Midway through last year I began a long essay which was intended to be my definitive stance on Steven Moffat, Doctor Who, female characters and feminism. However, the post soon turned mammoth and I decided to cut my post in half. Besides, enough time has now passed that I feel I can objectively assess Clara’s character, particularly in light of Series 8. This post is part 2 of my original essay and explores my interpretations of River Song, Clara and Missy as either feminist characters or characters whose stories exhibit refreshing new ways of looking at, and representing, women on TV. There are spoilers for all of new Doctor Who. As usual, comments are welcome. Flaming, rudeness or idiocy is not. You can read the first part of the essay here.
Ah Professor Song. What an unexpected delight you proved to be. When I first saw River alongside Ten in the Moffat two parter Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, she made little to no impression, joining the ranks of people in s4 who became ‘the companions who never were.’ So little did she register on my character radar, I was left asking River Who? when she was announced as appearing in Time of Angels. From the opening few minutes of Time of Angels, the character felt fresh and revitalized: from her coy use of hallucinogenic lipstick, the peroxide blonde curls which she fluffed coolly to the confident way she knew that The Doctor beguiled would pick her up from space.So much did I grow to love River in series 5, I wrote an essay on her for my gender politics class in first year university.
River is such a refreshingly feminist character, I could write a book about it. Now nobody but the most die hard of Whovians have time for that, so I have made a list instead. Below the list are criticisms that people have of River and my responses.
Reasons Why River is a Feminist Character 101:
1. Alex Kingston is allowed to play an older, sexy, desirable woman, sometimes in a near lead part, alongside the youngest Doctor ever. For those who are thinking ‘so what?’ have you watched TV lately? When’s the last time you saw a sexy, older woman be allowed to be a sexy, older woman without the TV story harshing on her? Be honest now.
2. Following on from the last point, in a show about Doctor Who ie The Doctor ie white, male Brit actor, River is often smarter, wiser, more compassionate even, then The Doctor (well, she is a Pond). She spends a lot of her screen time making fun of The Doctor and solving problems he can’t solve. Lest we all forget the enormously entertaining time she told The Doctor to use his screwdriver to build a cabinet whilst she shot down The Silence. Some fans didn’t like this at all. To them I say, keep your sexist opinion to yourself. That kind of attitude says a lot about you and not a lot about Moffat.
3. River Song doesn’t care about rules or gender norms. River does things like date aliens with multiple heads to keep things interesting. River does things like shoot The Doctor’s fez because we all know it isn’t really cool. River does things like break out of prison all of the time in the most brazen way possible because why not? River does things like threaten to destroy the universe to save the person she loves because deep down you can’t keep a bad girl down. Remember Point No. 1? Alex was over 50 for all 13 episodes she appeared in. Just saying.
4. River Song is smart. She’s a professor of archaeology after all, and all of the best companions have a healthy respect for history (Evelyn Smythe). She runs rings around us ordinary folk. It must be a 51st century thing.
I could go on further but I feel like that covers the basics. Now, from what I read within fandom, most people didn’t have a problem with River as a sexist character initially. People disliked her because they weren’t fans of Alex or because they didn’t like River being depicted as The Doctor’s equal (oh the irony) or because they didn’t like the romance angle. This all changed with the dire yet utterly mad Let’s Kill Hitler and The Wedding of River Song in Series 6 which revealed that River was Amy’s child, stolen by The Silence to destroy The Doctor. River is redeemed by The Doctor in Let’s Kill Hitler after her attempted murder fails. She then refuses to follow through on fate in The Wedding of River Song, nearly destroying the universe in the process. People didn’t like this seemingly sudden linear approach to Doctor Who’s Time Traveler’s Wife take which seemed to indicate that River’s birth, childhood and adulthood had all been molded and shaped by The Doctor, in an echo of Amy.
I again repeat what I said in my first essay. That is one aspect of the story but it is not all of River. We do not see her life outside of the show which revolves around The Doctor as the main character. This is because the show is not the River show. It is The Doctor show. We do know that River has adventures separate to her life with The Doctor. Hence her relationships with unmet aliens and humans, her archaeological adventures (why was there no spin off?), her refusal to travel full time with The Doctor because the fun is in the not knowing when they’d next meet. It was interesting that River refused. Hardly the actions of someone whose entire identity revolved around The Doctor.
Besides, I feel people miss the point of River’s character arc in Series 6. Moffat’s Doctors aren’t about Gods and destiny ala RTD and Ten. Moffat’s Doctors are about being catalysts for change, about bringing out the best in humans so that they bring out the best part in The Doctor. River is stolen away as a baby and brainwashed to kill The Doctor. When she is outwitted The Doctor gives her a choice to choose a different way. He knows it. Because his first is her last. That doesn’t make River predictable. It gives her agency. Agency to claim any identity she wants as long as that identity is not one based on hate and anger. That isn’t about gender politics. It’s about humanism. And so we end up with series 5, 6.1, and 7.1 River who is bad ass and wild and sexy and and smart and blows shit up for fun. We end with post library River in The Name of the Doctor who gets her Doctor closure and… chooses to let go and accept her fate, fading away. River, you strong woman, I salute you.
After The nuanced Pond’s, Clara felt stale before she even got started. Though she had strong starts as Dalek Oswin in Asylum of the Daleks and as governess Clara in The Snowmen,, throughout series 7 she remained more of a plot device than a character. People choose to read this as Moffat’s propensity for sexism. I read it as Moffat’s propensity to write complex and detailed plots using characters like stiff set pieces to move plots forward. A story telling failing? Absolutely! Sexist? Harder to determine, not living inside Moffat’s head and understanding his intent.
From the Series 7 finale on, something strange and kind of magical happened. Clara became important. Really important. Not just pretty sidekick companion important to the plot because of reasons. Actually, meaningfully and powerfully important within the entire Who canon. First, it turns out she tells The Doctor to take that faulty TARDIS, second, she discovers his secret and sees all of him in a way no other companions have, thirdly, she makes The Doctor see a way to go back and prevent himself from committing genocide to end the Time War, fourthly, she is one of the only companions to see The Doctor’s childhood, even offering him words of comfort about fear and creatures under your bed, fifth, she BECOMES the freaking Doctor in the excellent Flatline, sixth, she manages to prolong near certain cyber death in Death in Heaven by pretending to be The Doctor, earning Jenna Coleman the privilege of being the first ever companion to have her name come before the actor playing The Doctor in the opening credits, seventh, she spends all of series 8 telling and showing The Doctor that she won’t be bossed around by him, spending many episodes solving alien problems herself before The Doctor gets near them. So unexpectedly important has Clara become in The Doctor’s life, a friend of mine has re-titled the show and her, Clara Who?
That doesn’t excuse the woeful Series 7. Or the limp injection of the Danny/Clara story line into series 8, and the poor writing that created these messes. By the same token, it doesn’t make Clara a sexist character. It makes her a partially poorly written one. In Series 8 she becomes more though: control freak, passionate lover, angry avenger, teacher, problem solver and most importantly, a close friend. It helps that Jenna is an excellent actress. I’m not entirely sold on Clara as a character, but I do think we should acknowledge the audacity of Moffat making her the unexpected linchpin of the show. Hardly a sexist move.
I admit, I am not objective when it comes to Missy. I was in love from the second she manically spun around her creepy version of Heaven in Deep Breath.
People have made lots of dumb claims about Missy on the internet. How dare Moffat change a Time Lord’s gender some say. Fuck off, sexist twits, I say. This post sends up some choice examples of the idiocy and is entertaining to boot. Others complain that Moffat is a sexist pig because as soon as he started writing a female Master she flirted with The Doctor. I admit, I feel vaguely sorry for these people. Have they read fanfic.net? Livejournal? Tumblr? Oh bless, have they ever seen a single canon Master story? People have been slashing this pairing for years, and um yes folks, that means shipping Doctor/Master same sex (oh the horror!). Still others (I believe MarySue was one of them), complained that a female Master merely served to mock fans who want a female Doctor and have no hope of getting one. This is so unfounded I can’t even. Unless you are determined to hate on Moffat in the face of all evidence to the contrary, it is evident that he is trying to push the possibility of a female Doctor on to many fans radars. Not everyone has thought about it as much as the rest of us have. Some people are dead against it. Change needs to be introduced slowly. Hence Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife, which revealed Time Lords can switch gender, the Missy gender change reveal, and the conversation at the end of Death in Heaven where Clara suggests to The Doctor that he could return home to be a Queen rather than a King and he agrees with her. If The Doctor is cast as a female next regeneration, I will be mocking half of the internet. I told you so.
Michelle Gomez is great as Missy and I am glad that she is playing a more Delgado style Master. I like that she is chillingly evil and like a deranged Mary Poppins at the same time. I like that her reason for her plan was the most interesting plan a Master has had in years. I like that she manipulates humanity and The Doctor with lies and deception the same as every other Master before her. Her gender has changed, but if anything, she felt the most masterish for a long time. Poor Moffat. He casts the best person for the role (and across the internet and fandom it’s pretty widely acknowledged that Michelle was the best person for the role) and writes the character in a way that doesn’t depend on gender stereotypes (If you can’t see that The Master/Doctor nose kiss was about power, I give up) and people still accuse Moffat of Missy sexism. The poor man can never win.
Look, it’s no secret that I dig Moffat Who. I think that his stories are richer and subtler and more nuanced than RTD’s. I think that he dares to be audacious and break audience expectations. I think that he dares to push boundaries. I think that he dares to make unpopular decisions for the sake of stories with wide appeal. It’s also no secret that I think my faves, including Moffat, can be problematic. The second half of series 6 and series 7 is best never mentioned again, OK?
However, I don’t think my fave is problematic because he writes sexist characters. I think he writes roles for women which push TV boundaries. I think he sometimes manages to write feminist characters, and actually, the score is that he writes them on Who more often than not.
I passionately believe that Moffat is problematic because his ambitions don’t always fit the television medium and his crack makes it from the page to the screen without a filter. I passionately believe that Moffat can be unintentionally problematic about his characters because he writes complex plots and forgets how to characterize.
I also passionately believe that Moffat is not sexist. I passionately believe that Moffat Who is one of the most unexpectedly feminist shows on TV, and that the internet heat is mostly a lot of ill informed and poorly contextualized hot air. And this essay has ended without even mentioning the lesbian relationship between a lizard alien and a human woman…
I am feminist and I really, really, really love Moffat Doctor Who. I’m done (re)explaining why.