There weren’t many female Doctor Who fans around in the Eighties. (There weren’t a huge amount around in the Sixties or Seventies either, although the brief flares in the show’s popularity which made it a programme that every child watched meant it was OK for girls to like it too at those points.) There weren’t many female Doctor Who writers around in the Eighties, either. (And there’d been even fewer earlier on.) Up to 1989, there had been Leslie Scott (credited as co-writer on The Ark, although unlikely to have actually written any of it), Paula Moore (unlikely to have written any of Attack of the Cybermen although who did write it is the subject of controversy), Jane Baker (co-writer of 13 episodes) and Barbara Clegg (actual female writer of four episodes all by herself!). Female writers were under-represented in television drama as a whole, and once a script had gone through the filters of script-editor, director, cast etc. any voice of gender had been diluted anyway. Although Doctor Who started off with some strong female characters and emotional weight – perhaps attributable to Verity Lambert’s producership – as a whole across the years it sheered away from things like emotion and backstory which are commonly found in female-oriented drama. On a much more visible level, there were swathes of stories with barely a woman in their guest-casts. So, helllooooo, Season 26. You’ve been a long time coming.
Every story in Season 26 passes the Bechdel test (at least two female characters have a conversation about something other than a man) – even if they only just scrape through at times, as the Doctor crops up in conversation a lot. It’s rather fitting that the first story features Jean Marsh, who had played two of the strongest female characters of the Sixties, and it also has a female Brigadier among its other roles (six out of a credited 15 are female – only Survival, with six out of 13, betters it this season). Morgaine’s motivation being wrapped up in King Arthur, the Brigadier’s casual sexism (‘This Brigadier Bambera – good man, is he?’) and Ace and Shou Youing’s tendency to become giggly girls when together are niggles, and the role-reversal at the end is painful (although it’s not Battlefield’s fault that society thinks ‘the women go out and the men have to cook the supper!’ is a comedy ending). But high marks for effort.
Ghost Light – an amazing story in general – manages the astounding feat of having female villains who aren’t just there to be sexy in tight-fitting costumes. There may be an ultra-feminist point to be made regretting Control’s desire to improve her appearance and become a ladylike, but that’s probably taking things a little too far (and is surely countered by her putting a collar and chain on Josiah at the end, not to mention Ace and Gwendoline dressing up in men’s clothes). Most noticeably, Ghost Light is wonderful for Ace, filling in more troubled-teen backstory. There have been strong female companions in the past (Vicki! Sarah Jane! Romana!) and wearing high heels or screaming at monsters doesn’t automatically negate being a positive role-model, but it’s rare for the companion to be as significant a character as Ace was in Season 26. This is her story as much as – if not more than – the Doctor’s, a development that is particularly noticeable in hindsight from a future that contained Rose, Martha and Donna.
The Curse of Fenric comes at the subject from a very different angle. As a historical it is able to highlight areas of gender inequality and expectations but also underlines them uncomfortably in places – it’s Jean and Phyllis’s refusal to conform to society’s morality (‘Maiden’s Point – oh well, that rules me and Jean out for a start’) that ensures their doom. But to counter that, prudish Miss Hardaker meets an unpleasant end too, and Ace isn’t condemned for being a woman. Yes, after year upon year of male characters – even aliens – lusting after the Doctor’s chaste female companions, here there is suddenly a companion who uses her sexuality to her advantage. Wow.
And then we come to the piece de resistance of Season 26. Survival. It’s a stunning story, but more than that, it is utterly, totally, gorgeously female. Only the second ever story written by a woman in 26 years, and the male script-editor and director have worked to enhance its voice rather than smother it. Whether you want to read into it lesbian subtexts or metaphors for the menstrual cycle is up to you, but even taken at its most blatant surface level, it’s the most female friendly story of all. There you go. 26 years, and just as the girls decide to join in the game, someone takes the ball away. Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do.
1. “I can see. Patrick, I can see!” A complex character – after casually murdering Flight Lieutenant Lavel, Morgaine restores Elizabeth Rawlinson’s sight in payment for Mordred’s bar tab. Battlefield Part Three.
2. “Homo Victorianus Ineptus. Oh no, I don’t want to see.” The Reverend Matthews didn’t believe in evolution – but a horrified Ace discovers that evolution believed in him. Ghost Light Part Two.
3. “She’s an emotional cripple. I wouldn’t waste my time on her unless I had to use her somehow.” Ace’s faith in her friend is destroyed – the darkest moment of all for the ‘Dark Doctor’? Curse of Fenric Part Four.
4. “We wait for one of us to change and then we use them, before they try to escape or kill us all.” But who is going to be the next to reveal their Cheetah-like yellow eyes? Oh no! It’s Ace! Survival Part Two.