The BBC have released their official promo image for the new season of Doctor Who. Although it’s nowhere near as controversial as last season’s “unconscious Amy” promo picture, the image has come under fire for reflecting the continuing sexism in Moffat’s Doctor Who.
Which begs the question: do promotional images really matter? They’re not stills from the show. They’re marketing tools, and as such, they might not even properly reflect the content of the show. They’re single images, a different medium from whatever they’re representing. How can we criticize something based on that?
But they do matter, precisely because they’re marketing tools. A promo pic is designed to represent the spirit of the show in a single memorable image, so that people get a sense of what it’s about and hopefully get excited to watch it. The promo pics might not always be entirely accurate, if there’s disagreement between the marketing department and the show creators, but they are supposed to represent the spirit of the show in a way that appeals to the masses.
And in television, they usually reflect this pretty well. Every year, Downton Abbey‘s promo pic is of the whole cast standing in front of Downton, telling us (accurately) that this is an ensemble show, set in a country house in the 1910s and 20s. Orange and the New Black, meanwhile, has had two different approaches to promo pics. The image for the first season focused on Piper, dressed in orange, in the middle of the other girls, who are less noticeable in grey. In contrast, in the second season promo pictures, Piper’s just one face in the group, showing that she’s now less important, and that the show has become a true ensemble. In Sleepy Hollow‘s image, Ichabod and Abby are center stage, glaring into the camera, with a couple of secondary characters in the background, and the creepy misty woods declaring that this is a horror show. And on and on and on. Promo pictures have a message. They are designed to represent the show.
So what does this latest promo pic tell us about the new Doctor Who? Fabulous new TARDIS, fabulous new Doctor. The Doctor stares into the camera, a challenging and perhaps even irritated expression on his face, while he stands in a power pose. He is commanding, authoritative, ready to take on the universe. And then there’s Clara. A smaller figure, more in the background. She’s looking into the distance, not at the camera, and so is not engaging with the viewer. She’s holding onto the TARDIS and standing with her knees bent, a much weaker position, with an almost dreamy smile on her face. She’s definitely the passenger in this image, the dreamy-eyed girl that the Doctor is taking on an adventure, not an adventurer in her own right. And it’s a far cry from previous Doctor Who promo pics, where the companions have been shown on equal footing with the Doctor, engaging with the camera, in power positions, ready to fight and explore.
Yes, it’s just an image. But it’s an image that tells us a lot. At best, this depicts what the BBC thinks most viewers want to see, the image that they think will appeal the most. At worst, it depicts precisely what we should expect from the new season of Doctor Who. Exciting adventures with a moody new Doctor, with his pretty little assistant along for the ride.