By Danny Nicol, University of Westminster
When Doctor Who first came to our screens we meet a rather authoritarian male alien, the Doctor, who dominates his subordinate "companion", his granddaughter Susan. In time Susan's place was taken by a succession of mainly female companions, some of whom have been labelled "screamers". In fact the companions varied in their degree of agency and whilst in "new Who" (2005-present) they may on average have had rather more agency than in "classic Who" (1963-89) nonetheless the Doctor ultimately remained dominant over the companion. This is exemplified by his erasing the memories of Donna Noble ("Journey's End" (2008)) and in the discovery that Clara Oswald was "the impossible girl...born to save [ergo, to serve] the Doctor" ("The Name of the Doctor" (2013)). The Doctor generally had the upper hand and the Doctor was always male.
|The Doctor languishes in space-jail|
Finally casting a woman Doctor gave hope that this female subordination would come to an end. A female Doctor would, one assumed, have the same agency and assertiveness as her male predecessors. But the last two episodes, "The Timeless Children" (2020) and "Revolution of the Daleks" (2021) seem to show that Doctor Who's opportunity to cast off sexism is being squandered.
"The Timeless Children" (2020)
In "The Timeless Children" the Master forces the Doctor into the Matrix, the repository of all Time Lord knowledge. Here she must witness the truth about her own origin. The Master reveals that she is no ordinary Time Lord; she was not born on the Time Lords' planet at all. In fact she is the Timeless Child, a unique alien in this universe. As such she enjoys powers to regenerate far in excess of those of the other Time Lords. Several elements in this episode are open to the charge of constituting sexism against the Doctor.
* The very fact that the Doctor is the Timeless Child The notion that the Doctor is a special-by-birth, unique entity has met with fierce criticism from fans of the show, though it has a few supporters as well. What concerns us here however is solely whether the innovation is sexist. The most that can be said is that the timing of the revelation is a little suspect. After numerous male incarnations, we have to wait for a woman Doctor to be told that she is a more powerful creature than the rest of the Time Lords. In fairness, on a conscious level, the intention of the Timeless Child idea seems to be entirely the opposite: anti-sexist and anti-racist. Hence we see a series of non-white girls and boys who are supposedly early interations of the Doctor. Yet the very idea that she has special powers and a unique origin also subtly implies that the female Doctor needs these extras, just as she needs her "fam" of three companions in place of the more usual single sidekick. A woman Doctor with more agency would need no such props.
* The Doctor's passivity in the Matrix vis-a-vis the Master The Doctor is no stranger to the Matrix. He has had several adventures within it. Most famously his exploits there in "The Deadly Assassin" (1976) were sufficiently violent to earn strong objections to the BBC from Mrs Mary Whitehouse. The Doctor's visits to the Matrix tend to be characterised by his usual hyper-activity and culminate in him defeating his opponents, yet for the present Doctor the visit is remarkable for her passivity. She hears the Master's narrative of her true story in a pained but passive fashion. Indeed the Master-Doctor performance has the air of an abusive relationship with the Master as abuser. The Doctor is not even allowed to escape from the Matrix under her own steam, rather she relies on the advice of another iteration of herself, the so-called Fugitive Doctor.
* The Doctor outsources her courage to another character, Ko Sharmus. The other plotline in "The Timeless Children" is that the Master has created a new breed of Cybermen who have the power to regenerate and will range across the universe, conquering at his command. The Doctor realises that she can use a device called the Death Particle to eliminate all life on the planet and with it the Master's new army. At first she intends to sacrifice herself in order to release the Death Particle, but she cannot summon up the will to do so. Fortunately another character, a grisled human resistance fighter called Ko Sharmus, offers to do so in her stead, allowing the Doctor to escape in a spare TARDIS. No real explanation is offered for the Doctor's gutlessness, yet it is a man who takes her place.
|The Master taunts the Doctor|
"Revolution of the Daleks" (2021)
Several elements of "The Timeless Children" therefore give cause for concern that the show is reinforcing sexist stereotypes rather than abandoning them. What however galvanises these suspicions is the Doctor's imprisonment at the beginning of the New Year's Day special, "Revolution of the Daleks". At the end of "The Timeless Children" the Doctor is imprisoned by the alien police force the Judoon. "Revolution" opens with the Doctor still serving her sentence in the grim e-controlled prison. Once again, what is remarkable is the Doctor's passivity. She makes no attempt to spring herself from jail, which is extraordinarily un-Doctor-like given that previous Doctors faced with incarceration have, of course, made every effort to escape.
Ultimately she is rescued by old friend Captain Jack Harkness. Once again therefore a male character saves her bacon; he is given the agency which the female Doctor is denied. Thankfully thereafter the plot allows the Doctor to mastermind the thwarting of a Dalek invasion of Earth. As in "The Timeless Child" (where using the Death Particle is her own idea albeit with a hint from the Fugitive Doctor), the Doctor is not entirely devoid of agency. The show could not work if she were. Yet at the same time it seems fairly certain that the script is giving her significantly less agency than would be the case for her male predecessors. Therein lies Doctor Who's resurgent sexism.