Women on Doctor Who: Where We’ve Come From, Where We’re Going

Part 1: Classic Who

I first met the Doctor, Time Lord of Gallifrey, in the early 1980s when his adventures across time and space aired on our local PBS station. There’s a saying among Whovians that “you never forget your first Doctor,” and mine was Tom Baker.  He of the curly hair  with the mellifluous, aristocratic baritone voice, the slightly wild eyes, and the long, colorful scarf. Even as I’ve come to know and embrace other Doctors, I’ve never lost my love for Tom Baker, and over time my husband and I have been adding some of his best episodes to our DVD collection. Sometimes “Classic Who” is just what we’re hungry for.

Not long ago, we watched our DVD of “The Pirate Planet,” teleplay by the legendary science-fiction humorist Douglas Adams (then the newly-minted story editor of the show, and not all that far away from introducing “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” to the word). It’s a delightful adventure on the whole, as the Doctor and his fellow Time Lady, Romana (played in this episode by one of my major girl-crushes, Mary Tamm) stop an evil queen from extending her already over-extended life by sucking other worlds dry. Grim as that scenario might sound, the episode has plenty of humor, as Baker’s episodes usually do, and Tamm’s Romana faces danger with the sort of unruffled, witty aplomb I associate with Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to those looking to become better acquainted with Classic Who.

Yet as I was reading the Info Text, a DVD feature that gives viewers fun and interesting facts about the production as we’re watching, I learned that Adams’ script had originally called for a heroic female guest star to do in the villainous queen with a well-placed blaster shot. Quite frankly, that would have been nothing less than awesome. In the finished episode, however, the heroine’s love interest wields the blaster and fires the fatal shot. This bothered me for some while after the episode was finished, particularly since Info Text offered no explanation of why the change was made. The female character was certainly brave enough, and the story seemed to have been leading up to her doing something useful. Why take the privilege of offing the villain away from her and give it to the man? I can only surmise the change sprang from a general squeamishness at the thought of a heroine killing someone, however much that someone might have it coming. For a man, killing the villain is proper, but for a woman it’s… unfeminine. I’d say, “That’s the late 1970s for you,” but then I remember that of all the Disney princesses throughout that company’s history, only two (Mulan and Tiana) actually got to kill the villain.

This rewatch of “The Pirate Planet,” along with the choice of Jodie Whittaker to play the Doctor’s thirteenth incarnation, leads me to reflect that to a great extent, the evolution of gender roles over the last fifty years, with all its progressive and regressive complications, can be glimpsed in the history of Doctor Who — partly in the depictions of the Doctor himself, but mostly in the female Companions (Whovians capitalize the noun) who have traveled with him.

Doctor Who was originally conceived as a show for children — or more specifically, a show for boys, and since a show for boys is really a show for everyone (there it is again, that bit of “conventional wisdom” that trampolines on my last nerve), girls would follow where the boys went. The earliest female Companions were designed not to serve as role models for the girls in the audience but to please “the dads” who would be watching with their kids. Not that these characters never had anything to recommend them; for instance, Barbara, the first adult woman Companion, came across as classy and intelligent, often a voice of reason. Yet their purpose was clear cut: to get in trouble and need rescuing, while a male Companion was kept around to handle the action scenes (the Doctor himself being above such things at the time). A studio memo describing Polly, a Companion who traveled with the first two Doctors, offers this blatant statement: “As a general rule, Polly should find herself in dangerous situations from which either Ben or the Doctor, or both, rescue her. She is our damsel in distress” (qtd. in Doctor Who Companions 38).

Zoe Herriott, a computer genius from the future, was perhaps the earliest Companion to move a few steps away from this mold, in that she considered herself the Doctor’s intellectual equal and even, at times, his superior, and could often handle herself in dangerous situations quite well, thank you very much; in the excellent “The Mind Robber,” featuring second Doctor Patrick Troughton, she defeats a man three times her size in hand-to-hand combat. But other attempts to change the early recipe for female Companions didn’t work out so well. One substantial black mark in the area of the show’s gender representation was the firing of Dr. Liz Shaw, a highly competent scientist who was the Doctor’s match in intellect (on the grounds that viewers didn’t like her), and replacing her with high-voiced, wide-eyed, hapless, clueless innocent Jo Grant, who offers no challenge to the Doctor because all he really needs is someone to hand him his instruments and tell him how great he is. Jo does have her moments, and at least she has an earnest desire to be more useful than she’s given credit for. Still, she stands as the penultimate example of the old-school model for the show’s female Companions. Once her tenure was done, audiences were at last ready to try something different.

What we got was Sarah Jane Smith, an investigative journalist who, despite having her share of distressed-damsel moments, still came across as a smart, funny, and courageous individual thanks to careful writing and Elisabeth Sladen’s engaging performance. No matter what the scripts threw at her, Sarah Jane never quite lost her charm, and the show’s fans liked her so much that many years later she headlined two spin-off series, with the latter, The Sarah Jane Adventures, becoming a bona fide hit.  In The Sarah Jane Adventures, she got to be the hero with her own set of young Companions. (Sladen was hard at work on a new season of the show when she suddenly passed away in 2011. Matt and I still miss her.) The show also served as a bridge between the classic “Who” series (hello, K-9, Brigadier Alister Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, and Jo Grant!) and the new one (Doctors 10 and 11 featured in a pair of episodes each). It’s impossible for me to imagine any female Companion who came before her having the stuff to carry her own show.

By today’s standards, Sarah Jane might still tend to get in trouble and need rescuing a little too often, but she did represent a notable step forward, and she paved the way for a pair of Companions who would challenge the old-school model even farther. When Tom Baker took over as the Doctor, the action-guy male Companion was phased out after a few episodes, and after Sarah Jane left, the show did something heretofore unexpected — it filled the action role with a new female Companion, the savage warrior Leela, who, despite being saddled with a skimpy leather costume to hold the attention of “the dads” who still had the TV on after football, managed to kick plenty of butt during her all too brief tenure. Another episode we recently rewatched, “The Sun-Makers,” places Leela in a particularly harrowing spot from which she must be rescued (and even when facing painful death, she remains defiant), but during the course of the episode as a whole, she saves the Doctor more than once. When she is threatened, she doesn’t cringe or cry; instead, she gets angry. I love the way Doctor Who Companions puts it: “Leela would never scream. Her foes, however, often do!” (74)

The next Companion offered an even bigger step forward, one that in the fullness of time has helped lead to where we are now, getting ready for a female incarnation of the Doctor. In Romana we saw our first Time Lady, or female Time Lord, whichever term one prefers — brilliant, sophisticated, inquisitive, different in personality from the Doctor but every bit his equal. Romana would have been inconceivable at the show’s dawn. Susan, one of the first Companions, was supposed to be the Doctor’s granddaughter and therefore (ostensibly) a female Time Lord, but we never really saw her act the part, as we did Romana. Like Sarah Jane, Romana and Leela both found a life after the Doctor as protagonists of their own adventures, headlining a Big Finish Audio series called Gallifrey, in which Romana, the president of the Time Lords’ homeworld, seeks reform and relies on Leela as her most trusted operative.

Sadly, with the departure of Romana from Doctor Who came a creative regime change, and with that a woeful rollback of all the progress that had been made in female Companions’ characterizations. Nyssa, the brainy amateur scientist/engineer from the lost planet Traken, who came onto the show in Tom Baker’s final days, could have been as awesome as Romana, but the show’s new creative team couldn’t figure out what to do with her, and her time on the show was brief. (Luckily, Big Finish Audio productions have given her more of a chance to shine.) We were left with Tegan, a self-described “mouth on legs” with an abrasive personality but few to no useful skills. All the same, even Tegan’s shrill whining was preferable to what came after — Peri, a character so appallingly incapable that I simply will not watch any full episode in which she appears, part of one episode being more than enough. The worst of Peri is that she just wouldn’t leave the show. She stayed on and on, and the writing for her never improved. It was all too obvious that her character, a complete throwback to the distressed-damsel Companions of the show’s earliest days, was designed with “the dads,” not the girls in the audience, in mind.

Yet the tunnel had a light at the end, one who still resonates today. The seventh Doctor and my second-favorite, Sylvester McCoy, spent most of his time on the show traveling with Ace, played by Sophie Aldred. Like Peri, she was an “ordinary” girl, meaning a regular human, but unlike Peri, she had some extraordinary qualities — boundless courage, skills in demolition (Nitro-9!), and a fierce, common-sense toughness; rather than running and hiding from danger, this girl would attack a Dalek (a killer “little green blob in bonded poly-carbide armor”) with a softball bat. In a number of ways, Ace serves as a forerunner to the style of Companion we would see when the show was revived some years later, with Christopher Eccleson as the ninth Doctor. Ace could be seen as a co-protagonist with a character arc that could be charted through the episodes in which she appeared. Many of Ace’s best episodes were as much about her as about the Doctor.

For this Whovian, the Companions matter. I like Tom Baker best not only because I saw him first, but because I enjoy the women he traveled with, Sarah Jane and Leela and Romana. Sylvester McCoy is my second-favorite first and foremost because of Ace. These women have a huge hand in making Classic Who worth watching. Yet the show is still called Doctor Who, letting us viewers know, if we were in doubt, where we should focus the bulk of our attention.

(Coming Next: The “New Who” and the Future)

Howe, David J., and Mark Stammers. Doctor Who Companions. London: Virgin Publishing, 1996.

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