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The evolution of women in Doctor Who
We open high above the Earth, distant and still. Quickly, we zoom in, settling on an alarm clock and a girl. She gets out of bed, heads off to work at Henrik's in London, and changes the world.
When Doctor Who returned in 2005, 16 years after its cancellation, it returned with its focus not on the titular Doctor, but the girl: Rose. Like Susan Foreman in Doctor Who's original first episode in 1963, "An Unearthly Child," this girl is where we begin. She is our introduction to the Doctor, to this world of so many worlds. The show is Doctor Who, but the episode — and the season-long arc that would follow — is "Rose." And so began the modern Doctor Who series and the heroic female characters that were much more than the common term that defined them for so long: companions.
The women of Who have always been important, often the best parts of their tenures. Iconic heroes like Sarah Jane Smith, Ace, Tegan, and Jo Grant would set the gold standard for the ones who followed — endlessly loyal but brave and heroic in their own right, not simply damsels to be saved. In the 15 years since the reboot launched, the artists formerly known as "companions" have been as crucial to the series as its title character. Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), and Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) traveled not by his side but often in front, saving him as much as he saved them.
While Rose was a partner to the Doctor in terms of traveling and saving the universe, their connection was also undeniably romantic — first subtextually and then, thanks to "Journey's End," straight-up canonical text. When Martha came along after Rose's exit, she had big shoes to fill and a broken heart she could never mend. For better or worse, Martha's time on the show had the ghost of Rose looming over her. For some fans, it did the character a disservice — something Agyeman agrees with to some extent. "I mean, yeah, we got stuck down the unrequited love storyline, which did jar me a little bit because we had, it started with so much potential and then we got stuck," Agyeman told us when we spoke to her at the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con. But for showrunner Russell T. Davies, it was just a drop of reality in an otherwise fantastical world.
"I spoke to [Davies] about this whole journey with Martha and he said, 'More people will probably be able to identify with unrequited love than they will reciprocated.' And he just wanted to make her seem more identifiable," Agyeman told FANGRRLS. "And it isn't always a fairy tale. Life is hard and you don't get the fairy tale ending but you get you. And as long as you can, you have the courage of your convictions and you can stand up and keep your head up. It's not going to be an easy ride. You're going to fall and have your heart broken and have your gut punched. But that's just life. And I think that she was able to full circle and refine her strength and herself and progressed."
For the Martha Jones defense squad, this is the defining aspect of the character, not determined by her predecessor or her feelings for the Doctor. Agyeman understands that and the fans who love the character.
"It's fascinating to me when I meet Martha fans because they are definitely a certain type of person and I'm totally down with that. They get it, they get it. So that's great," she said. "And when I kind of describe Martha and the Doctor and that relationship, I do feel like her life was sorted. She had a plan. She was this caretaker. She was going to medical school. She had her right flat. The doctor coming into her life wasn't so much about her, wasn't about offering her an escape from her world. She liked her world. Whereas I definitely feel with Rose she was drifting a bit lost or looking for something and found this adventure on another level and love and discovered so much."
The most ultimately defining aspect of Martha Jones as a character, what makes her so powerful and important to those who adore her, is that she walked away. In a show where the Doctor has left so many and lost so much, Martha chose to leave.
"I've had so many people say to me, thank you for that…They were like, 'I was in a position or a circumstance in my life or a relationship where I just was stuck and it gave me the courage to do something,'" Agyeman told FANGRRLS. "I definitely feel with Martha, she was grounded, she was sorted, he came along, offered her a new perspective on life, and ultimately she chose to return to her original. She's fine. She's OK. And I certainly enjoyed the time and I just think that she, bad-ass as she is, and it's incredible that sometimes actually people have written to me on social media and said, 'We didn't see it then, but now we do.' So maybe think if she came at a different time as well that she may have been received differently."
After Martha came Donna Noble, who stood out from Day 1 by being wholly unafraid to knock the Doctor down a peg. Her exit was as devastating as her friendship with the Doctor was special. Whereas Martha chose to leave, Donna had everything taken from her — her memories of the time she was important, something she'd never felt before.
Amy Pond, meanwhile, blended the line of Martha's self-assuredness with Donna's take-no-s*** attitude toward the Doctor while still being entirely her own unique character. But for Gillan, she found Amy in the darker aspects of the character. "For Amy, it was abandonment, being a little girl who didn't have very many present family members," Gillan told FANGRRLS. "Then this magical man falls out of the sky, but then he leaves her. And so everything stemmed from these abandonment issues, and then that informed her defense mechanisms, her strong personality, all of these things are, her sense of independence."
The women of the modern series have operated beyond the classic "companion mold," both as co-travelers and as adversaries, allies, and even lovers.
River Song (Alex Kingston) was his match in every way — scrappy, sassy, sexy, and staunch. Missy (Michelle Gomez) was the first female iteration of the Master, and where River was his equal, Missy was his chaotic other half, a human bomb exploding onto the series and throwing the Doctor's universe into disarray until ultimately forming a warm, albeit uneasy, alliance and bond far different from her previous male incarnations.
"There was undeniably a sort of kinship there — born out of the fact, I think, that Peter and I share a sort of cultural history together," Gomez told FANGRRLS. "We both grew up in Glasgow. We both grew up with the same cultural references. We had a real shorthand there that was always kind of textual, I suppose. And the warmth was that Peter and I, we fit really well. And he also brought a dynamic to the Doctor which I truly believe — first of all, I believed that he could be a Doctor. I also believed that he was flawed and torn, often between his best self and his worst self, and sort of in spite of himself, he would save people."
To be the newest person to portray an iconic villain is daunting enough. But for Gomez, the gender shift brought with it a greater weight — one that arguably opened the door for the ultimate evolution of women in Doctor Who: the first female Doctor (Jodie Whittaker).
"I think perhaps I could maybe take some credit that I paved the way. But I think it was only just a matter of time that we were going to have a female Doctor, regardless of the fact that I was the first female Master," Gomez said humbly. "It was down to the fact that Jodie was absolutely the best, the best person for the job when it came to recasting the new Doctor. But maybe I made it seem a little more palatable, perhaps."
In 2017 when Whittaker was announced as the Thirteenth Doctor, more changed than the character's gender. The whole dynamic was different. No longer companions, the Doctor had friends, a "fam." They were equals. Sally de St. Croix, franchise director at BBC Studios for Doctor Who, explained the purpose of this shift to FANGRRLS. “The use of the word ‘fam’ or ‘family’ is to acknowledge the tight-knit group of companions that accompany the Doctor," she said. "Because those you love and keep close and consider 'family' may not always be blood relatives.”
This was a new layer to the show, as gender, age, power, and myriad other differences created an imbalance between the Doctor and his companion, intentionally or not. He had partners in his various quests, but he was the leader, the smartest one in the room, the one in charge. With Whittaker, the Doctor and her fam established a team dynamic. Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Graham (Bradley Walsh) have a relationship with the Doctor that is on a more equivalent plane than previous incarnations. The power structure is more level. The Doctor is still the Doctor, but she's no longer the last remaining Time Lord who only had himself in the world. This Doctor is clinging to and grasping for hope, and that's not something one can do alone.
And with equal-footing comes her friends' ability to disagree casually, as opposed to a difference of opinion being a major narrative moment. This is most clear with Yaz, by design. "That was a conversation with [showrunner] Chris [Chibnall]," Gill told FANGRRLS. "He asked me what I'd like to see, and I said, 'You know what, I think sometimes Yaz wouldn't agree with the Doctor.' I believe in the Doctor, I still believe in the Doctor, but Yaz has learned a lot in space and she trusts herself and believes in herself as much as she believes in the Doctor."
And like any evolution, it continues. We learned this season that the 13 Doctors (14, counting John Hurt's War Doctor) we know are, as the Face of Boe once said, not alone. Before the First Doctor (William Hartnell), there were others. Her first iteration was, in fact, a little girl.
As with all of Doctor Who's beginnings, it starts with a girl.
This revelation gave us Jo Martin as the first Black person of any gender to play the Doctor. Science fiction's most beloved and longest-running television show can go anywhere from here, and the TARDIS doors are open wider than ever before. With that, of course, came a backlash. The casting of Jodie Whittaker was met with controversy by self-professed fans of the show (as long as the Doctor was played by a cisgender man, apparently). This was both jarring and sadly predictable, even to the show's stars.
"For every step I think that we're taking forward, you get a bit blindsided by a response that quite possibly you didn't anticipate," Agyeman said. "Because I was like, 'Well, of course, it's about time. It should have happened a long, long, long time ago.' And some of the responses really made me gag. So I'm very proud to have been part of shows that pioneer movements."
All the women of Doctor Who are part of that movement, paving the way to this point, and they know how important they are to their fans.
"For us, it's a national institution, it's part of our culture," Gillan said. "It's ingrained in people in such a way that... I don't know, everyone knows who Elvis is in America I suppose, it's something like that. It's really part of our DNA at this point, and so it's still mind-blowing to me that I was even a part of it. I can't believe that happened still, and it's such an honor."
Their roles in Doctor Who are not to be taken lightly, as they understand. Beyond adoration and fame and a place among these utterly iconic characters and creations, the women of Doctor Who are an inspiration to a generation of girls who get to grow up and have visible female heroes — and villains.
"The reaction I get from the younger female fans is incredibly embracing. I think they embraced Missy's power and the fact that she could just be this wonderful character, that kids really live in all of her colors and not be labeled mad because she's funny, or mad because she's clever, or mad because she's challenging and powerful," Gomez said. "I think she may be a great role model for younger women coming up, in that we don't have to be what our grandmothers had to be or what past generations of women had to be. We can have thicker waists and fuller figures and things have changed, and for the better. We get to be more comfortable in all our many different shapes and sizes. And I think that's what I take most out of my reign as the Master, was that I was able to kind of break the mold a little bit, and I think the younger female fans really recognized that and appreciated it."
And perhaps just as importantly, all fans get women to look up to, across the gender spectrum, in a way they never have before. Gomez sees this not only as a performer, but as a mother of a young son.
"It's interesting because my son is ten, and I feel like I'm possibly one of the last members of the generation where there really was a sort of gender-specific delineation," Gomez explained. "And now I notice with my son, and his friends, and at school, boys can wear pink and it's OK, right? The world has changed and it certainly feels like for the better, in terms of gender equality and just, be who you need to be. And the kids of today, this generation coming up, they don't bat an eyelid. If you look different or sound different, there seems to be a lot more inclusiveness. That's what I've witnessed certainly from my son and his friends."
The future is in good hands. And in two very good hearts.
Doctor Who will be available on HBO MAX when it launches in May 2020.