For Steven Moffat, the truly “impossible girl” is one who passes the Bechdel Test.

I keep meaning to write about Doctor Who. I’d intended to start reviewing this season’s episodes, but the month just kind of got away from me. So here we are, four episodes in, and I’m finally getting around to talking about the Doctor, his companions, and Steven Moffat, who has written most of the episodes since 2010.

Like many Doctor Who fans, I was super-excited to hear that Steven Moffat was taking over as showrunner in 2010. He’d written some of the most-loved episodes for the ninth and tenth Doctors – “The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances,” “The Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead,” and, of course, “Blink.” These episodes combined incredibly creepy elements that were brilliant in their simplicity – the phrases “are you my mummy” or “don’t blink” are enough to bring shivers down even the most casual fan’s spine.

While, at the time, I was watching more as a fan and less as a feminist (hey, it’s possible), I think that part of my excitement at the announcement that Moffat would be taking over came from the female characters that he created in those episodes.

Nancy is flawed and resilient, and able to admit to her mistakes in order to potentially save the day, even though she’s justifiably terrified. River Song, in those two episodes, is irreverent and intelligent, although from a feminist perspective her character goes straight downhill from there.


Click for source.

Sally Sparrow is brave and clever, and also gave me one of my favorite quotes ever – when asked “what’s good about sad?” she replies “it’s happy for deep people”. And of course, an honorable mention goes to Madame de Pompadour, the curious and composed “woman in the fireplace”.

As we’ve moved into the Moffat era, however, it’s become more and more clear that while he’s obviously capable of writing interesting, compelling female characters, he doesn’t actually know what to do with them.

Spoilers below.

We’re going to take a quick break from my post here in order to read some other people’s writing on the subject before coming back to my discussion of Clara in episode four, “Listen”. These pieces are absolutely worth reading, and cover the topic much more clearly and thoroughly than I could hope to.

Here’s a fantastic piece on Moffat and the Bechdel Test that really examines the way in which Moffat’s female characters, while perhaps interesting on their own, don’t interact with other female characters in any kind of meaningful way.

I don't need statistics to tell me that Donna's awesome.

I don’t need statistics to tell me that Donna’s awesome. Click for source.

I thought it was super-interesting that the article pointed out that Rose, Martha, and Donna all had relationships with their mothers that were central to various storylines, while Amy’s mom shows up in, what, one episode (after being dead for most of Amy’s life? I honestly don’t even remember and am too lazy to Google right now) and Clara doesn’t have one.

A comprehensive study done on Doctor Who (the rebooted series) and the Bechdel Test; this site is also the source for all of the fantastic infographics I’ve used here.

Seriously. Go read both of those before continuing. I’ve kind of talked about the Bechdel Test elsewhere, and the rest of this post is just me talking about the episode “Listen” and my thoughts on Clara’s character. The real feministy stuff is in those two articles.

Did you read both of them? Good. So, “Listen” gave us a very Clara-centric episode; I find it kind of charming that Stephen Moffat, bless him, appears to be trying to de-Moffatify (yes, that’s what I’m calling it) the series before Clara leaves at Christmas.

He’s already made the decision to have Clara see the Doctor as her “hobby,” as she says in episode 2, and to deliver some quips about how he couldn’t afford her if he were to pay her for her help. In that same episode she also slaps him; a step I took as a bit heavy-handed but that also made the point that she is no longer standing by in awe as he saves the world again and again.

I guess we're supposed to see this as Clara being a "strong female character"?

I guess we’re supposed to see this as Clara being a “strong female character”?

However, since Moffat is only credited as a co-writer on that particular episode, it’s unclear how much of this character development is due to his influence and how much is Phil Ford’s.

In the most recent episode, “Listen”, Clara’s tearful “you’re an idiot” after being sharply ordered back to the TARDIS is a little reminiscent of River Song’s refrain of yelling “I hate you!” before doing whatever the Doctor tells her to anyway. However, while River is playing a game, where she shouts her exasperation at her sometimes-bumbling, capricious husband before doing exactly what he wants (as they both know she will), Clara is expressing her very real frustration at being made to feel powerless with someone whose respect she feels she’s been slowly earning in a new, more fulfilling way over the last few episodes. It’s a fairly realistic bump in the road for a relationship, and she gently chastises the Doctor for it later.

Some pet peeves from “Listen”:

1. Clara’s shoes. COME ON. The TARDIS shows up in your bedroom and the Doctor invites you on an adventure. Do you grab A. your six-inch stilettos or B. your dirty trainers with the great arch support? It’s not like there won’t be running.

I hope you all realize how much I'm being the bigger person here, featuring a gif of the woman who stole my TV crush.

I hope you all realize how much I’m being the bigger person here, featuring a gif of the woman who stole my TV crush.

2. The doctor insulting Clara (especially her looks). For the first couple of episodes, I thought this shtick was a cute, funny way to make it clear to the audience that Clara’s relationship with this new Doctor would not be at all flirty or cutesy. It also made it clear that even though Moffat prefers to cast women who are TV-pretty instead of real-life pretty, he wanted us focusing on something other than her looks. However, by episode four they’re starting to feel a bit stale and a bit mean. Clara doesn’t deserve that.

(A snarky aside: can you just picture Moffat coming up with the concept of the monsters under the bed? “What’s my most loved episode? Blink? Okay, in that one I had monsters that you had to look at in order to stay safe. How about… a monster that you have to NOT look at to stay safe?” Sorry. Geek snark over.)

To his credit, Moffat has me really intrigued to see where Clara’s character ends up. If fear is “a companion” and Clara was, quite literally, the monster under the bed (and, once upon a time, a Dalek, if we’re not pretending that never happened), then it’s possible that the arc of this increasingly impossible girl is going somewhere very dark – and potentially very interesting.

Honestly, I was SHOCKED that this episode wasn't at least winked at in "Into the Dalek".

Honestly, I was SHOCKED that this episode wasn’t at least winked at in “Into the Dalek”.

Although this runs the risk of reducing Clara, once again, to a puzzle to be solved instead of a person to care about (much like Amy Pond was through some of her storyline), it also seems as if this plotline, which may connect to her budding relationship with Danny Pink and their implied future together, revolves more around Clara herself with the Doctor a bit left out in the cold, as suggested by the fact that Clara refused to tell the Doctor about Danny when they met Rupert, and still kept her secret even when Olson and his strange tale appeared to be so closely connected to her.

That was a really long sentence. Deep Breath (get it?).

So what do you think?

3 responses to “For Steven Moffat, the truly “impossible girl” is one who passes the Bechdel Test.

  1. Nancy is flawed and resilient, and able to admit to her mistakes in order to potentially save the day, even though she’s justifiably terrified.

    One of the things I most liked about that episode is that the Doctor (and I would argue the episode) didn’t even really characterise it as a mistake. A secret, sure, but one she had good reasons to keep, and no way to know that revealing it would help.

    Regarding Clara, I think her first arc is very similar to Rose’s: she’s a normal young woman who takes off with the Doctor, and ends up doing something cosmically awesome to save him; and thus creates consequences through time and space, which because of time travel we see before the act itself. The main difference is that the Bad Wolf signal isn’t obviously connected to Rose, while the Clara-copies *are* obviously connected to Clara. (Unfortunately, I also found Dalek Oswin and Victorian Clara far more interesting than Original Clara – which perhaps ties into your initial comment about Moffat via-a-vis one-off women and arc women).

    I think Moffat’s big weakness is more that the big storyline always has to revolve around the Doctor rather than being something the Doctor breaks into (in a lot of ways the Doctor is the Deus Ex Machina made into a character – it doesn’t quite fit that the villains’ big plot is all about him). And I think the devolution of the female characters is a symptom of that.


    • That’s a really solid point about the storyline always having to revolve around the Doctor – it used to be that he just happened upon someone who needs help, but now that you mention it I’m realizing how different it is to have all of the plots revolving around him.

      Thanks for the insights!


  2. Pingback: Wintry listicle round-up | I was a high-school feminist·

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