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

Part 2: “New Who”

(WARNING: Spoilers)

I find I have less to say about the female Companions who have graced Doctor Who since its revival in 2005 than I did about the ladies of its classic days, for a sad and simple reason: their comparative sameness.

The Companions of yore could come from all over time and space, not just the world viewers would recognize. Susan, one of the first Companions, was the Doctor’s granddaughter, the “unearthly child” of the title of the very first adventure. Victoria, a Companion of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, may have been mostly a helpless screamer, but at least with her we got the fun of seeing a proper 19th century Englishwoman adjust to a life of intergalactic travel; for Zoe Herriott, the writers went in the other direction, into the distant future. Leela was a savage warrior on a rocky planet, a descendant of human astronauts. Romana was a Time Lady. Nyssa was a native of the planet Traken. Women like these could bring a variety of different perspectives to the table.

Yet when the show was revived so successfully in the Thousands, its creators decided that the Companion should always be a 21st century human (with the exceptions of Nardole and recurring Companion Captain Jack Harkness, both men). Not that these women don’t have their own distinctive qualities, which have led me to take some to my heart and find others disappointing. But within that strict 21st-century-human template there’s only so much variety a creative team can find. Furthermore, it lays unwelcome stress on the Companion’s ordinariness. More than in the early seasons, the Companion is presented as an audience surrogate, the Everywoman to whom we’re meant to relate; the Doctor, an ubermensch, is too far above us. Here, as in so many superhero stories and YA SFF romances, we see the pairing of the Ordinary Girl and the Exceptional Guy, the just-like-us heroine and the better-than-us hero. It can be well done, as it is in the best “New Who” adventures, but its seemingly endless reiterations can be tiring indeed, and can start us longing to see, just once in a while, the woman be the Exceptional one.

My favorites among the Everywomen come from Russell T. Davies’ tenure as showrunner; they have their flaws, but I’ve found something to admire about each one of them. Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler might seem the most ordinary of all, a working-class shopgirl who, if the episode “The Unquiet Dead” is to be believed, has never heard of Charles Dickens. (A piece of weak writing in an otherwise solid episode! Whatever social class you’re from, if you’re a kid growing up in modern-day England, you will learn who Charles Dickens is, at least through the multiple BBC adaptations of his novels.) Yet in her very first adventure, she saves the Doctor’s life by using her own skill set. Some episode later comes a key moment that crystallized my respect for her: when she is about to explore a dark corridor, a situation that never ends well, she picks up a lead pipe and takes it with her, determined not to let trouble find her unarmed. It’s a tiny bit, but character-defining. Rose won’t be pushed into distress without a fight.

Martha Jones, the medical student played by Freema Agyeman, could have been a disaster, as one of her key attributes is her unrequited passion for the Doctor. Yet when she helps save the world through the power of telling the Doctor’s story, she becomes a heroine after my own heart, and whatever dignity her unrequited feelings might have cost her, she reclaims when she departs. Donna (Catherine Tate), her successor, got off to a rocky start with me, as an office temp obsessed with celebrity gossip and desperate for romance in “The Runaway Bride.” Yet when she joins the Doctor in the TARDIS, she becomes a figure of courage and compassion, the first one to see people in the adventure’s equation, and her office temp experience helps save more than one situation. She also has the advantage of being older than the two Companions before her, and the only one in the Davies era who has no romantic interest in the Doctor. Of all of them, she undergoes the most substantial growth. Were it not for her botched departure, in which she loses all the wisdom and experience she’d gained, she might have joined the ranks of my favorite Companions ever.

The message we get from the Companions of the Davies era might be summed up as, “An ordinary woman can do extraordinary things.” When Steven Moffat took over as showrunner, that message regressed once again to, “An ordinary woman can get into trouble and be rescued by a man who can do extraordinary things.” Karen Gillan brings as much pluck, energy, and humor as she can to the role of Amy Pond, yet she gets notably fewer chances to be the hero than any of the Davies-era Companions; were she “damselled” less frequently, her growth arc’s revolving almost entirely around marriage and motherhood might not bother me as much. Clara Oswald is a teacher with a curious mind and a sense of humor, engagingly played by Jenna Coleman, yet her potential is also squandered with a long succession of distressed-damsel plots. The case of Clara is particularly regrettable because she was originally meant to be the nineteenth-century governess we meet in the Christmas special “The Snowmen,” but that idea was scrapped, leaving us with yet another (yawn) 21st century girl.

Third time is the charm, or nearly so. Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), a black lesbian working-class girl with a thirst for discovery and a taste for science fiction, is the first Moffat-era Companion I actually like. Though I’m white and hetero, I see more of myself in Bill than in any other female Companion; she won my heart completely in her second adventure, when she and the Doctor explore an abandoned spacecraft and she cries out in adorably geekish glee, “I’m on a spaceship!” Sadly, even this likable, fleshed-out Companion falls victim too often to Moffat’s predilection for distressed-damsel scenarios. He was apparently convinced that the only way to show off the Doctor’s strength was to put his Companions in need of rescue as often as possible, and toward the end of her time in the TARDIS, he put Bill in jeopardy in an especially painful way. (I’m not the only fan who objected.) In the Moffat era, no longer do we see those occasional awesome moments where the Companion saves the Doctor; she may try, but she almost always gets it wrong. The extraordinary man is Protector, and the ordinary woman is Protected. End of story.

In the wake of the Moffat era, I find myself hungry for something different and especially pleased that the creative team have chosen this moment to have the Doctor regenerate into a woman. As a new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, takes charge, the female thirteenth Doctor represents a fresh start in the show’s gender dynamics. As still happens far too rarely in SFF, now the woman gets to be the Extraordinary, the Exceptional. What will her Companion be like? An ordinary person who can do extraordinary things, or a perpetually distressed foil?

I’m hoping hard for the former, and I’m ready to find out.

Incidentally, the actor selected to play the new Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, can currently be seen on Chris Chibnall’s show “Broadchurch” on BBC America (with other “Who” actors!).  Her character on “Broadchurch,” a social worker still in mourning over the death of her young son, is pretty much the exact opposite of The Doctor.  Matt’s happy with the casting choice because it will force Ms. Whittaker “to actually be jovial!”

For further reading on the Doctor and his female co-stars, check out the books Chicks Dig Time Lords and Chicks Unravel Time.





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