Since it returned after a decades absence from television, Doctor Who has become a pop culture giant for sci-fi fans across the world. Under the guidance of showrunner Russell T Davies, the show gained huge emotional depth and sly relevance with its depiction of queer characters like Captain Jack Harkness or Cassandra. In 2005, this was ahead of its time. Under Steven Moffat’s purview, the show has repeatedly come under criticism for its depiction of female or POC characters. This season has finally righted the show in more ways than one…
Moffat’s first season as showrunner began in 2010, with the 11th Doctor played by Matt Smith. Joined by Karen Gillen and Arthur Darvill as initial costars, the show played out like a whimsical fairy tale with big mysteries and diminishing payoff. However, the chemistry between the three leads and their performances carried the show past any clunky episodes.
Moffat’s tenure brought characters like Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint, an interspecies lesbian couple, and Rita, a young Muslim woman who asks the Doctor not to be afraid of her because of her religion. While these are timely additions to Dr Who’s world, Moffat came under fire for his writing of female characters who emphasized their sexuality freely, but still seemed to rely too heavily on the Doctor’s personage. While that is the nature of being a companion (a person that travels with the Doctor in his ship the TARDIS), characters like River Song gradually lost their mystique while Moffat seemed to play up how sexual the characters were to compensate.
There is merit in female characters who own their sexuality (straight, gay, or bi), as well as being intelligent and independent, however, the problem occurs when all three are attempted and only their sexuality comes to the forefront. In the second half of Series eight, the Doctor gains a new companion in the form of Clara Oswald whose main attribute is how flirtatious she is towards the Doctor. Later on, she gets a job as a school teacher and a boyfriend, but she never shows much in the way of hopes/dreams/aspirations the way that previous companions had. Clara was attracted to the Doctor, and when she didn’t have a boyfriend or a job, almost nothing else was important to her.
In Series nine, Matt Smith is succeeded as the Doctor (as always happens when the actor decides to leave the role) by Peter Calpadi. Calpadi’s Doctor (dubbed the twelfth actor to embody the role since the show began) is noticeably older, slightly more egotistical, and initially on the autistic spectrum. Surprisingly, Clara’s attraction to him disappears instantly which wasn’t the case for Rose Tyler and the ninth and tenth Doctors. The individual episodes improve with Calpadi’s lead performance, with the overall narrative being mixed.
With the show almost through Series ten (and Calpadi’s final season as the Doctor), the quality has improved drastically with the addition of companion Bill Potts. Bill is the first openly gay companion on Dr Who, and is the second black female to star since Freema Agyeman in 2007. Bill is much more relatable than Clara, having actual goals and a background to start from. Bill is admittedly not bright, working as a cafeteria worker at the university where the Doctor is posing as a professor. She has a keen drive in bettering herself, and shows a romantic interest in women that doesn’t feel exploitative. In addition, due to her relative unfamiliarity with the Doctor, she’s able to express outrage at his cavalier attitudes on life and death matters.
While I question why the first companion in years to have no romantic interest in the Doctor had to be uneducated, black, and lesbian, (Martha Jones, the previous black companion, was a medical doctor) there’s no denying she brings a much needed energy to the show and its improved noticeably since she was added on. The stories are solid, but also have subtle political tones attached. Episode two of Series ten “Smile”, featured a robotic race known as the Vardy who gain self-awareness and require the Doctor to step in to help them coexist with humans. When Bill makes a casual comment on the Vardy’s intellect, the Doctor replies with “Typical wet brain chauvinism”, illustrating how people look down on others without meaning to. The next episode “Thin Ice” features the Doctor trying to persuade a rich and entitled racist to value all human life, and shows Bill how diverse 19th century England is compared to the whitewash she was shown growing up. The fifth episode “Oxygen” was a thrilling space horror where the main villain is capitalism instead of the rampant space zombies.
It’s not necessary for Dr Who to be political, however, it is a welcome turn after seeing the lackluster attempts to live up to past heights. Doctor Who is stronger than its been in recent memory, which is heartening that both Calpadi and Moffat can end their tenure with the show on a high note and that they’ve listened to criticism.
While the show isn’t the definition of Woke, its shown an awareness to how the world has changed and taken steps to adapt to it.