Dr Who inspired tee shirt print by Karen Hallion
I am a Dr Who fan, and yes, I did read about the new doctor a few days ago, and no, I never did expect to have a female doctor, or a black doctor or a gay doctor. And I mean EVER, when it comes to a female Doctor. Not because Dr Who is a bigoted show, but because Dr Who is something else, far far more cemented in its stereotype than bigotry. Dr Who is a concept which (in modern times – as in the 3 most recent doctors) has tapped into a female fan base (although there are male fans too, obviously) with compelling strings and pulls which are, let’s be honest, not so greatly different from classical female romance development novel tricks.
This is not all that Dr Who is, but it is a very prominent trait, and the money making winning concept for many fans. I’m sure I’ll get some enemies by saying that Edward and Bella in Twilight have several things in common with the Doctor and his companion, but there it is, and I’ll stand by it.
Heey Bella, won’t you come away with me? I’ll show you marvelous things few humans have ever seen before…I’m also very old, and have experienced stuff, and for some reason you are very special me.
Let’s start with why there will never be a female doctor. Steven Moffat will tell us such vague reasons as A female doctor just didn’t feel right – which is, as we used to say back home on the ranch, horseshit.
What good old Steven cannot say openly is that Dr Who would drop in ratings, more to the point, in female viewer ratings, if there were to be a female Doctor. For many viewers, Dr Who is not about female bonding, one female reflected through the eyes of another (be it all powerful and timelordy) female is not alluring. That is poor money, kids. Big money, since the beginning of popular and trash culture, is to have a female (often young) character reflected through the eyes of a powerful (and often attractive) male character. And the voyage for many female viewers is to see how that reflection develops and changes in a positive direction over time. Gravy on the turkey is to have the mysterious powerful male character show aspects of himself that are not easily shown otherwise, through the charm and wisdom of the girl in the story.
Now that is money! Mix in some plots and sometimes decent story archs, some charming British humor and perhaps some attractive female with full lips, and you’ve got yourself all kinds of viewers, but make no mistake, if you take away the ingredient which I’m referring to here, you will also lose many viewers.
Recently there has been a line of tees from Threadless, inspired by Dr Who. The shirts are created by Karen Hallion and show Disney princesses who get invited to be taken away by the Doctor in the Tardis. While these tees are cute, the artist at the same time taps into exactly the phenomena with Dr Who and his companions and female fan base, which makes it impossible for there to ever be a female Doctor.
For me, Dr Who is just as much, if not more, about the companion than about the Doctor. It took me a while to admit it. Perhaps this has a little to do with the fact that the only Doctor I even would consider half decently attractive, was Christopher Eccleston – not that I didn’t like some of the others, mind you. But the companion…ah, there is somebody who could make or break the show for me. I really want an individual here, and not a stereotype, but quite often, the female companion touches dangerously near the stereotype of The Manic Pixie Dreamgirl. The article in the link here (written by an ex-manic pixie dreamgirl) has many points in explaining how culture often makes women dangerously satisfied in being sidekicks, because they are such charming and important sidekicks, you know. They even reference Dr Who in the piece, I recommend reading it.
Now, I will say it again. I actually am a Dr Who fan. I love many things about the show, and I don’t mind the female being the sidekick, but it is crucially important to me, that she is, in that aspect, as little of a stereotyped and as individualistically a human as humanely possible.
I don’t really care what the Doctor thinks of her, I care what I think of her. And so far there have only been two companions whom I really dug, and who I can say did completely avoid stereotyping cliches. These two are Martha and Donna. (Disclaimer: I love, love older and mature Sarah Jane, but I’m not sure she counts in this category)
Let me just say that I think that all actresses who played companions have done fine jobs in portraying the characters that they were given. Just because I felt Rose to be a cheerleaderish cliche who was valued on some fairly scant merits, does not mean that I don’t think Billie Piper isn’t a great actress. The flaw is always in how they are written. Remember, it is irrelevant to me what the timelord dude thinks of the damsel. I am the timelord of my own life, and if I don’t like what the wench delivers, I won’t cut her slack because she is cute or a bit sassy.
It’s not very hard to qualify why you love Donna Noble as a companion. You either love her or hate her, and if you hate her, you usually still understand why some love her, and vice versa. She didn’t fit any stereotype out there, Donna just was her own goddamn character, and that was it, as natural as the glands on a skunk. And I believe firmly, as a fan, that someone like the Doctor, needs a Donna now and again, much more than he would need ten Rose Walkers or Amy Ponds. Donna on the other hand, never needed the Doctor. She was just in it for the ride, and few rides have been better than the one that the Doctor had with Donna. In many aspects, Donna cemented modern Dr Who for me, and it’s been hard for the show to live up to those standards since.
Donna will always rock your ship, whether you love it or just get seasick…
When it comes to Martha Jones, the story goes a little differently…
I had endured two seasons with Rose Walker as a companion, with very mixed feelings. I found the show charming, I liked both Eccleston’s and Tennant’s doctors and some of the story archs…but the whole Rose thing had started to grate on me. For me, the character of Rose was constantly underwhelming. I so so wanted her to do something surprising, but she always did exactly what I anticipated. I actually loved Rose’s mom much more, now she would have been an interesting companion!
So, Rose was squared away in a parallel dimension, their undying love could never be, yadda yadda sob sob. (I breathed a sigh of relief, finally a new chapter!) And along comes Martha…
Martha was young and beautiful, but that’s where all the similarities with previous companions ended. She was very very far from a manic pixie dreamgirl. Martha was the opposite of manic, she was actually something as unusual (in a scifi tv show) as pensive. She was intellectual and whip smart, but also calmer and a bit more brooding than your usual companion. You’d think the damn Doctor could appreciate something as new and fresh as that, but no. Never has the doctor found as many faults with a companion, or been as cold toward a companion as he was to Martha Jones. And why? Well..it probably wasn’t because she is black – although, I did see a black Dr Who fan-blogger lose her shit over the whole treatment of Martha Jones, back in those days, and with good reason. Finally a non-white companion, and that’s the one who gets the cold treatment??
Faster than a toddler blows out birthday candles, all the female fans who dug Rose (and I’m guessing most of these gals are white, just a wild guess here..), came to the defense of the Doctor’s treatment of Martha. Of course it’s not bigotry! The Doctor had just been on the ending part of a very super special sensitive petal love story with super special wonderful Rose. Therefore he must be a douchebag to the black girl who falls in love with him.
Hmm..I’m not sure I’ve ever forgiven the Doctor for how he treated Martha. No one asked for another love story, I frankly don’t need love stories in Dr Who more often than at most once a decade..but there was such a lack of kindness in his treatment of Martha, in moments where she did incredibly hard things. Yeah, if it wasn’t for the Doctor digging Donna later, I’d probably have dumped his scrawny ass, as a fan. But let me explain why I ended up loving one of the Doctor’s least popular companions from very early on. It falls into the concept of Martha seemingly starting off as a (in modern times) fairly obscure archetype, and then growing far above and beyond that concept.
Unhappy love, and the female or male protagonist who suffered it, was an archetype which was embraced in earlier eras more than today. The last golden era for the unhappily-in-love archetype was in the late 18th century and through the 19th century. Young Werther and his sufferings, and so forth. It’s an archetype which can differ fairly much, depending on story, but the stoic suffering is still compelling, whether we agree with the character or not. A good Werther is a good Werther, he or she is not overly dramatic (in spite of the original’s disposition), they inspire empathy and sometimes even admiration, because those that admire a good Werther, dare to admit that we could all be on the receiving end of heartache. We can all be losers in love, most of us have been on one point or other.
Remember the Little Mermaid, by H.C. Andersen? And I do not mean that happy-ending awful Disney version, I mean the real fairy tale mermaid, in the original story. Now there’s a Werther worth her salt! The things that little fishtail gal endures would make a modern day woman flip her shit. Much harder than being an action hero and blowing things up. The story dares to go where few stories go today, with our obsession with chicken soup for the soul and happy endings. The story ends badly and she dies. I mean..she joins a cool wind-sprite gang after death, but the chick does not get love, in spite of saving that prince’s ass, period.
The Little Mermaid as she was supposed to be, Disney could learn a thing or two from H C Andersen and Edmund Dulac.
That’s right kids. Love is not a human entitlement, in spite of what self help classes taught us, and if more stories would prepare us for that, we’d be wiser and perhaps more gracious.
So, a theory I have about Martha not being very well liked by many female fans, is that when you look at Martha, you see all your own losses in love. You cannot ever mirror yourself in the Doctor’s fondness and admiration through Martha, because the Doctor looks at Martha with unease, pity and an unusual coldness. What an anticlimax! And she stays! Because the fool has feelings for the doctor, how dare she, after Rose!
Yes, Martha dared. She dared having impractical feelings. She dared sticking to them and saving the doctor, when she had no gratitude at all for it, just contempt. Martha saved the world you know. She isn’t the only companion who saved the world, but I dare say that no companion had such a lonely and thankless journey in saving it, as Martha did. A weaker woman would have kicked it all to the curb, but because she stood by her feelings and didn’t “get over them” forcefully, the world was saved. And what did the Doctor do?
Well kids.. the show isn’t bigoted at all..but the doctor did fall in love once more after Rose. He fell in love with another pasty white woman, while Martha stood by watching (trying to get the Doctor’s memory back for him, as he had lost it). And the pasty woman he fell in love with was actually pretty outspokenly racist. Ahem…
Yeah, there are a lot of…interesting aspects to analyze in the Martha Jones story arch, for people of color, I am not one to deny it.
But I love love the character of Martha Jones. She suffers in such a great way without being a martyr for a second. She is honest and brave, and goddamnit I would’t mind being a Martha when I grow up, she’s a great role model. In the episodes where the Doctor is a human man with no timelord memories, and they are trapped in the early 20th century and Martha is a maid, that is where Martha is THE little mermaid. She has the same valor. Just watch that arch again, and see what I mean!
And after Martha saves the world in spite of her heartache, she decides to get over the Doctor. But she never deserted him when he, or the world needed her. She does what a true hero does, she fixes the problem first. And that thoughtful gleam in the Doctor’s eyes when she leaves him, I hope to god he was man enough for that to be regret.
Martha saves the world, while having a fully righteous depression.