If Matt Smith jumped off a cliff, would you do it too? I wouldn’t. But I guess some people would.
It was this moment from ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’ where I thought…this is a bit shit, isn’t it? They created this really unnecessary high-stakes moment that has very little payoff, with the sole aim of forcing the Doctor’s assistant to put her life in his hands, again. It’s a mandatory bonding moment from which there is no possibility of escape. It made me think – who would be an assistant? Who are these women? What would have happened if she had not wanted to jump off that cliff?
That is actually a trick question- got you!! Because trusting the Doctor, not running away from danger, and not saying no are really fundamental qualities of the assistant. They don’t write them as people who would say “I’m not jumping off that cliff”, or “It looks a bit dark in there let’s stay out here”, or “Please stop stalking me through time and space.” I thought it was time to give some thought to what the Doctor-assistant relationship is, what function the assistant has on the show, how Doctor Who distributes personal qualities by gender, and why I now hate this lovely show that I used to love.
I should say that I haven’t seen a lot of old Who. I watched one series with Tom Baker and got literally nothing out of it. Nothing.
This being the internet, I am clearly leaving myself open to comments to the effect that if I had seen the 1972 series ‘Birthday Party of the Daleks’ I would see that Matt Smith’s take on the Doctor actually owes a lot to zzzzzzz. I’m ready for you, the internet.
Doctor Who is structurally sexist. It is about a male hero and his female sidekick. Moreover, the hero is an alien man with great power and knowledge who takes a younger, human woman away from her home and family and frequently puts her in situations in which she is out of her depth, upset or in danger. I don’t usually think about it that way- until the last few series I mostly just thought “Great, Doctor Who is on again!!”- but that is how power is divided between the Doctor and the assistant. It really didn’t bother me until Series 5, when Matt Smith took over as the 11th Doctor, Karen Gillen was introduced as the Doctor’s assistant, and Steven Moffat became head writer. I feel like something in Doctor Who has warped, and now the Doctor-assistant relationships makes me feel a bit queasy.
What do the five assistants featured on the show since 2005 have in common? Well…
- All are female.
- Four are white.
- Four are tv-thin, and the other is a little less thin.
- Four are in their late teens or early twenties.
- Three have obvious romantic feelings for the Doctor.
Something else that strikes me as interesting is that only one – that’s Martha – had been pursuing a career prior to being doctored. The rest are in transitional periods or stuck in menial work they don’t enjoy. This makes sense- a woman with fulfilling relationships with friends, a job she enjoyed or a great sense or purpose would be less likely to pack everything in and get into a spaceship with a stranger. There is nothing wrong with being in a transitional period, and nothing necessarily right about pursuing a career, but the show, especially in the Russell T Davies era, really likes to emphasise how sad it is to work in a shop, watch TV and eat chips. Accordingly, the Doctor is not seen to be targeting vulnerable or unhappy women, he is seen to be saving his assistants from a life of mediocrity.
The fact that the Doctor usually runs with relatively low achievers also means that these women rarely have useful skills to contribute to the fight against intergalactic evil, aside from the highly feminised skill of listening. It has always been the assistant’s job to connect with others- almost always other women and girls- on an emotional level.
It is often the case that while the assistant is off emoting somewhere, the Doctor is working on the technical or practical side of solving the episode’s big problem. This creates a super gendered division of labour in which the woman listens and cares while the man acts. While this was definitely already the case under Russell T Davies, this distinction between the man’s job and the woman’s job was less rigid. Rose, Martha and Donna are resourceful, tenacious and capable of acting independently of the Doctor. The Christopher Eccleston Doctor and the David Tennant Doctor form emotional connections and leave themselves vulnerable to loss and pain at various points- for example with Lynda in ‘Bad Wolf’, with Renette in ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’. They do big displays of emotion- the dying David Tennant Doctor’s furious rant about how he is not ready to die is a favourite of mine. Moreover, both of these Doctors are in a loving, affectionate and reciprocal relationship with Rose.
I can’t imagine Matt Smith’s Doctor loving someone any more than I can imagine Steven Moffat having done something to deserve access to clean air and water*. Steven Moffat is a man who thinks that women are so terrifyingly powerful these days that it’s getting really really hard to be a man. He wrote the bizarre, unfunny, sub-Friends festival of gender stereotyping that is Coupling, and the BBC’s Sherlock, a mystery show about a man whose emotionlessness and disdain for women are a source of power.
Under Moffat’s watch the Doctor has morphed from an alien who loves humans and feels their pain and experiences love and desire and empathy to a stunted, child-like and extremely bloody irritating space-goon who flaps about like an injured moth when other people’s emotions are making him uncomfortable. And makes sexist jokes about how women are scary. And wants his married companions to sleep in bunk beds. And can save human lives but does not seem to understand human feelings. Who would travel with this man? He might be zany and charming and have nice boots, but he is fundamentally cold and unrelatable.
I also think the role of the assistant has changed since Steven Moffat started overseeing Doctor Who. Rose, Martha and Donna were chosen to travel with the Doctor because they showed in one way or another that they were smart and up to the challenge. Amy and Clara both come to the Doctor first and foremost as mysteries. Amy is the little girl who grew up with a rift in time in her bedroom wall, who doesn’t know why she doesn’t have parents. She spends many episodes being mystically both pregnant and not pregnant but doesn’t know a thing about it and all our information about it comes through the Doctor. What the fuck is that?
Some version of Clara dies on screen twice before she is taken on as the assistant, and it seems like the Doctor takes up with her to find out why. In both cases, the woman is not of interest for her character or her abilities, but for some fundamental mystery in her being. The mystery isn’t even a secret she’s keeping, something over which she has control- it’s something she does not know about, that the Doctor must puzzle out in his own mind. It’s not about her- it’s about what’s wrong with her. When Steven Moffat took over Doctor Who, women became a problem.
It’s also interesting that Amy and Clara have no family. Rose, Martha and Donna all have family members who are featured in their series as named characters, and they end up back with them when everything is over. Amy and Clara’s home lives are marked by loss and absence. This makes them more vulnerable, more rootless, and more singularly devoted to the Doctor.
I was pretty grossed out but not really surprised when Clara is damsel in distress-ed in ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’. It reminded me of ‘Flesh and Stone’ and Amy, blind and totally defenseless, groping her way through the woods. The Doctor dehumanises Clara by calling her “salvage”, and the wardrobe department took care to dress her as a little girl. I don’t recall Rose, Martha or Donna being put in such a tight spot. Furthermore, though those three clearly have less know-how than the Doctor, they are at least resourceful and smart and good at taking independent action in a crisis, rather than stroppy or “fiesty” but without any real power, like Amy and, so far, like Clara.
Guys, why don’t I like Doctor Who any more?
The great challenge of the series used to be saving the universe, and that was really fun, but in Series 6 the challenge was saving the Doctor. We’re in the middle of the quite tedious enterprise of finding out his real name. This is not something I care about. We’ve also had two episodes recently dedicated to the T.A.R.D.I.S and sure, one of them was really great, but I like it better when the T.A.R.D.I.S was instrumental to the journey, rather than the focus of a 45-minute voyage of discovery.
In recent series the Doctor has become more powerful and more important relative to the assistant and relative to every other life form he encounters, not within the universe of the show but in terms of how his stuff is privileged over other people’s stuff, his life over other lives, in the structuring of the plot. Now, not only does he have the same powers, the same knowledge, the same spaceship that he always had, but he and his origins are now supposed to be the thing the viewer is interested in above all other things. Like Steven Moffat’s Sherlock, Doctor Who now feels like an icky tribute to the all-powerful man whom we all love.
I wonder if children still like Doctor Who. I have trouble following it these days, and I am an adult with many years of TV experience. Moffat has gotten rid of some of the naffer, more kid-friendly aliens like the Ood (I liked the Ood!) In fact in the three most recent episodes they made a big feature of not giving you a good look at the monster. They’re slicker and scarier and less rubbery than the Ood. As the monsters get more high-concept and understanding the plot starts to require a longer memory and a lot more patience, I wonder if Doctor Who hasn’t maybe become a bit charmless.
Doctor Who should be such a great show for children. It is strongly anti-violence, it has queer characters, a generally positive attitude to difference, and a lovely, mawkish humanism. The villains are often not aliens but bad humans, villainous colonialists or capitalists.
Doesn’t that sound great? Don’t you wish it would just keep on with that instead of aiming itself at its audience of typically male long-time superfans? I would love it if Doctor Who stopped trying to outdo itself aesthetically and conceptually and had a stab at moving forward in other ways, perhaps with a female Doctor and a male assistant. There are probably people who would get upset but unlike the year 5 billion*, it would not be the end of the world.
*Joking, I am. We all deserve access to clean air and water. But not to much beloved classic TV shows.
* Do you like my nerdy joke?
Postscript: for fans of bitter ranting, I have written a short follow-up to this piece, dealing largely with how it was received. You can find it here.