How sexist is Doctor Who?–Part Six

The Colin Baker years

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Welcome to Part Six 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
  5. Peter Davison

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.

 

Last week, we discovered that Peter Davison had shown a marked improvement in Bechdel terms from his predecessors, scoring the least sexist rating yet. But with trouble on the horizon for incoming Doctor Colin Baker, can he continue the trend of improvement? Let’s see…

The Twin Dilemma

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  1. Yes – Peri Brown, Fabian, Elena
  2. Yes – Elena and Fabian talk in part one
  3. Yes – they talk about the missing fighters

Notes – Barely passes, purely because the two (very minor) named guest female characters work in the same fighter control room. Peri never meets either one, and Jaconda seems to have no female population at all. And if you were hoping the new Doctor would reach new levels of gender balance, you might be discouraged that he tries to strangle his female companion in part one…

Attack of the Cybermen

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  1. Yes – Peri Brown, Rost, Threst, Flast, Varne
  2. Yes – Peri, Rost and Varne talk in part two
  3. Yes – they talk about the Cryons, and about Telos. They also talk about the Cybermen, who you may or may not consider to count as “men” given their mostly cybernetic status.

Notes – another script written (ostensibly) by a woman, which takes the logical step of portraying the (very masculine) Cybermen’s foes as being exclusively female. This does beg the question of how they reproduce. Also, while their being rebels and all makes them pretty strong characters, they’re impossible to actually tell apart; even the Sensorites had more individual features.

Vengeance on Varos

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  1. Yes – Peri Brown, Areta, Etta
  2. Yes – Peri and Areta talk while captive in part two
  3. Yes – they’re talking about their transformations into animals

Notes – one brief interaction between female characters, but it passes. Etta never meets either of the other two, but that’s intentional and dramatically justified as part of the narrative structure. However, this should probably get a black mark as the first in a long procession of stories in which Peri becomes the object of lust for a slavering alien thingy.

The Mark of the Rani

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  1. Yes(ish) – Peri Brown, the Rani (but see below)
  2. Yes – Peri and the Rani have a couple of exchanges in part two
  3. Yes – they’re talking about getting out of the Rani’s minefield

Notes – the pass for this one hinges on whether you think “Rani” is a name or a title. “Doctor” and “Master” are plainly titles, but I’ve never heard of the title “Rani” – nevertheless it is prefixed with “the”. If it is a title, the story fails the Test on all three criteria. And this was co-written by a woman.

The Two Doctors

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  1. Yes – Peri Brown, Chessene, Anita, Doña Arana
  2. Yes – Peri and Chessene talk briefly in part two
  3. Yes – they’re talking about the hacienda

Notes – a better hit rate than usual for Robert Holmes, but still not great for such a long story with four named female characters – one very brief scene of interaction. Peri and Anita are in several scenes together, but don’t talk directly to each other. At least for once the slavering alien sees more interested in eating Peri than sleeping with her – though the psychological implications of that probably don’t bear thinking about.

Timelash

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  1. Yes – Peri Brown, Aram, Katz, Vena
  2. Yes – Peri and Katz have a chat in part one, Vena and Katz have a conversation in part two
  3. Yes – Peri and Katz talk about where Peri is from, Vena and Katz talk about the future of Karfel

Notes – this one passes courtesy of two four-line exchanges. Aram, the other female character, is killed by the Borad in the opening minutes of part one. The Borad, being a hideously disfigured monster, is of course keen to make Peri his mate.

The story actually does a reasonable job of characterisation generally, but has a terrible plot. And it’s hard for any of the characters, male or female, to get noticed amidst the World of Ham unleashed by Colin Baker and Paul Darrow in the same story.

Revelation of the Daleks

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  1. Yes – Peri Brown, Kara, Natasha, Tasambeker
  2. No – Peri and Tasambeker are briefly in the same scene in part two, but don’t have a conversation
  3. No (see above)

Notes – an unusual failure for Eric Saward. Despite his usual success at having quite a few named female characters, only two of them actually meet and that’s just for a few seconds. On the plus side, they’re all very strongly written – even Tasambeker, who’s portrayed as pathetic and lovelorn, is a character with some depth.

The Mysterious Planet

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  1. Yes – Peri Brown, Katryca
  2. Yes – Peri and Katryca talk in part one
  3. Yes – about where Peri is from (as ever)

Notes – one brief chat gets this one a pass, but that’s not bad by Robert Holmes’ usual standards. The Inquisitor is an excellent female character but doesn’t fit rule 1 since ‘Inquisitor’ is a title rather than a name. Katryca’s not bad either, as an analogue to Queen Boadicea; though casting Joan Sims in the part might seem odd, she’s actually rather good.


 

Mindwarp

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  1. Yes – Peri Brown, Matrona Kani
  2. Yes – Peri and Matrona Kani have a chat in part two (part six overall)
  3. Yes – they talk about serving the Mentors

Notes – once again, gets through by dint of one very brief conversation. Matron Kani is an impressive character, but she’s still basically the female assistant to a male scientist. Sil’s back to slaver over Peri, and the last in a long line of aliens to lust after her is none other than Brian Blessed. We later find out that she just gave up at this point and went off to marry him. Which is a shame, as that’s not only a cop out but robs the proper end of this story of its excellent dramatic impact. Mind you, that’s yet again tricky for the Test – by then the body may be Peri’s but the brain is Kiv’s – and he’s male!

Terror of the Vervoids

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  1. Yes – Mel Bush, Professor Lasky, Janet, Ruth Baxter
  2. Yes – Janet and Lasky talk in part one (part nine overall), and again in part two (part ten overall). Lasky and Mel talk in part three (part eleven overall), Mel and Janet talk in part four (part twelve overall)
  3. Yes – Lasky and Mel are talking about the Vervoid seeds, while Lasky and Janet talk about luggage

Notes – The first appearance of Mel (who doesn’t do female stereotyping any favours), and while some previous female companions (Dodo, Liz) never got a proper departure, she never gets a proper introduction! Janet is ubiquitous throughout the story, and gets a fair bit of dialogue (including with the other female characters). However, virtually all of it is in relation to her job as ship’s steward, and she doesn’t get given any kind of personality in the script. Professor Lasky, by contrast, is a strong, domineering character, excellently played by Honor Blackman, and more than a match for any of the men on the Hyperion. Ruth is a lab assistant, and since she’s quickly infected by the Vervoid seeds, we don’t learn much about her.

The Ultimate Foe

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  1. No – Mel is the only named female character (see above for the Inquisitor)
  2. No (see above)
  3. No (see above)

Notes – this probably would have passed just fine if the Inquisitor had been given a name!


 

Sixth Doctor summary

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Total stories – 11 (counting Trial of a Time Lord as four separate stories)

  • Stories that pass all three Bechdel criteria – 9 / 81.8%
  • Stories that only pass two Bechdel criteria – 0 / 0%
  • Stories that only pass one Bechdel criteria – 1 / 9.1%
  • Stories that fail all three Bechdel criteria – 1 / 9.1%

Total named female guest characters – 22

Total female companions – 2:

  • Peri Brown
  • Mel Bush

Total female characters overall – 24

Average male to female character ratio – 3.25:1

Story with the largest number of female characters – Attack of the Cybermen (Peri plus 4 named guests)

Female companion assessment:

Peri1

Peri Brown: Thanks in large part to Nicola Bryant’s perseverance with some very slight scripts, Peri improved a great deal in Colin’s run from the plastic bikini-filler she’d been at the start. She was more than willing to stand up to the bombastic, often-frustrating Sixth Doctor, and developed an acid wit to combat his untrammelled egotism. By Revelation of the Daleks, she was even allowed to cover up her chest (to be fair, it was snowing). Her exit too was one of the most dramatic the show had ever done to this point; just a shame it had to be undermined by that terrible copout revealing the Valeyard had faked it.

Mel1

Mel Bush: Oh dear. To start with, let’s be clear that the thoroughly two-dimensional nature of Mel’s character was in no way the fault of Bonnie Langford, who had been (and continues to be) an actor as well as a light entertainer. The recent Big Finish plays involving Mel have shown how good she can be when given decent material. The problem was John Nathan-Turner’s frustration with being forced to stay on as producer when he clearly wanted to be more involved in light entertainment, his solution being to make Doctor Who itself light entertainment. So he cast Langford, best known as a light entertainer, and conceived of the character of Mel to be played in a light entertainment way. Still, at least she wasn’t objectified to the degree of Nicola Bryant. And she was supposed to be a super smart computer programmer, though we saw scant evidence of that.

Sexism rating for the Sixth Doctor

Actually pretty good – the rate of Bechdel Test failure for Colin’s run is only 18.8%, way less than even Davison’s best-so-far rating of 30%. Given the creative chaos surrounding the show at this point, that’s quite impressive. However, it is worth noting that it’s over a far shorter run, with far fewer stories, than ever before, meaning that even a slight improvement looks much bigger proportionally. Still, the show’s gender balance is definitely marching on at this point.

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%
  6. Colin Baker – 18.8%

Next week, it’s on to Sylvester McCoy. With Eric Saward having left the show in protest against the tyrannical JN-T’s desire to turn it into The Two Ronnies, can incoming, inexperienced script editor Andrew Cartmel turn it back into successful science fantasy and maintain the trend of inclusivity for women?

5 thoughts on “How sexist is Doctor Who?–Part Six”

  1. Can’t help but feel you’re being *incredibly* generous in your analysis here; this era is pretty horrible when it comes to the treatment of women. Peri is particularly ill-served and pretty much since her introduction is regularly victimised whether it be Sharaz Jek leering over her, or the Borad, or Shockeye, or Katrycca insisting on marry her off, or BRIAN BLESSED insisting on marrying her (regardless of her feelings on the matter which no one seems interested in) or indeed by the Doctor. Particularly in season 22, Peri’s relationship with the 6th Doctor resembles that of a victim of domestic abuse.

    Obviously we owe you thanks for this excellent blog but it does feel that your own personal prejudices are getting in the way – especially as you’re analysis of the likes of Rose and Martha are kind of damning in comparison.

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    1. Hi David – you’re right, any analysis beyond the purely objective Bechdel Test itself is bound to be filtered through one’s own personal prejudices (or interpretations, anyway). I did note the show’s repeated tendency at this stage for Peri to be a lust object for whatever male creature happened to glance at her, and it certainly doesn’t reflect well on the production team. I also made the point that marrying her off to BRIAN BLESSED was a copout compared to her original, far more dramatic exit. I did critique Rose and Martha later for their happy endings to be, effectively, getting married off – if I seem harsher on them, it’s because by 2005, under RTD, the show should really know better than to make marriage the default happy ending for any female.

      And yes, Peri does get victimised by the 6th Doctor, who starts his tenure by attempting to strangle her. But I actually think his cavalier treatment of her was the making of her character, as she developed a real strength in standing up to him, something she’d never needed with his more considerate predecessor. There is, of course, the ‘domestic abuse’ parallel that it’s often hard to fathom why she stays with someone so frequently insufferable; but on the flipside, she’s getting to see all of time and space. That’s probably worth a few arguments and insults, especially when she gets so good at flinging them right back at him 🙂

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      1. “it’s often hard to fathom why she stays with someone so frequently insufferable”

        If you look at the situation from Peri’s point of view, she meets up with the slim youthful Fifth Doctor only for him, in the space of 8 episodes, to turn into a badly dressed blob, going through a midlife crisis. Perhaps the reason Peri stuck around was because she thought he might change back. Isn’t that the basis of most marriages?

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