March 8 is International Women’s Day, and today is a good reminder that women all over the world are an integral part of the socioeconomic and cultural health of our world. This year’s IWD theme is #PledgeforParity, with a goal of gender equality. The World Economic Forum has predicted that real parity won’t be achieved until the year 2133. Since none of us can actually head there in a TARDIS, we have to find ways to close the gap as best we can today.
The women of Doctor Who are doing a remarkable job of getting to that goal. Series 9 was an especially good year for the women involved with the show, from directors, writers, characters, and the women behind the scenes.
Series 8 & 9 featured exciting firsts — Rachel Talalay was the first woman to direct a finale. The combination of Steven Moffat’s brilliant scripts for Heaven Sent/Hell Bent and Talalay’s stunning direction created iconic, instantly classic episodes, and the most-talked about finale’s in years. Talalay directed Dark Water/Death in Heaven from Series 8.
Another female director, Hettie McDonald, began Series 9 by making history. McDonald was the first woman to direct a series opener, with The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar and created a haunting, visually stunning landscape of hand mines, Skaros, Sarff, and Davros in that chair…incredible work. McDonald was also the first woman to direct an episode of the rebooted Doctor Who series, and her first episode was Blink (Episode 10, Series 3) which is widely recognized as one of the greatest of the modern episodes.
Women also joined the largely boy’s writing club of Doctor Who. Catherine Tregenna and Sarah Dollard both joined the team for Series 9, and Dollard wrote Face the Raven, a hugely important episode that marked the return of Ashildr and the death of Clara.
We should also celebrate the ladies behind the scenes of Doctor Who. Claire Pritchard-Jones, the Hair and Makeup Designer for the show, and Emma Cowen, the show’s makeup supervisor, created Clara’s modern and classy look on the show.
What was most exciting about series 9 is the sheer variety of female characters. Missy, of course, River, beloved Clara, a deaf military commander named Cass, Kate and the delightfully asthmatic Osgood, that deathless deviant Ashildr…it’s been a remarkable season.
Casting Michelle Gomez as Missy was a masterstroke. Her Victorian spinster dress coupled with her nasty way of killing those around makes for a character who feels fresh and fascinating. In an interview with “Blogtor Who”, Gomez put it like this: “Missy is a force of nature. She is a fearless, slightly psychotic killer whom you can’t help but like just a little bit. She’s very honest in her role as The Master. This is how she sees it – they both kill. The Doctor feels bad about it, she doesn’t. To her, the Doctor hides behind his remorse whilst she thrives in the power to destroy.” Previous incarnations of the Master have not been so nuanced.
In “Under the Lake”/”Before the Flood”, the key to solving the mystery is Cass (Sophie Stone), a deaf military commander on board an Army base infested with ghosts. Peter Capaldi told the BBC, “The Doctor’s relationship with Cass is one of admiration. He very quickly susses out that she’s the smartest person in the room, apart from him.” The others see the ghosts murmuring the same words over and again, but it’s Cass who can read lips. It’s Cass who takes charge of the base, and it’s Cass who sees that the Doctor’s ghost is saying “Cass, Lunn”. This extra from BBC really illuminated the complex relationship between Cass and Lunn, plus shows how they invented sign language for the word “prototype.”
Ashildr is the Viking girl who first dies and then lives forever. The Doctor saves her, and at the time his decision seemed heroic. His pain at her death was terrible and forced him to remember the face of the man he saved in Pompeii. Clara reminds him that Ashildr has died and that there is nothing he can do. The Doctor insists: “I can do anything. There’s nothing I can’t do. Nothing,” and dismisses the “ripples, tidal waves, rules.” It is this hubris that caused a suicide in “The Water of Mars”, and here the Doctor’s decision has even more disastrous consequences. If Ashildr had died centuries before, would Clara have lived? What is the butterfly effect across time and space? These two women’s fates are knotted together in spectacular fashion, spanning thousands of years and places, from a Viking village, modern London, to an ersatz diner in the American West. Ashildr and her survival is one of the most complex aspects of Season 9.
There were women with smaller roles who shone this season, especially Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) and her assistant Osgood (Ingrid Oliver), who wears a very familiar scarf. Osgood is so appealing, the Doctor even invites her to join him and Clara. Of course, the woman we were all waiting for was River (Alex Kingston). In every episode in which she appears, River is always the most competent. She’s fearless, bold, usually wiser than the Doctor, which is why it was so fun this time to have the Doctor recognise her first. Please don’t make us wait another year for her.
The woman who held the last few seasons together was Clara, of course. She’s a complicated, intricately plotted character, and the greatest of the modern companions. Clara can be reckless (taking the Chronolock, for example) but remains calm in the face of Ashildr’s death; it turns out her position was right. The Doctor tells her in “The Girl Who Died”: “Look at you, with your eyes, you’re never giving up, to anger, to kindness. One day that will hurt so much I won’t be able to breathe.”
Ultimately, Clara inspires over 4 billion years of mourning. Clara’s death remains the saddest point of the season, a bleak moment in a spectacular array of captivating women. I resent her death in a back alley, and my sorrow is a testament to the fact that a female companion has come to matter as much to me as the Doctor himself. Perhaps that is the best tribute to how the show views women.