Posted in Geek, personal
September 12, 2012

Doctor Who: Steven Moffat & Female Characters

Recently I mentioned that some people were upset with how the women of Doctor Who were being written, and placing the blame on Steven Moffat. Some went so far as to compare them against Sherlock’s Irene Adler.

I don’t agree with them, and for very specific reasons. I apologize for anyone who isn’t up to date on either Sherlock or Doctor Who- but in order to make my point, I’m going to reference it all.

The criticism seems to revolve around two main points. One that Amy hasn’t changed in the course of the series. Two, that River has changed since she was first introduced to us, and is now erratically written. One iteration of the last is that River has become more and more like Amy.


Amy as introduced to us is an immature character, and even now, all these adventures later, she still is. For all she’s experienced and learned (just look how easily she stepped into a Doctor-like role in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship), she is still The Girl Who Waited. Some might say this is lazy writing, but I think that this is merely a reflection of how much influence the Doctor has had on her life.

Let’s look at Amy now. In Amy’s original storyline (pre-Pandorica), he appeared to her as a child and then vanished. He became an imaginary friend. Somewhere in Amy’s mind, she still knew she needed the Doctor. She sort of moved on with her life, but the moment he popped back up- so did The Girl Who Waited. It didn’t make things any better that thanks to the events of The Big Bang, the Doctor actually played an even bigger role in little Amelia Pond’s childhood.

In The Impossible Astronaut River tells Rory about her relationship with The Doctor, about how he appeared to her as a child, knew just who she was and filled her world with excitement. While it’s true about River, it’s just as true about Amy. The Doctor even admits during Let’s Kill Hitler that he screwed up Amy’s life, and likely not just because her child was stolen.

Think of it this way. Amy had decades of wanting and waiting for The Doctor (even if she wasn’t aware of it). A few years of traveling with him isn’t enough to undo all of that. For all his attempts to remind her that he’s just a madman with a box, she still waits for him. To the point that she can’t even start up a normal life as much as she’s tried.

While some see it as Amy not changing, I see it as the damage that he’s caused by being in her life for so long.


So far as River is concerned, people are approaching River from the order that the episodes aired, and not necessarily linearly for River’s timeline. When we first met her in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, she is a little flirty and self assured. But we’re also seeing her at the end of her timeline. She is a woman. Every time we see her, River gets younger. Sometimes by only a little bit. Sometimes a lot. It’s easy to look at Alex Kingston and think that River should be mature, since we know she’s older than the rest of the cast. But in Let’s Kill Hitler Melody/River isn’t very old, nor is she very mature. She’s a psycopath excitedly waiting for her mission. And it doesn’t really seem as though her personality changes much with her regeneration, either.

Of course she’s going to become less mature. So far we’ve just seen her become younger!

So far as the criticism that River is becoming more like Amy, that’s certainly a conscious choice. She’s her daughter! As Melody, she grew up alongside Amy & Rory. She knew it was the only chance to get to know them, I’m sure she’s more like them than most children are. She’s as stubborn as Amy, has the same quick banter and sexual forwardness (though I believe River’s has less to do with Amy and more to do with making her the perfect weapon to kill the Doctor). However, River is also a thoughtful badass, capable of expressing feelings- not unlike her father.

Yes, they’re similar. It’s the simplest way to remind us that despite the difference in timestreams, they’re still related. Though interestingly, most of the callbacks with dialogue and actions (River doing something her parents have said/done) have been with Rory. Rory punched the Doctor, River did, too. Rory gave his dad a shot saying it wouldn’t hurt, and admitting he lied- River said the exact same thing to Amy.


There have been some people trying to compare the Doctor Who characters to Irene Adler. Which is beyond silly. While there are some similarities- you have to acknowledge that there are similarities between the Doctor, too. It doesn’t mean that Steven Moffat can only one type of man.

Let’s look at who Irene Adler is in the source. She’s an extremely clever singer/actress (at a time when that was usually code for courtesan) who had a picture of herself with the king of Bohemia which Holmes was tasked with retrieving. Holmes realized where the picture was kept, but she knew he was onto her and left in its place a letter explaining all and giving her assurances that she wouldn’t compromise the king so long as he did not bother her or her husband in the future.

Trying to modernize it, they made Adler a dominatrix to the wealthy- and in this case, a member of the royal family. Holmes was tasked with retrieving the pictures, and so on and so forth.

In the source, she was described as being extremely beautiful and as smart as any man. Holmes referred to her as The Woman, with respect for her cunning. So obviously in the TV series, she would have to be something special, personality wise. He’s a quick witted, fast talking genius- she would have to be something similar.

She would be a lousy dominatrix if she didn’t have a commanding sexual presence. And certainly, she attempted to use her sexuality to first gauge who Sherlock was, and later again to manipulate him.

In my mind, Irene Adler is exactly who she needed to be to be modernized. The only change was Irene became more of a romantic interest (though not really a new idea- see the Sherlock Holmes movies or most fanfics) in order to show that Sherlock isn’t infallible.

Does Moffat have a woman problem?

If you look at the women who pop up in Moffat’s Who, they’re all very different. Going back to the beginning, you have Liz 10, the Queen of England. Strong, a little kick ass, and extremely capable. Look at the women of The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. They’re all very real. Ambrose is a dutiful mother, concerned with the fate of her son over all else. Nasreen is focused on her career, smart, and secretly in love with the man she works with. And the Silurians… well, they’re Silurians. There isn’t a ton of variety amongst them, though Madame Vastra clearly doesn’t despise all Homo sapiens. Sophie from The Lodger is also a normal woman. Full of heart, not entirely able to articulate her feelings. But certainly not overly sexual. Abigail from A Christmas Carol? She’s a living Christmas angel in the story.

And the rest of the women from his run of Who? Cleeves and Jennifer from the ones with the Flesh, the mother from Night Terrors, the Madame Kovarian, Jenny and Madame Vastra, Lorna Bucket, Rita (from the God Complex), Madge (the Widow of The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe). Lorna is a bit like Amy, having met the Doctor as a child and is driven to try to see him again- but that’s intentional. The whole purpose of A Good Man Goes to War was to remind us of the effects the Doctor has beyond the good. (I’m not including Idris/the TARDIS because Neil Gaiman wrote her- and she’s someone who’s used to existing everywhere all at once) All of them strong in different ways.

In going through all the female characters, I could only find two that were close to the concerns raised about Amy and River. Oswin, who had a quick banter and was flirty. But if you remember her advice to Amy about Daleks and emotions- she’s likely amplified anything that’s human to keep the Dalek at bay. Then there was Nefertiti, who was a mix of Amy or River and Liz 10. But she was a queen who apparently hadn’t been getting any for awhile. I don’t blame her.

But those were two characters (admittedly back to back in the same season) out of all of Moffat’s run. To me it feels like this is less of an actual issue, but more of a perception. If you dislike Amy and her lack of growth, you’re more likely to notice anything that reminds them of Amy- and having had two episodes back to back with those reminders, it seems like a bigger issue than it really is.

Now to those who complain that Doctor Who is getting a little more adult? I do think you have a case there. Not to mention being annoyed at the way The Doctor treats Amy. There’s some spectacular merit to that… I just don’t think his problem is in writing these two women.

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