Doctor Who has been a part of my life for just about as long as I can remember. Even before I started watching it regularly, it had imprinted itself on me. I was terrified of it, of course, at first, but even then, something drew me to it and fascinated me about it. At age 10, I fell in love with Doctor Who and never missed an episode again. Eventually, I even gained the opportunity to go back and watch all the earlier ones I’d missed (or, at the very least, listen to them in the case of missing 60’s episodes).
What exactly drew, and still draws, me to the show is hard to narrow down. Tom Baker’s mesmerizing presence certainly played a role, but he wasn’t actually the first Doctor I ever saw—Jon Pertwee was—even if there was a period when I didn’t realize Jon Pertwee had ever been there and Tom Baker had superimposed himself on my memories of the third Doctor. Until Tom Baker took over, there was still something drawing me to it. I’ve always had a proclivity towards science fiction and fantasy, so that’s undoubtedly a very major part. Around the same time I was falling in love with Doctor Who, I also discovered Star Wars and fell in love with that, too. The action and adventure definitely kept me coming back. Yet I’ve fallen out of love with Star Wars in recent years (and I’m not referring to any opinion on the quality of the prequels—I’m referring to the original, non-special-edition trilogy), but the same hasn’t happened with Doctor Who. I have also watched many other science fiction programmes and movies over the years (many of which I consider myself a fan of), but none have ever held the same place as Doctor Who. Something sets Doctor Who apart from all the others. To be honest, I’m not sure I can accurately say exactly what it is that draws me to the show, be it the sheer breadth of possibility the show covers, the writing, the acting, the concepts, the action, or the characters. The show has changed so much over the years, yet still it draws me in.
Of course, just because one loves something doesn’t necessarily mean one finds it perfect, and Doctor Who is no different. To criticize something does not necessarily indicate dislike. And fans tend to criticize. Personally, I don’t just criticize things I’m a fan of. I watch and read everything with a critical eye. Some people might say I go over the top, but I actually believe it to be very important. Something can be good and still have flaws, and I think it’s important to acknowledge those flaws. Similarly, I believe there is a difference between the two spectrums of like/dislike and good/bad. We can, and often do, like things that we know are bad (often called “guilty pleasures”). Likewise, we can dislike things that are good (although in these cases, we often go out of our way to try to prove that the things in question are actually bad in order to justify our dislike rather than just admit it’s a matter of personal taste).
Doctor Who has had its ups and downs. It’s usually good, but sometimes bad. A lot of the time that it’s bad, I still like it, but every now and then, it does an episode that I just plain don’t like. Throughout it all, I’ve always still loved the show as a whole. People who have read my reviews of recent episodes will know that I have not felt the last couple of years have been Doctor Who at its best. I have taken issues with a number of things, particularly poor character development. However, there is one issue that has been lying heavily on me for some time, one that has become a hotbed of argument amongst fandom: the presentation of women since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner.
A quick search through messageboards like Gallifrey Base will turn up numerous threads asking whether Moffat is sexist. A Google search will turn up tons of websites devoted to the topic, some outright vitriolic and over-the-top, some well-argued and reasonable (Doctor Her is a particularly excellent source for feminist criticism of Doctor Who). Readers of my reviews will know where I stand on the issue, but I will reiterate here: I see some very worrying trends in the representation of women on the programme. In fact, in my reviews, I’ve made a couple references to being able to write an entire essay on the topic, and I’ve decided it’s about time to put my money where my mouth is and write that essay. (Just to add, I find some worrying trends in the presentation of racial and sexual minorities, as well, but I can only fit so much in one essay, so my focus at this time is on sexism.)
In order to fully examine the state of women in the programme currently, I think it’s important to take a brief look at the broader historical context. Doctor Who has certainly never been perfect. In its long history, it has had some sexist and racist moments. Of course, to a great extent, it was a product of its time, and television as a whole has had a lot of very sexist and racist moments. In fact, Doctor Who was often ahead of its time, even if it was still not perfect. Its first producer, Verity Lambert, was one of the very few women producers in the industry. Barbara Wright, one of the Doctor’s first companions, was quite a strong female character when compared to what was typical of female characters in the 60’s (even if she wouldn’t meet modern standards). The 60’s also saw characters like Sara Kingdom, who was a space security agent, carried a gun, and shot at Daleks instead of screaming at them (alas, she was also written out very quickly, likely because higher-ups at the BBC didn’t approve of her). Of course, the 60’s also saw characters like Susan and Victoria, who screamed and cried and twisted their ankles over every little thing, so it was far from perfect. But a principal facet of my argument that I will be getting into is that variety is important, and 60’s Who does have a variety of female characters even if the male characters outnumber them significantly.
In some ways, the seventies were actually a step backwards for the presentation of women. The female companions, from Liz Shaw to Sarah Jane Smith to Romana, were often very strong characters, but unfortunately, there were very few other female characters at all. In particular, during the early Tom Baker years, Sarah Jane was often the only female character except for a few background extras. There were even several stories where women didn’t even get to be extras (“The Sontaran Experiment”, “Revenge of the Cybermen”, “Pyramids of Mars”, “Planet of Evil”).
By the eighties, the number of roles for women began to broaden out significantly. There were women scientists again and women officers on spaceships. Companions, such as Ace, became more independent and less prone to screaming (although there were exceptions, like Melanie). Although the show ended in 1989, preliminary plans for the 1990 season included the introduction of the Doctor’s first non-white companion, which would have been a great step forward for the visibility of minority women.
Although Doctor Who was off the air for most of the nineties, it continued unabated in other media, particularly the New Adventures novel series and then, later, in the BBC book series. It was in these books that the series had something of a renaissance in its portrayal of women and minorities with characters such as the ever-popular Bernice Summerfield (who has gone on to appear in Big Finish audio adventures and have her own spin-off series in both novel and audio play forms) and Roz Forrester. Even the 1996 TV movie, which had a number of faults when it came to plotting, contained one of the strongest woman companions of all time. Ironically, Doctor Grace Holloway was also the first companion to have any romantic interest in the Doctor and to actually kiss him, something that still makes many fans angry (those that feel that there should be “no hanky-panky in the TARDIS”). But romance, sexual attraction, and love are all parts of life. Falling in love, having sex, or even having a baby doesn’t automatically disqualify a character as a strong one (which many people who don’t see the sexism in modern Who seem to think is an argument those of us who do see it make—something I’ll go into more detail about later). Grace never defines herself by the Doctor. She finds him an amazing man, one who shows her new things about the universe, but she remains her own person, with her own goals. She’s interested in the Doctor, but she doesn’t let that overshadow the rest of her. At the end, when the Doctor asks her to come with him, she says, “You come with me.” Suddenly, the Doctor is the one contemplating an upheaval of his life. It’s a unique moment in the show’s history. Only Donna’s initial refusal to join the Doctor in “The Runaway Bride” is remotely similar.
When Doctor Who returned in 2005 under the helm of Russel T Davies, it was another renaissance for the show. For the first time, the show began to look at the families and friends of the Doctor’s companions. Davies rooted the companions to Earth with a home life and made them into far more fleshed-out characters than they had ever been before. While the old series made very occasional references to companions’ families, now those families were seen regularly. The characters had real lives. Beyond the companions, there was a wider variety of character representation than had ever been seen before: non-white characters in numbers that actually reflected their real-world presence. The sexuality of characters was acknowledged, including gay and lesbian characters.
When arguments about sexism in modern Who come up, detractors often refer back to Rose and Martha, claiming that they are worse examples of sexism because of their romantic interest in the Doctor. But I say that people are missing the point when they make these arguments. The problem is not at all that people fall in love, whether with the Doctor or anyone else. The problem is with lack of variety and showing only one type of woman. During the Russel T Davies years, variety was not a problem. I will admit that I was getting very tired of Rose’s pining over the Doctor by the end of her time, and yes, by the end, Rose did define much of herself by the Doctor. But Rose is one character, and one character does not create a problematic pattern. More to the point, Rose still had qualities beyond the men in her life. We actually knew what Roes wanted out of life: “a better life” being a main part of it. Rose loved the Doctor, but she also had other people in her life, such as her mother Jacquie and Mickey. I ask, what interests or desires does Amy have that do not have something to do with the Doctor or Rory? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I will also concede that Martha’s attraction to the Doctor was initially annoying because, at first, the situation looks like Rose all over again. For a while, it does seem that an unfortunate pattern is forming, but then that pattern is completely twisted around. Martha never defines her life by the Doctor, and when she realizes that her love for the Doctor is actually ruining her life, she leaves him. She knows she can’t spend forever with him, so she gets out and decides to go after what she can achieve. When we next see Martha, she is a fully certified doctor and working for UNIT. But putting aside the end of her story, even from the beginning, Martha is a fully rounded character with interests and a life that makes her unique.
I’m not saying that the Russel T Davies years were perfect, but I do believe they brought the show forward more than ever before or since. As I move now into current Doctor Who, that obviously means that I believe the show has taken a step back. The problem is most egregious in the episodes written by Steven Moffat himself, but as the showrunner, it’s also natural that it has seeped into other episodes as well. Indeed, the beginnings of the pattern can be seen in Steven Moffat’s scripts during Russel T Davies’s time. And that problem is that virtually every woman is defined by either the men in her life or her reproductive tract or both. I want to re-emphasize though that the problem is not with characters falling in love. It’s not with people wanting or having babies. Lots of people in the real world fall in love. Lots of people want families, both women and men. It makes sense that characters in the show should reflect these real-life tendencies. The problem is that Moffat’s women never display anything else. We don’t get to see any women who don’t fall in love or want babies (they do exist in real life). Worse, we rarely get to see these women’s interests and motivations beyond love and babies (and while I can’t prove it, I would argue that there are very few real women who want nothing but romantic love and babies in their lives). To be fair, Moffat’s early stories are better in this regard, but the pattern begins to establish itself.
In 2004, Steven Moffat did an interview for The Scotsman, in which he talked a little about Doctor Who (which he had just been hired to write two episodes for) and Coupling, one of the sitcom series which were instrumental in establishing him as a big name in television. This interview has resurfaced frequently in the last couple years due to a few specific comments he makes. You can read the full article at this link, but here is the relevant quotation:
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.
With increasing cries that his Doctor Who writing is sexist, this quotation has proliferated around the internet as proof of Moffat’s sexist ways. And there’s little denying that it’s pretty damning. In his defence, Moffat has stated that people are using the quotation out of context, that he was speaking from the point of view of Patrick, one of the characters in Coupling, who is portrayed as extremely sexist in the show. He did not mean that as his personal beliefs. However, there is nothing at all in the article to suggest this is the case, so I can only conclude that either the article completely misrepresents Moffat (either through misunderstanding or deliberately editing out relevant portions of the interview) or that Moffat is lying. In the absence of any proof one way or the other, I have to take Moffat at his word and assume that the article’s author misunderstood what Moffat was saying. Nonetheless, on a close examination of his writing (and while I am focusing on Doctor Who here, this is also true in his writing for other shows, such as Sherlock), it would seem that he has those same beliefs anyway.
Steven Moffat’s first Doctor Who story was actually the comedy special, “Curse of the Fatal Death” (in which, I should note, the Doctor and his female companion have decided to get married and that companion really doesn’t have any character beyond swooning over the Doctor). However, his first story for the actual series was in the Christopher Eccleston two-parter, “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances”. Now, I’ll be honest. I love this story. I loved it when it first aired and I still love it today. If, when it first aired, somebody had told me that Moffat writes sexist characters, I would have scoffed, and that’s because, taken out of context, by itself, the story isn’t sexist at all. It’s a strong story and it does have a strong female character who is central to the plot: Nancy.
This is where the difficulties in recognizing the sexism come in, and why I believe that some people fail to recognize that it’s there. As I’ve said repeatedly, the problem is with repetition. When “The Empty Child” first aired, the repetition hadn’t yet been established. Nancy is a fully realized and believable character—indeed, I would argue one of the best female characters Moffat has ever written. Unlike many of his later characters, she does have goals and interests beyond her child. If she were just one of many different kinds of women characters, there would be no problem with her at all. She even has less of the snark that he writes into most of his women characters (although it’s not entirely absent).
Alas, Nancy’s character arc establishes a pattern that repeats over and over in Moffat’s stories. The culmination of her tale comes with her acknowledging that her little brother is actually her son. By embracing her motherhood, she cures her little boy and reprograms the nanites so that the Doctor can then cure everyone else. And it was great at the time. It made sense and worked dramatically for her character. But then, the same basic finale kept happening. It just took awhile to notice.
“The Girl in the Fireplace” is another story that I highly liked when it first aired; however, my appreciation of it has actually diminished somewhat over time. It’s not a bad story, but I can see more of its flaws. Reinette, “Madame Pompadour”, shows the other side of Moffat’s woman-writing coin. She defines herself by the men in her life, in particular, the Doctor. We never actually learn the identity of the father of Nancy’s child (and, mercifully, she doesn’t define her life around him), but she still ends up defining herself by her motherhood. In contrast, Reinette never has a child and doesn’t define herself that way, but her whole life is about the men in her life, be that the king of France or the Doctor. Like Amy later, she spends her whole life waiting for the Doctor (although, admittedly, unlike Amy, she actually accomplishes things during that time). She even tells Rose at one point that a life full of monsters and nightmares is worth it for an “angel” (i.e. the Doctor). In essence, she is saying that it’s worth being miserable as long as there’s a man for you to love. Somewhat alarmingly, Rose never repudiates her, even though Rose, while in love with the Doctor, clearly doesn’t consider life with the Doctor to be a nightmare. Now, this wouldn’t be quite so problematic if it wasn’t again establishing a pattern. There are, unfortunately, real women who spend years in terrible relationships for reasons very similar to Reinette’s statements about the Doctor. If this wasn’t part of a pattern on the show, one could simply criticize the episode for not showing that there is an alternative (such as by having Rose repudiate her), but at least Reinette would be just one character among many different ones. But alas, the theme of women putting up with horrible, horrible things, for the sake of their men alone, becomes a recurring theme later on.
“Blink”, Moffat’s next script for the show during Series III, is one of the show’s most popular episodes amongst fans. And for good reason. It’s brilliantly plotted, tense, and scary. As a “Doctor-lite” episode, it is able to focus much more on characters who would normally be peripherals and as such gives an excellent insight into a side of the Doctor’s travels we don’t often see. Sally Sparrow is also one of Moffat’s female characters who least fits his typical pattern—mainly because the pattern is tacked on at the end. She has goals and interests, including being attracted to men and susceptible to some rather overt come-ons. But then, some women like that. She doesn’t define herself by the men around her and she shows little to no interest in having children. But then, what happens at the end? Now that she’s finally delivered her story to the Doctor, she can relax and start a relationship with a man she’s shown no previous interest in whatsoever. It wouldn’t be so bad if she ended up with the police officer that she had actually shown an interest in. But he died, so she settles for the other guy. We learn that her life really does revolve around the men in it: first, the Doctor, as she must wait to pass on her story to him, and then the nerdy guy that she was previously embarrassed by. In essence, she defines the ultimate nerd-boy fantasy: the awkward nerdy boy who gets the hot girl in the end. The worst part of this all is that it is simply tacked on unnecessarily at the end, with no hint of it beforehand. But as we’re starting to learn, in Moffat’s worldview, every woman’s story ends with her settling down with a man or a family.
There’s another problematic area in “Blink”, one that is much subtler, but also repeats itself in Moffat’s writing. Sally’s friend, Kathy, is transported to the past where, like all women, she meets a man, gets married, and has a family. However, we learn that the man she marries wins her heart by following her around and asking her repeatedly to marry him until she finally gives in and does so. The story makes this out to be romantic, but it has disturbing stalkerish undertones. Admittedly, we don’t learn enough of the background to make a final judgement. Kathy may simply have been flirting with him and playing hard-to-get. But the fact that we don’t learn enough of the background is half the problem. Without the context, the relationship isn’t believable and her husband’s actions take on their disturbing stalker-like qualities. Worse, this is not the only time this happens in a Steven Moffat story.
The Series IV two-episode story, “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” has two significant female characters. One, of course, is Donna, the current companion. Donna is quite quickly relegated to a fantasy world in which she meets the man of her dreams, gets married, and has a family, once again demonstrating that the ideal end for a woman, according to Moffat, is a family. Now, it has been established previously that Donna is interested in getting married eventually (though, thankfully, she’s not interested at all in the Doctor), but she has also previously been established to want much more than this. Donna is a full and strong character, but not because of anything Steven Moffat does with her in this story. She is a full and strong character because of what Russel T Davies and other writers have done with her before (and after) this story.
The same story also introduces us for the first time to Professor River Song, an archaeologist from the far future who has uncanny knowledge about the Doctor, even though he’s never met her before. Similarly to Sally Sparrow, River starts out as a very strong character. She has goals, a career, and a life of her own. She’s snarky and full of witty comments and come-backs, as so many of Moffat’s female characters seem to be, but she stands on her own. She obviously has a complex relationship with the Doctor (or will have from his point of view), but at this point, her life doesn’t seem to be defined by him. After all, she spends most of her life travelling apart from him. Much of this will fall apart later on return appearances by River, but for this story, she remains a strong, independent character. However, even here, we see the pattern re-emerging because here, we see the end of her life before we see any other part of it. She sacrifices herself nobly, but the Doctor then reincarnates her mind within the computer along with everybody else. And what does River do there? She settles down to take care of the children. She becomes a mother. River, the independent adventurer, settles down with a family because according to Moffat, that’s what every woman does.
But things are even more insidious than that. When Moffat took over as showrunner in Series V, River became a commonly recurring character. As we learn more and more about her past, we learn that she’s not an independent adventurer after all. Her entire life revolves around the Doctor, and everything she does, she does because of him, not because it’s something she’s interested in. In fact, her life is defined by the Doctor more so than any other female character Moffat has written. She was stolen at birth, and programmed to kill the Doctor. When that brainwashing is overridden, she instantly falls in love with him and spends the next part of her life searching for him. We learn that she becomes an archaeologist not out of an interest in archaeology, but simply as a way to track down the Doctor. Her love for him is so great that she is willing to sacrifice the entire rest of the universe in “The Wedding of River Song” just to save his life, even knowing that he wouldn’t approve, just because she can’t bear to live without him. She then allows herself to be thrown in jail for his murder to hide the fact that he's still alive. Over every individual appearance of River, Moffat has slowly snipped away every bit of personal agency River had, leaving her with no independence whatsoever.
In her most recent appearance in “The Angels Take Manhattan”, she says, “When one’s in love with an ageless god who insists on the face of a twelve-year-old, one does one’s best to hide the damage.” She then tells Amy, “Never ever let him see you age. He doesn’t like endings.” The message? Like Reinette says in “Girl in the Fireplace”, misery is worth an angel. It’s a very disturbing message to the young girls who watch the show (and there are a lot of young girls who do): Not only should you put up with misery for the sake of love, you also better make certain you look damn good the whole time. Getting old is bad.
Now, I should point out that characters should have flaws. No one should be perfect, and some characters should occasionally say some very questionable things. The Doctor is a very flawed character, and that’s one of the things that makes him a great character. But since Steven Moffat became showrunner, the Doctor no longer gets called out for his flaws. The Doctor has frequently taken away his companions’ agencies, but the ninth and tenth Doctors always suffered repercussions for it. Here, the story makes River out to be right—and that’s just plain wrong. If the story went on to show that River was wrong, that the Doctor shouldn’t be allowed to get away with what he’s done to her (forcing her to break her own wrist just because he’s having a temper tantrum), the problem wouldn’t be there. But the story never does that.
This, of course, brings us to Amelia Pond, the first companion created by Steven Moffat. Amy’s first appearance is in “The Eleventh Hour”, the first Moffat-produced episode and the first with the eleventh Doctor. Much like River Song and Sally Sparrow, Amy starts out appearing to be a strong, independent character. The idea of a companion who first met the Doctor as a child and whose life was forever altered because of that is a strong and compelling one. The idea that Amy might be a little mentally unstable because of being sent to psychiatrist after psychiatrist could make for a very interesting and unique companion. But it’s never mentioned again after that episode. Indeed, we see a lot of Amy’s life in “The Eleventh Hour” that is then discarded and never mentioned again. We meet a slew of characters, her neighbours and people that she grew up with, but with the exception of Rory, not one of them ever shows up again. I don’t think they’re even mentioned again.
Since 2005, Doctor Who had been providing us with companions who had full lives and families beyond their travels with the Doctor, but suddenly, with Amy, we were back to an old-style companion, someone who completely left their family behind. The odd thing with Amy is, her parents are mentioned fairly frequently during Series V. We learn that they have been gone since she was a child. Her aunt raised her (although we never meet the aunt). It eventually becomes clear that her parents were victims of the cracks that erase people from existence. For a little while, it starts to look like Amy isn’t an old-style companion after all. She does have a life and a family; it’s just been stolen from her. What a brilliant idea! At the end of Series V, in “The Big Bang”, the entire universe is rebooted and Amy gets her parents and family back.
Then they never appear again. They aren’t even mentioned.
Amy goes right back to being a character who has no life beyond the Doctor. But while restoring her family is a plot point in Series V, the focus for Amy that year is much more on her having to choose between the Doctor and Rory. It’s the central point of the episode, “Amy’s Choice”, but it carries on throughout the rest of the series as well, and all throughout this we never really learn much about who she is. I asked the question earlier: Aside from the Doctor and Rory, what does Amy want from life? What are her interests? Does she have any hobbies? Some might say modelling, since she briefly has a career as a model. That would be fine, except that she soon doesn’t have that career any more and it’s never mentioned again. Perhaps she’s interested in writing, since she later becomes a travel journalist? Well, she never shows any interest in writing before then, and even once she becomes one, we never actually see her doing any writing or travelling (except with the Doctor).
Throughout Series V, Amy’s entire being is centred around the two men in her life. There’s nothing else to her (especially since her family is missing), other than being kind of snarky and saying witty things, much like so many other women Moffat writes. In Series VI, we see her continue down the standard path Moffat has all his female characters follow. She’s married to Rory now and she gets pregnant. Then she is kidnapped and her baby stolen from her.
The “Mystical Pregnancy” is, unfortunately, a far overused trope in science fiction. Steven Moffat is far from the only one to use it, and like so many things, it’s problematic partially due to its overuse. If it were done just once in a while, it might not be so bad, especially if the long-term implications of it were ever explored. Unfortunately, those implications rarely are, and they certainly aren’t with Amy’s pregnancy. Like all Mystical Pregnancies, Amy’s starts under mysterious circumstances: a child conceived in the TARDIS. There is actually a father (often, there isn’t with this trope) and we know who he is (Rory), but the pregnancy itself is skimmed over. Amy is replaced with a doppelgänger so that she rarely has to appear pregnant on-screen (can’t start messing with Amy’s supermodel looks!). Almost immediately after the baby is born, the child is stolen from her and taken away. She never gets a chance to raise the child (and no, Mels, her childhood friend who turns out to be her daughter doesn’t count as raising).
The worst part of this, though, is that Amy doesn’t seem to care. After the story “Let’s Kill Hitler” when she learns who Mels is, she goes right back to being her usual snarky, wise-cracking self. She is never affected by the traumatic events she has been through, and it becomes almost as though they never happened. But of course, Amy can’t have a child yet because her story isn’t over. She hasn’t learnt yet that she needs to settle down. (For more information about the Mystical Pregnancy trope, see the following video from Feminist Frequency.)
I say “hasn’t learnt” quite deliberately, for that becomes the focus of “The God Complex”. Although Moffat didn’t write this story, his hand as showrunner can certainly be felt over it. At the end, the Doctor quite unceremoniously drops Amy and Rory back off at their new home that he has bought for them (he has also bought a car for Rory, but apparently, he feels the home alone is enough for Amy). Amy learns that she needs to grow up. She can’t travel with the Doctor anymore because that’s a childish thing to do. Grown-ups have homes and families. It’s another instance of the Doctor removing his companion’s agency. As I said before, the Doctor actually does this sort of thing quite a lot, so it’s in character for him. However, in the past, it has always turned out to be a mistake for him to do this, and he would have to live with the consequences (or even regenerate because of them—the ninth Doctor sending Rose home against her will in “Parting of the Ways” is a direct cause of his regeneration), but the Doctor nowadays is never wrong. The only thing we really know about Amy is that she wants to travel with the Doctor and even that is snatched away from her. It’s time to settle down.
But her story still isn’t over as the Doctor keeps returning to her life. Oddly enough, I feel that there is a great missed opportunity here. Never before (to this extent at any rate) have we had companions who only travel with the Doctor part-time and spend the rest of the time making lives for themselves. And that’s what Amy and Rory do. Except they don’t. Not really. Oh, we’re told they make lives for themselves. We’re told several times in fact, but except in “The Power of Three” (a story not written by Moffat), we never see it. Even what we see in “The Power of Three” is but a small slice of their life that never gets expanded on at any other time. The focus remains squarely on the adventures. The thing is, it doesn’t take a lot to show those lives. Russel T Davies successfully showed the companions having lives without taking away from the adventure. There’s no reason why Moffat’s version of Doctor Who can’t do that as well.
In the opening of Series VII, “Asylum of the Daleks”, we return to the idea that a woman isn’t complete without a baby. We learn that Amy and Rory are getting a divorce. Of course, we never see any of the events leading up to this. We’re just unceremoniously told that it’s happening. Even the web-series “Pond Life”, which forms a prequel to the story gives no hints about any problems between Amy and Rory until the very final episode where it’s just tacked on with no explanation. It turns out that Amy’s sole reason for breaking up with Rory is because she can no longer have children. She knows that Rory wants kids, and since she can’t give him any, she is no longer worthy of him. This whole sequence is problematic in a large number of ways. First off, although it’s hard to say what is and isn’t out of character for Amy since she has had such poor character development overall, it still feels very out of character for her to get so worked up about such a thing (especially since losing her previous baby didn’t seem to affect her much at all). Second, that Rory didn’t know why she was breaking up with him speaks to huge communication problems in their relationship. Third, that she apparently never considers adoption or other means of having a child is mind-boggling. Worst of all though is that this revelation once again teaches that a woman’s worth lies solely in her ability to have a child. As soon as she loses that ability, Amy suddenly considers herself worthless. Of course, it’s all wrapped up by the end of the episode and they’re back together again. Amy learns that Rory still loves her and wants to be with her even if she can’t have a baby. They declare their love for each other and everything returns to the way it was. There are no consequences. These two people go from having a perfect relationship to almost divorcing to having a perfect relationship again in the space of forty-five minutes. The near-divorce is never mentioned again. Real people simply don’t work that way.
When Amy’s story finally does come to an end, she winds up trapped in the past (for once, though, it is her decision), living out an idyllic home life with Rory and even having a family. Although it’s not revealed in “The Angels Take Manhattan”, the web episode “P.S.” reveals that Amy and Rory do adopt a child eventually. While the final end is not as problematic as what comes before, she does have that same end that every woman has in Moffat’s view of the programme. As an aside, it's also interesting to note that Amy retains her last name, Pond, after marrying Rory. Except in two cases: In "The God Complex", when the Doctor is trying to break her faith in him, he refers to her as "Mrs Williams", and at the end of "The Angels Take Manhattan", her gravestone shows the name, "Amelia Williams". Quite a lot can be read into this.
Since Steven Moffat became showrunner, Amy and River have been very prominent characters, but they certainly haven’t been the only female characters. However, even the guest stars and smaller bit parts tend to follow this same sort of pattern when it’s an episode written by Moffat himself. Abigail in “A Christmas Carol” (an otherwise very good story) exists solely as a love interest for Kazran, unfrozen each year to go on a date with him and then frozen up again until she’s next needed (she is being kept frozen because of a disease that will kill her in just a few days time; she was put into suspended animation in the hopes that one day she could be cured). She does exert a bit of her own agency at the end when she insists on being left unfrozen to live out her last few days as she wants to. Of course, she only wants to spend them with Kazran.
Perhaps the most egregious example of the sexism in Moffat’s writing, however, comes with Madge in “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”. I go on quite a bit about Madge in my review of that episode, so I’ll keep it brief here (click here to read that review for further details). Madge is the epitome of a woman who has no existence beyond her family. She has two children and she is mourning for her husband whom she thinks is dead. Apart from her being a bad driver (something problematic in itself), we literally learn nothing else about her. Without her children and husband, she has no identity whatsoever. And she goes on to save the day simply because she’s a mother. She doesn’t even have to do anything heroic or make any real effort. She’s a mother, so she wins. As the Doctor says to her son, “Don’t you see? We’re weak, but she’s strong. She woman! She’s more than woman! She’s Mum!” This story also has another example of the man who follows the woman stalker-like until she marries him.
As I look back over all the Steven Moffat-written episodes of Doctor Who, both in his time as showrunner and during Russel T Davies’s time, I can find only one female character who does not fit this mould: Liz 10 in “The Beast Below”. She’s not a particularly well-developed character, but she does have her own agency and she is an active participant in the story rather than a passive one. But she’s one lone character amidst a sea of others who follow the pattern I’ve outlined in this essay. And in a sense, even she settles down with a family. It’s more of a metaphorical one in this case—the people she rules over as queen. I will fully admit, though, that in this case, I’m probably over-analysing. Liz 10 would seem to be the one shining exception to the way Moffat usually writes women.
One could argue that Oswin in “Asylum of the Daleks” doesn’t follow the pattern either. Personality-wise, she does seem a bit like another Amy or River as she speaks with the same kind of dialogue (full of sarcasm, snark, and wittiness); however, her story doesn’t end with either marriage or children. But, in a sense, the story we see of Oswin is already over when the episode starts. She’s been turned into a Dalek and just hasn’t accepted it yet. As Oswin is played by Jenna Louise Coleman, who is also playing the new companion, Clara, I can’t help but get the feeling we haven’t learnt all of Oswin’s story yet, and for that reason she can’t be listed as either conforming to the pattern or breaking it. I sincerely hope that Clara/Oswin will be a new, unique woman character, but I honestly doubt she will be.
There are two other female characters who may yet follow a different path: the Silurian Madame Vastra and her sidekick Jenny. Two more characters whose full stories have not been told yet. In fact, so far, we know very little about them, but we do know one thing that sets them apart from other Moffat women: they are a lesbian couple. But here we move into another area that is problematic in Moffat’s writing: the presentation of non-heterosexual couples. In short, they’re usually played for laughs (just take a look at “Vastra Investigates”, the latest prequel for the upcoming Christmas special). Moffat does have an opportunity with these two to redeem himself on two fronts, and perhaps “The Snowmen” will do so. Or perhaps their relationship is just a “phase” as Oswin puts it in “Asylum of the Daleks”. However, this is a topic for another essay.
When looking over Moffat-produced episodes that he didn’t personally write, there are some much better examples of women. Kate Stewart in “The Power of Three” is a good example. However, there are still an alarming number of problematic examples. Nefertiti in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” is a strong character throughout most of the episode, but then shacks up with the offensively sexist Riddell, giving the message that even powerful queens are tamed by a man in the end.
I think it’s important to note again that much of the problem comes from repetition. Many of the situations and characters I’ve listed above wouldn’t be quite so problematic if they were the only examples (although Madge in “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” would still be just as bad). There are many types of women in the world, and Doctor Who should show that, rather than presenting the same story arc every single time. I would note, however, that some of the problem also stems from the fact that Moffat is just not a good character writer. His male characters are frequently underdeveloped as well, although he does have a larger variety of male characters than female. He tends to rely a lot on stereotypes, and unfortunately, many of those are sexist stereotypes.
It’s also important to acknowledge the basic structure of the series. Doctor Who is about a man. An extremely brilliant man who saves worlds. He pretty much always has an assistant who is usually a woman. In this structure, it’s easy for gender inequality to occur—but that doesn’t excuse it. What it means is that writers must take greater care to avoid that inequality. Russel T Davies did it by giving the companions story arcs in which they learned and grew as people to become the equals of the Doctor, allowing them to save the world themselves and even save the Doctor on occasion. Steven Moffat seems to have forgotten that important addition. The article, “Gandalf and the Hero: Moffat vs. RTD” on Doctor Her sums up this idea nicely:
Where Davies’ Who said, “The Doctor is a brilliant dude, but his female friends, with a bit of practice, can be just as brilliant,” Moffat’s Who says, “The Doctor is a brilliant dude, and his girlfriends think he’s awesome for it.”
Some people will argue that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, that these examples of sexism are minor and that we shouldn’t worry about them. There are areas of the world where women have virtually no rights whatsoever. Compared to that, these “minor” examples of sexism are nothing. By making such a big deal over them, I am trivializing the real suffering of real downtrodden women. To that I say, yes, there are much, much worse examples of sexism and outright misogyny in the world. We most definitely should not ignore those problems. But just because something is worse somewhere else, doesn’t mean we should ignore problems where we are. I haven’t stopped watching Doctor Who because of these problems, but I have become aware of them and awareness can help lead to change when enough others become aware too.
Doctor Who is a series about a man who fights for the rights of the downtrodden. He stands up for the oppressed and protects them against the oppressor, and almost always in non-violent ways. The show should take after its main character in this regard. Doctor Who should be at the forefront of presenting characters from all walks of life: men and women of all races, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, and more. The show has never been perfect, and perhaps it never will be, but it has been better than it is now. And that’s just not right. While an occasional slip-up might occur, it should always be improving, not moving backwards.
In a few days time, “The Snowmen” will air, introducing us to the new companion, Clara. There will also be a new TARDIS console room set, a new title sequence, and a new version of the theme music. All this signals change. Perhaps that change will bring about a new way the show portrays women and minorities. While I have my doubts, I sincerely hope it does. Doctor Who deserves it.