Female Characters in Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who

I am not looking forward to the new season of Doctor Who.

As a mega-fan of “New Who” since it started airing in 2005, this is unusual to say the least. Normally I would be counting down the days, giddily rewatching old episodes, bouncing up and down in my seat whenever I saw a trailer, and discussing endless theories and hopes with my friends.

This year, I’m just cringing, hoping it’s not as bad as I expect.

Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who has many great features, and even many improvements on the Russell T. Davies era. I love Matt Smith as the Doctor, and I think Amy Pond is a great companion. The cinematography is lush, and its riffs around fairy tales and memory play right into my analysis-loving ways. The plot has become nonsensical and convoluted, but earlier episodes also had their moments of “what??” (Jesus Doctor, anyone?), and although that leads to lowered expectations, it doesn’t prevent the show from being mindlessly enjoyable on a Saturday night.

But unfortunately, as Season 6 played out, it became increasingly clear that the show doesn’t respect its female characters. And that is not acceptable.

Perhaps it was obvious to other viewers earlier. There were definitely warning signs. The fact that Amy Pond’s entire life was built around the Doctor. The way the camera frequently lingered on Amy in a very sexual way. But it first became clear to me midway through Season 6, when the Silence stole Melody Pond.

The build up was shocking and exciting, and I couldn’t wait to see where the show would go. Amy isn’t really Amy! She’s been held hostage all season, because some evil group are after her baby! The revelatory shot of a pregnant Amy, trapped in a clinical white box, waking up from a mind-trick to find she’s about to give birth… it horrified me. It was dark and frightening. Amy has little Melody Pond, she is rescued by the Doctor, but Melody is stolen anyway. And then… nothing happened.

Seriously. Nothing. Melody gets one mention at the start of the next episode, and then everyone continues as though nothing has happened. No mention of the trauma that Amy went through, or any lasting effect it may have had on her. Certainly no mention of the baby who has been kidnapped, as though knowing that River Song will be fine one day washes away the fact that Amy and Rory have lost their child right now, and that she will grow up among kidnappers who are brainwashing her. I kept waiting for the show to address this. And nothing came. Steven Moffat’s Who clearly values plot twists over character development, and although it delights in setting up the big shock moments, it cannot follow through with the consequences for its characters.

Of course, this wasn’t a problem for female characters only, as Rory should have been fairly concerned as well. But it was a sign that Amy’s life is built around the Doctor completely in the show. It’s not just a case of her dreaming of his return as a child, and so idolizing him as an adult. It’s that she has no independent emotions or desires outside of the Doctor and his related plot. The plot did not want her to be upset or angry or even concerned… and so she wasn’t.

The next major problem — the one that almost made me stop watching right then — came at the end of The God Complex, when the Doctor breaks Amy’s trust in him and drops the Ponds off at home. The episode is partly built around the idea that the Doctor runs around like a God, and partly about Amy’s faith in him, despite how he failed her. The emotional climax of the episode comes when the Doctor must tell Amy that he is selfish, and that she was wrong to put faith in him, until her belief breaks and the monster is defeated. Considering the fact that Amy’s whole life has been built around the Doctor, and based on the dark Girl Who Waited episode that preceded it, this seemed like the perfect moment for some character development. Amy might decide to stay, but with some cynicism. She might decide that the Doctor is not perfect, and that her life with him is a risk, but it’s still worth it. She might, on reflection, decide to return to Earth and work on building a rich life without the Doctor, and return to traveling (or not) in the future.  Anything would work.

Instead, the Doctor makes the decisions. He drops Amy and Rory off on earth and puts their housekeys in their hands. In order to make up for the loss of all that adventure, he gives them a new car. He is, once again, calling the shots. It makes sense from the perspective of the Doctor’s character, but as the show was getting on shaky ground with Amy, it was incredibly infuriating that, even in this, Amy had no choices. She might settle down and lead a new, Doctor-free life… but only because the Doctor has told her to. Only because he has literally put the keys to domesticity into her hand and left without giving her a choice.

Worst of all, when the Doctor is telling Amy to lose her faith in him and grow up, he calls her “Amy Williams” instead of “Amy Pond.” Amy and Rory have been “the Ponds” for the entire show. It’s their identity. But if Amy is to “grow up,” the show seems to suggest, she needs to stop being so darn independent. She needs to take her husband’s name (even though it’s the boring one) and be “grown up,” because any woman who keeps her own name is clearly still trapped in childhood and immaturity. In this moment, the Doctor even gets to name Amy, placing a new, seemingly tamer, identity onto her shoulders.

And then we have the season finale. The Wedding of River Song. The episode that showed that, like her mother’s before her, River’s entire life is built around the Doctor, from the brainwashing, to the murder attempts, to falling in love, to her unjustified prison sentence, where her “true love” allows her to spend her entire life behind bars for a murder where the victim isn’t actually dead. He marries her, not because he loves her, but in a moment of exasperation and condescension: “I have to do this, because you screwed up, and I’d better fix it.” Everything about the episode screams a lack of respect for River, as a totally kickass enigma of a character becomes another Doctor-obsessed cipher.

With the permanent departure of the Ponds (sorry, the “Williams”) next season, I am more than a little apprehensive about where this story will go. Although I enjoyed some moments, much of the second half of season 6 had me cringing, annoyed, or plain irate over the show’s perspective on Amy and River. Every time, I thought, “I love this show. The next episode will be better. It was just a blip.” And every time, I was proved wrong.

I hope that season 7 is wonderful. I hope it brings joy, and debate, and all the emotional rollercoasters anyone could wish for. But I no longer feel excited or motivated to watch it, because the show is already in serious debt when it comes to respecting its female characters. And judging from Moffat’s generally self-important, criticism-resistant attitude, I doubt it will change anytime soon.

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