SCARVES AND CELERY – DoWntime responds: Whovian Femisim’s review of “The Doctor Falls”

Today, I’m going to engage in something of a departure for this blog, by writing a response to the brilliant Whovian Feminism’s review of “The Doctor Falls”. Because I disagreed with quite a bit of her interpretation of the episode, and I wanted to write about why I disagreed with it, as I think doing so will help me say some useful things about the story and its themes. And also because she’s one of the people who is frequently critical towards Moffat who I have respect for, because I think there’s honesty and consistency to her approach that I find lacking in other critics – she won’t criticise the Moffat era for one thing and then let the Davies Era or classic Who off when they do exactly the same thing. And she recognises the genuine good done in the Moffat Era – heck, her review of “The Doctor Falls” ends on a positive sentiment about the episode itself, and she acknowledges the aspects of the episode that other people love – she just takes time to explain the problems she had with it, in an eloquent and thoughtful fashion. So I have a sense that a well written response could be a rare chance for a productive dialogue in fandom.

But I’m also nervous about doing this – partly about the possibility that I could fall flat on my face in a “debate” type of article, and just end up looking very stupid. But also (and I think this is much more important) I don’t want this to end up being the story of a straight white guy disagreeing with a queer woman and ending up stirring up a shitstorm, where she ends up getting harassed by trolls who take what is intended as a polite disagreement as a chance to be trolls to a woman on the internet. Heck, I don’t think that would happen – as far as I can tell she has a much bigger audience than we do here at DoWntime. But I do think it’s necessary to lay out a basic ground rule: everyone who’s reading this article, don’t be a jerk. And to Whovian Feminism: I really do think you’re great. Your tireless campaign for more female creators in Doctor Who and your support for a female Doctor is genuinely inspiring, and your reviews are always thought provoking, and challenge me to think about the problems with my favourite show in a valuable and constructive way.

With that introduction and necessary laying of ground rules established, let’s get into some actual discussion. First off, I’d recommend anyone who hasn’t read whovianfeminism’s review, take a few minutes to read it, and check it out here.

Time Lords, Gender, and Villainous Bigotry

The first point in Whovian Femism’s review that I want to respond to is her discussion of the scene in “World Enough and Time” where Bill and the Doctor eat chips and discuss gender:

Now that Missy and the Master are properly together, Moffat takes the full opportunity to play with Time Lords, regeneration, and gender. Ironically in the previous episode, Moffat made a point of having the Doctor say that Time Lords were “billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.” And, yes, this episode did have it’s progressive moments to show Time Lords could get beyond those petty obsessions. But it also leaned further into those stereotypes too.

I mostly want to respond to this quote because what I’ll now call the “chips and gender discussion” scene is a beautiful scene, and possibly one of the best moments in all of Doctor Who, and my disagreement with Whovian Feminism’s argument here give me a chance to discuss why. Whovian Feminism presents the scene as a progressive moment where Moffat presents the Time Lords as being far above gender stereotypes, that the rest of the finale doesn’t fully follow through on. But I think there’s something more complex going on here. The Doctor’s casual acceptance discussion of, and ease with, the changing of gender between regenerations is genuinely wonderful, and I love the way Moffat handles the Doctor’s use of pronouns when discussing Missy and the Master, with the Doctor easily switching between “he” pronouns when discussing the Master he grew up with, and “she” pronouns when discussing the adult Missy he knows now: it’s a notably similar to the approach some (though not all) nonbinary and genderfluid people, whose experience of gender seems most similar to that of Time Lords who change gender between regenerations, take to using gendered pronouns. Moffat has joked in interviews, in a way that’s consistent with a fifty-something man who isn’t fully up to date on third wave feminist approaches to gender pronouns, that he’s made it awfully hard for himself to get the gender pronouns right when discussing the Master’s character, and that he wishes we’d just abolish gender pronouns. But while they reveal the fact that Moffat probably doesn’t fully understand all LGBT and feminist discourse, those jokes also show, in my opinion, a recognition on Moffat’s part that there are ways in which gender changing regeneration is something that resonates greatly with the trans and non binary communities (see this essay and this one as examples of the reveal of Missy as the latest incarnation of the Master back in series eight resonating powerfully with trans fans), and a desire to not screw up when approaching the particularly relevant issue of gender pronouns. In a world where transphobes continue to casually misgender trans people, and where certain corners of the internet are doubling down on attacks on non binary people through the continued insistence that “there are only two genders”, thus enabling and encouraging hate crimes towards these groups, it is wonderful and important that on Doctor Who, we see the Doctor using an approach to gender pronouns that is visibly similar to that of parts of the trans community in an everyday way.  The point of the scene isn’t that Time Lords have moved on from gendered stereotypes: it’s that while they don’t have our specific hangups regarding gender, as their biological and social experience of gender is incredibly different to ours, they still lived in a society built on some gendered ideas and constructs. But for all the scene reveals a certain level of truth to the Doctor’s claim that Time Lords are “billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes”, it’s also important to note that he is immediately undercut by Bill pointing out that they still call themselves Time Lords.

And that undercutting of the Doctor’s idealised claim about the Time Lords’ attitude to gender is important to remember when discussing the gendered stereotypes whovianfeminism argues the episode leans into.

So, let’s discuss those stereotypes Whovian Feminism argues go unquestioned:

Although John Simm’s Master is pushing some boundaries, he’s also reinforcing them in other ways. He makes a cruel and unnecessary attack on Bill’s gender while he’s trying to rile her up, and continues deliberately denying her gender as a specific part of his attempt to dehumanize her. He refers to her as an “it,” says she “used to be a woman,” and makes a point of asking for her old bras for his future regeneration (implying that perhaps those parts of her body were also cut up and thrown away during her conversion into a Cybermen). We know the Master is a villain already, his credentials have been well established there. So it felt especially unnecessary to add a gross campaign of misgendering to his ledger.

When Missy refers to Bill Potts using her correct gender pronouns, the Master mocks Missy, saying “Becoming a woman is one thing but have you got…empathy?” You know, that trait stereotypically associated with women. Way back in Series 8 I talked about the way Missy’s characterization and motivations seemed to play into gender stereotypes, but for most of this season I had been pleased to see that she had a more complicated emotional journey that stayed away from those stereotypes. But now here’s the Master all but saying that Missy’s reformation is only happening because she’s a woman, with all those associated gender stereotypes. And no one refutes his assertion. A villain can say things that are wrong or that the audience isn’t supposed to agree with, but at some point they should be refuted.

First up, let’s address the issue of Master being a bigot. I have respect for the consistency shown by Whovian Feminism with her previous criticism here. I expected her to not like this aspect of the episode, as it is a complaint she has previously made about the show’s portrayal of the Master in her review of “The Time Monster” (a story which, I admit, I haven’t seen – unlike Whovian Feminism, I’m not a huge Pertwee fan, so I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet): this is what I mean when I say shes applies the same standards to all eras of Doctor Who. But here, it’s notable that Missy, the Master that Moffat created, has never had any comparative scenes where she’s portrayed as racist, or sexist, or homophobic when writing her as “the queen of evil” in stories like “Death in Heaven” and “The Magician’s Apprentice” Moffat has followed Whovian Feminism’s preferred approach to writing the Master, moving away from using bigotry as another example of the Master’s villainy, and instead lets the murders, genocides, and emotional torture of people who’ve died speak for itself. However, he does choose to write John Simm’s Master as sexist and transphobic, a move that is consistent with the Master’s characterisation in the Davies era, where the Master gets lines like “killed by an insect. A girl. How inappropriate” after Jacobi’s Master is shot by Chanthos, and “it’s the girlie and the freak. Although, I’m not sure which one’s which.” when referring to Martha and Jack. This isn’t to say Whovian Feminism should blame Davies for something Moffat chose to carry on writing in this episode: after all, it was Moffat’s choice to include the bigotry John Simm’s Master had previously displayed in this story. But I think it’s worth examing why he chose to include it in the story: Moffat is clearly using the bigotry of John Simm’s Master it to make a point about the way the Master has changed, as part of the story’s exploration of the difference between the Master and Missy, and the way the character has changed and developed between incarnations.

Which leads us to the specific issue Whovian Feminism raises, of the Master’s misgendering of Bill, which she argues is an unnecessary addition to a story that has already done plenty to establish the Master as thoroughly evil.  And while I agree that you don’t need to characterise a villain as bigoted to prove they’re evil, I think it’s worth depicting said bigotry if it adds to the story. And here, it does add to the story, setting up Missy’s redemption by contrasting her position to that of John Simm’s Master, and also uses the Master’s cruelty to Bill to make a powerful and necessary statement about gender identity: that gendering someone correctly is a basic act of empathy. The Master sees Missy correctly gendering Bill as a sign that she’s become more empathetic. The Master doesn’t misgender Bill because of logic or reason, just as real life bigots don’t really care about whether their definition of what makes a “real woman” is really accurate – he’s just openly refusing to extend basic empathy towards her. Which is something important to say about transphobes: their attitudes don’t come from science or logic, as much as they claim they do: their attitudes come from a refusal, in some cases subconscious, and I think in others deliberate, refusal to show basic empathy.

Next, it’s worth moving on to the discussion of empathy, and the way it’s stereotypically linked to female characters – I read the master’s line in the opposite way here: “becoming a woman’s one thing, but did you get empathy?” isn’t intrinsically linking womanhood to empathy through gender essentialism, it’s treating womanhood and empathy as two separate things, with the Master being angry that Missy has become empathetic, even though he can deal with her becoming a woman.

But more importantly, the context that quote comes in is significant. Because empathy is stereotypically treated as a woman’s trait, I understand the danger of Missy being the master who actually gets redeemed leaning into some gender stereotypes, and I understand Whovian Feminism wanting an explicit refutation in the episode of the notion that empathy is solely a thing women are capable of, but empathy’s not something this era, or even this episode, treat as solely a thing women display. This is an episode where the Doctor literally gets a speech about how he does what he does because it’s kind to do so, and the Capaldi era has hardly presented stereotypically feminine traits such as compassion and empathy as solely the province of women. Heck, its central argument about who the Doctor is is basically based around Moffat’s “we will always need a hero like the Doctor” speech, where Moffat states that the most wonderful things about the doctor are his willingness to help others, and his extra heart that makes him feel more: see the Doctor telling Davros he wouldn’t die of anything other than compassion, and that “being a Doctor” (a motif that runs through this era) is something that he only manages when he manages, on a good day, to show that compassion. To me, the Moffat era’s consistent approach, particularly in the Capaldi era, and pretty explicitly in “The Doctor Falls”, of presenting its male protagonist as a character whose heroism revolves around his empathy, kindness, and compassion, is all the refutation of the notion empathy is solely a female trait that this episode needs.

Also – I should stress – empathy is a really good and valuable thing. The ability to understand other people, and showing them kindness through that understanding, is one of the best traits we show as a species. I can’t have a problem with Doctor Who presenting Missy’s empathy as a sign she is redeemable, because learning to empathise with other people is one of the most important and kind things we can do.


Bill, and the Representation of a Black Woman’s Anger

Whovian Feminism goes on to discuss the episode’s portrayal of Bill, and the way Bill’s storyline in “The Doctor Falls” intersects with real world issues and stereotypes black people face:

most frustrating […] is this episode’s approach to Bill’s anger.  Black women’s anger is frequently portrayed as irrational, dangerous, and destructive – it’s known as the Angry Black Woman stereotype. In this episode, Bill’s anger is literally destructive. If she gets angry or upset, she will begin uncontrollably firing the weapon she’s been given as a Cyberman. So the Doctor instructs her never to be upset. She has to endure insult and injury without ever expressing how she feels about it. And there’s no payoff. We never see her release all of the anger and sadness building up inside her. She occasionally gets to fire her gun when the Doctor directs her to, and she gets to express her sadness over the Doctor’s near-death. But there’s never a moment that’s entirely focused on Bill. We never see her anger portrayed as valid and necessary, instead of dangerous and destructive. Pearl Mackie’s performance was incredible in those glimpses where she showed us what she was really feeling, but she and the audience deserved more.

I’m assuming when Whovian Feminism talks about Bill only getting to fire her gun with the Doctor’s permission, she’s talking about this scene, where the Doctor asks her to open a hole in the wall for the community of floor 507 to escape through:

BILL: What’s that?

DOCTOR: We’re on a spaceship, remember? That’s a service duct, rusted shut. Think you could get angry with it?

(Cyber-Bill burns a human-sized hole in the metal covering.)

Which, yeah, is a fair characterisation of that scene. And I can see why it makes her uneasy. But I do think her interpretation misreads a couple of other scenes:

First off, and before the tunnel opening scene, is the scene where Missy summons a lift with a cyberman in it, and Bill chooses to take the lead in fending it off:

BILL: Stand aside.

DOCTOR: Do as she says.

BILL: Stand aside.

MASTER: Do as she says. Is the future going to be all girl?

DOCTOR: We can only hope.

The scene is clearly presented as Bill choosing to step forward, and use her anger to fend off the Cyberman. The first example of Bill using her cyberpowers after the Doctor tells her to manage her anger in the barn is her choosing to use them of her own volition, with the Doctor’s role merely instructing the Master to listen to her. And it’s very easy to read this scene as a moment of catharsis for Bill: Whovian Feminism argues that “there’s no payoff. We never see her release all of the anger and sadness building up inside her.”, but right here, we get an actual moment where Bill literally tells the people responsible for her conversion to get out of the way, and release the anger building up inside her. Perhaps the scene misses a trick, in that we don’t get a reaction shot of Pearl Mackie as she says “Stand aside”, something like the scene where Bill says she doesn’t mind the Master’s cruelty, but we get this shot of her actual response:

a similar moment in this sequence would have been nice for making it clearer that this is a cathartic release for Bill, but it’s not a push to read the scene that way without such a moment.

And then, later in the episode, after the tunnel has been opened and Nardole has agreed to lead the escape, we get this wonderful exchange between Bill, Nardole, and the Doctor, that makes Bill’s fight for catharsis and release even more explicit:

NARDOLE: Young lady, you’re coming with me. No arguments. May I remind you I’m still empowered to kick your arse.

BILL: You’d have to go back down there to that hospital and find it, then.

NARDOLE: Look, Bill

BILL: My arse got kicked a long time ago, and there’s no going back. (she stands next to the Doctor) All I’ve got left is returning the favour.

NARDOLE: Oh, great. So she’s allowed to explode.

DOCTOR: Are you sure?

BILL: You know I am

Once again, the Doctor doesn’t instruct Bill to do anything here. Nardole does, and she says “no” to him, instead choosing to stay and fight. And the Doctor’s response isn’t to command her to do as he wishes, but to ask if staying and fighting is what she wants.

And finally, it is worth noting that the moment Bill starts to fight her programming and first uses use her cyberpowers sees her rescuing the Doctor in this delightful reversal of the “Doctor heroicallycarries the fainted companion” trope we see in episodes like “Smith and Jones” and “Asylum of the Daleks”:


And I think it’s very important to acknowledge these moments, because Whovian Feminism’s critique of presents Bill as being completely subservient to the Doctor, and never acting of her own volition, when the episode makes a point of giving Bill the chance to exercise what agency she can in her rubbish situation on several key occasions.

However, I think Whovian Feminism’s discussion of this topic does raise an interesting question about minority representation in media. How does one depict the suffering of a minority character in fiction, especially when said suffering is incredibly relevant to the real world issues faced by the minority group said character comes from? This is I a question I really don’t have an answer to, and therefore needs to be asked. When I watch Bill shout “Why can’t I be angry”, and the episode delivers the devasting blow of the Doctor’s “because you’re a Cyberman”, I feel the weight of the injustice Bill’s facing. Through Mackie’s amazing performance, and the dialogue she’s given I can see just how legitimate Bill’s anger is, and I can feel how unfair it is that she isn’t allowed to express said anger. And when the episode makes me feel that injustice so powerfully, is it invoking an “angry black woman” stereotype, or showing that stereotype to be deeply messed up? Or is it messier than that, and is the episode doing both things at the same time, because people who don’t share my political leanings (and heck, some people who do) interpret the scene entirely differently to the way I, and people who share my perspective do? In such a situation, perhaps it is important for a clear refutation of the idea that Bill’s anger is unreasonable to appear in the episode. That’s what I’ve argued for in many similar situations. But a part of me feels that leaving room for the audience to practice that thing called empathy we talked about earlier, and recognise the injustice Bill is experiencing, is a necessary thing for drama to do sometimes. Most of the time, I want the Doctor to punch a racist and give a beautiful speech on the value of human life. But occasionally, very rarely, a different approach can be useful.


Bill’s Happy Ending, the Return of Heather, and LGBT Representation

Finally, I want to address whovianfeminism’s discussion of LGBT representation, and the way the finale handles Bill and Heather’s romance:

By the end of this episode, Bill survives, has her body restored (somewhat),”

Okay, I’m gonna make a quick tangent and quibble with this statement, because I think it slightly mischaracterizes what happens in the episode. Bill’s body isn’t “somewhat” restored, it’s absolutely and completely restored. Sure, she ends the episode as a quasi-immortal water goddess being rather than her human self, but Heather also states that she can make Bill human again, if Bill wants to be. I wouldn’t read that as “somewhat” restored, I’d call that completely restored with benefits.

Still, minor differences of interpretation aside, on to the important stuff. Whovian Feminism continues: 

“and gets to fly off to her happy ending with Heather. It’s a remarkable ending that elicited a lot of complicated feelings. In the heat of the moment, I was almost crying with happiness. The importance of seeing women kissing women on screen cannot be understated. It was affirming, it was beautiful, and it was so necessary. It’s so rare that queer love saves the girl instead of dooming her. I wanted this kiss more than anything this series.

And yet, those feelings couldn’t last. I had no investment in Heather and Bill’s relationship, beyond a desire to see adequate queer representation in media. They had a cute flirtation in “The Pilot” but hadn’t really established a relationship. And the last time we saw Heather, she was barely herself anymore. It all felt rather superficial. We needed to see more of their relationship being built up throughout the series.”

I agree with this statement. It is wonderful to have the first unambiguously romantic, no sci-fi “share my oxygen” contrivances, same-sex kiss in New Who. I do think there’s a defense to be had of Bill and Heather’s ending here. Think about the way Heather’s framed by the camera exactly the way the Doctor is at end of a companion introduction story when he asks the new companion to travel with: it’s exactly the same type of scene. We accept the companions agreeing to travel around the universe with the Doctor after spending an episode getting to know him, so Bill travelling with Heather on much the same grounds here does make sense. Bill spent an episode getting to know Heather, and now she receives the same offer the Doctor made to her in “The Pilot”, with a fledgling romance with a girl she likes on top, she accepts it.

But on the whole, I think Whovian Feminism’s on the money here. Reading the scene as the start of Bill and Heather’s relationship, there’s enough to make it work, but as the culmination of Bill’s arc, it falls a little flat, as her relationship with Heather hasn’t been built up or referenced at all since “The Pilot” (save for Bill getting a couple of lines about being chased by a puddle). And it represents a lot of what I appreciate about whovianfeminism’s approach to Doctor Who criticism. She recognises the unambiguous good of a same sex kiss on mainstream family television, and the subversion of the “bury your gays” trope the episode pulls off, but also points out the show can still do better with its LGBT representation.

And ultimately, that’s what this article is about: encouraging a better level of criticism and discourse in fandom. I don’t want to tone police fans who get upset about things the show does, and just want to rant about about how Moffat/ Davies eat are terrible because they’re too sexist/ too feminist/too obsessed with continuity/ have no regard for the past/ make the show too much about the Doctor/ make the show too much about the companion. Heck, when it comes to fans who get angry at issues such as the representation of women and minorities in Doctor Who, I think their anger comes from a legitimate place, and even if I disagree with them directing their anger at Doctor Who, it’s ultimately just a TV show I like, and I can deal with people having more negative opinions about it than me. Sometimes those fans need to vent, and that’s okay: they probably deserve a place to. But my god, things can get ugly in this fandom at times (in any fandom, really). So when I see articles like the Whovian Feminism’s review, I see an opportunity for actual debate. Not a gladiatorial shouting match where a baying crowd of commenters shouts for blood and declares that one person “totally pwned” the “loser”. But a real discussion, where people with different opinions exchange ideas, work through different interpretations, and come to understand the perspective of themselves and the other person better. And it does help, I suspect, that whovianfeminism and I broadly seem to want the same things out of Doctor Who, even if we disagree on our interpretations of individual episodes. We both want Doctor Who to be a show with better representation of women and minorities, to be a show that encourages and embraces diversity and open mindedness. It means that we share common ground, and that makes it a lot easier for me to respond to her interpretations of “The Doctor Falls”, and how and why mine differ. But when there’s room for proper debate, we can work out why we think the things we do about the media we care about, why we see the world the way we do. And that is a fandom dialogue worth having.

3 thoughts on “SCARVES AND CELERY – DoWntime responds: Whovian Femisim’s review of “The Doctor Falls”

  1. i think most people miss that heather & bill’s exit is explicitly framed not as them running off to have adventures together happily ever after forever but as them temporarily exploring the idea of traveling together before bill has to come to any sort of decision: it’s more of a date than a marriage. also while there’s clear paralleling of the doctor making an offer to a companion, the let me show you around/ no i’ll show you around reversal is important and establishes a more complex relationship dynamic. i think the fact that the only character on the solar farm that freely approaches cyberbill with not fear but kindness was the little black girl is also a tremendously telling moment.

    Liked by 1 person

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