Thursday, 21 March 2019

Desperately Tweaking Susan

 By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

The first episode of Doctor Who, “An Unearthly Child” (1963), is considered by many to be the finest in the programme’s long history.  It introduces us to the Doctor and TARDIS through the intermediary of the Doctor’s granddaughter, Susan Foreman.   Susan attends a London secondary school.  Her teachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, are mystified by her scientific and historical knowledge as well as by the gaps in her knowledge.  On a pretext they try to visit her home, only to stumble into the TARDIS and be whisked away through time and space - with scant hope of return since the TARDIS is erratic.  Before this, however, Susan reveals that she and her grandfather are from another time and world.  Tulloch and Alvarado have analysed how the episode skilfully presents Susan as “familiar but different”. (1)

The Doctor kidnaps Susan

A popular narrative is that, in “An Unearthly Child”, the Doctor kidnaps Ian and Barbara in order to preserve the secret of his and Susan’s scientific advances.  A close reading of the script however indicates that his prime objective is actually to stop his granddaughter from leaving him:

SUSAN: I want to stay!  But they’re both kind people.  Why won’t you trust them?  All you’ve got to do is ask them to promise to keep our secret quiet.
DOCTOR: It’s out of the question.
SUSAN: I won’t go, Grandfather.  I won’t leave the twentieth century.  I’d rather leave the TARDIS and you.
DOCTOR: Now you’re being sentimental and childish.
SUSAN: No, I mean it.
DOCTOR: Very well.  Then you must go with them.  I’ll open the door.
BARBARA: Are you coming, Susan?
(The Doctor, instead of flipping the switch to open the doors, dematerialises the TARDIS.)
SUSAN: Oh no, Grandfather!  No!

From the outset, therefore, the story of Susan and the Doctor is one of domination.  The male Doctor knows best: he decides Susan’s future regardless of her own wishes.  This sets a pattern for the rest of her time in the TARDIS, including her departure.

Susan’s demotion

Given her centrality in the opening episode and its emphasis on her other-worldliness and advanced knowledge, one might expect Susan to emerge as a central figure in Doctor Who and that the show would make maximum use of her alien attributes.   In fact Susan is routinely relegated.  David Butler observes that Susan has considerable dramatic potential and appeal but that this is allowed entirely to stagnate after “An Unearthly Child”. (2)   In fact Ian and Barbara constantly outshine her in terms of agency:   
  • “The Keys of Marinus” (1964) sees Ian and Barbara engaging in daring adventures to find the missing keys to a computer which controls a planet’s conscience.  Susan by contrast mainly tags along with her grandfather. 
  • “The Aztecs” (1964) centres around Barbara being mistaken for a god.  She uses this status to try to abolish the Aztec practice of sacrifice, whilst Ian competes in an ultra-masculine feud to the death with an Aztec military commander.  By comparison Susan’s role is essentially passive, being threatened with arranged marriage and having to be rescued.  
  • “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (1964) features exceptional agency on the part of Ian and Barbara. Ian stops a Dalek bomb which is aimed at the Earth’s core.   Barbara penetrates into the heart of Dalek headquarters in a bid to destroy their control panels.  Both of them act entirely on their own initiative.  Susan by contrast arrives at the Dalek HQ in the company of her grandfather and newly-acquired boyfriend David Campbell, and plays a useful role only by obeying the Doctor’s instructions to the letter.

Susan’s untapped potential

Susan was therefore regularly eclipsed by the Doctor’s two human companions.  Her nadir comes in “The Reign of Terror” (1964) where she is terrified by rats in a prison in revolutionary France.  By contrast Susan’s finest hour comes in “The Sensorites” (1964) where she uses telepathic power to communicate with an alien species.  Her gift for telepathy is clearly greater than the Doctor’s.  But instead of using Susan’s telepathy to restore and rebuild her as a character, Doctor Who immediately undercuts her agency, by having the Doctor veto her attempt to journey alone to the Sensorites’ planet in order to reason with them.  In the ensuing argument, as Joan Frances Turner observes, the more Susan protests that she is no longer a child the more aggressively her grandfather infantilises her. (3)

Susan is not even allowed to determine her own departure: torn between new love David Campbell and concern for her grandfather at the close of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”, the decision is made by the Doctor, who locks her out of the TARDIS and tells her that her future lies with David.  Agency is thereby once again whipped away from her.  Tellingly, any difficulty which might arise in the marriage from Susan not being human is entirely ignored, the programme having played down her alien nature for much of the time. 

All in all, it is little wonder that Carole Ann Ford who played Susan was so dissatisfied with the production team’s unwillingness to develop Susan that she left the series.  Furthermore neither Susan’s later appearance in “The Five Doctors” (1983), the show’s twentieth anniversary special, nor her roles in several ‘Big Finish’ audio adventures, really serves to transform the character. 

The politics of Susan

Why did the Doctor’s granddaughter come to be portrayed as such a wet blanket?   Susan might fit into Richard Wallace’s category of a “screamer”, on his reading the most recognisable type of Doctor Who companion and one of the least effective representations of women that the programme has to offer. (4)  A political analysis would place Susan’s period in the TARDIS in the context of a time in the early 1960s in which feminism was only just emerging from its 1950s torpor.  In the 1950s gender relations were organised along patriarchal lines.  Women were still largely connected with the domestic sphere and men with the world of work.  It was only in the 1960s that social and political changes threatened these traditional roles. (5)  It was during that decade that “second wave” feminism emerged as a form of politics aiming to transform the unequal power relations between men and women. (6)  Susan and the more feminist Barbara may be seen as representing those two different phases, with Susan more confined to the ‘traditional’ role. 

Sometimes the frustrations of the show’s treatment of Susan have spilt out into fan fiction.  The present author, for example, has concocted several adventures in which a pro-active Susan (now serving in the post-Dalek British government alongside her husband) solves murders in time and space along with the Doctor’s later companion Romana.  As well as showcasing her telepathic skills, Susan uses her intelligence to find the killer of an intergalactic magnate, solve the case of an exploding Prime Minister on a faraway planet, hunt down the perpetrator of the killing of the Guardian of the Solar System at a hotel run by Sergeant  Benton, and identify a murderer in a political whodunit set in post-Dalek Britain.  It was not difficult to combine familiar "Susanisms" with unfamiliar derring-do.  Fanfic provides scope to flag up a programme’s shortcomings in a creative and constructive way: establishing a non-sexist Doctor Who canon is, however, a taller order.

Echoes of Susan

Doctor Who’s failure to make the most of Susan might be dismissed as a sexist aberration of the programme’s early years, of little relevance to modern Doctor Who.  In fact, as Alyssa Franke and I argue on the pages of the Journal of Popular Television, the contemporary programme undercuts the Doctor’s more recent companions Donna Noble and Amy Pond by consigning them to the rather Susan-ish fate of happy domesticity after their time in the TARDIS. (7)  In the last series, the number of “Yaz-lite” episodes is cause for concern, echoing the “Susan-lite” episodes of the past.  So too is the exclusion of the Doctor for the first time from the main emotional engagement of the series – the evolving granddad-grandson relationship between companions Graham and Ryan – an exclusion which coincides unhappily with the advent of the first woman Doctor.  Doctor Who’s disservice to Susan Foreman as a character was immense, and in so doing the show did a substantial disservice to itself.  The programme’s makers need to be more vigilant that the lessons are fully learnt.


(1)   J Tulloch and M Alvarado, Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (St Martin’s Press, 1983) pp.24-26.
(2)   D Butler, “How to Pilot A TARDIS”, in D Butler (ed.) Time and Relative Dissertations in Space (Manchester UP, 2007) p.40.
(3)   J Turner, “I’m from the TARDIS and I’m here to help you: Barbara Wright and the Limits of Intervention”, in D Stanish and L Myles (eds.) Chicks Unravel Time (Mad Norwegian Press, 2012) p.78.
(4)    R Wallace, “‘But Doctor?’ A Feminist Perspective of Doctor Who” in C Hansen (ed) Ruminations, Peregrinations and Regenerations (Cambridge Scholars, 2010) p.104.
(5)   K Milestone and A Mayer, Gender and Popular Culture (Polity, 2012) p.33.
(6)   J Hollows, Feminism and Popular Culture (Manchester UP, 2000) p.3.
(7)   A Franke and D Nicol, “‘Don’t Make Me Go Back’: Post-feminist retreatism in Doctor WhoJournal of Popular Television Vol. 6 No. 2 pp.197-233.


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