How sexist is Doctor Who?–Part One

The William Hartnell Years

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OK, here we go with Part One of my attempt to analyse the sexism in every Doctor Who story ever, using the Bechdel Test – and my wits. For a reminder of the rules, check the Intro here. A quick reminder of the Test:

1. It has to have two named female characters
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man.

Here goes…

An Unearthly Child

C001 An Unearthly Child - Who Back When | A Doctor Who PodcastBarbara Wright — Married To Who: A Doctor Who PodcastThe Mothers of Doctor Who – Blue Towel ProductionsHur | Doctor Who World

1. Yes – Susan, Barbara Wright, Old Mother, Hur
2. Yes – Susan and Barbara talk frequently in part one. Various combinations of characters in parts two to four.
3. Yes – Susan and Barbara discuss the decimal system and the TARDIS in part one, the relevant conversations in parts two to four mostly revolve around fire.

Notes – This might more accurately be considered two stories rather than one – part one, with only the regular cast, and parts two-four, with the cavemen joining in. However, even if one thinks of it that way, it still passes on all three rules. Having said that, Old Mother and Hur are not especially well-drawn female characters, and most of Hur’s dialogue is indeed about a man, or men.

The Daleks

May | 2013 | The Doctor Who Mind Robber
Doctor Who S1 E2 "The Daleks" / Recap - TV TropesBBC One - Doctor Who, Season 1, The Daleks, The Ambush, The Daleks - The  Ambush - The Doctor and Dyoni

1. Yes – Susan, Barbara Wright, Dyoni
2. Yes –Susan and Barbara have multiple conversations throughout.
3. Yes – conversations about where they are, the Daleks, the radiation drugs

Notes – yes, it’s a pass on all three counts; but that’s only because of the two female regulars, who are bound to have some conversations in a seven part story. Dyoni, the only named female Thal, never has a conversation with either Susan or Barbara, and the only time either of them speak to her is when Susan says “goodbye” at the very end. Plus, Dyoni’s not exactly advancing the cause of gender equality when she comments (of the anti-radiation drugs), “It would have been better if you had given them to a man instead of a girl”.

Edge of Destruction


1. Yes – Susan, Barbara Wright
2. Yes – Susan and Barbara talk on various occasions throughout
3. Yes – they talk about Susan’s injuries, what’s happening to the TARDIS, which parts of the console are safe to touch, etc

Notes – with only the regular cast in this one, there’s a 50/50 split of male and female characters, and all get virtually equal time in the limelight. It’s the most gender balanced story so far in terms that exceed the Bechdel Test; in fact, it may be the most gender balanced story the show’s ever done in 50 years.


Marco Polo


1. Yes – Susan, Barbara Wright, Ping Cho
2. Yes – Susan, Barbara and Ping Cho in various combinations throughout
3. Yes – conversations about where Ping Cho is from, the sandstorm, the city of Tun Huang

Notes – not that many named female characters, but they get a fairly equal share of screen time with the men. Having said that, more of their conversations with each other relate to men than don’t – they tend to centre on Marco Polo, Tegana, the Doctor, or Kublai Khan.

The Keys of Marinus


1. Yes – Susan, Barbara Wright, Sabetha, Kala
2. Yes – Susan and Barbara in part one and sporadically throughout; Barbara and Sabetha in part two; Susan, Barbra and Sabetha in part three; Susan and Sabetha in part four; Kala, Barbara and Susan in part five
3. Yes – Susan and Barbara talk about shoes, Barbara and Sabetha talk about the Morphoton hypnosis, all three talk about the Screaming Jungle, Susan and Sabetha discuss the cold and the fire

Notes – only two female guest characters, but a much better share of screen time for them than the single one in Terry Nation’s last script. All are involved in driving and resolving the plot, and one of them turns out to be a murderer. Yes, all of Kala’s conversations with the other female characters do revolve around a man, or men, but that’s sort of justifiable in the sense that she’s being questioned about the murder of a man for which her husband has been arrested.

The Aztecs


1. Yes – Susan, Barbara Wright, Cameca
2. Yes – Susan and Barbara in part one
3. Yes – they talk about the Aztec culture

Notes – despite being a rather wonderful script, this one barely scrapes through the Test on the basis of one conversation in part one. Susan and Barbara are then separated for most of the rest of the story, and Cameca only meets them very briefly, not having a conversation with either one. A good example of meeting the Test criteria while severely lacking in gender balance throughout.


The Sensorites


1. Yes – Susan, Barbara Wright, Carol Richmond
2. Yes – Susan, Carol and Barbara in parts one and two; Susan and Barbara in part six
3. Yes – Carol and Barbara talk about what Earth is like in each other’s time, all three discuss the ship’s rations, Susan and Barbara talk about the aqueduct

Notes – yes, it passes the Test, but only on the basis of three conversations in a six part story. In fact, after part two, the female characters barely interact at all, not even the regulars. Of course, there is always the possibility that some of the Sensorites are meant to be female, but since they’re all played by men, that’s pretty unlikely.

The Reign of Terror


1. Yes – Susan, Barbara Wright, Danielle
2. Yes – Susan and Barbara variously throughout, Susan and Danielle in part four
3. Yes – Susan and Barbara talk about the prison, potential escape routes, the rats; Susan and Danielle talk about brandy

Notes – as usual for this period of the show, the multiple plotlines are accommodated by splitting the regulars up. In this case, Susan and Barbara are paired off for most of the story, so this passes the Test easily as a result. However, it’s worth noting that there’s only one other female character who gets no more than a handful of lines.

Planet of Giants


1. Yes – Susan, Barbara Wright, Hilda
2. Yes – Susan and Barbara talk in part two and part three
3. Yes – they talk about Barbara’s illness, the cure for the pesticide, and the water she drinks when recovering

Notes – yes, it passes, but considering there are still two regular female characters, it’s surprising how infrequently they talk to each other in this one. Still, not one of their conversations relate to a man, so that’s something.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth


1. Yes – Susan, Barbara Wright, Jenny
2. Yes – numerous conversations in various combinations throughout
3. Yes – topics include Susan’s ankle (twice!), the state of London, how best to escape from the city, the mine in Bedfordshire

Notes – passes the Test very well, as all three female characters get a great deal to do and a lot of dialogue with each other. On the flip side, there’s only one named guest female character (the women who betray Jenny and Barbara to the Daleks are simply credited as “Women in the Wood”). Still, that’s two out of three pretty good showings for Terry Nation (so far).

The Rescue


1. Yes – Barbara Wright, Vicki
2. Yes – Vicki and Barbara have conversations in both parts
3. No – not strictly anyway. All their conversations are dominated by the subjects of Koquillion and Bennett (both the same person), Vicki’s father, Vicki’s (male) pet, or the Doctor.

Notes – The first Hartnell story to actually fail the Test, and with good reason. With no disrespect to Maureen O’Brien, the character of Vicki is transparently a carbon copy replacement for Susan. At no point in her tenure does she even get given a surname (though strictly speaking, neither did Susan).

NB – this one would have passed the Test if you don’t count the Doctor as a “man”.

The Romans


1. Yes – Barbara Wright, Vicki, Locusta, Poppaea Sabina
2. Yes – Vicki and Barbara in parts one and four, Barbara and Poppaea, Vicki and Locusta, and Poppaea and Locusta in part three
3. Yes – Vicki and Barbara talk about the market, London, dress fabric; Barbara and Poppaea talk about Barbara’s duties as slave; Vicki and Locusta talk about poisons, Poppaea and Locusta talk about the former’s plan to poison Barbara

Notes – a pretty good success rate in gender balance even outside the strictures of the Test. It helps that the two named female guest characters (both based on real historical figures) are very strongly written and have a lot to do. Against that is the factor that their scheming mostly revolves around Poppaea’s jealousy of Barbara because of Nero; but still, pretty good.

The Web Planet


1. Yes – Barbara Wright, Vicki, Vrestin, Nemini, the Animus (maybe – see below)
2. Yes – Vicki and Barbara talk in part one; Vrestin and Nemini in part four
3. Yes – Vicki and Barbara talk about the mysterious noise in the TARDIS, Barbara’s teaching job; Vrestin and Nemini talk about the Menoptera

Notes – this is where it gets complicated. Not for the last time, the guest characters are so alien, it’s hard to know whether they could technically be classified as female. For the purposes of this Test, I’ve considered that the characters played by women are female (though the Animus is a bit of a stretch). The story would still pass the Test on the basis of Barbara and Vicki’s conversations in part one; however, the problem of distinguishing the genders of alien characters will come back time and again, not surprising in a science fantasy show.


The Crusade


1. Yes – Barbara Wright, Vicki, Lady Joanna, Sadiya, Maimuna, Sheyrah, Fatima, Hafsa
2. Yes – Vicki and Joanna in parts one and three; Barbara and Sheyrah in part two; Barbara and Safiya in part three; Barbara and Maimuna in part four; Hafas, Maimuna and Barbara in part four
3. Yes – Vicki and Joanna talk about playing a musical instrument

Notes – a surprising (for the time) plethora of female characters, and some very good writing, mean that The Crusade passes the Test with flying colours, and does pretty well for gender balance outside its strictures too. It is fair to say that the vast majority of the female characters’ conversations relate in one way or another, to men, but given the story setting, that’s not too surprising. And outside of the regulars, Lady Joanna is an extremely strong and well-written guest character.

The Space Museum


1. Yes – Barbara Wright, Vicki
2. Yes – Vicki and Barbara in part two (twice), then again in part four
3. Yes – Vicki and Barbara talk about how to avoid the future they’ve seen

Notes – after a story that easily passes the Test comes one that just barely manages. There are no female guest characters at all, named or unnamed (one wonders if the Xerons reproduce by cloning, as they all appear to be male drama students). The two regulars barely speak to each other, only managing three conversations in four episodes, and one of those conversations is about the Doctor and Ian. Strictly speaking, though, it’s a pass.

The Chase


1. Yes – Barbara Wright, Vicki, Queen Elizabeth I
2. Yes – Vicki and Barbara in parts one, three, four and six
3. Yes – Vicki and Barbara talk about exploring Aridius in part one, about Barbara’s hair in part four, and climbing off the Mechanoid city in part six

Notes – a reasonable pass for the Test, but a pretty poor showing for gender balance overall. The only female guest character is Queen Elizabeth, who’s only seen on the Space-Time Visualiser screen. The two regulars barely talk to each other (their direct exchanges in part six consisting of little more than “No, no, no!” and “Hold onto this!”). But then this is a pretty poor story in all sorts of ways, so it’s hardly surprising.

The Time Meddler


1. Yes – Vicki, Edith
2. Yes – Vicki and Edith in part two
3. No – they talk about the Doctor

Notes – a pretty terrible showing all round. Not only does it fail the Test, the one named female guest character is quite underwritten and spends much of her dialogue spewing exposition. The (very brief) conversation Edith and Vicki have in part two misses rule 3, being about the Doctor. Only the second story to actually fail the Test. It also marks the first time the show has only one female regular character; unsurprisingly, failures become more common from hereon in. And yes, that is Alethea Charlton who played Hur in An Unearthly Child again. Perhaps there was a shortage of female actors.

NB – this one would have passed the Test if you don’t count the Doctor as a “man”.

Galaxy 4


1. Yes – Vicki, Maaga
2. Yes – Vicki and Maaga talk in part two
3. Yes – they talk about Drahvin food rations

Notes – you’d expect a story whose central conceit involves an all-female warrior class to do quite well in terms of gender balance, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be wrong. It barely passes the Test, by dint of one short conversation between Vicki and Maaga. None of the Drahvins apart from Maaga get a name, although the script does explicitly justify this explaining that they are artificially kept stupid and subservient. But even Maaga’s not written as any more complex than “the baddie”. Some interesting intentions here, but most themes well and truly miss their targets.

Mission to the Unknown


1. No – no female characters at all
2. No (see above)
3. No (see above)

Notes – I suppose you could charitably assume that one of the aliens might be female, but that’s cutting no ice with me since they’re all played by men. But then, it’s a single episode oddity that doesn’t feature any of the regular cast at all, so that’s sort of excusable. The first story to fail all three Test criteria. Also the first of only two stories ever to have no female characters at all, not even one of the regulars – the other is The Deadly Assassin.


The Myth Makers


1. Yes – Vicki, Katarina, Cassandra
2. Yes – Vicki and Katarina talk in part four
3. Yes – Katarina is asking if she can get Vicki anything, as her handmaiden

Notes – very nearly a fail, and the pass depends on whether you consider the three adjacent lines of dialogue between Vicki and Katarina as “talking to each other”. At least one of those lines (“Let it not happen”) appears to be spoken to nobody in particular. Vicki and Cassandra interact a couple of times, but never exchange more than a single question and response pair of lines.

The Daleks’ Masterplan


1. Yes – Katarina, Sara Kingdom, Lizan, Blossom Lefevre
2. No – none of the female characters ever meet each other
3. No (see above)

Notes – astonishingly, a story that is twelve episodes long can’t manage even one exchange of dialogue between two female characters, or even to get any of them in the same scene as each other. Katarina is dead before Sara Kingdom is introduced, and Lizan, the Earth space control officer, never meets either of them. Blossom Lefevre is the Penelope Pitstop-esque character in the bonkers part 7, but as far as I can tell (the episode only existing in audio) she never meets Sara.

On the plus side, the story has a proto-Ripley in Sara Kingdom, and a competent space technician in Lizan. On the minus side, Katarina’s primitive misunderstanding of her situation is portrayed as sheer stupidity, unlike the later intuitive understanding of Leela. Generally, this is a pretty low point for gender balance in the show, which up until now has mostly not done too badly.

The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve


1. Yes – Anne Chaplet, Dodo Chaplet, Catherine de Medici
2. No – Anne and Catherine never meet, and Dodo is separated from both by several centuries
3. No (see above)

Notes – it’s a well-written story, with two very well-drawn female roles in Anne and Catherine de Medici (Dodo not so much). It makes sense that they wouldn’t meet, as Catherine is the ruler of France and Anne is a serving girl. Still, you can’t deny that this unfortunately does fail the Test.


The Ark


1. Yes – Dodo Chaplet, Mellium, Venussa
2. No – Mellium and Venussa are in two different time zones, and Dodo never has a direct exchange with either one
3. No (see above)

Notes – given that the general opinion of this period is that the show’s standards were starting to slide, it’s perhaps not surprising that this also applies to gender representation. I’d argue that this is more due to some poor writing and script editing than to conscious misogyny, though.

The Celestial Toymaker


1. Yes – Dodo Chaplet, Clara, Mrs Wiggs
2. Yes – Dodo and Clara in part one; Dodo and Mrs Wiggs in part three
3. Yes – in part three, Dodo and Mrs Wiggs discuss one of the riddles

Notes – another slightly odd one. Clara and Mrs Wiggs are both played by Carmen Silvera (as is the unnamed ‘Queen’), and there’s a suggestion that she’s not real. So is she/are they really named female character(s)? I’m giving this one the benefit of the doubt, as it’s so surreal it’s hard to state anything about it with certainty.

The Gunfighters


1. Yes – Dodo Chaplet, Kate Fisher
2. Yes – Dodo and Kate in part two, three
3. No – on both occasions they’re talking about Doc Holliday, along with some of Kate’s exes

Notes – this story’s a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine, but I’m not surprised it fails the Test. Actually the most interesting female character in it is Lynda Baron’s disembodied voice singing that hilariously irritating song.

The Savages


1. Yes – Dodo Chaplet, Flower, Nanina
2. Yes – Dodo and Flower in part two, Dodo and Nanina in part three
3. Yes – Dodo and Flower talk about the hospital facility

Notes – not bad by recent standards, but that’s not saying much. Dodo and Flower are in several scenes together, but only directly interact once, and Dodo’s conversation (three lines) with Nanina doesn’t fit rule 3, as it’s about the armed (male) guard.


The War Machines


  1. Yes – Dodo Chaplet, Polly, Kitty
  2. Yes – all three in part one, Polly and Kitty in part two
  3. Yes – one of the conversations in part one is about Dodo’s headache

Notes – another one that passes by the skin of its teeth. There are a few conversations between named female characters early on, but most of them end up being about Ben. Kitty isn’t seen again after part two. Incoming companion Polly doesn’t get a surname, but gets more personality than Dodo, who does have one. And Dodo gets probably the most ignominious “put on the bus” send off of any companion ever – she’s sent off for a rest in part two then never seen again, while the Doctor buggers off without her. Evidently she was so easy to replace he forgot all about her. Nice one, Doctor.

The Smugglers


  1. No – Polly is the only female character
  2. No (see above)
  3. No (see above)

Notes – yes, given that the story’s about pirates, smugglers and Revenue men in the 18th century, it’s understandable that it’s short on female characters. Still, would a barmaid have hurt?

The Tenth Planet


  1. No – Polly is the only female character
  2. No (see above)
  3. No (see above)

Notes – oh dear, the second total failure in a row. There is a female technician at International Space Command, but she’s not given a name. Still, after the last story, even having an unnamed woman with dialogue is a step forward.

So, how did Mr Hartnell do overall? Let’s sum up…



First Doctor summary

Total stories – 29 (assuming An Unearthly Child is one four-parter, and Mission to the Unknown is separate from The Daleks’ Masterplan)

Stories that pass all three Bechdel criteria – 20 / 69%

Stories that only pass two Bechdel criteria – 3 / 10.3%

Stories that only pass one Bechdel criteria – 3 / 10.3%

Stories that fail all three Bechdel criteria – 3 / 10.3%

Total named female guest characters – 39

Total female companions – 7

  • · Susan
  • · Barbara Wright
  • · Vicki
  • · Katarina
  • · Sara Kingdom
  • · Dodo Chaplet
  • · Polly

Total female characters overall – 46

Story with the largest number of female characters – The Crusade (Vicki plus 6 named guests)

A pretty good result for the early 60s – by Bechdel standards, only 31% of First Doctor stories are certifiably sexist. Tune in next week, when we’ll examine the sexism of Patrick Troughton

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