Television

Steven Moffat’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf

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Here’s a thought experiment: think back on the epitaphs of the Doctor Who companions since the 2005 revival. Russell T. Davies gave us Rose, the “Bad Wolf”, Martha, “the woman who walked the Earth” and Donna, “the most important woman in the whole of Creation”. Current showrunner Steven Moffat has so far given us Amy, “the girl who waited” and Clara “the impossible girl”.

Notice a pattern? With Davies, they are women; with Moffat, they are girls. Of course, all of these could have been gender neutral. “The one who waited” works just as well as its canonical variant. But what we have is what we have, and what we have is a showrunner who seems incapable of imagining women who aren’t defined by their relationships to men.

Just a warning, though I will try to keep this as vague as possible, spoilers do hereafter be abound.

I’m not excusing Davies or saying he was a master of writing women. Neither Rose nor Donna could keep their powers, and needed saving from themselves by the Doctor after they’d saved the day. More so, Donna’s power was basically “being the Doctor for a few minutes”.

But when it came down to it, Rose, Martha and Donna were their own people whose existence was separate from the Doctor. Rose had her family and her alternate Earth. Martha got to be an MD advising UNIT and got a husband (pairing off the only two recurring black characters off-screen, mind you). And Donna returned to her old self and old life, getting married to…

Actually yeah, why is it that each of Davies’ companions shacked up with somebody at the end of their story? Rose had Tentoo, Martha had Mickey, Donna had That Guy, even Jackie had alterna-Pete. Except Sarah-Jane, I suppose. She’s too much of a bamf for a contrived last minute romance. Davies: women don’t need a man to live happily ever after, y’know!

But Moffat’s got it much worse. The lives of Amy, Clara, River Song and Queen Elizabeth I all revolve around the Doctor. Literally, their fates are all tied up in a timey wimey ball with a bow on top.

The Doctor meets Amy right after his regeneration into Eleven, and then she proceeds to wait about ten to fifteen years for him to show up again. After running away with him on her wedding night, she runs around time and space until she gets kidnapped so her magic time baby can be stolen by the baddies. After which, she finds out River Song was the magic time baby all along! Then the Doctor promises to rescue the baby and promptly doesn’t, leaving Amy to wait around and be a passive player in events until she’s forced to choose between the Doctor and her husband.

And when it isn’t about The Doctor, her life’s about Rory. There’s a whole ambiguous “does Amy love Rory or the Doctor” love triangle that serves as nothing but a source of angst for Rory. After their marriage at the end of Series 5, Amy leaves Rory because the whole magic space baby thing left her unable to conceive more children and she feels she’s “failed” him and is now unworthy of being his wife. And no, she doesn’t tell him any of this, and prefers to just shout and snark at the love of her life.

River Song was a character with a lot of promise. A woman who was just as intelligent, capable, funny, brave and adventurous as the Doctor who had some mysterious connection to him. She intrigued and enchanted us all with the way she’d smile and say “Spoilers, sweetie.”

So what’s the truth behind the myth? She’s the magic space baby, kidnapped and trained by The Silence specifically to kill the Doctor. Which she easily does, only to give up near on a dozen regenerations in order to save his life on the vague promise that she will love him some day. When the Doctor later fakes his own death, she is sentenced to life imprisonment for her “crime” and describes her life as waiting for the Doctor to come and take her on adventures.

To this day I think it’s a crime the Doctor never showed up on a planet about to fall into its sun, only to find out River had already saved the day and started a good old knee’s up to celebrate in the nearest pub.

Clara literally describes herself as “born to save the Doctor”. Another intriguing character, when we first meet Clara she’s a genius computer hacker able to both survive and thrive on a planet designed to harbour the most deranged, disturbed and unhinged Daleks. But she dies. Then she’s in Victorian London, not remembering the Doctor at all. Then she dies. So the Doctor turns up on her doorstep in modern day London, parks himself on her lawn and refuses to leave until she comes out of the house and talks to him. She’s charmed by this.

The truth of Clara is finally revealed in the end of Series 7. To stop the Great Intelligence from undoing all of the Doctor’s victories, Clara jumps into the Doctor’s timestream and goes back to every adventure the Doctor ever did and will undertake in order to save him and the day. And then the Doctor goes back in time to make sure Clara is born. Aside from undermining every victory, sacrifice, redemption and loss that every other character in the history of the franchise achieved so Moffat can make The Most Important Day #137 happen, this also ties the entirety of Clara’s existence to the Doctor. As with River, there is no Clara without the Doctor. At least she doesn’t die! Well, only because the Doctor saved her.

Good Queen Bess Gets Married

The Virgin Queen Gets Married…?

And then in the 50th Anniversary Special, The Virgin Queen herself is turned into a woman obsessed with the idea of marrying the Doctor, even after he insults her several times. Then she forced him into a wedding where he’s not exactly enthusiastic. And years after he’s left she still calls him “my beloved” in her letter to him, implying that he’s the reason she never married.

This isn’t just limited to Doctor Who either. In Moffat’s Sherlock, Irene Adler is a criminal of such ability, she can stump Sherlock himself. But she keeps texting and flirting with Sherlock, despite the fact that she faked her own death to go into hiding from the British intelligence services. And then it turns out it wasn’t Irene’s plan, it was Moriarty’s. Oh, and after she flees the country, Sherlock saves her life from Generic Middle Eastern Terrorists.

Moffat’s obsession with tying women’s lives and motivations to male characters is a storied and troubling trend. He refuses to allow female characters to stand on their own, to have true agency in their lives and the stories he tells. No amount of snark or assertiveness in his female characters can ever truly make up for that.

I could forgive the repetitive plotting, the obsession with creating “The Most Important Day” over and over again, the confusing and contradictory continuity, the casual disregard for past writers and showrunners, the reliance of a vaguely unknowable threat you can’t truly fight for every story of note, even the steady deterioration in quality since the end of Series 5. But not this. These aren’t strong female characters, these are Strong Female Characters™.

A good chap who frequently gets tea leaves stuck in his eyebrows.

1 Comment

  1. EK Blackwell

    July 7, 2014 at 1:19 PM

    You forgot something very important: all those “girls” broke out of those roles. The Doctor recognized that Amy was no longer a girl and said he must see her for who she is in “God Complex”. Amy herself used the line that she is no longer that “girl” and actually became a parental figure to the Doctor by Series 7. Clara broke out of her “Girl” role by Day of the Doctor and Time of the Doctor. You also forgot that River’s monicker/title has no Girl in it and never has but is based on her unique relationship with the Tardis. And if you hate “girl” so much than you need to stop watching Doctor Who because the Tardis since the beginning has been “The Old Girl”. So you don’t have to like the characters, but the facts are the facts. Shedding “girl” is part of their character arcs and no one who ignores that isn’t changing the facts about them. RTD had his own huge continuity errors (everything to do with The Time Lords, regeneration conflicts including with himself, the Master, humanity’s role in DW, interpersonal relationships, sexism, sex jokes etc.) but RTD haters can’t change facts either. Haters on anything can’t do that.

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