A few days ago Hypable raised the question, “Is Doctor Who too sexy?” It was in response to The Telegraph‘s piece interviewing Carole Ann Ford (aka Susan, the very first companion) about how working on Doctor Who affected her career. And Hypable isn’t just another site desperate for clicks; this question is a common fan criticism of “New Who,” especially Moffat’s era. Some believe the show’s writing and companions have crossed some sort of risqué line, and it’s damaging the show. So is it?
Doctor Who as a show has a complicated relationship with sex. The show began as a mostly educational children’s TV program, featuring Susan as the granddaughter of “Doctor Who.” Ford reveals that Susan was also originally envisioned to be pretty badass:
“They told me Susan was going to be an Avengers-type girl – with all the kapow of that – plus she would have telepathetic powers. She was going to be able to fly the Tardis as well as her grandfather and have the most extraordinary wardrobe.”
But none of that happened. Instead, the producers decided to scrap the supernatural aspects of her character and turn her into someone resembling less of a Time Lady and more of an audience surrogate. Later, Ford was asked to reprise her character for the 20th anniversary special. She explains why she turned it down:
“You will not believe why. They said, ‘We don’t really want people to perceive him as having had sex with someone, to father a child.’ I just screamed with hysterical laughter and said, ‘In that case, I’m not doing it.”
So we see that the powers that be on Doctor Who had an incredibly strong aversion to sex when it pertains to the show’s main characters—even if that sex occurs in the most socially-acceptable situation: within a heterosexual marriage, off-screen, in the distant past.
Fast-forward to the age of “New Who,” and we have an entirely different relationship between the Doctor and sex. Rose is still an every-woman audience-surrogate, but showrunner Russell T. Davies revels in her ordinariness. Rose shows us that everyone is capable of the extraordinary, even if she looks like a shopgirl. Rose and the Doctor fall in love and the relationship makes sense with the plot.
Of course the Doctor is going to develop a strong relationship with whomever shows him that there’s still light in the world after he destroys his people. But the two never actually “seal it with a kiss.” When Rose kisses the Doctor, it’s either her body controlled by Cassandra doing the kissing or Rose kissing a copy of the Doctor. The Doctor/Rose ship isn’t defined by sexiness, but by their strong bond expressed through great feats (burning up a sun to say goodbye, busting through a parallel universe to provide help, etc).
Martha is very much the rebound companion in the romance department, but in spite of this is a developed character in her own right. Martha is a hard-working medical student who goes out of her way to save people while sacrificing her own well-being even before she officially meets the Doctor. Martha develops feelings for the Doctor, but knows that he wishes she were someone else. After Martha does nearly all the legwork (ha ha) for the Doctor’s plan to defeat the Master, she leaves the Doctor of her own accord—a far cry from being forcibly trapped in a parallel universe.
Donna exhibits some of the best qualities of Rose and Martha. Like Rose, she’s an ordinary woman capable of the extraordinary; like Martha, she stands up to the Doctor and asserts her own identity. The running joke through Donna’s tenure is that everyone assumes she and the Doctor have some kind of romantic or sexual relationship, when everything is strictly platonic. Overall, it’s clear that the companions of the Davies era are dynamic female characters, and while sex and attraction aren’t forbidden topics, they don’t completely consume the companions’ identities.
Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner has presented the audience with a different take on sex. More explicitly non-heterosexual supporting characters are introduced, though they aren’t defined by their sexual preferences. The Doctor meets River Song, who becomes his wife (In a sense? How does “til death” work with time travel? It’s complicated, another one of Moffat’s hallmarks). River is an incredibly sassy and flirtatious woman, reminiscent of a Bond Girl. Moffat capitalizes on the “Mrs. Robinson” jokes, River and the Doctor openly flirt about various nighttime shenanigans, and they kiss multiple times.
River’s entire character is defined by her relationship with the Doctor. Part of the reason for this relationship is because River was brainwashed by the Silence, programmed to kill the Doctor. Although the brainwashing can be considered ordinary, non-sexist plot progression, more of the show’s time is spent on River sort-of being the Doctor’s wife and definitely being his lover. Her time with the Silence becomes incidental to her character in light of how essential her romantic feelings become.
Then we move to Amy, the primary companion of series 5 and 6. We first meet Amy as a little girl, but she quickly grows up into… a kissogram. You could even argue that Amy is the child-friendly version of a call girl. Amy’s in a happy yet somewhat unsatisfactory relationship with Rory, and nearly throws him to the wayside when the Doctor comes to call. Despite the fact that she’s supposed to marry Rory the next morning, upon returning home Amy immediately tries to get the Doctor into bed. Most of her tenure through season 5 involves her trying to decide between Rory and the Doctor. Amy eventually chooses Rory because she realizes she cannot live without him.
To his credit, I think the way Moffat handles the trials and tribulations of the Ponds’ marriage that is both realistic and inspiring (“It’s called marriage!”), and gets points for attempting to tackle the issue of pregnancy and infertility. But at the end of the day, Amy is still defined as “the girl who waited”… for a guy. While the positive marriage messages showcase the depth of Amy’s feelings for Rory, they lack the punch of a Davies-era companion. Amy, like River, is primarily defined by her sexual relationships and desires.
So now we come to the final question: what about Clara? I think how Moffat will handle her character is about as mysterious as who she really is. On one hand, we have the flirtatious and (controversially) sexually adventurous Oswin Oswald and the flirtatious and forward Miss Clara Oswin Oswald (who snogs the Doctor!). On the other we have Clara Oswald, the seemingly ordinary young woman who dreams of traveling the world. Clara flirts with the Doctor, but gets obviously uncomfortable in situations of real intimacy with him, such as when he invites her to come away with him. She seems to flirt with him not because she wants some kind of relationship, but because she sees it bothers him. It’s more like teasing than actual flirting.
The Doctor is quite protective of Clara, much like an older brother would for a little sister, and her teasing of him fits well with it. It’s this sibling-like relationship that I absolutely adore on screen, and I think it’s what Doctor Who desperately needs. While companions are always defined by their relationship to the Doctor, sexual attraction shouldn’t become a requirement. We’ve had two and a half series of primary female characters who are either defined by sex or their romantic relationships with the men in their life, and we need a breath of fresh air. Clara is Steven Moffat’s opportunity to finally prove that he can write dynamic female characters who aren’t carbon copies of River Song. If he and his writers can pull it off, not only will he console many of his critics, but it’ll beautifully send off Doctor Who on another fifty-year adventure on the air.