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Kill the moon?

–Spoilers for Doctor Who: “Kill the Moon”–

A man puts on a red spacesuit and walks onto a planet, to find a team of people grappling with an alien threat. It’s a very special moment, a time when big things are about to be decided. In response to the threat, there’s a nuclear bomb that might have to be set off.

The leader of the team says to him, “Who the hell do you think you are?” Well, he’s a Time Lord, a superintelligent alien being, with the power to step into special moments like these and shape the future. He can help . . . but maybe he shouldn’t.

This is the premise of the Doctor Who episode “Kill the Moon.” Curiously, it’s also the premise of a previous episode, “The Waters of Mars.” Although “Kill the Moon” works perfectly well as its own story, it also works as a duet with “The Waters of Mars.” And when the two are put together, they ask some philosophical questions I’d be hard-pressed to answer.

In brief, here are the two plots. In “The Waters of Mars,” which takes place in 2059, the Doctor as played by David Tennant finds himself on Mars, at what he calls a “fixed point in time and space.” There are some moments he is not allowed to change, based on laws of time that only he understands. The inhabitants there are forced to blow up the colony with a nuclear weapon, sacrificing themselves to save the Earth from malicious aliens. But when it comes right down to it, he can’t sit back and let that happen. He’s grown so attached to the people on the base that he tries to save them at any cost. This is the wrong choice, and it makes him cross the line from good to evil. “Who the hell do you think you are?” asks one of the women he saves, Captain Adelaide Brooke.

In “Kill the Moon,” which takes place in 2049, the Doctor as played by Peter Capaldi finds himself and two companions on a space shuttle on the Moon, where some mighty strange things are going on. He meets up with a team of astronauts, and the first thing the captain says is “Who the hell do you think you are?” The Earth is at risk because the Moon has become “gravity flexible,” and a team of astronauts have come up with a hundred nuclear bombs to destroy the alien threat. Only it turns out that the alien is innocent, and killing it might or might not save humanity. In a moment of apparent cruelty, the Doctor washes his hands of the whole affair and walks off, stranding three human women in a room where the terrible decision awaits.

“Kill the Moon” has a number of deliberate allusions to “The Waters of Mars” — the year, the color of the Doctor’s space suit, the nuclear bomb dilemma, the concept of a pivotal moment in time, the Doctor’s acknowledgment that he shouldn’t be there, and the Doctor’s conflicting view of humans as “little people” or greatly important.

Along with allusions, the two episodes have some important contrasts, beginning with their personalities. Tennant is fairly warm and fuzzy and considerate. He wrings his hands over difficult decisions and pays explicit attention to others’ well-being. So when he makes his initial decision to leave the Mars colony to his fate, he is near tears. His downfall comes from caring too much.

In contrast, Capaldi is often dismissive of others’ feelings — at least outwardly. When he decides to leave the three women on the Moon, he is positively rude about it. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Well, actually, no, I’m not sorry! It’s time to take the stabilizers off your bike. It’s your moon, womankind!” That’s patronizing and quite cruel.

Another important contrast is the choice itself. Tennant makes the wrong one. Through some combination of caring too much about the colonists and growing too attracted to power, he risks humanity’s future and ultimately dooms himself and is forced to regenerate (which is as close to death as the Doctor can get).

Capaldi’s choice is the opposite. On the surface, he doesn’t care about the three women, and he leaves them to live or die, depending on their actions. Had they detonated the nuclear bombs, they presumably would have been killed right along with the alien creature.

Another contrast lies in how the Doctor treats a human woman’s right to choose. Tennant’s wrong choice overrules a human woman’s choice. Captain Adelaide Brooke makes up her mind to die to sacrifice herself, and he saves her instead. Luckily for the Doctor and the future of humanity, Brooke shoots herself, undoing Tennant’s mistake.

In contrast, Capaldi forces three women to make a choice on their own, despite repeated pleas for help. “It’s your moon, womankind,” he says. “It’s your choice.” He even goes so far as to drag a fifteen-year-old girl out of the TARDIS to participate in the impossible decision.

Here’s what I’m wondering: did Capaldi do the right thing? Faced with a similar situation, he made the opposite choice. Was it the right one, or did he veer too far in the other direction? It’s hard to tell. Unlike the two previous Doctors, Capaldi rarely explains himself, and when he does, we don’t know whether or not he’s telling the truth.

On the other hand, he deserves credit for refusing to sugarcoat the hard truths he lives by. He could have easily made the same choice but won over Clara’s heart, and the viewers’ hearts, if he had wrung his hands or shed a tear before he left. Instead, he overtly patronized and manipulated people so that at the end of the episode when Clara gave him a spectacular telling off, a lot of viewers were right there with her. Who the hell does he think he is?

I’d like to think Capaldi made the right choice — that he’s brusque and arrogant but underneath it all has a more mature understanding of morality than either of the two previous Doctors.

But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point of “Kill the Moon,” in combination with “Waters of Mars,” is not the Doctor, but the viewers. We’re asked to look critically at our hero’s actions, to question his motives, and to ponder what we might do in the same situation. We’re right there with him, seeing the universe in all its cruelty and splendor, and hoping, as he hopes, that humanity can be saved.

should i stay or should i go

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Goodness had nothing to do with it

(Caution – spoilers for Doctor Who, “Flatline”!)

This last week’s episode of Doctor Who, “Flatline,” has pleased me to no end. It was great to see a woman playing the Doctor, for one thing. That deserves a squee post all on its own. (While I’m at it, I really ought to post about Barbara Benedetti, who played the Doctor in a series of fan-made films produced by Ryan K. Johnson.) But even more exciting, to me, was its exploration of morality.

I started watching Doctor Who with Patrick Troughton and went straight through to the end of Classic Who, with Sylvester McCoy. The Doctor was a fine, though ridiculous, hero. Most of the time, the show never questioned the Doctor’s innate goodness. He was just this guy who saved us from the monsters. I have to admit, I liked it that way. I wanted, and I still do want, the Doctor to be “the good guy.”

But I also have to admit that I was fascinated when the Doctor took a wrong step in “The Waters of Mars.” What happens when a superhero goes too far? I was so intrigued that I wrote an article about it for Strange Horizons: “Fall of A Superhero in Doctor Who and the Waters of Mars.” I said:

It is asking the grown-up questions that need to be asked. Can we really count on our superheroes? We need them to be powerful enough to fight our villains and win, but what do we do if our heroes become villains themselves?

This is not a new question. Lately, many movies and graphic novels have been exploring the theme of good and evil with superheroes. But I felt that “The Waters of Mars” and the two following episodes explored that question exceptionally well. My opinion is that superheroes can be “good” only if there is a counterbalance to their power. And when the Doctor stepped over the line, a woman did step up to stop him.

I hoped that when the Doctor regenerated, he could go back to being “the good guy.”

Did he? Is he a good man?

This season of Doctor Who has taken this question as one of its main mysteries. The Twelfth Doctor was terrified when we first saw him — probably of himself. He asked Clara if he was a good man, and she replied, “I don’t know.” Like Clara, we’re not sure. The Eleventh Doctor always explained himself, but the Twelfth Doctor is both cagey and brutally honest about his reasons for doing what he does.

But there’s another question behind that one. What does it even mean for a superhero to be “good?” Which actions should s/he take in the face of difficulty? And what if there are no good choices?

That’s the question that “Flatline” tackled. To summarize the episode, the Doctor gets trapped in his TARDIS and hands Clara his tokens of power (sonic screwdriver and psychic paper), his name, and his leadership tips and tricks. Clara flawlessly executes the usual monster-fighting strategy, managing to save the world plus at least a couple survivors.

And that’s why the Doctor compliments her halfway through, saying, “You were good, and you made a mighty fine Doctor!”

But at the end of the adventure, after everything has been said and done, he changes his story. “You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara,” he said. But then he adds, “Goodness had nothing to do with it.” He walks off into his TARDIS, leaving Clara puzzled.

What was it? What went wrong? Clara did a brilliant job. If she hadn’t done it, our entire world would have been taken over by malicious monsters from a two-dimensional world, and the Doctor and his TARDIS would have been utterly destroyed. Some people died along the way, but it was through no fault of hers. Why wouldn’t that count as “good?”

Well, there are hints throughout the episode that something is amiss.

Early on, the Doctor catches Clara lying to him about her boyfriend. He congratulates her, saying that lying is a survival skill  . . . and a terrible habit. Later, while Clara is leading a group of people to safety, knowing they might or might not live, she realizes that part of the Doctor’s strategy is to lie to people. She consults the Doctor to see if she’s right.

“Lie to them. Lie to them,” she says. “Give them hope. Tell them they’re all going to be fine. Isn’t that what you would do?”

Taken aback, he stammers, “In a manner of speaking, I-i-it’s true that people who have hope tend to run faster. . .”

Clara also guesses his “Rule 1.” Each incarnation of the Doctor has had its own series of rules. For example, for many of the Doctors, “Rule 1” was for the companions not to wander off. (Of course, they always did, because otherwise, how would they have adventures?) For the 11th Doctor, Rule 1 was “The Doctor lies.”  But for this 12th Doctor, the rule appears to be, “Use your enemies’ power against them.” What’s happened to Rule 1? It’s gone from a joke to an admission of Machiavellian techniques and from there to a military strategy.

Could this be why the Doctor tells Clara “Goodness had nothing to do with it?” Has he seen his morality mirrored in her actions and decided it’s flawed?

Yes, maybe. But there could be another explanation. Perhaps the moral issue is not with Clara’s actions — which were as “good” as possible under the circumstances — but with Clara’s later processing of the situation.

The Doctor asks her a question at the end. “You okay?” He looks more considerate in that one moment than he has this entire season. He knows she’s been responsible for a group of people and seen some of them die.

“I’m alive,” she replies. She’s wearing a poker face, as she usually does. If she’s in pain, she tends to hide it.

“A lot of people died,” he says, still sympathetic.

And here they are interrupted by Fenton, a morally degenerate survivor. The survivor compares what has just happened to a forest fire. You save the big trees, but you let the brush go. He refers to the dead, who had been doing mandatory community service, as “scum.”

The Doctor is not pleased by this analysis. He says, “It wasn’t a fire, those weren’t trees, those were people.”

Clara, however, does not appear to have quite followed this interchange. She is listening from a distance, a slight smile on her face. She  wants the Doctor’s approval, so she says, “Yeah, but we saved the world, right?”

The Doctor smiles. “We did! You did.”

“Okay, so on balance . . .”

I think this is where Clara goes wrong. She has taken all the right actions, but she’s failed to consider the impact of those actions on her own sense of right and wrong. She’s nothing like Fenton, but just as he is comparing people to expendable trees, Clara is weighing one group of lives against another.

Perhaps this is why the Doctor later says that goodness had nothing to do with it. Perhaps he’s trying to tell Clara to step back and consider the moral implications of her actions.

Or maybe something else is going on.

“Balance!” says the Doctor, disgusted.

“Yeah! That’s how you think, isn’t it?” She’s still looking for his approval.

“Largely so other people don’t have to.”

Well, it looks like the Doctor has his own issues there. He doesn’t want other people to weigh one life against another, but he does it himself. It’s the classic “Do as I say, not as I do.”

So perhaps when the Doctor says, “Goodness had nothing to do with it,” he actually means, “Goodness had nothing to do with being the Doctor.”

If that’s what he means, he’s challenging the morality of the entire series, all the way back to the 1960s. This was a pretty run-of-the-mill episode, with clear-cut choices and answers. The same plotline would have easily worked with Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, or Tom Baker, or any other “Classic Who” Doctor — and without that enigmatic statement from the Doctor, we would never have batted an eye.

Maybe we should have.

Anyway, whatever the Doctor means, I’m hooked. Can’t wait to hear what next week’s episode has to say!

–Kristin

screwdriver and book2

 

This Chick Digs “Chicks Unravel Time”

I dig it. Chicks Unravel Time, ed. Deborah Stanish and L.M. Myles, brings in a mad collection of feminists – fans, authors, artists – to take a look at every season of Doctor Who. And what a look! They give close examinations to everything from the use of stock music in Season 5 in Classic Who to David Tennant’s bum in Series 2 of New Who. (We women like every aspect of the Doctor, apparently.)

Here are a few shout-outs to essays that ringed a bell for me.

In “Guten Tag, Hitler,” Rachel Swirsky asks some pointed questions about the Doctor. As a child, Swirsky asked her mom if her family was safe from such persecution because they did not practice the Jewish religion. No, said her mother. So this episode takes on highly personal significance for Swirsky. She asks the very reasonable question of why the Doctor didn’t try to save the Jews from Hitler. “The Doctor,” she writes, “doesn’t save people from the all-too-real horrors of trenches and machetes. He rescues them from malfunctioning robots.”

In “Identity Crisis,” L.M. Myles writes, “[Patrick] Troughton’s not merely good as the Doctor, he’s the best.” Thank you, L.M. Myles. I’ve never heard anybody say that before, but I absolutely agree. She writes: “His performance combines humor, compassion, intelligence and mystery in a way that’s still unmatched by any other actor to take on the role” and “[his] whimsy and apparent uncertainty in his own abilities makes him a very different sort of hero.” Yes, and yes. Troughton is panicky as often as he is triumphant and out of control as often as he is successful. I love it. Who wants a hero who has everything handled?

In “The Women We Don’t See,” K. Tempest Bradford looks at Season Thirteen, companion Sarah Jane Smith, and all the other women . . . who weren’t there. “For most of this season, the Doctor travels alone with Sarah Jane – and in half the stories, she’s the only women we see, with the exception of extras and background people. This erasure is as glaring as the stereotypes we get when women do eventually show up.” I remember watching this season for the first time. And the second. And the third. And not noticing that omission.

In “No Competition,” Una McCormack argues that Season 26, with Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, is the best season ever. She writes, “Season Twenty-Six contains a magic combination of complex storytelling and satisfactory realization that, to my mind, is never quite matched before or since.” I agree it’s pretty darn awesome. Sylvester McCoy and his companion Ace are some of my favorite characters. McCormack writes: “Ace grows up, and Doctor Who grows up with her. Again and again, the season imagines women as heroes of their own narratives, as authors of their own stories.” Yeah. What she said.

In “Ace Through the Looking-Glass,” Elisabeth Bolton-Gabrielsen covers that story arc that Ace should have had, if the show hadn’t been cancelled. I didn’t know this, but Ace was supposed to train to become a Time Lord.

I’ve saved my favorite for last. In “Maids and Masters: The Distribution of Power in Doctor Who Series Three,” Courtney Stoker takes on the power dynamics between the Doctor and his companions. She writes: “Power impacts every relationship the Doctor has, but it’s not something Who fans talk about often. We like to pretend, I think, that the Doctor’s extraordinary power isn’t important. We like to think that it doesn’t affect him or his relationships with others. We like to think that if companions are ‘strong’ enough, sassy enough, smart enough, they are his equals. But no matter how many times a companion saves the Doctor, or how many times a companion stands up to him, they don’t have his power.” The rest of the essay is a frank assessment of power dynamics in Series Three. (Can I just add, on a related note, how disturbing and gratuitous I found the maid/Master dynamic in the tenure of Martha Jones?) I loved this essay because I am always analyzing power dynamics in Doctor Who relationships. I relish every last little bit of power the companions wrest from the Doctor or that the Doctor yields to the companions. And I love all the moments when the power dynamics between the Doctor and his companions shift one way or another. Stoker asks: “Are we fans as attracted to the Doctor’s power as his companions are?” Um, yes.

I’ve picked out these essays in particular, but the others are just as stunning. Go get it! It’s available as part of a box set on the Mad Norwegian Press website.

Fall of a Superhero in Doctor Who: “The Waters of Mars”

In March, an article of mine was published at the online science fiction magazine Strange Horizons. I’m reprinting it here.

Fall of a Superhero in Doctor Who: “The Waters of Mars”

In the last scene of the Doctor Who episode “The Waters of Mars,” the Doctor’s TARDIS lands in a picturesque neighborhood, with a lamp post shining through the gently falling snow. The Doctor emerges from the TARDIS with Captain Adelaide and her assistants Mia and Yuri, having just saved them from an explosive and fiery death.

“Isn’t anyone going to thank me?” he asks.

It’s just like every other happy ending, except they are all staring at him with shock and horror. Mia cries, “Who the hell are you?” and then turns and flees.

They’re looking at a superhero who has just tossed aside humanity in order to pursue ultimate power, making the choice of evil over good. This is a first for the Doctor. In all his years on television, while the Doctor has been occasionally possessed, sometimes mistaken, sometimes too greedy or too eager to sacrifice somebody else for the greater good, he has never been evil.

Can the Doctor be saved?

The Myth of the Hero

This question goes beyond Doctor Who, because the story of the Doctor is an expression of the universal hero myth. This myth, explored by Carl Jung and his colleagues and students such as Joseph L. Henderson and Joseph Campbell, is based on an “archetype”—a pattern hard-coded into the unconscious parts of our minds. The archetype is the same for everyone, identical across time and space, but it gives rise to dreams and myths that are specific to every culture.

The superhero story is a myth for our time, for a world threatened by war, nuclear devastation, climate change, and species extinction. We need the superhero to give us hope, to bring out the best in ourselves, and to change the world for the better.

And the Doctor is an extremely compelling superhero. Doctor Who has been capturing the imagination of millions of viewers since its beginnings in 1963 as a children’s show. Kids watched the show from behind the couch, clinging to their beloved Doctor to save them from the monsters. When they grew up, they found the real monsters to be more terrifying than the make-believe ones, and they needed the archetype of the hero even more.

In 1989, when the BBC canceled the show, the Doctor Who mythos changed and grew. Fans took matters into their own hands and kept the Doctor Who universe going in fanzines, novels, and audio plays, and then in 2005, they brought the show back and became its writers, producers, and directors. The Doctor had entered their dreams, and they brought their dreams back to the show, along with six years’ worth of stories. Now it is watched by more than ten million people in forty-two countries, it has secured a number of Hugo nominations and awards, and it has been named by the Guinness Book of World Records as “the most successful science fiction series.”

Another generation of children will grow up with the Doctor. The show has remained faithful to its younger viewers, being careful not to terrify them too much. But at the same time, the show has begun to explore the demonic side of the hero myth, in which the hero succumbs to hubris and becomes a danger to the whole universe (Henderson 101-107). It is asking the grown-up questions that need to be asked. Can we really count on our superheroes? We need them to be powerful enough to fight our villains and win, but what do we do if our heroes become villains themselves?

ere is an inherent contradiction in superhero fiction. The stronger the villains are, the more powerful the superhero must become. And the worse the situation, the more serious the consequences of the superhero’s actions. Unless stopped, the superhero crosses a line and becomes not our protector but our villain.

The original Doctor Who show, which ran from 1963 to 1989, largely dodged the superhero contradiction, focusing on the bright side of hero mythos. The new show, however, has been exploring it since the very first episode, “Rose.” In this episode, we learn that he is the last of the Time Lords, a race of people with the ability to manipulate time. His heritage leaves him with abilities far greater than those of his human traveling companions, and he uses these abilities for the greater good. When the last member of an alien species threatens all life on earth, the Doctor must kill it, thus completing the extinction of a species.

In the eye of the viewer, he keeps his “good guy” status because he had no choice; he is a savior of Earth and not a destroyer. We all want our heroes to be good, and we are willing to cut them some slack if the enemy threat is great enough. So the danger to the universe has to be upped. In “Forest of the Dead,” his companion-to-be River Song sings his praises:

“Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever for one minute accepts it.”

If he’s the only one who can save the universe, he must be good, right?

We also cut him some slack when there are casualties. Often in Doctor Who, the only way to stop the bad guy is through a sacrifice. And it isn’t often the Doctor who makes it. He is always ready to lay down his life to save the universe, but luckily someone always jumps in his way and dies instead. But is it luck? As the Doctor grows more powerful, we begin to wonder whether he has set up this “sacrifice” in some way.

In “Journey’s End” his archenemy Davros brings the question out in the open.

“How many more? Just think—how many have died in your name?” he asks.

Davros is the creator of a race of genetically modified, emotionless lumps of flesh who travel inside robotic killing machines. They’re called the Daleks, and they have been scaring Doctor Who fans since 1963. The Daleks are treated as the ultimate evil, and Davros as one of the Doctor’s worst villains. But it takes one to know one. As a villain, Davros understands the side of the Doctor that has abused his power.

Even worse, the Doctor often lets other people do his dirty work. In “Journey’s End,” the Daleks have built an empire, moved the planet Earth halfway across the galaxy, and used it to fashion a “reality bomb,” which will annihilate this universe and every other. They have seemingly destroyed the Doctor’s TARDIS and have trapped him and his companion within their vault. All hope seems to be lost. But wait! His past companions, who have been molded by their time with the Doctor, turn up with various tools of mass destruction to stop the Daleks, including a detonator switch for a set of nuclear explosives buried under the Earth’s crust.

Davros points out that the Doctor has made this happen. He says:

“The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun, but this is the truth, Doctor: you take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons. Behold your children of time, transformed into murderers.”

At this, the Doctor bows his head in shame. Because it’s true.

Lonely at the Top

This accusation is a turning point for the Doctor. He now knows that he is capable of using people as tools, if a villain pushes him to the edge. Superheroes must have human connectedness in order to stay grounded, and to stay involved with the people they are saving. Unfortunately, if a superhero is more powerful than anyone or anything, it is impossible to have a relationship of equals, and this means the superhero must be fundamentally alone and perpetually lonely.

The Doctor has always traveled with companions, but he’s lost them all, usually as a consequence of his adventures. Donna Noble is the latest of his companions, and her loss is one of the saddest. After showing the Doctor his “children of time, transformed into murderers,” Davros begins to detonate the reality bomb. But even trapped, the Doctor is more powerful than ever. His unseen hand has been hard at work—literally, a disembodied extra hand, kept in a vat in his TARDIS. The hand gives Time Lord powers to Donna, which she uses to stop the Daleks. And it creates a human Doctor, who ends up killing the Daleks. This proves Davros right: the hand of the Doctor did indeed fashion people into weapons.

As a result, Donna suffers a tragedy. The Doctor’s superpowers are too much for her human body. In order to prevent her death, the Doctor must erase all memories of their time together.

As they have many times before, his superhero powers hurt his friends and cost him their companionship. He’s in a double bind: he needs people to keep him sane, but he can’t have a lasting relationship with any of them.

So, two episodes later, in “Planet of the Dead,” he decides never to have another companion. Lady Christina, who has just helped him save the earth from a swarm of metallic locusts, says, “Right then. Off we go. Come on, Doctor, show me the stars!”

But he refuses. “People have traveled with me and I’ve lost them. Lost them all. Never again.”

But this, as we learn in “The Waters of Mars,” is not a possibility. The Doctor is too dangerous to be left alone.

A Hero’s Fall from Grace

The fall of the Doctor in “The Waters of Mars” comes from a combination of his being all-powerful and having no connection to people. Having lost all his companions, he goes to Mars and meets up with the first colonists, a group of people he has always revered. But he knows their future: they must die in order to ensure the survival of the human race. Captain Adelaide’s granddaughter, inspired by her brave sacrifice, is meant to lead humanity to the stars. So the Doctor leaves the colonists to their deaths, walking out of their dome as explosions and fire destroy the colony. A blast knocks him down to the ground. It’s the last straw. The grief over the loss of his people, the Time Lords, finally breaks him.

He marches back into the dome to save the day, but it’s all wrong. The more desperately he tries to save the colonists, the more berserk he becomes. Adelaide asks him why he’s saving them right after he said he couldn’t.

In a fit of hysteria and rage, he explains:

“There are laws of time. And once upon a time there were people in charge of those laws, but they died, they all died. Do you know who that leaves? Me! It’s taken me all these years to realize the laws of time are mine. And they will obey me!”

That’s it. He’s lost his grounding in his connections to others, and he realizes he no longer has to follow the Time Lords’ rules; they’re all dead. All he has left is power. And, being the one and only Time Lord, he knows that he has no one to contend with for power over time. He sees himself in a battle against time itself, and he thinks he can win. But what happens if he does? The more he tries to rewrite history, the more the timelines will break, until, like a little boy knocking down a tower of blocks in a fit of frustration, he will annihilate the universe.

So he has (or thinks he has) ultimate power, but it turns out to be a double edged sword. Those whom he saves perish; those whom he loves break from him; and no one remains to save him from his own chthonic urges. What good is it, then?

This question has great implications for our world. Over the last century, those in power in our world have started wars, built nuclear weapons, and resisted attempts to slow global warming. Is that strength, or is it weakness?

Once the Doctor decides that he alone owns the laws of time, he cannot stop himself from using his power and becoming his own worst villain.

Who Can Stop the Superhero?

He’s got to be stopped. But if he’s the most powerful man in the universe, who can do it?

Adelaide. Where he has power, she has strength. When he crosses the line and intentionally endangers the human race, she destroys his legitimacy as a superhero, withdraws her consent for him to act on her behalf, and backs up her lack of consent with direct action.

Adelaide is puzzled by his change of heart. After the Doctor brings the colonists back to Earth and Mia runs off, Adelaide questions him until she understands his motivations. Why did he save her, knowing it might endanger the human race?

He brushes her off. “Different details, but the story’s the same.”

“You can’t know that! And if my family changes, the whole of history could change! The future of the human race! No one should have that much power!”

Where before the Doctor acted in a panic, now he is cool and collected. This is more frightening than his previous hysteria. He gazes at her with utter confidence and says, “Tough.”

Adelaide backs away, thus exposing to the viewing audience his loss of superhero status. Although he doesn’t know it yet, she has just taken away some of his power. Adelaide, the true hero of this episode, refuses to recognize the Doctor’s actions as good.

“You should have left us there,” she says.

“Adelaide, I’ve done this sort of thing before. In small ways, saved some little people. But never someone as important as you. Oh, I’m good!”

This is another turning point for the Doctor. He’s fallen to the sin of pride, which, according to Carl Jung’s associate Joseph L. Henderson, dooms the hero to death. Henderson found a universal pattern in the myths he studied: the hero’s “triumphant struggle with the forces of evil, his fallibility to the sin of pride (hybris), and his fall through betrayal or a ‘heroic’ sacrifice that ends in his death” (Henderson 101). The Doctor is going to pay, not for saving Adelaide, but for calling people unimportant.

In outrage, Adelaide roars, “Little people! What, like Mia and Yuri? Who decides they’re so unimportant—you?” It is Adelaide’s connection to the other colonists that gives her the emotional strength and the strength of conscience that the Doctor is lacking.

As she continues to question him, she becomes more and more convinced that she must stop him at all costs.

“Is there nothing you can’t do?” she asks.

He stares her down. “Not any more.”

She responds to his dominating gaze by turning her head away, and then she walks into the house, where she shoots herself.

In one way, her death is a loss of power. Too often in movies and books, women kill themselves because they have run out of other options. But here, this sacrifice is highly powerful. Acting on the strength of her convictions and especially her connections to her daughter and granddaughter and the members of her team, she defeats the most powerful man in the universe by reminding him of his own mortal fallibility. She has become a hero in her own right. This sacrifice completes her heroic cycle, which began when she first dared to reach for the stars and ended when she gave her life so her granddaughter could do the same.

And in so doing, she also saves the Doctor from himself. When he realizes that she has foiled his attempts to meddle with the timeline, her accusations echo in his head. “I’ve gone too far,” he says in horror, and then drops to his knees.

“Is this it—my death? Is it time?”

Can We Save the Superhero?

The superhero outreached, became a villain, and was defeated. Does he have to die now?

That’s one end to the hero cycle, and it’s the one Adelaide took. But there’s another according to Campbell: transformation. In the Doctor Who universe, the Doctor never dies for good. When the actor leaves, the Doctor goes through a kind of rebirth, called regeneration. He is still the Doctor, and he still travels in his TARDIS, but he is played by a new actor, with an entirely different personality, and often different companions as well. That’s why the Doctor has stayed fresh and relevant for forty-six years.

But this time, the transformation isn’t easy. Now that the Doctor has shown the worst side of himself, he must battle his personal demons, suffer the consequences of his actions, and redeem himself. In the two-part special “The End of Time,” he comes face to face with his worst enemies: the Master and the Time Lords. They exist on the physical plane, threatening the universe with annihilation, but also represent his personal demons. The Master is the Doctor’s shadow, while the Time Lords personify the Doctor at the height of his hubris.

We all know the motif of the hero battling personal demons and performing a heroic sacrifice to stop them, so we expect the Doctor to die gloriously while fighting the Master and the Time Lords. But that isn’t quite what happens. The Doctor does have a spectacular battle with his foes. But in the middle of the dramatic action, the Doctor’s companion Wilfred quietly performs a small heroic act. He sees a man trapped in a chamber that will later fill with deadly radiation, screaming for help. Wilfred knows he can release the man by entering an adjacent chamber and locking himself in, and he does it without a second thought.

When the Doctor’s battle is over and his foes defeated, it’s almost as if he has vanquished his personal demons. But he hasn’t. He’s still suffering from hubris, and he still has to pay the price for calling Mia and Yuri “little people.”

So he sees Wilfred trapped in the chamber. He immediately understands the price for saving Wilfred: entering an adjacent chamber and taking the radiation into his own body. He was prepared to sacrifice himself in glorious battle, but this is different.

“Look at you,” he rages, still in thrall to pride and ambition, “not remotely important. But me—I could do so much more!”

But then he collects himself and understands what he has lost over the course of his recent adventures: his respect for humanity. “Lived too long,” the Doctor whispers. Choosing to save Wilfred’s life rather than his own, he steps into the chamber to be flooded with radiation.

With this sacrifice, the Doctor redeems himself. But it wouldn’t have been possible without Wilfred’s help. Just as Adelaide saves the Doctor from power, Wilfred saves the Doctor from his own hubris.

This regeneration is more final than any other. Previous regenerations have often been mere changes of body, but earlier in “The End of Time,” the Doctor describes it as death. “Even if I change, it feels like dying. Everything I am dies, some new man goes sauntering away, and I’m dead.” In this regeneration, the Doctor makes a clean break with his past self and bids farewell to all the companions he’s known. Even the TARDIS begins to break apart and crash. He dies and is reborn as a whole new Doctor.

The Hero Cycle Begins Anew

When the Doctor returns in the spring of 2010, the hero myth will begin anew. Doctor Who will have a brand new showrunner, Hugo award-winning Stephen Moffat, who brings his own vision of the hero myth to Doctor Who. And the Doctor will be played by Matt Smith, who is the youngest Doctor in the show’s history.

Because he’s regenerated, he no longer has to be consumed by a desire for power or wracked with grief over his lost companions and Time Lords.

How will the new writers handle the superhero contradiction? Stephen Moffat hints at his vision for the Doctor in an interview for the science fiction blog io9. The Doctor, he says, doesn’t really have godlike powers. “Underneath it all, he’s a bloke. He ‘s a man. He’s just a man with a time machine who is brilliant at convincing people of things. . . . He’s the man who never gives up, and that’s his super-power.”

Moffat’s vision of the Doctor suggests that he won’t push the superhero contradiction to its limit by giving the Doctor absolute power. Even so, the contradiction won’t go away—the fall to hubris is always part of the heroic cycle—and how the Doctor escapes its fatal conclusion will be a continuing source of suspense. Yet the writers and producers will need to be careful to maintain the balance between power and powerlessness, strength and weakness. How can they do this?

First, they’ll need to resist the temptation to expand the Doctor’s superpowers to defeat ever more terrible monsters. It’s just as thrilling to see him win in his moments of powerlessness. When he’s running for his life, begging for mercy, putting his life in the hands of his friends, and even breaking down in tears, that’s when he becomes, paradoxically, the strongest.

Second, they’ll have to prove that the Doctor is not, as Davros claims, responsible for all the deaths and sacrifices around him. That’s only possible when there is a more powerful entity capable of influencing events. There’s plenty of precedent for that—the original series had the Chronovores, the Eternals, and the Guardians, and the new series has the Reapers. More importantly, time itself has often been a force to be reckoned with, surprising even the Doctor.

And third, they can give the Doctor a relationship of greater equality with his companions, so that he won’t be capable of manipulating them and so that the job of saving the universe will never fall on his shoulders alone. There’s precedent for this as well. Doctor Who has had a long history of strong companions, both male and female, who provide a counterbalance to his power and who reveal the Doctor’s emotional vulnerability. They have their own hero cycles and their own heroic acts. They are almost always active participants in the action, and sometimes, like Adelaide, they steal the show, taking the mantle of the hero and wearing it when he can’t.

So yes, the superhero can be saved. But only when we are able to stop him (or her). Only when we are in a relationship of equals with our superhero.

This won’t take as much effort as we may think. It is not a change in the material conditions of our lives, so much as a change in how we view our heroes. As we discovered, in the moment of the Doctor’s greatest power, he was at the same time the very weakest. His companion was stronger than him then, just as we can be stronger than the heroes we revere—so long as we remember that the hero myth isn’t about someone “out there” who’s going to save us, but about ourselves. It’s about relying on our own connections to our friends and families instead of “going it alone” or depending on someone else’s power and influence. And it’s about listening to members of our own community for a voice of conscience in order to forestall our own descent into hubris.

Which makes us the superheroes. It’s not about the Doctor, not really. It’s not about the Doctor saving us. It’s about us becoming the heroes, us saving the Doctor, us saving the world.

Once we understand the nature of power, we’ll have our superheroes. For keeps.

List of Works Cited

Anders, Charlie Jane. “Exclusive Interview With Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat.” io9. 24 Jul 2008. Retrieved 6 Jan 2010.

Campbell, Joseph and Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday. 1988. 123-163.

“The End of Time.” Doctor Who. Two-part special. Broadcast 25 Dec 2009 and 1 Jan 2010.

Henderson, Joseph L. “Ancient Myths and Modern Man.” Man and His Symbols. Ed. Carl G. Jung. Aldus Books, Limited. 1964.

“Journey’s End.” Doctor Who. Broadcast 5 Jul 2008.

Jung, Carl G. “Approaching the Unconscious.” Man and His Symbols. Ed. Carl G. Jung. Aldus Books, Limited. 1964.

“Rose.” Doctor Who. Broadcast 26 Mar 2005.

Copyright © 2010 Kristin King

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

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 of Doctor Who’s River Song, Part 1

Part 3 will appear after the season 5 finale.

There are spoilers for season 5.

A Feminist Take on River Song, Part 2
Is River Song More Than a Stereotype?

There’s a power imbalance between the Doctor and his (usually female) companions. It’s his show, and he calls the shots. There’s room for women to come in and help out, and sometimes they save his life or solve the mystery, but in the end, he’s the hero. Unless the Doctor one day becomes a woman, there’s a limited amount of room for women to be powerful.

This is nothing new to action-adventure stories. In a recent study, “Violent Female Action Characters in Contemporary American Cinema,” researcher Katy Gilpatrick found that in the top-grossing films between 1991-2005, the vast majority of female action heroes acted as sidekicks who are subordinate to the main hero. Gilpatrick writes that most of the female action heroes “are just added to the script to serve the heroic acts of the male lead action character or serve as a love interest to him.” Instead of breaking down gender barriers, “they operate inside socially constructed gender norms, rely on the strength and guidance of a dominant male action character, and end up re-articulating gender stereotypes.” (Source: “Do Kick-Ass Action Heroes Move Gender Stereotypes Forward or Just Perpetuate the Current Ones?” by Melissa Silverstein)

Does this sound familiar? Do any of the Doctor Who companions submit to his greater experience and power, following his lead, or act as love interest? Or rather, are there any who don’t?

In action-adventure shows, even when a woman becomes a primary action hero, she is generally only allowed one of two roles: the hypersexualized, scantily clad Buffy, Xena, or Wonder Woman character; or the fully-clothed, masculine Sarah Connor character. That is, she can fight as a stereotypical woman or a stereotypical man, but she usually can’t fight as a person, plain and simple.

In addition to gender roles, even the most independent female action heroes are usually expected to submit to the authority of a male. Wonder Woman reported to Steve Trevor, Buffy reported to Giles at least initially, Scully followed Mulder’s quest, and Emma Peel took direction from John Steed.

So how does River Song stack up? Does she escape gender norms? Is she a powerful female action hero, or is she still a stereotype?

River Song as a Powerful Hero

In my essay, “A Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s River Song, Part 1″ I described the character of Professor River Song as she appeared in the Doctor Who episodes “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.” She is a competent, capable adventure hero with a career as an archaeologist, leadership of a team, and also the ability to be nurturing. She’s sexy while fully clothed. She arrives knowing the Doctor’s future and even his name – a piece of information that probably gives her some power over him. And she owns her actions rather than submitting to her authority, eventually overpowering the Doctor and handcuffing him to a pillar so she can sacrifice her life to save his.

Maybe Too Powerful?

Doctor Who fandom was split over River Song after “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.” Many found her a feminist hero, but many were uncomfortable. In a Livejournal poll on July 20th, 2009, 47 percent liked her, 40 percent disliked her, and 12 percent didn’t care. In the comments to my essay, many fans said things like, “I don’t know, she just rubs me the wrong way.” Some fans called her “smug,” “superior,” or “smarmy.”

These responses were somewhat understandable, because River Song did flaunt her knowledge of the Doctor’s future, and she also romanticized him as a hero. But the depth of the dislike suggests to me that she transgressed gender norms in ways that people found uncomfortable — not because fans are sexist, but because we’re conditioned to expect those norms. The term “smarmy” is especially interesting, first because it implies insincerity and second because it is generally used for men. Fans doubted the depth of her love for him even though, at the end of “Forest of the Dead,” she sacrificed herself for him — reducing him to tears as well. And fans doubted her expertise, even though she led a team competently and had the technical ability to do the Doctor’s job. Is it possible that fans could have swallowed a “feminine” awe of the Doctor or a “masculine” expertise, but not both?

A Challenge to the Doctor’s Authority

At the beginning of the show “The Time of Angels,” River reappears, and the smug and superior attitude that bothered fans in the earlier shows goes over the top. River summons the Doctor by sending a note into the future that specifies the exact time and place she is going to throw herself out an airlock. “Oh, and I could do with an air corridor,” she adds. After the rescue, he says, “I’m not going to be there to catch you every time you feel like – like jumping out of a spaceship!” and she retorts, “And you are so wrong!”

Even worse, she hits the Doctor where it hurts – she threatens his authority to pilot his time machine, the TARDIS, by showing him features that she knows about and he doesn’t. Most offensively, she silences the materialization/dematerialization noise that has been a hallmark since the beginning of the show, and, when he objects, says, “It’s not supposed to make that noise. You leave the brakes on!”

She also exerts power over him by understanding what motivates him – his insatiable curiosity. After they land, the Doctor is ready to say goodbye and leave her on the planet, but she gives him just enough information about the current alien threat to catch his interest. She turns to the Doctor’s companion Amy and gloats: “Now he’s listening!”

Oops, But it’s a Bluff

Although River demonstrates the ability to summon and manipulate the Doctor, we learn early on that she is, in fact, under male domination. She has been put in prison after killing a man, and the soldiers who appear at her request are, in fact, her captors. Their leader, Father Octavian can jeopardize her power over the Doctor by telling the Doctor some secret information about her. River’s power, therefore, is subordinate to that of Father Octavian.

She’s Supporting the Real Hero

Also, although River maneuvered the Doctor into the adventure, once it begins, she becomes subservient to him, supporting him in his heroic acts. When he finds an especially clever solution to defeat the monsters, she whispers, “Oh, you’re a genius!” Her over-the-top superiority has given way to over-the-top hero worship.

Also, while River and the Doctor each perform heroic acts, River’s is smaller. River uses her technical skills to rescue Amy, whom the Doctor had foolishly left to fend for herself in the middle of a forest of monsters. The Doctor performs the major heroic act, saving all three of them and, by the way, protecting the universe from oblivion.

And She’s Put in Her Place

Finally, once the adventure is over, River is firmly placed under male authority. She’s in handcuffs, about to be sent up to a prison ship, where she may, or may not, be set free, depending on whether or not the authorities believe she’s earned a pardon. She and the Doctor have a brief exchange, in which the Doctor finally relaxes and enjoys her company. She’s no longer challenging or threatening his abilities.

But Then Again . . .

The saving grace of this scene is the exchange between River and the Doctor over her restraints.

“You. Me. Handcuffs. Must it always end this way?” she asks archly.

“Mmm-hmm,” he says, with pleasure.

This teasing exchange is a reminder of “Forest of the Dead,” when the Doctor inquires about the handcuffs that River has used on him. It implies that the handcuffs are a game of mutual enjoyment, in which River and the Doctor take turns being the top.

The exchange also puts River’s superior attitude in a new light. She forced him into the uncomfortable position of being summoned and manipulated, and enjoyed watching him squirm. She’s playing a game of dominance. What if he likes it? After all, he does keep putting himself in the hands of his worst enemies, essentially playing a game of BDSM with foes like the Daleks and the Master, who are out to kill him and annihilate the universe. Would he really be doing it if he didn’t get something out of it? Maybe it’s healthier and safer to play BDSM with someone he loves and trusts.

Oops, Back to the Love Interest Stereotype

But this interpretation brings us right back to the love interest stereotype. Sure, River Song is smart and clever and sexy and throws herself out of airlocks like nobody’s business, but is she just there to be the love interest for the Doctor?

Or Maybe Not

Well, maybe she is and maybe she isn’t. In “Silence in the Library,” River implies that she is the Doctor’s wife, but she also tells us that she is always lying. There’s another explanation for how she knows his name and how to write in his language and fly his TARDIS: River could be a future incarnation of the Doctor. In the “Time of Angels,” the Doctor makes a curious mention of “self-marrying” – that is, marrying a future incarnation of himself.

Another possibility is that River kills the Doctor in his future (and her past). Father Octavian has told the Doctor that River killed a man. When the Doctor asks River who she killed, she says it was “a very good man, the best man I’ve ever known” – the implication being that she has killed the Doctor.

So which is she – the Doctor’s wife, his murderer, the Doctor herself, or some combination thereof? We won’t know that until the final two episodes of the season, in which writer and showrunner Steven Moffat has promised to bring her story to a satisfactory resolution.

She’s a Work in Progress

Either way, the character of River Song has moved beyond stereotypical gender roles. She’s been a gun-toting action hero and also a nurturing caregiver. She’s mixed hero-worship with smug self-satisfaction. And if she is a love interest, she’s certainly an unusual one.

How much power she holds is an open question. Does her power depend on meeting the Doctor out of order? What will happen in future encounters if we see her with less knowledge and experience than the Doctor? Will she still be strong then?

We’ll see.

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.