On August 4th, 2013, the salivating masses of fanatical Whovians tuned in to the much anticipated unveiling of the Twelfth Doctor. The announcement came in the form of a live broadcast televised special hosted by Zoë Ball. I, like many salivating fanatical Whovians, tuned in with equal measures of excitement and apprehention. You see, I’ve been a dovoted fan for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of watching Tom Baker episodes at my grandmother’s house (she had cable). And as a devoted fan, the revival of the series in 2005 has sparked a resurgence in my obsessive fandom. So you get the excitement. But then there’s the apprehension.
Steven Moffat is an undeniably talented writer. His episode “Blink” is one of my favourite episodes of any series, and an accomplished stand-alone horror film in its own right. Weeping Angels creep me the heck out, to the point that, as I will include a picture of one in this post, I will never look at this post again after it’s published. Go ahead, laugh at me. Then send me a picture of a Weeping Angel just to freak me out. You won’t be the first. So we know that Moffat is capable of great writing. He’s also capable of very problematic writing.
Since Moffat took over as show runner, we’ve seen a marked decline in the quality of representations of women on the show, and a stunning increase in the number of episodes that fail the Bechdel Test. The women have become increasingly tokenized and reduced to snappy labels often supplanting “woman” to favour “girl”, as is the case with “The Girl Who Waited” or “The Impossible Girl”. This relegation of female characters to shallow tropes and problematic representations (and the apparently inevitable story line of women sacrificing themselves for the benefit of The Doctor) was initially lost on me. When Matt Smith took the role of a younger and allegedly sexier Doctor, a clear marketing move to attract a younger audience, he did so in such an engaging and charasmatic way that I was entirely drawn in. Similarly, when Karen Gillen appeared in her sexygram police outfit as Amy Pond, it didn’t seem out of place after having immersed myself in the prime time programming style of Torchwood. It did not dawn on me until several years later that the joke in that scene was “See? Women can have strong and empowering jobs as police officers just like men. Ha ha! Just kidding! She’s a sex object.” This went largely over my head because in spite of the problems, and an entire lack of a back story, I really enjoyed watching Amy Pond. The performance was enticing and the dialogue rich. It was still good television, and it still felt like Doctor Who. I even didn’t notice that Rory’s character arc involved endlessly wallowing in the “friendzone” in the hopes that one day, she’d realize what kind of good catch he is. Unfortunately, this is somewhat typical of Moffat’s understanding of women and relationships.
My enjoyment of the show suffered immensly when Clara Oswald was brought on board as the Doctor’s companion. Don’t get me wrong. Jenna Coleman is fantastically talented. I loved her as
Nina Oswin (“Souffle Girl”) in Asylum of the Daleks, and when the Doctor met her again in the Christmas special, she played the role with depth and agency. And then she [SPOILERS] died. Again. I mean, her fate in Asylum of the Daleks was cool, but in the special, it seemed like the Doctor just let her die. As though he could have saved her, but didn’t bother because something mysterious was going on and he was confident that he’d see her again. At least, if he wasn’t confident, the writers were.
So began the mystery of Clara, the “Impossible Girl” which would carry the second half of the seventh season. Or so we thought, because girls are people, and people have depth, and aren’t cardboard cutouts or plot devices. While Jenna Coleman held her own the first two times we’d seen her, there was nothing she could do to compensate for the lack of quality writing or consistent characterization she was handed. Sometimes she was dragged around by the Doctor just doing what he says, other times she was taking charge of an army. The Doctor seemed to have little consideration for her, her wellbeing, or even the wellbeing of the children that got dragged into danger with them. Something about this season just felt off. From the Doctor irresponsibly letting Clara face an Ice Warrior alone, to coercing her into following him to investigate ghosts that she was visibly terrified of (even though the Ice Warrior didn’t make her break a sweat), to sexually assaulting someone he knew was a lesbian. Each episode became more and more difficult to watch, as I could no longer turn a Voltairian blind eye towards the blatant misogyny that had taken over the show.
All of these seems rather typical of television. Sexist tropes, problematic representation, regressive values. So why should we care? What sets Doctor Who apart from the rest of the drivel on television?Well, for one thing, as with much Sci-Fi, Doctor Who has a history of being socially progressive. Much like Star Trek, many of the stories in Doctor Who served as powerful (albeit campy) allegories about serious issues. The Doctor served as a role model who preferred non-violent resolution to conflict. He would favour diplomacy over killing and never carried a weapon. Whether discussing environmentalism, slavery, or eugenics and ethnic cleansing, the series has been unabashed in its forward thinking progressive agenda.
This legacy was honoured and carried forward when Russel T. Davies revived the series in 2005. From the start, Rose Tyler was presented as a brave character with agency and self-determination. The 9th Doctor spends his first couple of encounters with her telling her not to follow him or get close. Instead, knowing the risks (and after saving his ass), she makes the decision to accompany him on his journeys. This is a far cry from the 11th Doctor dragging Clara around like a puzzle he’s trying to figure out.
Mickey briefly joins in the adventuring becoming the first black character on the series to be a part-time traveling companion, and in Season 3, Martha Jones, a black woman (and a med student), joins the cast in a leading role as the Doctor’s companion. These steps forward are important, and not without precedent. In the series’ hiatus throughout the 90s, the Star Trek franchise made leaps and bounds with positive representation. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine presented a black Benjamin Sisko commanding a space station (eventually promoted to Captain when he received his own ship) in 1993, and Star Trek: Voyager gave us the Kathryn Hepburn-esque Captain Janeway in 1995. Janeway’s first officer, a Native American. This pushed the bar of representation, carrying the tradition set by the original series of normalizing people of different ethnicities and genders in regular jobs as with Uhura and Sulu. The 2005 Doctor Who had some catching up to do, and it appeared they were making the effort.
It’s no wonder that upon the announced regeneration, fans were promoting the idea that the Doctor could regenerate as a woman. Or a person of colour. Or both. After all, Neil Gaiman had made it canon that Timelords can switch sex when regenerating when he wrote a line of dialogue about the Corsair. The seed had been planted and the time is right.
Or so, it would have been right, had the show not taken a 180° shift from progressive to regressive, when Steven Moffat took over as show runner. If you’re not convinced that Moffat is at the root of the problem (or that there is a problem), consider that under Russel T. Davies, only about 1 in 5 episodes would fail the Bechdel test. Under Steven Moffat, that number has more than tripled. The last episode of Doctor Who written by a woman aired in 2008 (Moffat took over in 2009) and there haven’t been any women writing for the show since. And, Moffat has said this:
“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. The world is vastly counted in favour of men at every level – except if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class, because then you’re almost certainly junior in your relationship and in a state of permanent, crippled apology. Your preferences are routinely mocked. There’s a huge, unfortunate lack of respect for anything male.”
To me, this explains everything. And further illustrates why Doctor Who needs radical change. And I’m far from the only one who thinks so. During the broadcast announcement of the 12th Doctor, Matt Smith let slip a male pronoun. Was the cat out of the bag? Was it a red herring? Who knew. Apparently, not Zoë Ball who made a point of saying that it would be awkward if a woman walked out and Smith had referred to her as “he”. In the 90 seconds leading up to the announcement, clips were compiled of people stating that the time was right for something different, that Doctor Who should go in a newer and bolder direction. Stephen Hawking said that he would like to see the Doctor played by a woman who is accompanied by a male companion. Myself, and presumably thousands of rabid Whovians on the edge of our seats thought, “This is it. This is what we’ve been waiting for.” I’d been hoping for Helen Mirren, although she’d already denied rumours of her casting, after she once expressed interest in the role. Moffat, was apparently aware of this as he followed Hawking’s appearance by saying he’d heard Mirren thought that a woman should play the role. “Well,” he continued “I’d like to see a man play The Queen.”
Ladies, gentlemen, multi-sex, undecided or robot… we present you with the Twelfth Doctor… upholding the status quo… another white man.
The announcement and the way that they built it up could not have been a bigger “fuck you” to fans. It was the joke of Amy Pond dressed like a cop all over again, on a larger and more insulting scale.
They deliberately played with our anticipation, hopes, and expectations, all to have a laugh at our expense. A man to play the Queen? Why don’t we take it a step further and bring back the good old days when women weren’t allowed on stage in theatre and all roles were played by men, because all this “equality” thing is tiresome, isn’t it.
Doctor Who has had 50 years of regenerations as white males. That’s 50 years of positive role models for white men, which is a good thing for sure, but white men aren’t the only ones in need of positive role models. They have plenty. And role models are important. Television has been shown to increase the self-esteem of
children white boys. Let’s spread some of that self-esteem around, shall we?
Martin Luther King Jr. understood the importance of representation on Television. When Nichelle Nicols contemplated quitting Star Trek after one season (to pursue her dream of a career on broadway), King talked her out of it with the following speech:
“STOP! You cannot! You cannot leave this show! Do you not understand what you are doing?! You are the first non-stereotypical role in television! Of intelligence, and of a woman and a woman of color?! That you are playing a role that is not about your color! That this role could be played by anyone? This is not a black role. This is not a female role! A blue eyed blond or a pointed ear green person could take this role! Nichelle, for the first time, not only our little children and people can look on and see themselves, but people who don’t look like us, people who don’t look like us, from all over the world, for the first time, the first time on television, they can see us, as we should be! As intelligent, brilliant, people! People in roles other than slick tap dancers, and maids, which are all wonderful in their own ways, but for the first time we have a woman, a WOMAN, who represents us and not in menial jobs, and you PROVE it, this man [Gene Rodenberry] proves and establishes a precedent that validates what we are marching for because three hundred years from today there we are, and there you are, in all our glory and all your glory! And you CANNOT leave!”
King understood that television could make a difference. That science fiction, in its visionary futurism could construct idealistic worlds that break conventions, defy outdated constraints, and effect positive change in the here and now. That a mere campy sci-fi show could be a bastion of morality and social justice in a world overwrought with oppression, prejudice, and bigotry. You know, how Doctor Who should be.