August 16, 2022

Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.

Now it’s a common enough trend to throw insults at Steven Moffat for being a ‘sexist’ or a ‘racist’ or things along that regard. People taking quotes of his that were out of context in an interview he made ten years ago and using that as a basis to support their argument (and conveniently ignoring any quotes that show that Moffat is willing to listen to the opposition and is not the devil amongst us). But something I noticed in the last season of Doctor Who is, above all else, how socially progressive it was. So as much as Steven Moffat gets attacked, are those attacking just being blinded by their own prejudices? Is Steven Moffat and Doctor Who in general that ‘sexist/racist’? Well lets find out.

1.1 Deep Breath, aka Why the Bechdel Test Doesn’t Work.

Before we start, I suppose we should focus on a yardstick that gets used time and again within feminist critique: The Bechdel Test. It is loosely defined as:

1)There are two female characters in the work of fiction;

2)They interact at some point and

3)They talk about something other than male characters.

It is both a test that is incredibly easy to pass and incredibly difficult to pass. Most films, on the surface, would not pass this test at all. Be it only having one female character, or the two or more female characters don’t meet, or they talk about a man. Usually something about this doesn’t work and it fails to pass the test. But, while the test works great in broad strokes, it fails on a fundamental narrative level. Lets take the first episode of this season, Deep Breath. A critical scene is Clara telling Vastra that she isn’t concerned with the Doctor in a superficial sense, and that she still thinks of him as her friend despite regeneration. It’s a great scene, revealing a lot about both characters… and fails the test miserably. After all, the point of their discussion is the Doctor. Likewise scenes where Vastra and Jenny talk about the villain of the week, they too are failing to pass the Bechdel Test. So clearly this episode must fail, right? All these female characters talking about men, clearly the episode must be bad. But lets look at the characters on hand. We have:

Male: The Doctor (an alien), Strax (an alien) and the Half-Faced Man (alien).

Female: Clara (human), Jenny (human) and Vastra (as a Silurian technically she’s an Earthling after all). Those are our big six characters in the story, there are a few smaller characters of both genders milling around to comment on stuff. But this episode has pretty much an even divide between male and female characters. But, what’s more interesting, is that the female characters are proven to be more competent and sensible than the male ones.

The Doctor, due to his regeneration, spends most of the episode being pretty out of it and almost entirely useless. He doesn’t do much to solve the mystery, instead just giving out exposition.

The Half-Faced Man is barely a human, with his gender being somewhat irrelevant to the character. But he is portrayed as being an idiot, a fool, for not understanding the world around him.

Strax, the Sontaran, is portrayed as a buffoon who fails to understand what is going on and often offers up the most violent solution. In many ways, in a Hollywood action film, he’d be our hero. A brave, dashing hero who happily runs into danger guns blazing. Here, he’s a pisstake of the idea. A parody. A send up. We find it funny that he’s so macho, with macho being bad. But why bring this up?

Because, crucially, it is the female characters of this story that do most of the problem solving. Sure the Doctor comes in at the end to save the day, but the female characters do a lot of the build-up. They’re also very well-written, at least from my perspective. But narratively they are important to the story we are watching. They help the plot function. They are very important characters. And yet, if we take the Bechdel Test as the golden standard, this episode fails despite the women being the leads. All because they talk about the lead character… who happens to be a man.

And herein the test falters in my view. Because while the test is mostly pointing out how women talk about a man in a romantic sense (think any romantic comedy starring two women), to take this all the way to its logical conclusion is itself illogical. They are talking about a man because that is who the main character is. The fact that he is a man is irrelevant to the conversations for the most part, instead the focus being more on how the character is a plot device. They are talking about a man, yes, because the character happens to be a man. As the show later proves, swapping out genders doesn’t actually change the characters reactions or conversations beyond the switch of a personal pronoun.

Put simply, the Bechdel Test is a good start of an analysis, but by no means the end. By having such strict deadlines it eliminates perfectly good female characters and lets bad ones in (because, as no doubt someone has already proved, really trashy sexist movies would pass this test solely because of one scene that passes the test). So right off the gate Doctor Who is trying to do something new.

(As for Missy… we’ll get to her later).

Tally:

White Male characters: 2

White Female characters: 2

Non-White Male characters: 0

Non-White Female characters: 1

Alien Male characters: 1

Alien Female characters: 1

Total:

White Male characters: 2

White Female characters: 2

Non-White Male characters: 0

Non-White Female characters: 1

Alien Male characters: 1

Alien Female characters: 1

1.2 Into The Dalek, aka Men, the Expendable Gender.

Into the Dalek, despite being a subpar episode, is the first time we see a non-white female character this season. Journey Blue is a non-white woman playing an important role to the plot. But lets look at the characters we have milling around here. We have Journey Blue, we have the leader of the base under siege, and we have the two soldiers that accompany the Doctor, one male and one female. Now what’s telling is that the first character of these four to die is the man, who is treated as a means to an end rather than anything else. He is a disposable character that is meant to help push the plot forward. Compare this to the other soldier, the female one, who sacrifices herself to save the day. If we take the Bechdel Test as true, this scene fails because the conversation is about whether the Doctor can save the day. But the female soldier is treated a lot better by the characters than the male soldier, who exists solely to get killed off quite early. But what about Journey Blue herself? Well, tellingly, her race and gender is never brought up in the story. No one ever comments on it or makes a big deal about it. She is just a soldier first and foremost, with everything else being irrelevant. There is nothing in the script that says she, or the other female soldier, have to be women. It’s not of a vital importance. But they chose to make them women for no other reason than because they can. Which is probably the most important part here, something that gets brought up within this series. When you’re casting a side character, and it doesn’t matter who plays them, they don’t have to be a white guy. You can put anyone in the role and it fits. So it’s the start of a trend that should continue.

Tally (excluding the Doctor and Clara from now on, since they are included in the first tally):

White Male characters: 2

White Female characters: 1

Non-White Female characters: 1

Total:

White Male characters: 4

White Female characters: 3

Non-White Male characters: 0

Non-White Female characters: 2

Alien Male characters: 1

Alien Female characters: 1

1.3 Robots of Sherwood, or Where It All Falls Apart.

I have few nice things to say about Mark Gatiss. In my opinion, he hasn’t written a good episode of Doctor Who and probably never will. Oh they’re not bad episodes, they’re just not all that great either. And in a season that strived for diversity, this one sticks out like a sore thumb. Continuing the trend of examining the most important characters, the only two that stand out besides the leads are Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Sure, Maid Marian shows up, but she barely matters. She’s presented as a reward to Robin for fighting the good fight. She’s not really a character. Same go for the Merry Men, who are a collection of stereotypes at best. No all we have here is the Doctor, Clara, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Now Clara is presented as the most sensible one out of all the cast, pointing out that the Doctor and Robin are being stupid and manipulating the Sheriff into revealing his plans. Indeed, she plays a vital part in the story. But in a series that has and will have such diversity, it’s a depressingly bland looking cast this week. And given how good the show gets, this really does not work.

Tally:

White Male characters: 2

Total:

White Male characters: 6

White Female characters: 3

Non-White Male characters: 0

Non-White Female characters: 2

Alien Male characters: 1

Alien Female characters: 1

So there you have it. Part of my extensive look at Doctor Who in relation to the concept of diversity. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.