Doctor Who and the Women

Written by Katherine Murray.

Remember that uncomfortable moment when Doctor Who became a story about how women destroy themselves to rescue an emotionally volatile man from his loneliness? It’s OK if you don’t; I’m going to remind you of it now.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Doctor Who and River Song Asexuality is so passé[/caption]

Doctor Who runs on a pretty simple dynamic. There’s a wizard god alien called the Doctor who travels through time and space in a magic futuristic magic police box and defends humanity from other aliens while encouraging people to be better humans themselves. He is joined on his travels by a human companion who, at least in the new series, is always female (although secondary male companions sometimes tag along).

The human companion’s job is to: 1) stand in for the audience by expressing surprise / bewilderment / excitement / low-simmering sexual desire for the Doctor / etc; 2) represent that which is Good and Noble about humanity through displaying traits like bravery and compassion; and 3) throw herself on metaphorical grenades to save the world.

Part of the strength of the show, in its rebooted form, is that, while we enjoy watching the Doctor run around being clever and wacky, the real emotional heft comes from watching ordinary people perform small acts of heroism. The Doctor doesn’t save humanity just by outsmarting the aliens; he does it by inspiring human beings to become their better selves.

Because the Doctor’s companions are our primary touchstone with humanity, it isn’t entirely surprising, then, that they make a lot of sacrifices and endure a lot of suffering along the way. The Doctor’s companions die, or their brains are erased, or they get stuck in some pocket of time where he can’t reach them, or they’re visited by a thousand other miseries they have to endure in order to travel through time. One of the eleventh Doctor’s companions, Clara “I was born to save the Doctor” Oswald, is actually distinguished by dying multiple times – this is why the Doctor takes an interest in her in the first place; because she keeps getting killed as an indirect result of helping him, only to come back again.

On the one hand, it seems like this is the price of heroism – that the tally of things these women have sacrificed is the measure of what they’ve accomplished. If the price were too low, the achievement wouldn’t be as great (and, certainly, the show often reminds us of all the things the Doctor has lost as a measure of his greatness).

On the other hand, though, there’s also a sense that we’re watching mortals destroy themselves to feel close to God, or women destroy themselves to feel close to a man. We’re invited to pity the Doctor for being alone – for literally standing in the rain and feeling sad while his companions walk away from him. There’s a sense of tragedy around the fact that these women couldn’t hang – that, no matter how much they wanted to be The One who could save him, human frailty prevented them from rising to the challenge.

And you might say, “No, that’s not what the story’s about, Katherine. He’s alienated, for sure, but nobody’s proposing that these women should just follow him around and sacrifice their own interests in an ugly, codependent way so he can have a friend.” You might say that, if it weren’t for this one really horrible moment in “The Angels Take Manhattan.”

Doctor Who and River Song in The Angels Take Manhattan

That One Really Horrible Moment in “The Angels Take Manhattan”
The one really horrible moment happens like this: the Doctor and his companions and an honorary alien called River Song (who is more or less the Doctor’s girlfriend) are doing important time travel stuff in Manhattan when River gets her hand caught in a trap. The only way to get it out is to break her wrist, and the Doctor doesn’t want to do that, for important time travel reasons that would take too long to explain out of context. The point is that, instead of helping her, he leaves her there and tells her to find a way out of the trap without breaking her wrist.

In Doctor Who terms, it’s actually totally fine that he leaves River to find her own way out of the trap – she’s one of the most capable characters, and he’s respecting her as an equal by trusting that she can handle this herself. I have no problem with that.

It’s what happens after that that’s terrible.

River shows up again a few minutes later, free from the trap, and happily reports to the Doctor that she was able to escape just like he asked her to. He’s very pleased – and also, apparently, blind, because she’s holding her arm very stiffly through this – and he grabs her hand in joy only to have her scream like he’s pulling on her broken wrist, because – surprise – that’s exactly what he’s doing.

In the moments that follow, both the Doctor and his companion ask River why she didn’t just say her wrist was broken, and she explains – in this horrible, horrible moment – that the Doctor must be protected from knowing how much it hurts people to be around him; that humans must hide their weakness from him so that he will not feel upset.

In other words, a relationship is an endurance test where one person (here, a female person) has to pretend that everything’s OK when it’s not so that the other person (here, a male person) will be spared from either the inconvenience of having to deal with it, or the pain of feeling responsible, or the unwelcome reminder that the first person is not everything he hoped she would be. And, it’s his girlfriend who believes this. His girlfriend. Technically, she might even his wife. Oh, man.

The tenth Doctor’s girlfriend, Rose, never articulated the same idea, but their relationship was framed pretty clearly as one in which his magnificence rescued her from the boredom of leading a meaningless life and she, in turn, wanted to rescue him from the horror of being alone. The tragedy of their relationship, as it’s presented to us, is that, just as he allows himself to love her, and to carve out a place in his future for her to inhabit, she gets taken away. No matter how badly she wants to be the one to give him what he needs, she can’t live up to the challenge – she’s not alien enough to survive an attack from his enemies, and she’s trapped forever in a timeline he can’t enter. The icing on this tear-soaked cake is that he was never able to make himself say the words “I love you.”

So, now we have two women in romantic relationships with the same emotionally distant, volatile man, and one has to take it on faith that she’s loved, and one has to hide all her pain in order to save the relationship. Both of them are desperate that he shouldn’t feel alone.

If this sounds familiar to you, that’s because this is a pretty well-worn and disturbing trend in romance stories – the trend where women martyr themselves to win the hearts of isolated men. It isn’t a healthy dynamic in either direction, but it’s one that’s often repeated, and it’s a little bit uncomfortable to see it play out over and over again on what is otherwise a very fun, exciting, well-written show.

I don’t know what the solution is, exactly, because the premise of the series almost demands an asymmetrical relationship between the Doctor and his companions, and the attempt to balance gender by having a male and female lead means that that relationship will almost inevitably Say Something (awkward) about the dynamics between men and women.

That said, season four gave us a precedent for a female companion who at least didn’t want to sleep with the Doctor and told him when he was annoying (I miss you, Donna). It might be a nice change if more of the Doctor’s companions had a reason for travelling with him that wasn’t either total obsession with him or the belief they were born, in one way or another, to save him. I’d like to see more of that kind of thing and less of the thing where people hide their broken bones to be polite.


Katherine Murray is a Toronto-based writer who yells about movies and TV on her blog.

18 Comments

  • Kilodalton
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I’m a bit appalled that you are comparing Rose Tyler with River Song. River Song’s character arc is… virtually nonexistent, and exactly as you stated. Rose Tyler on the other hand did not “martyr [herself] to win the hearts of [an] isolated man”. His “magnificence” didn’t rescue her from the boredom of leading a “meaningless
    life” (and wow, pretty classist of you to call a blue collar existence that is lived by millions of people “meaningless”)–SHE rescued herself from it, by rescuing him and by saving the world. And of course she wanted to “rescue him from the horror of being
    alone”–she’s presented as a caring and empathetic person, and he is in pain. But this was not the point of her travels with him–the point of her travels was to grow as an individual. She went from someone who had never heard of monsters, to thriving on the monsters, and the danger, and in saving the world and turning herself into a worldly, fearless defender of the universe almost single-handedly. Compare season 1 Rose Tyler to season 2, and season 2 to season 4. The progression of her ability to take on forces larger than herself is inspiring and has nothing to do with “rescuing him from himself” as you imply. How is it a *bad* thing to be a nice person, fall in love, and be a hero at the same time?

    I know as a writer you want to draw parallels in your column to make it more powerful but this is absolutely, positively, hands-down the wrong one. Try Amy Pond. Try Clara Oswald. Heck, try cross-fandom comparisons with Sherlock, such as comparing Moffat’s writing of River with his writing of Irene Adler or Molly Hooper. I’ve written about this myself: http://kilodalton.tumblr.com/post/78090844158/steven-moffats-insightful-thoughts-on-the-whole-life … But this? This weakens your article and illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the role Rose Tyler played in the Doctor’s life.

    • QDefenestration
      Posted April 17, 2014 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

      And “she’s not alien enough to survive an attack from his enemies, and she’s trapped forever in a timeline he can’t enter. ” ? Her “death” was portrayed as tragic because it was so random, accidental, and pointless. And then she comes back, moves on, and ends up in a stable relationship with no crazy power difference.

      Maybe the Doctor’s relationship with women in the RTD era was occasionally mildly troubling, but it was with Moffat running things that it went from occasionally mildly to constantly massively.

    • Posted April 17, 2014 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

      Man, if Steven Moffat hates anyone, it’s men. He just cannot stop beating on them!
      https://tyrannyofthepetticoat.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/sexism-the-terrible-secret-of-steven-moffats-doctor-who/

    • JJ Lonsdale
      Posted April 18, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think the author was being classist. Rose herself says that her blue-collar life is meaningless (and then her mother gets angry with her, saying that plenty of people work in a shop) (incidentally, as an ex-pat, the British cultural shaming of people who aspire to more money or a better life is one of the things that plays really weirdly across the pond).

      I do agree that the article would be stronger if it stayed within the Russell T. Davies-as-showrunner world. Pretty much all my problems with the portrayal of women on the show (and I LOVE this show) are in the Davies time period. (E.g. actually, literally, putting a pregnant woman in a box for half of a season — the character doesn’t matter, she’s just a narrative device for giving birth!)

      • Kilodalton
        Posted April 18, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        Rose never says that. In fact, she specifically says that’s *not* what she means, in both Parting of the Ways and Army of Ghosts. The main theme of the Davies era was that the everyman could be a hero–including Mickey and Jackie to whom Rose is speaking in these scenes. They do become heroes in short order and Rose says absolutely nothing that would be dismissive of their narrative arc.


        ROSE (desperate) But what do I do every day, mum? What do I do? Get up – catch the bus – go to work – come back home – eat chips and go to bed? Is that it?

        MICKEY (coldly) It’s what the rest of us do.

        ROSE But I can’t!

        MICKEY Why, ‘cos you’re better than us?

        ROSE (frustrated) No, I didn’t mean that!

        ROSE (turning to her) Mum, I used to work in a SHOP.

        JACKIE (defensively) I’ve worked in shops. What’s wrong with that?

        ROSE No, I didn’t mean that.

        • JJ Lonsdale
          Posted April 18, 2014 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

          That’s so interesting, because that’s the exact same scene I was thinking of. But I see it differently: my takeaway is that, yes, Rose IS saying that working in a shop for the rest of her life is boring. When she says “No, I didn’t mean that,” I think she’s back-pedalling (because of it being culturally unacceptable to say she’s “above” a particular job or lifestyle).

          I agree that a major theme of the RTD era is that an everyman can be a hero. (Also, the Doctor always picked companions who were defined by compassion for and respect for others… that’s another thing missing in the Moffatt era.)

          But I also think that the show very definitively states “Working in a shop for the rest of your life, like so many good and valuable people do, is really boring compared with traveling with the Doctor in all of time and space” — and I don’t think it was classist of the author to use the word “meaningless” when you’re talking about that comparison. Rose frikkin SAVED CIVILIZATION — I think it’s ok to say that working in a shop is boring by comparison. After all, isn’t that why we watch, because we all dream of doing something bigger and better with our lives than the 9-to-5?

        • Danygalw
          Posted April 21, 2014 at 5:21 am | Permalink

          Then what does she mean? She wants “a better life”, but what does she mean by that?
          The problem, really, is that the RTD era never presents an alternative other than “fight aliens”. Which isn’t… a really practical option. (How in the world are there enough aliens to keep Torchwood, UNIT, Sarah Jane&co. AND Martha&Mickey busy? For the latter two, how do they actually earn money? And why must they all be fought?) You can’t go from an ordinary blue collar life (doesn’t that mean factories?) to travelling the universe and fighting aliens. But that’s the only thing that the companions can aspire to.

    • Danygalw
      Posted April 21, 2014 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      It’s not a bad thing, but that’s the point of the essay. That these patterns exist. That they are gendered. That they convey negative stereotypes into the world.

      Fortunately I think the article is wrong on at least one of those points. In Doctor Who at least I don’t think martyrdom is gendered. (Though in general it frequently is.) After all, the Doctor frequently offers his life for others. Usually he is the one concealing his emotions from his companions – “I’m always alright.” “I’m the king of okay.” Let’s Kill Hitler, perhaps the most triumphant example, has the Doctor spending most of the episode hiding the pain of his impending death to save River, Amy, Rory, despite being. Y’know. Dying. The moments when he opens up are so memorable because of their rarity; River of course stands out because she inverts so much of the usual Doctor/Companion dynamic.

      Speaking of River. Her character arcs involve becoming less selfish, more moral, calmer, less reckless, more caring, more respectful of time, more stable, more responsible… whilst remaining herself. Intelligent, powerful, endlessly thirsty for knowledge, dramatic, resilient, flirtatious, assertive. Whatever you do to her she will always wrest free her independence. You can kidnap her, brainwash her, stick her in a spacesuit… doesn’t matter. She’ll break free, literally, mentally: River Song broke the fabric of spacetime through sheer force of will. (And technological nous) Even after she’s *dead* she has a life of her own, a ghost consulting for a Victorian detective agency.

      Um. I think I had a point but I lost it while thinking about River. Sorry. Her hair is really brilliant, have you noticed?

      I don’t want to talk too much about Rose but… well. I’ll let RTD describe her role in the Doctor’s life via the Doctor: “That’s me, when we first met. And you made me better. Now you can do the same for him.”
      And Rose: “For the first nineteen years of my life, nothing happened. Nothing at all. Not ever. And then I met a man called the Doctor.”
      Now Julie Gardner: “From first holding the Doctor’s hand to a farewell on a beach, Rose is the Doctor’s reason to fight, to endure, to ensure there’s light in the darkness.” This is the only description of Rose in the series 2 episode guide, coming after two paragraphs of discussing Tennant and the Doctor’s adventuring.

  • NathanFordsEvilTwin
    Posted April 17, 2014 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    The worst part is this is a problem almost exclusive to New Who. Female companions in the old series were at worst cliche damsels in distress, and even then weren’t afraid to call out the Doctor on being an asshole. At best, they could be pretty feminist. Barbara was a very educated history teacher who had a justice seeking streak, Liz was an accomplished and respected scientist, Zoe and Nyssa were implied to be intellectual equals with the Doctor, and Leela and Ace were straight up action heroes, kicking ass in tons of fight scenes. It’s silly that the 60s and 70s produced more independent companions than today, though I bet a part of that was the “no hanky panky in the TARDIS” rule. If you can’t reduce your female characters to love interests, I guess you have to put some effort into them.

  • Posted April 17, 2014 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    This is a really excellent article, and I’d like to applaud you for not descending into Moffat-bashing unintelligible screaming, or suggesting that there’s something misogynist going on. We’ve got enough of that on the internet.
    I actually do think that I diverge from you on your interpretation of that horrible scene with River and the Doctor. See, I don’t think the show is endorsing this as a good or healthy relationship.
    That scene is probably the most important in River Song’s evolution, baldly stating the ultimate tragedy of the character. It’s incredibly not okay for River to feel like this, for this sort of sacrifice to be asked of her to be with a man. it was never okay: River and the Doctor’s relationship has always been inherently unfair to both of them. River’s story is a tragedy, because she never got a choice about having her life wrapped around the Doctor’s. And unlike him, she doesn’t get any other chances.
    The scene where River hides her broken bones, and in which she tells Amy why, are absolutely heartbreaking, because they’re the culmination of a heartbreaking story. So although I do understand your frustration with the women of Doctor Who being so dependent on the Doctor, I think the show is revealing this as a difficult life choice, not as the only thing a woman could ever want, as it is in standard romances.

    • NathanFordsEvilTwin
      Posted April 17, 2014 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      Though I agree that calling it sexist is too far, I am frustrated that Moffat only writes women who sacrifice their lives for the Doctor. Some variety would be nice.

    • JJ Lonsdale
      Posted April 18, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      I get your point — River Song and the Doctor have an unhealthy relationship — but I’m not sure the show itself backs that up. The show presents River as mysterious and compelling and strong, and something to be admired. (The adult version of manic pixie dream girl, maybe?) I think we’re supposed to want to emulate her. So the moment where she tries to hide her broken wrist to protect the Doctor — especially coupled with the heartbreaking line “Rule One: the Doctor lies” — does, I think, point to something rather problematic. He’s the center of her world but she can neither trust him nor be honest with him.

      Also, all the brainwashing and stuff. I’m not sure River ever had a chance at anything approaching a normal relationship.

      • Posted April 18, 2014 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

        I think, personality-wise, River’s someone to be emulated. But as far as her life goes: like you say, she never had a chance at anything normal, or healthy. She’s been brainwashed, manipulated, all sorts of bad turns: anything she has it what she managed to salvage from that mess. And it’s not all fun.

  • Spit-Burn
    Posted April 18, 2014 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    A very good article – apart from not being really true to the spirit of the Doctor (who usually knew when it was time to let his companions live their own lives in the original series), it also demonstrates a deep sexism. River Song is both Mary Sue and sacrificial virgin – it would be interesting to see a female character on the show who is, y’know, either written like a believable woman or even written by one.

  • Gerald Leung
    Posted April 19, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    I thought Amy and Rory were precisely a counterexample of a relationship between a male and female who were equal to each other (eventually).

    As uncomfortable as the dynamic between the Doctor and his now potential-romantic-interest Companion may be in this manner… couldn’t the asymmetry be less between roles of ‘the man’ and ‘the woman’ and more just ‘the super-god-like alien’ and ‘the not-so-super-albeit-still-impressive alien/human’?

    I mean consider this: if the Doctor eventually regenerates into a female form, or a similarly-capable female takes on the moniker of ‘Doctor’–at least one or the other seems increasingly likely as the show, its audience, and society evolve–wouldn’t the asymmetry still really lie there? (Whether or not the story writers would continue to portray that same asymmetry still existing would also be interesting…)

  • drumstick00m
    Posted April 22, 2014 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    The newer “Doctor Who” (especially as written by Steven Moffat), is the proof to me that men, excuse me patriarchy, are not likely to change and start writing stories for women and girls that are about women and girls. They seem to think that writing stories about men women and girls find sexually attractive is a good enough substitute. More disturbingly they have gone from peddling the idea that women and girl’s sacrifices can “save men”, to that they never will be able to, and so they should just suffer anyway because sexy man. This “Doctor Who”, as articulated above, “Twilight”, and to a FAR lesser extent why instead of a “Black Widow” or a “Wonder Woman” movie; we have only “Loki” (Thor).

  • JSintheStates
    Posted April 25, 2014 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    I guess I was peripherally aware of your thesis, but you’ve certainly clarified the obvious discrepancy of sexual equality (or inequality) in Doctor Who. Without rereading your piece, the Doctor almost seems misogynistic at a base level, something that he either has suppressed or has deliberately forgotten or ignored! (It reflects the Spock dilemma for women!)

    But it is a tragic role model for young women and girls watching this melodrama. They sacrifice themselves—and don’t seem to get anything in return! Maybe it’s time for a woman to take over as showrunner/producer. Moffat’s a little thin of late!

  • William Moore
    Posted June 4, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I’m very late to the party here, but still want to comment.

    First, I think your points are valid and excellently laid out and communicated. But here’s some things they got me thinking about

    1) Captain Jack is a male companion who admits to loving the Doctor (he admits it to Martha). And his fate is one worse than death, to suffer an infinite number of deaths and then be brought back to life. He still feels the pain of each death, it’s not like he can just shake of bullets like some immortals. His unending life is one of constant pain, death and rebirth, all for falling in love with the Doctor.

    2) The only companions to ever get any kind of reward (at least at first) are Amy and Rory. Rory stands up to the Doctor in Vampires of Venice and rejects the notion that the Doctor makes people better. Amy also rejects her feelings for the Doctor in that episode and picks Rory as the love she wants to pursue. The rewards? Rory gets Amy, and Amy gets both Rory a mom and dad at the end of the season.

    3) I believe River suffers not only for loving the Doctor, but also for being the child of the couple that rejects the Doctor. It’s very Greek tragedy but Amy and Rory reject the Doctor, but continue to travel with him. And so River is made to pay for their sin against failing to love the mad god unconditionally.

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