The Sylvester McCoy years
Welcome to Part Seven 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:
A quick reminder of the Test:
- It has to have two named female characters
- Who talk to each other
- About something besides a man.
Last week, we saw that despite the production chaos around him, Colin Baker’s run was the least sexist of any Doctor so far, only failing the Test 18.8% of the time – the most sexist era so far being Jon Pertwee’s which failed the Test 54.2% of the time. With John Nathan-Turner still producing, and shifting the show ever closer to light entertainment courtesy of some dubious stunt casting, callow newcomer Andrew Cartmel comes in at this point to shepherd in a new Doctor. With his own light entertainment background, Sylvester McCoy might have seemed an odd choice, but was soon to prove otherwise. But how well would this new era treat women? Let’s find out…
Time and the Rani
- Yes – Mel Bush, the Rani, Faroon, Sarn
- Yes – Sarn and the Rani in part one, Faroon and Mel, and the Rani and Mel, in part three
- Yes – Faroon and Mel talk about the Rani
Notes – Several female characters, but only three conversations. And only one of them isn’t about a man; Sarn talks to the Rani about the (male) experimental subject, and Mel talks to the Rani about the Doctor. As before, there’s the doubt as to whether ‘Rani’ counts as a name – though this one would still pass if it doesn’t. It’s a pretty awful story in all sorts of ways, and easily the worst introduction of a new Doctor ever. At least the unintentional comic highlight is provided by a woman – Kate O’Mara’s disturbingly accurate impression of Bonnie Langford is unexpectedly hilarious.
- Yes – Mel Bush, Bin Liner, Fire Escape, Tabby, Tilda, Maddy
- Yes – numerous conversations in various combinations throughout all four episodes
- Yes – topics include the Kangs, the cleaning robots, the war
Notes – Given the story’s premise – most of the building’s male population went off to fight the war, leaving the women behind – it’s not surprising that this one passes with flying colours. There are very few male characters in it, and of them only Pex and Kroagnon get names. It’s debatable whether ‘Bin Liner’ and ‘Fire Escape’ count as names, rather than nicknames, but the story would still pass the Test excluding them. Given that the majority of characters are female, it’s actually portrayed as something of an irony that it’s a man (Pex) who ultimately saves the day.
Delta and the Bannermen
- Yes – Mel Bush, Delta, Ray
- Yes – Mel and Delta talk a couple of times in part one
- Yes – they talk about dinner, and the (female) baby
Notes – a reasonable number of named female characters, but only two very brief conversations between them in all three episodes. Delta is very much the damsel in distress, but the tomboyish Ray is a much more forward-thinking character, especially given the story’s 1959 setting. No wonder it was a toss up between her and Ace as the next companion.
- Yes – Mel Bush, Ace, Belazs, McLuhan, Stellar
- Yes – Mel and Ace have a lengthy conversation in part one, and many shorter conversations throughout
- Yes – they talk about Perivale and Nitro-9, among other things
Notes – With outgoing and incoming female main characters in the same story, it’s hardly surprising that both get enough dialogue for this one to pass easily. However, there’s the question of whether Ace counts as a named character, it being a nickname. I’m going with the opinion that it counts. Belazs is an excellent female character, her dark history compellingly portrayed by the magnificent Patricia Quinn; McLuhan has rather less depth, but works well as the increasingly de rigeur tough female soldier in the sequence that’s an obvious tribute to Aliens. And Mel’s departure scene gives her more character depth in three minutes than she’s had in two years. Not a bad showing from new writer Ian Briggs, and Andrew Cartmel’s plainly getting more of a handle on the show’s creative direction at this point.
Remembrance of the Daleks
- Yes – Ace, Professor Rachel Jensen, Alison Williams, Mrs Smith
- Yes – Rachel and Alison in parts one and four, Ace, Rachel and Alison in part two and three, Ace and Mrs Smith in part two
- Yes – they mainly talk about Daleks and science, and sometimes the military
Notes – A very assured start to the season, Ben Aaronovitch’s first script for the show passes the Test with flying colours, and balances the genders perhaps better than any story up to this point. Rachel and Alison are fully formed, well-drawn characters who have a great deal of agency in the story. Mrs Smith is a bit of a cypher, but then she’s less essential to the story. A high point for the era in various ways.
The Happiness Patrol
- Yes – Ace, Helen A, Daisy K, Priscilla P, Susan Q, Daphne S
- Yes – numerous conversations in various combinations throughout all three episodes
- Yes – topics include the Happiness Patrol, Helen A, offworlders in general and others
Notes – another well-balanced story, probably tipping the balance more towards female characters than male ones in terms of numbers. Daphne S (the woman killed in the opening sequence) is not named in the dialogue, but named on a poster seen later. With Helen A a very transparent analogue for Margaret Thatcher, she’s not surprisingly a very strong character. There are a few male characters on Terra Alpha, but none of them have much strength. We only see one male member of the Happiness Patrol, there are a few execution victims, and there’s Gilbert M and Joseph C, who do a runner in Helen A’s ship. Only Earl Sigma has much of a backbone, and he’s an offworlder. That leaves the women pretty much running the plot.
- Yes – Ace, Lady Peinforte, Mrs Remington
- Yes – Ace and Lady Peinforte, and Mrs Remington and Lady Peinforte, both in part three
- Yes – Mrs Remington and Lady Peinforte talk about their families, and the latter’s plans for universal domination
Notes – much less successful than the previous two, this one only passes on the basis of the conversation between Mrs Remington and Lady Peinforte, which is utterly extraneous to the story proper. When Ace talks to Lady Peinforte, they only discuss the Doctor. Having said that, Lady Peinforte at least is one of the primary villains, and obviously a woman with more independence than was usual in 1638.
The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
- Yes – Ace, Mags, Morgana, Flowerchild
- No – at no point do any of the named female characters have a conversation
- No (see above)
Notes – a surprising failure, given the number of female characters in it. They’re all well-drawn, but don’t interact at all. The only female characters who do interact with each other are the mother and daughter forms of the Gods of Ragnarok, not named characters. Given that Stephen Wyatt’s precious script (Paradise Towers) did so well at representing women, a shame that this one can’t do better. Peggy Mount has a superb cameo as the local stallholder, but her character doesn’t get a name.
- Yes – Ace, Brigadier Winifred Bambera, Morgaine, Shou Yuing, Doris Lethbridge-Stewart, Elizabeth Rowlinson, Flt Lt Lavel
- Yes – various combinations throughout all four episodes
- Yes – for example, Ace and Shou Yuing talk about explosives and Excalibur, Morgaine and Bambera talk about nuclear missiles
Notes – Ben Aaronovitch’s second script also passes with flying colours, with a more or less equal mix of genders. All the characters – female and male – are well-drawn and contribute to the plot. It’s notable that the female characters also have a fair degree of ethnic diversity. After the tokenism of Corporal Bell in the Pertwee years, it’s great to see a real professional female soldier in UNIT – and in command too! Brigadier Bambera is such a memorable character, it’s a real shame that she didn’t come back at least once (though she did pop up in a couple of the books). Morgaine is very much drawn from the Arthur legends, perhaps showing that medieval literature did pretty well at representing women by comparison.
- Yes – Ace, Mrs Pritchard, Gwendoline Pritchard, Control, Mrs Grose
- Yes – various combinations in all three episodes
- Yes – topics include evening wear, evolution, social customs, breakfast
Notes – another easy pass, with a nearly even mix of female and male characters. It’s debatable whether ‘Control’ counts as a name or a title, but the story still easily passes if she doesn’t count. There’s depth to all the female characters, except perhaps Mrs Grose, who’s the standard horror story ‘rhubarbing local’. You could argue that Gwendoline and Mrs Pritchard are, for most of the story, acting under Josiah’s hypnotic control; but most of the male characters are in some way mad, which rather balances that out.
The Curse of Fenric
- Yes – Ace, Miss Hardaker, Kathleen Dudman, Nurse Crane, Jean, Phyllis
- Yes – various combinations throughout
- Yes – topics include swimming, London, the baby (Ace’s mother), vampires
Notes – another good spread of well-drawn female characters, and they interact far more frequently than those in Ian Briggs’ previous story, Dragonfire. Kathleen is a well-drawn portrayal of a wartime Wren, while Jean and Phyllis are believable (if a little old) as evacuees. Both Miss Hardaker and Nurse Crane are given far more depth in Briggs’ novel of the story, but even here the performances hint at depths and motivations beyond what we can see.
- Yes – Ace, Shreela Govindia, Ange, Karra, Squeak
- Yes – various combinations throughout
- Yes – topics include the whereabouts of Ace’s friends, the Cheetah People, cats, hunting
Notes – the third female writer in Who’s long history, Rona Munro brings a good mix of female characters, one of whom isn’t even human. Ace has a gaggle of friends from Perivale, and it’s the female ones who are clever and resourceful – the men are pretty hopeless. Plus, as has been mentioned before, there’s a pretty clear lesbian subtext to Ace’s relationship with Karra. A real shame the show had to end here, but at least it was a high note for gender balance.
Seventh Doctor summary
Total stories – 12
- Stories that pass all three Bechdel criteria – 11 / 91.6%
- Stories that only pass two Bechdel criteria – 0 / 0%
- Stories that only pass one Bechdel criteria – 1 / 8.4%
- Stories that fail all three Bechdel criteria – 0 / 0%
Total named female guest characters – 45
Total female companions – 2:
- Mel Bush
Total female characters overall – 47
Average ratio of male to female characters – 1.7:1
Story with the largest number of female characters – Battlefield (Ace plus 6 named guests)
Female companion assessment:
Mel Bush: Mostly covered in the Sixth Doctor summary. Mel doesn’t really get any better in Sylvester’s initial season, though she does get a cracking leaving scene in Dragonfire. It’s just a shame that it’s so peremptory and puzzling in terms of motivation. Why would she suddenly want to go off touring the galaxy with Glitz, after no hint that she wanted to leave? Still, nothing about her character ever made much sense, and it’s sort of fitting that her departure is as perfunctorily handled as everything else about her. If you think Steven Moffat’s guilty of creating paper-thin female characters who exist solely to serve the plot rather than as people in their own right, you might want to compare them to Mel.
Ace: Now that’s much better. Yes, in hindsight Ace wasn’t the most convincing portrait of an average working class teenager, and Sophie Aldred does the best she can with dialogue that no real teenager would ever have said. But she’s got real depth, she develops as a character, and crucially she’s central to the overall narrative of her last season. Granted, the Doctor does seem to be psychologically torturing her for her own good, which is morally rather dubious; but you can’t deny that the last three stories of the classic run are, basically, all about Ace. With a new level of depth and a narrative focus on her that often eclipses the Doctor, Ace seems very much to have been the template for the female companions in Russell T Davies’ 2005 revival.
Sexism rating for the Seventh Doctor
Very good indeed. Given that it’s still JN-T in charge, we can safely thank Andrew Cartmel for the giant leap the show made in gender balance at this point. Only 8.3% of his stories fail the Test, making this era the least sexist in those terms by a very long chalk (even including the 2005-present era). As with Colin, there is the caveat that Sylvester has so few stories that any difference can seem more significant than it might in, for example, Tom’s seven year run. Still, even with that in mind, this also really narrows the gap in diversity, with less than 2 male characters to every female, a huge leap forward.
Rankings of Bechdel failures by Doctor (so far):
- Jon Pertwee – 54.2%
- Tom Baker – 43.9%
- Patrick Troughton – 33.3%
- William Hartnell – 31 %
- Peter Davison – 30%
- Colin Baker – 18.8%
- Sylvester McCoy – 8.3%
But we’re not finished. Rather than making one very short blog post, there’s a quick addendum to this one:
Addendum – the Paul McGann minutes
The TV Movie
- Yes – Dr Grace Holloway, Miranda, Wheeler, Curtis
- Yes – Curtis and Wheeler talk in the hospital; Grace and Wheeler talk after the Doctor’s ‘death’
- No – they all talk about the Doctor
Notes – The much-anticipated American revival of the show got a lot wrong, and gender balance was one of its faults. Seven years on from McCoy and Cartmel, and a definite step backwards in Bechdel terms. Apart from Grace, the other three named characters are barely in it, and the only interaction between any of them is discussing the Doctor. On the plus side, Grace is a highly regarded heart surgeon and clearly a very capable woman; but she doesn’t do much to drive or resolve the plot. This is also the origin of the Doctor being shown as romantically available, though his one kiss with Grace doesn’t really signify much – or advance the representation of women in the show.
This is why the caveat about having comparatively few stories is always worth bearing in mind. In Bechdel terms, the fact that his single story fails the Test makes the Eighth Doctor’s era 100% sexist, which is clearly unfair. The one female character actually given any depth is pretty good as a role model, and the ratio of male to female characters is 2:1, not bad by classic show standards. The Night of the Doctor webisode and the Big Finish plays do very much redress the balance, but I’m only covering the show proper here.
Next time – I’m treading on territory already covered by Rebecca Moore’s original study which inspired this series of posts, as I start on post-2005 ‘Nu-Who‘. But I’m going to apply my own judgement to it, to see if I agree with her conclusion that Steven Moffat is quantifiably more sexist than Russell T Davies – and if so, why.
In order to get through all the Doctors before the series returns on 23 August, I’m also going to ramp up the frequency a bit. So you can expect the first post, covering Christopher Eccleston, this Thursday!