Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Hedonistic departures from the TARDIS?

By Danny Nicol,
University of Westminster

In Doctor Who the way in which the Doctor’s companions quit the programme is important, not least for representations of gender in the show.  By indicating what is likely to happen next in a companion’s life the programme can show whether she is going to make use of the skills and sense of empowerment gained during her adventures with the Doctor.  In post-2005 Doctor Who, the Doctor’s companions have, until recently, tended to be prised out to the TARDIS against their will, but given the consolation prize of settling down with husband and home in some form.   In an article co-written with Alyssa Franke of Whovian Feminism fame
we chart how this pattern, specifically in the cases of companions Donna Noble and Amy Pond, fits with post-feminist notions of retreatism.   The piece will appear in the Journal of Popular Television in Spring 2018.
Bill takes her leave of the TARDIS with Heather

This post considers more recent departures from the TARDIS – those of Bill Potts and Clara Oswald - and their implications for representing gender and sexuality.   When in “The Doctor Falls” (2017) Bill Potts seemingly takes her leave of the Doctor the nature of her departure forms a stark contrast with that of Nardole, the series’ male companion and, I would argue, serves to undercuts her as a character.

One-series wonders: Martha Jones and Bill Potts

Companions of short duration: Martha as well as Bill
Before discussing her departure and the contrast with Nardole, the comment should be made that we are losing Bill Potts rather too early, not least given Pearl Mackie’s exceptional merits as an actor.  In particular it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth that the Doctor’s two black companions – Martha Jones and Bill Potts - only lasted one series each, whereas three white companions Rose Tyler, Amy Pond and Clara Oswald all occupied the TARDIS for two series or longer.  This discrepancy resonates with academic analyses which show that whilst Doctor Who shows admirable diversity when casting one-off characters it is poor at ensuring equality with regard to the show’s starring roles (see Lorna Jowett "Doctor Who and the politics of casting" (2018) Journal of Popular Television, forthcoming).

Bill’s short tenure might be explained by the need to “clear the decks” for new showrunner Chris Chibnall.  But why should we accept an iron law that new showrunners start with a clean slate of actors?  It is all rather precious.  The show’s longest-serving producer John Nathan-Turner inherited both a companion (Romana) and a robot dog (K9) with no ill effects.

Girls just wanna have fun?

Perhaps compared to the fates of Rose, Martha, Donna and Amy the futures envisaged for Clara and Bill are an improvement of sorts.   They are more jolly.  They are, on a superficial level, very positive about women's same-sex relationships.   They are also strikingly similar to each other, evincing a repetitiveness in Steven Moffat’s writing.

Clara and Ashildr begin their travels
Essentially, both women find a same-sex partner together with a means of travelling around time and space.  Clara finds Ashildr, a part-human immortal, and goes off in a spare TARDIS.   Bill is rescued from existence as a Cyberman by Heather, who was transformed into a water-based alien able to transcend time and space in Bill’s introductory story “The Pilot” (2017).

So for Clara and Bill alike travel and adventure beckon.  Yet for both women everything about the future is left rather vague.  In particular, what exactly are our two heroines doing, zapping through the galaxies on their romantic, fun-filled travels?   Is there actually any point to this endless milling around? 

Since no other motivation is expressed it would seem that Clara’s and Bill’s travels are intended as a fun-seeking exercise, their mission is to please themselves. Yet this life of sight-seeing and pleasure-seeking is ultimately somewhat empty, though rather in line with the spirit of the age.  David Ciepley has observed that modern capitalism has come to rely on hedonism which has displaced the Protestant work ethic.  Capitalism has fashioned an individualist society in which work is not “a calling” but a means of consumption.  The short-term focus of the hedonist has, under neoliberalism, gained control of the arena of production.  ((2017) 1 American Affairs 58-71).   Oliver James contends that under neoliberalism, status-competition for consumer goods accelerated and became a social imperative (The Selfish Capitalist, London: Vermillion, 2008) 152-3).   It could be argued that more recently the acquisition of experiences has perhaps partially eclipsed the acquisition of possessions as a target for getting-and-spending.   Yet the mildest tweaking of Clara’s and Bill’s departures could have served to indicate that there was some more virtuous, unselfish purpose to their future adventures than a quest for personal enjoyment. 

Nardole’s nobler calling?

Nardole is tasked with saving the children
By contrast Nardole has a nobler finale.  He leaves when the Doctor charges him with defending a group of people – mainly children – from being turned into Cybermen.  He is thereby made a welcome addition to the rather short list of Doctor Who companions who explicitly leave life in the TARDIS to go off to do something worthwhile.  Steven Taylor departs in “The Savages” (1966) in order to act as an “honest broker” leader between two ethnic groups, the Elders and the Savages.   Nyssa leaves in “Terminus” (1983) in order to help cure people suffering a deadly disease.  And Romana leaves in “Warriors’ Gate” (1981) in order to save an alien species.  (“Will she be alright?” queries the Doctor’s remaining companion Adric: “Alright?” retorts the Doctor, "She'll be superb!”)
Magnificent Romana begins her new mission

Against this backdrop there is something rather demeaning to Clara and Bill that their departures are depicted in purely hedonistic terms.  It also devalues the portrayal of their same-sex relationships.  For many individuals, “pure” pleasure-seeking, bereft of concern for a community, is ultimately unsatisfying.  It ought to be all the more unsatisfying to viewers of Doctor Who, a programme which is often about intervening in support of the endangered or oppressed.

1 comment:

  1. "But why should we accept an iron law that new showrunners start with a clean slate of actors? It is all rather precious."
    This is something that I find rather annoying about NewWho. In the original, Companions provided natural continuity across regenerations (Sarah Jane Smith was with Pertwee's Doctor for quite a while before her long run with Tom Baker) but now there's always this massive break.