An Op-Ed on feminism in science fiction by author Peter Dabbene.
Barriers to Entry
For a long time, Doctor Who intimidated me.
Not the Doctor himself, of course—between the old men, the curly-haired, long-scarved dandies, and the bow ties, none of his incarnations has been what you’d call a physically imposing figure, and no matter how grouchy he got, he was, after all, a force for good. But as a television show that’s been around since 1963—as a cultural institution about which I was largely ignorant—Doctor Who seemed like… quite a lot to tackle.
So, for many years, despite my love of most things science fiction, I fastidiously avoided Doctor Who. I shunned the books, the magazines, and of course, the TV show itself. All I knew of the subject was that the show had been around for a very long time, though I did have some fuzzy memories of tuning to a UHF channel and seeing someone (presumably the Doctor) being chased by tin-can type robot-aliens. I’d also heard the song “I’m Gonna Spend My Christmas with a Dalek,” and let’s just say it didn’t earn a spot on my regular holiday playlist. In addition, I’d noticed that whenever I asked a Doctor Who fan where a newcomer should start, they’d relate the character’s long history, babbling on about the Third Doctor or the Fifth or the Seventh, with varying degrees of excitement and approval, while tending to avoid answering the question directly. It was like a club that was no longer admitting new members, or more accurately, one that required so much effort to be initiated into that it didn’t seem worth the trouble.
I never felt like I was missing much—after all, Doctor Who never appeared on “must see” lists of the best sci-fi TV shows and movies back then, though around 2005-2006 I began hearing some positive rumblings about the show’s new reboot. But even a modern version didn’t seem especially inviting to anyone not already versed in the lore of the Doctor.
Women and Children First
Fast forward to 2016, when my two children, aged 9 and 10, expressed an interest—no, a fervent desire—to watch Doctor Who. Friends of theirs had seen the new series, and regularly name-dropped the Doctor, Weeping Angels, and Time Lords, and my kids wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I had also met more Doctor Who fans, asked them my standard “Where do I start?” question, and began to notice a consensus forming around Season One of the new series. So, we began.
Diehard fans called themselves Whovians, and I quickly found myself struggling to understand their cultish enthusiasm. I especially didn’t get the seemingly high number of female fans for a show whose main character used an alias of “John Smith” and had a stable of current and former female “companions.” Was this science fiction, or a show about an escort service? For the first time in my life, I was on the wrong side of the sci-fi fandom dividing line. I liked Star Trek, had just shown my kids the original series and Star Trek: The Next Generation, and was eager to re-watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine with them, which I’d always felt was the best of the bunch. That plan had been derailed by Doctor Who, and during the cheesier moments of the first season, I often found myself thinking “Star Trek is so much better than this.”
Yes, that first season was marked by heavy mugging and grinning, an assortment of underwhelming villains, and relatively low production values. I nearly gave up, ready to let my kids continue watching without me. But they loved it, and I figured maybe I was biased, missing something that they weren’t. The end of Season One brought a dramatic change, with Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor giving way to David Tennant—a name I’d heard before but had only seen in a weird security-camera footage version of Hamlet.
Tennant was genial, geeky, and goofy, popularizing unfortunate descriptions like “timey-wimey,” but the show began to come into its own, especially with Season Three’s “Blink,” the episode that made me sit up and really pay attention. There had been strong, well-written episodes before, but “Blink” was inventive, original, and perfect for the small screen. It introduced the Weeping Angels, now-classic monsters that appeared as stationary statues when observed, but if you turned your back—or blinked—they could advance and attack incredibly quickly.
The Doctor was definitely growing on me.
After Tennant came Matt Smith, “regenerated” as the Eleventh Doctor, and my personal favorite. Fun without being annoying, he also benefited from the presence of Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, and less so from Amy’s own “companion,” Rory Williams. By this point, I was beginning to form some theories on the show’s appeal to women. The Doctor’s chaste, adoring, alien fondness for his companions was an all but impossible ideal in the real, humans-only world, where sexual tension would typically push things one way or the other. There was romantic tension, but only of the chivalric kind—a knight and his modern lady, pursuing adventures side by side. What girl (or woman) wouldn’t sign up for that? The show’s custom of replacing Doctors and companions on a regular basis allows for this dynamic to continue indefinitely, with all of the hopeful romantic anticipation and none of the disappointed “night after” regret that spoiled Moonlighting or The X-Files.
But more importantly, the Doctor’s companions regularly contributed—often significantly— to solving the problem at hand. Even as sidekicks, there was an awful lot for companions to do—more than women on a lot of other shows, science fiction or otherwise. In addition, the show’s writers clearly made efforts to avoid the standard damsel-in-distress model as much as possible. Between the Doctor and his companion, most of the bold and noble actions were spoken for, leaving little for the show’s human male characters (Mickey, Rory, Danny Pink) to do except get into trouble and witness the proceedings, often while complaining or sputtering disbelief. All fair, I suppose, given the traditional roles women had in sci-fi until fairly recently. But was it truly feminist?
Peter Capaldi took over the reins of the Tardis next, and the accents and Britishisms (or Scotticisms) became too much for this American, difficult to understand and occasionally unintelligible, such that I began regularly activating the “closed caption” option while viewing. (It made things much easier, and I highly recommend it.) The show seemed to lose a bit of steam, though Capaldi himself did quite a good job making the Doctor his own. Maybe it was just me losing steam after cramming eight-plus seasons of Doctor Who into a little more than a year, but I was ready for it to be over.
Now, in 2018, a female Doctor (played by Jodie Whittaker) is set to begin, and there’s been a lot of speculation and commentary, both positive and negative. The very notion of a female Doctor violates canon for some fans, though the showrunners have been not-so-subtly laying the foundations for a female Doctor for at least the last few years. Even if they hadn’t, complaining about a lack of consistency with Doctor Who seems absurd, as plots are regularly resolved with decidedly flexible internal logic, to say nothing of the myriad abilities of sonic screwdrivers. It’s kind of like complaining that Superman or Captain America didn’t stay dead in the comics world: It’s fiction, driven by sales, and everything else bows down to that.
But is it driven by sales, or just the strong sense of moral righteousness that’s long marked the show itself? Past Doctor Who showrunners have shoehorned in hints of Clara Oswald, companion of the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors, being bisexual, along with enough other gay and lesbian characters and references that one has to question how much is truly integral to character-building, and how much is due to an intense desire to nudge the world in a more liberal direction. Pearl Mackie played the Doctor’s first openly gay companion, Bill Potts, who, according to Mackie, was not gay in early drafts. The show’s creators have defended their efforts as attempts to better reflect the real world, but given that according to Gallup and the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics, the percentage of people identifying as LGBT is less than 5 percent in both the United States and the U.K., one could argue that they’ve been a bit heavy-handed about it. It’s safe to assume there are several factors at work, not least of which is the BBC’s “Diversity and Inclusion Strategy” which includes “on-air portrayal targets”—i.e., quotas—for LGBT, minority, and female roles.
I’m looking forward to a female Doctor; I think it will give a fresh, new dynamic to the show. But even if I didn’t think it would benefit the stories, it would at least be one more “first” checked off the list that seems to be floating around at BBC headquarters: first openly gay companion, first female Doctor, etc.— which might ease the apparent need of future showrunners to make such a point of hitting those marks, and allow them to get back to the job of entertaining their audience. In the meantime—regardless of the show creators’ noble intentions—it feels rather like being forced to take one’s medicine.
FIRST LOOK: Episode 1 | The Woman Who Fell To Earth | Doctor Who
A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down
With the BBC diversity directive in place, the future is fixed (something the Doctor might say, except when he—or she— wants to change the timeline really, really badly). I suspect in coming years we’ll see this female Doctor followed by a minority Doctor, followed by an openly gay Doctor—which would all be fine, if it wasn’t drenched in the sour aroma of political correctness. At its best, Doctor Who encourages its audience to expand its thought process, with regard to science, civilization, and yes, sexuality. At its worst, the show’s attempts at inclusiveness become divisive and come across as promoting an agenda, straying too far from the show’s escapist entertainment roots.
So then, what will a female Doctor be like? Hopefully, she’ll be the Doctor, first and foremost; a role model to kids and adults of all sorts. But maybe she can also popularize a brand of feminism that’s not often seen in today’s climate—one that doesn’t depend on the visual shorthand of a tough, take-charge attitude or peerless martial arts skills to indicate potency, or on a steady supply of inept men to provide contrast. I’d love it if the new Doctor enjoyed needlepoint or some other traditionally female hobby, as a reminder that female empowerment doesn’t just mean choosing the more traditionally masculine option every time.
I also hope the writers don’t forget about the supporting cast—Whitaker’s Doctor will have three (count ’em!) companions. Twenty-three years ago, Kate Mulgrew became the first female to lead a Star Trek show, and today, Voyager generally ranks a notch below other Star Trek shows—not because of Mulgrew’s Captain Janeway, but rather, her diverse but dreadfully bland co-stars.
On October 7th (and the weeks that follow), we’ll see how it all shakes out. I’m hoping for the best—that the female Doctor becomes known simply as the Doctor, and the show’s writers can take a break from breaking barriers and get on with the real business of saving the universe.