Doctor Who, especially the classic show, has a reputation for being a bit sexist. Which is hardly surprising, considering that it is a product of its time across so many different decades. We lucked out in the late sixties when a classic battle of the sexes episode (including a scene where Jamie spanks Zoe, Taming of the Shrew style) failed to be made. But with such a paternal structure, whereby the Doctor is male and also the character who knows most about everything most of the time, and the employment of such strategic companion costumes as the mini-skirt and, in the 80’s, the mini-skirt AND boob tube combination (not to mention poor Peri in her leotard and shorts) it certainly doesn’t escape that taint. Even the female characters allowed to be close to the Doctor’s intellectual equal, such as Liz and Romana, are regularly taken down a peg or two because the entire premise of the show is that the Doctor is more capable at what he does (even when being comedically bad at what he does) than anyone else.
There’s a reason that more action figures have been made of Leela in her leathers and Peri in her leotard-with-shorts than any other Doctor Who companions. And let’s not get into the recent revelations that Jon Pertwee insisted on a recast of the role of Sarah Jane Smith, because the actress cast before Elisabeth Sladen was too tall, and he liked to perform against a physically small woman, one he could be seen to physically protect. Ahem.
But there’s one sexist trope that, narratively, Doctor Who almost never used, and looking back over some of the rather dodgy decisions made by the show and its almost all-male writing tradition, it’s quite impressive that they didn’t. They almost never killed the girl.
[Spoilers follow for a bunch of Classic & New Who]
To be fair, they almost never killed the Doctor’s companion full stop, and a big part of that was the focus on an audience of children and families rather than adult fans (apart from a brief period in the mid-80’s when the show was retooled for a weekday evening audience instead of the usual Saturday teatime). The score is 27 years, 3 dead companions: two young women (Katarina and Sara Kingdom) from the same serial in the mid-1960’s, neither of which had been around for very long, and one young man in the early 80’s (Adric) who enjoys a similar fan reputation to Jason Todd in the Batman comics. If John Nathan Turner had thought of putting up a hotline for (adult, at least) Doctor Who fans to call in and vote whether Adric bought it, chances are the results would have been the same, if less surprising. There’s a fourth example, from a year or two after Adric, in which the longstanding companion Peri is killed and taken over in a manner similar to the death of Fred in Angel, then killed again, but the story is undercut later when this is revealed to be a trick, and that she really “lived happily ever after” with Brian Blessed, who had been stalking her for the whole serial. A rare example where the death of a female character felt far less sexist and demeaning than the alternative…Reading Seanan McGuire’s recent post, Bodybag Blondes, about how often female characters are casually killed in TV shows to provoke manpain (a technique also so heavily used in comics that the phrase ‘women in refrigerators’ and ‘fridging’ came into common geek vocabulary after Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend was literally killed and stuck in a fridge) it occurred to me that one of the awesome things about Doctor Who is that this awful trope is almost never used. So many companions come and go into the Doctor’s life, and no he doesn’t always get them back home, and yes, there is a problem about how he tends to abandon some of them in situations that MAYBE are less than appropriate, but for the most part, the companion arcs are positive. When they leave, it’s often because they’re choosing something better, or have found something they are missing, or met someone they want to be with (even if the script itself is less than persuasive on that score, looking at you, Andred and Leela), or just plain found some ruby slippers home. Travelling with the Doctor is a fascinating and educational sabbatical, and there’s almost never a sense in Classic Who that the companion plans to stay forever.
Which is the aspect I never quite felt comfortable with, in New Who. I love this show, but I didn’t believe or support the idea that Rose saw nothing but an endless TARDIS journey for the rest of her life, and certainly didn’t think the Doctor should support the idea. I winced at the idea that Sarah Jane, once a very independent character, had been pining over Tom Baker’s teeth and curls so badly that she couldn’t move on with her own life (and a slight rewrite suggesting that the reason she hadn’t married was because finding a partner who GOT the alien travel thing was bloody hard might have made all the difference). I was suspicious at Donna happily proclaiming that *she* would be with the Doctor forever, despite not having Rose’s youth and naivete and romantic attachment to the Doctor as excuses. And look how that turned out…
Only Martha and Jack have really had traditional Doctor Who leaving stories, though with a great deal of emotion wrung out of both – Martha doesn’t just leave to help her family recover from an ordeal and, you know, pass her exams, but because she knows the Doctor will never fancy her. Jack is abandoned casually in a horrible future to deal with his new immortality, and spends centuries waiting to yell at the Doctor and receive some closure (something Susan, Steven and many other companions left in less than happy places never got on screen).
And of course, New Who has killed the girl. There was Astrid Peth, the plucky waitress with her forklift, who killed the bad guy Ellen Ripley style, in a disaster movie style story that led entirely to that moment. There was Adelaide Brooke, the gruff and hard-talking Mars commander, whose suicide at the end of Waters of Mars is utterly baffling, as there’s no possible way it can heal the time line and keep history (that the Doctor damaged by saving her) on track. There’s a big difference between your aunt dying a hero in space and her unexpectedly teleporting in to shoot herself in your front hall, guys! Not a lot of dead “companions,” but 2 in 6 years is a lot more than 3.5 in 27 years.
There’s also a bunch of Moffat-related deaths of almost-companions, such as Madame De Pompadour (rumoured to be making a comeback next season), River Song (whose death is transformed into a virtual reality existence, and who still gets to play in the show after it thanks to time travel) and Rita in season 6, set up to be the best possible Doctor Who companion but died nobly instead. And I wouldn’t argue with anyone who thinks the way Donna was written out is tantamount to fridging, even if it allows for hope that someone in the future will fix her loss of memory. She was certainly sacrificed for the sake of manpain.
So basically, when it comes to bodybag blondes, the new show is far more likely to throw a female character under a bus than the old version. That’s… interesting. It’s not like Classic Who was short on character deaths full stop, there were hundreds and hundreds of on-screen deaths. But even though my personal opinion is that Peri the character was better served by her death as performed than the ‘no it didn’t happen’ scene that removed it, I very much like the fact that Classic Who so rarely killed the companion, and never killed off a female companion who had been with the show for any length of time.
New Who has skirted around it, but they haven’t gone there either: the only “companion deaths” were guest stars who were introduced in the same story where they were killed.
Which is why I am hoping, hoping, hoping, that Amy Pond gets to live. That’s what this comes down to. You may have guessed by the title. I’m worried. Steven Moffat has teased, as he often does, that Amy and Rory will finally be written out in the coming season, and that it’s going to be “heart-breaking.” We know he can’t kill off Rory, because the many deaths of that character became a running joke long ago, and it wouldn’t make people cry so much as roll their eyes and throw things.
Amy Pond, though. They could kill Amy Pond. It would have huge emotional resonance, at the end of her arc. It would be a great moment for Karen Gillan, who has performed the role with an expanding and impressive range, to show off her chops. (All actors love to go out with a bang, just ask Nicola Bryant what she thinks of Peri’s happy ending) It would provoke colossal amounts of manpainy angst in the Doctor.
It would be a huge mistake. And I don’t just say that because I have two young daughters who would be devastated. (My seven-year-old’s Doctor is David Tennant, because she’s into nostalgia – my two-year-old’s Doctor is Amy Pond) I don’t just say it because my teenage self would have been devastated at the loss of such a character, to the point of not being able to go back and enjoy the many highlights of Amy Pond. And I’m not sure how well my adult self would cope either…
It would be a mistake because if this show, which has skirted paternalism and sexism and basically got away with a hell of a lot over the decades, if it went THERE with a character who has had an intense two years of character development and audience attachment, and yes, young girls falling in love with Amy Pond, then it becomes a different show. Throwing the female characters under the space bus might make actresses happy, and those grown ups who like their shows ‘dark,’ but in this case, with a girl we have seen from childhood devote herself to the role of Doctor’s loyal travelling companion and fellow adventurer, it would irretrievably break something in the Doctor himself.
So I’m hoping and trusting. I’ve loved seasons five and six, and I do THINK I trust Moffat with seven. I can trust him as a writer and a showrunner… as LONG as he doesn’t kill Amy Pond. Which goes to show that really, I don’t trust him at all. I almost wish we had RTD back (almost) because we know he wouldn’t sacrifice the possibility that a wildly popular actress like Karen Gillan might pop back from time to time.
This reminds me of A Good Man Goes To War, where I spent the whole episode so stressed about the baby and what might happen to her that I couldn’t enjoy it properly until later, in rewatches, knowing how it would all turn out. Even knowing the outcome wasn’t great was less stressful than not knowing it at all.
I LIKED the way Amy and Rory were written out in The God Complex. I liked what was done with them in The Wedding of River Song. I liked how they came back into the story in the Christmas special, as dear friends that maybe don’t travel with him much any more because they have their own lives. Why can’t they just have that? Why does it have to be heart-breaking? And if Amy and Rory are safe, then how is Moffat going to break our hearts? Are our only choices the death of Amy Pond, or the unwriting of River Song’s timeline to give Amy and Rory their baby back?
When I see creators gleefully talking about how they’re going to make us cry, I do start eyeing the female characters with alarm. Surely making them live and leave the Doctor is more interesting?
Like Seanan McGuire, I’ve broken up with shows. I’ve walked away. And the deaths of women have often soured me on shows that I love. The last season of Battlestar Galactica ruined pretty much the whole show for me, because of its treatment of the human female characters. I never really forgave Star Trek: Next Gen for Tasha Yar, or Angel for Cordelia (though to be fair after the colossal awfulnesses they perpetrated on her character towards the end, death was something of a mercy). I don’t want to feel that way about Doctor Who. I’ve forgiven it for QUITE A LOT ALREADY, THANK YOU.It is possible to write a death scene for a female character that’s so awesome and interesting that it transcends the trope. The trick of course is to make it about HER and not him. The female character dying because she’s not up to her job is not clever or interesting. The woman who dies to make way for a more widely approved ship (COUGH DOWNTON ABBEY COUGH) is not original or unique.
And yes, they turned all that on its head very cleverly in season five, with Rory dying repeatedly to serve Amy’s character arc (and she dying only once, to serve her own) and everyone coming out alive at the end. And yes, season six was all about the Doctor dying, with occasional Rory deaths to lighten the mood. But, again, everyone came out alive at the end. None of those fakeout deaths can counterbalance the effect that an actual, real death of a female companion would have on the show.
The trouble with Doctor Who, of course, is that the central character is the Doctor. Despite some fans complaining that the show that came back in 2005 may as well have been called ‘Rose Tyler’ and not ‘Doctor Who’, even with the greater focus on the female companion as point of view character in New Who, the show is ultimately all about the Doctor. Which means that killing off the companions is necessarily going to be more about his story arc than theirs – and if said companions are female then that bodybag blondes (or in this case, redheads) trope is going to rear its ugly head.
It may be possible that Steven Moffat can write a tragic end for Amy Pond that is so thoroughly about her character, and her arc, and her story, that I forgive him for it, and that I prefer it to the alternative.
Is he that good a writer? Maybe he is. But I really don’t want to hear any more gloating about how heartbreaking the story is going to be. My heart is already pretty battered and worn down by the treatment of women in all my other beloved pop culture.
Amy Pond is my daughter’s Doctor. She’s the character that Jem loves most. I don’t want our hearts broken when she leaves! And I don’t think I am going to relax until I know, which way or another, what end will come. So… it’s gonna be a stressful year, then.