. As Fiske argues, we can’t make any assumptions about fans based on an assumption that readers sit still and read/view the way the creators want them to, because “popular reading is often selective and spasmodic” (143).

I don’t have to walk away from actually watching it, but I can tell you that when I rewatch River Song episodes, I conveniently pretend that her entire existence was not predicated on the Doctor. I pretend she’s just a woman who happened along the Doctor and became her badass self because she’s badass, not because she wanted “to find a good man.” (For serious, Moffat?) Because I loved River Song before “Let’s Kill Hitler,” and I’ll be damned if Moffat is going to ruin her for me.

Cartoon Jenny and River dance together.

Cartoon Jenny and River do a dance. From Comic Who, by Marco Castiello & Elisa Moriconi. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Some fans may not excise parts, but add parts. An immigrant or refugee might read the Doctor as similar to them–an alien who doesn’t quite fit in, whose home is far away or lost. An LGBT person might read the Doctor as queer, a character who shares their experiences. An asexual person might read the Doctor as asexual, focusing on the Doctor in particular seasons. And all of them may have these “selective and spasmodic” readings and experiences of the show without giving up the right to critique the show for not having enough people of color, queer people, or asexual people, or for portraying those people’s experiences poorly. I can love my version of River Song without giving up the right to tell Doctor Who that it needs to feature more independent, badass, older women who aren’t literally revolving around the Doctor.

Even if you look at this blog, we seem to talk about the Doctor not at all, and the companions a whole lot. Even ellecleg’s post is a love song to the female companions. (I think we can never have too many love songs to the companions on Doctor Who.)

So why do we watch Doctor Who? I imagine the answers are as varied as the viewers are. And the man in the blue box may be so much less important than the creators think he is.