Why is writing a female character so difficult for Steven Moffat?
I tried to imagine what it would be like if someone I knew died then suddenly came back to life with a completely different appearance. In no particular order I might think … But I thought he was dead! He looks so different. Has anything else changed? Is he the same person? Could the inside changes be even bigger than the outside?
It’s the old appearance v reality conflict. And when all of reality — even the facts of life and death — seems to shift, the primary question becomes: what things can you trust?
I am pretty sure I would be shaken but I have some trouble believing the character Clara would be as alarmed. She has known ALL the doctors. Regeneration isn’t news. So, Moffat must be using her uncertainty as a device. He must have made an assumption that the fans are shallow and ageist and might reject Capaldi out of hand. So, he uses Clara’s conflict as a device to help us accept the new face of The Doctor. He should have had more faith in Peter Capaldi’s charm and the audience’s willingness to play along.
It is possible of course that Clara was confused. Clara has always been an impossible character. Which Clara is this Clara? Maybe this Clara isn’t aware of her other incarnations and regeneration really is news. If so, wouldn’t any person need some time to process the shift? But Moffat is too impatient for this. He wants Clara (and presumably the audience) to immediately and completely commit to the unknown. I guess doubts and consent are less important than the pace of an adventure. Oh, but what a great opportunity for story! Rather than use her confusion as a device, he could have used it as a point to develop not only her character but the character of The Doctor. How could The Doctor make a friend/ally? He could use his charm, share some experiences, show his commitment to her well-being …
What he does is take some disrespectful short cuts — like try to persuade the potential friend to set aside her doubts. He uses guilt. (Does The Doctor really need a nanny? He’s not that old.) He demeans their prior relationship. Was The 11th Doctor ever Clara’s ‘boyfriend?’ I thought they were friends .. and not in a bad way but more as collaborators. And his use of the word ‘boy?’ Does that mean he is now some kind of silver-backed alpha male? o.O What does he have to offer her? Is this going to be a one-sided relationship? If the latest Doctor really wants to go back to correct his errors he is off to a bad start.
When I watched the previews I started to expect the worst when Moffat described his interest in changing the direction of Clara’s character. He seemed bothered with the idea that a companion might have her own life compartmentalized away from The Doctor where he was basically just visited on the weekends. Moffat even described Clara as having The Doctor “on a leash.” Well, what sane person wouldn’t? Clara was wise to put some limits on a relationship with an ancient alien being. The Doctor is a dangerous creature. How many of his previous companions were left unscathed? We know of several companions terribly damaged by the experience. He was capable of abandoning his own granddaughter. Only a fool would give this character her complete trust. Unless …
A Kinder, Gentler Way: The 7th Doctor and Ace
Maybe my dim view of this new relationship was influenced a bit by watching a mini-marathon of 7th Doctor adventures while waiting for the new show.
People love to mock the writing of the 7th Doctor’s series. It was the last series before the reboot and by that time the BBC wasn’t all that interested in putting a lot of resources into the show. And really, some of the costumes, sets and monsters are hilariously all wrong. But as I watched these episodes I came to realize that the writers had gotten something really right: they created characters with substance. I genuinely liked this Doctor and his companion, Ace.
I think those writers understood the importance of foil characters. A foil in jewellery making is a shiny bit of thin metal placed under a gem to make the gem appear just a bit more glittery. If the backing is made of something dull like cardboard the magic disappears. It works the same way with foil characters in stories. A foil uses brilliant differences in characters to sharpen our focus, create some depth and help us find some meaning. The foil is an idea as old as drama itself. Hamlet famously says he will be Laerte’s foil. Sometimes the characters are completely different; sometimes the difference is a minor yet crucial detail.
The 7th Doctor’s companion is Ace: a 20th Century teenager. She is absolutely brilliant and a little bit feral. She has a back story and some significant personal pain. She is alone in the universe: caught in a time storm on another world in another time. Other than the age difference we could be describing The Doctor.
Somehow The Doctor and Ace find each other. He becomes Ace’s mentor. She playfully calls him Professor instead of Doctor. I think she does that because she knows there is nothing wrong with her; she doesn’t need to be fixed — she just needs some instruction to develop. As they travel together he gives her space to interact with other characters unsupervised, lets her make mistakes and allows her to draw her own conclusions about her experiences. He gives her his complete trust and respect. Not too surprisingly she lives up to his high expectations. Her first impulse always seems to be to show compassion for the people and aliens they meet. At the same time she isn’t marshmallow soft. She continues to make Nitro-9 explosives (her invention) and use them when necessary for survival. On one adventure she bravely takes out a Dalek with a baseball bat! Perhaps most importantly, over the course of their adventures she takes the opportunities provided to work through her old traumas to become ever more confident and mature.
Though he trusts and respects her, The Doctor never forgets that Ace is a child. He makes sure she has all the things she needs, including frills like access to music and the arts. And he is always available for emotional support. On one occasion she tells The Doctor that she is afraid, really afraid. His response is perfect. He actually stops moving. That alone is a statement because Sylvester McCoy always seems to be moving! He stops everything and looks gently into her eyes because he has heard and understood. Without hesitation he says she can go to the Tardis and stay there — that she will ALWAYS be safe inside the Tardis. The action would never be more important than his companion’s well-being.
These meaningful bits of characterization were partially due to Sylvester McCoy’s brilliance and influence. When he signed on he stated explicitly that he didn’t want a ‘screaming’ companion. He wanted to make the stories meaningful. The happy result: he brought compassion and empathy to the role. This little story that follows shows a glint of the the actor’s character:
I was at a signing in a big store a couple of Christmases ago, and there was a group of children all coming up to chat to me and get autographs. Suddenly, one little girl, I looked at her, and she was terrified. Something behind me had frightened her. She was shaking. Real, utter terror. I looked round, and it was a Dalek!
I stood up and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m the Doctor, you’re safe with me.’ I didn’t do it for comedic effect. I did it for that little girl. I think it was the best piece of acting I’ve ever done. I wanted to save that little girl from her terror.
Creating an interesting female character might start with reviewing what went right with Ace and Sylvester McCoy’s insight to steer away from the screaming companion. Women and girls are persons. Feelings matter. Companions don’t need to be rescued as much as they need mentors, friends or allies. In return, the Doctor’s mythic gravitas is magnified through his respectful interactions with various companions. Connections are where meaningful stories are found. After all, there are a limited number of plots but characters? They go on forever.