Whovian Feminism

The Feminist's Guide to Doctor Who

This blog aims to answer one simple question: Is Doctor Who a feminist television show? Focusing predominately on New Who, I will examine the women of Doctor Who, their stories, the fandom, and the potential for a Female Doctor.
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This episode was all about choosing who we want to be. The Doctor chose to call himself “The Doctor” to represent an ideal to strive towards, a promise, and so committed was he to that ideal that he rejected a version of himself that broke that promise. Clara chose to walk into the Doctor’s timeline to save the Doctor. But what does this say about her? "The Name of the Doctor" infuriated me as much as it intrigued me. Though the ending left me gaping in shock and the superb acting by all involved had me shedding a few tears, I can’t say it changed my opinion much about Clara, who remains an underdeveloped character.

With suicidal vengeance, the Great Intelligence has located the Doctor’s grave in order to insert himself into the Doctor’s timeline and torture every moment of his existence. To ensure the Doctor does as he commands, the Great Intelligence has kidnapped the Doctor’s friends and threatens to murder them. Neve McIntosh delivers an absolutely incredible performance as Madame Vastra and turns a relationship that had veered too often into mocking comedy into one of depth, love, realism and, in “The Name of the Doctor,” tragedy. We also, surprisingly, got more backstory into their relationship, as Vastra implies that she was going to kill Jenny in her quest for revenge until the Doctor intervened. Despite the hype and high stakes the episode promised, I didn’t truly feel the pathos the episode promised until that moment.

We also saw the return of River Song post-Library, who lingered throughout the episode like a ghost. Unsurprisingly, her appearance raised more questions than it answered. How did she know the Doctor was buried at Trenzalore? Why was there a grave marker with her name on it, and how did she know it was a secret entrance into the TARDIS? Why did she open the Doctor’s tomb, and how does she know the Doctor’s name, since we still haven’t seen that scene yet? But I almost find myself appreciating the development her character has taken in this episode, and this is a feeling I’m not used to.

This is a River more bitter and cynical about her relationship with the Doctor than we’ve seen her before. River is not surprised the Doctor has another companion, though she doesn’t seem pleased that he’s hardly mentioned her to Clara, and clearly hasn’t mentioned how important she was to him. River has been left for god-knows how long in the Library, but has never seen the Doctor since she was ‘saved’. "He left me like a book on a shelf," she says, "Didn’t even say goodbye. He doesn’t like endings." One of the many complaints I’ve heard from female fans is that "Forest of the Dead" makes River’s eventual fate seem like a happy ending, as if being perpetually trapped in a computer was something to be desired, and for the first time we see the show questioning whether the Doctor’s actions should be praised. 

It’s a theme reminiscent of the Doctor’s reunion with Sarah Jane in “School Reunion.” The Doctor doesn’t like endings, he doesn’t like fixed points in time, and he doesn’t like saying goodbye. It’s a selfish attitude which took a heavy toll on Sarah Jane, who felt she wasted much of her life waiting for a man who was never returning for her. And for a moment  in “The Name of the Doctor,” we see the Doctor acknowledge this selfishness when he confesses to River that he never talked with her again because he feared it would hurt him too much. It does hurt, but for a brief moment the show acknowledges that his actions result in much crueler pain to his friends.

And then we have Clara; mysterious, mad, impossible Clara who throws herself into the Doctor’s timeline to undo the damage that the Great Intelligence has caused and saves the Doctor’s life over and over and over again. The trailers for this episode had me worried she would be another River Song, a companion-plot-point devoid of any agency, but thankfully she made the decision to enter the Doctor’s timeline and create herself. Like Rose and the Bad Wolf, Clara chose to create the Impossible Girl.

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with how she was portrayed in this episode though. In the climax of the episode, the Doctor asks for Clara to “just this once” let him save her. Okay, I get that throwing herself into his timeline and being torn into a million pieces was a big deal, but I can think of four times in Series 7 off the top of my head where the Doctor has saved Clara. And then, right before the final big reveal, Clara faints and the Doctor has to carry her off.

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Seriously? I’ve already covered this in an earlier post. The Doctor carrying a passed out companion can work, if its actually well written. Clara just fainted randomly for plot convenience so they could have an image of the Doctor carrying a helpless female companion. I can’t even do a feminist analysis of that moment, it was so incredibly stupid.

However, the episode’s ultimate dissapointment was that it still failed to fully develop Clara’s character. If there was one exchange from this episode that I could pick out to summarize Clara in Series 7, it would be this one:

Clara: “I don’t even know who I am!”

The Doctor: “You’re my impossible girl.”

Because that’s all Clara really is to us: the Doctor’s impossible girl. The Guardian’s episode reviewer said he still doesn’t feel like he knows Clara as a person. The Mirror noted: “It’s getting increasingly hard [..] to really become emotionally invested in the show’s lead characters if they all seem so distant or, quite literally in the case of Clara, impossible.” It’s a sentiment I’ve seen repeated over and over again. And this episode did nothing to correct for that.

For example, let’s go back to that Mary Sue episode review I discussed earlier this week, in which Susanna Polo described how the writers’ efforts to draw out the mystery of Clara’s character effectively reduces and generalizes her character by denying the audience any chance to see her develop true character traits. In “The Name of the Doctor,” Clara’s memories that were deleted in “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” returned (should we call that being un-retconned?), yet in a shocking moment of deja-vu, no attempt is made to meaningfully address the fact that the Doctor has been lying to her about why he is interested in her. This in order to increase dramatic tension and delay the reveal. As The Mary Sue said:

[T]he central relationship of the show, between the Doctor and his current companion, can’t actually reach the honest emotional link that’s so necessary for an audience to care what happens to it, because it’s based on a grossly unequal sharing of information between the two parties. 

And that, ultimately, is where this episode failed. What should have been a heart-wrenching and emotionally devastating act of sacrifice felt surprisingly hollow to me. The episode had the potential to be so excellent, so amazing, yet its ultimate let down was a shoddy foundation. Jenna-Louise Coleman and Matt Smith both turned in such amazing performances, and it’s truly a shame the writing over the course of Series 7 could not support them. The episode did not sink to the lowest of my expectations, but neither did it rise to meet my highest hopes.

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    All of this, sadly : in particular the point about an episode with potential being let down by a less than solid...
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