The first part of my psychology class extra credit powerpoint, the part on Doctor Who. (there was a thing so I edited and reposted)
I’m thinking of writing my own article on this as well, when I finish with Amy Pond/RIver Song/Clara.
I think the problem is that Steven Moffat doesn’t exactly know what makes a “strong female character.”
Aside from the lover/mother thing being a running trend with his ladies (aside from the three mentioned above, we also have Nancy in The Empty Child/Doctor Dances and Madame de Pompadour in The Girl in the Fireplace—Sally Sparrow is about the only exception since her motivation wasn’t centered around a boy, though even she had two love interests in the span of her one episode, with Lawrence Nightingale and the other dude), it seems to me like Moffat thinks “sassy, mouths off a lot” is what makes a female character strong. Like, as long as they have attitude, then they’re strong characters.
And I’ve noticed that in the fandom, too. When some friends and I were discussing the problems I had with Amy’s introduction in “The Eleventh Hour” (namely, the fact that while Rose, Martha, and Donna all actively helped to save the day in their introductory episodes, Amy quite literally “saved the day” by falling asleep and having the Doctor coach her through it—so in other words, instead of her helping him as the other companions did, he helped her), I had numerous people tell me things like:
- “No, Amy’s strong, she doesn’t take any of the Doctor’s shit!”
- “She tells him off all the time.”
- “It’s Amy’s choice whether to be with the Doctor or Rory!!”
And that … that’s not really very comforting, because not only have all of the Doctor’s companions stood up and mouthed off to him when he’s crossed the line (out of the New Who companions of RTD’s era, the ones who argued the least were actually Wilfred Mott and Captain Jack Harkness; Rose, Martha, Donna, and Mickey all gave the Doctor earfuls plenty of times), but there’s more to being a strong character—and a strong female character, at that—than just being sassy. Telling the Doctor that he’s being an assface every now and then doesn’t make you a strong character. It makes you a character with a smart mouth, but when every single one of the other female characters this man has written has had a sassy mouth (Nancy, Reinette, Sally Sparrow, etc), that starts to stand out less and less as time goes on.
Oh, and before we go further? Being really violent doesn’t make you a strong character, either. Just because you have a gun and know how to use it doesn’t mean that you’re strong.
So what makes a strong character, especially a female one, in my opinion? Well …
- Having a life outside of male characters, for one—especially the main one. Please raise your hand if you have ever criticized Bella Swan because her life revolved around Edward Cullen and/or (depending on the book) Jacob Black. Now put your hand down if you don’t think it’s a problem that the most important people in Amy’s life are the Doctor and Rory Williams. Sure, Amy isn’t just a blank slate character, but her parents are imagined back into existence and she doesn’t even seem to care. They don’t play a very integral role in the plot at all, even as side characters, and neither does the aunt that gets a mention once or twice, that she supposedly lives with as a kid. Frick, at least Charlie Swan has some key appearances in the Twilight series. Amy’s parents and aunt get shown briefly at her wedding, I believe, and then not really again after, because the only characters Moffat felt were relevant to Amy’s story were the Doctor (main male character), Rory (boyfriend/husband), and River (daughter). As for her job, well, she’s a kissogram. And that’s fine if that’s what she chooses to do, but clearly it’s not something she was passionate about as she later drops it to be a model (unlike Martha with her medical degree, as she later uses that in UNIT—and sure, that’s not what she was originally going to do, but it’s an understandable leap considering what she went through during the Year That Never Was). Meanwhile, you have River, and she does have parents—but her parents are Amy and Rory, who are with the Doctor, so that doesn’t help her have a life outside of the Doctor, either. She does later become a professor, but again, that’s due to the influence the Doctor has had on her. And then you have Clara, who is heavily played up as a love interest to the Doctor (which I mean, I ship them as well, so I’m not complaining too much there), whose parents are dead, and who has some kids that she nannies. So she’s a bit better, and it seems like Moffat’s learning, and then you learn that—as mentioned above, her entire existence hinges on her saving the Doctor. She exists to save him. Her life, in other words, revolves around him. These ladies’ lives revolve around the men in them. We almost had a winner with Clara, and then lost it. And that’s a problem to me.
And before I go further, let me just say that this is a problem not only for the lady characters, but also for the supporting cast, and the supporting cast is important to tell a fulfilling narrative. Rose Tyler came packaged with her mother, Jackie Tyler, and her kinda-sorta boyfriend Mickey Smith (best friend Mickey, really, if we’re going to be honest). Jackie and Mickey gave Rose a reason to return to London periodically. They shaped her character because although she no longer had a shop job to return to, she felt incredibly guilty for making her mother worry for a year and for making Mickey go through all those police questioning sessions, and it was clear that these three people cared for each other dearly. Rose did choose to keep traveling, but it’s very, very clear that she intends on keeping better contact and that she’s going to come back for visits (which she does).
And on top of that, Jackie and Mickey got some of the best character development in New Who’s run, imo. Jackie went from being an overprotective, suspicious woman who didn’t care for change and wasn’t open to the Doctor’s world at all to being a fiercely protective, loyal, brave woman who was willing to hop across dimensions if it meant keeping her daughter safe. Mickey went from being a somewhat cowardly boy who was complacent with his mediocre life to being a courageous, clever man who was willing to travel the world if it meant defending it from any threat. Seasons one and two were great not only because of Rose, but because of the development we saw in the side characters of Jackie and Mickey as well.
And we got Martha with her medical degree and her family (and her family played a pivotal role in the dealings of season three), and Donna with her mother and her grandfather, Wilfred Mott, who becomes a companion himself. Rose, Martha, and Donna were not only fleshed out as real, breathing characters because of their families, jobs, and lives, but their families helped flesh out and impact the narrative and make the story more emotional and compelling.
By removing that element, Moffat is not only making Amy, River, and Clara suffer, but he’s making the narrative suffer as a whole. I think that this is not only because he thinks sassy = strong without anything else added, but also because while Russell T. Davies focused the story of Who on the companions, Steven Moffat focuses the story of Who on the Doctor. RTD’s Doctors got full arcs, yes, but seasons one and two are definitely about Rose and her story. Season three is about Martha. Season four is about Donna, and the End of Time is about Donna and Wilf to an extent as well, as much as it’s about the Doctor’s impending regeneration. Russell T Davies fleshed out his companions and made them people because they had stories to tell, because the Doctor—for all his brilliance—was not the hero of these tales. (Also note that while he didn’t get to do quite the same for Jack in DW, that’s what Torchwood is for.) The companions were the stars. The companions were the heroes. The companions look like giants to the Doctor because they are the reason for the show.
It’s not so in Moffat’s Who. In Moffat’s Who, it’s about the Doctor’s pain, the Doctor’s tragedy, how the Doctor deals with this and how he experiences that, and what the companions offer him. The “mystery wrapped in an engima” that they are, riddles for him to solve or lovers for him to caress in scenes of sassy flirtation. They are side characters to his story, whereas it can be easily argued that it was the other way around in RTD’s era. And I think that’s where the biggest difference comes in.
So … this was a long, rambling mess that got away from my original point, but I think this new epiphany still stands. Moffat writes the Doctor as the most important person in the universe. RTD wrote the companions as if they were the most important in the universe. YMMV on which is better, but, well … I think we know where my opinion stands on this.
And I still maintain that Moffat’s writing suffers in direct response to his approach.
Damn. That commentary fully expresses a lot of the things I feel about Moffat’s Who, and does it really well. I am doing a slide on what Moffat thinks is a ‘strong female character’ and I could never put my feelings into words half as well as this. I salute you, that was a brilliant piece of commentary.