As River Song would say, “Spoilers.”
Finally! Netflix has relinquished hold on the most recent season of Doctor Who. Oh the pain of having to wait has been mended. With the new season often comes a new companion or a new doctor. This season we encounter a new companion: Clara Oswald (a.k.a Impossible Girl, a.k.a Souffle Girl). I am a big fan of Doctor Who (yes, I have tried to watch the older episodes even) and I have my partiality for Doctors (tenth) as well as companions (*ahem* Rose). While the series may not meet all the standards of the Bechdel test, there are many positive attributes for female viewers that are sometimes overshadowed by unnecessary events.
In the first episode of season 7, “Asylum of the Daleks“, there is great hope for the potential of Clara’s character. She was a genius, breaking into Dalek technology, something the Doctor acknowledges no one has ever been able to accomplish. In the face of fear as Dalek’s pounded on her door, she simply boarded up the door and continued to try and make her souffle. She was not quick to be upset or fall into the hands of despair; she sought a positive outlook almost continuously because, importantly, she believed in herself. Clara Oswald was also a reversion to the companion being more of a friend rather than a love interest. In the finale, “The Name of the Doctor”, we learn that Clara existed to save the Doctor as she made appearances throughout all of time. She was, in essence, the Impossible Girl because she ran into the Doctor’s timeline and was consumed. Thus, many copies appeared throughout all of time to help correct the Doctor’s timeline. Even when Clara realized she might not ever exist as her “real” self again, she did not surrender, she persevered. Naturally, the writers wouldn’t let it rest at that. She existed only for the Doctor’s survival (at least thus far in the series).
The “damsel in distress” seems to be a common occurrence in Doctor Who. We saw it with Rose who bravely sacrificed herself to be engulfed by the heart of the Tardis in the episode “The Parting of the Ways”: the Doctor kissed her to save her and absorb the energy back into himself. Donna Noble is later introduced and, in the episode “Journey’s End”, Donna touches the Doctor’s hand to become a human-time lord hybrid. Her hyper intelligence saves them all, but not before her existence began to consume her, another sacrifice by a brave companion that is yet rendered as a damsel in distress that only the Doctor must save by obliterating her memory (see the pattern?).
They do a disservice to the female characters when they have them sacrifice a great deal only to eventually rely on the Doctor to be rescued. I feel that their sacrifices are somewhat diminished not because I wish for them to perish, but because those companions risking their lives was not as crucial as the Doctor risking his life. It is significant to recognize that these companions are intricate characters who often formulate, construct and monitor plans and ideas without the aid of the Doctor; ergo, they are critical characters in the series, they are part of the heroic antics.
Then there is the case of Martha Jones. She traveled the entire world, on her own, to battle the Master, in the episode “The Year That Never Was”. Her own plan, telling everyone to think of the Doctor at a specific time instantaneously, brought the Doctor back and saved the world. Furthermore, despite her love interest, it was not debilitating to her accomplishments or want of adventure. Martha confessed her love to the Doctor who admitted he could not return it (Rose being one of those he truly loved). Now, generally speaking in television and movies, the woman would be devastated. Not Martha. She did continue to pursue the Doctor and adventure, but in the episode, “Last of the Time Lords”, Martha had enough self-respect to admit an unhealthy relationship and she decided to stay behind to pursue her own life (eventually she is happily married with an awesome career in UNIT). Martha Jones, fortunately, escaped the “damsel-in-distress” trap.
The series took a bit of a turn when Amy Pond was introduced. The “damsel-in-distress” theme became overbearing through this portion of the series. It was difficult to find one instance in which Amy was not saved by the Doctor (or Rory) and had formulated a complete plan without the Doctor’s assistance. There were a few parts, to be fair, throughout the series, where Amy demonstrated quick-thinking and sudden epiphanies of knowledge; in the episode “The Curse of the Black Spot”, Amy saved Rory’s life through CPR, but only after he convinced her she could do it. I have searched through the different archives of episodes and (though I admit my bias) have little in the way of praise to offer for Ms. Pond, though I admire her brashness. However, because of their intermingled storyline of mother and daughter, River Song made frequent appearances. She was, perhaps, one of the strongest supporting female characters. Though she was married to the Doctor she was not compelled by any need to be with him. Indeed, she enjoyed the moments they could share as their timelines were running anti-parallel to each other. River was the epitome of the adventurous woman that we want in a series such as this: intellectual, brave, unconcerned with physical appearances, witty and wise. She defied the damsel-in-distress theme, never having to rely on the Doctor for salvation. Her most defining moment (of many) came in the episode of “The Big Bang” when the Dalek awakened and injured the Doctor, River fended it off. It mentioned that she was an associate of the Doctor’s and River told it to check it’s records again, to which it cried for mercy; it was a side never seen before, but one in which we saw a woman being protective of a man. And the only person, woman or man, that could make a Dalek beg.
Regardless of this theme of the “damsel in distress”, the writers of Doctor Who attempt to create identifiable and realistic female characters. Overall, the series should be recognized for it’s ability to create female characters that exist outside of a male character’s storyline (besides the Doctor’s which is the main storyline), they have their own hopes and dreams, they often speak or interact with another female, they are willing to defend themselves, and the focus is never on them physically, they have depth of character.
There are, of course, improvements to be made. First, is it necessary that the companions have a love interest in the Doctor? Refer back to Donna Noble who was such a brilliant addition to the series, but not necessarily interested in a love relationship with the Doctor. Second, if the Doctor is an alien who can supposedly regenerate into any form, why not a woman? Finally, if the writers are to include storylines such as Rose’s, Donna’s and Clara’s that involve major sacrifices, why is it that it cannot just end with them saving the Doctor? It seems superfluous to have the Doctor turn around and save them when they have proven more than capable of being the heroine. We are then forced to take away from this story that the hero is always a man, regardless of the heroic antics of these women.
So run, clever boy, and remember all the phenomenal, intelligent, and courageous women that supported you.