Lisa Morton

Author, Screenwriter, Halloween Expert…what's next?

First off, I have a confession: I’m not now nor have I ever been a Whovian. Fact is, I never sat through an entire episode of Doctor Who prior to 2018. Every few years I’d try again only to find the show simply not to my taste; a combination of cheeky, winking humor and cheap production values always lost me fifteen minutes or so in (and yes, I freely acknowledge that I may have never sampled a really great episode).

What I have always been, though, is a fan of televised science fiction. Although The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were slightly before my time, as a pre-teen I happily consumed the original Star Trek and Lost in Space. The former turned me on to several of my favorite authors, especially Theodore Sturgeon and Harlan Ellison.

And every week, I longed to see Lt. Uhura or Maureen Robinson do something other than serve the men.

I know it’s sometimes hard for my male friends to understand what it’s like to grow up in a culture where the people who look like you are shunted off into the background. I wanted Lt. Uhura to have her own command, not just answer interstellar phone calls and occasionally tell the Captain how frightened she was. I yearned to see the Robinson women solve problems as often as the menfolk did. Fortunately, there was also The Avengers, and Emma Peel remains one of my personal icons…but even the nearly-perfect Mrs. Peel was both occasionally fodder for the male gaze and seemingly had no life outside of her partnership with John Steed. Steed had many friends; Mrs. Peel seemed to have none, aside from Steed.

Fast-forward to the ’70s, when Alien and Halloween introduced the world to Ellen Ripley and Laurie Strode. Hurrah! Women who could handle a tough situation without men, who didn’t dress with the intent of exploiting their sexuality, who were smart and resourceful.

However, both were humorless and somewhat isolated by their strength. Laurie Strode had friends, but wasn’t engaging with them on Halloween night; Ripley didn’t seem particularly well-liked by her colleagues aboard the Nostromo. By the time we got to the sequels in both franchises, the heroines had been turned into angry women, survivors who seemed to lead empty lives. Add in The Terminator‘s Sarah Connor to complete the trinity of early action heroines whose essential toughness seemed to lead to grim, unhappy endings.

The ’90s finally gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and at last we seemed to have a heroine whose strengths didn’t confine her to an empty, lonely life…at least, not in the beginning. But Buffy Summers started as a teenager, not an adult; as she moved toward adulthood through the seven seasons of the series, she became increasingly solitary, until she’d fled her own house in the final year when it was inhabited by a clan of “potentials” (read: sisters).

The 2000’s have given us an endless array of action heroines in tank tops, stripped down to their lean, muscled flesh and presented for the gratification of male viewers everywhere. Apparently nothing revs up a masculine libido like seeing a hot chick in a tight tank top with a bigass gun strapped across her midsection.

And so we reach 2018’s Doctor Who.

In terms of the history of speculative fiction heroines, Doctor Who is, simply, nothing less than revolutionary. Yes, I get that many of these characteristics may be essential to the character, regardless of gender…but as someone who has already admitted to being largely unfamiliar with the series, I’m both unaware of and frankly disinterested in the previous history. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is something completely new, and here’s why:

  1. The Doctor is smart, tough…and has a sense of humor.This shouldn’t be something groundbreaking, but – with the possible exception of Buffy and a few other odds and ends – it is.
  2. She occasionally gets irritated with those who can’t keep up with her intellectually – and she doesn’t have to apologize for it.  Seriously, this is HUGE.
  3. She’s not afraid to take command. And just look at her leadership style: when she doles out tasks, her companions sometimes express concern over their ability to follow through. What does the Doctor do? She simply reassures them them that they can do what’s asked. She trusts her friends and places confidence in them – are there better leadership qualities than that?
  4. She’s never sexualized or fetishized. Remember how Lt. Uhura had to wear a mini-dress? Or how about the episode of Buffy when she teased her friend Xander with a sexy dance? In the episode “The Witchfinders”, the Doctor, who was stuck in the superstitious seventeenth century, was dunked into cold water in a witch test but emerged only sodden, not looking like a contestant in a strip joint wet t-shirt contest…which is what most television shows would’ve done. And the series gets bonus points for also not reducing companion Yaz to some conveniently torn hot-pants get-up at any point.
  5. She’s not isolated. The Doctor values her relationships with both her companions and with those she meets along the way. In the episode “It Takes You Away”, she even befriends a massively-powerful alien creature that choose to take the form of a talking frog. She enjoys surrounding herself with lively friends, especially when they stimulate her intellectual curiosity. She is, in other words, not isolated by her innate strength and mental capacity.

I’ve read reviews of Doctor Who‘s eleventh series that have complained about some of the writing within individual episodes, and I can’t argue those criticisms…but I can suggest that seeing a science fiction heroine who completely redefines the meaning of science fiction heroine far outweighs the season’s problems.

As a former non-Whovian, I can’t wait for the Doctor’s new adventures in coming years. I just hope that show-runner Chris Chibnall continues to gift us with the speculative fiction heroine we deserve in the 21st century.

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