Feminist fans celebrate 50 years of Doctor Who in this group piece wrangled by Whovian and F-Word Comedy Section Editor Chella Quint
My mom got me into Doctor Who without even realising it, in some kind of intergenerational fashion butterfly effect. She got a long and randomly stripey scarf sometime in the late 1960s or early ’70s and let me have it when I decided stripey scarves were cool. I wore it every winter throughout high school and university, and every now and then someone would say, “Oh, you like Doctor Who?!” Although I watched loads of BBC stuff on PBS while growing up in New York, loved time travel stories in general, knew Douglas Adams had written for it and my dad watched the first couple of series back in the ’60s, I never did get into Doctor Who as a kid. The television schedules seemed to deliberately hide it in a transatlantic programming manoeuvre I like to call “The Reverse Seinfeld“. But I had friends (and friends’ parents) who scoured the TV guide, taped episodes and watched together, so it was always on the periphery.
When I moved to the UK, I took the scarf with me and people really started to assume I was a fan. I began picking up Doctor Who lore by osmosis, just through nodding along politely. When I finally and sheepishly admitted my ignorance to some friends, my housemates took it upon themselves to make sure I knew my Doctor from my Dalek, that I could name all eight incarnations in order and that Tom Baker did not just do the voiceover for Little Britain. My wife lovingly explained every Who-related reference in Queer as Folk and got me all tangled up in her enthusiasm when the Who reboot started in 2005.
Everyone was right. I was hooked immediately. BBC iPlayer and Netflix ensured I could always catch up, and now old and new Who are just a part of everyday life — like they’ve always been around. Who references in general and David Tennant shout-outs often specifically make their way into my comedy and writing projects and serve as a great geek shibboleth when making friends. Because of my Whovian fashion beginnings and general design love, I’ve always taken special notice of the awesome fashions of Who. Bow ties, pinstriped suits, long stripey scarves, waistcoats, cricket whites, chucks, v-neck and leather jackets, 3D glasses, nerd glasses, tweed, trench coats and woollen coats that go on forever… this dude can accessorise across space and time and has been setting geektastic fashion trends across all genders for generations. Lovely storytelling, fantastic opportunities for writers and kid-friendly. Hooray for Who! …Right?
Mostly. A show that’s been around since the early ’60s is bound to be fraught with all sorts of intersectionally inappropriate shenanigans, and the story of the first four episodes, with unchecked references to ‘Red Indians’ and ‘savages’ and treatment of women as property, are a clear indication of this. Over the years, it’s evolved like the rest of television, though, and I’d say it’s consistently better than most shows. The generally accepted Public Feminist Who Stance right now is often quite negative — Moffat as sexist showrunner, with “weak female characters” as a frequent complaint and the uproar about a woman playing the Twelfth Doctor are the most common themes. You can Google all that for some excellent critical analysis.
One of the things I love about Doctor Who is its scope for variety and diversity
Today, though, in honour of the 50th, I’ve decided to curate a positive space for the feminists of Who. Keep reading for some thoughts and reminiscences from friends in the US and the UK who are feminist Who fans and add your own celebratory remarks below. I’ll sign off with a cheerful To-Who list.
If you’re inspired to make your own Frivolous Feminist Whovian Fun, here’s a cheeky Top five:
1. Watch An Adventure in Space and Time on BBC iPlayer (or downloadable on iTunes from 1 December). It is a lovely biopic by Mark Gatiss which, as well as serving as a tribute to the first Doctor, William Hartnell, follows Verity Lambert‘s journey as the first female Drama producer at the BBC in 1963. References to sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, the politics of television programming, beautiful midcentury design, an impressive shot-for-shot recreation of scenes from the first episode and lovely sweeping views of Television Centre made me teary.
2. Visit the amazing hack lab that is Access Space for Liz and Hannah Hall’s tech and art unresidency exhibition in progress inspired by the show. This is in Sheffield but if you have a TARDIS you can get here easily. Or do your own Who-inspired making at home.
3. Listen to a feminist Who podcast. The Ood Cast features the amazing song parodies of Laura Mead and is charming, positive and egalitarian:
“One of the things I love about Doctor Who is its scope for variety and diversity. The central conceit of the show means every episode can be completely different – from a toga party in Pompeii to negotiating the ventilation systems on a viewing platform at the end of the world. This makes recording podcast tracks to complement each episode a really fun challenge – you can shuffle through the musical genres to reflect the content of the episode. I’ve done everything from plainchant though swing and jazz to opera to pop and battle rap. It’s very enjoyable and keeps me on my toes!” – Laura Mead, The Ood Cast
Catch the team live sometime (they do an amazing ‘All the episodes of New Who in 45 minutes’ show). Or listen to the Verity Podcast which bills itself as Six Smart Women Discussing Doctor Who and is exactly that.
4. Take this utterly pointless and in no way scientifically accurate quiz because it has been gathering steam on social media and is quite jolly and leads to fun conversations.
5. Watch The Day of the Doctor tonight at 19:50 on BBC 1 (on regional listings in 85 countries, at a cinema near you, on BBC iPlayer, or downloadable on iTunes from 1 December) and celebrate in style.
I was able to stand up and say that, yes, I am a geek
And now, a word from some of the many feminist Whovians I’m lucky enough to know:
Hannah Dormor comes out:
I used to be in denial. As a teenage girl there were things I would not — could not — admit to myself. I lied, avoided the subject, changed the subject, pretended to be doing other things whenever it came up — all the things someone does when they have a secret. A deep, dark secret. I’d heard the way my parents talked about it, how my sister ridiculed even the slightest thought of it. No, I could not come out and say it. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with this thing; this fact about myself. Even now, I’m not entirely sure whether to share it with you, but here goes…
I am a geek. A full-on geek. Set something in space and I am there. If there’s magic, I’m into it. Aliens? Hell yeah. But it took me a long time to admit that. And I owe it all to Doctor Who, making it acceptable to be a geek. Perhaps even cool. Bow ties are cool. It started with the Tenth Doctor. I had seen him before, as Casanova, and knew that this was my chance. This was the perfect alibi. A teenage girl could watch anything without fear of mockery if it involved an attractive man. So I got to watch Doctor Who, safe from the ridicule of my family, without them realising the truth. It helped me develop and grow, my confidence in my geekery grew and I was able to stand up and say that, yes, I am a geek. Yes, I am a Doctor Who fan. Yes, I am still head over heels in love with that magnificent creature we call Ten, but that that isn’t despite him playing The Doctor, it’s (in part) because of it.
Hannah Dormor is 21 years old, studying Law in London. She’s bisexual and currently known as “the feminist one” on her course. She can deal with that
Sarah Willoughby states it plainly with some sex positivity:
So. Why do I love Doctor Who? Because geeks are hot. Because the thought of a John Barrowman and David Tennant sandwich makes me moist and I was hooked from then on. I love the escapism it provides because it’s daft and doesn’t take itself too seriously! A bit like me! No. A lot like me!
Sarah Willoughby is an out and proud geek and member of Seven Hills WI in Sheffield
Kate Garret shares why her perfect Doctor/Companion relationship is strictly platonic:
Doctor Who was a small part of my Ohio childhood and has been a large part of my UK adulthood. As a kid, I would sometimes catch Tom Baker or Peter Davison episodes on PBS and my geeky uncle was a huge fan of the show. As an adult living in the UK, I first listened to people reminisce about their Time-Lord-filled childhoods, and then became a hardcore fan myself with the reboot. The Tenth Doctor and Donna are my Whovian dream. I love Donna. When people say she’s the worst companion, I cry inside. She never falls for Ten’s Gallifreyan charms, she is a loyal friend, clever companion, somehow remained down-to-earth while travelling through time and space and I haven’t even mentioned the small matter of her saving the universe. The Tenth Doctor, regardless of his companion, needs no explanation but here’s a short one: intelligence, dry humour, nice hair, great shoes and spontaneous Scottish accent double bluff; he’s the best kind of alien.
Kate Garrett writes things — mostly poetry, flash fiction and book reviews, which sometimes appear online and in print (kategarrettwrites.co.uk). She lives in Sheffield with her three kids, three cats, and a computer programmer
Although completely populated by aliens, Doctor Who really gets to the heart of what it is to be human
Sarah Hepworth talks about the companions more generally:
For me, the appeal of Doctor Who is in the companions. They are passionate, unique and imperfect individuals with their own stories. They are undoubtedly special but they are not so special that they couldn’t be one of us. I find so much science fiction un-relatable because the characters are exceptionally powerful in superhuman ways and have abilities which we could never achieve. In Doctor Who, this is never the case because it is through embracing what makes us human – emotion, compassion and intellect – that the characters triumph. The Doctor is at his strongest when he taps into his humanity and humility, and his companions are drawn to him because they are inquisitive and bold.
The bond between The Doctor and his companions is always magical, always powerful and always the driving force behind their actions and their successes. But the show never places humanity on a pedestal. Our world is one in a whole universe of possibilities and we are shown to be as vulnerable as we are powerful. The idea that there is more to life that what we can see in front of us is an exciting prospect and Doctor Who tells us that we don’t need to be superheroes to go out and explore. Doctor Who is a show which truly values friendship, compassion, intellect and determination above aggression and physical strength. These are all things within the grasp of real human beings and I think this is where the show ultimately captures our imaginations.
Sarah Hepworth likes to draw and write essays about children’s literature, science fiction and folklore
Brainne Edge shares how Doctor Who has inspired her own theatremaking:
I’m not a huge Whovian but there is something about the storytelling, in a world where anything can happen and one person strings it all together; I find that quite exciting. With our improvised Doctor Who stuff, we can play with the themes that crop up in Who and add comedy.
A couple of years ago, I was asked to direct Midnight [stage version of the Tenth Doctor Episode]. I made sure I didn’t re-watch the episode, though I had seen it at time of broadcast. I thought the script was interesting and I was excited to adapt it to a small space! It was actually a student’s idea at Salford Uni, and then the Lass O’ Gowrie got hold of the idea after that and got official permission from Russell T. Davies to stage it. It’s one of the best things I’ve done.
I’m hoping the next companion will be a bloke… A lot of the female ones recently seem to be trying too hard. But then I’ve not watched it since Tennant left! I enjoyed Tennant, but Tom Baker has to be my fave. I love how manic and interesting he is. Speaking of Classic Who, I’m glad they found some of the old stuff recently. And I really loved An Adventure in Space and Time the other night. Some fantastic writing and performances!
Brainne Edge is a director, performer and lecturer in drama whose main focus is in improvisation and capturing live performance. She manages ComedySportz UK
Siân Hughes cheers for regeneration:
What other sci-fi hero regenerates and gets played by a different actor? There are a few that get trotted out time after time: Batman, Spiderman and even James Bond have new faces. But no-one else has hinted that they could possibly return for a second bite of the cherry as a feisty female. The changing dynamic and the ever-present threat of a paradigm shift in character is a great level of development. But… the egalitarian attitude of every Doctor — that every human is amazing, all knowledge is awesome, all life deserves protecting and every villain should have a chance to stand down — means he is the greatest role model to young fans.
Doctor Who is inspirational to young women particularly, because the current re-boot of the series treats people as people. The Doctor is an alien but he’s treated as a person, as are other types of even less humanoid aliens. The latest companions all had their own motivations, they were written as so human and their stories were so emotive. Doctor Who is brilliant because although it is completely populated by aliens, it really gets to the heart of what it is to be human and one of those things is an unquenchable thirst for and complete admiration of knowledge. Whether it passes the Bechdel test with each individual episode or not, gender is mostly irrelevant; people are people, everyone has agency and they all want to learn. The writing’s pretty awesome too.
Siân Hughes is an MA student at the University of Leeds studying Writing for Performance and Publication
I know there is a lot of Martha hate in fandom and I think this is because she does not drop everything to be with The Doctor
Sylvia Kölling compares old and new:
I have been a Who fan for about seven years now and I like both New Who and a lot of Classic Who. My favourite doctors are… I guess for New Who I’m going to have to go with Eleven, even though he does annoy me sometimes. My favourite Classic Doctor is Three because he is lovely, witty and respectful of the people around him. To make things more complicated, I’m also going to add Eight here because his Doctor Who Comic adventures are the absolute best!
I like the show because I like the characters. A lot of the time I wish the programme would lay off the adventuring a little and give the characters a bit more time to get to know each other and for us to get to know them. The running around is exciting in its own way but some of my favourite episodes are the slower ones that take place in one location or planet. In terms of identifying with the characters (as we are expected to), I think some of the Classic Who actually works better because The Doctor there is so much more aloof and un-knowable that we look at him though the companion’s eyes only, instead of already knowing him like we do in new Who, as a person with a history and feelings and flaws.
My favourite companion in Classic Who is Sarah Jane Smith, hands down, for the same reason that it is Martha Jones in New Who: they have their own agenda, story and life before The Doctor gets there; they travel with him for a bit, kick ass and then continue with their lives afterwards. I love Martha especially for that: she makes the decision not to travel with The Doctor anymore when she realises that it would not be good for her. I admire that and think there is a lot to learn from it. I know there is a lot of Martha hate in fandom and I think this is because she does not drop everything to be with The Doctor and has other things that enrich her life, namely her career and family.
Sylvia is a geeky, long-socks-wearing Who fan who spends way too much time thinking about fictional characters when not playing board games, water polo or doing queer stuff in Manchester
Sarah Thomasin puts a uniquely positive spin on the Female Doctor Debate:
I got into Doctor Who towards the end of Sylvester McCoy’s incarnation. The timing wasn’t great: the show was cancelled just as I was getting into it and I had to go elsewhere to fulfil my newly recognised sci-fi needs.
As chance would have it, the thing that filled the void ended up being closer to Doctor Who as we know it than I ever imagined at the time. In the absence of a grumpy, brilliant, eccentric, courageous alien with a couple of bumbling human sidekicks, I lost my heart to a grumpy, brilliant, eccentric, courageous schoolgirl with a couple of bumbling human sidekicks. Any Who fan who watched Dark Season on children’s BBC in 1991 can tell you that Marcie has a little bit of the Time Lord about her. She gives orders to parents, teachers and older schoolmates, with zero concept of where she should fit in the hierarchy. She knows she’s cleverest person in the room, that everyone is in mortal danger and that the safest thing would be for everyone to shut up and listen. Sound familiar? She knows evil when she meets it but when introduced to a (pretty nearly) new life form, her initial instinct is to communicate with it and build bridges. She doesn’t have a sonic screwdriver but she does carry an emergency canoe paddle. I mean, come on. She might as well have had a question mark embroidered on her school blazer. Oh and the writer? A wet behind the ears Whovian called Russell T. Davies. A female Doctor? Been there, done that.
Sarah Thomasin is a poet and HIV prevention worker from Yorkshire
I watch Who to be reminded that this thing called life is like the TARDIS – a lived-in life is so much bigger on the inside, regardless of the shape or colour of the box it comes in
Seonaid Welch takes it next generation:
Having a daughter can make those of us of a feminist bent even more sensitive to oppression, however subtle or overt, whether in real life or in fiction. And yet the number of shows, books, events, movies, and even real people who never screw it up, that would pass my scrutiny 100%? Well, even I’m not on that hypothetical, utopian list. And besides, I’m not trying to raise a kid who doesn’t know that discrimination and bigotry exist. That won’t prepare her to handle the real world. But what makes the difference between depiction of reality and reinforcement of the status quo? Writers far better than I have done excellent feminist critiques of Classic Who, New Who, RTD, Moffat, etc., and there is absolutely a way to be a fan of problematic things.
But how, as a parent, do I decide what is problematic enough, in the right (wrong) ways, to keep her away from it? For me, I come down on the side of letting her watch it, for the same reasons I am still a fan and for the same reasons I read the unabridged Grimm’s Fairy Tales to her. Kids need stories about monsters that get defeated. Kids need fear that ends when the story is over. Kids need stories that let them take their fears, turn them into monsters and see those monsters beaten. In an ideal world, every story would let the damsel in distress, the kid being inhabited by an incorporeal alien, the species on the verge of extinction or the people being stolen by the Wi-Fi, beat the monsters themselves. But you know, if this one show only covers the ground of there being un-looked-for dangers in the everyday world and a parental figure doing everything they can to protect her from these dangers, I’m okay with that. And if that figure is sometimes selfish, sometimes White-Knights his companions, sometimes turns everything into a penis joke, sometimes has a bit of a god complex and sometimes just flat gets it WRONG?… Well, I get this parenting gig wrong an awful lot of the time too and we can talk about how The Doctor royally screws up in the same way that we can talk about how I royally screw up.
Seonaid Welch is a feminist, lactivist, intactivist, birth activist, pro-choice, telecommuting-work-from-home mother of one in Oregon. She came to Whovianism late and bass-ackward through the route of being introduced to Torchwood by a friend and tries to catch up on Classic Who episodes between seasons of New Who as much as she can between the playground, the children’s museum, the zoo, the aquarium, the library, the list goes on…
Lots of planets have a north but I’d like to finish with a southern-US perspective from Marya Errin Jones:
I grew up in the Panhandle of the American South (North Florida), where Whovians were few and far between– none of my middle-school friends paid much attention to Who. While all of my friends were pretending to be Luke Duke Skywalkers, or making twangy, Chewbacca Wookie noises while the teacher’s back was turned, I was counting the hours until I could get home to catch Doctor Who on PBS. Tom Baker was my Doctor, with his mile-long patchwork scarf the colour of spices, his ridiculously curly hair and performance chops, courtesy of the National Theatre Company, I was hooked. But, you know what happens when you get older, puberty takes over and peer acceptance is all that really matters. I lost track of The Doctor as the TARDIS spiralled across the Multiverse.
Many jaunts around the sun led me back to The Doctor just when I needed him, stuck in Providence, Rhode Island, hunkered down in the middle of the worst nor’easter since the arrival of the slave ships. Those very same trade winds that brought the ships of my ancestors to the port town, a block from where I was living, were a different kind of reminder of time and travel. I’d made a wrong turn in life and found myself grounded and unmoored at the same time. The Doctor had regenerated five times by then; he’d abandoned most of his altruistic nature and needed to be reminded that humans (and some aliens) weren’t all bad. I needed the same reassurance, so I settled down for a few seasons and some good old life lessons only The Doctor can prescribe.
Now, I live in the heart of the Wild West, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I enjoy Doctor Who much the way I did when I was nine – tucked like a burrito under the covers and shivering with glee as I prepare to be thrilled, entertained and transported. Some people watch TV solely to be entertained. I watch Who to be reminded that this thing called life is like the TARDIS – a lived-in life is so much bigger on the inside, regardless of the shape or colour of the box it comes in. Although I am on planet Earth, I am still hurling, unstoppable, though space and even time. Star Wars never made me feel that grand. If it were not for the Doctor Who world I was introduced to so long ago, I might still be waiting for something great and horrible to happen that would never come – in Florida of all places. What is this life for in the first place without the great and horrible things and a hunger for adventure? Allons-y, my friends. ALLONS-Y!
Marya Errin Jones is the founder of ABQ Zine Fest (4th Annual in 2014) and co-founder of the clubhouse/performance space, The Tannex. abqzinefest.com and thetannex.com
1. Image of the official poster for The Day of the Doctor: Matt Smith and David Tennant as The Eleventh and Tenth Doctors back to back with the War Doctor, played by John Hurt, walking through flames, centre. All look rather brooding and dramatic.
2. The author of this piece, Chella Quint, touches a Dalek with her left hand. Her right hand is placed over her mouth in an ironic take on the Rose/Dalek scene from the episode Dalek. By Chella Quint.
3. The Ood Cast Live, featuring the song stylings of Laura Mead, supported by Chris Alpha and Chris Sigma waving sonic screwdrivers in tribute, at the Manchester Science Festival. By Chella Quint.
4. The Fourth Doctor’s costume, including the long stripey scarf, photographed at The Doctor Who Experience exhibition. By AMGPG, shared under a creative commons license.
5. Martha Jones’ costume on a mannequin: a red/brown/burgandy leather jacket (erring more towards brown in the light of this picture), a necklace, just visible pink vest top and pale blue denim jeans. This is shown in front of a poster of Martha. By Monkey Phil, shared under a Creative Commons License.
6. Screenshot showing credit for first female Drama producer at the BBC in 1963. This has a plain black background with a light grey BBC FOUR logo in top left corner and “Producer” plus “VERITY LAMBERT” in white in the middle.
ADDENDUM: Sylvia Kölling’s bio added 27/11/2013