COMMENTARY | I love “Doctor Who .” I mean, I love it. It’s one of the few shows I’ll watch repeatedly, and it’s among a handful that hold my attention, utterly rapt. And now, with its pending return on Saturday, as reported by The Atlantic, a medium-sized grumble is echoing around the Internet about the portrayal of female characters, particularly under current show runner Stephen Moffat.
From the weirdness that The Doctor meets the female characters as children, who then grow to have a romantic interest in him after he leaves a lifelong impression, to the fact (spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen the Christmas special, “The Snowmen”) that there’s something a little superhuman about the women who surround the Doctor, the claim is that Moffat’s portrayal of women is somehow off, somehow demeaning.
And I say bull-Daleks.
I readily describe myself as a feminist. I’ve studied sociology of gender, and I’ve volunteered with feminist organizations. I’m also a fan of science fiction, and, pretty self-evidently, a writer. So let’s throw that all in the Bowl of Commentary and whisk it a little.
The Doctor, himself, as a character, is extraordinary, his adventures are extraordinary, and that premise alone requires, from a writing standpoint, a companion who makes sense within that context. That person can rise to the challenge, as Rose, Amy and Donna Noble did; or that person can be pretty exceptional to start, as was the brilliant Martha Jones; or that person could be “other” herself, like River Song and, apparently, Clara Oswin Oswald.
But a regular person who doesn’t adapt to the incredible universe with the madman with a box will be only one thing: dead.
I submit to you Rory Williams, who died exactly enough times to prove my point (the video contains many, many spoilers if you’re not caught up).
While meeting the female characters as children could be problematic if there was an overarching creepiness from the Doctor’s interaction with them, there isn’t. It’s utterly devoid of that. In fact, the guilt that the Doctor feels over not properly protecting the young Amelia — the child version of Amy Pond he always seems to differentiate — is one of his major character arcs.
Actually, objecting to these young girls all growing up with fixations on and ideas about the Doctor is, itself, a bit sexist. If romantic idealizations were all these characters were, then that would be one thing.
But who would not be obsessed with the man you met as a child who could travel through all time and space? He is the embodiment of possibility.
Basically, critics would forgo injecting reality into the narrative in favor of creating unflawed, cardboard female characters. It utterly ignores human nature. I still remember, for example, as a little girl, seeing the young George Clooney on “Facts of Life,” and as amazing as George Clooney may be, he’s no Time Lord.
Women, and the characters portraying them on television, should have the freedom to have crushes, to face fear and to act or not act, to have extraordinary talents or to succeed without them. In a way, these criticisms imply any imperfect portrayal of a female character is itself, problematic.
And, from a construction standpoint, adding mysterious characters like River and Clara is simply good writing, giving a layer of depth and overarching questions to make seasons feel like seasons and not stand-alone episodes.
People aren’t always perfect, and perfect characters make for boring, boring television. In the broader realm of entertainment, horrendous, cringe-worthy and demeaning portrayals of women abound. Gaggles of women compete for the attention of one man; professional women wear tiny skirts and sigh over, yes, men; women serve as eye candy and little else for, yes, men.
But not on “Doctor Who.” They’re not choosing a man, per se. They’re choosing the universe.