Doctor Who’s Girl Problem

This is unabashedly not about books, but I feel I’ve written enough reviews about the lacklustre 50th Anniversary short stories to merit this non-sequitur.

I went into last week’s season finale with more optimism than I expected. Mostly because I genuinely like Clara, although I give the majority of credit for that to Jenna-Louise Coleman since writing-wise she might as well just be called Amy II. And don’t get me started on Amy. For all of the trumpeting about Amy’s importance, in the end she was little more than a sassy doll that Moffat got to dress up and objectify. Though Clara is little better in that respect, Coleman manages to carve a real character out of the scraps she’s thrown, while Gillan was content to tilt her head and widen her eyes for emphasis now and then.

So while the “Impossible Girl” plotline was a little infuriating, I was at least pleased with the character herself — even if I knew the unveiling of the mystery would be a disappointment.

And it was a disappointment.

Once again, the mystery isn’t about the character, since God forbid a woman in Moffat’s Who era be her own person, but of course is instead about saving the Doctor.

Let’s not forget such gems as Season 5’s finale, where Amy wishes the Doctor back into existence after he magically gets out of a prison that he couldn’t possibly have gotten out of and makes his supposed best friend and her boyfriend wait around for 2000 years to pull off an elaborate plan that doesn’t make any sense. Or Season 6 and… whatever the fuck happened there. Because naturally a young couple would be completely fine with losing their baby to a group who will bring her up as an assassin to kill their best friend because of reasons. No, no — let’s not go after her. Look how sassy and curly-headed she is right now! I’m sure she’ll be fine with her Stockholm Syndrome. Also she needs to marry the Doctor because of reasons.

Amy’s parents were wished back into existence and she barely bats an eye. Amy’s daughter is stolen from her and she barely bats an eye. But she’s willing to end her marriage because her torture at the hands of an assassin group means that she’s barren and her husband really wants kids. Oh, and she’s a model because God forbid Moffat pass up an opportunity to have Karen Gillan contort her body in slow-motion in front of a wind machine. At the end of the day, Amy’s life was not about Amy, just as River’s life is not about River.

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And now, quite sadly, Clara’s life is not about Clara.

Let’s be clear: Moffat is aware of the opinion that his female characters are deeply problematic. He’s railed against it, chortled about it and dismissed it as nonsense. So why, then, does he end yet another season with a female character whose only mission in life is to save the Doctor? It’s one thing if he disagrees that such an ending is sexist, it’s quite another to write it again and again ad nauseam. It’s as though Moffat cannot conceive of a climactic end that doesn’t require his female characters to reveal themselves as empty plot shells.

Because that’s the difference — Clara is fated to be the Impossible Girl. River is fated to kill the Doctor. Amy is fated to lead the Doctor through the “crack in the wall” plot. Any action that they take isn’t choice — it’s necessary and it’s forced.

Compare that to Rose in the Season 1 finale who didn’t have to go back for the Doctor, who didn’t have to become the Bad Wolf and who fought tooth and nail to make it happen. Clara merely has to hop in a time stream. Amy merely has to “remember” The Doctor. Rose’s mission wasn’t handed to her conveniently. She had to pry that fucking Tardis open with a truck and consume the vortex, which nearly killed her. Martha spent a year travelling around the world in order to be the catalyst for the (admittedly somewhat goofy) finale of Season 3. Donna has to kill herself to bring back the Doctor and, prior to that, is shown again and again how incredibly important she is. The choices of Rose and Martha and Donna were choices. And, more importantly, they had genuine lives outside of the TARDIS. We knew their families, we knew their jobs, we knew their outside interests.

Amy and Clara talk about families and jobs and friends, but we have no real connection to them. Even when the children Clara nannies for come aboard on an adventure, we still don’t get to know them. There isn’t a moment where the story sits them down and helps us bond. If anything, they’re made to seem like a couple of brats.

Companions are absolutely vital to Doctor Who — they are its lifeblood. They provide new stories and new possibilities. But if you keep writing the same women again and again and again, you don’t get anything new. Each season of Russell T. Davies’s era got a shot in the arm from a brand new and completely different companion. And then there were all of the great side companions like Jack or Mickey or Wilf or Jackie. Moffat’s Who, by comparison, just feels empty. These girls are here to look pretty and serve as convenient, but empty, plot catalysts.

The joy is gone from the show because the humanity is gone. Even with Jenna-Louise Coleman trying her damndest to create a funny, sassy, relatable and interesting character, she’s not given the kind of backstory or peripheral characters that are dearly needed to sell her properly. One scene where Clara talks to the kids about how hard it is to lose your mother would’ve been great. One scene where Clara talks to her employer about watching her Dad struggle with the loss of her Mother would’ve been great. Speaking of which — where is Clara’s Father? We don’t know because Moffat doesn’t care.

Because these female characters aren’t real people, and the show is suffering as a result.

But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. The irony is that it’s so absurdly simple to get this show back on track. Just develop Clara. Enough people like her that if we are introduced to her father or if we start to see her change and grow or if we just get more information about her life — her real life, not her “I was born to save the Doctor” non-lives — this will naturally lead to a richer and more interesting plot. What Moffat seems to be forgetting is that Doctor Who isn’t really about the Doctor — it’s about his companions because the companions serve as the eyes and ears of the audience. By virtue of the fact that the Doctor is not human, is 900+ years old and flies around in time and space, we can’t relate to him. We can like him, but he’s the show’s greatest mystery of all, which makes him hard to cuddle up to from a storytelling perspective.

But the companions ought to be full, complete and interesting people. Otherwise, why do we want to travel with them, and what do they bring to scenes or plots or episodes or seasons if they just walk around asking the questions that propel the plot forward? Martha asking Chantho to try using a sentence that doesn’t begin with “Chan” and doesn’t end with “Tho” didn’t really do much for the main story. But when Chantho dies, we care so much more because she had these little humanizing moments. That’s how little you have to do as a writer to get your audience to invest in a character.

This rant comes on the heels of the announcement that Moffat and Smith will be back for Season 8. I don’t have high hopes that Moffat has learned any lessons, and I wish Smith had at least been given one season with a new showrunner because his time as the Doctor does feel spoiled by all of these missed opportunities and inconsistent writing. But perhaps with the re-introduction of two-parter episodes (Season 7 tried an experiment where every episode was a one-off and I certainly hope they learned their lesson there), we will have more downtime to explore the characters and actually come to know them and like them.

Is it likely? Perhaps not for Moffat, but with any luck guest writers will have more room to explore and develop within their own two parters. And we can always keep our fingers crossed for Season 9.

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13 thoughts on “Doctor Who’s Girl Problem

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  6. so relived to find other people who didn’t like Amy as I was starting to worry I was the only one! You absolutely hit the nail on the head with her, she’s just so souless! Her reactions are abysmal and i swear her vacant pouty face nearly drove me to insanity! I’m getting tired of ‘feisty’ females being churned out like a factory production line. It’s like by Moffat has used ‘feisty’ in place of ‘personality’ but they really aren’t the same thing.

  7. I agree with what you’re saying, but surely it’s so much better that the companions actively save the Doctor as opposed to fulfilling the traditional “damsel in distress” role that is usually given to companions? And you’re totally right on Amy, but Clara’s “impossible girl” story arc is much more human because she was an ordinary girl who made a courageous decision to save the Doctor. The decision wasn’t taken out of her hands, as it was during the (rather disturbing) mystery of Amy’s pregnancy.

    • “Clara’s “impossible girl” story arc is much more human because she was an ordinary girl who made a courageous decision to save the Doctor.”

      But did she though? She was presented with it as a fait accompli. She knew that she would jump into the time stream because he’d already told her that he had encountered her at least twice before. It’s that chicken-and-the-egg thing that is so vexing about time travel stories. Can she really be said to have made the decision if she already knew the outcome? “Well, I must do this, because it’s already happened.”

      I like JLC as Clara a lot. I really do. And I love Alex Kingston. But I feel sad because these characters could be so much more, given a chance.

  8. I very much agree – though likely some will debate that the companions aren’t the main focus of the show, caring about the companions are critical for caring about what’s at stake when you get to travel in the Tardis. The Moffat era is intriguing, confusing, baffling, sometimes thrilling, occasionally touching. But I’m not nearly engaged with any of the characters he has created and I rarely care about re-watching his episodes. At no point in this season did I sense that the Doctor really cared about Clara beyond “solving her.” All the hugging was meant to display caring, I guess? That’s not good writing. I’m not sure that it means it’s sexist since it’s basically DW tradition for most companions to be female, but it is true his best developed companion to date is male (Rory).

  9. Doctor Who was, is and will always be about the Doctor, not about his companions, they are just necessary evil. I couldn’t care less about companions’ family backgrounds. It’s not a soap opera.

  10. Clara is like Bella from Twilight, only likable. She exists as a blank slate that only serves to fulfill a role, to save the Doctor.

  11. personally couldn’t care less for the sexism bit — it doesn’t strike me as sexist that all of moffat’s female characters are absolute crap, since his boy characters are equally shallow and horrible. crossing fingers he’ll just stop writing who.

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