Being not only tenacious, but fastidious, by nature, the response of most Whovians to being disturbed or disappointed by what the Doctor has gone and done this week is to engage in explosions of analysis. And here we find ourselves. For I, among many of the faithful, am not at all happy with what is going on in the Whoniverse right now. This is, we should note, a far from unanimous opinion. There are many - principally those who spent much of the RTD-era wailing though gritted-teeth about the latest credulity-stretching deus ex-machina - who are endlessly enchanted by Steven Moffat's Chinese puzzle-box approach to plot development. Also, Moffat can do monsters. That I'll give him. But Who is more than the scaries, and evidence is accumulating - from declining ratings* to the National Television Awards flunk** - that all is not well in the land of rebooted New Who.
There are three main axes to grind, all of which have legs (axes, with legs!), and all of which, I think, are intertwined (wow, that's one mixed metaphor). First problem - in terms of thematic coherence, and the dramatic/emotional arcs, Series 5 was a total mess. I won't dwell on this now, although I will come back to it later, but, in the meantime, there is an epically good analysis of it here. Secondly...okay, I'm just gonna come out and say it...whoever this dude is, he isn't the Doctor. Given that Whovians like nothing better than to a spend bank-holiday weekend compiling Doctor-top-tens (or elevens), it's clearly a bit controversial to say Eleven's an imposter. But dishing out 'my Doctor' awards is a whole different deal from what we have here. While some used to take the odd pot-shot at Ten, particularly as he slid slowly towards his tantrumtastic denouement, no-one suggested he wasn't the real deal. What we have with Eleven is, I think, unprecedented - a bunch of us (including the ones who've just turned off) finding it inordinately difficult to buy the basic premise that this less-than-dexterous bozo flapping his arms in a Fez is really the same man. And it's not, I might add, entirely the Fez's fault. And finally, arriving at what I want to try and think through here, is the way that all this characterization and story arc inadequacy is related to Moffat's increasingly evident problems with the writing of women, and the fact that, rather than being produced by the triumvirate of 1) a gay-man, 2) a woman, and 3) a straight-man who pretty much defines metrosexual elegance, it now seems that my favourite TV-show is being scripted by the editorial team of Loaded.
One doesn't need to go that far to establish that Moffat's writing exhibits a basic dislinclination to grant half the human race with the status of full subjectivity. It is not the sexualization of Amelia Pond, per se, that is the problem here. As we know, RTD sexualized Doctor Who in spades, from the creation of the polyamorous Jack Harkness to the casting of his once-errant Casanova as his lead. But it is the nature and form of Moffat-era sexualization which typifies the wider problem. Feminism doesn't ask that women be divested of their sexuality (remember that bra-burning thing that never happened?), and frankly, I couldn't really give a monkeys for the moral-panic about the length of Amy's skirt. But what feminism does demand, and this is the crucial point, is that women be accorded - as men are as a matter of course - the status of complex sexual subjects. I have sometimes thought that feminism comes down to no more than the basic request that women be allowed to be fully rounded human beings - with all their emotionality and rationality, their power and vulnerability - while, at the same time, being granted the right to feel sexual desire and sexual pleasure, and not have that sexuality used as a stick to beat them with, or as a means of erasing their humanity. Call me crazy, but this doesn't seem like a whole lot to ask. But alas, to some, to many, to the Moffat's of this world, it is.
So, let's look at the evidence. First off, there's the business of the skirt. As I said, I don't really care about it being short, but I do care very much when men leering up it becomes a plot device. Evidently, many Moffat-devotees will, at this juncture, troop out the tired, old, raggedy 'it was just a joke' routine, turning swiftly to one of the myriad female-silencing techniques just handily lying around in the popular imagination. In this case the one about women in general, and feminists in particular, being somehow congenitally incapable of grasping the basic mechanisms of humour. This argument is so stupid it doesn't deserve a response, but if any of you are still labouring under the misapprehension that the notion of 'joke' and the notion of 'politically significant' are somehow mutually exclusive, I suggest you subject yourself to a 24 hour JonStewartathon and get back to me later.
Anyway, what Moffat is doing with this little piece of not-so innocent seaside smut is neatly channeling the rage that arises, necessarily, when a masculinity which defines itself as invulnerable experiences a need or desire for something which is outside its control (and that, we might add chaps, is pretty much anything and everything, but particularly, unfortunately, women). It is the nature of a masculine ego that defines itself this way to perceive the 'object' of its desire as a threat to its inviolability - or ability to attend to basic mechanical tasks - and for desire, therefore, to be always intertwined with the fear of being annihilated or consumed. Such a clear and present danger (as Amy in her mini), must, it can readily be appreciated, be put - by force - back into its place. Either by instituting more or less explicit systems of control (chastity belts, veils, circumcisions, access to reproductive health care, domestic abuse etc, etc), and/or by violently erasing the personhood of whoever is - either through thoughtlessness or guile - 'provoking' or 'manipulating' that desire (see my piece on Facebook here). For a short period in the middle of Comic Relief - and let us contrast this with, say, the emotional subtlety and space given to Rose's first encounter with Ten - Amy Pond was set before the gaze of the British public as the person who happens to be attached to a set of genitals capable of threatening the very structure of space and time. As was noted by a friend of mine, in the light of this little interlude, it may not be too far fetched to observe that Series 5's only discernible story-arc consisted of a sequence of increasingly ominous cracks, cracks which were, we soon learnt, capable of swallowing a grown man whole (and thereby entirely erasing him from existence).
And, it is around about this place - the place where Moffat starts channeling his archaic-anxiety about being eaten alive by women with their hair full of snakes and teeth (Prisoner Zero anyone?) - that we should probably turn to his fondness for painting us all as a bunch of needy, nagging, shrews. Exhibit A in this, of course, are the quotes taken from the 2004 interview with Scotland on Sunday - helpfully entitled 'Time Lad scores with Sex and Daleks' for those of us who were still on the fence - which have been doing the internet rounds the last few days. They're pretty choice, so I'm gonna give you the full monty:
- "There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married - we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands."
- "The world is vastly counted in favour of men at every level - except if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class, because then you’re almost certainly junior in your relationship and in a state of permanent, crippled apology. Your preferences are routinely mocked. There’s a huge, unfortunate lack of respect for anything male."
What is interesting (if that's the right word) about all of this is is the way in which Moffat's whole 'gaping chasm, thy name is woman'-phobia is blatantly rendered in the accusation of neediness. Firstly, this, of course, flies right in the face of the facts, it being pretty well established by now that men in stable relationships are much better off by a whole load of indicators than their unmarried counterparts (see here for example). To wit, men don't just get married because they are ensnared by evil harpies with a princess-in-white fixation. In fact, we might even imagine - here I go with my flights of female fancy! - that men get married (just as women do, in theory if not always in practice) because their well-being in the world is improved by being in mutually supportive relationships. That is, the evidence suggests, Steven Moffat, that men need women. It is here, I think, that we encounter one of the most evident axis of distinction between the rendering of the dynamics between Ten and his companions, and Eleven and Amy. Ten was all about the need. No, let's rephrase that, he wasn't all about the need...he was all about a lot of things - and this, and the fact that Eleven is all about fuck-all, is something we will unpack when we get to the next section. But, at least in part (albeit a not always entirely upfront part) Ten was a great big bag of vulnerability...now with added superpowers! (And boys...just in case watching David Tennant do his shtick week after week didn't make it blindingly obvious to you...vulnerability + superpowers = sexy).
Anyhow...There are two principal ways that these vectors of Moffat's denial (of masculine need) and projection (of masculine need into the abyss of feminine 'neediness') play out with the Doctor and Amy. Firstly, Amy Pond is a drip (how long I've waited to write that!), and secondly, when she's not being a drip, she's mostly some crazed-sexual-stalker-cum-snarky-fishwife. So first, on the drippiness. There is a fair bit of analysis already out there on the interwebs (here and here) about Moffat's drawing of flat, listless women who seem to want nothing more than to get trapped inside some-type of (literal or figurative) computer-generated fascimilie of domesticated bliss (although, that said, there is also a bizarro alt-universe in which one girl is, I suspect, protesting too much about how incredibly nuanced and fully-realized are Moffat's women). I'm not about to go into a blow-by-blow dissection of every time Amy is a bit crap (not least because that would involve rewatching all of Series 5, and frankly loves, I ain't got the stomach for it), but I think the point can be made by focusing on the axiomatic moment in the evolution of every Doctor-companion relationship, the bit where, are the end of their first encounter, she proves her worth by saving his ass:
- So, first up, of course, we have Rose, casting aside her shame at not passing her A-Levels and putting her gymnastic training into full effect, tahdah, swinging on a rope near a vial of anti-plastic.
- Then Donna, telling him when to stop, an act which we later learn, definitively, saves him from literally drowning in his grief over Rose.
- And lastly, Martha, bringing an almost desanguinated, and pretty much entirely dead Doctor back to life in classic medical style...I give you, the kiss of life.
The passivity of Amy Pond is the necessary corollary of a Doctor - or a Doctor's writer - with something of an invulnerability complex. The four-series arc Russell T Davies sketched for his two 'lonely-god' Doctors largely pivoted on the power of relation, on its capacity to heal and lay low. The brooding trauma of Ecclestone's Ninth Doctor was - through Rose's influence - tempered in the playfulness of Tennant's Ten, a man who initially wore his wounds more lightly, but who, after losing two companions in one blow, came spectacularly undone. The resonance of these relationships relied significantly on drawing the Doctor as a character who, as Donna pointedly tells him in 'The Runaway Bride', 'needs someone sometimes.' By contrast, Moffat seems profoundly disinclined to imbue Eleven with any of the vulnerability required to make his connection to his companion really count, either in practical or emotional terms. As a result, Amy frequently ends up as little more than window dressing, relegated to the traditional - pre-Sarah Jane Smith - position of the magician's assistant, a woman whose devotion to a man who doesn't need or want her derives - as Moffat apparently believes all women's desires do - from nothing more substantial than a childhood fantasy. Being enchanted by a man eating fish-fingers and custard does not a meaningful relationship make, and, consequently, when Moffat tries, as at the end of 'The Big Bang', to engage our emotions in response to an imperiled Doctor-Amy relation, it comes off as entirely hollow. He has never given us a single reason to care. Indeed, we can surmise that Moffat has never really been comfortable with writing the emotional entanglement of the show's core relationship at all. From the beginning of the first series he has consistently introduced a third character between the Doctor and his companion.*** Within the guiding dramatic arc provided by RTD such fractures in the central dynamic were merely temporary, but, now given free reign, Moffat has decided to more-or-less permanently install an increasingly unpleasant menage-a-trois right at the heart of the show.
What this nasty little three-way**** allows Moffat to dramatize, of course, is the fecklessness of women-folk. Many of the instances in which Amy is not sulking (or lying) around like a wet-week - the moments when Moffat imbues her with activity - turn on her lunging inappropriately at the Doctor, or, as in the last two-parter, a fairly distasteful exhibition of her implied lack of marital fidelity. Notwithstanding whether this is the model of relationships we should be serving up to kids at tea-time (I don't want to come over all Daily Mail here), this is a risible representation of Amy as a woman who is both intent on bagging her gullible, love-lorn plastic centurion of a husband (and then repeatedly pussy-whipping him), while her uncontrollable sexual desire simultaneously drives her to betray him with the Doctor. She is, in short, a concatenation of the worst that the cultural imaginary has to throw at women; a deceitful, manipulative nympho who is probably intent on eating both her husband and the Lord of Time for supper. Of course, when confronted with the all-consuming chasm of irrational feminine neediness, Moffat's Doctor behaves like all men properly should, and pitches between hapless bemusment and outright horror. In 'Flesh and Stone,' when Amy tries to jump him the night before her wedding, we find him pushed against the TARDIS door with his arms flapping anxiously like a pre-pubescent boy who has just been assaulted by the babysitter (all fairly unbecoming for someone who has supposedly been around for the best part of a millennia really). Notably, this Benny Hill-esque presentation of the helpless man pursued by a crazed woman in a rather short-skirt stands in stark contrast to the emotional engagement, and frank tenderness, of many of the Doctor's previous encounters with the lips of his companion.*****
Of course, many Doctor Who devotees were never very happy living in RTD's loved-up version of the Whoniverse, and the Rose-Doctor romance alone provoked endless threads of disdain. It is not that Who must necessarily serve up schmaltz-in-space, or that Moffat can't take it upon himself to tell the tale otherwise. But it presently appears - despite protestations that Moffat's misogyny can somehow be neatly distinguished from his storytelling - that the showrunner's cartoon-cutout (and frankly unattractive) take on gender relations is severely impairing his ability to deliver what Who most needs. And that is a pair of fully rounded and basically sympathetic characters who have at least a passably plausible connection with it each other, and are able, moreover, to convey the ethical integrity (now slicked o'er with new improved sleaze!) which has always been central to the very soul of the show.
* There are a number of ways to spin this:
i) The last (non-Christmas) episode of the Tenth Doctor - 'The Waters of Mars' - had 10.3 M viewers, and the last episode of Series 4 - 'Journey's End' - had 10.57 M. By contrast, the Series 5 finale - 'The Big Bang' closed on 6.7 M
ii) According to Broadcast, Series 6 started with 6.51 M, the lowest ever Season opener for New Who. Between the first and the second episode of the two-parter it lost a further 1 million viewers.
** From 2005 to 2010 Doctor Who won 'Most Popular Drama' every year, and its lead actor/actress won 'Most Popular Actor/Actress' or 'Outstanding Drama Performance.' In 2011, Moffat's show won nothing. Notably, what was being handed out was a gong for drama, not 'Most Convoluted Sci-Fi Plot with Best Scary Monsters,' which Moffat would clearly have bagged easily. That is, what I'm interested in is the way Moffat's show is failing, not as genre piece, but at its dramatic core...and the extent to which this fundamental lack of drama cannot be compensated for by any amount of increasingly contorted plotting.
*** Jack Harkness in 'The Empty Child'/'The Doctor Dances'; Madame de Pompadour in 'The Girl in the Fireplace'; River Song in 'Silence in the Library'/'Forest of the Dead'
**** To be clear, I have no a priori prudish moral objection to people having sex with more than one person at the same time...not all three-ways are nasty...but that requires a really staggering quantity of emotional intelligence and lack of possessiveness on all sides...and frankly, I think it almost never happens. Regardless, the main point here is that the menage-a-trois that Moffat has constructed at the centre of Doctor Who involves:
i) One man playing the cuckolded sap
ii) One man playing 'I'm the master of the universe and therefore you want me but y'know I'm the master of the universe and therefore I don't really need you,'
iii) One woman playing a heinous caricature of the duplicitous insatiable bitch.
Ergo, it's not pretty or healthy. It makes all the characters look like arseholes and/or idiots. It totally undermines our ability to identity with and care about them and their relationships. And perhaps most significantly, it pretty much extinguishes whatever is left of our ability to relate to the Doctor and the companion as a force of cosmic justice. And I have a strong suspicion that when that happens, the show loses something absolutely essential.
***** There were basically three classes of kiss in RTD's Who:
i) The life-saving, or 'getting-us-out-of-a-pickle' kiss e.g. Nine/Rose on the Gamestation; Ten/Martha in 'Smith and Jones' - twice; Ten/Donna in 'The Unicorn and the Wasp.'
ii) The 'because-I-really-want-to-kiss-you' kiss e.g. Ten/Astrid in 'Voyage of the Damned' (second time); Ten(duplicate)/Rose in 'Journey's End'; Nine/Rose on the Gamestation.
iii) The 'she-just-grabbed-me-and-snogged-me-senseless' kiss e.g. Ten/Cassandra in 'New Earth'; Ten/Pompadour in 'The Girl in the Fireplace'; Ten/Astrid in 'Voyage of the Damned' (first time). This is clearly the one with the most family resemblance to Eleven's encounters with both Amy and River. However, Ten, while sometimes slightly stunned, never seemed remotely displeased by what had happened, in fact, on all occasions, quite the contrary.
With thanks to the manifold insights of my friends and fellow Whovians - Nick Taylor and Daria Rogers.