The Vagenda

Dr Who & The Curse of the Companions

NOTE: This is only about the new Doctor Who- I know, I know, hardline fans will probably dismiss this out of hand. However, feel free to tell me in the comments how sexist (or not) old Dr Who is- I’m genuinely curious. Spoiler alerts, etc. 
“Wait a second;” I thought as I sat in the lounge, my mind idly wandering as I munched on dry cereal from the box; “Was Amy Pond a stripper?”
Maybe I had been reading too many feminist blogs or maybe the new Dr Who promo had caught my eye, but whatever it was, that question hung in my mind.
In her first episode, Amy, the fourth of the new Doctor’s companions, meets him wearing a police uniform, but he finds out that this in fact a costume for something else.
My mind raced, was Amy Pond a stripper? – I hastily looked it up, ah no, she wasn’t a stripper, she was a kiss-o-gram.
Wait, what?
A kiss-o-gram? The intelligent, interesting, funny girl who the Doctor chose to take travelling around the universe, her job was as a kiss-o-gram? Huh, well that’s kind of odd.
(Oh and it has also been made extra creepy in a Kiss-O-Gram Amy Pond figurine)
Now for those who have never seen Dr Who (and seriously, what is wrong with you?), I’m going to backtrack a little and give you a basic roundup. The original series began in 1963, but its new incarnation, produced by BBC Wales and headed up firstly by Russell T Davis and then by Steven Moffat, started in 2005. It centres around this guy who travels around Space and Time in a police box called the TARDIS (which is bigger on the inside) and as the last of his species the Timelords, he is known as The Doctor. His job is to save the universe and fight evil alien races such as the Daleks using a combination of witty badinage and a phallic wand-thing known as a sonic screwdriver. Although his status as the last of the Timelords gives him a somewhat melancholic and solitary vibe, he often travels with companions.
The companion is normally a sassy attractive female, sometimes accompanied by a male who falls into one of three categories: whiny boyfriend of said female, metal dog with weird high-pitched voice, or John Barrowman. The most recent of these companions (we haven’t technically met Oswin yet) is Amy Pond, the aforementioned kiss-o-gram.
As I thought more about Amy Pond, I realised something else that nagged at me. When she finished travelling with said Doctor, after she has travelled through countless galaxies, she comes back to earth to…
What? Becomes a scientist, goes on to start world peace?
Nope, she becomes A MODEL.
What on earth (or in the universe) happened there, guys?
I can see the writers’ room now, at BBC Wales in Cardiff, a white board with a big AMY POND in the middle with words like FEISTY, ATTRACTIVE, SMART, RED HEADED written around it.
It’s getting late and everyone’s a bit bored – “Shit, she needs a job!” cries Steven Moffat.
“What kind of jobs do pretty women do?” asks his colleague, desperately
“Er you know she could be… a kiss-o-gram!” says someone else, who presumably has travelled through time using the TARDIS straight from a 1970s episode of the Benny Hill show.
“Or a model!” shouts Steven.
“We’ve nailed it! Let’s go to the pub;” says Benny Hill’s production assistant.
And it’s such a shame, because Amy Pond was the kind of woman little girls look up to. She’s brave, she’s confident, she’s loyal…she’s basically kickass. And yet, now that I think about it, by making her a kiss-o-gram and then a model, the producers of Dr Who were selling the same bullshit to girls that no matter how amazing, funny and kick ass they are – they have to rely on their sexuality and their looks in the job market. Thank GOD they made Rory a nurse, at least.
Later in the series, Amy goes back in time, this time sans Doctor, and becomes a journalist – so far so good. But as this blog points out the ‘plucky female reporter’ trope often gets pulled out when writer’s run out of ideas (see How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days).
Companions’ careers
So I started checking out the other companions (I know, even the word ‘companion’ starts to sound really creepy – there’s a dissertation for any feminist undergrads) and I found a few worrying trends.
Here are the list of jobs that the other three companions have – Rose Tyler: shop assistant, Donna Noble: temporary secretary for a security firm (just temporary, not even permanent) and Martha Jones: trainee doctor.
Wait the last one is good right? Yeah, finally a job that didn’t come out a sitcom where the main joke was about a woman’s cat.
The problem is Martha spent most of her time in the TARDIS moping about after the Doctor like a lovesick puppy. They might as well have had clips of her texting her friends: “So, we went to this planet with two suns and he was all like ‘this is really nice’. Do you think he likes me?”
Brides to be
And there’s more – two companions are picked up by the Doctor, just before they get married (because all women are just brides to be). At least this massively creepy episode was thankfully never made: “Paul Abbott was scheduled to write an episode which would have revealed that Rose’s entire life had been manipulated by the Doctor in order to mould her into an ideal companion.”
I suddenly feel very wrong.
It pains me to admit it, I love Doctor Who, but when I started thinking about it I couldn’t stop. It’s starting to seem kind of…sexist. Then the final nail in the coffin hit.
Amy gets married at 19 to her teenage sweetheart (I know, I know). After a confusing plot involving her being pregnant but not knowing.
She becomes infertile and nearly ends up divorced because of it – good one, let’s bring that old chestnut out!
Why Stephen Moffat, why? Why have you fallen into every trap possible? I had such high hopes for you and you give me this! A kiss-o-gram turned model who gets married as a teenager, gives birth and then becomes infertile…
The only redeeming feature is River Song, who is genuinely intelligent, a criminal mastermind and doesn’t really need the Doctor at all. In fact, she’s totally fine living without him and sort of pops up out of the blue now and again to see how he’s doing. THANK THE LORD FOR RIVER SONG.
So I’d like to ask the writers of Doctor Who one thing – this time, when the Christmas special rolls around, can you please, please give us a real woman? You know, one with a real job, who isn’t constantly crying over some idiotic boyfriend – is that too much to ask?
Or maybe, just maybe… can we get a female Doctor for ourselves?
We can only dream.
Finally I leave you with this, a description of Sarah Jane Smith, the Doctor’s longest companion who was with him from 1973 to 1983, from an episode guide to the series: “Sarah Jane first appears in the Third Doctor serial The Time Warrior (1973), where she has managed to infiltrate a top secret research facility by posing as her aunt, Lavinia Smith, a famous virologist. Introduced as an ardent feminist.”
Who knew it could be better in the 70s?

27 thoughts on “Dr Who & The Curse of the Companions

  1. I believe that Mary Tamm quit her role in Dr Who because her character was becoming too secondary assistant/damsel in distress which she had doubts in taking the role in the first place. I don’t blame her

  2. I’m not sure why being a kiss-o-gram or a model negates Amy being funny, feisty, intelligent etc. And none of the other companions were models, so it’s not like there’s a strange obsession with companions who take their clothes off.

    I thought the first episode with Amy was brilliant, because she just refused to be what you expected her to be, in that sleepy village where nothing much happened.

    And, in the end, she leaves the modelling to go timetravelling again!

    Also, as much as the babies and infertility stuff got my goat, the ‘boyfriend of the assistant’ role hasn’t exactly been edifying for the lads either…

  3. I don’t mind companions/assistants having shitty jobs before they travel with the doctor, because if they had a great career they’d be less likely to want to leave it all to go travel through time and space. He tends to pick up people who are somehow unhappy with the way their lives are going and genuinely want to run away from it all. I agree that Amy going back to her own world and becoming a model was a bit of a wtf moment for me though. River Song and Sarah Jane Smith have definitely been the best role models in the recent past, would be nice to have more of that, but younger women who tweenies are more likely to look up to.

  4. Actually though, even River Song when you think about it is more of a cliche of what the writers imagine as a STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER – sexy, flirty, gun-toting, funny, entire life revolves around the doctor – traits which aren’t in themselves bad, except that all Moffat’s female characters are variants on the same theme. Like, the only writer-sanctioned women must stick to this mould – heaven forbid they don’t feel like flirting constantly with the Doctor. If it was just River Song acting like this it would be fine – I just wish there was a range of female characters who had actual depth.

  5. This just shows that Doctor Who needs a few female writers. Or at least one female writer. In the last two series, nine writers have written episodes for the show and every single one has been male.

  6. I totally agree with the points made about Amy. There are glaringly obvious problems with her character from her first appearance.

    1. She’s introduced with a tracking shot that starts at her shoes and ends at her face.
    2. Her profession as a ‘kiss-o-gram’ can not be contextualised for the legions of young fans of Doctor Who
    3. Her profession is diminished just by calling it ‘kiss-o-gram’
    4. The Doctor has become a sex myth for her and this can’t be explained to younger fans either.

    However, I think that it’s unfair to trivialise Rose as a shop assistant and Donna as a temp. People who work in shops and behind receptionist desks are real women too and deserve to see Space and Time too and as you say yourself, it beats being a Lois Lane rip-off.

    Also the periphery characters such as Harriet Jones (MP for Flydale North!) Sally Sparrow, Captain Jack, River Song and Mickey are there for a reason – they add multiple dimensions and perspective on gender, role appropriation and choices.

    Martha’s crush on the Doctor doesn’t ever stop her being focused and career driven either – she goes on to be a badass UNIT operative against the Doctor’s advice – proving that unrequited love doesn’t always render you feeble-minded.

    I’m not well versed enough in original Doctor Who to give any definitive opinion but I live with a proper Whovian who tells me all sorts of brilliant things about Nissa, Ace, Romana, Sarah Jane etc. And the construction and complexity of these characters often makes me wish that Amy Pond and Rory had never happened.

  7. A lot of these comments seem to me to be missing the point a bit. The companions are bright, witty, feisty, courageous, quick-thinking and so on. In real life, women like that don’t have, or shouldn’t have, pointless, badly-paid, dead-end, whatever, jobs. The article is right: this is a misogynist fantasy and a crappy message for the kids who watch the show. It’s also part of the depressing sexist dumbing down of TV, where apparently in order to be sympathetic, female characters have to be inadequate. You can bet that any high-powered woman will trip over her own feet or spill something down her front in the first two minutes of being introduced. Or she’ll turn out to be the villain.

  8. Liz Shaw, played by the sadly recently gone Caroline John, was a brilliant scientist, and Romana was brilliant as a ‘Time Lady’. The problem with these characters is that they don’t say ‘but Doctor, what/who/why/when/where’ enough because, nine times out of ten, they already know the answer. The companion needs to not know what’s going on in order to move things on, which is fine, but to focus on women only being able to do this is a weak move. I can only think it’s a hangover from when boys were ‘meant’ to watch this in the 60s. Strong male leads and weaker females who needed to be helped were kind of ‘in’ then, it seems (Superman anyone..).
    But characters like Jamie (Patrick Troughton era) and Ian (Hartnell) show that companions are perfectly able to not only be intelligent, they also are able to ask the right questions to move the story on AND be men. Jamie, being Scottish, even wore the odd kilt.

  9. The companions are bright, witty, feisty, courageous, quick-thinking and so on. In real life, women like that don’t have, or shouldn’t have, pointless, badly-paid, dead-end, whatever, jobs – Teabag WTF ? I don’t agree with you … women should have the choice to do whatever they want to do no matter how feisty their personalities are. The companions really should have a more varied careers. .. What about a female Doctor .. I think we are due one. Also the idea that the only thing that could be lacking in the companions live would be their career is laughable it is very easy to write a companion who has a successful career in ‘insert field here’ who would still want to travel through time… cause DUH who wouldn’t consider becoming a time lords companion.

  10. Not sure Amy Pond is such a feminist’s nightmare. A lot of plot, humour and characteristaion is made out of the way that Amy and Rory’s marriage has the roles reversed in it. Amy has the glamorous, world-conquering job whilst Rory has the caring, empathetic job as a nurse. In fact, Rory may be the best known male nurse on telly. They are referred to as the Ponds – the man taking the woman’s surname. And whilst Amy is an overtly sexualised character, it’s notable that it took four female companions before an overtly sexualised character was made.
    And she doesn’t like being a model. I got the distinct impression that she found it dreadfully dull. It was the logical progression of her career before the Doctor came back into her life and so they concluded that it didn;t quite fit.

    Not a raving fangirl, honest.

  11. Not really agreeing on this one. I don’t like the way you’re suggesting that a good female character (or, and now I quote, “real woman”) is one who’s feisty, has a ~proper~ job and never cries over a mere man. UGH. :(( that’s horrible. You just dismissed every secretary temp everywhere as being a fake woman! :D

    I think good female characters can be left to their own devices, don’t just hang around in a passive role and can’t be fitted into a certain box (I mean they have distinct personalities, whatever they are. Because not every woman is feisty and smart. Some are really boring and dumb :D and that’s fine and doesn’t make them lesser) – which the Doctor Who females always are. Rose wanders off all the fucking time even though the Doctor tells her not to. Fine, HE usually rescues HER, but I wouldn’t really read so much into it, Rose also does rescue him (the Bad Wolf thingy). I don’t really see it as a damsel in distress, I see it as a 19-year-old human without very much space/aliens/Dalek experience in distress. God, all the characters are in distress at some point.
    They have active roles, they drive plots forward, they have other functions than babies and shit, they’re multidimensional, they act independently, they have their own thoughts, own voice, they’re relatable, the audience gets their point of view and what they want to achieve and sympathise with them. IMO THESE are the things that make any TV character justice.
    (If you want to see a sexist TV show, try Gossip Girl’s latest season :D)

    I think this is just reading too much into this. If none of the companions didn’t have a crush on the Doctor, it’d be sexist because they’re portraying females as cold and mere physical shells without feelings. Okay, that’s a bit far-fetched, but I hope you get the idea –you can find sexism in anything if you really try. If Captain Jack Harkness were a woman, there’d be a shitstorm because everyone has an opinion on how women should be and should not be portrayed. And THAT’S the problem. That women need to be a certain way to be eligible.

  12. Honestly! If you want a good shot at discussing sexism in Doctor Who please look at the character of Jo Grant with Pertwee as The Doctor. She’s disregarded in almost every episode, told to make the tea and insulted. No wonder she resulted in posing naked with Daleks! (Google for the infamous picture. I would provide a link but I don’t think my work IT policy supports that!) The amazing Sarah-Jane Smith was a reaction to Jo Grant as a companion with the writers recogniising that the audience wanted more from the companions then just running/screaming/crying/scaling ladders in mini-dresses.

  13. I like to think of the Doctor as a really exclusive therapist, the companions he picks up are dysfunctional by design and the Doctor provides the epic kick up the arse that they all need. A well adjusted, successful person of either gender just wouldn’t fit the bill.

    The male companions in the series are much the same. Rory isn’t honest about his feelings for Amy, Jack is a cheap conman who only looks out for himself and Mickey is a wet blanket who lets his aloof and uncommitted girlfriend walk all over him (don’t call me out on that one, relationships are a two way street and Mickey certainly didn’t deserve to be strung along by Rose for as long as he was).

  14. I think it is a little short sighted to suggest that it’s a bad message to send to our children that models can be smart, that smart, feisty women do not always have high powered jobs to match, and that women who do have high powered jobs can be emotionally vulnerable, since that is the realistic state of things. Wouldn’t it be extremely sexist to suggest that no intelligent woman would ever be a model, that overtly sexual women cannot be taken seriously, that women with high powered jobs cannot be vulnerable, or that women in ‘dead end’ jobs are not independent, intelligent, or respectable? I think Dr Who is doing quite well at presenting us with a huge variety of women with very different personalities and professions without ever suggesting that any one of them is a bad example of a woman!

  15. It’ll always be hard to come up with a feminist’s ideal companion since all of them are, by definition, add-ons to the Doctor who get swept off their feet by, if not a knight in shining armour, a Time-Lord in a blue box.
    I can only echo the cry of Thank God For River Song (plus the whole Melody Pond / River Song thing was GREAT) Though she may be cliché, she’s also not young girl looking to Come of Age and See The Universe. She’s having fun.

  16. One thing I think you’re overlooking is that the women are so much more important than their jobs. Rose is a shopgirl and saves the universe. Donna is a temp and saves the universe. Martha moping about wanting the doctor to love her was annoying, but then she saves the universe. It’s about what these women can do, not what their jobs are.

  17. Admittedly I don’t watch the show (I don’t feel good about jumping in at the “middle” and I don’t have time to go back through 40 years’ worth of TV), but my Whovian brother and sister-in-law explained to me that Eleven, at least, is not supposed to be a nice guy. He’s dysfunctional, sad, lonely, upset that he’s feared throughout the universe as a force of destruction rather than known for helping people. He doesn’t really know what to do now other than to try to see if he can make amends and change. So I don’t find it too offputting that he and River Song have a potentially-abusive codependent relationship (from someone above’s links), because it makes sense that they’re both a little broken on the inside and don’t really know how to have a healthy relationship with anyone else.
    [again though this is just what I've picked up from my family and the internet...]

  18. Glad other people have been thinking the same thing as me! In addition to the fact that Amy doesn’t get a job that does her character justice, and the main plotlines being based around her having children, being infertile, etc, my problem is that often in the episodes she is the victim character. For instance, with other companions but Rose especially, they would find out important information or help the plot, etc, but mostly Amy (and Rory too) manage to just get stuck in situations or kidnapped by aliens and need saving by the Doctor. It used to be much better with Russell T Davies, he had Rose, Martha, Donna… although Martha did spend a lot of time being in love with the Doctor, all three companions were strong female characters, especially Rose. Russell did plotlines about war (in the first sytherines episodes, with a plotline about aliens taking over, even had a controvertial line about “massive weapons of destruction”), set the remake of Doctor Who on a council estate, had plotlines about gay characters, and generally was really good politically and incredibly cool. I’d quite like Russell back, to be honest.

  19. How awful of you to say that being a shop assistant, temp or model is not a real job! Perhaps the writers are trying to say to those fake women of the world who do those fake jobs that it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s how you act that defines you. You can be a shop assistant and save the world, you can be a temp and also be the most important being in the universe. If you pay attention you’ll see that, for example, Donna is always putting herself down, saying “but I’m just a temp” and the Doctor is always telling her how important and wonderful she is. I’m sorry, but I think you’re just wrong on this one.

  20. Female doctor is a really bad idea. In all his incarnations the Doctor has always been male, kind of implying gender is the constant. Instead, we need writers to come up with interesting concepts with women as the leads, that don’t end with the lead getting married marking the end to her ‘interesting’ life!!!

  21. I know that Karen Gillan was a model before she started acting, so the fact that she became a model after she stopped traveling with the Doctor could be a sort of meta joke thing. I love Doctor Who, and I just want to believe the best things about it.

  22. I think you may be watching a different show from me. You can be a feisty independant womand AND be a shop assisstant/temp/kissogram. I don’t think it is demeaning in any way. It says you can be a totally ordinairy seeming person in an ordinairy job and still have it in you to save the universe. Perhaps if they already had ‘proper’ jobs they would feel more tied down to the world and not want to get into the tardis? Who knows. I’m not sure what the job is you would have wanted them to do is because apparantly being a journalist is a trope (bad luck all you writers, you’re just fulfilling a trope) and you can dismiss Martha being a doctor entirely because of her crush.

    You also don’t mention that Martha goes on to become a VIP at U.N.I.T. So two kick-ass jobs for her.

    You mention lots of the good points, like Rory being a nurse, and then just dismiss them as not relevant to your overall argument that it is a sexist show. Weird. You seem just closes your eyes to anything good you don’t want to see. Amy is clever and brave and ingenius. She loves, she suffers, she saves the world.
    This series has a lesbian crime-fighting victorian couple. It has River Song full of power and mystery and her own life beyond the Doctor that we only hear and see glimpses of.

  23. There’s nothing wrong with being a model? If she wants to be a kiss-o-gram or a model then so be it? I totally agree with people in the comments it’s not demeaning at all if she wants to make a job out of her looks, doesn’t at all mean she’s ‘relying’ on them. Also Rory was her childhood sweetheart, so why is it a bad thing she wanted to get married at 19? & this is coming from someone who never even cared much for Amy.
    Also Rose was 19 what did you expect her to be? A shop assistant is reasonable for a girl her age, who for all we know was working towards more.
    Don’t even get me started on Donna. ‘Best temp’ anyone? Nothing wrong with working in an office, those skills helped her save the universe thank you very much.
    Martha, dear me, she was extremely smart, confident, and later definitely became very kick-ass. So she tripped over herself for the Doctor a few more times than you’d have liked, well have you never felt like that for a guy? Also it was David Tennant, tell me you wouldn’t be the same…
    I honestly never understand why people insist Moffat is so sexist. He does not reduce or demeans the companions, he makes them into heroes in their own right. Donna was the most important woman in creation. Rose brought Jack back to live, and saved so many lives. Martha too saved countless lives on many occasions, and in the end saved the universe from a life of worldwide slavery. Even Amy was someone the world at one point literally revolved around.
    So I’m sorry but I agree, you really don’t seem to be watching the shame show as me…

  24. As far as I can see, you have a problem with Amy being a model and also kick-ass/ intelligent, and a problem with Martha being a trainee doctor and also attracted to the doctor… So someone demeans their intelligence by being a model? Someone who is intelligent enough to be a trainee doctor shouldn’t go weak at the knees for a man? While of course it is preferable not to have characters based on generalised tropes one has to admit that especially in television and film, and even in real life, some people do fall into situations that are regarded as paradigms. As was pointed out above, the companions are often also young, so don’t have fully-fledged careers yet. If they did, a story about dropping everything to go on mad adventures would probably turn out more like an exploration of the trauma caused by leaving a job/family behind, to find that the doctor accidentally deposits you back at the wrong time and your life is ruined. Mortgage payments don’t wait you know.