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Doctor Who: The Witch’s Familiar

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I’d like to propose a new show to the BBC. It can still be called Doctor Who, for tradition’s sake, but the Doctor’s in trouble. No TARDIS, no screwdriver, no actual ability to affect the plot. A rather crotchety Doctor in Distress, if you will.

And so, in order to save him, his faithful companion Clara and his nemesis Missy team up and travel through time and space, fighting evil, fighting one another, and generally having adventures that will one day lead to them freeing the Doctor — although hopefully that “one day” isn’t for a season at least.

Overall, The Witch’s Familiar was a decent episode, with some fun and clever moments, but hampered, as the show often is these days, by a lack of development and an attempt to think too big. And despite the long history of the Doctor and Davros, its best moments, its best chemistry, came from the new pairing of Clara and Missy, and the freshness they brought to an otherwise quite tired, contradictory incarnation of the show.

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Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice

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When I started watching The Magician’s Apprentice, I was about as un-enthused about a show as you can possibly be while still making time to watch it. Habit told me that I should probably tune in, but my caring level was pretty much zero.

By the end of the episode, my caring level was about a four. So, in one sense, The Magician’s Apprentice was a very successful episode of Doctor Who. It converted my apathy into intrigue, and it deserves kudos for that.

As a whole, though, the episode was on the good side of “classic Moffat Who” — fun, with some genuinely creepy and shocking moments, but casually offensive, and lost in an attempt to be more epic than it needs to be.

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Female writer for Doctor Who Season 9

Doctor Who has its first female writer in 6 years.

Writer Catherine Tregenna, whose credits include three episodes of Torchwood, will be writing one of the episodes of Doctor Who Season 9. Assumedly, she won’t have much say in the general arc of the season or in character development, since it’s just one episode, but after six years of no female writers whatsoever, it’s an improvement.

But it feels perverse to celebrate the fact that, after about 60 episodes written by men, there will finally be one episode written by a woman. It’s a single episode, and a single writer, among 13. And she’ll only be the fifth female writer to ever work on the show, compared to the 87 male writers over the series history. She’s boosting the percentage up to 5.4% female! And forgive my skepticism, but I feel like her appearance as a female writer will be considered enough for the Doctor Who team to give themselves a pat on the back for “including women” and not hire anyone else — just like Steven Moffat’s Who hired one female director for the show in season 5 and hasn’t had a female director since.

The thing that irks me the most is that the Doctor Who team say it isn’t their fault. Neil Gaiman says that the team has reached out to a lot of women writers, but they’ve always had scheduling conflicts, or people saying no. I find it pretty hard to believe. They manage to find six or seven male writers to write each season, but all the massive number of women they approach are busy or uninterested? There’ve really been no talented female writers available over the last six years? No sci-fi/fantasy fans who would love to write for Who and make it their priority? No up-and-coming script writers, no writing veterans? Not the several women who wrote for Being Human, or Merlin, or Robin Hood or other BBC sci-fi/fantasy? Not the other female writers who’ve written for Doctor Who before, or the women who’ve written companion novels? No-one?

And if the show really was approaching as many female writers as male writers, and every female writer was saying no, why were they saying no? Female writer after female writer wouldn’t reject the opportunity to write for one of Britain’s most iconic scripted shows unless they had a good reason to avoid it.

Honestly, this news just has me feeling rather depressed about the whole thing. Not because they’ve hired a female writer — that’s great — but because the appearance of one female writer in a six year period is so surprising that it’s worthy of note and even celebration.

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The Girls Left Behind

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WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the season finale of Doctor Who.

In the recent Doctor Who finale, Clara Oswald said goodbye first to her love interest Danny and then to the Doctor, both heartbreaking separations that deprived Clara of almost everything we’ve seen her care about in the show. She doesn’t get to make a choice to leave or to fight or to do anything, really, except be left in mundanity alone. And although Clara will hopefully get a different ending in the series finale, it got me thinking about how common these endings are. Amy was known as the “girl who waited,” and I’ve written about that trope before, but I think a better term would be “the girl who was left behind.”

When writers want to give female characters anything other than a happy ending, they rarely choose for them to go down in a blaze of glory, saving the world or their loved ones in dramatic fashion. Female character don’t often seem to self-destruct, or even to quietly choose to leave. They’re often just left with nothing.

Doctor Who is particularly bad for this. Even back in season two, Rose left the series completely involuntarily, crying on the beach because she was trapped in a parallel world and could never see the Doctor again or return home. Sure, she had her parents, and she built herself a good life, but we left her with the sense that she’d lost everything she cared about. Donna similarly lost everything against her will, with the Doctor wiping her memories of all their adventures, without even consulting her on what she would prefer. She lost all of her character development, all of her confidence, all her knowledge that she was amazing… back at home, like she was before. Amy at least chose to go back in time to be with Rory, even though again she lost everything that wasn’t him. And now Clara is alone, without Danny, without her best friend, no other friends or relatives shown on screen, just… left.

Each moment feels like an attempt to have a tragic ending without having the companion die. But in some ways, it’s a worse ending than if they did die. Characters like Danny get to leave the show by heroically acting to take down the bad guys, sacrificing themselves in the process. They don’t simply get left. But with characters like Clara, our final glimpse is one of sadness and powerlessness. If they do get a say in their own conclusion, it’s quiet, unremarked-upon self-sacrifice — the decision to go quietly, rather than the decision to go down in a blaze of glory.

And it’s got me thinking about female characters in other stories. Although she eventually gets her temporary happy ending, Arwen spends most of Lord of the Rings wasting away because she’s been left behind. And at the end of her story, she dies of a broken heart because Aragorn died, all the other elves left, and she has nothing. Such beautiful tragedy, right? Or Elizabeth Swann, the pirate king, left on an island with nothing because Will got cursed.

It’s the trope of the hero’s girlfriend waiting for him, hoping he comes back alive, taken to the extreme. Sure, these characters can be heroes themselves for the duration of the story, but once it comes to an end, they fall back into that pattern of waiting and loss. The weak damsel seems far more evocative than the strong heroine, and so their tragic endings are about powerlessness, about a lack of choice.

And it’s incredibly tiring. The character’s emotional journey, her previous achievements, her many talents… none of these seem to matter once we reach this “bittersweet” ending. These characters are left diminished, undermining all of the adventure that came before.

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Doctor Who: Mummy on the Orient Express

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Here’s my main question from Mummy on the Orient Express: how do you go from slapping someone and saying you never want to see them again, to having one last adventure for the sake of all the good times?

Mummy on the Orient Express was a really fun episode, one of the best of a strong season. But it really wanted to be a standalone episode, at a point in the season where it needed to focus more on the characters’ emotional arcs than on the monster of the week.

And sure, it tried to explore the idea that Clara no longer wanted to travel with the Doctor, bringing things around so that she does want to continue her adventures, at least for now, by the end of the episode. But while the episode was internally consistent, it didn’t make any sense from a broader perspective.

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Doctor Who: Kill the Moon

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I really didn’t expect to enjoy Kill the Moon.

The drama and its solution seemed obvious from the trailer. “Should we end one innocent life or let the seven billion innocent people on earth die?” Well, sorry, but that one innocent life is probably going to have to go, and if the protagonists can’t do it, that person (as I thought it was from the trailer) will probably go into self-sacrifice mode before the episode is over.

However, although the moral dilemma was kind of wearying, Kill the Moon actually managed to be one of the more interesting Doctor Who episodes of late.

Or, to put it another way, look at all those female characters doing things. Look at them! This I really did not expect.

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