I will quite happily call Steven Moffat one of the most talented writers working currently in British television. I will also quite merrily declare that he has issues, either inherent in his subconscious or assaulting him on a daily basis in his dreams.
Let us be serious for a moment. I’m not going to claim that Steven Moffat has a secret agenda of writing deliberately ill-formed, ill-considered characters that are, more often than not, women. He’s clearly an intelligent and educated man- it is simply that his tenure over Doctor Who is flecked with the enraged spittle of thousands of fans, both confused at the lack of coherent plotting and believable character, and concerned that female figures in the show seem to have undergone an apparently accidental but alarming transformation. This level of concern and discussion has clearly sprouted from somewhere, but to what extent is the criticism justified? Let us start with the most obvious candidate.
Amelia Pond. The Scottish girl in an English village, with no parents, meets a time traveller in the middle of the night. He vanishes, and returns twelve years later. In the meantime, Amelia has become Amy, been a guide to her errant, yet-to-be-born child Melody and fallen in love with the good ol’ useless Rory. Oh, and bit four therapists and become a kissogram, as you do in rural 21st century Gloucestershire.
The Doctor and Amy save the world. He leaves, but returns two years later, on Amy’s wedding night. She agrees to run away with him. Obviously. They have adventures. Amy tries to proposition him for no-strings-attached sex. The Doctor, alarmed, picks up Rory, because, you know, Amy’s sexuality is dangerously out of control or something. Rory dies. Rory becomes a Roman. The universe blows up. Amy gets parents then totally forgets about them. Amy and Rory marry, and then leave with the Doctor because running off into time and space is something you do once you’ve got everything you ever wanted and missed.
(And that’s only Series Five. We haven’t even mentioned her cloning, giving birth whilst imprisoned and living 37 years alone in isolation)
Of course, Amelia Pond is like this because, by Moffat’s repeated assertion, women are three things: sexy, maternal and mental.
Whether it be time-bending ‘Mother Christmas’ Madge Arwell in The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe or the repeated appearances of gun-toting cleavage display team River Song (played by a drunk Alex Kingston, seemingly), the women of the Steven Moffat era are repeated characterised as sexually promiscuous, heroic breeders or simply psychopaths. Sure, they can be in positions of power, witty and even driven, but this is generally balanced by thoroughly impractical or revealing outfits (see Liz X in The Beast Below or Oswin Oswald in Asylum of the Daleks) and an eventual capitulation to the threat of the story.
The only woman that is ever seen to truly ‘win’ is Amy Pond, but only by throwing bullets about willy-nilly (The Wedding of River Song) or sacrificing her life twice for marriage, the ultimate holy grail of being human, seemingly (The Angels Take Manhattan). There are no true triumphs of intelligence, wit or individuality- both Amy and River’s ‘strengths’ derive from sass, technology, verbal dexterity (mostly flirting) and recreational violence.
There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with being married, a good mother, or even a confident, sexy woman (I understand they’re very popular in some circles). However, when the field of representation is so narrow, modern audiences can quickly become disenchanted and lose belief in the emotional integrity of characters that provide so little variety. The fervent online criticism of Moffat’s approach says much about previous show runner Russell T Davies’ massively diversifying impact on fandom demographics. Once an audience typically dominated by fathers and sons, so-called New Who drew in fan audiences that would never have considered the show before its transformation- namely, the female 16-24 demographic. Thus, it would seem that Russell T Davies not only understood the construction of character more effectively, but the composition of modern audiences for sci-fi drama.
It is a truly sad state of affairs that from recent seasons only UNIT’s new leader Kate Stewart from Chris Chibnall’s The Power of Three seems to be alone in flying the flag for independent, progressive female characters. Whilst she was a step in the right direction, the debut of Jenna Louise Coleman as Oswin/Clara didn’t fill fan communities with confidence for the future. Despite a competent performance, unnecessary flirting, a whimsical reference to bisexuality and a costume with a ‘utility belt’ that didn’t seem particularly utilitarian, hinted at a very similar future.
Even the Doctor himself, in Moffat’s tour-de-force of stupidity Lets Kill Hitler, inverts his entire character to acutely surmise both the unconscious attitude of the show, and its head writer’s riposte to such criticism.
Of River, he says:
“Well she’s been brainwashed. It all makes sense to her. Plus, she’s a woman. Oh shut up…!”