If I were egomaniacal, I would think at least some of the Christmas Special was a nod to the more critical things I have said about Dr. Who this past season, from several posts, and a certain comment I made about pissing off a feminist . . . And if I were that egomaniacal, my response would be: LOL. I get it. And it was funny. Well done.
Since I am not egomaniacal . . . pause, blink, pause . . . I can only say that there were some problematic constructions of “feminism,” and companion/ship in this episode but overall it was really well done.
First and foremost, Dr. Who’s most recent Christmas Special was a great send up to all the speculation about who would replace Tennant. It showed all of the skeptics out there that in fact the shoes can be filled by other actors as it has in the past. For me personally, it also showed that the people in charge down in Whoville, know how to pick a replacement well despite rumors to the contrary. I feel much better, tho I still say no to the rumored replacement, who is a kid who appears to be largely unfamiliar with the Dr. Who series. (The disparity between these choices speaks volumes about how willing BBC may be to sell out the core audience for the tweenies. Don’t make me start saying “Shame” again.)
This episode is also extremely well written. The sub (?) -plot of the show is intriguing from beginning to end and and it is so intricately woven into the plot that it is nearly impossible to write about this episode without giving key things away. I’m dying to tell you the truth about the “new” doctor but that would just wreck it. So I won’t. If you are smart you will figure it out.
As to the cybermen . . . I’ve never really been frightened by them, even back when the cybermen were “cutting edge” technology on the show. They move too slow. They look too cartoonie. I’m not scared and more than that I’m not sure the issues of conformity they represent still ring true in the current period of “Change” and conflict. Maybe they do in Britain, it’s been too long since my last trip back to know. (I am much more frightened by the Weeping Angels and the Daleks & that bug thing from last season that glommed on to Donna’s back . . . ewww . . .) It did occur to me however that the Cybermen have twice figured prominently in questions of female power, humanity, and compassion in the franchise: once on Torchwood and now on Dr. Who.
The main plot centers on the coalition between the CyberMEN and a pseudo-feminist human aid to their cause. The latter, Miss Hartigan, is an oft-ignored woman who works in the Charity House so many of the city’s most prominent male members frequent. Class and gender combine to render this woman invisible to the town’s powerful men. Being ignored, helps her see clearly that their charity is neither generous nor aimed at social justice and equality. Yet her response to this feminist awakening is neither productive from a social justice standpoint nor ultimately freeing. Worse, her choices are steeped in her own internalization of oppression and use of the master’s tools. Thus in an ironic move, Hartigan turns to [cyber]men to teach [human] men a lesson about gendered oppression and to ultimately dominate the world. In the process she agrees to the continued oppression of children and the working class, and leaves herself open to oppression as well. Meaning, all of the groups she meant to save, or at least played into her development of a “feminist” consciousness, remain under the thumb of [cyber]men. The second wave feminist morality tale in this episode is actually in what the Cybermen do to Miss Hartigan rather than what the Doctor ultimately does to them all. There is irony in the Cybermen’s choice that moves beyond the false feminism of “men suck” that permeates Miss Hartigan’s motivation throughout the episode. Moreover, what happens to Hartigan until those final scenes moves us away from the equally false misogyny of saying women in power are just men with different parts. If we think about both Lisa and Hartigan’s encounters with the Cybermen, there is a very clear and yet subtle subtext about the strength of women in Dr. Who’s world.
Hartigan’s character is balanced by Rosita, a black (Afra-Latina?) female companion who is both stereotypical and empowered. On the one hand, Rosita gripes at the Doctor, pushes him around, and generally rolls her eyes in a way that is more caricature than not. It should be noted that her behavior is almost identical to Donna’s. The interpretation of her behavior however, is colored by encoding race makes on the character, in the same way one might argue class encodes Donna’s reception by audiences. By keeping the characteristics constant, the seemingly negative aspects of Rosita can be seen as a very complex critique of identity politics amongst the show’s fan base and a nod to issues of identity that have been raised by viewers. I doubt they were being this post-structural but I’d love it if they pulled that off on purpose. (Equally interesting is the fact that 3 of the 4 most recent companions have all been working class, Martha being the exception .)
On the other hand, Rosita is also smart and strong. She not only joins forces with the doctor, but recognizes and fights against the cybermen with little promting. She is also the one who spots the doctor as well as the plot twist. And like companions before her, she saves the doctor when he gets a little too excited by the challenges around him. I find her character uneven and her ultimate demise as a nanny insulting, and yet I wonder about the parallels that could be drawn to her as a helpmate appropriate to the time period and as a companion to the doctor, a helpmate appropriate to a different one . . . (There is also a smack down between her and Miss Hartigan, and unlike Family of Blood, this time the “servant girl” wins. As a stand alone, I thought it was trite. As bookends . . . better . . . but still problematic from a “sisterhood” perspective anyway.)
As always, pathos is what the Who franchise does best, and this episode is full of fleeting introspective moments that make this episode so good. When Dr. Who explains that he has no companion b/c ultimately, they “break [his] heart,” there was so much intensity and passion put into that line and that scene that my heart broke a little alongside his. There is an introspection and understanding in that scene about the role of women in the show, the role of the various relationships that the doctor has with them, and the reception of them in the public that only Tennant and the newest incarnation of the show could give us. That combination is the stuff of magic that keeps drawing me and others back.
A comment maker from BBC land once argued that the look on Tennant’s face when Freema left the TARDIS the second time was not one of lost patience but rather regret. At the time, I was in no mood for such comments as there had been quite a bit of snark on that post trying to get around certain racial narratives I do think the show ultimately depicted that season (knowingly or not) . . . and I have felt bad about my response b/c I know who made the comments . . . in looking at Tennant’s face in this scene and looking back at it in that one, I can’t help but note the intended emotion was likely the same. Tennant is better at it this time around and I am not sure if it is because like all good actors, and wine, he gets better with age or if it is because the subtext is missing this time out. Either way, I applaud the show not only for the daring I have noted before but also for the willingness to revisit certain issues that may have slipped past them the first time out. The willingness to look at oneself and make intentions more clear where clarity is so desperately needed to hold up the overall integrity of the show is a brave act that very few shows or people are willing to do. To that I say, thank you Dr. Who.
Ultimately, it was a powerful scene in general but made all the more so in light of their bravery, commitment, and experience.
One last thing, I’ve often wondered what would happen if Dr. Who had a male companion. Could they pull off heteronormativity and window dressing at the same time? Come on, we’ve all seen Tennant camp it up, he’d be the one to do it. The whole episode can be taken as an essay on the idea, and in that context, I think many will be surprised about how easy such a transition, when unmarked, actually is for them. And yet it is the moment when such an option is named that really makes this episode shine as they do it with such camp, intelligence, and energy in such a compact scene. It made me tickled and proud to be a life time Who watcher.
Clearly, I am giving you no spoilers here. You’ll just have to watch.
- production images (first 4 photos) copywrite Graham Stone /potp.uk.co
- bottom 2 images unattributed