Saturday 18 May 2013

Steven and the Women: the Dubious Gender Politics of Steven Moffat's Doctor Who (or, How Steven Moffat Ruined Doctor Who 2: The Smell of Fear)

(my previous piece)
In the debate about whether Steven Moffat's writing is misogynistic, mistakes have been made on both sides. Moffat himself responded to a piece in The Guardian by Jane Clare Jones thus:

I think it’s one thing to criticise a programme and another thing to invent motives out of amateur psychology for the writer and then accuse him of having those feelings,[...] I think that was beyond the pale and strayed from criticism to a defamation act. I’m certainly not a sexist, a misogynist and it was wrong.

The misconception he's working on here is similar to that sometimes made by those that attack him: the idea that a writer whose use of female characters is problematic and a man who hates women are the same thing. Moffat pointing out he's a nice guy with a wife simply doesn't counter any criticism of sexism in his work, however much he thinks it does. Conversely, the temptation when talking about sexism in Moffat's scripts seems to be toward saying things like "God, he must really hate women." but whether he does or not doesn't make a difference: nice people are as likely to write scripts which endorse rather than challenge stereotypes as nasty people. Older Who fans (or at least those with extensive DVD collections) might recall the surviving episode of the much-loved Troughton story The Web of Fear opens with an anti-Semitic stereotype, a "covetous Jew" who foolishly refuses to relinquish his valuable Yeti ("I see: you vant to rob me! Nobody makes a fool of Julius Silverstein! Take him avay!"). He is then punished for this covetousness when the Yeti comes to life and kills him. The crucial point here is that writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln and script editor Derrick Sherwin may well have been - or still are in the case of the surviving latter two - delightful people with no anti-Semitic tendencies at all. We have no right to accuse them of anything as people based on this script, what we do have a right to point out is that they have inherited a socially and culturally constructed prejudice (as we all do) and failed to challenge, interrogate or subvert it (as we all should). If they had been asked about it after the broadcast and responded by pointing out that they weren't anti-Semitic, it wouldn't in any way work as a defence against the criticism that that scene enforces an anti-Semitic stereotype. It's also entirely possible to pass on unpleasant or bigoted tropes by mistake: The Unquiet Dead's plot, in which a bunch of war refugees trick the Doctor by taking advantage of his pity and then turn nasty once they've been granted asylum, was clearly intended by Mark Gatiss as "vintage-style" Doctor Who rather than an Enoch Powell-style warning, and it's obviously unlikely that the fact that the first Doctor Who story with an all black guest cast (Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS) portrays them as an unscrupulous bunch of thieves was out of a desire by Steve Thompson to insult black viewers. Both episodes are the result of writers failing to consider the implications of how things can turn out on screen. The idea that the author insisting that they don't have those prejudices can be used as a defence of the work is an aspect of the Intentional Fallacy: the belief that what the author says he meant is the final judgement on a text. The successes and failures of a text stand by themselves, they're not the author's any more, and Steven Moffat cannot shrug off criticism of his work by pointing out he's a nice guy.

The problem with Amy Pond isn't that she's constructed as a "sexy" character. The problem is that this supposed "sexiness" intrudes in the way reality is constructed around her. The only job she can get is as a kissogram girl, then, when things are going better, as a famous model (right down to a gruesome shot of her face on a perfume advert that could have come straight out of one of the Mary-Jane scenes in the Spider-Man movies). In her penultimate episode we find she now "writes travel articles for magazines." Remember Moffat's idea of "one of the most accomplished woman who ever lived" is an aristocrat (and therefore a parasite) like Madame de Pompadour. In the extraordinary two-part Comic Relief special Space/Time - surely the most masturbatory piece of Doctor Who ever broadcast - we hear that she only passed her driving test because she wore a short skirt, and then the combination of that same skirt and a glass floor causes Rory, working at the controls below, to crash the TARDIS. As a result, we end up with multiple Amy Ponds. Instantly, we have a gag about Rory hoping for a threesome, the revelation that Amy finds herself attractive, and its accompanying punchline that Rory finds this exciting. In the runup to its broadcast Moffat promised viewers in Doctor Who Magazine "there’s a moment with two Amy Ponds in it. If you’re a red-blooded male surely that’s enough! You’ve got Amy Pond flirting with herself." His tweet immediately after the special promised the viewers three Amy Ponds next time, but he evidently decided that was one piece of drooling fanfiction that could be left to the net.

John Nathan-Turner's "you're there for the dads" policy towards his actresses was certainly the least tolerable thing about his tenure, but in his case it extended only to the characters' wardrobes, and the tendency for monsters to desire Peri in one season. The characters still served as proxies for the younger viewers. It's difficult to see how Amy can do this in moments where she's asking the Doctor to "sort her out" in the bedroom scene at the end of Flesh and Stone, let alone how Jenny can do the same in the scene in The Crimson Horror where she strips off her coat to begin kung-fu and as the camera learingly pans along her leather catsuit in slow motion, Matt Smith does an erection gag with his sonic screwdriver, or how children could identify with Clara after the Doctor's extraordinarily misjudged line about her "tight skirt" at the end of Nightmare in Silver (which we'll come to later).

There is no aspect of Amy's character that is not defined by that male construction we call femininity. The five threats she faces are pregnancy, the abduction of her baby, the loss of either of the men she loves, infertility, and the idea that it's presumable that the man she loves will reject her for that infertility. Controlling these subplots are the same prejudices that lie behind soap operas - Am I still a woman if I can't have children anymore? Will the man I love reject me for it? Is it my fault? My Baby - don't let them take my baby! Even as children, Moffat's heroines are there to be entranced by the Doctor. The setup from The Girl in the Fireplace, recycled like so much else in The Eleventh Hour, is disturbing in the way it allows the Doctor to gain access to Young Amy/Young Reinette's imaginations - giving him considerable power over them - and then moves forward in time in one moment so that we can bring in the older sexy actress. By the time we reach the Doctor stalking Clara as a child from afar while he reads The Beano, things are getting distinctly creepy (the very first shot of Karen Gillan, coming soon after the Doctor's scenes with the younger Amy Pond sees the camera panning up her thighs to reveal her policewoman kissogram costume. There's a horrible sense here that we're about to hear Maurice Chevalier singing "thank heavens for little girls - they grow up in the most delightful way"  on the soundtrack).

Moffat's sense of what goes on in the head of a young woman and any ability with logical characterisation he may have had left take a nosedive in Let's Kill Hitler. Amy and Rory's baby has been kidnapped, but it's revealed that they've already known her all their life in the guise of their best friend Mels, who now regenerates into an adult, which Moffat genuinely seems to think resolves that particular "missing baby" cliffhanger. There's no point shouting "where's the baby - isn't someone going to try and rescue the baby?" at your TV screen as I did - Amy and Rory have let that go now, as have actors Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill (as I've said before, the fact that the version of Amy left alone for 36 years in The Girl Who Waited never mentions it makes a mockery of anyone still claiming this is a show with any sense of emotional consequences or human resonance. Did Gillan ever ask Moffat or his writers "what's my motivation here?")

Chillingly, Moffat sees no problem in describing the pre-Doctor Who work of Men Behaving Badly creator Simon Nye, who contributed a predictable dud of an episode to series 5, as "beautifully observed" on Doctor Who Confidential. Nye's clearly a huge influence on him and not just through the family connection (Moffat's mother-in-law was the producer on Nye's Men Behaving Badly). His sitcom Coupling often featured similar storylines to Men Behaving Badly, such as a "girlfriend finds out about boyfriend's porn collection" plot which climaxed in a horrific monologue from the central character on how all men are obsessed with naked women - "halfway out of the birth canal we're already enjoying the view", and an interminable monologue about how men need locks on the bathroom door and women don't because "we are men! Throughout history, we have always needed, in times of difficulty, to retreat to our caves. [...] The toilet for us is the last bastion, the final refuge, the last few last square feet of man space left to us [OK, you get the idea]". Both scenes are presented in the binary "she thinks/he thinks" style, starting with Sarah Alexander ridiculing this male nonsense, then moving to Jack Davenport's angry defence of what men need, then Alexander takes this on board and she and Davenport are reconciled, now that the inescapable difference between the genders has been affirmed. Friends is the other obvious influence here. What all three shows - along with the current manifestation of this kind of television, The Big Bang Theory - share is an assumption that men are from Mars (the planet where they leave the toilet seat up) and women are from Venus (the planet where they eat Ben and Jerry) and a conviction that this is all there is: this is what men and women are like and it's futile to pretend otherwise. The choice between Seinfeld and Friends is not just a choice between good and evil ("I love Friends, but I never got into Seinfeld" -  David Cameron) but a choice between comedy with a sense of its own ridiculousness and comedy that assumes This Is The Way The World is; between comedy that sees a whole universe of lunacy out there and comedy that sees nothing but two demographic groups to place on separate sofas for alternate scenes.

Elaborating on gender differences, Moffat once remarked on Twitter:

 I AM sexist: women are cleverer, nicer, kinder and better at stuff. Don't let on or they'll keep us in fields. FIELDS!!!

This is the "how is that racist - isn't it good to have rhythm?"' fallacy: the idea that gender-essentialism and stereotyping is less of a problem if it is benevolent. It's disastrous for a writer, as it leaves him incapable of writing human beings. Moffat-written or Moffat-commissioned scripts don't so much fail the Bechdel test (which proposes that at least two female characters should talk about something other than a man) as fail to show up at the exam room. Hide was a lowpoint here: Clara is left alone to suss out Emma the female guest character (it's the Doctor's job to suss out the male one) and after both women have grimaced over the "disgusting" whiskey and agreed to move to tea, she gets the conversation going with "so you and Professor Palmer - have you ever - y'know?" and after Clara asks why not - "you do know how he feels about you, don't you?" - Emma changes the subject to how Clara feels about the Doctor. A universe with Weeping Angels and Daleks may be easy enough to conjure up, but a universe in which women drink whiskey is beyond imagining for Moffat and his team.

Virginia Woolf foolishly called Conan Doyle's Watson "a sack filled with straw" (and she didn't have the excuse of having seen Martin Freeman). It's merciful she was never introduced to River Song, the most misjudged and cynically constructed fictional character in history (well, at least until Clara came along). The only aspects of her not defined by a male scriptwriter's standbys of femininity are the signs round her neck that read "Spoilers!" and "watch the finale because something more exciting will happen there", usually replaced in the finale with "next series, all will be revealed." She's got poisonous lipstick, her all-time fantasy is a threesome with two Doctors, her last words before regenerating are "I'm concentrating on a dress size" , she promises that she's "a screamer - now there is a spoiler for you!" and her reaction to meeting the Doctor for the first time (from her point of view) is "you never said he was hot!" The "bickering" between the Doctor and River is excruciating because it's little more than the stage directions "they bicker" and "they flirt". One yearns for some genuine tension: what if River had a an unpleasant manner about her, or a manner that riled the Doctor in a way that unnerved the viewer, changing the status quo from "Doctor and his friends" and adding tension by making the dynamic less cozy? Sexual tension is rendered impossible by the Doctor's celibacy. Instead, their conversations are indistinguishable from Moffat, Smith and Kingston delivering their oral press releases for it on Doctor Who Confidential. River delivers cute domestic soundbites - "Hello sweetie", "I'm going shopping", "it's called marriage, honey." "You wouldn't answer your phone" - while the Doctor performs anaemic comedy "grrr! That woman will be the death of me" responses (Curiously, The Name of the Doctor spared us the gruesome River line promised in Doctor Who Magazine's preview - "Oh, I do like to watch a man think: it’s like watching a whale knit" - a line recycled from Coupling). Her revelation that the TARDIS only makes that noise because "YOU leave the brakes on"' is really just an upscale equivalent of the moment in Batman and Robin when Batman produces a credit card with a Batman logo on it, or Batman Forever's line "it's the car, right? Chicks love the car", all three showing the same contempt for the narrative, and provoking a jaded laugh that doesn't survive a second viewing. It's sadly not the only resemblance between Steven Moffat's Doctor Who and Joel Schumacher's Batman movies, the only question being whether the former is headed for the same notoriety. "Well, she is a woman," says the Doctor when Amy and Rory puzzle over her murderous behaviour. River's other two ways of speaking are to spout trailerspeak - "this will be the Doctor's darkest hour -  he'll raise higher than ever before and fall so much further" "you're going to find out very soon, now, Doctor, and I'm sorry, but that's when everything changes" - and hymns to the Doctor's near-Godliness: "You've decided that the universe is better off without you, but the universe doesn't agree", "To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word Doctor means mighty warrior. How far you've come. [...] And all this, my love, in fear of you".

 This isn't a character, but a soulless collection of gender and TV reference points, and the increasing lack of conviction in Kingston's performance - every smiling expression over-played to the point of simpering, every line over-enunciated in such a fey tone it becomes hard to hear her, and the strangely weak pitch in her delivery whenever she has to be frightened, tough or upset, as if she can't make the shift to proper acting (Eve Myles syndrome, as it's known), makes River as unsuccessful an attempt by a male writer to evoke someone from the opposite sex as anything by Benny Hill.

The Day of the Moon saw River Song betray the show's very ethos. Gareth Roberts, back in the days before he wrote for this version of the series, quite rightly said that the problem with the New Adventures version of Ace is that he instinctively felt the Doctor wouldn't invite anyone with a gun on board the TARDIS. How much more apposite this is when applied to River Song. Another Who writer who offered interesting opinions on this show in the 1990s, Paul Cornell, rightly observed that mid-80s Doctor Who, with Eric Saward as script editor, relied far too much on characters with guns, but even the truly wretched Saward never suggested that Lytton was cool and rather fun, or that Orcini would be fit to travel in the TARDIS. Compare the scenes of Lytton's bogus policemen shooting fleeing prisoners dead in Resurrection of the Daleks with River shooting the Silents in Day of the Moon. One portrays a shooting as cruel, frightening and psychotic, while the latter presents it as cool and sexy, right down to the moment when River does a Western/Robocop style twirl with her gun as she holsters it. The days of risking your life to stop the Brigadier from blowing up the Silurians and agonising other whether one has the right to blow up the Dalek incubation room have never seemed so far away.

Consider the soul crushing dialogue from that scene, a curious mixture of the witless and the pernicious:

Doctor: This is my friend River. Nice hair, clever, has own gun, and unlike me she really doesn't mind shooting people. I shouldn't like that, kinda do a bit.
River: Thank you sweetie
Doctor: I know you're team players and everything but she'll definitely kill the first three of you
River: (pressing her back against the doctor's while pointing her gun) oh, the first seven, easily.
Doctor: Seven, really?
River: Oh, eight for you, honey.
Doctor: (grinning) Stop it...
River: (grinning, attempting a "breathily sexy" tone) Make me...
Doctor: (giggling, sounding aroused) maybe I will...
Amy: Is this important flirting? [...]
Doctor Sorry. As I was saying, my naughty friend is going to kill the first three of you to attack...
(the Doctor and River are back to back, as River opens fire
River: what are you doing?
The Doctor: Helping!
River: You've got a screwdriver, go and build a cabinet!
The Doctor: That's really rude!
River: Shut up and drive!
(Doctor dashes into the TARDIS. River kills all the Silents, twirling and shooting in slow motion to heroic music)

It ends with a return to domestic sitcom talk, after River performs the gun-twirl: "my old fella didn't see that, did he? He gets ever so cross." Unlike with Ace, we're not being encouraged to think there's something wrong with this person: it's the show itself that comes across as jaded and withdrawn from empathy and decency to a psychopathic extent (and what a charming ethical copout to have the Doctor leave before he can witness the rest of the killing). Again, we have the depressingly widespread idea that a woman acting violently is empowering and a corrective to sexism and misogyny. When questioned about his ability with female characters during a Guardian interview Moffat replied:

River Song? Amy Pond? Hardly weak women. It's the exact opposite. You could accuse me of having a fetish for powerful, sexy women who like cheating people. That would be fair.

It would indeed. Unfortunately, a fetish for powerful, sexy women who like cheating people is no substitute for an interest in human beings.

For an example of how to write a sexy female character, look at Anne Hathaway's wonderful new version of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. The narrative surrounding her - her hopes for the "clean slate" McGuffin, her fear of Bane, her redeeming compassion towards others in her territory - have nothing to do with her sexuality or her gender. That's why she's credible rather than camp when fighting bad guys, and why her love interest with Bruce has some emotional punch.

Clara, amazingly, is a new low. In my previous piece, I argued that Moffat was a cynic rather than an incompetent, and feared that we may be stuck with his version of Doctor Who for a very long time. Instead, there has been a slight nudge from cynicism towards incompetence. The individual scripts seem more in need of rewrites than the previous two seasons (which couldn't have been helped by any rewrites). The contrast between Neil Gaiman's episode for the last season, The Doctor's Wife, which irksomely but accurately deduced the kind of story that makes fans go "awwww" and "now THAT's what Doctor Who should be doing", and Nightmare in Silver, which began by making audiences go "WHAT ARE THOSE ANNOYING KIDS DOING THERE?" and ended by leaving them saying "WHAT did he just say about Clara's tight skirt? That's a bit off..." (and in-between, making them wonder what had happened to one of the episode's two guest stars, as the director has no idea how to convey the sense that someone has just been shot dead) being a case in point. The season's arc, similarly, is just as idiotic as the River Song/Melody Pond rubbish, but more likely to rub mass audiences and fanbases up the wrong way (a problem when this show is certainly no longer made for any one else). While River Song accurately capitalised on the kind of "what will happen at the end of Lost / will Bella and Edward end up together?" casual SF viewer (a new demographic, incidentally, strikingly different from the narrower "cult TV/SF fan" niche audience that shows from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5 right up to Smallville aimed at: out of the frying pan into the other frying pan, it seems), this season's River Mark 2 is a much odder construction more likely to alienate its audience. Moffat assumes that revealing three versions of the same character in separate timezones is enough to get an arc going, but as he forgets to have the arc affect the Doctor by causing jeopardy (as even the inept "crack-in-time" and "who-is-River?" arcs of the previous two series did), and overlooks the fact that by Doctor Who standards three people who look and sound the same and use the same phrase at one point is not that exciting (compare with the Doctor casually noticing the resemblance between the two Gwens in Journey's End), the Doctor comes across as a stalker. "She's not POSSIBLE!" is a perfect example of telling rather than showing. Having the two earlier versions of Clara killed off means the character is reset twice, and then when the Doctor finally tells her about the other Claras, a literal reset button is pressed in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.

Things reach their nadir in the Doctor's inexplicable line "A mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that's just a little bit too tight"' at the end of Nightmare in Silver, a line which Gaiman himself seemed keen to reveal he probably hadn't written shortly after broadcast. Clara is now stalked in all senses: by a production team keen to exploit the attractiveness of the actress that plays her, by a writing team more interested in using her as a lure to get the ratings going for the next episode - why create a character for her when you can keep a "who is she?" arc going - and by a Doctor who's never been more poorly defined, tracking her for no reason other than morbid curiosity and who doesn't respect her enough to tell her the truth: like her creator and consequently the audience, he doesn't see her as a person but as an arc in flesh, and even he of all people seems keen to point out how shapely that flesh is.

With his third series Moffat has delivered something just as soulless, but with enough creaks to suggest a more limited shelf-life. Who'd have thought we'd ever get a Doctor who carries out executions (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship), commits genocide without considering "giving them a chance" as the Tennant Doctor would (Nightmare in Silver) or trapping three salvage-men inside his ship and threatening to blow them up if they don't risk their lives helping him find his friend (Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS), or that the 50th Anniversary would be celebrated by a special featuring only one of the past Doctors ("you don't want to turn it into too much of a fanfest," says Moffat, the man who's just given us a season with a Dalek story, a Cybermen story, an Ice Warrior story, a Weeping Angels story and three Great Intelligence stories). As we reach the point where the Doctor leers at a non-existent character, reducing her to an arc in a tight skirt, there seems to be a sense that Doctor Who is now not merely stupid but quite unpleasant (how long before those like Paul Cornell have the guts to speak about this, rather than posting "whew - wasn't that great?" tweets. I'm sure he could make some kind of argument that Moffat isn't misogynistic or sexist other than "he's my mate and you're not", but let's hear it. Cue sound of blogger throwing down a gauntlet). So as we await the point at which the writers of Doctor Who have so little understanding of female characters that we end up with an episode in which a lonely Amy and Clara order a pizza and the Doctor delivers it, and they ask him if he can can fix something for them with that big sonic screwdriver of his....Happy 50th anniversary, everyone.

(for feedback  @richardhcooper )