So, the more I thought about this post (S4 SPOILERS!), the more I thought we needed to take a good look at the companions and their endings so far.
Spoilers for basically everything of importance seasons 1 through 4, after the cut.
I have now seen everything there is so see of the new Doctor Who, and with three companions’ stories closed, I’m starting to see a trend.
The more self-sufficient and powerful a companion is, the worse her story ends.
We’ll start with Rose. Initially, I loved Rose. I totally had the hugest crush on Ten (I watched S2 before S1) and empathizing with Rose meant empathizing with hot Doctor kisses. She was interesting and funny and important and I wept bitterly when, at the end of season 2, she was trapped in her parallel universe. I’m talking about run-upstairs-and-sob-into-my-pillow crying, by the way, not just the handful of tears that most sentimental moments can wring out of me.
But then we met Martha. Initially I didn’t care for Martha, because she Was Not Rose, but the more I saw of her the more I loved her. She sacrificed a lot more than Rose did, which is an easy way to win sympathy from me. She had, you know, a skill, what with the med school and all, and she did a lot more critical thinking than Rose seemed to. Instead of totally lapping up the romantic subplot, it annoyed me, because I thought she could do so much better. But man, the Year That Wasn’t, walking all over the world like that– kick-ass! It would’ve made up for the endless mooning after the Doctor, Strong Female Character-wise, if only the whole thing hadn’t been about him in the end. I was sad to see Martha go, and parts of her exit made me tear up a bit, but no helpless sobbing this time around.
Donna, again, started out really annoying me– after all, she Was Not Martha! And she seemed totally useless, just an over-chatty uninteresting temp. But she didn’t moon after the Doctor, and the more she traveled with him the more she (and I) learned that she completely kicks ass. She was more mature than either Rose or Martha, in so many ways, and she did such amazing things, I completely adored her. And, you know, the DoctorDonna! It was just amazing to see how far she came from being “just a temp.” It was an exhilirating ride, watching her discover her own strength, and to have it culminate in being the most important woman in all the universes– it was glorious.
And then, of course, it ended. And Rose got her shiny new personal “Doctor” (now with 200% more sex drive!), and Martha went back to her closer-than-ever-before family and her fiance, and Donna… Donna had all her power, and all her memory of her own power, stripped away, and she was left, forgotten, never to know how amazing she could be.
Are we noticing some trends?
- Decreasing romance over time.
This one’s a GOOD one, folks; the romantic subplots just aren’t quite what Doctor Who is about, and all the lusting made Rose and Martha less independent and less interesting. I prefer the paternal model of old Who, or the friendly model of Ten and Donna.
- Increasing kick-assery over time.
These women just get more and more awesome the longer we watch them, especially in the finales. Rose absorbs the Tardis, defeats the Daleks, and saves Earth. Then Rose opens up a hole to a parallel world, defeats the Daleks and the Cybermen, and saves Earth again. Then Martha spends an entire year traversing the planet, undoes a ghastly paradox, and saves the universe. Then Donna becomes a Time Lord, disables a reality bomb, and saves all possible universes.
- Decreasing happiness of endings.
We have to wait a little bit to get to Rose’s “real” ending but is it ever a good one! She gets to live in a parallel universe where her dad is still alive, and she gets to have her very own half-human Doctor who is super-hot and super-smart like the “real” Doctor, but is also totally willing to have sex with her! Nice!
Martha’s ending is a little more bittersweet, what with her family (and only her family) remembering an entire year of horrific hardships. But her parents are back together and getting along, which never would’ve happened otherwise, and she had some awesome experiences with the Doc, her career is going well, and she’s engaged to a lovely human boy. No personal David Tennant love-slave, but you know, she’s doing pretty well by herself!
And then there’s Donna. Wow, Donna. Could anything suck MORE than losing two years of your life, plus losing all memories of your own awesomeness (and any hope of ever discovering that awesomeness again)? Donna is going to be “just a temp” for the rest of her life, never believing she could ever do anything worthwhile, and only her Dad and the Doctor will ever know any different.
This is not a good trend. Especially because I have a terrible suspicion that it’s tied to another trend…
- Increasing independence over time.
This is similar to, but not the same as, the increased kick-assery. As time goes on and our companions grow, they rely less and less on the Doctor for their moments of brilliance. Rose uses the power of the Tardis all by herself in the S1 finale, but the show doesn’t end with her being amazing, it ends with the Doctor dying to save her. (She needed quite a lot of saving, actually.) In S2, she doesn’t even open the breach herself– it’s actually against the Doctor’s instructions that she stays. And again, the action sequence ends with her being saved from her own weakness. In s3, things start to pick up, what with the whole walking-the-entire-planet thing that Martha does, but it’s still the Doctor who does the saving. Martha puts a lot more into it, and doesn’t need a dramatic rescue at the end, but it’s not really about her. But Donna… Donna is the most important woman in all the universes that ever existed. She saves reality itself while the Doctor is still tied up, and she saves the Doctor in the bargain. And yes, it’s largely because she’s become the DoctorDonna, so it’s not all her– but she becomes the DoctorDonna on her own, and it’s still Catherine Tate babbling triumphantly as everything is saved.
It’s also noticeable in the individual episodes, I think. The number one rule of being a good companion (as the characters say sometimes) is to never wander off alone. This rule is not followed. Ever. (And I don’t really think it should be– things are more interesting when they split up!) But while Rose’s disobedient wanderings generally required exciting rescues (I’m thinking of The End of the World and Father’s Day… man, especially Father’s Day), the Doctor really only had to go chasing after Martha if she’d been kidnapped (like in Gridlock) and usually Martha did fine on her own (The Doctor’s Daughter), and Donna basically got used to going off by herself any time she pleased, and finding something useful to do anyway (The Fires of Pompeii, The Unicorn and the Wasp). Plus, of course, Donna is the only one to have an episode all to herself (Turn Left).
And this is where I stop summarizing and start criticizing. I would posit that the differences in the companions’ endings come from the changes in romance, kick-assery, and especially independence. Which is to say, the stronger and more independent a female character is, the more likely it is that things are going to end poorly for her, especially if she doesn’t have the excuse that she’s doing in all for looove.
It’s the same principle that causes most lesbian characters to die or go insane– simply by being an out, cheerful lesbian a character crosses a line, pushes the boundaries, and something demands that there be a push back. I think it’s part of internalized homophobia and sexism. A happy lesbian who ends her story as a happy lesbian challenges the patriarchy’s notions of what women are for, and that kind of threat can’t be allowed to stand. It’s not a conscious thing, it’s just that we, collectively, can’t quite imagine a gay woman who’s just a gay woman, no problem with that. So the text, without fail, will condemn the character, place it resolutely outside the norm, via death or insanity.
I think it’s very much the same for Strong Female Characters. Even in real life, women can’t quite manage being unabashedly powerful. They must undermine their own power somehow in order to avoid coming across as “bitchy.” My mother wears pink dresses and pearls so people don’t notice when she always insists upon being heard in her office, but some women keep their style neutral but make their attitude submissive, phrasing everything as suggestions so other people believe they thought of it first, never taking credit. It’s a balancing act demanded of real women with power, and our fictional women with power have to walk the same tightrope. The difference is that if a fictional woman comes across too strong in one area, she’s not likely to get away with using pretty clothes to balance it out– she’s likely to get smacked with some kind of meta-punishment.
Martha uses the Doctor’s screwdriver to save everyone in The Lazarus Experiment? She gets to spend months as a servant in the 1900s. Donna saves all of reality? All her power is taken from her. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
Am I being too harsh on the show? Almost certainly, yes. Doctor Who remains a show that consistently puts the spotlight on the female characters, and even though the titular lead is male, all our story arcs center around these women and their personal growth. The Doctor is considered to be unchanging and therefore, well, not uninteresting, but certainly less interesting; no matter what happens, he’s “always fine.” And with Steven Moffat coming into the role as the main writer, I expect things to only get better.
Because even though I do believe these trends are caused our unfortunate cultural narratives about women and power, I believe they’re also caused by the fact that Russel T. Davies is a pretty terrible writer. Plus, it takes time for the show to figure out what it wants to be about. I am still hugely and unforgivingly upset over Donna’s ending, but I am also hugely and unfailingly a fan of Doctor Who, and I’m looking forward to what else it will bring me. And who knows, maybe Steven Moffat will bring Donna back to give her a better ending, the way Davies did for Rose. She certainly deserves it.