Bowties Are Cool, but So Are Kickass Female Characters

(AP Photo/ Donald Traill)

Actors Matt Smith and Karen Gillian are seen on location filming "Doctor Who" in New York on Wednesday, April 11, 2012.

For fans of the BBC’s reboot of the long-running sci-fi series Doctor Who, the beginning of season seven this September has a lot on offer so far: The Doctor in full badass hero form, a new potential sexy genius Companion, dinosaurs on spaceships, and Daleks, the villains that have been fan favorites since nearly the beginning of the series. The show, which had its first impossibly long run from 1963 to 1989, got a reboot in 2005. The new version, while retaining the goofy time-travel plots and the monster-of-the-week elements, has a 21st-century spin. In the years between the first and second series, comic-book movies had become summer blockbusters. Battlestar Galactica and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had shown that superheroes and spaceships could make for critically acclaimed television. The new Doctor Who positions itself in this world of geek chic. 

Showrunner Steven Moffat, who also runs the rebooted and modernized Sherlock Holmes series and took over Doctor Who in season five, has doubled down on tinkering with the show to make it more appealing to mainstream audiences. To do so, he decided to turn down the volume on sci-fi cheese and inject more story lines about love, family, and romance. While this idea appeals in the abstract to many feminists who want the world of sci-fi and fantasy to stop being so decidedly dudely, many feminists have strong objections to how Moffat went about it. His strategy was to take the Doctor’s new companion, a character role on the show that is traditionally all about wide-eyed curiosity and boundless courage, and turn her story line into one about getting married and having babies. 

Ever since Amy Pond first set foot onscreen, feminist fans have complained that Moffat created a fun character, gave the role to off-the-charts charming actress Karen Gillan, and then turned her into a passive object whose main job is to be married off to her simpering boyfriend Rory Williams. To make it worse, the relationship fits neatly into what feminists have deemed the "nice guy" narrative: That if a man hangs in long enough and shows enough devotion, a woman is pretty much obliged to be with him, even if her heart isn’t in it. Last year, Sady Doyle wrote the definitive piece detailing feminist objections to any and all stories about the Pond marriage:  

The moment the Doctor found out about Rory, the importance of time-traveling adventures decreased radically. Instead, the Doctor became a matchmaker and alien fairy godmother, single-mindedly devoted to making sure that Amy overcame her ambivalence about Rory and married him straight away. He referred to this process as “getting [Amy] sorted out.” From henceforth, both the Doctor and the show have been cramming every bony, whiny inch of Rory down our throats, in a doomed attempt to convince us that he is awesome.

She also objects to how often Amy plays the damsel in distress, including one story line where we discover that the real Amy has been kidnapped and replaced with a fake Amy by a group of terrorists who want to steal the Ponds’ baby. 

The Ponds marriage is annoying, and the baby-stealing episode gave Amy little to do besides be pregnant and then be victimized. Still, I don’t really believe that Moffat went the romance-and-babies route with the plot primarily to make some grand comment about women’s role being in the kitchen instead of on the spaceship. Instead, I believe Moffat is trying to deal with another, more honorable theme, which is what it means to be a family. See, one of the ongoing aspects of the Doctor’s character is that he’s a man who, despite his many friends, still feels alone and adrift in the universe, in no small part because he doesn’t have a family. So, Moffat’s grand scheme, it seems, was to have the new companions of the Doctor actually become his family. Indeed, the Doctor can be seen as literally creating the family he doesn’t have, albeit unintentionally.

What Sady doesn’t mention in her essay, but I believe pulls the entire thing together, is that the baby that is stolen from Amy in the kidnapping scheme grows up to be River Song, the wife of Doctor Who, and a woman who cannot be mistaken at any point for a wilting flower. Taken together, what we’ve seen in the past two seasons is this: The Doctor picks Amy Pond when she’s a child and functionally “raises” her to be the kind of person who wants to travel with him. Then he pressures her to get over her objections to marriage and bring her husband onboard to travel with them, an action that results in the conception of the Pond’s daughter, who then grows up to be the Doctor’s wife. All these contortions make sense because the Doctor travels back in forth through time like most of us drive back and forth to work.

Indeed, while the Ponds are technically the Doctor’s in-laws, onscreen they read like his adoptive parents. They scold him lovingly and bitch him out for not visiting more. They also present River and the Doctor to each other at their wedding. The crib that the Doctor gives the Ponds for their daughter—his future wife—is also the crib he slept in as an infant. In the short webisodes released last week, the Ponds have typical parent-child struggles with the Doctor, including having to remind him to knock before entering their bedroom in the middle of the night. In Saturday’s episode, the Doctor’s struggles with the Ponds felt familiar to anyone who has moved away from his or her parents, from the complaints that he doesn’t visit enough to the gnawing realization that he will eventually have to bury these people he loves dearly.

Taken from that angle, the Doctor’s urgent need to keep Amy and Rory together reads less like, to quote Sady, “one white, straight guy bending time and space to help another white, straight guy get laid,” and more like the reaction of a grown child who doesn’t want his parents to break up. Moffat fails by not imagining a more active role for women in this family creation, but he should be praised for wanting to give depth to this traditional sci-fi series by introducing the theme of family as a bulwark against loneliness. Under Moffat, the story of the Doctor has been about how even this man who can leap through all time and space still wants to have a pair of loving parents to go home to. The Pond marriage was an experiment in blending romantic comedy, domestic drama, and sci-fi into one series; that it will wind down with the Doctor creating a pair of loving parents who just happen to be about 900 years younger than he is suggests that Moffat succeeded in this mission.  

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