Thursday, June 13, 2013

Susan's Shadow

(Originally posted at on 7 May 2010.)

Oh, dear. They’re at it again, aren’t they?

Sorry, that probably requires a bit of explanation. Um, and I’m going to deliver that explanation in a nice, long paragraph, so that those of you who don’t want spoilers for the new Doctor Who episode, “Flesh and Stone”, which has aired in Britain but not in America, can skip this entry if you like.

Basically, for those of you not familiar with the series (or at least, not over-familiar with the series) the Doctor, an enigmatic wanderer in time and space, tends to have a traveling companion with him on his journeys. (Primarily as a way of solving a lot of writing problems–the Doctor tends to already know a lot of things the audience needs to know, so having an inexperienced traveling companion is an easy way of delivering expository dialogue that doesn’t sound forced.) These companions tend, very frequently, to be pretty young women. (Again, this is done for rather mundane reasons; the series wants to appeal to a very broad audience, and there are certain elements of the viewing public that respond strongly to pretty young women…for one reason or another.) Thus, it’s become something of a running gag among viewers that we never actually do see what the Doctor does in the TARDIS with those pretty young women between adventures.

And in the relaunched series (we are now trending towards the spoilery bits, here) that element has become more explicit. Rose, the Doctor’s companion, has a very obvious crush on the Doctor, and while the Doctor can’t ever bring himself to actually say the words, “I love you,” at any point, David Tennant is clearly playing the part as a man in love. Martha, the next companion, has her own crush on the Doctor, but since he’s still mooning over the departed Rose, she’s got no chance (an element that’s rather overplayed in Season Three, but that’s another story.) The romance angle goes into full retreat for Season Four and the 2009 specials (excepting for the season finale to Season Four, where Rose comes back and we practically get swooping strings when the two of them see each other)…but now it’s rearing its head again. Current companion Amy Pond just about jumps the Doctor’s bones at the end of “Flesh and Stone”. But the Doctor doesn’t reciprocate…despite Karen Gillan being just about the prettiest of the pretty young women ever to join the Doctor in his travels. Why?

The question is actually pretty contentious, in Doctor Who circles. (It says something about Doctor Who that it is actually less contentious than the question of what year the Third Doctor stories took place in.) There are a lot of people who believe that sex is off-limits in Doctor Who, at least in regards to the Doctor himself. They feel the Doctor should be above that sort of thing, even if they can’t necessarily articulate why. (Or if they can’t agree on a reason why. Doctor Who has possibly the strongest gay fan following of any science-fiction series, precisely because he’s a male sci-fi hero who doesn’t lust after women. To a lot of fans, the reason he doesn’t hit on his female companions is the same reason Will doesn’t hit on Grace.)

There are a lot of people who make the counter-argument that the Doctor most certainly does have a sexual relationship with many, if not most of his companions over the years. They insist that the people who insist “sex shouldn’t be allowed in Doctor Who” are prudes at best, Puritans at worst, who never noticed the sexual subtext of the older stories and now get angry when they spot it in the newer ones. (A sub-set of these people feel that there’s a sexual subtext to some, but not all stories, and that the Doctor has a “true love”, who is {INSERT COMPANION HERE} and that this is the perfect pairing and the series hasn’t been any good since that true love left and he’s been forced to make do with pale substitutes. All of these people are twelve-year-old girls. Even the ones who aren’t.)

Me? I fall at least a little into the former camp. I feel that there’s a reason why Russell T Davies and Stephen Moffat, the people who’ve been in charge of the relaunched series, haven’t pushed the boundaries of the Doctor’s sexuality too far. (And they really, really haven’t. For all that the Tenth Doctor is much more lovey-dovey than his predecessor, he still won’t even say the words, “I love you.” Not even once. My standing joke is that all the times he says, “Rose…I need to tell you…” and trails off, he’s trying to find a way to explain that traveling in the TARDIS makes you sterile.) It really isn’t in the Doctor’s character to have a sexual relationship with his companions, and Amy Pond provides the key to why. (Well, half the key.)

When Amy makes her rather blatant come-on to the Doctor, his response (played magnificently by Matt Smith) is absolute horror. He can’t imagine sleeping with Amelia Pond, because Amelia Pond is the seven-year-old girl he was just talking to a few days ago. Sure, she had a rather inconvenient case of growing up, but as the Doctor said to her, “Don’t worry; we’ll soon sort that out.” He’s not looking for a lover. He’s looking for a daughter. Or, if we’re to provide the other half of the key to the Doctor’s character, a grand-daughter.

Because the first pretty young woman the Doctor traveled with, back when he was an old man played by William Hartnell, was his grand-daughter Susan. (Also more contentious than sex: Whether William Hartnell was the actual first incarnation of the Doctor, or just the first we’ve seen.) The two were inseparable, each one the only reminder the other had of their home, and the original stories tended to focus on the differences between them and the humans that shared the TARDIS with the Doctor. (When Carole Ann Ford, the actress who played Susan, left the series, some speculated it wouldn’t survive her departure.) Susan’s departure was a watershed moment, a coming of age as the Doctor finally realized that staying with him was preventing her from living her own life. He forced her to stay behind with the man she’d come to love in one of the most bittersweet moments of the show’s history.

And the subsequent episode makes explicit what all the subsequent stories would leave as subtext. Ian and Barbara, the Doctor’s human friends, convince him to adopt a young orphan woman they’ve rescued from a crashed starship as their new traveling companion. Vicki becomes a surrogate grand-daughter to the Doctor, someone who makes him feel young and alive as they share the wonders of exploring the universe together…until she also falls in love with a boy and leaves. And the Doctor found another surrogate for Susan, and another, and another…at heart, Doctor Who is a series about a lonely old man who’s lost his family, and who finds it again with an orphaned girl. (This is the one really big mistake the new series makes with Rose, I think; not that she loves the Doctor, but that she only travels with the Doctor by choice. All the best companions of the old series were running away from something.)

Not every companion is living in Susan’s shadow, of course; Romana, for instance, seems to be pretty blatantly shagging the Doctor off-screen. (Mainly because Lalla Ward and Tom Baker pretty much were blatantly shagging each other off-screen. But now is not the time to delve into the vast store of gossip about who was having sex with who on the set.) But that’s the model of Doctor Who. That’s the reason why all the jokes about “What is the Doctor doing with those pretty young girls between adventures?” miss the point. The Doctor has a father’s love for his companions, not a romantic passion. There is most definitely a difference.

1 comment:

  1. I have to add a passing mention to XKCD's rule about relationships, which says that if the older of a couple is age A, then the younger should be no younger than A/2+7. So it's OK for a 20-year-old to be with a 17-year-old (20/2+7 = 17) but unthinkable for a 30-year-old to have a paramour younger than 22. I always managed to stick to that rule, so I think it makes sense.

    Romana claimed to be 140 when the Doctor was allegedly 760, so clearly he wasn't sticking to the rule, the lecherous old goat...