Fans, women and The Next Doctor (2008)

next doctor

These days, everybody’s a fan. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? You there – you kept the faith, right? You’ve been a fan since 1963/1974/1985/1996. You liked Doctor Who when no one else did. You’ve been there, done that, bought the novelisation. 

But now, the world is filled with Adric-come-latelies. They’ve been watching since 2005/2006/2010. They just jump on the bandwagon now it’s cool, right? With their Adipose squeeze toys and TARDIS iPhone covers. Pah!

But it’s not just new Whoheads (who we love, by the way. Don’t write in), it’s the general viewership. They have, I suggest, a much higher baseline level of knowledge about Doctor Who than back in the old series days. Take The Next Doctor; its very title needs a basic understanding of regeneration to decode it.

Not only does it speak to the fact that then current Doctor David Tennant was about to leave the show, but also that inevitably there will be a “next” Doctor because that’s how the series works. And those a little more familiar with the show will know that former Doctors periodically return to the show, but we’ve never met a genuine future Doctor. All this, I think, the casual viewer understands (and I say “I think” because I can’t remember a time when I was a casual viewer. Blimey, what must that be like?).

Anyway, let’s talk women. Two women, to be precise. The two women who have speaking roles in The Next Doctor: Rosita (Velile Tshabalala) and Miss Hartigan (Dervla Kirwan). They’re outnumbered eight to two by adult male speaking roles, but this is nothing new. In most Doctor Who stories, both old and new series, men outnumber women. The exceptions are stories like Galaxy 4 and The Happiness Patrol where the sci-fi cliche of a female dominated society is presented as the inverse of our own, and latter day exceptions to the rule such as The Name of the Doctor.

Putting that bias aside, The Next Doctor presents Rosita and Hartigan as smart, capable women in the male dominated world of Victorian London. But there’s something else going on because both are also positioned as representations of female sexuality and contrasted with male impotence.

Both costume and dialogue signal the female characters’ sexual expression. Hartigan wears a dress of deepest red, a scarlet woman, if you will. “Dressed like a harlot,”Mr Cole says at one point. Red represents passion, and in it, Hartigan contrasts strongly with black and white world around her. Her dialogue is laced with entendre: “The CyberKing will rise, indeed. How like a man.”

Rosita’s costume, low cut and corsety, shows more flesh than might be expected for someone walking around London on an icy Christmas eve. We never find out who Rosita is or what she does for a job, but there’s a strong implication she’s a prostitute. She says she met Jackson Lake at a wharf late one night, raising the obvious question of what she was doing there. And Hartigan herself pinpoints the issue when she says to Rosita,“You can be quiet. I doubt he paid you to talk.”

So there are only two female characters onscreen in The Next Doctor and both are defined by their sexuality. In comparison, the male cast are chastely sexless. The Cybermen of course have no interest in such things. The workhouse owners are dried old twigs of men and the Doctor, now divested of his female companions, is back to his normal unromantic self. Only Jackson Lake, mourning for his lost wife by hanging around with the lovely Rosita, seems to take an interest in matters saucy.

It’s weird enough to have the only female roles both signified so closely with sex and both labelled at various points, prostitutes. But in Hartigan’s case, there’s also the implication that she’s been the victim of sexual assault. Post her Cyber-conversion, when confronted by the Doctor she says “Yet another man come to assert himself against me in the night.” (Once again these random trips are revealing unexpected links; I wrote about sexual assault against a woman in my last post on The Time Meddler. This is really not what I thought was going to happen). And there’s the further suggestion that her overt sexiness is Hartigan’s reaction to a history of abuse.

What all this means I’m not sure, but it makes The Next Doctor an unsettling episode to watch. Can we imagine an episode where a would-be companion was a young gigolo, rescued by the Doctor from a wharf late one night? Or one which features a male villain whose evil scheme was informed by a history of sexual abuse? Or one where male characters are accused of being whores? Or maybe we should just give The Next Doctor the benefit of the doubt, and point to the many other episodes of the series which show women as being smart, capable and, yes, sexy, just because women are all those things, without having to label them as prostitutes or rape victims.

But onto lighter topics. There’s one other thing that perplexes me about The Next Doctor. It’s the rescue of Jackson’s son from the Cybermen’s child labour camp and specifically, who gets to perform it. It’s the Doctor who sails up a pulley system to rescue him from the high jump, while Jackson stands by watching. To me, in story terms, it should by Jackson who does that, inspired into action by the need to save his son and showing that one doesn’t have to be a Time Lord wannabe to be heroic. This would still leave the Doctor with the story’s big finale, saving London from the CyberKing from a balloon, but round out Jackson’s story a bit better.

And just as title The Next Doctor needs a little fan knowledge to decode, so does Jackson himself. I’m sure I’ll get a chance to write about Doctor Who representing its fans on screen whenever our random trips takes us to The Greatest Show in the Galaxy or Love & Monsters. But for now let’s just say that Jackson’s the sort of fan who likes a bit of cosplay, has a fairly hazy recollection of the series’ history and use improvised objects as stand ins for the TARDIS and the Sonic Screwdriver. He’s pure new fan.

LINKS to The Time Meddler: In a stroke of luck, the flashback sequence of Doctors includes a clip of Hartnell from The Time Meddler.

NEXT TIME… Something wonderful and strange. Get up early for The Awakening.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s