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.

Doctor Who and River Song
Asexuality is so passé

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.