How sexist is Doctor Who?–Part Three

The Jon Pertwee years


Welcome to Part Three 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. Then, going by Doctor:

  1. William Hartnell
  2. Patrick Troughton

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.

According to the venerable Sue Perryman over at the Wife in Space blog, Jon Pertwee outranks either of his predecessors for active sexism, story by story. Can it be true? Let’s find out…


Spearhead from Space


  1. Yes – Liz Shaw, Meg Seeley
  2. No – Liz tends to Meg after the Auton attacks her, but they aren’t seen to speak to each other
  3. No (see above)

NotesDoctor Who may be striding into modernity with its new-fangled colour, but decent female representation is still a thing of the future. Especially with Robert Holmes writing the script; brilliant though he is, his writing never does women any favours. Liz Shaw, though, is a definite progression – after the highly qualified Zoe Heriot, we’ve now got a female Cambridge academic to assist the Doctor. Doesn’t stop her from wearing mini-skirts and thigh length boots (though that’s better dress sense than most of the Cambridge academics I know).

Doctor Who and the Silurians


  1. Yes – Liz Shaw, Miss Dawson, Doris Squire
  2. Yes – Liz and Miss Dawson argue in part five
  3. Yes – they’re arguing about Miss Dawson’s fervent desire to attack and kill the Silurians

Notes – “Have you never heard of female emancipation?” Liz sarcastically asks the Brigadier. Nice of the writer (Malcolm Hulke) to draw attention to it. Just a shame that the story doesn’t include more for women to do. It does pass the Test, on the basis of a couple of arguments in one episode, and at least Liz comes over as competent. But Miss Dawson is firmly under Dr Quinn’s spell against all sense, and Mrs Squire is a stock farmer’s wife with even less character than the poacher’s wife in the previous story.

The Ambassadors of Death


  1. Yes – Liz Shaw, Miss Rutherford
  2. No – Liz and Miss Rutherford never actually speak
  3. No (see above)

Notes – yes, Miss Rutherford is obviously a highly qualified scientist, to be working at the British Space Centre. But she’s actually another in the show’s long line of female assistants to male commanders (Ronald Allen, who appears to be stoned throughout). And unlike previous assistant commanders, she’s never really given any personality of her own. This new colour era isn’t going so well for women in Doctor Who so far.



  1. Yes – Liz Shaw, Dr Petra Williams
  2. Yes – a brief exchange between the alternate versions of Liz and Petra in part six, and the originals have another in part seven
  3. Yes – in the alternate universe, Liz and Petra discuss the reactor; in our own, they talk about reversing the drill processes

Notes – two universes’ worth of the female characters and they still barely get to talk to each other. Neither of the exchanges of dialogue that get the story through the Test consist of any more than three lines. But it does pass the test, and Petra Williams is a fairly well-rounded character. Yes, she’s yet another female assistant to the male director of a scientific project, but she does get a personality of her own (which differs from universe to universe), and even a love interest of sorts in Greg Sutton. It’s debatable whether the alternate versions of Liz and Petra actually count as separate characters – I’m considering that they aren’t, just different slants on the same people, in alternate timelines.

Terror of the Autons


  1. Yes – Jo Grant, Mrs Farrel
  2. Yes – Jo and Mrs Farrel talk in part three
  3. No – they’re talking about her husband’s death, and the mysterious Colonel Masters

Notes – By now, not much of a surprise to see a Robert Holmes story not pass the Test. As with Spearhead from Space, he gets to write the new companion’s first story, but Jo’s character owes more to the producer and script editor. Besides, much-loved though Jo is, she’s a definite step backwards from the intellectual likes of Liz and Zoe.

The Mind of Evil


  1. Yes – Jo Grant, Captain Chin Lee, Corporal Bell
  2. No – only Chin Lee and Bell even get a scene together, and they don’t talk to each other in it
  3. No (see above)

Notes – at last, a female UNIT soldier in Corporal Bell; shame she’s basically the Brigadier’s secretary. Chin Lee’s a bit more interesting (and played by the writer’s wife). As a fiery, committed member of the Communist Chinese army, she stands out; as yet another helpless victim of the Master’s hypnotism, she doesn’t. And she disappears from the story altogether after part three. Jo, meanwhile, spends the entire story trapped in a men’s prison, so it makes sense that she wouldn’t encounter any other women. She’s lucky the prisoners are such a chivalrous bunch, too.

The Claws of Axos


  1. Yes – Jo Grant, Corporal Bell
  2. No – Bell only appears in part one to give a quick weather report
  3. No (see above)

Notes – the first story from the prolific pens of Bob Baker & Dave Martin, and they fail the Test at the first attempt. Given that the whole ‘weather report’ business was a last minute script addition to cover unexpected snow on the location shoot, I wonder if Bell was even originally in the story; if not, it would have no named female guest characters at all. There’s the female Axon, but she doesn’t have a name. Or any dialogue, for that matter. Also Jo faces the agonising horror of – gasp! – getting old…

Colony in Space


  1. Yes – Jo Grant, Mary Ashe, Jane Leeson, Mrs Martin
  2. Yes – various conversations in various combinations, mostly in parts one to three
  3. Yes – they talk about the colony, the state of Earth, the animal life on the colony planet, the colonists’ food

Notes – a pretty realistic depiction of a colonist community, in the sense that the colonists are families, so naturally this one does pretty well with its balance of genders. The women concerned do occasionally talk about men, but they’re mostly concerned about the practicalities of survival on a rather barren planet. The IMC bunch are all male, though, which seems less realistic. Interestingly, director Michael Briant’s original casting choice for IMC officer Morgan was a woman, Susan Jameson; but she was replaced by Tony Caunter at the direct insistence of the Head of Drama, who considered the role “inappropriate for a woman”. Sigh

The Daemons


  1. Yes – Jo Grant, Miss Hawthorne
  2. No – Jo and Miss Hawthorne are in several scenes together, but never actually talk to each other
  3. No (see above)

Notes – considering that this does a pretty good job of portraying a village community, you’d think there would be more than one woman in it. Miss Hawthorne is a great character, which is due as much to Damaris Hayman’s performance as Barry Letts’ writing. But it might have been nice to have given at least one of the other village women a name or some dialogue.

Day of the Daleks


  1. Yes – Jo Grant, Miss Paget, Anat,
  2. Yes – Jo and Anat talk to each other in part two
  3. Yes – they’re talking about the guerillas’ time travel device

Notes – Anat is a brilliant female character, basically the leader of the guerrillas – though we do later find that she reports to a male superior, typically. At a time when radical female terrorists were often in the news (such as Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled), Anat is a good reflection of contemporary issues. However, Jo only gets a three line exchange with her in the whole story, and Miss Paget (basically another secretary) never meets her. Jo and Miss Paget are in a scene together, but Jo doesn’t interrupt the Doctor’s questioning so they never actually speak.

The Curse of Peladon


  1. Yes – Jo Grant, Amazonia
  2. No – Jo and Amazonia never actually meet
  3. No (see above)

Notes – another example of how this genre can sometimes be tricky for the Test. Alpha Centauri is explicitly stated to be hermaphrodite, but is played (voicewise) by a woman. However, I don’t think you could reasonably call it female. Even if you could, ‘Alpha Centauri’ is the star system the creature represents, and not its name. You’d think the Citadel of Peladon would have a few women in it, though. And Amazonia (named in the credits but not the dialogue) only turns up for a comedy punchline in the last couple of minutes. Still, she is the ambassador of Earth, which is quite impressive.

The Sea Devils


  1. Yes – Jo Grant, 3rd Officer Jane Blythe
  2. Yes – Jo and Blythe exchange words in part four
  3. Yes – they’re talking about sandwiches

Notes – a good example of how under-representing women can paradoxically help pass the Test. It’s purely because Jo and Blythe only talk about sandwiches that this passes rules 2 and 3, which is hardly a glowing example of gender balance. At least Jane Blythe flies the flag for the WRNS, though she seems to be little more than Captain Hart’s secretary.

The Mutants


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

Notes – the first Pertwee story to completely fail the Test. This second story by Bob Baker & Dave Martin actually does worse than the first, with no female characters at all other than Jo. In fact, despite its lofty ambition to allegorise British colonialism, it doesn’t do very well at diversity at all; the only non-white character is Cotton (clever name), portrayed very, very badly by Rick James (not that one). Even the natives are all white males – doesn’t Solos have any women on it?

The Time Monster


  1. Yes – Jo Grant, Dr Ruth Ingram, Queen Galleia, Lakis
  2. Yes – Jo and Ruth talk in part three, Jo, Galleia and Lakis in part five
  3. No – Jo and Ruth have a three line exchange in which Jo promises “the Doctor will explain later”; and the various conversations between Jo, Galleia and Lakis all relate to the Master, King Dalios or the Doctor

Notes – some good female characters who are integral to the story. Ruth Ingram in particular has a lot of screen time, though the TOMTIT machine seems to have stretched out the incredibly thin plot to a ridiculous length in her scenes. Ingrid Pitt is as imperious as ever, and Galleia is clearly the real power in Atlantis – that’s how she can have the King locked up. However, there are very few conversations between the female characters, and all of them centre on men as the fundamental drivers of the plot, so it fails the Test.

The Three Doctors


  1. Yes – Jo Grant, Mrs Ollis
  2. Yes – Jo and Mrs Ollis talk briefly in part one
  3. No – they talk about her missing husband, and Dr Tyler

Notes – Bob Baker & Dave Martin’s third story, and they still haven’t produced one that passes the Test. That’s not always a bad thing – The Time Monster fails the Test but does reasonably well by its female characters. Unfortunately, Mrs Ollis is basically a cardboard cutout comedy character, so there’s no such justification here.

The Carnival of Monsters


  1. Yes – Jo Grant, Shirna, Claire Daly
  2. Yes – Jo and Claire talk in part three
  3. Yes – Jo and Claire discuss how long the latter has been on the ship

Notes – one of my favourite Robert Holmes scripts, with some witty dialogue and delightful performances; and unusually for him, it does quite well by its female characters. Claire is a bit of a stereotypical 20s flapper, but Holmes slips in some marvellously accurate 1920s pop culture references for her – musicals, Fred Astaire and so on. Shirna is much more fun, an exasperated faded showgirl with a dry wit, very much a Holmesian character. Spending virtually the entire story inside the Scope means that Jo doesn’t meet Shirna, but she does interact a little with Claire Daly, meaning that this one passes the Test on all three criteria.

Frontier in Space


  1. No – Jo Grant is the only named female character
  2. No (see above)
  3. No (see above)

Notes – a good example of a story failing the Test even with at least one decent female guest character, by dint of that character having a title rather than a name. In this case, it’s the female President of Earth, which was a forward thinking decision in a time before the UK had even been blessed/cursed with a woman Prime Minister. Unfortunately, the President doesn’t get given a name, so despite being well-written and played, she doesn’t count for the Test. To be fair, this is a common situation with fictional male Presidents as well. And the story does directly address the issue of gender equality with the rule that no female may speak in the Draconian royal court, which Jo successfully challenges. So there’s that.

Planet of the Daleks


  1. Yes – Jo Grant, Rebec
  2. No – all Jo and Rebec actually say to each other is “hello”, in part four
  3. No (see above)

Notes – Terry Nation’s virtual retread of his first Dalek story does rather better than the original with its one female Thal – Rebec is a courageous, resourceful military officer, rather than the timid mouse that was Dyoni. Unfortunately, she’s still the only female besides Jo, and despite having several scenes with each other, the two never actually talk. I’m not counting an exchange of “hello”s.

The Green Death


  1. Yes, Jo Grant, Nancy
  2. Yes – Jo and Nancy talk in parts five and six
  3. No – both of their conversations are about Cliff Jones

Notes – another very progressive, liberal script that unfortunately doesn’t do very much for gender balance. Nancy doesn’t appear in it very much, and when she does, it’s usually to bring the men food. At the last minute she does reveal that she’s some kind of scientist (and Cliff hinted at it earlier), but it’s a bit tokenistic; she just helps the Doctor to make an “aqueous extract” of the fungus. You’d think there’d be more women at that hippy commune, what with all the Free Love and so on. There is, however, some comedy cross-dressing from the Doctor himself…

The Time Warrior


  1. Yes – Sarah Jane Smith, Lady Eleanor, Meg
  2. Yes – Sarah and Lady Eleanor talk in parts two and three, Sarah and Meg talk in part four
  3. Yes – Sarah and Meg talk specifically about gender equality!

Notes – “That narrow-hipped vixen!” With the arrival of Sarah Jane Smith, Women’s Lib collides with the old-fashioned chauvinism of Robert Holmes – and the results are not at all bad. The script has a strong female guest in Lady Eleanor, who’s more willing to take on Irongron than her milquetoast husband, and gender issues get an amusing airing as Sarah tries to rouse Irongron’s kitchen wenches to stand up for themselves – “you’re all living in the Middle Ages!” Possibly Holmes’ best script for female characters. Nonetheless, you have to wonder at the mentality of a man who wrote Linx telling a human “you have a primary and secondary reproductive system. It is inefficient, you should change it”. The prejudices inherent in that line are staggering.

Invasion of the Dinosaurs


  1. Yes – Sarah Jane Smith, Ruth (Lady Cullingford)
  2. Yes – Sarah and Ruth talk in part four
  3. Yes – they talk about Ruth’s reasons for leaving Earth on the (faked) spaceship

Notes – Malcolm Hulke’s last script is as patchy as his others for female characters. The sole female guest character doesn’t turn up till part four, and despite Carmen Silvera’s best efforts, she comes across as a deluded, gullible idealist. At least Sarah gets some meaty action, on one of the only occasions she gets to use her skills as an investigative journalist.

Death to the Daleks


  1. Yes – Sarah Jane Smith, Jill Tarrant
  2. Yes – Sarah and Jill talk twice in part four
  3. Yes – they talk about loading the bags onto the Dalek ship

Notes – as ever, Terry Nation’s script has one tokenistic female character (assuming none of the Exxilons are female, it’s hard to tell under those robes). Jill Tarrant is some kind of space marine, so plus points for that; on the minus side, she doesn’t get much of a personality, or much to actually do. And although it makes sense with the dialogue, it does look a bit gratuitous that Sarah spends her first scene romping around the Console Room in a skimpy bikini…

The Monster of Peladon


  1. Yes – Sarah Jane Smith, Queen Thalira
  2. Yes – Sarah and Thalira talk on multiple occasions
  3. Yes – among other things, they specifically talk about gender issues!

Notes – “There’s nothing ‘only’ about being a girl, your majesty.” This story may only have one female character, but she is the queen of an entire planet. She’s also well-written and interesting, in a story that deals fairly sensitively with gender equality in a primitive patriarchal society (not to mention class issues). Sure, it’s heavy-handed, but its heart is in the right place.

Planet of the Spiders


  1. Yes – Sarah Jane Smith, Neska, Rega
  2. Yes – Sarah and Neska; Sarah and Rega, both in parts four and five
  3. Yes – Sarah and Rega talk about the machine from the TARDIS

Notes – scrapes a pass, but the two guest female characters are paper-thin. Neska in particular suffers from Jenny Laird’s bizarre performance; Rega may be a rebel, but it’s Sarah who has to risk her life getting the machine to save the Doctor, and Arak sternly informs her that raiding the Spider HQ is “man’s work”. On the plus side, the Spiders themselves are all female; but they don’t count for the Test as none of them get names. They’re also not the most positive examples of the gender you could find.

Third Doctor summary


Total stories – 24

  • Stories that pass all three Bechdel criteria – 11 / 45.8%
  • Stories that only pass two Bechdel criteria – 4 / 16.7%
  • Stories that only pass one Bechdel criteria – 7 / 29.2%
  • Stories that fail all three Bechdel criteria – 2 / 8.3%

Total named female guest characters – 32

Total female companions – 3:

  • Liz Shaw
  • Jo Grant
  • Sarah Jane Smith

Recurring minor females – 1:

  • Corporal Bell

Total female characters overall – 34

Average ratio of male to female characters – 6.7:1

Story with the largest number of female characters – Colony in Space (Jo plus 3 named guests)

Female companion assessment:


Liz Shaw: Another highly qualified scientist following Zoe Heriot, Liz was arguably an even better representation of female intelligence. Yes, Zoe had the benefit of a future education beamed directly into her brain; but somehow that doesn’t command as much respect as the more easily identifiable “Cambridge academic”. Plus, while Wendy Padbury had a very gamine, almost childlike presence, Caroline John both looked and sounded more mature (and was indeed seven years older).

Of course the trouble with that, as incoming producer Barry Letts quickly found, was that a highly qualified scientist is less likely to help the audience out by saying “what is it Doctor?”, as she probably already knows. So Liz’s intelligence was somewhat dialled down, unconvincingly, and she ended up written out without even having a leaving story.


Jo Grant: Far more traditional than Liz, Jo could be seen as a real step backwards for female representation on the show. Girlish and none too smart, she was nevertheless quite plucky and courageous, as a trainee UNIT agent. But lovely though the irrepressibly Katy Manning undoubtedly is, the Doctor’s relationship with Jo was far more of a paternal one than the alliance of equals he had with Liz, the character ending up somewhat infantilised as a result. Of course, Katy herself may not have helped by posing for the picture above…

There is the pragmatic excuse that, as Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks contended, you needed an easier audience surrogate in the show than a university scientist who would nod sagely at the Doctor’s technobabble. And since the companion was mostly female, that was who it should be; so the conscious decision to make Jo more relatable makes sense from a dramatic standpoint. And to give the showrunners their due, Jo does develop, becoming, by her last story, a very obvious graduating apprentice for the Doctor. Her reappearance in the recent Sarah Jane Adventures shows a woman following in her mentor’s footsteps and standing up to injustice wherever it may be – while still never losing the lovable scattiness that is basically what Katy Manning is really like.


Sarah Jane Smith: Still probably the best remembered of the classic series companions, Sarah was a kind of compromise between the previous two. Perhaps recognising that Jo was a less positive female role model than Liz, Letts and Dicks conceived of a sharp, professional woman who, importantly, was a fierce advocate of what was then still called ‘Women’s Lib’.

However, as was frequently the case, Sarah’s professional skills and her strongly held socio-political views were gradually dialled down for reasons of plot convenience, so she could be more easily tied up, locked up, hypnotised and possessed. Nonetheless, Elisabeth Sladen clearly kept the character’s backstory alive in her mind, continuing to portray Sarah as a very capable woman; and in her long tenure, ended up with a far more flirtatious relationship with the next Doctor without sacrificing her innate strength.

Sexism rating for the Third Doctor:

Well, I’m afraid Sue Perryman was very much correct in her assessment. Jon Pertwee’s era fails the Bechdel Test a whopping 54.2 % of the time, as opposed to the more modest sexism of William Hartnell (31%) or Patrick Troughton (33.3%).

Next week, it’s the turn of Tom Baker to be subjected to the Test. With two more years’ worth of stories than Mr Pertwee, can he manage to be less sexist? Find out soon!

6 thoughts on “How sexist is Doctor Who?–Part Three”

  1. I don’t see how “The Sea Devils” gets a pass as the two exchanges between Jo and Blythe about sandwiches in part 4 doesn’t count. According to the rule you’ve set yourself ” At a bare minimum, one female character must say something to another, the second respond, and the first respond to that.”

    First exchange:

    BLYTHE: Only cheese, I’m afraid. The best the steward could do.
    JO: Oh, that’s super. Thanks very much.

    Second exchange (further down the scene after more conversation from the Doctor):

    BLYTHE: (To JO.) I’ll get you some more sandwiches.
    JO: Thanks very much.


    1. You may be right about that Alan – I’ll go back and double check, and amend if necessary. Though Pertwee’s already way in the lead for Test failures 🙂


  2. >> you have to wonder at the mentality of a man who wrote Linx telling a
    >>human “you have a primary and secondary reproductive system. It is >>inefficient, you should change it”. The prejudices inherent in that line >>are staggering.

    I think the point there was more the mentality of the character of Linx rather than the mentality of the writer who created and scripted him!

    (To be fair, Holmes is not the only writer to have gotten into trouble writing for stupid Sontarans – witness the recent upset regarding certain lines in the DWM comic strip by Strax which were potentially offensive to Sikhs.)


    1. Yes David, I phrased that badly. I think Holmes very cleverly structured that line to get a rise out of ‘women’s libbers’, with its inherent assumption that women are “secondary” and therefore contribute to an “inefficient” system. That said, reviewing his stories for the purposes of these posts, he has generally come across as rather chauvinist, though quite probably without malice and as a product of his times.


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