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A Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s River Song, Part 1

This essay is part of a series of feminist critiques of characters from the show Doctor Who. It was written for the livejournal community doctorwho.

Other posts in this series:
A Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s Amy Pond
A Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s River Song, Part 2

There are spoilers for season 5.

A Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s River Song, Part 1
The Doctor Who character River Song first appeared in the season 4 episodes “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.” Fans disagreed wildly over whether or not she was a strong feminist character. I believe she is one of the strongest Doctor Who companions in the show’s history, and this essay explains why.

Part of the answer comes from outside these two episodes, part comes from the gaps and possibilities in her story, and part comes from her actions in the show.

Powerful Character and Actress

The character of River Song appears to have been inspired by Bernice Summerfield, a character from the Doctor Who novel series New Adventures who gained her own fan following. After the BBC pulled the rights for Virgin Publishing to feature the Doctor, Virgin produced Bernice-only novels, which readers devoured. Bernice Summerfield and is not owned by the BBC.

The actress who plays River Song, likewise, has her own career independent of the Doctor Who universe. Alex Kingston played a doctor on the popular American television show E.R. When she came to play the part of the Doctor’s companion, she had, in fact, never seen Doctor Who and therefore had no awe of the Doctor. It shows. She is also older than most of the Doctor’s companions, which helps counter the age discrimination too frequent in television adventure shows. Can an older woman be sexy? Yes!

Powerful in the Gaps Between the Action

Like Bernice Summerfield and Alex Kingston, River leads a life independent of the Doctor. She is an archaeologist, the leader of a team. Although she travels with the Doctor, she also parts from him to have her own adventures, and then returns to him. Who even knows what she gets up to in the meantime? It’s best if we never find out, if the show always leaves that open, because it means that she is not dependent on the Doctor for adventures.

River Song’s ending is also ambiguous, leaving space for a number of different stories and a wide variety of character development – ample fodder for fanfiction writers to take her anywhere.

Powerful in the Show Itself

Finally, River Song is a powerful character in the show itself.

In “Silence in the Library,” River first appears, with her team, in the middle of one of the Doctor’s adventures. He has just realized that he is surrounded by the “Vashta Nerada,” a race of aliens who live in the shadows and devour. River bursts in, and he shouts out an order that he expects to be obeyed: “All of you, turn around, get back in your rocket and fly away!”

She laughs in his face.

Then she calls him “pretty boy,” a term that many women will recognize as sexist. Like the word “babe,” it’s both complimentary and disempowering. Therefore, it’s a reversal of stereotypical gender roles.

She summons him into her office and proceeds to show him her superior technology, a Sonic Screwdriver that’s better than his, and her superior knowledge, a book, shaped like his TARDIS, with details of his future adventures.

As the adventures proceed, she sensibly follows his lead when his experience is greater than hers, but also acts on her own when it seems appropriate.

Then she whispers his name in his ear. This is possibly the most shocking thing any companion or enemy has ever done. In fairy tale, myth, and fantasy, knowing someone’s name can give you ultimate power over them. And, central to the Doctor’s identity is the lack of his name. “Doctor Who?” people often ask. The question is never answered. We’ll never know it. But she does.

In the climax of the show, when the solution suddenly becomes clear, she sees it first. One of them has to die. Paradoxically, if he’s the one who dies, she’ll never have adventured with him. Experiences will be stolen from her. So she chooses to sacrifice herself – not only to save the world, but also to protect whatever personal growth has occurred during her time in the TARDIS.

But, of course, he’d never allow it. So she knocks him out and handcuffs him to a pillar.

When he comes to, he insists that he die instead.

“What, I’m not allowed to have a career?” she asks him, insisting on her right to adventure in her own way.

Next, they have an interchange that reverses the stereotypical male and female roles. She reasons with him calmly, and he dissolves in tears.

Then she wins the argument with persuasion, the Doctor’s most effective superpower. She wisely sees that handcuffing him to a pillar is not enough to stop him, because he has the ability to travel in time afterward and counter her actions. So she persuades him not to.

Then she proceeds to sacrifice herself and save the world.

If the story ended here, it would follow a too-common precedent of strong women having to kill themselves. However, the Doctor finds a way to “save” her, transmitting her essence into a computer. In her “afterlife,” we see her meeting her team, reading books, telling stories, and taking care of children.

Up until now, River has taken power mostly in stereotypically male ways – punching out the Doctor, calling him “pretty boy,” and so forth. But when she becomes a caregiver of small children, she is taking power in stereotypically female ways. She’s transmitting culture to them in the form of story. And so she is also a role model for parents of all sorts. The job of parent is too often given short shrift, not seen as “real” work. But it is one of the most challenging jobs of all, and it’s an exciting adventure all on its own.

All the same, if the story ended here, it would follow another too-common precedent of women’s stories: ending in “domestic bliss,” ending “happily ever after.” The Doctor would have trapped River inside a giant computer, eternally taking care of children – “put her in a pumpkin shell and there he kept her very well.”

But it doesn’t.

Something extremely interesting has happened. When River left her body, she became an artificial intelligence. She has been transformed into – what? She’s no longer human (if she ever was to begin with) and therefore no longer a woman. She’s broken the gender binary. She’s made of bits now, ethereal, not dependent on a physical existence – which means that she may someday have the option of being transmitted somewhere else. And in the meantime, she has access to the most enormous library in the universe. (For more discussion on River Song and the library, see River Song, the Moffat, and Myth by livejournal user promethia_tenk.) Whatever might happen next is anybody’s guess. But is she trapped? No.

Her story has only begun.

A Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s Amy Pond

I am writing essays on episodes from Doctor Who, season 5. This essay was written for the livejournal community doctorwho, and the original URL is http://community.livejournal.com/doctorwho/5808627.html.

This essay is part of a series of feminist critiques of characters from the show Doctor Who. It was written for the livejournal community doctorwho.

Other posts in this series:
A Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s River Song, Part 1

A Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s River Song, Part 2

There are spoilers for season 5.

A Feminist Take on the Doctor Who Companion Amy Pond

As a feminist and Doctor Who fan, I am always looking at the companions with a critical eye. 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? The depictions of the companions are never perfect successes, but they’re usually not complete failures either, and I do appreciate the honest attempts to make well-rounded, strong characters.

So. The newest companion, Amy Pond. Which is she so far? Success or failure? Let’s take a look at the first episode of the new Doctor Who season, “The Eleventh Hour,” to see Steven Moffat, sets up her character.

Here’s the story in a nutshell:

The Doctor has just regenerated, and the TARDIS, is crashing. Meanwhile, a little girl named Amelia Pond, worried about a monster in her bedroom that no one else believes, prays to Santa. She hears a crash, goes outside, and sees the Doctor climbing out of a disintegrating TARDIS.

He starts helping solve her mystery, but then his TARDIS calls for help and he has to rush back into it. He promises to return “in five minutes.” But the TARDIS returns him a bit late, when she’s nearly a grown woman, who now calls herself “Amy Pond.” Her childhood and adolescence has been marked by his earlier visit, and when he reappears she is unable to resist her fascination with him.

He vanquishes the monster, with her assistance, then vanishes for another two years. When he returns, on the night before her wedding, he asks her to travel with him as a regular companion and she agrees.

What kind of a beginning is this for a companion? Is her decision to join him a free choice? Or does he manipulate her with his two lengthy absences? Here are three possible interpretations of the events in the show:

1. The Doctor grooms Amy as a perfect companion by visiting her as a child, abandoning her without notice, and then returning later. This is the creepiest, ickiest interpretation.

2. Amy calls the Doctor forth by praying to Santa, then freely makes the choice to go with him. This interpretation empowers Amy the most.

3. The TARDIS decides when and where to crash-land and then plays matchmaker by causing the lengthy absences.

I’ll explore each of these interpretations, bearing in mind that no single interpretation fits all the facts. Doctor Who is often an ambiguous show, with an ambiguous hero. Simple answers are often wrong, so it would be a mistake to choose one interpretation and reject the others. Rather, each interpretation is likely to influence Amy’s characterization, giving it depth and possibility — and a bit of fail.

The Doctor in Charge

In the first interpretation, the Doctor is in control of the TARDIS, and he set Amy up to want to travel with him. This is a nasty interpretation. It’s a dreadful setup for Amy as a strong character, and it does no favors to children who are groomed in reality by adults who seek out children who, like Amelia, have a lack of adult guides and protectors. But how valid is it?

On the surface, the Doctor is not in control of the first lengthy absence. He intends to return right away, because Amelia is in danger, and he’s upset when he finds out how much time has passed. But at the same time, events certainly worked out in his favor, didn’t they? He badly needed a companion, and what better way to attract a friend than to meet her as a child?

From Amy’s point of view, it doesn’t matter whether the Doctor intended to leave her for so long. She still suffers the consequence: she’s hopelessly in love with the Doctor. She’s lost adults before — people who have promised to come back. And so she’s emotionally vulnerable and especially likely to fall for someone who always comes back, no matter how many years it takes.

And although the Doctor can’t be blamed for his first absence, we can hold him accountable for the second absence. He leaves on a whim, because he is so excited to have his TARDIS back, with no thought for Amy. And when he returns, to ask her to travel with him, it doesn’t occur to him to ask whether she has made a free choice.

Amy Chooses Her Fate

In another interpretation, Amy’s childhood self Amelia is the protagonist. She summons the Doctor in response to a legitimate problem, and then decides, as an eight-year old, to accompany him in his TARDIS.

But can a child make such a major life decision?

In the Doctor Who universe, maybe yes. It’s always been a children’s show, and the Doctor has always been a childlike hero. Kids are taken seriously. The writer of the episode, Steven Moffatt, has a special regard for people who fell in love with the Doctor in childhood, and this episode is in many ways an homage to his own childhood as a Doctor Who fan.

And if anyone can choose her destiny as a child, it would be Amelia. She’s afraid of the monster in the bedroom but reacts with sober pragmatism. She finds a believable child’s solution — praying to Santa — and when the Doctor arrives, she treats him as the answer to her call. She is neither surprised nor afraid when the Doctor arrives and climbs out of a burning box, exuding golden radiation energy, but reacts with aplomb.

“Does it scare you?” the Doctor asks.

“No, it just looks a bit weird,” she says.

She is a sensible and determined little girl, better equipped than some adults for major choices.

As an adult, she’s as wary as any self-respecting princess, a practical idealist if I ever saw one. Although she can’t resist the allure of the Doctor and his TARDIS, she does keep her wits about her and ask the questions that need to be asked. When he invites her to travel in his TARDIS, she says, “You are asking me to run away with you in the middle of the night. It’s a fair question. Why me?”

So perhaps Amy is the master of her destiny. Perhaps the Doctor’s absences worked in her favor as much as his. After all, they gave her the chance to grow up, develop inner strength, and establish a life before following through on her earlier decision to travel with him.

The TARDIS is Acting On Her Own

In the final interpretation, the TARDIS chooses when and where to crash-land and then chooses the length of the Doctor’s absences. But can the TARDIS really act on her own? Usually, she’s treated as a traveling machine and nothing more. At the same time, the TARDIS does have a history of bringing the Doctor right to the middle of a new adventure. If an alien menace threatens the Earth, she’s on it. Often, the Doctor sets the coordinates for one location and ends up somewhere completely different. But when it really matters — when the TARDIS needs to be at a certain time and place to defeat a monster — the Doctor steers her with great accuracy.

This episode treats the TARDIS as a character in her own right. At one point, she locks the Doctor out, and proceeds with her own regeneration, completely redesigning her insides with a fancy steampunk motif. “Look at you!” he tells her fondly. “Oh, you sexy thing! Look at you!”

So it’s not too huge a leap to imagine her thinking and planning. What could her motives be? Knowing the Doctor needed a strong companion, does she choose Amelia? Or, knowing Amelia’s great need, does she send the Doctor on a rescue mission? Or is there some other reason known only to the TARDIS? We’ll probably never know.

This interpretation leaves the possibilities wide open for both Amy and the Doctor. The Doctor is not all-powerful, not in charge. Amy is still a strong character who is operating within a world she does not fully understand or control. In that sense, she’s the equal of the Doctor. Sure he’s hundreds of years older than her; sure he makes the monsters run away; and sure he can see events past, present and future; but he’s every bit as confused and scared as anyone.

The Verdict: A Promising Start

None of the interpretations fully explain the relationship Amy has to her past and to the Doctor. Maybe he didn’t manipulate her, or maybe he did, or maybe the TARDIS did. Maybe she made a choice as a child that would mold her destiny. Maybe she summoned a hero who was a bit more than she expected. Perhaps she’s neither entirely a hero nor entirely the victim, but something else, a person struggling to make the best choices possible in a complicated world. And that’s strength.

So my verdict: it’s a promising start for Amy, with a bit of fail. I can only hope, though, that she’ll have the wits to watch out for that Doctor guy. He can be a creep at times, and he does have a history of using his companions and lying to them. And he’s not a glorious hero so much as a guy with a time machine — “a madman with a box.” The adventures may be fun, but I hope she’ll keep her eyes out for the inevitable moment when she and the Doctor have to part ways, and then go off and choose a destiny that takes full advantage of her strengths and abilities.