Tag Archives: feminist who

Clara Oswald Series 9 – Moving On

(Part of a series of “feminist takes” on Doctor Who companions. Spoilers for Doctor Who Series 8 and 9.)

When I watch Doctor Who, I live vicariously with both the Doctor and the companions. The Doctor gets to have power and to talk smack to the ruling class. The companions, meanwhile, get to take a break from their regular lives and go on a thrilling extended vacation. That’s my expectation, anyway. And when it’s broken I get seriously pissed off.

I like to see companions take a journey of personal growth and end up somewhere different-and better-than where they started. For me, the bar was set by Nyssa, who departed from the Tardis to hunt for a cure on a plague planet. (I’m deliberately not considering the possibility that the plague kills her.) Few companions have been treated that well, though. They’ve been killed, married off, suffered memory loss, simply been abandoned, or gotten stranded in time. And when I’m living vicariously through the companion, that’s disappointing.

In Series 9, Clara Oswald departs. Does the show do her justice? I’d say yes. She continues on the trajectory established in the Series 8 episode “Flatline,” in which she temporarily takes on the Doctor’s name and token of power to act like him. But as Clara becomes more and more like the Doctor, she’s also punished for it. She’s seen as a danger junkie. And in “Face the Raven,” her actions kill her. Definitively. We watch her die. Many fans are sad. I’m not sad. I don’t get sad when companions have bad endings: I get furious.


But two episodes later, in “Hell Bent,” we see her again. How is this possible? We’re in a time travel show. Clara is snatched out of time, just moments before her death, and in between one heartbeat and the next she has an infinity to explore. (She’s “in-between-finite,” a term I learned from you-tuber Vi Hart in an entertaining discussion of Pi.) She ends up with a Tardis and the ability to defer the moment of her death as long as she likes. In her last scene, she spins off in the Tardis to have adventures. She gets to fulfill her destiny as a wandering adventurer. Sweet.

Even sweeter: fanfiction writers are taking the scenario and running with it. On sites like Archive of our Own, Fanfiction.Net, and A Teaspoon and an Open Mind, people are paring up Clara and her traveling companion Ashildr and writing stories like crazy.

And so the story goes on.



Feminist Take: Clara Oswald Series 8

(Spoilers for Doctor Who Series 8)

In Doctor Who Series 8, companion Clara Oswald came into her own. The actress, Jenna Coleman, simply shone. She was strong, brittle, funny, powerful, beautiful, unique. And she continued to maintain her life outside the Tardis. But the storyline itself betrayed her by pitting her accomplishments on board the Tardis against an otherwise compelling relationship with a richly characterized man. In so doing, it failed both Clara Oswald and Danny Pink.

From the moment we meet Clara Oswald in Series 6, she is something more than human. She’s a human/Dalek hybrid who has resisted Dalek conversion better than anyone ever–so well that she takes over the Daleks’ telepathic world. She is plainly and simply human in the beginning of the first episode of Series 7, but in the middle of the show, she gets a brain upgrade of alien origin that makes her hyperintelligent. She’s off on a hero’s journey, and it’s amazing. Through it all, she never fails to maintain her connection to her “real life,” the life Human Clara had chosen for herself before becoming entangled with the Doctor.

Then the end of Series 7 hits and Clara has another upgrade of alien origin, one that splinters her throughout time and space to live a thousand different lives, playing the hero in each of them. She also literally enters the Doctor’s essence, getting to know him arguably better than any other companion–so much so that in later episodes she starts to become the Doctor.

So what is in store for her in Series 8? A smackdown. She starts a relationship with a man named Danny Pink, a former soldier with his own complicated past and his own heroic journey to undertake. Just as in Series 7, she attempts to keep her home life and Tardis life separate. But two people won’t let her: the Doctor and Danny Pink.

The Doctor, upon regenerating, has become more unstable than usual, and gone farther into an ethical gray zone. Toward Clara, he acts as a toxic combination of jealous boyfriend, protective grandfather, and military commander. He interferes in Clara’s life in “The Caretaker,” where he first meets Danny Pink and first starts to denigrate him by calling him a P.E. teacher when he actually teaches math. (We’re never told whether this is racism–Danny is black–or jealousy or just because Danny was a soldier, but my money’s on racism.)

Danny sees the abusive aspect of this relationship and names the Doctor, accurately, as a military commander. He predicts a moment when the Doctor will push Clara too far, and when that moment does come, he’s ready as a friend with a hug and some solid advice. But he oversteps himself and in so doing enters abusive-boyfriend territory.

Here’s the conversation that takes place after “The Caretaker.”

Danny says “I know men like him. I’ve served under them. They push you and make you stronger until you’re doing things you never thought you could. I saw you tonight. You did exactly what he told you, you weren’t even scared, and you should have been.”

This is a lovely, chill-down-the-back moment. Danny’s right.

Clara shrugs it off: “I trust him. He’s never let me down.”

Danny replies. “Fine. If he ever pushes you too far, I want you to tell me because I know what that’s like. You’ll tell me if that happens, yeah?”

Clara promises to tell him. So far, so good. Stop right here, and it’s a brilliant setup for the drama of the season.

But then Danny says, “If you break that promise, Clara, we’re finished. . . because if you don’t tell me the truth I can’t help you, and I could never stand not being able to help you. We’re clear?”

This is emotional manipulation. Instead of stopping at giving the her emotional support of a friend, an equal, he’s insisting on being her protector. And she never once calls him on it. She spends a fair bit of the season lying to him–going off with the Doctor and telling him she’s not–and I can only assume it’s because Danny has threatened to break off the relationship. This is not acceptable behavior.

Worse, Danny never acknowledges that Clara has been doing anything of import in her adventures aboard the Tardis. And we never see him asking about her past. Apparently, he’s satisfied with the half of Clara that likes to teach and hang out with him. Meanwhile, Clara’s perfectly willing to give Danny the impression she’s something less than she is. That shows a lack of respect for him.

While Clara and Danny are having their strange, dysfunctional relationship, Clara’s heroic journey is charging forward, full-steam ahead. In “Kill the Moon,” she confronts the Doctor to call him on his B.S. A few episodes later, in “Flatline, she literally takes on the role of the Doctor, complete with moniker, sonic screwdriver, and her own companion. She has a moment of epiphany when she asks herself, “What would the Doctor do?” and then corrects herself: “No. What would I do?” She has come fully into herself as a hero.

Then what? Two episodes later, in “Deep Water,” she gets a smackdown. Danny has confronted her about lying and said (finally!) that he’s okay with her traveling in the Tardis, as long as she doesn’t lie to him. So she starts off ready to confess everything. There’s an opportunity for them to finally have it out, for Clara to lay claim to her personal growth and accomplishments . . . but before she can manage it, Danny is suddenly killed (fulfilling the “Black Man Dies First” trope, by the way.). Clara is devastated. She finishes out the season as an emotional wreck. Her heroic journey is cut short.

There’s an age-old question this season appears to be playing out, badly. Can a woman be a good wife/mother/girlfriend and have her own life, too? Apparently not. We should just stay at home and let our men protect us.

This treatment wasn’t fair to Danny, either. It sidelined his own heroic journey, which was actually one of the most moving if you look at it in isolation. As an ex-soldier who left the army after accidentally killing a young boy, he became the one man to defy orders and save the Earth from Cybermen, and then, given the chance to return to life, sent the young boy instead.

I doubt the showrunner, writers, and editors meant to send the message they did. I think Danny’s sudden possessiveness, which destroyed Clara’s storyline for me, was just a slip-up. And that’s embarrassing. The show can and should do better.

Looking forward, in Series 9, it does. Mostly. But that’s a topic for another time.



Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s Companions

I’ve been working off and on over the years to create little bits of feminist analysis on the Doctor Who companions and thought I’d share them here. There’s a demand for “strong female characters” in our popular media, and the show has responded to it. Has it succeeded or failed? Both, of course. If there is a Feminist Ideal, and could a character live up to that ideal without being overly perfect, or contradictory, or both? I found myself in the strange position of judging the female characters. (Are they strong? Do they get to be the protagonists? To what extent are they the equal of the Doctor? Which stereotypes do they fit into, and which do they resist?) How catty of me.

So here are my links. None of them represent The Final Word on feminism, the companions, or anything else. They’re what I saw, as I saw it at the time.

Zoe Heriot from the Patrick Troughton years, seasons 5 and 6. I fail to provide any criticisms whatsoever, because she was the first companion I ever saw and I simply adore her. She’s in black and white, she’s a screamer, and she’s the best.

Amy Pond in “The Eleventh Hour.” The Doctor meets the little girl Amelia Pond, and this visit marks her for life and transforms her into his perfect traveling companion. He leaves in his TARDIS, promising to return in five minutes, but instead returns when she is a grown woman. Was this accidental, or deliberate? Whose purposes did it serve?

River Song in “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.”  Fan reaction has been mixed for this character, but I argue that she is powerful throughout. I might be reading more into this character than I should, but hey, it’s fun.

River Song after “The Time of Angels” and “Flesh and Stone.” I waffle back and forth between saying she’s a stereotype and saying she isn’t, and between saying she’s powerful and saying she’s not.

Clara Oswin Oswald after “Hide” and again after “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” and again after “The Crimson Horror.” Honestly, I don’t know what to think about her. Clara Who?

Clara Oswin Oswald in Series 8, written immediately afterward and again upon more reflection. She’s both extremely powerful and strangely mired in a bad relationship that depends on her pretending to be something she’s not.

And finally, Clara Oswin Oswald’s departure in Series 9.



zoe at tardis console


Update #3 to the Feminist Take on Clara Oswald

A couple years back, I started a series of “feminist takes” on Doctor Who companions, including Amy Pond, River Song, and Clara Oswald. I looked at ways they were, or were not, poster children for feminism.

But after three posts on Clara Oswald, I just plain gave up. She was such a squirrelly character that I couldn’t say anything definitive about her. As far as I’m concerned, she breaks feminist analysis. Maybe it’s a mistake to give characters “poster child” awards.

Here’s a recap of my commentary from Season 7. In the first post, I suggested that the character of Clara was suffering from a Bechdel test failure, but that even so, she was pretty amazing — in face, a mirror of the Doctor.

In my next post, I looked at the interactions between Clara and the TARDIS, arguing that it passed the Bechdel test and helped explore her character. But I also felt she was too perfect and not recognizably human. (I wonder if that’s why some fans have had strong negative reactions to her: maybe she’s an uncanny valley character.)

In the last post, I admitted defeat. I thought Modern Clara was a cardboard cutout of a person, but when you combined her with Dalek Clara and Victorian Clara, you got a rich characterization. But I decided to hold my opinions for later.

I didn’t put a post together after the stunning reveal of “Day of the Doctor.” To be honest, I didn’t know what to say. It was just beautiful and strange and blew my mind.

After “Day of the Doctor,” I believed everything Clara said and did. Dalek Clara and Victorian Clara suddenly made sense. Modern Clara did not. Modern Clara was acting like the post-transformation Clara. That’s going to bother me every time I watch Series 7. But it’s a critique of the narrative, not of the feminism. So I didn’t make an update.

Clara was amazing through most of Series 8. She was part human, with all the frailties and strengths a woman would have. But her character was also merging with the Doctor’s. I loved that. As a Doctor Who fan, part of me has always wanted to run off with him in the TARDIS and be his “Doctor Who Girl” (nod to Mitch Benn). And part of me has always wanted to be him. So I got to live vicariously. The episode “Flatline,” where she gets to play the part of the Doctor while he’s stuck inside her Mary Poppins carpetbag, was funny and amazing and thought-provoking too. Loved it.

Also fabulous: Series 8 Clara is transformed. She’s jumped into the Doctor’s – what? Mind? Time stream? She’s been thousands of people who were just as amazing as Dalek Clara and Victorian Clara. After that transformation, I believed every “too good to be true” moment.

Not so great: the narrative didn’t respect her transformation. She got this weird plotline in which she was trying to have a normal life with this Danny Pink character, but she kept lying to him, and she was blamed for all the lies. The Verity podcasters suggested it was an addiction storyline, which I guess it was. But why? Why expect that it would ever be possible for post-transformation Clara to live a normal life? The disconnect jarred me. But once again, it’s a critique of the narrative, not the feminism.

Now here we are in Series 9. This is the “Clara is going to die” series. Also the “Oh, and then she didn’t” series. But in “Face the Raven,” she really did. Except the actress is going to appear in the series finale, “Hell Bent.” How-what-who-I-don’t-even-know-what’s-going-on.

So I have nothing to say, really. I’m on a roller coaster and it’s about to plunge into the depths of the unknown. Maybe when the ride stops, I’ll have something sufficiently feministy to say.

Maybe not.




A Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s Zoe Heriot

This post is part of a series of feminist takes on Doctor Who companions. I ask these questions: Are they strong? Do they get to be the protagonists? To what extent are they the equal of the Doctor? Which stereotypes do they fit into, and which do they resist?

So far I’ve looked at Amy Pond, River Song, and Clara Oswin Oswald, all characters from New Who. Now it’s time for me to jump back in time to my favorite companion ever: Zoe Heriot.

zoe in front of cyberman

If you’re looking for a critique of feminist aspects of her character, you won’t get any here. Somebody else can criticize this or that. Nope, it’s pure appreciation. I adore her. She was the first female companion I’d ever seen, and if it hadn’t been for her, I doubt I’d have even started watching Doctor Who.

Who was Zoe Heriot?

She appeared in Doctor Who alongside Patrick Troughton, the 2nd Doctor, and Frazer Hines, his companion Jamie.  She was one smart girl:

Zoe Heriot is the Wheel’s parapsychology librarian (which means that she’s received brainwashing-like training in logic and memory), an astrophysicist, an astrometricist first class, and a major in pure maths.

(From the TARDIS Data Core wiki entry on “The Wheel in Space.”)

She was emotionally underdeveloped at first. But after she met the Doctor and Jamie, who taught her the power of intuition and instinct, she decided to set out on a journey of personal growth by stowing away on the TARDIS and becoming an Adventure Hero.

She was an Adventure Hero par excellence. Brave, smart, thoughtful, full of initiative, curious, you name it. And she developed emotionally pretty darn fast, building warm relationships with Jamie and the Doctor. She was a bit of a screamer. That’s the 1960s for you. But honestly, faced with the horrors she saw, I’d scream too. And her screaming wasn’t at all out of place: her Doctor was the panickiest Doctor ever.

Zoe was also Jamie’s equal. Jamie was a Highland Scot from the 18th century. He’d left a war for independence to travel in the TARDIS, but he was ready any minute to jump back into the fight. They complemented each other nicely: Jamie fought with his hands, and Zoe with her mind. Both were young and depended on the Doctor at times, but took initiative whenever needed.

She was also a match for the Doctor, intellect-wise. In “The Krotons,” she beat the Doctor on a computer-based test. I think this was my very favorite moment. As a young woman myself, in school, I was so excited to see a woman be smarter than the Doctor. At other times, she conversed with him in scientific gobbledygook — something few of his companions have done since.

Her ending was not ideal. The Time Lords wiped her memory, just as the Tenth Doctor later did to Donna Noble. That was unfair! But at least she got to retain the memory of her first adventure with the Doctor. She resumed her life on the spaceship, and in my mind at least, her character development stuck and she led a full and happy life.

A taste of her character

Here’s a snippet of dialogue in which Zoe interrogates the Doctor:

Zoe: [to the Doctor] How did you pilot the rocket ship? You see, I’ve calculated its original course. It was a surface and supply station for Number Five Station, overdue and presumed lost nine weeks ago. Well the rocket couldn’t have drifted eighty seven million miles off course.
Dr. Who: So what’s your theory?
Zoe: Well, there is a record of the last contract with the Silver Carrier rocket. It had seven million miles to touchdown, and enough fuel for twenty million. Well, it couldn’t have drifted here off course in the time involved. It must have been driven and piloted.
Jamie: Och, you are a right wee space-detective!
Zoe: There’s only one solution. That rocket was re-fuelled in space. – Provided for at least with another twelve fuel rods.
Dr. Who: Well, it is an interesting theory…
Zoe: Oh, it isn’t a theory. You can’t disprove the facts. It’s pure logic.
Dr. Who: Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority. Supposing there was a faulty automatic pilot?
Zoe: To drive a rocket eighty seven million miles on fuel for twenty million?
Dr. Who: Well, it’s a possibility.
Zoe: That rocket was driven here somehow. I know it was.

Smug, isn’t she? She doesn’t back down if she thinks she’s right.

Oh, did I forget to mention?

Zoe is also a computer programmer. Here she is giving a computer an insoluble problem in ALGOL.

 How about the actress?

The actress who played Zoe, Wendy Padbury, went on to become a theatrical agent. In a bit of a quirk of fate, she was the one who discovered Matt Smith, the actor who plays the current Doctor. She tells the story in this Youtube video. She was also a theatrical agent for other actors who appeared in Doctor Who: Nicholas Courtney, Colin Baker, and Mark Strickson. Small world, eh? I wonder who her other clients were . . .

screwdriver and book2

Update #2 to the Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s Clara Oswin Oswald

For the last few weeks I’ve been doing a feminist take on the character of Clara Oswin Oswald in Doctor Who (here and here). How well does her character measure up to expectations of twenty-first century feminists?

I must admit defeat. Her character is a mystery. She is “the woman twice dead.” The Clara we are seeing now (Modern Clara) is for all intents and purposes a normal young women. However, we’ve met her twice before in other times and places (Dalek Clara and Victorian Clara). Both times, she’s died. If you put all three Claras together, what you get is an incredibly rich characterization. If you take Modern Clara by herself, though, she looks to me like the cardboard cutout of a strong female character. Too clever, too perceptive, and too fearless to be believable as portrayed. (Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying I don’t think a woman could be this clever, perceptive, and fearless. I believed Dalek Clara and Victorian Clara would be. Just not Modern Clara.)

This latest episode, “The Crimson Horror,” didn’t change my impressions of Modern Clara. It was a feminist masterpiece altogether. Bechdel wins all over the place, a fabulous critique of eugenics, a mixed-race lesbian couple, and eight strong female characters all in the space of a forty-eight(?) minute episode. The Doctor isn’t even the focus of the show: it begins with a chambermaid rescuing the Doctor and ends with a mixed-race girl confronting Clara with the results of a remarkable research project. Clara, though, stayed mainly the same.

So I give up. There’s no “Feminist Take” here. Clara’s character is clearly headed in some direction or other. I don’t know what it is. No more updates until I find out.

I do know, though, that this journey of discovery is going to be a lot of fun.

P.S. Update #3, from Series 8, is here


clara with ladder

Update #1 to the Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s Clara Oswin Oswald

Last week I began a feminist take on the character of Clara Oswin Oswald in Doctor Who.  It was necessarily incomplete, because we are missing a great deal of information about the character, for purposes of plot. But I voiced two concerns:

1) She does not seem recognizably human. She doesn’t show the kinds of human emotions or reactions I would expect from anyone, male or female.

2) Clara asks a lot of questions, but they seem like they’re mostly to explore the character of the Doctor.

3) The show isn’t passing the Bechdel test. (See below)

After this latest episode, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, I’m going to argue that the show is batting two out of three.

Bad: Clara is still inhuman

Watch this conversation.

Clara says, “I think I’m more scared of you right now than anything else on the TARDIS.” (To give some perspective, she’s just seen her own future possible self as a zombie being horribly burned in a fire.)

The Doctor says something and hugs her.

Clara says, “Okay, I don’t know what this is all about, but the hug is really nice.”

A minute later he is asking her to jump off the edge of a cliff with her.

“Trust me just this one time, please . . .”

She gives him a skeptical look.


She nods. They jump.

I’m not buying it.

Good: Her character is explored

Clara spends a lot of time in this episode exploring and running around the TARDIS, while the Doctor is not present. She’s got initiative, curiosity, and is overly willing to take risks.

Arguably good: I think it passes the Bechdel test

This deserves a whole blog post, which maybe I’ll do someday, but in short, I think it passes. To pass the Bechdel Test, a movie or show must:

1. Have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

It has two named women, Clara and the TARDIS. Clara talks to the TARDIS about something besides a man. The sticking point, though, is whether they “talk to each other.” The trouble is that the TARDIS is completely silent. A reason for this was given in an earlier episode, “The Doctor’s Wife,” when she entered a human body and spoke — because she has an existence across time, she can’t speak in any one moment. I buy it. She had all sorts of trouble even in a human body, because she kept referring to events that hadn’t happened yet. She has so much intelligence that she can’t be comprehended by regular humans. (For more on this sci fi concept, see the Wikipedia entry on technological singularity.)

Still, I’m going to argue that they do indeed talk to one another. Here’s Clara’s side of the conversation, followed by my translation of the TARDIS’ side.

Clara’s side of the conversation

Clara says, “It’s an appliance. It does a job.” (She knows full well that this is not true, because the two of them have already spoken in the previous episode. She is taunting the TARDIS.)

Later, as she is running along the corridors alone, she sees a spectacular telescope room and a fabulous swimming pool. Then she sees a library and says,

“Now, that’s just showing off.”

She opens a book and learns something about the Doctor, and a bottle tips over, leaking out more information.

Later she is routed into the console room, where she says, “Oh, thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you,” and kisses the console.

But there’s no door, so she says, “No — the door, where’s the door gone, no. You can’t do this! Oh, why are you doing this?”

The TARDIS’s side of the conversation?

I would argue that the telescope, swimming pool, library, book, and bottle all qualify as conversation. It has already been established that the TARDIS is manipulating her architecture on purpose. And it has already been established that she’s a bit snarky with Clara.

So here is my translation:

“It’s an appliance. It does a job,” says Clara.

“Whatever,” says the TARDIS. “Look, I have a telescope room. Isn’t it awesome? You could use it if you wanted. One of the Doctor’s other stray pets liked it. Oh yes, and a swimming pool.”

(Later on)

“And yep, my library is at its architectural finest,” says the TARDIS.

“You’re just showing off,” says Clara.

“Clara, did you know that I have a history? It’s true. I used to have a lot of sister TARDISes, and they got wiped out. So I’ll tell you a big, big secret. Then you’re just going to forget it, which makes it kind of a funny joke. Still, you will try to remember, won’t you?”

(Later on)

“Clara, this concludes my rather hasty tour. Into the console room! You’ll be safe there.”

“Oh, thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you,” says Clara, and kisses the console.

“You’re very welcome. Do you still think I’m an appliance?”

“No — the door, where’s the door gone, no!”

“This isn’t the console room, dear. This is just a copy, and I brought you here to keep you safe. Didn’t you notice my color coding? Red for dangerous, blue for safe.”

“You can’t do this!”

“That statement is clearly and obviously incorrect.”

“Oh, why are you doing this?”

“Well, DUH, to save your life. Please stay put, Clara. I know that in a few moments you’ll be running out the door only to be pursued by a horrific possible future, but really, could you please stay put? Oh, HUMANS.”


Later updates to my feminist take on Clara are here and here.