Warning: spoilers. 

Since yesterday’s post, I’ve caught myself up to date with Night Terrors, The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex. All three are well-written, well-executed episodes: their plots are coherent and self-contained, the scripting is solid, and there’s a genuine feeling of mystery and tension to each of them. That being said, I’m still distinctly unhappy with the treatment of the female characters. In all three episodes, Amy ends up a damsel who needs to be rescued, while the latter two both use the deaths of competent, clever, interesting women to wring emotional responses from the audience. There’s also the lesser (but still relevant) issue of Moffat’s constant reuse of robots/functions as villains and the overwhelming number of Earth-based episodes, but we’ll get to that later. First, let’s look at the ladies.

For an excellent summation of the problems with the death of Older Amy in The Girl Who Waited, I recommend this post by Phoebe North. To quote:

Every single aspect of this plot and every action of the Doctor conspire to invalidate Older!Amy’s choices, desires, and personhood. What matters is that she be spared, even if she doesn’t want to be spared–because the men, of course, know better than she do about her very life.

In this episode, the Doctor acts in a way that’s in keeping with his recent behavior, but is still insanely maddening. He’s paternalistic. He’s condescending. He lies. He rejects Amy’s right and autonomy over her experiences outright…

It’s only Older!Amy who is anything new. This is the first time we’ve seen concrete, verifiable growth in Amy-Pond-the-adult. It’s also the first time it’s been suggested that she’s a certifiable genius. Karen Gillan is able to stretch her acting chops like never before. She fights. She invents. She hacks. She flirts. Despite the fact that she’s been hurt, she’s still indisputably a whole, capable person–in precisely the way that our Amy has never been…

Amy’s storyline is really more of the same. The woman has to be saved. Worse, the woman doesn’t really know what’s good for her–to the point where she has to be manipulated and tricked into making the right decision.

I understand television’s need to protect the status quo. But Rory has been allowed to grow, from passive near-cuckold into a hero. In previous seasons, Donna, Martha, and Rose all underwent very palpable growth as their experiences changed their goals, lives, and desires (even if Donna was pretty much royally screwed over in the end). Now that I’ve had a more concrete vision of what Amy could be dangled in front of me–and then snatched away by male characters and writers who say they know better–damn it, I want a sign of that woman on the actual showI want some sign that Amy can grow into a brilliant, kick ass person even as she stands by her husband’s side.

Because otherwise? If Amy stays as she is today–if the show continues to value damselship over competence, raw youth over experience, passivity over self-sufficiency–if Amy is always the problem and almost never the solution?

Then I’m done.

As has been previously mentioned, A Good Man Goes To War left me with so little faith in the show that I had to postpone watching the next set of episodes. This meant that my husband went ahead and watched them without me; a sort of advanced guard to test the waters. After finishing The Girl Who Waited, he came storming out of the bedroom in a state of distress, talking about how vile and awful it was that the Amy who’d been left on her own for 36 years – who was clever and capable and deserving of freedom – was killed off in favour of her younger self. What was worse, he said, was how little criticism of the episode he could find online: did people not realise how morally reprehensible this was? Admittedly, that absence may be more reflective of his weak Google-fu than of the majority reaction to the episode, but even so: my husband, who has been a fan of Doctor Who since childhood, has reached a point with the new series where he considers the Doctor to be morally bankrupt. And honestly? I am not about to disagree with him.

There is no reason why Older Amy had to die except that the writers wanted her to. In a show – and, more particularly, a season – where continuity is constantly being retconned, where exceptions are constantly found to old rules and where pretty much everything that happens is explicable only by magic, blaming the necessity of Older Amy’s death on any extant Whoniverse laws is both demeaning and cheap. Worse still is the decision to make the Doctor directly responsible for it: he literally slams the door in her face and leaves her to die, having promised sanctuary he knows is impossible. But the only reason for that impossibility is authorial. We still could have had a heart-wrenching finale where Older Amy was deposited on an alien world and forced to hand Rory over to her younger self; given that she was in a quarantine facility, she could even have been left behind on the original world, but in the visitor’s section, free to make her own way out. But no: as with ‘Ganger Amy before her, she is killed – and not just on the Doctor’s watch, but by him.

And then they pull the exact same trick again. In The God Complex, we are introduced to Rita, a clever, capable woman who immediately wins the Doctor’s respect to such an extent that he tells Amy she’s fired. It’s a joke, of course, but intentionally or not, this sets up the whole episode as a comparison between the two characters. Rita is brave, calm and selfless (and a Muslim! an actual positive representation of a Muslim woman on television!), while Amy clings, quite literally, to a blind, childish faith in the Doctor. There is no need for her to try and rescue herself or others, because he will always save her, and as the episode hinges on her admitting as much, it becomes abundantly clear that this has, in fact, been the defining aspect of her character all along. Meanwhile, poor Rita’s fate is sealed when the Doctor mentions taking her on the TARDIS with him, which has always been a kiss of death equivalent to watching a redshirt beam down to an alien planet alongside Kirk and Spock. She dies nobly and bravely, of course, but she still dies, and while in another time and place – by which I mean, an earlier season – I might have just accepted her death on its own terms, in the particular context of Season 6 and Moffat’s reign in general, it stands out as part of what is starting to feel like a calculated decision to keep the female characters young, pretty and pliant, or else to kill or depower them.

And then there’s the fact that Amy and Rory have ceased to grieve for their daughter. I don’t care that Melody Pond grows up to be River Song. I don’t care that Amy and Rory know this, and like who River is. They have, as a couple, lost a newborn child – one who goes on to be raised and brainwashed by terrorists – such that they are never really her parents, and know she endures a terrible childhood without them. This is fucking traumatic; or rather, it should be, except that we never actually see them grieve. In fact, against all logic and expectation, at the start of Let’s Kill Hitler, we learn that the Doctor has been looking for Melody through space and time without them, and I’m sorry, but what the fuck? Amy and Rory lose their daughter, and then they just go home to wait while the Doctor tries to hunt her down instead? This makes no sense; growing up with Mels is not equivalent compensation for losing a child; and when, at the end of The God Complex, the Doctor drops Amy and Rory home – seemingly for good, but who knows? – and Amy lightly says that he should tell River to drop in on them some time, my whole body clenched with anger. NO. As much as I’m ready for a new companion, Amy deserves better than to have been dragged through all of space and time, where she loses her child, and then just be taken home because the Doctor says so. I don’t care that he’s almost a thousand years old: this sudden, awful paternalism of Doctor Knows Best For The Ladies, such that he gets to override not only their desire to travel with him, but their desire to live, is vile.

To close out the feminist side of things, there’s an excellent piece at Tiger Beatdown about the problematic nature of Amy, wherein Lindsay Miller says:

Amy as a plot device… drives me insane with rage.  The writers cannot seem to come up with anything for her to do that doesn’t involve being a sexual or romantic object, a damsel in distress, or—more recently—a uterus in a box.  This is primarily a show about the Doctor, not his companions; I get that.  Still, Rose, Donna, and even the tragically underdeveloped Martha all got at least a few episodes dedicated them and their problems and their families…

Amy’s dialogue is reasonably well-written, and Karen Gillan’s performance is funny and engaging.  But her storylines are terrible.  We spent all of season 5 (which, for me, was about three days) hopelessly enmeshed in the Love Triangle that Just Wouldn’t Die.  Amy was engaged to Rory, who had a smallish head, but she wanted to make out with the Doctor, who had a huge head!  How would she ever choose between two such different head sizes?  Then she had a moment of realization and went with Rory, presumably because their eventual offspring would do less damage on the way out.  But every two or three episodes since then, we’ve gotten these teasing “maybe she really DOES love the Doctor” moments, even though everyone, including all three characters, is sick to death of that plot thread.  It’s like the writers honest-to-God cannot come up with anything better for two dudes and a lady to do, with all of space and time at their fingertips, than worry over which dude the lady will end up with.

Finally, there’s the Moffat tropes, which are wearing seriously thin. Let’s have a look at the themes and villains of this past season, shall we?

The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon: An eerie little girl in a spacesuit repeating the same few lines of dialogue over and over, plus the Silence, who also repeat themselves, are uniform in appearance, and can’t be argued with.

The Curse of the Black Spot: The robotic function of a medical ship, who can’t be argued with.

The Doctor’s Wife: An evil planet who eats TARDISes and who has actual conversations with the characters. (Note: this episode was written by Neil Gaiman rather than a member of Moffat’s regular staff, and was originally meant to appear in the previous season.)

The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People: Dopplegangers of the crew of a mining station, plus the crew itself and the Doctor.

A Good Man Goes To War: Headless monks, an army commander, and an evil eyepatch woman.

Let’s Kill Hitler: Robot doppleganger people filled with robotic ‘antibodies’ who attack intruders while repeating the same few lines of dialogue over and over, plus a creepy child-Amelia as a function of the TARDIS who repeats the same few lines of dialogue over and over.

Night Terrors: Creepy, unspeaking zombie-dolls who chase the characters and mindlessly try to convert them.

The Girl Who Waited: Hospital robots who mindlessly try to subdue intruders while repeating the same few lines of dialogue over and over.

The God Complex: A host of creepy, unspeaking dolls, plus a minotaur-monster who behaves exactly like a robot (i.e., he can’t turn himself off or stop what he does, nor do we hear him speak in his own right except through the Doctor’s translations) who causes people to turn into zombies and repeat the same few lines of dialogue over and over.

Is there a pattern here, do you think? Just to be sure, let’s run a check on the themes and villains of some previous Moffat episodes:

The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances: An eerie little boy in a gas mask repeating the same few lines of dialogue over and over, plus the robotic functions of a hospital ship who can’t be argued with.

The Girl in the Fireplace: Clockwork robots acting as functions of a ship who repeat the same few lines of dialogue over and over.

Blink: Quantum angels who don’t speak, but who prey on other lifeforms as functions of their existence and who, like robots, cannot be argued with.

Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead: Eerie dead people trapped in spacesuits repeating the same few lines over and over, plus the Vashta Nerada, who prey on other lifeforms as a function of their existence, and who are argued with once.

The Beast Below: Creepy clown-doll-robots acting as functions of a ship.

The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone: More quantum angels.

And then there’s the high incidents of female characters meeting the Doctor both in childhood and as adults, which started with Renette in The Girl in the Fireplace and goes on to define both River Song and Amy Pond. Put another way: Moffat seems to have a narrative range of exactly one female character, and the more he writes her, the weaker she gets.

Call me crazy, but I’m fairly sure this constitutes a pattern.

Which might go a long way towards explaining why we rarely, if ever, see any actual aliens any more; why we’re constantly stuck on Earth or in Earthlike settings as opposed to other worlds – because Moffat, for all his strengths (and some of these episodes are, in fairness, utterly brilliant) doesn’t seem to like writing alien races, or alien cultures. He likes puzzles and hospitals and automated processes and robots and enemies who can’t be argued with, which is all fine and awesome, except that this is all we’re getting any more. Even episodes which aren’t written by Moffat, like The Lodger and The Curse of the Black Spot – both of which feature automated hospital ships and their attendant robot-functions as the ultimate explanation for things – are chock-full of Moffaty tropes. And I don’t know about you, internets, but I am getting bored of so much sameness.

It doesn’t strike me as irrelevant that so far in Moffat’s tenure, not a single episode has been written by a woman. Admittedly, the same was true under Russell T. Davies – his first two seasons lacked any female-authored episodes, with Season 3′s Daleks in Manhatten being the first – but it shows more under Moffat, not only because of how he treats his female characters (badly), but because his preference for writing robots means that there are fewer gendered characters of any kind in the background, so that the number of secondary women has dropped, too.

I’m worried by all of this, internets. I really want the show to make a clean break next season, but I’m very much afraid that won’t happen. Yes, the writing and plotting has picked up again, but unless the ladies start to develop, too, it’s going to get harder and harder for me to continue with it.

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Comments
  1. A clean break will happen with a new companion and I think they’ve gone as far as they can go with Amy Pond, frankly. Yes, they dropped the ball with Amy this season. Rory is effectively a form of luggage as opposed to an interesting character and the overall story arc is missing from each episode this year – last year, we saw that crack in time with every episode. This year, it seems all scrambled together, like they’re making it up as they go. Time will tell, I guess.

  2. Phoebe says:

    Which might go a long way towards explaining why we rarely, if ever, see any actual aliens any more; why we’re constantly stuck on Earth or in Earthlike settings as opposed to other worlds – because Moffat, for all his strengths (and some of these episodes are, in fairness, utterly brilliant) doesn’t seem to like writing alien races, or alien cultures.

    Yes! It felt odd to have a somewhat well-defined, alien looking character in the last ep. And then I remembered how common that was during RTD’s run. As a Xenophile, I’m glad to see someone point that out.

    And I’m glad you enjoyed the blog post, and grimly happy that some other viewers are beginning to pick up on these things. When the episode first aired, I had an argument on metafilter about it that was like stabbing oneself repeatedly in the eye with a fork. Essentially, because the sexist tropes could be excused by individual plot reasons, we’re not supposed to see any individual element as sexist. Even discussion of the larger patterns of behavior were maddening. There was a lot of, “Well, I wouldn’t want to live out 36 years in solitary, so clearly they made the right choice.” Icky how these episodes seem to encourage the same sort of Doctorish paternalism in some male viewers.

    I actually really enjoyed the last episode–you’re right; the writing on the last three is stronger than what we’ve seen in ages–but the whole, “Way you know Amy’s grown in the Doctor’s eyes is that he calls her her husband’s name, which she has never herself stated a preference for” was fundamentally bleh.

    I’m really looking forward to a new companion. Burnt out on the Ponds.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Oh, man. That bit where he suddenly calls her Amy Williams was just… what? WHAT IS THIS? *headdesk*

      Thanks for writing such a good blog on the issue – I really hope Moffat starts listening to his female viewers and maybe even (gasp!) hiring some female writers, but at this point, I’m not holding out much hope.

      • Brendan says:

        The Amy Williams line I thought was a reference back to the wedding scene where he corrected Rory when he said she was going to be Mrs Williams. It came across as funny and an indication on who was likely to be the dominant partner in their marriage at the time, but don’t you think this would have been something that was discussed by Rory and Amy prior to the wedding and that Amy is the sort of person who would cave if it wasn’t what she wanted?

        In retrospect, this was really just another example of the Doctor pushing his viewpoint onto others and and getting away with it.

      • Phoebe says:

        Brendan, you’re right–Rory does say that. But it felt meaningful to me that Amy never does. She never states a preference to be called Williams, or objects when the Doctor calls her Pond. Only the man in her life does. It’s subtle things like that which really bother me about Doctor Who these days.

    • TBH says:

      The Amy Williams bit was meant (imho) to break the connection between the adventure world of time and space, and down to earth mundane life. That was done in order to distance her from the Doctor thus help break her belief in him.

      (Though I do agree with most of the points raised here. I do expect shows like Doctor Who to take the shallow medium of television out of the sexist swamp rather than get dragged in)

  3. The more dissatisfied I grew with this season, the more I looked about for someone, anyone who disliked it. Even without the increasing sexism, the _incoherency_ of it all was bothering me. River’s story is just too impossibly contradictory and nonsensical. And yet everyone seemed to love it! And if you disliked it that meant you were just too stupid (apparently) to understand a _complex_ story. Fortunately Fandom Secrets comments showed me that there was a growing core of dissatisfaction, and I’m glad to see more and more posts like this popping up.

    Especially annoying to me is the insertion of the resolution of River’s story into Amy’s past, because it was so plainly done on the fly (Moffat has said as much, I gather), and done so weakly. There wasn’t even any effort to insert Mels into Amy’s past at the beginning of this season – instead she is limply retconned into a single episode and no mention of her will ever be made again.

    Strangely enough, during River’s first appearance, back in Donna’s season, she kept talking about how magnificent _her_ Doctor was compared to _this_ Doctor (and by implication all the previous versions), and yet her Doctor appears remarkably incompetent to me. I really like Matt Smith’s performance, but his plots make him remarkably ineffective.

    BTW, have you noticed that River is essentially young Amy’s personality mixed with older Amy’s competence? They even have the same “he will always save me”/”he will always come for me” theme.

    I’m afraid the only way this season can redeem itself is if the Doctor finally does save ‘them’, by restoring baby Melody to Amy, and wiping River out of existence. That would be the logical end to the whole River storyline, but I have a sad feeling that’s just not going to happen.

  4. Brendan says:

    I think you’re husband is right, the Doctor is reaching the point of moral bankruptsy(or at least a lot less glossy), but in my estimation this is by design.

    “The Girl Who Waited” could have been called IMO “Rory’s Choice” since for me the pivotal moment is when the Doctor forces Rory to make the decision which Amy lives or dies. We already know that Rory has a very strong moral compass(He is the first to embrase the ‘gangers’ as people), so this would have been a very hard decision that would have left a lot of ill will. In “The God Complex” the Doc then destroys Amy’s trust in him too. I would have preferred an episode or two between these showing Rory’s disillusionment although he did get that lovely bit of snark in Everytime the Doctor gets pally with someone I has an overwhelming urge to notify their next of kin.

    This is all been building for a while. Don’t forget Rule One is “The Doctor lies.” which is a trumpet clarion that he is not to be trusted but he has managed to get away with it to date. Perhaps they are gettin a bit stale?

    My idea is this is all leading to the death of the Doctor ’cause I don’t think it is River in that suit, which begs the question: Who is?

  5. [...] it comes to anyone who is not male, white, and straight. And, indeed, spends rather a lot of time killing off women’s autonomy and autonomous women. Although Doctor Who has always been another TV iteration of the story of the Independent Rich [...]

  6. Since 2005 the previous companions always seemed to have an arc. Rose was different because Billie Piper was famous and casting her was a coup, but all the other companions seemed to have a beginning middle and end to their stories and Amy just doesn’t. I don’t know where they are going and I’m usually pretty good at figuring this stuff out to withing at least a ballpark. The love triangle as the tension of the relationship is pointless and stupid. We all know that will go nowhere if for no other reason than Amy is the Doctor’s mother in law, but more importantly, because outside Red Nose Day, the Doctor never has any kind of actual sex with his companions. Well, not counting the semi human 10th Doctor who lives with Rose on a parallel world. Anyway, if the relationship with Amy was meant to be enough of a plot hook, it has nothing on the BS that bothers me the most about the show in its current form:

    Nothing matters. “Time can be rewritten” has come to mean the writers can put anything they want into the chronology of the show (“The Next Doctor” for example) and then say it didn’t happen because of the cracks in time (or insert your favorite Moffat device here.) They’ve already tossed out what, all of the 10th Doctor’s adventures (as implied in the first season with Matt Smith as the Doctor when no one remembers anything that happened over the previous few years.) It’s nonsense. It’s the “it was all a dream” device, which isn’t even cute in a junior high short stories class.

    I liked some of Moffat’s writing under Mr. Davies, but as head writer, I think he’s failed. He hasn’t drawn the arcs you need to have an engaging season of stories and if he keeps this up, Dr. Who will have their budget cut by a very cost conscious BBC because people will watch less. I really hope they fix this.

  7. Plop says:

    I love the angels that doesn’t exist, and the episode with the Tardis as a woman (i love the actress, too. It’s a perfect match !)
    But it misses the moment where Amy truly saves everyone, and not just because she has been chosen to save the world.

    Anyway, it’s still a good show ! =)

  8. [...] then, the show is the brainchild of Steven Moffat, who hasn’t got aspectacular track record when it comes to writing women, and to whom the following quote from 2004 is lamentably attributable: [...]

  9. Rebecca (Liz) says:

    I do have one strong, non-undermined female character in Moffat-Who: the chick in Blink. She’s the star of the show, she saves the day (though she does need a male Plucky Assistant) and she’s the star of a really good show! She does develop an unhealthy obsession with the Doctor, but she chooses to move past it in the end and lives her life without needing him. I think it even passes the Bechdel Test, right at the beginning.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Agreed. Blink is an awesome episode, and Sally Sparrow is definitely an equally awesome heroine.

  10. Vivi says:

    You know, I do like the occasional “villain” who isn’t evil, just malfunctioning, instead of all the xenophobia-inducing plots during the Tenth Doctor’s era. (Most aliens were bent on destroying humankind, and usually because their species was evil or predatory. As much as the Slitheen were seriously naff, at least they made a point out of saying that they were individuals who were considered criminals even by their own people.) But you’re right, it is getting old. Especially if it’s always some kind of robot, zombies or an artificial environment, instead of mixing it up with some living aliens who are in conflict with humanity because of desperation or cultural misunderstandings. There’s no real story if the antagonist in the central conflict isn’t even sentient. And wasn’t the Doctor supposed to teach the kids a bit about tolerance, compassion and understanding, too?

    By the way, the repeated motive of “the Doctor has a relationship with a woman who fell in love with him as a child” didn’t start with Reinette. Moffat half managed to retcon it into the Doctor’s and Rose’s relationship as well:

    Rose: “Look at you, beaming like you’re Father Christmas!”
    Nine: “Who says I’m not? Red bycicle when you were twelve.”

    At least the implication of that scene is that Rose never saw him, and so she didn’t obsess about him throughout her adolescence like with Reinette, Amy and River. But still, the Doctor apparently made an extra effort to see her as a tween.

    Interestingly, the shortstory that eventually got rewritten into “Blink” featured Sally Sparrow as a pre-teen, only for it to be revealed at the end that the Doctor had first met her as an adult woman – with a very River-like persona.

    He really is a one trick pony, isn’t he? Did it have to be such a creepy trick, though? It’s cropping up so often that I’m beginning to suspect it’s some sort of wish fulfillment fantasy of him…

  11. kjpearl says:

    You raise many good points. I’m kind of torn about the treatment of Melody/River. On the one hand it’s weird for people to lose their baby with so little reaction but on the other hand everything about Melody’s birth was weird and I think that would affect their reactions to he kidnap. Unlike most couples who have about 9 months to get used to the idea of a baby they had no idea until she was born a few minute-hours before she was taken. It’s possible they aren’t mourning her because the idea of her never really sunk in. This kind of falls apart when you think about miscarriages, which can greatly affect the parents despite them having known about it for very little time. Also Amy seemed to develop some pretty strong maternal bond towards Melody during the short time she held/spoke to her. All of this leaves me torn and confused. Overall, I do wish they had addressed they issue rather than ignore it.

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