Is Doctor Who Bad for Women?

Is Doctor Who Bad for Women?


Lost is in reruns until tomorrow, which means I had an opportunity write a post of epic length about my latest sci-fi obsession.  This piece will cover seasons 1-4 and the first episode of season 5 of the 2005 Who series.  Unlike Fenzel’s excellent Who piece, which can be understood by the uninitiated, this piece is full of SPOILERS. If you haven’t caught up on seasons 1-4 yet, best ye stay out.  Everyone else: enjoy.


Doctor Who just started up again on BBC America* with a new season, a new show-runner, new cast, new TARDIS… a new everything.  My two word review of the season opener: “Molto bene.”

*PROTIP: Don’t watch it on BBC America.

Of course, not everyone had the same positive reaction I did.  Some didn’t like the new Doctor (incorrect), most hated the new theme song (so did I), and others were concerned that the plot was a retread of “Smith and Jones” and “The Girl in the Fireplace” (rightly so).  Mostly, there was a lot of conversation about Moffat’s decision to make Amy, the Eleventh Doc’s new Companion, a kissogram.  What’s a kissogram? you ask.  Well:

It’s a fair cop.

Yes, the Doctor’s new Companion, for all intents, is a stripper.  (Talk about sentences you never thought you would write!)  Naturally, questions arose, the main one being, “Is this sexist?”  Personally, I thought making Amy a kissogram was a pretty awesome choice that said more about her character and about her relationship to the Doctor than about the show’s feelings about women in general.  Still, the question is a fair one.  It’s like the old Zen koan, “Is Showgirls sexist?” On the one hand, you could read Showgirls as a criticism of the sex industry and how it destroys women.  On the other hand:


Anyway, according to some of the forums I read, not only was Amy’s character sexist, but Steven Moffat was sexist, and the new Doctor Who in general was sexist, and I thought, “Ooh, thems fightin’ words!”  Ah, but fightin’ words that led to a great question:

In general, is the new Doctor Who bad for women?

My answer: Possibly.

Part 1: Doctor Who: A wish-fulfillment fantasy for nerdy girls, or, In the World of Firefly, “Companion” Means Prostitute

Consider the following story.

Far away from here, but not too far, there’s a fairly average girl living a fairly average life.  She’s attractive enough, and she’s no idiot, but, for all intents, our heroine is a normal person with a normal family, normal friends, and a normal life.

And she hates it.

Lucky for her, it’s not going to last long.  Just then, who should arrive in her life but a supernatural mystery man who ushers her into a new, magical life she could not previously access.  Despite his attractive exterior, said mystery man is actually more than a hundred years old, and, for some unknown reason, he enjoys hanging out with this much younger woman and drawing her into potentially-fatal situations.  Our heroine loves it—loves him.  As their adventures continue, their relationship quickly evolves (devolves?) into a deep intimacy (disturbing co-dependence?).  Even so, our mystery man and heroine don’t actually have sex with each other.

Let’s play a game.  Name the mystery man.  Name the heroine.

Hum the theme song… now.

Okay: answer time!

Did you say the Ninth and Tenth Doctors?  Did you say Rose Tyler?  Yeah, those answers work, I guess.  But I wasn’t thinking of them.

I was thinking of Edward Cullen.  I was thinking of Bella Swan.

I was describing Twilight, people.  FRIGGING TWILIGHT.

This worries me.

Our sparkly doctors beat your sparkly vampires.

This worries me because most adults agree that Twilight fairly regressive when it comes to its views on gender and relationships.  Could it be that Doctor Who is just as bad?

Possibly.  Both Twilight and Who are stories of adolescent female wish fulfillment.  In male wish fulfillment fantasies, the reader gets to imagine himself leaving home and becoming part of a larger society or story: he becomes a leader of the rebellion, for example, or long-lost heir to the throne.  In the kind of female wish fulfillment fantasy represented by Twilight and Who, the reader/viewer gets to imagine herself leaving home not to join a larger society but to give up her responsibilities.  For once, she doesn’t have to worry about her family obligations or her job or protecting her virginity.  She doesn’t have to do much of anything, actually.  She just has to give herself over to the story and its hero and let them both take over.

[Somewhat-related aside: Interestingly, in this fantasy world, sex between the two main characters doesn’t actually occur—or, at least, not before marriage in the Twilight universe.  But that makes sense, doesn’t it?  This is an adolescent female fantasy.  This is the fantasy of a person who is both intrigued by and frightened of sexuality.]

Like our pal Stokes, you can argue whether such female adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies are good or bad for women, but I think we can all agree that the first season of Who fits snugly into this mold.  Rose’s life is boring and full of responsibilities—to her crappy job, to her mother, to her boring boyfriend—until she gets swept off her feet and into a TARDIS.

I think we can also agree that in Doctor Who’s season one and in Twilight, there are some strange, gendered power dynamics going on.  In Twilight, Edward gives orders; Bella takes them.  In Who, the Doctor orders; Rose cheerfully obeys.  Edward (the Doctor) fights; Bella (Rose) either acts as a help-mate or waits to be saved.  Edward (the Doctor) controls the tenor and direction of his relationship with Bella (Rose); Bella (Rose) dotes.  The only major difference there is that Edward is a bit (understatement) more sexually intense than Eccleston’s Doctor is.  When Edward controls his relationship with Bella, he makes it more obsessive—sneaking into your non-sexual girlfriend’s bedroom and watching her sleep tends to do that.  The Doctor, of course, does exactly the opposite: keep Rose at arm’s length.  But both guys decide when the relationship starts, when it will end, when sex will occur (if ever)… everything really.  These two relationships are clearly lopsided, and the power rests firmly in the hands of the men.

So, is the new Doctor Who sexist?  Yep.  Looks like it.

Yes, it is.

Wait, is it?

Well, possibly.

No.  No, absolutely not.  Never in a million years.


No, I refuse to believe that Doctor Who is sexist.  I don’t know about Twilight, but the new Who is far too clever for that.  No, for all their similarities, there is a difference between Twilight and Who: a major difference—a difference so enormous and so charged that it separates Twilight and Who into two universes that can never, ever touch.

ON PAGE TWO: My straw man meets its match.

Part 2: The Education of Rose Tyler

Don’t get me wrong: I love the new Who’s first series—Eccleston grew on me like whoa, and the end of “The Doctor Dances” probably merits a place on my list of “Best Things in the History of Ever.”  But the second series beats the first because that is when the show develops the big, huge, monumental thing that separates it from Twilight: self-awareness.  The first season introduced a relationship with little comment; the second season comments.  In order to avoid making this overly-long post overly-longer, I made some charts.


Click to embiggen.

As a point of comparison, here’s a pro and con chart for Edward Cullen, according to the Twilight series:

Many readers of Twilight will think of their own “cons”—for example, I don’t like my men pubescent and sparkly.  But those negatives don’t go on the list because they are not mentioned within the text.

I hope you can see the difference between the two charts.  Edward’s flaws are rarely acknowledged by Twilight, which makes sense when you consider the books’ narrator.  The new Who, on the other hand, seemingly spends half of its time reminding Rose (and us) of the Doctor’s pretty major flaws, lest she (and we) fall for him too deeply.

It doesn’t work, needless to say!  But let’s give Davies and co. points for trying.


By constantly commenting upon the negative aspects of  Rose and the Doctor’s relationship, season two sets up Rose’s story less as a Twilight counterpart and more as a sister to the film An Education.  I’m not going to spoil An Education for you if you haven’t seen it, but the moral of the story is something along these lines: “If, when you are around college age, an attractive, worldly older man asks you to travel around with him, be careful.  We’re not saying ‘don’t go’—after all, a trip with such a learned man will surely help you broaden your horizons, try new things, become independent of your parents, tear yourself off the rails society has set you on since birth, help you learn what you do and don’t want out of your next relationship: in other words, grow up a little.  If you’re lucky, you can use this opportunity to forge your own identity.  But you can find yourself getting wrapped up in the guy’s identity, too.  And, trust me, he’s not as perfect as he looks.”

Also, Carey Mulligan is totally in both of them!

Is this a feminist moral, a regressive one, or what?  I don’t know.  Both?  Neither?  It just sounds like life to me.  Young women change their life paths all the time to follow some guy.  Twilight suggests that this is a completely good thing—true love and all—while Law and Order: SVU says this story will always end in a rape-murder.  Doctor Who, like An Education, gives a more nuanced vision of this type of relationship, and I think a more realistic one.

NEXT UP: Gender + Religion = Even More Confusion.

Part Three: The Gospel According to Martha Jones

Here’s the other big difference between Who and Twilight.  Edward isn’t all that different from any other teenage boy in the world, so when he bosses Bella around, and she takes it, it grates.  Because, seriously, she does not have to follow him around like a puppy-dog or risk destroying space-time.  On the other hand, when the Doctor bosses his female Companions around, you can’t really blame them for obeying.  Dude’s a nine-hundred-year-old super-genius who lives in a time machine.  What, are you not going to listen to him when he says, “Reverse the polarity?”  Please.  Edward Cullen is a teenage boy who drinks blood sometimes; the Doctor is two steps away from a god.

The third season’s constant references to the Doctor’s pseudo-godhood puts a whole new spin on the show’s gender dynamics.  In my head, there’s another epically-long post waiting to be written about Who’s feelings about spirituality and science and faith and logic, but let’s cut to the chase: Doctor Who is not about Jesus or God or Christianity but it is most definitely a Gospel.  It is a televised Bible written by a gay atheist about the dual gods of science and faith in humanity.  Season three is secretly called the Gospel According to Martha Jones.  For the first twelve episodes she acts as the savior’s disciple, and in the thirteenth episode, she spreads the Word—the Word being “Doctor.”

Jesus pose, WHAT?!

Let’s say that, like Jesus, you happen to be part-god and part-man.  It’s tricky, ‘cause you have to keep a balance.  Try to scoot too far over to the “god” side and you become a crazy-evil sumbitch.  Yet, if you give up that god side entirely, humanity is doomed.

So how do you strike that balance?  Well, if your name happens to be Jesus, you hang out with humans a lot.  Call ‘em disciples, call ‘em Companions—same diff.  In recent years, the Doctor has taken to hanging out with only one Companion at a time, typically a woman.  The Companion is a disciple, a friend, but never an object of romantic love or sexual desire.  I’m going to go so far as to say that each Companion fills the role of the Virgin Mary or a non-sexual Mary Magdalene to the Doctor’s Christ.  The man’s half-god, but the Companion-Apostle keeps him anchored to humanity and to the Earth.  (And, as far as the Doctor knows, his Companions really are virgins.)

If the Companion represents the Doctor’s Virgin, does he also get a whore?  Well, sorta.  In season three, we see a lot of scary, sexualized female villains: the hot spider-mama in “The Runaway Bride” (who interestingly mocks Donna for not being married); the sexy young witch from “The Shakespeare Code”; and, most obviously, the Master’s bizarro-Companion, Lucy Saxon.  And, although she’s not sexualized like the others, we also get an anti-Madonna in the figure of Francine Jones, Martha’s pain-in-the-ass mother who sells the Doctor out to the Master and ends up getting completely screwed for her efforts.

In theory, then, you could probably write a post about how the new Who, Shakespeare-style, surrounds its fascinating male lead with a bunch of sweet Companion-virgins and evil villain-whores.  But that argument would A) require you to overlook the more complicated psychologies of the Doctor’s female Companions and B) require you to overlook season three’s “Human Nature/Family of Blood” two-parter—a story I like to call “The Last Temptation of the Doctor.”

This will surely last.

As in the film “The Last Temptation of the Christ,” “Human Nature/Family of Blood” shows a god-figure being tempted by his human side and visions of a normal life with a woman.  In “Human Nature,” we see the temporarily-human and memory-less Doctor falling head over heels for Joan Redfern, a character who is neither virgin nor prostitute, and yet a little of both.  In other words, she’s an adult woman.  At the end of the episode, “John Smith” is asked to choose between Joan and Martha, between his human life and his god’s life, between love and duty.  Most intriguingly, the episode explicitly frames this choice in sexual terms: Son of Mine demands that John choose either his “maid” or his “matron.”  Technically, the word “maid” refers to the fact that Martha is literally pretending to be a maid (with a feather duster and all), and “matron” refers to the fact that Joan is literally a school nurse, but the sex-oriented double-meaning is very evident.

This episode is merely one example that proves that Who is not a simple story of a Jesus figure surrounded by a series of evil whores and one virgin Companion but a story of a Jesus-figure given a series of near-impossible choices that have to do with women, sex, and mortality (which are, of course, interrelated concepts):

OPTION 1: Completely give up the human side, the virginal Companion/Disciple, and the would-be wife.  This option is a non-starter; we get the impression that without “the love of a good woman,” the Tenth Doctor simply go mad.  (Which kind of happens in The Waters of Mars, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.)  Long story short, without Companions around instead of this

we’d have to deal with this guy all the time:

Bad idea for all parties, I think.

OPTION 2: Strike a balance between the human side and the god side.  Keep the virginal Companion, but lose the wife.  This is the option the Doctor chooses, but it clearly has its drawbacks: no sex, no true love, no children, no mortality.  He can save the Earth but never be part of it.  He’s always a visitor, an alien.  And since Gallifrey was destroyed, that means he’s always alone.

OPTION 3: Completely give up the god side and the virginal Companion/Disciple; become a human and get married.  Get the wife, get the sex, get the love, get the children, get the mortality.  Become a true part of the real, physical, human world.  This is the option and temptation proposed in “Family of Blood”; the Doctor rejects it.

OPTION 4: Instead of being half-god and half-human, try to be full god and full human at the same time.  Use the godlike TARDIS to take over the Universe.  At the same time, indulge your human side by boning your Companion.  This is the option the Master chooses in the season three finale, and it’s shown to be really icky.  The Master managed to take a Companion-Virgin and make her into a true prostitute, a woman who let him live out his sexual fantasies in exchange for her life.

Somewhat-related musical interlude!

The Master may like Option 4, but the Doctor never considers it for one of two reasons.  Either he’s sublimated his sexuality so thoroughly that it is physically impossible for him to look at his Companions “that way,” or he’s incredibly aware that the lopsided power dynamics would make boning a Companion super-creepy.  Either way, Option 4 is off the table.  For now.

NEXT UP: Doctors are from Mars, Donnas are from Venus?

Part Four: The Yin and Yang of the Doctor-Donna

Hold the Jesus phone for a sec.  Let’s take a moment to inspect Donna Noble.


Thank god for season four, because if Davies et. al had offered up yet another “Companion with a crush” story, I think we’d all scratch our eyes out.  Where the first three seasons of the new series told the tales of two lopsided relationships, the fourth season was the story of two kinda-equals who complemented each other in a very yin-yangish way.  Oh, look!  A chart!

I think we can agree on most of these points.  (If not, please criticize below in the comments.)  I am not saying, of course, that the Doctor is never warm, or that Donna doesn’t have any darkness in her—that’s what the dots inside the yin-yang are for.  The Doctor and Donna make such a great team because they bring out in the other what they already have in themselves.  With the Doctor around, Donna gains some confidence, uses her super-temp logic to solve some episodes, and learns to make some tough “big picture” decisions.  Donna, more than any other Companion, keeps the Doctor grounded in the here and now, gives him an earful when he starts getting too coldly utilitarian, cuts him down to size when his ego gets too large, and gives him hugs after he’s mind-raped and almost killed by an angry mob.

(There’s also some indication throughout this season that the Doctor and Donna don’t only represent themselves and their conflicting philosophies but that they also represent a metaphorical “father-mother” pairing.  The entire season focuses on surrogate parenthood: “Partners in Crime” is about an intergalactic nanny; “The Fires of Pompeii” sees Donna becoming a symbolic “mother” to a Pompeiian family; “The Unicorn and the Wasp” features an abandoned child; “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead” shows Donna raising a false, computer-generated family; “The Doctor’s Daughter” is self-explanatory.  In this season we also see a lot of Donna’s mother, who is presented as a shrew who takes her own inferiority complex and bitterness and grief out on her daughter.  This focus on the family becomes nearly explicit in “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End” two-parter, where the Doctor is implied to be the father of his “Children of Time,” meaning all of his past Companions.  It’s also implied, more subtly, that Donna represents the mother to the Doctor’s father.)

The Doctor-Donna idea reaches its final, climactic form in the season finale when Donna literally becomes half-Doctor and a Doctor clone is made with some Donna mixed in.  It turns out to be a pretty good mix, for a time: hybrid vigor allowed Donna to temporarily be smarter than the Doctor, because her human emotions and creativity gave her ideas that logic alone couldn’t provide, and Clone Doctor, while not perfect, had enough humanity to finally settle down and allow himself to enjoy a happy, domestic life.

The show doesn’t allow Doctor-Donna to last, sadly, and the separation leaves both parties in a shambles.  Left without memories of her time with the Doctor, Donna reverts to her old shrill self: a woman with so little self-confidence and interest in the rest of the world that she spends most of her days viciously gossiping about celebrities.  Left without Donna’s tempering influence, the Doctor goes to Mars and goes a little nutso.

We’ve seen this story before throughout the ages.  Men and women are different in clear, binary ways—one’s the yin, the other’s the yang—but they need each other, too.  The underlying assumption is that women by themselves are too emotional and weak-willed to get anything done, which is why they need men to run the planet.  At the same time, those men need the love of a good woman like Joan Redfern and Donna Noble to round out their rougher edges, especially by softening their supposedly-sharper intellects.  This idea can be seen in “Midnight,” a story explicitly about how cleverness without compassion can lead to disaster.  Tellingly, this episode barely features Donna at all.  If the compassionate mother figure were around, the Doctor wouldn’t have gotten himself into that kind of dire trouble.

Reducing men and women in this fashion is pretty sexist any way you slice it.  And yet, it doesn’t bother me all that much in Doctor Who’s season four.  Again, that probably has to do with the fact that Donna and especially the Doctor are so well-drawn in this season that I never got a “Men Are from Gallifrey, Women Are from Earth” kind of vibe.  Instead, I got a “This is What Donna is Like, and This is What the Doctor is Like” vibe.  Their genders seemed mostly incidental to me.

My reaction to season four also has a lot to do with the re-imagining of Martha Jones.  This season finds her completely over her crush on the Doctor, and she’s become the badass Spock we always suspected she could be.  With her somewhat cold but efficient intelligence, Dr. Jones throws a wrench into the “men are intelligent but evil/women are compassionate but weak” dichotomy.  (Though you could make an argument that this is still sexist, seeing as Martha couldn’t fully realize her badass potential until she was trained by the Doctor.  But, ehhhhh, I don’t know.  I think the fact that she was left to fend for herself as a resistance fighter during the Year That Never Was had a lot more to do with it.)

ON THE LAST PAGE: We discuss the writings of Steven Moffat, and conclusions.

Part 5: Little Moffat’s Misses

My knowledge of Steven Moffat comes solely from Who, along with one episode of Coupling, which I found amusing in that “boy, are men and women different!” sort of way.  His episodes in Who’s first four seasons were the big highlights, although I must admit I found “Blink” a bit overrated and “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead” a bit underrated by the fans.

Fans around the Internet have recently been coming out against Moffat as a sexist, though I think some of those arguments are a bit much.  Yes, Sally Sparrow is a fairly passive, undeveloped character, but so is every other non-Doctor person in that episode, male or female.  Nancy from “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances” is a badass as far as young women in the 1940s go, and I completely do not get where the Internet’s hatred of River Song comes from.  A middle-aged female Indiana Jones?  Yes, please.

There are, however, two decent ways to make an argument that Steven Moffat’s episodes are sexist.

ARGUMENT 1: Some of Moffat’s episodes literally objectify women.  “The Girl in the Fireplace” morphs Madame de Pompadour into a spaceship, “Silence in the Library” makes Donna into a statue, and “The Forest of the Dead” reveals that Cal is a computer.  I’ve only seen the first episode of season five so far, so don’t spoil me, bro—but I got a strong feeling that the duck pond without ducks is actually part of Amy Pond, somehow, or that she’s part of it.  Is this literal objectification misogynistic?  I really don’t know.  If you have any insights, please explain in the comments.

ARGUMENT 2: Happy endings for women in Moffat’s world seem to involve either motherhood, true heterosexual love, or both.  “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” only gets its happy ending after Nancy admits she’s the empty child’s mother.  The thwarted happy ending of “The Girl in the Fireplace” would have shown Reinette ending up with the Doctor, her one true love.  “Blink” ends with Sally Sparrow paired off with Nightingale.  River Song’s (somewhat creepy) happy ending involves her becoming a mother to some cyber-children in a Matrix-heaven.  Hmm.  I’d have thought her personal heaven would involve archaeology?

So is Moffat sexist?  I’d say no, but it’s a close call.  I’m going to withhold judgment until I see more from him.  What do you think?

River is as confused as you are.


Four seasons down, and a new season’s begun, and I think I can finally answer the original question.  Is Doctor Who sexist?  No, I don’t think so.  For a show supposedly for children, it sure has a lot to say about gender dynamics, romance, and sex, and in theory, some of these ideas appear misogynistic or overly reductive on the surface.  For me, though, the execution saves it.

But, hey, this may just be an epically-long rationalization based on the fact that Who, with its focus on science and geekiness and silly pop culture references, is a better adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasy for me than Twilight is.  In other words:





I realize I’m not well.

So, what do you think about gender issues in Doctor Who?  Sound off in the comments section below!  (But try not to spoil episodes that haven’t been aired in the U.S. yet.  This means season 5 episodes 1-3 are fair game; anything past that’s off-limits.  Cool?  Cool.)

45 Comments on “Is Doctor Who Bad for Women?”

  1. Timothy J Swann #

    I won’t spoil you… but I will state that the end of Episode 5 and Episode 6 may introduce a whole new debate in this manner.

    Otherwise, simply *fantastic* post.

  2. Martin #

    I don’t know why, but Who-mania really annoys me. In the UK it’s THE science fiction show. I’d much rather watch a US import most of the time.

    I also think maybe they should shake up the dynamic of the show. Having a male Doctor and a female assistant/companion gets a bit stale, especially when they’re reinventing the show every few years anyway. What if the next Doctor was a woman? A big shake-up would remove some complaints against the show and also allow for some new and interesting symbolism.

    Just some thoughts.

  3. El Acordeonachi #

    Yeah, my wife has been wanting Doctor Who to get a real male companion for a long time. Either that or bring back a older male companion for a guest shot. Although a lot of those actors are either dead or their characters are (or otherwise unable to return). About the only one I can think of would be Turlough… She groaned when they announced that Jo Grant was coming back for a guest shot in The Sarah Jane Adventures.

    As to Steven Moffet’s literal objectifying of women, at least in relationship to Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead I think it was less about any objectifying, and more about them figuring out a way to get Donna out of the way so that River Song and The Doctor had more one to one time to hint at their eventual relationship, without any of that dumb jealousy crap that they pulled when we encountered 2 companions in the past (see the Rose/Sarah Jane Smith and Martha Jones/Rose crossover episodes).

    Contrary to internet opinion, we like River Song, and I really like the kind of backwards storytelling that they seem to be doing with the relationship. If there’s anyone that can pull that kind of convoluted storytelling off, it’s Moffet. It’s a thing he regularly did during Coupling, albeit within a single episode rather than within a extended a story arc. I hope they stick with a slow pace, with eventually having a younger River Song as a (multi)season long companion, rather than shoehorn the whole thing within a season or even worse, 2 or 3 episodes.

    Oh, and wonderful post!

  4. Timothy J Swann #

    I must admit, I did think it was time for the 11th Doctor to be the first black Doctor (Chiwetel Ejiofor had been rumoured to be connected to the role)… but yes, more heterogeneity in companions is good!

  5. Nick #

    Great post. I would love to see more of your views on Amy Pond in a couple of weeks when we’ve seen a bit more of the newest companion and her relationship with the Doctor.

  6. Bob #

    Thank you for the Doctor post! I’ve recently started watching and have caught up to the BBC America Release (As to “PROTIP: Don’t watch it on BBC America.” – is that so we can watch a few episodes early or is there another reason to watch on YouTube?) and really haven’t ‘Overthought’ the series myself.

    I personally found that as The Doctor grew, the love with the Companion’s became less. With Rose, the Doctor was as close to in love with someone as we’ve seen (Echo’d when the Doctor/Donna hybrid went to live with her). Their ‘love’ almost seemed reciprocal. With Martha, I saw her liking the Doctor as much as Rose did, but the Doctor simply respected here. Finally with Donna, they both simply respected each other – as you mentioned they reached a balance.

    Also – I find it funny that you mention my personal 3 favorite episodes as the most over and under rated (Blink and Forest 2-parter). I didn’t know people liked Blink as much as I did until I saw the Angels were returning this season.

    @Martin – I don’t think the Doctor can become a woman because he is a man, he can only come back as a man. I know very little ‘Expanded Universe’ when it comes to Who, but from what I’ve heard is that a Time Lord can only reincarnate as the same sex.

    As far as Sexism – that is a tightrope question. I never really thought he was sexist, on the contrary I thought that through being ‘involved’ with the Doctor, the companions have become stronger characters (This even goes encompasses Mickey and Captain Jack). For example – Rose would have simply married Mickey and they both would have had a horrible life of not really loving each other. Because of the Doctor, Rose grew to be a strong woman who doesn’t take to being second fiddle to Mickey and Mickey stops being such a push over and grows a backbone himself.

    But one can argue that this is indeed sexist, because the Companions don’t bloom unless under the tutelage of the Doctor (Although since he does this to both Men and Women, I don’t see how this can hold water). Amy Pond fits along the line of someone who is on the wrong path with great potential that meets with the Doctor and will bloom. Unless she is killed along the way.

    There is a lot to take in with this article, but this is just my opening salvo.

  7. pave #

    i think the doctor meeting as a child was really significant… if the doctor/donna relationship was a father/mother one, his relationship with amy is father/child for sure. they seem to be making a point of how good amy is at taking care of herself…but equally i think the doctor’s concern for her is a parental one.

  8. pave #

    meeting amy as a child*

  9. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Martin: It’s always funny for me to remember that Who is a “mania” in the UK, because here in the US (in my social circles, anyway) it’s considered the cultiest of the cult. Friends who have seen every episode of Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Farscape fans, Firefly nuts… they cringe when I mention Doctor Who — it’s too nerdy!

    @Bob: Ah, should have explained the tip. I watched The Eleventh Hour twice: once online and once on BBC America. The BBC America version was about twenty minutes shorter, and they managed to cut out all the best parts. Amy trapping the Doctor’s tie in the door, the smiley-face apple, “you’re Scottish; fry something”… all gone. Luckily, as far as I know, the BBC American On-Demand versions are uncut.

  10. Faolwyn #

    Awesome thinky thoughts about one of my favorite shows! on the Virgin / Whore theory… I know we’re talking women here but as far as the show is concerned wouldn’t Jack take the place of the whore? He is certainly set up for it with his voracious sexual appetite. Just more thoughts for the cauldron :)

  11. Bob #

    @mlawski – I saw it on BBC America and all those parts were in it on the Saturday episode (The tie, apple, fry something) but if there are additional moments I certainly will catch it on OnDemand. Thank you!

    In a few weeks, will we start getting your Doctor posts to take over for the LOST recaps? :)

  12. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Bob: Hmm, that’s weird. The version I watched was definitely cut. Perhaps something timey-wimey is going on?

    Goodness gracious, if I could write about Doctor Who every week after Lost is over, I would. But that’s crazy talk! Isn’t that crazy talk?

    Then again, if there is enough demand, how could I say no? :)

  13. SoCalEm #

    Someone mentioned once that female characters on Doctor Who are twice as likely to have to die for their mistakes and/or sacrifice themselves to save the day than male characters are. I haven’t counted for myself, but it sounds true, and that disturbs me.

    I think a lot of what seems sexist in the Doctor/Companion vibe can be attributed to a lot of the other differences between them – age, experience, species. Not that sex isn’t a problem/factor into that, but if we had more companions who were males, I think the Doctor would treat them in much the same way. Did he as a character or the narrative structure as a whole ever treat Jack or Mickey that differently from how Rose, Martha, Donna, and Amy are treated? – – In other words, I really want Doctor Who to go back to doing multiple companions at the same time, and not just for one or two episodes a season.

    @Bob – I don’t think you can really say that the Doctor loved Donna less than he loved Rose. I think it was certainly a different kind of love, but not “less,” unless were setting other kinds of love as inferior to romantic/sexual love.

    @ mlawski – I would love to see you write about Doctor Who every week ^_^

  14. El Acordeonachi #

    When the first showed The 11th Hour on the Saturday, they were uncut. Every replay had great big chunks missing, because they wanted to cram a 90 minute program with “limited commercial interruptions” into a 60 minute time slot with a normal amount of commercials. The jerks. I’m not sure if the rest of the episodes have survived uncut, but since all the Saturday airings have been in 60 minute timeslots, I would think that they have.

  15. Timothy J Swann #

    I agree – a weekly post, if possible, will be great.

  16. chris strange #

    Personally I disagree with your description of Rose as just hanging around and screaming until the Doctor saves them, though that is a _very_ accurate description of most the companions in the classic series. For example in ‘Darlek’ where Rose rehabilitates a darlek, something that the Doctor beleives is impossible, by giving it a sample of her DNA. A bit like a gender reversed version of the basic James Bond story. In this episode Rose refuses to do what the doctor asks, not only that she actually stands up for a darlek and against him, which is hardly obeying and waiting to be saved. Actually you could argue that she saves the Doctor from the demons that have been haunting him over the (rather nebulous and elastic) ‘Great Time War’ and begins his rehabilitation; like she did with the darlek, except without any James Bond style transfer of DNA this time.

  17. Hazbaz #

    I cannot think of anything that would delight me more than more regular Overthinking of Doctor Who.

    I do wonder if Moffat will keep up the laudable attitude to Homosexuality that suffused the RTD years.

  18. Ryan #

    River is more like Vash (from ST:TNG) than Indiana Jones.

  19. Bob #

    @SoCalEm – You are correct, it is a different type of love. But I think the Doctor/Donna was more a Brother/Sister love and the Doctor/Rose was more a Sam/Diane will they/won’t they love. I could be wrong but that is what I thought.

    @El Acordeonachi – that could be it! Thank you.

    @Chris Strange – I agree with you that Donna is more then the standard ‘Damsel in distress’. If you break it down, all three of the first companions follow the Hero’s Journey to a T:
    1) Call to Action
    2) Refusal of the Call (Amy didn’t say no, she was ready to go, the other three hesitated before their first journey)
    3etc) Just go here (

  20. Ed Webb #

    A weekly Doctor post will make me a regular visitor for sure. This is excellent.

  21. KeiraH #

    Loooove Doctor Who!! and I don’t think it is particularly sexist, a lot of the times the Companion plays an enormous role in saving the day. (think about ‘Turn Left’) Though I think they do need to get a male companion going again. Jack was really good!! A lot of the best Companions from the Classic series were male (Ian, Jamie, i personally love Harry) they don’t need just one companion at a time!

  22. Miss Nomer #

    I demand Doctor Who every week! That would be so sweet!

    Also, I kind of hate you for making me think that Doctor Who was like Twilight. NOT okay.

    You made up for it, though, with the whole “Gospel according to Martha”, and the Doctor/Donna father/mother observations. Well done.

  23. Rachel #

    Wonderful article, thanks for all the laughs and insights. So true! I totally didn’t see the overarching themes for the companions and seasons, but now that you mention it, those ideas work. They add depth to what otherwise has often felt like a farce.

    LOL on the Twilight parallels and although I enjoy that series, I’ll take Doctor Who over it any day, for the reasons you cite. Mehh. :)

    My all-time favorite Doctor Who And Religion comic, from Home on the Strange: He’s my Time Lord and Saviour!

  24. Socraticsilence #

    So where does Jack Harkness fit into this dichotomy, or was that the gay guy equivalent of the female nerd fantasy thing?

  25. Promethia #

    Fascinating article. I would be very interested in seeing more of your thoughts on Moffat’s approach to women once we’re further into the new series.

    On the subject of River Song: I think her “afterlife” is meant to be less about consigning her to an eternal fake domesticity and more about her becoming a mythic wise woman/philosopher/storyteller figure. She appears to us for the first time as a seeker of knowledge (a professor), she carries a book of forbidden knowledge (the course of the Doctor’s life), and upon her death she is absorbed into a computer core that holds the sum total of all knowledge in the universe. In that last scene, we are all the children in the beds, and River is a guiding, protective figure telling us the stories that shape our lives and give them meaning. What could possibly be more powerful or important than that?

    Similarly about Moffat “objectifying” women–I think many of these instances become less derogatory viewed from a more mythic angle. If Amy Pond *is* that duck pond, it’s going to be about female archetypes and water imagery and the renewal of the world. Is that sexist? I dunno.

  26. Gab #

    I think people like “Blink” so much because it is such a *creeeeepy* episode. I mean, come ON. I don’t even have statues in my house, and I was freaked out going to bed after it was over- and I watch horror movies all the time.

    ANYhoo. Sexism, Dr. Who, is it there?

    I’d agree that, overall, it’s not. There is too much recognition of the problems with the relationships for it to be sexist. And yeah, that’s one of myriad reasons it’s different from Twilight. (I *could* argue that while BELLA claims to be average, she obviously isn’t if you go by how other people treat her, but that’s just nit-picky and a digression, and I really don’t feel like harping about Twilight again at the moment. Besides, it isn’t that big of a deal, not for the overall purpose of the piece you have, here.)

    I’ve heard a lot of people hate on Martha (until “her” season is over and she becomes kind of a badass) because all she does is pine over the Doctor (making her not only annoying, but anti-feminist), but I have a lot of sympathy for her because she’s competing with a memory he has of Rose, his ideal, the one he seemed to come closest to saying those three little words to (and with romantic connotation). Yeah, okay, she does seem kind of pathetic at times, but I think of it as something more like she’s just trying to get him to acknowledge her own presence instead of always saying, “Rose would have ____,” all the bloody time. I mean, that would be hurtful in *any* relationship, if one was constantly saying listful things about some other, third party. So maybe her inability to get through to him makes her care for him more romantically (how does the saying go? “You always want what you can’t have”?), but her belief in his abilities as the Doctor isn’t about that, but about what she knows he can do- and that’s why she spreads his gospel so effectively and why it works. And that belief in him as Doctor, Timelord, God (funny how those titles progress- and fitting!), whatever, is what really makes her loyal to him, not that mushy love stuff.

    I also am wary of the notion that any plot involving romance is automatically or inherently sexist. I actually believe it’s kind of sexist to think romance is sexist, or maybe abstractly bigoted (because it’s a preconceived, knee-jerk notion to claim, “SEXIM!” every time people kiss). And the romance part is never the main reason, not even in Martha’s case, imo, for the Companion becoming the Companion. I’d say they’re all River, in a vague way: For the Companions, it’s about the adventure, the thirst for knowledge, for becoming acquainted with the Unknown. Maybe they get a crush along the way, but that isn’t the main reason they stay. And he never “lures them in” so to speak with any notions remotely about seduction of the flesh- it’s always about the seduction of seeing things no one else (human/ in that time) has seen, going places no one else (human/ in that time) has been. He doesn’t ask her what position she wants to shag in, he asks her what planet or year she wants to explore. Perhaps sexual undertones can be read into this, but I think that’s grasping at straws because, as another commenter pointed out, the same stuff happens with male characters the Doctor asks to tag along. I think some of the best moments proving romance *isn’t* central are somewhat meta, like when the Doctor and Martha have that whole “mate” conversation (WIN!!!), too, which goes back to how the show recognizes problems and discusses them openly (if not hitting you over the head with a tack hammer- or Sonic Screwdriver).

    But it’s TOO geeky for your crowd, Mlawski? That breaks my heart- it’s all the rage here in my neck of the woods. Unless I just hang out with geeks of that high caliber or concentration. We’re also a crowd that celebrated “May the 4th Be With You: International Star Wars Day” yesterday, so meh.

  27. Gab #

    Oh yeah, and you definitely should Overthink the Doctor every week.

  28. Timothy J Swann #

    @Gab – so your suggesting that the temptation of the Doctor for the Companions is Faustian…? That sounds interesting.

  29. Casey #

    Overthinking Doctor Who every week would be very awesome!

  30. Gab #

    @Timothy: Well, thinking of the Doctor as the Devil kind of hurts, but I suppose you could take it that way if you wanted to. But that’s not really where I was going unless you’re using it in the thirst for knowledge sense and NOT the deal with the devil one.

    I meant it more like he’s a teacher (albeit charming, witty, etc.), a wise and worldly (or in this case, intergalacticly promiscuous) man offering the chance for them to go on a journey to attain knowledge (and self-discovery) the likes of which only he has- and the seduction is non-sexual. It isn’t like he *just* orders them around and they do everything he says bit-by-bit- he gives vague instructions and leaves it to them to figure the rest out, thereby allowing them to grow as they learn how to work in the new environment they’re in and solve whatever problems they encounter. So he’s a teacher, but the kind that gives practical, hands-on lessons, not lectures. (Example: High school physics, you’re given a list of materials and must make them do X and you only have Y time to construct it, GO!!) And I think a big difference between the Doctor and the Devil is the Doctor doesn’t ask for something from them other than their company. He does all he can to prevent them from ever having to sacrifice anything- and even though that sometimes doesn’t work out so hot, he never *intends* for it to happen. They separate from their families, yes, but the plan is that once the adventures are over, he’ll return them to the moment they stepped into the Tardis so they wind up “missing” nothing in their own timeline. I suppose the “sacrifice” at the end of the ideal would be the loss of the Doctor himself, but his reason for *that* is different from the Devil’s demand for a soul: the Doctor does it for the Companion’s own good, while the Devil does it because he’s a greedy mofo.

    As I think about it more, it’s kind of like the Doctor is offering them godhood, or maybe demigodhood, since he’s offering that select knowledge and experience. I can’t think of any myths or schools of analysis where that would apply (like how you saw my original post as Faustian), but yeah.

  31. Brimstone #

    I’m up for weekly Who
    mostly because Lost is barely shown in Aus, but Who is loved
    this is confusing and scary
    but i like Who

  32. Wordsmith #

    Fascinating analysis! And I’m completely and utterly keen for weekly Who overthinking!

  33. Lisa #

    Very interesting article. I wouldn’t actually argue against any of these points. There is one rather sexist thing that happened that I still have not and probably will never forgive the show (or at least Davies) for, and that is Donna Noble’s Crappy Ending. I’m not talking about the one where she lost all her memories. I’m talking about the one where she got given a “fairytale ending” with being married and apparently rich (or at least with a winning lotto ticket). Yes, that’s what Donna Noble wanted when we first met her. By the end, though, she had changed. She wanted to travel with the Doctor forever. She wanted to be part of it. He needed her. She was, as you said, equal to him in special ways, his best friend, the one who’d stand up to him when he needed it. She helped hundreds of thousands of people, saved the universe, and she gets…married and a winning lotto ticket, and no indication that she’s still going to be anything but shallow, gossiping Donna Noble.

    Yes, River Song got, in theory, a similar ending, but, for all we know, during the day, she and Cal wander around through the vast stores of the Library, exploring the stories and knowledge of the universe, then are back home in time for bedtime. Plus, that was HER choice. She actually had opted for oblivion, and was clearly content to settle for this as a sort of second-best, knowing the Doctor was still out there, saving the universe.

    Donna Noble didn’t choose to have to give up traveling with the Doctor. Yes, she chose the (completely random) guy (we’ve never seen before, man, could they not have at least gotten the guy from the Library to make fanfic writers happy??) and they could probably be happy together, but what the heck kind of ending is this for her? I was not pleased.

    Aaanyway, so, definitely overthink Doctor Who! Every week! I approve. I just might be later to the comments, since I DVR it and tend to save up several episodes, because I never pay attention to when the 2-parters are coming. :)

  34. Pumpkin #

    I love this article :D So many things to think about!

    I think some of the accusations of Moff’s sexism come from some dubious interview statements of his – e.g. the implication that he hired Karen for her looks, his views on the oppression of men, etc. When you take that into consideration with the things you pointed out in the article, some (although not all) of his authorial choices do start to seem a little off.

    I’m not in favour of a female Doctor, but I agree with the commenters who have suggested a more long term male companion (besides Jack) who is not attached to the main female. It would be interesting to see whether he would fall into the more ‘human’ nurturing role. I also think the Doctor-female relationship often falls into this stereotype of the capable, intelligent man impressing the woman with his knowledge and skill (even when the woman is clever herself, see Martha). How would this dynamic work out with a male-male pairing? Would the writers be tempted to give the male companion some sort of weakness – say, he’s from the past and doesn’t understand technology at all?

  35. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Pumpkin: I love the idea of Companions from the past who don’t understand technology at all. In fact, I’m currently making my way through some Classic Who, and I love the diversity of the old Companions. We see Companions from the past, Companions from the future, Companions who don’t understand technology, Companions who aren’t human. Even though Old Who is from the 60s and 70s, it’s actually a lot harder to accuse it of sexism, as the female Companions are all so different from one another. (As for the stereotype that they all just stand in the background and scream, clearly not true! Leela and Sarah Jane FTW!)

  36. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Pumpkin: Also, interesting stuff about Moffat’s views on women and “the oppression of men.” Statements like that are always red flags in my book.

    Now that I’ve caught up on season five (just watched “Vampires of Venice” yesterday), I can better see why accusations of sexism are getting thrown around. Personally, though, I think the problem with the new season is less about how Moffat writes female characters and more about how he writes characters in general. So far, I’m having trouble believing that any of the characters in season 5 are real people, except maybe the Doctor, and that’s only because Matt Smith is a tremendous actor. But maybe we’ll talk about this in later weeks once Lost is over and once “Vampires” has aired in the U.S.

  37. Gab #

    This is going to sound ridiculously stupid, but how is everybody watching it online/before it airs in the U.S.? I’d like to see some of the stuff I missed in watching it on television.

  38. Lydia #

    Comparing Doctor Who to Twilight? Bite your tongue!

    Seriously though, I think there’s a lot wrong with that comparison. First off, the whole celibacy thing. Part of the reason Twilight is so regressive is because it very explicitly promotes the whole abstinence-before-marriage ideology which is always linked to very sexist, essentialist views of gender and a very madonna/whore way of looking at women. Doctor Who, on the other hand, makes no issue of what Rose and the Doctor do or don’t do in private one way or another. It’s just simply not addressed. I don’t even necessarily think we NEED to conclude that they didn’t ever do anything but, if we do, it’s certainly not because the Doctor was paternalistically trying to protect her virtue. (Especially since I think we’re meant to take for granted that she was already sexually active before meeting him, what with her and Mickey’s talk of “getting a hotel” in season 1.)

    Also Bella and Edward are in an established boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. Without sex. Again this puts the abstinence thing front and center. Rose and the Doctor love each other (and that love is erotic) but they don’t have any “official” status as lovers. That alone is plenty of reason for them to not quite know what to do about it all, which could keep their relationship perennially in that yearning-without-consummation stage. (And that does seem to be the subtext.) I don’t think Rose and the Doctor ever knew how to handle their feelings until it was too late. That’s part of the tragedy of their story.

    As for the companions being “help-meets”, I don’t really see that either. The closest any companion ever came to that role was probably Martha, which is why it took me a while to warm up to her. But in general I think the companions have value to the Doctor in much more far-reaching ways than the traditional “female support” stuff. He needs their perspectives, he needs their human-ness. And their generally not afraid to give his attitude right back to him, which I really like. The new companion, Amy, has already proved herself a hero in her own right as far as I’m concerned.

    And what exactly is sexist about Moffat’s writing and characters? I’m serious, I do feminist media analysis as a job and I just don’t see it.

  39. El Acordeonachi #

    @Lisa – Donna’s ending is a more tragic thing. At the end, as you said, she doesn’t want to go. And so, even if yeah, she gets married, and yeah, The Doctor gives her a lotto ticket, it’s more of a consolation prize. A Flowers for Algernon kind of ending. Yeah, she’s happy and content. But outside observers know it’s sad.
    And really, RTD couldn’t give us the nifty Donna ending of kidnapping the library guy and then introducing him to Donna, not unlike Captain Jack’s (possible) farewell where he introduces him to the guy from the Starship Titanic? Or are two of those endings (or 3, if you count the Mickey Smith and Martha Jones pairup) too much? But perhaps that would have been too much of a memory spark and made her head explode…
    @Gab, people that are watching it before the US release are either catching it before it gets yanked off of Youtube (which doesn’t take long), or using any number of torrent sites. Which I too would have done if we had had to wait much longer for episodes, like we did back in Season One.

  40. Ashley #

    Please please please Overthink Doctor Who weekly!!!

  41. Krista #

    This is obviously written by a guy. There is no comparison between Twilight and Doctor Who.

    The companions join the Doctor because they are given the opportunity to explore all of time and space, not because they’re attracted to the Doctor (though brains / Time Lord together are certainly tempting). They’re not ditching their responsibilities, they’re leaping into the unknown… an adventure that they usually know, after their first trip, is going to be full of danger but also wonder. They are usually instrumental in saving the day during that first adventure and all subsequent ones.

    Yes, the “Lonely God” is certainly tempting to any woman, but so what? They’re not abandoning their responsibilities since they know they can come back to them literally moments after they left. They’re becoming the ultimate advenurers, and that’s not at all bad for women.

  42. Krista #

    That said… Martha was just completely annoying. She fell for the Doctor immediately. It’s one thing to grow into it like the Doctor and Rose did, but Martha was a pitiable character. Considering she was a doctor herself (or nearly) and quite intelligent, it was really quite disappointing. Then later, when she became the supposed ‘bad-ass’. I suppose I might’ve liked her if a different actress played it… I just never bought it with the current one.

    They should have brought Donna on as the next companion. Someone who I’m sure thought about the doctor occasionally as an attraction but decided that she wasn’t going there. She was a strong woman, not willing be just a side-kick or part of the Doctor’s shadow.

  43. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Krista: “This is obviously written by a guy.” Nope :) But I agree with you; the female characters in Who’s RTD era are clearly much stronger than Bella Swan and co. As I said at the bottom of the first page of this piece, the Twilight comparison is really just the beginning of a strawman argument… although you have to admit that (superficially-speaking, at least) there are some comparisons to be made between the two texts.

    I’m a huge Donna fan, too, and I wonder how she would have fit in beside Matt Smith’s Doctor. My feeling is that she might have overpowered him completely and made Doctor Who into “The Donna Noble Show”–a show I would very happily watch, by the way!

    @Socraticsilence: I totally forgot to answer your question, sorry! I’m not sure we can make an argument about the show’s relationship to homosexuality and bisexuality, if only because Captain Jack was only a Companion for, what? Four episodes? Moreover, he’s the only* clearly bisexual main character in the show, which makes it difficult to make an argument about the show’s feelings on bisexuality in general. It’s easier to make an argument about the show’s women because we are presented with (at least) three major, major female characters in the RTD era. Maybe one day I’ll finish watching Torchwood and I’ll have more to say about this issue…

    *Unless you count the Master, but let’s save that conversation for another day!

  44. Magnulus #

    I’d like to see a boy and a girl companion where the boy is actually gay and the girl would rather be at home. Or, if he’s not gay, make him bromantically entangled with the Doctor. Jack Harkness was wonderful, but he was too experienced and too “out there” to be our window into the Doctor’s world, and felt like he was there mostly to set up the Torchwood show. (which is equal parts amazing and crap, by the way. ^_^)

    I’d love to see your opinions on Amy’s Choice, as it shows the gender roles between her and Rory are actually switched around most of the time. I won’t say anything much about it specifically until you’ve seen it, but a lot of her wants are very traditionally male, and Rory is a total girl. ^_^

    Also: Amy has been a lot more proactive than most. Yes, Rory justly accuses the Doctor of making people a danger to themselves by wanting to impress him, but it seems as though Amy doesn’t throw herself headlong into peril for that alone, it’s just as much because she needs to for herself. After all, the Doctor spends most of his time telling her NOT to.

    And yes: Weekly Who! I’ve not been a regular visitor to this site, but Weekly Who would make me one.