Women of Time and Space: An Analysis of Steven Moffat’s ‘Doctor Who’

A Note to My Readers: The following is a digital project created for my Cultural Politics of Television course. As such, it’s much longer and more academic than my usual posts, but it might be of interest anyway. And yes, I’m counting it as Sunday’s post—regularly-scheduled blog posts will resume on Monday.


Fifty-one years, broadcasts in 94 countries, and countless millions of fans worldwide: Doctor Who is one of the most successful science fiction shows on television today. The show’s recent success, however, has also led to growing criticism, particularly where female characters are concerned. The current showrunner, Steven Moffat, has drawn the majority of ire on this issue—and not unfairly. Though Moffat’s characters aren’t without redeeming qualities, the portrayal of women on Doctor Who under his supervision has more often than not fed into stereotypes and fallen back on half-hearted character development. Given the cultural power of television and the underrepresentation of women on TV as a whole, that’s cause for concern.

What is Doctor Who?

Doctor Who first aired on BBC in 1963 and follows the adventures of a humanoid alien who calls himself “the Doctor.” A member of a race known as the Time Lords, he travels throughout time and space in the TARDIS (short for Time and Relative Dimension in Space). His otherworldly physiology allows him to defy death by “regenerating” every so often, which also conveniently means that the role isn’t restricted to one actor. Though the show went off the air in 1989, it was rebooted in 2005 with Russell T. Davies as showrunner. In 2010, at the start of season 5, Davies was replaced by Steven Moffat, who has served as head writer and executive producer since. (The show concluded season 8 on November 8, 2014.)

Image via the RadioTimes.

The show’s structure allows for an extensive cast of characters. During the Moffat era, the Doctor has been played by two actors: Matt Smith (above left) in seasons 5, 6, and 7, and Peter Capaldi (above right) in the most recent season. Throughout the show’s extensive run, the Doctor has usually been accompanied by a “companion,” often an ordinary person who chances upon the Doctor and is offered the opportunity to travel with him. The primary companions in recent seasons have been Amy Pond and Rory Williams (played by Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill, respectively) in seasons 5 and 6 and the beginning of season 7, and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) in the last nine episodes of season 7 and all of season 8.

The role of the companion is an interesting one in Doctor Who. Though the show revolves around the actions of the Doctor, the companion often serves as something of an audience stand-in whose humanity can be played off of the Doctor’s sometimes-alien ways. Moffat himself has made the case that it’s the companion, not the Doctor, who is truly the main character: “Doctor Who is always more the story of the companion. It’s her take on the Doctor, her adventure that she goes on with the Doctor that’s the story that we tell. The companion changes more than the Doctor ever does.” Thus, while the companion may initially appear to be merely a supporting character, her or his characterization is just as important as that of the Doctor himself.

What’s the Problem?

The companion is a good place to start when looking at some of the issues surrounding the portrayals of women in Moffat’s Who. In April 2014, a group of students from BYU-Idaho analyzed the first six and a half seasons of Doctor Who using the Bechdel Test, which uses the following three criteria to establish a minimum level of female relationships in a TV show or movie: There (1) are least two named female characters, who (2) have a conversation with each other about (3) something other than a man. The test doesn’t present a particularly high bar, but as the study found, Moffat doesn’t come out particularly well.

DW-bechdel-test

Rose Tyler, Martha Stewart, and Donna Noble were all regular companions during the Davies era of the show. Amy Pond was one of the two primary female companions in the Moffat era thus far. River Song was a recurring character who only appeared in episodes written by Moffat, including a two-part episode while Davies was in charge.

As the above infographic shows, the average female speaking time, number of female speaking roles, and Bechdel pass rate all decreased significantly under Moffat’s supervision. The Bechdel test is certainly an imperfect measure—it looks at a very basic level of female relationship-building while ignoring the actual content of the media it analyzes—but its usefulness is mainly as an indicator of trends. In this case, there seems to be a clear trend toward a decreased significance of women under Moffat when compared to his predecessor. (For more on the importance of the Bechdel test, with a brief discussion of its relationship to Doctor Who, see this article by io9’s Charlie Jane Anders.)

A more thorough analysis of the show requires looking at the companions’ storylines in greater depth. The first of the Doctor’s two Moffat-era companions is Amy Pond, who is soon joined in the TARDIS by her fiancé (and later husband), Rory. Though Amy is far from demure, her main storylines revolve around stereotypically feminine roles. Early on, her interactions with the Doctor are tinged with a will-they-or-won’t-they vibe—she even kisses the Doctor at one point—and it is revealed that she has joined the Doctor on the eve of her wedding, unsure as to whether or not she’s truly ready to marry Rory. Season 6 involves her pregnancy as a major plot point, one which emphasizes her lack of autonomy: Though the Doctor and the season’s antagonist both know or suspect that she is pregnant, Amy herself only learns of this as she goes into labor. (See video below.) The emotional consequences of this, and of having the baby stolen from her almost immediately, are never explored onscreen. A more extensive description of this plotline and an excellent discussion of it as an example of the Mystical Pregnancy trope is available at Whovian Feminism, but in essence, Amy is important in season 6 not because she is a fully-developed character but because she is a mother.

Image via Imgur.

Amy falls into similarly stereotypical roles when she isn’t travelling with the Doctor. When she is introduced in season 5, she is working as a “kissogram” (which allows for the very first shot of her to be the one at right). Later, she takes a job as a model, where she is portrayed as something of a demanding diva. The start of season 7 sees Amy and Rory on the verge of divorce because Amy, having been rendered sterile after her earlier experience, feels that she can’t be the wife Rory deserves—her very worth as a spouse, friend, and person has been reduced by her inability to be a mother.

Amy’s successor, Clara Oswald, doesn’t fare much better, particularly in her first appearances in the latter part of season 7. She functions first as a puzzle for the Doctor to solve—he refers to her as the “Impossible Girl”—and second as a human being; her life and character are secondary to her role as a plot device. In very few episodes does she take independent action. For the most part, she serves to ask questions of the Doctor (allowing him to explain the situation to her), follow orders, and provide a bit of sexual tension. In no episode is this clearer than “The Time of the Doctor,” the 2013 Christmas special and Matt Smith’s final full episode.

The episode opens (above) with Clara preparing for Christmas dinner with her family and frantically calling the Doctor, begging that he come over and pretend to be her boyfriend. He does, but he arrives naked (for reasons that are somewhat unclear). Though the extra-long episode features a major battle, Clara is almost entirely inactive where the actual plot is concerned. She is sent away from the Doctor and, when she manages to return (having disrupted the Doctor’s plans), she is mysteriously absent from the battle itself except for a brief moment when she hurries some bystanders into a building.

Though her character develops more in season 8 once she is no longer a mystery for the Doctor to uncover (and no longer a love interest), she is still constrained by her connections to the Doctor. Professor Piers Britton, who recently taught a class on the show at the University of Redlands, doesn’t see much improvement between this season and the last:

I’m afraid I continue to see what I’ve seen almost continuously since Series 2: The formation of an interesting, complex, attractive female companion whose character integrity is diminished by key male figures, above all the ‘hero,’ who are at best controlling and at worst emotionally abusive.

Her outside relationships appear only when useful to the plot. Like Amy, she takes on stereotypically-feminine jobs as a nanny and later as an English teacher. The viewer is left with no real impression that, if and when she and the Doctor part ways, she has a life to which she can return. (It is, however, worth noting that at least in season 7, she passes the Bechdel test far more than Amy did. Only two of her nine episodes that season fail the test, both because she was the only female character in the episode.)

Other characters have similar flaws. River Song, who meets the Doctor on many occasions, is raised from birth by an extremist cult to be obsessed with the Doctor so that she might eventually kill him. She becomes an archaeologist so that she can study the mythology of the Doctor, and she ultimately falls in love with and marries him. She never achieves a real sense of independence from him, though. She adds romance to the show and moves the plot along, but unlike other characters with whom the Doctor has had romantic relationships (such as Rose, in the first two seasons), River never gives the impression that she has much of a life when she isn’t with the Doctor.

There are also several minor characters whose characterizations and behaviors could be brought up here, but one in particular stands out. In the aforementioned special “The Time of the Doctor,” Tasha Lem is the Mother Superious of the Papal Mainframe, a futuristic megachurch with immense intergalactic power. Tasha is clearly politically and religiously important in-universe, and the situation in which she meets the Doctor is a serious one—yet, for reasons that are again unclear, she requires nudity of her guests and her altar is a giant bed upon which she flirts with the Doctor instead of addressing the matter at hand. Some time later, when she is converted into a cyborg, the Doctor manages to snap her back into humanity by insulting her repeatedly. Instead of a powerful female leader, Moffat presents her as a woman who is there to be seduced and demeaned.

Images via Further Than We’ve Ever Gone Before.

Of course, the show certainly has its good points where women are concerned, and an even greater number of points that are neither good nor bad. Amy has a season-long arc centered around the theme of remembering (though this does, admittedly, come to a head during her wedding). Amy and Rory are presented as equals in their relationship, with Amy perhaps even taking on a dominant role: Though it’s never presented as Rory’s legal name, the Doctor refers to him as “Mr. Pond” and to the couple as “the Ponds,” and Amy and Rory’s daughter is given the last name Pond rather than Williams. Clara, as mentioned before, has drastically improved over the course of the most recent season, standing up to the Doctor fairly often and even stepping into his shoes in one episode (above).

Has the Show Always Been Like This?

Russell T. Davies definitely had his flaws, and certainly his characters brushed up against stereotypes at times. (Donna Noble, the season 4 companion, is introduced as a somewhat shrill woman in her wedding dress.) Even so, his female characters generally had to work for their plotlines, taking action independent of the Doctor’s orders. They had developed lives outside of the TARDIS, they were worried about their jobs and futures, and they had on-screen familial relationships that felt authentic. Certainly Davies scored better in basic measures of female character development like the Bechdel test.

Doctor Who is also part of a larger trend of Moffat’s disappointing treatment of female characters. Along with Mark Gatiss—who also writes for Who—Moffat is the co-creator of the popular series Sherlock. Moffat has been criticized in particular for the episodes “Scandal in Belgravia” and “His Last Vow,” both adaptations of stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. In the former episode, Holmes bests an emotional Irene Adler even though the source material described her as the only woman to ever get the better of him. In the latter, Holmes kills a criminal who was, in the original version, killed by one of the man’s female victims. Writer Zoe Stavri sums up the problem in an exchange with the New Statesman: “To take a source material which subverted the Victorian expectation of a weak, emotional woman and return it into something which exemplifies this archaic archetype is inherently problematic.”

Elsewhere, Moffat—who also wrote the romantic sitcom Coupling—has described his attitudes toward relationships as such:

There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands.

It’s not a particularly encouraging portrayal of women and men, to say the least, and when combined with his treatment of female characters, it suggests a tendency toward gender-essentialist thought.

Why Does All of This Matter?

Dolf Zillman and Hans-Bernd Brosius, among others, have argued the importance of exemplars in constructing perceptions of the world. Exemplars are individual cases that are taken to represent all such cases—particular instances of an event, for example, or individual people who belong to a larger group. These instances “serve as the basis for judging a larger body of similar occurrences.”[1] As a result, misinformation and biased portrayals of people in the media can influence real-world thoughts and actions. They cite other sources suggesting that “the deliberate or inadvertent misrepresentation of social reality by misexemplification in fiction … is apparently thought capable of fostering misperceptions and misjudgments.”[2] Fictional programming, then, is not entirely free from the responsibility of accurately representing the world.

Zillman and Brosius do note that “entirely imagined worlds”[3] are unlikely to have an effect on the real world, but despite its fanciful plots and science-fictional premise, Doctor Who does have realistic elements. The relationships it portrays are intended to reflect real ones, and the companion’s presence is meant to connect the alien Doctor to his human viewers. They also mention that a common perception that “people know better” keeps the entertainment industry from being held accountable for poorly-chosen exemplars in the same way the news media is,[4] but this contention—even if it is true, which Zillman and Brosius seem to doubt—falls short in the face of the fact that Doctor Who is, despite its large adult fan base, ostensibly a family show. Indeed, if the intended audience includes children whose biases and conceptions of the world are still being formed, the show has an even greater obligation to avoid presenting misleading exemplars.

It’s also important to recognize that while presumably no one is using Doctor Who as their sole example of female behavior, women are underrepresented on television overall. A recent study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that women make up 42 percent of characters in broadcast network programs, and that female characters are more likely to be young, have an ambiguous employment status, and have a known marital status than their male counterparts. With a smaller, more homogenous set of exemplars to draw from, it’s important that women on television be adequately represented.

Other scholars have noted the cultural power of television. Tamar Liebes and Elihu Katz identify they ability of specific shows—in their case, Dallas—to “set agendas for thinking and talking.”[5] Elliot Tapper, speaking of a different sort of doctor, admits that TV portrayals of medical professionals have influenced public opinion of doctors.[6] More generally-speaking, Stuart Hall (quoted in John Fiske’s work on polysemy in fictional programming) describes the situation as thus:

The cultural industries do have the power constantly to rework and reshape what they represent; and by repetition and selection, to impose and implant such definitions of ourselves as fit more easily into the descriptions of the dominant or preferred culture … These definitions don’t have the power to occupy our minds; they don’t function on us as if we are blank screens. But they do occupy and rework the interior contradictions of feeling and perceptions in the dominated classes.[7]

This Gramscian idea of television as a tool by which the dominant classes of society can subtly influence everyone else is a mainstay of criticisms which demand a more balanced representation of women and minorities on television. In her work on the subject, Julia T. Wood lists three trends in the media where gender is concerned:

First, women are underrepresented which falsely implies that men are the cultural standard and women are unimportant or invisible. Second, men and women are portrayed in stereotypical ways that reflect and sustain socially endorsed views of gender. Third, depictions of relationships between men and women emphasize traditional roles and normalize violence against women.

Wood describes what she sees as a near-requirement that a woman on TV “be strong and successful if and only if she also exemplifies traditional stereotypes of femininity—subservience, passivity, beauty, and an identity linked to one or more men” and that she, like Amy Pond and Clara Oswald, take on roles as a caregiver and mother figure. This, she argues, distorts the way viewers see women in the real world.

There’s a problem, then, when Steven Moffat’s portrayals of women in the longest-running science fiction show in history are consistently simplistic, rely on stereotypes, and deprive characters of their autonomy. Moffat has, at various times, done all three of the things Wood criticizes: He has decreased the overall representation of women (both in sheer number of roles and in speaking time, at least through the beginning of season 7); he has based his female characters on stereotypes and linked their identities inextricably to the male Doctor; and he has put them in traditionally female roles (though violence against women, fortunately, is not normalized in the show).

Where Does Doctor Who Go From Here?

The women of Doctor Who may be something of a problem, but there are plenty of solutions. First and foremost is the possibility of hiring more female writers. Since the start of the 2005 reboot, only one woman has written for the show, in 2008, and Charlie Jane Anders points out that this is a problem, given Moffat’s understanding of the companion:

In Moffat’s own view, the Doctor is an archetypally male character–but the show rests on an ever-changing series of female characters, who actually carry the bulk of the emotion and character development. You can see why it might be advantageous to have some female writers in the mix, right?

The show’s executives do claim to be looking for female writers, and in their defense, women writers are underrepresented in British science fiction shows in general, not just Who. Still, that’s not an excuse for poor characterization, as men are fully capable of writing fleshed-out women as well. Whether or not positive movement will require Steven Moffat to leave the show remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: If Doctor Who wants to do right by its female characters, something needs to change.

References

For the sake of simplicity, references are linked wherever possible. Footnotes for print sources are below. A full bibliography, including sources used as background reading but not directly cited, can be found on the next page.

[1] Zillman and Brosius, p. vii

[2] Zillman and Brosius, p. 43

[3] Zillman and Brosius, p. 14

[4] Zillman and Brosius, p. viii

[5] Liebes and Katz, p. 167

[6] Tapper, p. 393

[7] Fiske, p. 399

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