Here’s a problem which came to a head when I spent half of last night’s (very enjoyable) episode of Doctor Who thinking that Keeley Hawes’ character was the same as the recurring ‘Missy’ we have been introduced to, who is actually played by Michelle Gomez, a completely different person.
A silly mistake? I know Doctor Who isn’t mine any more, but it’s fair to say I still take more than a casual interest, so I refuse to believe I was the only person who had this problem. Okay, I was tired, and it has been a few weeks since we saw Missy – but I don’t merely put my confusion down to the fact that they have been given a sort of similar physical resemblance (power-dressed in black, power hairstyles piled and pinned, power make-up heavily applied, power cheekbones – go on, I dare you to deny that they’re more than passingly similar…).
No, what cemented my confusion was the fact that they have both been written with the same character. You know the one: everso sophisticated, polite yet snarky restraint, schoolmarmish and very emancipated. In fact, in describing this villainess-by-numbers, I realise that we’ve seen it in previous episodes of Doctor Who: I’m thinking of Miss Foster, Miss Kislet and Madame Kovarian.
It is becoming pretty obvious what kind of woman Doctor Who writers are terrified by.
All of them fine actresses delivering fine performances, by the way – just delivering fine performances of the same character. The only substantial female villain in recent years who doesn’t fit the template is Diana Rigg’s magnificent Mrs Gillyflower, but that episode, The Crimson Horror, was atypical in virtually every way, a darkly comic Victorian runaround that had as much in common with The League of Gentleman (hardly coincidentally, also Mark Gatiss’ finest script for the show). Rigg’s tour de force breathed life into a caricature that might have been played by Gatiss himself in a different context: surely Doctor Who doesn’t need to be doing madcap steampunk absurdism to earn an interesting villainess?
There isn’t the slightest possibility that the rich tapestry of male villains on Doctor Who could ever be confused. But for whatever reason, the series seems to be stuck with a very singular approach to women. Maybe it’s Freudian.
Why aren’t the female writers doing a better job writing female villains, you ask? Ha. Only one woman has written for the series since its return. One. Count ’em. (Count ‘er, I mean.) One. She was already working on Who as a script editor, so she already had a way in for her two stories. It may be irrelevant, but they were both stinkers anyway.
For a really good episode of Doctor Who written by a woman, you need to go back to the supposed last gasps of the ‘classic’ series. You’ll discover that the final story before cancellation was written by Rona Munro (whose trilogy of historical plays just finished a run at the National Theatre, no less). You’ll also discover that she anticipated the Russell T Davies’ council estatey social realism by 14 years, laced her episodes with heavily submerged sexual metaphor and managed to slip the word ‘tosser’ in before the watershed. (Oh, she also wrote beautifully for Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, reinvented a classic villain, understood the potential for the series to bridge two worlds and got the balance of exciting and frightening just right – in case you’re in any doubt that it’s a really good story.)
That’s the kind of brilliant female writing talent the production team should be actively seeking – specifically female, because a) the series plays an aspirational role in the lives of young boys and girls, and b) because it is clearly lacking a dimension which female writers would undoubtedly bring with them. Before we have another silly debate about whether the next Doctor should be played by a woman, there are far more pressing gender issues the programme needs to address.
Oh, and late 80s Doctor Who, on just four stories a season, had brilliant female villains.
Naturally, when I watched this year’s annual Christmas disappointment – i.e. Doctor Who – the things that bothered me were variations of the usual questions, like: does anybody find these topical references to the economic downturn anything other than utterly embarrassing? Did nobody edit this script before the actors started learning these long, long scenes of dull exposition? Did Russell T. Davies really think that multiple John Simms wearing dresses was the doom-laden cliffhanger image befitting the penultimate episode of David Tennant’s Doctor? Doesn’t Bernard Cribbins deserve better? Doesn’t Timothy Dalton deserve better? And, generally, why oh why oh why oh why…?
But I was already resigned to the whole two-parter being the uncomfortable enema that the series so badly needs, and everything this year has led me to prepare myself for such questions. The question that I wasn’t expecting almost slipped me by at the time of broadcast but is now possibly the most concerning thing about the whole episode, and it is this:
He said what about Good Queen Bess?
So unlikely it seemed, I thought I must have imagined it – so I went and checked it out. And I hadn’t imagined it.
What David Tennant’s Doctor says is this (in his most irritating mockney): “Got married! That was a mistake. Good Queen Bess. And let me tell you, her nickname is no longer…” (does his most irritating mockney oops-missus-I’ve-been-naughty face).
Unless I’m totally misinterpreting Russell T. Davies here, what he wrote for the Doctor to say was the pre-watershed equivalent of “then I shagged Queen Elizabeth”. And whilst I think I am accurately imagining Russell T. Davies chuckling to himself as he knocked the line out, a little chunk of my childhood died when its meaning really dawned on me.
The Doctor has never been interested in sex. When Paul McGann kissed his companion in 1996 a lot of fans kicked up a fuss, though in actual fact it all turned out to be all rather innocent. The new incarnation of the series has had various female companions boringly fall in love with the Doctor and he has formed some strong attachments to them, though this isn’t necessarily a problem as love is a noble thing.
But by making the Doctor a person who casually refers to the notches on his bedpost (whether he did it within wedlock is hardly the point), he has become something that the Doctor has never been before – someone I despise. Tennant’s Doctor was already headed in this direction: he’s vain, a show-off, effortfully trendy – the cool kid in the playground rather than the outsider the Doctor ought to be. But now he is the kid who brags about how many girls he has casually felt up behind the bike shed, which is either misogynous or simply shows a lack of respect for other people (the brush, incidentally, which tarred all gay people in T. Davies’ Queer as Folk). The most sinister thing is that Russell T. Davies, who clearly finds nothing at all objectionable about such bragging, has snuck this character up on us bit by bit, delivering the final blow as a casual one-liner that actually exacerbates the nastiness when you analyse it.
It goes further than a loss of innocence; it makes the Doctor, who has always stood for moral values, respect and equality, a terrible role model for the very people who adore him. I’ve been told by various people that they think David Tennant is the best Doctor ever; sorry folks, but I simply can’t wait to see the back of him.