How sexist is Doctor Who?–Part Five

The Peter Davison years

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Welcome to Part Five 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
  3. Jon Pertwee
  4. Tom Baker

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.

With John Nathan-Turner now producing for the rest of the classic run, the job of ‘showrunner’ now starts to fall more than ever to the script editor. In this case, with a few exceptions, that means Eric Saward, not renowned for his sensitivity. Will his macho, violent style make the show more sexist than ever, or will the new, more sensitive Doctor be less of an unwitting chauvinist than his predecessors? Let’s see the results…

Castrovalva

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  1. Yes – Nyssa, Tegan
  2. Yes – Nyssa and Tegan have at least one exchange in every episode
  3. Yes – they discuss every aspect of the plot, including the TARDIS controls, the trip to Castrovalva, the Zero Room.

Notes – the first example in a long while of a story scraping a pass by dint of two main characters being female. Which is fortunate really – the only other female character is the solemn child who converses with the Doctor. It’s a nice scene, but the child doesn’t get given a name. On the plus side, with Adric kidnapped and the Doctor not quite in his right mind for much of the story, the vast majority of the plot is driven by Tegan and Nyssa. Not only do they demonstrate considerable intelligence (well, Nyssa, mostly), but also massive feats of physical courage, like scaling the mountain to Castrovalva itself. So, while there may not be many women, those who are there do very well by this script.

Four to Doomsday

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  1. Yes – Nyssa, Tegan
  2. Yes – Nyssa and Tegan have discussions in parts one and two (though they spend the rest of the story apart from each other)
  3. Yes – their discussions are about scientific instruments and cybernetics, respectively

Notes – I may be nipticking, but I don’t consider Enlightenment to be a named female character. We’re explicitly told it’s a title – “Minister of Enlightenment” – plus she’s actually a robot, albeit ‘adapted’ from a female, making the gender questionable at least. For all its good intentions, this is a pretty badly written story from a character perspective, so Tegan and Nyssa needn’t feel too hard done by at getting little depth. It might seem good that Tegan can speak the correct Aboriginal dialect (out of thousands) to communicate with a native Australian from 30,000 years ago, but I just think that’s lazy writing.

Kinda

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  1. Yes – Nyssa, Tegan, Todd, Panna, Karuna, Anatta (named in the credits but not in the dialogue)
  2. Yes – part two opens with a scene between Panna and Karuna, and includes dialogue between two versions of Tegan (if that counts) Panna, Karuna and Todd have conversations in various combinations in part three. Todd and Karuna have a conversation towards the end of part four, after the Mara is defeated.
  3. Yes – the conversations include the Mara, the Kinda way of life, rebirth and similar enlightened topics.

Notes – unsurprisingly, this sophisticated story, with gender as one of its central themes, passes the test with flying colours. And I’d consider that, while the topic of men does come up, it’s usually in the context of comparing/contrasting with women, so would still fit rule 3 (though wouldn’t have to for the story to still pass). Indeed, throughout the story whenever the genders are compared in the dialogue, women come off better. The plot backs this up; Panna and Karuna are the only Kinda to resist the Mara (in Aris’ male form), while in the offworlder camp, Todd is the only female, and the only one not to go missing or insane. On top of all that, the possessed Tegan exhibits an extraordinarily dominant (and unsubtle) female sexuality, a real first for the previously asexual show.

The Visitation

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  1. Yes – Nyssa, Tegan, Elizabeth
  2. Yes – Tegan and Nyssa have a conversation in part one
  3. Yes – they’re talking about Tegan’s recent experience of possession by the Mara

Notes – Not just a story which serves female characters badly, this one doesn’t do too well by the men either. After the admittedly well-crafted prologue (from which nobody survives to interact with anyone later), there’s only one named guest character – Richard Mace. All the others are identified by title (Miller, Poacher, Headman etc) and don’t get personalities of any kind. Even the main villain is simply called ‘Terileptil Leader’. All that said, though, all these nameless cyphers are still male (though it’s hard to be certain about the two non-speaking Terileptils). The story scrapes a pass (again) because two of the regulars are female, and even they only get one short conversation in the whole four episodes.

Black Orchid

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  1. Yes – Nyssa, Tegan, Ann Talbot, Lady Cranleigh
  2. Yes – Nyssa and Lady Cranleigh have a conversation in part one, as do Nyssa and Ann. Tegan, Nyssa and Ann have a scene together as well. In part two, Lady Cranleigh comforts Ann
  3. Yes – the conversations revolve around Nyssa’s origins, the costumes the characters will wear to the party, and Ann’s well-being after the attack.

Notes – not a bad success rate for a story set in 1925. Nyssa and Ann definitely qualify as two separate characters despite being portrayed by the same actress, and all the female characters are well-drawn and believable – even Lady Cranleigh, who’s as close to a ‘villain’ as the story gets.

Earthshock

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  1. Yes – Nyssa, Tegan, Professor Kyle, Snyder, Mitchell, Briggs, Berger
  2. Yes – numerous combinations in all four episodes
  3. Yes – topics discussed include the TARDIS, the Cyber bomb, the stowaways on the freighter, etc

Notes – Passes with flying colours due to two facts: the sheer number of female characters, and the fact that none of them is written specifically as female. Change a few gender pronouns and all of them could just as easily have been played by men. That could be seen as a step forward in casting, or a step backwards in writing, depending on your point of view. This is a bit of a running theme in Eric Saward’s scripts; I assume he’d been watching Alien.

Time Flight

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  1. Yes – Nyssa, Tegan, Angela Clifford
  2. Yes – Nyssa and Tegan in parts one, two
  3. Yes – topics discussed include the TARDIS, Nyssa’s ‘intuition’, the Xeraphin Sanctum

Notes – once again, passes because of the regular characters. The sole female guest character never meets either one of them. As a stereotypical air hostess, Angela’s hardly a poster girl for female equality. Nyssa doesn’t fare much better either, alternately screaming and being possessed. Only Tegan comes out of this reasonably well, by dint of her knowledge of aviation (and that doesn’t come up very much).

Arc of Infinity

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  1. Yes – Nyssa, Tegan, Chancellor Thalia
  2. No – Although Thalia talks to Nyssa, she doesn’t respond. And when Nyssa and Tegan finally meet in part four, they never have two lines of dialogue without one from the Doctor in between.
  3. No – see above

Notes – a rare failure even with two female main characters, due to the fact that, for most of the story, they’re on two different planets. Still, nice to see that glass ceiling on Gallifrey getting chipped away – after the all male environment envisioned by Robert Holmes, Johnny Byrne here gives us a female Chancellor, the first of two.

Snakedance

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  1. Yes – Nyssa, Tegan, Lady Tanha
  2. Yes – Nyssa and Tegan talk in part two (though Tegan is possessed by the Mara)
  3. Yes – they’re talking about the (female but unnamed) fortune teller

Notes – Barely passes. Nyssa and Tegan are separated early on, and don’t meet again until the very end, when they have no dialogue together. Lady Tanha doesn’t properly interact with either of them. All the more surprising given the inclusiveness of Christopher Bailey’s previous script. Still, there’s some gender balance here – both genders are equally hoodwinked by the returning Mara.

Mawdryn Undead

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  1. Yes – Nyssa, Tegan
  2. Yes – Nyssa and Tegan have numerous discussions in all four parts
  3. Yes – they talk about the abandoned spaceship, the TARDIS, the transmat capsule etc. Though they do also spend a lot of time discussing the Doctor, the Brigadier, Mawdryn and Turlough.

Notes – no female guest characters at all, named or unnamed. But the two regulars are paired off and separated from the Doctor for most of the story, so get a lot to do. Better then Peter Grimwade’s last script, but purely by dint of him having to use the (female) regulars. The boys’ school where Turlough and the Brigadier reside does have one female character, but she’s only ever referred to as ‘Matron’. And I suppose some of Mawdryn’s bunch might be female (hard to tell), but only a couple of them get lines (both male) and only Mawdryn gets a name.

Terminus

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  1. Yes – Nyssa, Tegan, Kari, Inga
  2. Yes – Nyssa and Tegan in part one and part four, Nyssa and Inga in part three
  3. Yes – Nyssa and Tegan discuss enzyme synthesis, then Nyssa’s decision to leave, while Nyssa and Inga talk about the cure for Lazar disease.

Notes – with so many plotlines in this story, the characters are mostly paired off and separated, in male/female combinations, so not much chance for female/female interaction. Also, while Inga is named in the credits, she isn’t in the dialogue, so your mileage may vary as to whether you consider her a “named female character”. Nyssa gets a chance to leave for a reason that emphasises her scientific skills, though why she thinks a fever can be relieved by removing her skirt is anyone’s guess.

Enlightenment

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  1. Yes – Tegan, Captain Wrack
  2. Yes – Tegan and Wrack talk in parts three and four
  3. Yes – they’re talking about Wrack’s ruse to remove Tegan from the party

Notes – one of very few Doctor Who scripts by a female writer, this still is quite short on female characters. The two that there are barely interact, in two brief scenes that span the end of part three and the beginning of part four. And one of them is hypnotised and speechless for half that time. Still, if you were disappointed by the lack of female characters in the Doctor’s last encounter with pirates (The Smugglers), the bombastic figure of Lynda Baron as Captain Wrack goes a long way to making up for that, as she seems to be trying to become the female equivalent of Brian Blessed.

The King’s Demons

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  1. Yes – Tegan, Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam
  2. No – Isabella and Tegan barely meet, and certainly don’t talk to each other
  3. No – see above

Notes – it may be set in the Middle Ages, but writer Terence Dudley did rather better giving his female characters some agency in his previous (1925-set) story. Lady Isabella spends most of the story locked in a dungeon as a hostage to her husband’s good behaviour. Tegan doesn’t do very much either, mostly standing around and holding the Doctor’s coat while he swordfights.

The Five Doctors

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  1. Yes – Tegan, Susan, Sarah Jane Smith, Liz Shaw, Romana II (archive footage), Zoe, Chancellor Flavia
  2. Yes – Susan and Tegan talk as the Doctor meets the Master, and later as they run away from the Cybermen
  3. Yes – the second exchange of dialogue is about Susan’s twisted ankle

Notes – despite a plethora of female characters, this one barely passes because they mostly never meet, let alone talk. Of the two exchanges between Tegan and Susan, one is about the Master, breaking rule 3, and the other consists of lines such as “Come on Susan!” and “Ow, my ankle!”. Tegan and Sarah saying their own names by way of introduction when they meet can’t be said to count, as it’s all they say to each other. However, it does have more female characters than any other Davison story, because of all those returning companions.

Warriors of the Deep

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  1. Yes – Tegan, Solow, Preston, Karina
  2. Yes – Karina and Solow in part two
  3. No – they’re talking about Maddox

Notes – another one with a fair number of named female guest characters, but they barely meet, and the one interaction between two of them does centre on a man. Preston and Karina are in a couple of early scenes together, but reporting to the Commander rather than talking to each other. Ingrid Pitt is as charismatic as ever as Solow, and she is both a doctor and a spy, so a pretty good representation of female capability. Up until she decides to karate kick the Myrka anyway.

The Awakening

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  1. Yes – Tegan, Jane Hampden
  2. Yes – Tegan and Jane talk in part one
  3. No – they’re talking about Tegan’s grandfather

Notes – a two part story, with two female characters, but they only talk once and that’s only about four lines of dialogue which relates to a man. Tegan spends much of the story playing damsel in distress (albeit very ill-temperedly), and Jane may be the voice of reason but somehow comes across as a nagging teacher trying to spoil the boys’ fun. It does help that she’s absolutely right, though.

Frontios

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  1. Yes – Tegan, Norna
  2. Yes – Tegan and Norna talk in parts one and three
  3. Yes – their first exchange relates to the acid battery for the lighting.

Notes – barely passes, with two named female characters who (briefly) talk twice. And the second time is about Turlough. They’ll need a few more women on that colony, or humanity really will become extinct.

Resurrection of the Daleks

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  1. Yes – Tegan, Dr Styles, Professor Laird, Osborn, Zena
  2. Yes – Tegan and Laird talk, Styles and Zena talk, both in part two (part three in the four part version)
  3. Yes – Tegan and Laird talk about escaping from the duplicates of the soldiers, Styles and Zena about the self-destruct code

Notes – A fair pass, by the standards of the time. Also shares the virtue/failing of Earthshock in that most of the female characters could be played by either gender. Osborn is named in the credits, but not in the dialogue; Zena is named in the dialogue but not the credits! Another ultra-macho Eric Saward script that is pretty inclusive, gender-wise. And Tegan gets a final departure for the most compassionate of reasons – she can’t cope with all the death any more. An occupational hazard for anyone in an Eric Saward script, I think.

Planet of Fire

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  1. Yes – Peri Brown, Sorasta
  2. No – Peri and Sorasta are only in the same scene once, and they don’t talk to each other
  3. No (see above)

Notes – Not terribly successful in Bechdel terms, and all sorts of others for that matter. I presume Peter Grimwade’s introduction of Peri was at the behest of John Nathan-Turner, but poor old Nicola Bryant gets objectified from the first, the camera frequently lingering on her barely concealed chest. Yes, she’s also a university student studying botany, but that almost never comes up here or in any later stories. It’s purely down to Nicola’s performance that Peri gets much of a character at all. And the only other female character, Sorasta, is pretty minor despite being played by genre legend Barbara Shelley.

The Caves of Androzani

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  1. Yes – Peri Brown, Krau Timmin. Tegan and Nyssa are seen in the Doctor’s hallucination.
  2. No – Peri and Krau Timmin are on two separate planets, and neither meet nor see each other on the video link
  3. No (see above)

Notes – As ever, not much room for women in the returning Robert Holmes’ (actually very good) script. However, this one might fail the Test, but it’s notable that the two female characters are the only ones to survive the story. Even the Doctor ‘dies’. True to already established form, the tragedy of that is somewhat diminished as the camera seems mostly to be focusing on Nicola Bryant’s chest while it happens.


 

Fifth Doctor summary

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Total stories – 20

  • Stories that pass all three Bechdel criteria – 14 / 70%
  • Stories that only pass two Bechdel criteria – 2 / 10%
  • Stories that only pass one Bechdel criteria – 4 / 20%
  • Stories that fail all three Bechdel criteria – 0 / 0%

Total named female guest characters – 35 (in this case, I’m including the returning companions in The Five Doctors)

Total female companions – 3:

  • Nyssa
  • Tegan Jovanka
  • Peri Brown

Total female characters overall – 38

Average ratio of male to female characters – 2.9:1

Story with the largest number of female characters – if you count all those returning companions as guests, The Five Doctors (Tegan plus 6 named guests). Otherwise, it’s Earthshock (Tegan, Nyssa and 5 named guests). Either way, they both have the same number of female characters.

Female companion assessment

Nyssa2

Nyssa: Despite her ‘fairytale princess’ introduction, the writers never forgot Nyssa’s strong scientific background, and her nous at science and engineering was frequently displayed to good effect. Compare that with the swiftly forgotten journalistic career of Sarah Jane Smith. After her first full season, John Nathan-Turner relented from his costumes-as-uniforms approach and allowed her (and Tegan) to change clothes, but Sarah Sutton got the better deal there, never having to wear anything as gratuitous as the Tegan’s much-hated (by Janet Fielding) boob tube. Nyssa managed to come across as both sensitive and quietly strong – after all, as she pointed out, she’s lost her whole family and entire home star system by the time she joins the TARDIS, so she must be made of pretty strong stuff.

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Tegan Jovanka: “I’m just a mouth on legs.” Far more extrovert (and therefore noticeable) than Nyssa, Janet Fielding’s spirited performance as the gobby Australian makes her one of the most fondly remembered of female companions. She was no pushover for men, either – witness Davison’s hurried escorting her away from the First Doctor when she’s told to make the tea in The Five Doctors. All that brash assertiveness never diminished her femininity though, and her possession by the Mara in Kinda makes her behave in the most overtly sexual way ever in the classic series. It’s a pretty dominant sexuality too. She doesn’t lack for sensitivity under the strong front either, as shown by her grief over Adric and her ultimate departure after all the deaths in Resurrection of the Daleks.

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Peri Brown: To be fair, she barely got introduced by the end of Davison’s run (shades of Clara Oswald), so you could sort of excuse the lack of much depth, the calculated (and fake) American nationality and gratuitous fixation with her ample chest. Nicola Bryant does the best she could, and in fairness the character gets properly into her stride with the next Doctor.

Sexism rating for the Fifth Doctor

Yes, Davison’s run might have been stewarded by the hyper-macho Eric Saward, but we had a younger Doctor than ever to show the more accepting attitudes of the early 80s after the unashamed Gene Hunt-style sexism of the 70s. It’s true that Davison had far fewer stories than Tom Baker, but it was only one fewer than Troughton and four fewer than Pertwee. Despite that, his run was the show’s least sexist yet, with only 30% of it failing the Bechdel Test and a better ratio of male to female characters than any Doctor so far.

Rankings of Bechdel failures by Doctor (so far):

  1. Jon Pertwee – 54.2%
  2. Tom Baker – 43.9%
  3. Patrick Troughton – 33.3%
  4. William Hartnell – 31 %
  5. Peter Davison – 30%

Next week, it’s on to the chaos (through no fault of his own) that was the Colin Baker era. With fewer stories than ever before, victimisation by the press and the upper echelons of the BBC, not to mention Eric Saward’s acrimonious departure after he and John Nathan-Turner nearly came to blows, how well will the Sixth Doctor’s era treat its women?