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Tansy Rayner Roberts

This is what Feminist SF looks like: Big Finish, and Gallifrey

August 8th, 2011 at 19:05

I know, I know. You’re sick of me raving about how good Big Finish is. But this isn’t a review, as such. There are some comments that regularly get thrown at feminist critics: you’re so negative, it’s all about tearing people down, why don’t you ever give cookies when we get it right? (It was particularly tragi-amusing to hear these comments in reaction to Nicola Griffiths proposing the Russ pledge, which is entirely positive)

So this is me talking about a bunch of blokes who get it so, so right.

There’s a thing I’ve been noticing, and I was reminded of it again recently while listening my way through season two of Gallifrey, an audio series produced by Big Finish. This series, now into its fourth season, has been produced on and off over the last decade, and was intended by its creators to be an SF version of The West Wing – political drama set on the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey.

Our protagonists are Romana, the Lord President, and her alien bodyguard Leela, who comes from a primitive warrior culture. Both characters are played by the same actresses, Lalla Ward and Louise Jamieson, who portrayed them in 1970′s Doctor Who as companions to the Fourth Doctor. I always thought this series was an awesome idea, taking two really interesting characters and giving them a further life than Doctor Who itself allowed them. But then I listened to a story which involved a plot point where the two characters had their brain patterns crossed over – so that Leela suddenly had the President’s cool, ruthless and logical way of thinking, while Romana was overwhelmed with the instincts and uncontrollable emotions of the Sevateem warrior.

And it suddenly occurred to me – how often in science fiction do we get a story in which the two main characters are women, and in which the main conflict between them is how very different they are in personality? Never mind science fiction, actually, how often do we get that in STORIES? YA is probably the only genre where this might be a regular occurence. What Gallifrey does is demonstrate that you can tell interesting, crunchy science fiction stories in which the most important characters happen to be women (most importantly, more than one woman), without it necessarily having to be a story about traditionally female concerns.

A regular character gets killed off in season two, in a very underplayed sort of way at first, which seemed to cut off a plotline in mid-stream. I was shocked and confused by this, waiting for the reveal that it was a fake out. Instead, the reveal was something important about that death, something which rocked the most important relationship in the show: the friendship and alliance between Romana and Leela. Only then did I realise what had happened. The character had been women-in-refrigeratored, his own burgeoning plotline sacrificed to further the story of the women.

Hell, yes!

This is not an isolated incident. As you all know, I’ve been inhaling Big Finish audio plays at a rate of knots all year, and it has interested me how much I am adoring them considering that the majority are written and directed by men. I have a solid history of finding it easier to love works written by women, and I’m not convinced that it’s just my love of Doctor Who that’s making me love Big Finish so hard.

The fact is, they’re all a great big bunch of lefty feminists.

From edge to edge, the Big Finish back catalogue is packed with choices that empower their female characters. Almost every story features awesome women having science fictional adventures. Their biggest spin-off series is that of Bernice Summerfield, a character who was devised for the New Adventures original novels in the 90′s and has been marvellously brought to life by actress Lisa Bowerman (who is also now one of BF’s rare female directors). I’m up to season 6 of Benny’s adventures, which have reached (I think) 11 seasons all up. Here we have an older female character who is irreverent, brave, flawed, funny and sexually unapologetic, who bombs around the universe digging up (and just as often, blowing up) alien artefacts, getting involved with other people’s wars, travelling through time, and flitting from comedy to angsty drama at the flick of a switch. We also get to see her as a mother, balancing the needs of her family with the work that she loves. I adore her, far more than I ever did in the novels, where she pretty much only made sense to me if Paul Cornell or Kate Orman was writing her.

Other spin off series are also centred around female characters: Sarah Jane (before she got her own show on TV), UNIT, with protagonist Emily Chaudhry front and centre, and Iris Wildthyme (which I haven’t listened to yet), a vibrant and frenetic character who started life in the 90′s novels and is very much a counterpart to the Doctor. Even the male-male duo of Jago and Litefoot recently added Leela to their regular cast…

In the main range as well as the spin offs, the female companions of Big Finish tend to get a better run at their characters than in the original classic series – even characters I loved (and I loved most of them) were often hard done by, whether it was in lack of character development, lousy and unconvincing romances, weak introductions, or weak closing stories. Peri’s awful not-dead-married-a-warlord rebooted exit is made so much better by the existence of “Peri and the Piscon Paradox.” Susan being abandoned on Earth by her grandfather because he thinks he knows she wants to get married, and the way her reunion with him in the Five Doctors glossed over this is made better by “An Earthly Child” and the finale two parter of the Lucie Miller series. Leela’s utterly bizarre selection of Andred as a marriage partner in the last 5 seconds of The Invasion of Time makes a world of sense in Gallifrey.

Even characters who were just plain awesome in the original show – such as Ace – get to show new dimensions to themselves, or develop further than in the show. In the original Doctor Who, Ace was going to be written out in her third season. In Big Finish, they not only addressed that lost storyline in a story (Thin Ice) which allowed her to call out the Doctor on thinking he knows better than her what her future should hold, but they gave her a fully realised future. Ace has become an adult over the years, and while the novels in the 90′s reflected her adulthood by giving her mirrorshades, an occasional sex life and a whole lot of anger issues, the Big Finish plays have dealt with her more subtly. By pairing Ace with Hex, a young male companion who also transcends gender stereotypes, she gets to develop as a mentor character. The contrasts between these two only make them more interesting – if they hit a war zone (as happens quite a bit), Ace is going to join the side of the rebels and start shooting/stabbing, while Hex is going to run to the nearest ambulance and volunteer to help the wounded. She’s tough as nails, he’s full of squishy feelings. This interaction is reflected in New Who, with Amy and Rory – in Vampires of Venice she runs towards the scream, he runs away from it. But unlike Amy and Rory, Ace’s character is never weakened in order to give Hex his hero moments. She is always the hero, and he is the one who deals with the domestic stuff – or he demonstrates heroics through quiet, less obvious acts of bravery, while she’s up on the battlements.

Throughout all the Big Finish plays, we find some great and diverse supporting characters, often written as women without there being a specific need for this in the plot. I’ve particularly appreciated the portrayal of women in the military and in positions of leadership throughout the universe. Also, as in Gallifrey, we often get multiple women driving the story, and getting the opportunity to work together.

What I wanted to highlight with this post is that while a few scripts are written or directed by women (I love Jacqueline Rayner’s work, for instance, particularly the first season of Bernice Summerfield which she adapted from existing works, and I’m desperate to get my hands on her tie-in novel The Squire’s Crystal), the large majority of the Big Finish team are men. Not just the writers and directors, but the producers, designers and people in charge of commissioning the work. A big old bunch of men, creating science fictional stories for an audience which is largely perceived (as, true or not, Doctor Who core fandom is certainly perceived) as also being male. And yet this apparent massive sausagefest cares about women. They produce stories which assume that women are equally interesting people to men, and that you don’t have to stop once you’ve got one well-written woman in the cast. You can add two or three, and if you write them well enough, men are still going to enjoy the stories because, you know, they’re full of people who are written well and doing exciting things. Maybe even (gasp) the stories are BETTER because they have a wider variety of characters in them, who are all treated like people.

Also, those women? They can be played by actresses who are 40 and 50 and 60 and they are still interesting. Even the young ones are interesting. It doesn’t matter whether they fit into skimpy outfits or not, because no one cares about what they’re wearing, or how hot they are. If Peri and Erimem get dressed up for a party, we only hear about what they’re wearing if is a) funny b) revealing of character or c) relevant to the actual plot. Likewise, if there’s a shower scene, or a bed scene, or a swimming scene, it’s because it’s necessary, not because it’s a good excuse to show the actress naked. It’s almost as if you can have women in science fiction without their primary job viewers in by the sheer power of their sexiness.

I know, right?

I’d love to see Big Finish include more female writers, directors, etc. but there’s no denying that what they’re doing right now is really, really good. It shows the way. It demonstrates quite clearly that there is every reason for a writer (male or female) to produce science fiction that treats women (or gay people, or non-white people, etc.) like they are people, regardless of whether their imagined core audience is mostly male, mostly female, or mostly time-travelling green aliens in crinolines and rollerskates.

[Does it have to be said that if you are treating all your characters as “people” without consideration of gender, race, culture, etc. and you just happen to end up with a full cast of fit white guys with maybe one woman in a) a healing role or b) a sexy outfit, you could be doing better? Thought not.]

If only the predominantly male teams behind so many SF TV shows, films & comics could demonstrate something similar.

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3 Responses to “This is what Feminist SF looks like: Big Finish, and Gallifrey”

  1. PharaohKatt Says:

    Clearly I need to get this series STAT. Where can I get it? Is it on iTunes?

  2. tansyrr Says:

    They sell direct from http://www.bigfinish.com – you can purchase most of their titles as downloads now, though a few of them (such as the first two seasons of Gallifrey which were made about a decade or so ago) are only available as CD. On the plus side, they are super cheap, as is the postage to Australia.

    (check out the Big Finish for a Fiver page)

  3. Linkdump for a Wet Weekend | Cora Buhlert Says:

    [...] Rayner Roberts offers an appreciation of the Doctor Who audio dramas by Big Finish, particularly with regard to how female… by an overwhelmingly male production [...]

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