100 sci fi women #81: Professor River Song

Doctor Who has always had a spotty kind of relationship with gender – women are usually secondary, companions, often in need of saving. But, Doctor Who has always had female characters present, and many of those women have had clear story arcs of their own. They haven’t only been a foil for the Doctor, they have changed and grown and often become quite different people. Many of his companions have had strength and determination, as well as compassion and along the way they have taught the Doctor a few lessons. Companions like Leela and Romana have defied many female sidekick approaches, while at other times the Doctor has had more than one woman hanging out with him – such as when Nyssa and Tegan were haunting the TARDIS. But River Song was a very different kind of woman for the Doctor to meet. So in honour of 50 years of the Doctor, here she is.

River Song Doctor Who

471493-river_songRiver Song is smart. Not only does she end up becoming a professor of archeology, but she is also able to think her way out of pretty much any situation. Beyond brave, she has a willingness to throw herself into adventure and danger. She has a well developed sense of fun and whimsy. Growing up separated from her parents, turned into a psychopathic killer does stop her becoming a woman of compassion, great love and humanity – if just a bit of a troublemaker. River is equally as comfortable with a gun or a book, with technology and old fashioned secrets. She wants to be a partner for the Doctor, but she has her own life to live and won’t just give it up to follow him anywhere. She can fly the TARDIS better than he can and is a fellow traveller through time and space, but she does it on her own terms. Not conventionally beautiful with her wild curls, she is charismatic,  compelling and deeply sensual. All of space and time is much more fun with her in it.

Doctor Can I trust you, River Song?
River If you like. But where’s the fun in that?

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Six Sentence Reviews; Sherlock (seasons 1 and 2)

sherlockSo Sherlock is good: well written, extremely well directed, clever and entertaining. But that doesn’t mean it is without fault. The gender politics are abysmal: not only are the women almost exclusively minor or secondary characters, they are almost entirely foils or mistreated beyond all measure. And sadly I think Steven Moffatt has taken Sherlock into a very (recent) Doctor Who-ian space – with the bad guy so uber-powerful and the need for Sherlock’s response to be so extreme, that you wonder how the next series can be anything but anti-climatic. However, one can hope. But sometimes one wishes one had seen how he had solved all the mysteries that get referred to in passing!

100 sci fi women #61: Sarah Jane Smith

Ok, on topic a bit of fun before we move on to the main business: current series Doctor Who credits, Buffy style. Can’t wait for the new season to start.

Sarah Jane Smith Doctor Who and  Sarah Jane Adventures


Very few women in science fiction haven’t managed the feats of Sarah-Jane Smith – travelling through time and space, defeating monsters, having a successful career and….coming back after twenty years and getting your own television program. It says something about the strength of the character that despite the passage of time, she can reappear as a companion and then move onto her own stage.

Sarah Jane is smart and resourceful – she was a career woman when that was not the norm. She did sometimes scream just a bit too much, but she was off encountering aliens and life threatening situations. She has a sense of adventure and a keen wish to investigate and learn more. Not a fan of violence, she will give her enemies a chance to retreat. Saying goodbye to the Doctor was not the end to her adventures or her ability to embrace the strange and unusual. She had the bravery to take on the unusual by herself and the intelligence and determination to defeat it. When motherhood is thrust upon her, she embraces it and becomes a fiercely protective mother, although this still will not stop her doing her best to make the world a better place. With her sensible haircut and business-like attire, Sarah Jane is the most enduring of the Doctor’s companions and the one who was most able to stand on her own.

Cultural Update: December

So I am clearly a bit late with this and also with end of year summaries. These may occur. However I will plead the fact that I have been off-line for two weeks as a mitigating factor. Anyhow, here is the latest offering, noting that the films for the month are covered elsewhere.

Books

Lavinia Ursula Le Guin This was very readable, and a lovely re-reading of history placing women and the world of women at the centre of what is usually very male dominated history. I enjoyed it, but part of me wanted to like it more. I thought that dragged slightly in the second half, and while the Vergil conceit was interesting, I am not sure if ultimately it added much. But it was very readable and a lovely characterisation of Lavinia and the role of women.

Zero History William Gibson This was wonderful. I think I liked it even more than Spook Country, the denouement of which was slightly anti-climatic. I felt the characterisations in Zero History were wonderful; particularly the growth of Milgrim, the wonderful abrasiveness of Heidi and whats—her-name coming to find her own way through the world. I love how Gibson engages with the present but touches the future in a way which is fascinating and tantilising, but is not the ultimate point of his work. The characters and their grasp on the world is what ultimately is most important, and the story is merely the mechanism to get them there. Am looking forward to finding some time to read it again – immediately after Pattern Recognition (which I totally adored, although that might have been in part because I was teaching semiotics and the Circle of Culture at the time) and Spook Country.

Swallows and Amazons Arthur Ransome A favourite book from my childhood, unread for countless years (well, I probably can count them, but not going to share that information), this was read aloud to small boys – a chance to share something loved from my own childhood. Interestingly, the small boys adored it as much as I remembered loving it when I was young. A few things have to be explained as one goes; in particular the references to natives and savages (and stockings!) which provided one with the educative moment and a chance to reflect on the way culture has changed in 80 years – or even since my own childhood when those kinds of terms were not unfamiliar. But the basic story of children (including one their own age) going off to camp on an island and sail around a lake entirely by themselves for a week is still as thrilling as ever. Reading it as a parent, it is easy to see all the parental controls which have been built in, but it is interesting to ponder how many parents nowadays would let their youngsters do it. From my viewpoint, the story did not disappoint. While it is interesting to observe now how little actually happens in it, it is still very engagingly written with rather a dry wit. We are all looking forward to Swallowdale arriving from The Book Depository so we can follow on with the adventures of our favourite junior sailors.

Television

The Walking Dead This was interesting from the start. Some people raved about it and seemed to think it was the best television ever, while others viewed it as very genre driven. I think I largely agree with {insert review} but I will offer a few thoughts of my own. The opening scenes were brilliant but then it did indeed seem to sink into genre world – waking from a coma to find a world overrun by zombies is not exactly groundbreakingly original. The zombies were brilliantly rendered, it must be said however. The mixed race group encountered in the second episode was also so totally by the numbers (as I will write about elsewhere), particularly as most of those characters barely got past a surface sketch. I was interested when [NAME] at the CIC turned up and thought that perhaps there might be a little humour entering the equation, but that didn’t really last either. I don’t have any problems with a series about zombies drawing heavily on standard genre approaches, but I would like to see it add a little more than The Walking Dead did. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it. I did. I just think it needed more purpose. Or something. And my final thought – why don’t the characters just call them zombies?!?! Surely we have to acknowledge that we have all grown up in a world where zombie imagery is rife. But there is no self-reflexiveness in The Walking Dead – which is interesting if, as reported, people like Charlie Sheen might be showing up in the next season as “walkers”. I am hoping that the next season builds on the strengths of the first (the performances were terrific for example) and leaves some of the tired cliches behind.

Doctor Who Christmas Special It was rather nice to be able to watch the Doctor Who special less than 24 hours after it had been viewed in the UK. And it was a very good one. While not detracting from the wonderfulness of David Tennant as the Doctor, I totally adore Matt Smith in the role. This special showed him at his best and was tinged by sadness in the same way that the other Christmas special which drew heavily on cultural references, Voyage of the Damned had. Clever writing and wonderful performances made this one a Christmas special to remember.

 

Monthly Cultural Round Up: June

Well, scary to think that we are already half way through the year. With that banal thought out of the way, onto the culture…

Books

The Dreaming Void Peter Hamilton This was interesting. Like the Peter Hamilton I have read before, this was pretty disposable entertainment. Very readable, quite compelling with some interesting characters and ideas. I do wonder why he bothered to make this Commonwealth and use old characters because it is nonetheless a completely different world, but perhaps this will become clear as the trilogy progresses. And as for that, it is in no way a stand alone book – it kind of just ends, not terribly elegantly, and if you want to get any sort of closure you will have to commit to the other two I imagine. It does suffer some of the problems of the big selling, quick to market books, with a bit of poor editing in places. And at the moment I think it has just a couple too many characters who havenn’t really gone anywhere interesting, However, despite all the disposable-ness of the book, I have caught myself thinking about the Makkathran (the void and the dreams) parts of the book from time to time. So I will definitely be progressing onto the next part of the trilogy…

Film

Iron Man I finally got around to watching Iron Man – the original version, not the sequel. I thought it was quite interesting – not quite as fabulous as I had expected from all the hype, but not bad either. Obviously Robert Downey Jr was playing a role that he could do in his sleep, and I am not quite sure what the point of Gwyneth was. I’m glad that things didn’t get romantic between them because there was zero chemistry. Overall the film was an interesting take on the super hero genre – particularly the whole foreign-war-fighting part – the usual trope of the super hero genre tends to involve urban villains who commit crimes – or who are super bad guys. So the idea of coming and preventing war atrocities in tiny Afghan villages is quite a fascinating one. I think I would have liked more of that. It was inevitable that there is a sequel though; the film felt almost entirely like a prelude to something and that further films are needed to actually see him in action. It is a challenge of the super hero genre really – superheros come from the perpetually continuing comic format, where an origin story can stretch out for a long time. So when films try to deal with superheroes, trying to get the balance right between origin story and ongoing action is always something of a challenge. But that is why sequels, and prequels, were invented. Anyway, over all quite enjoyable, even if there were a couple of really dire lines “nothing elese matters but the next mission.” Really, please.

Television

Doctor Who So I think I may commit blasphemy and say that you know, I think that I like Matt Smith as much as David Tennant, possibly even more. There is something so sweet about him, while still being very Doctor-esque. I think he is rather like Peter Davison as a Doctor. And, as was said on Sunday night, that seemed like a really fast season – which says something about the fact that it was such an enjoyable season, which was really well paced and didn’t drag. Some of the episodes weren’t stellar, but the weren’t dragging. And they did contribute to the over arching arc of the season. Anyway, I am definitely a Matt Smith fan, I like where they are taking River Song, and I thought the fact that we got Amy both as a child and a grown up added to the attraction of her, Of course, the attractiveness added to the attraction of her, even when she was a bit of a passenger in a couple of episodes, so that didn’t hurt either. I am also reasonably pleased with the way they have hopefully dealt with the whole companion-love thing – by making it really explicit, then making a choice, then getting on with it. And River adds to that dynamic. Anyway, now it is just annoying that we probably won’t have any more until Christmas…

Music

The Man in Black So, Tex Perkins does make a terrific Johnny Cash. And the show was well constructed and performed and the backing band was good and real, if you like either Tex Perkins, or Johnny Cash, or, even better, both, I definitely recommend it. The very entertaining thing about the show was the eclecticness of the audience, as there were clearly people who fit into all three of the different categories above. And certainly one where the parent-adult child thing was quite common. So really, just do it!

100 sci fi women #26: Romanadvoratrelundar

Romanadvoratrelundar aka Romana Doctor Who (both versions)

Romana is the only one of the Doctor’s companion who has challenged him intellectually. While Adric was a maths genius, he was, in every other way, inferior to the Doctor. Romana, on the other hand, another Time Lord (or Lady, though that sounds naff), scored a triple first at the Academy on Gallifrey, while the Doctor only just scraped through. Thus, Romana and the Doctor function much more as equals than he does with many of his other companions and she sometimes gets the better of him.

Romana’s two regenerations provide for contrasting beauties – the aristocratic dark Romana and the blonde waifish Romana. In her second form Romana develops a greater sense of humour. Unlike the Doctor’s regenerations, Romana has much greater control over her form and recovery, which could again be seen as a way in which she is superior to the Doctor.

While in various non television forms, Romana has gone on to positions of great authority within the Time Lord world, part of me hopes that she might still be waiting somewhere in E-Space, ready to return to assist the new incarnation of the Doctor along. It would be nice to think that if the Doctor is not the only surviving Time Lord that Romana might be the one to reappear at some time. As has been pointed out, if some of the Daleks survived (and it seems that a plague of them did) surely some Time Lords did as well. Seeing Romana again in a new body or an old one, would be a big treat for those of us brainy girls who found a character to identify with in Doctor Who as youngsters. There is a new plot for you RTD.

Update: Have now watched The End of Time and hoped like hell that the mysterious woman might have indeed been Romana. Apparently, according to pod-cast commentary, this is definitively not so. However, that doesn’t mean the mind cannot be changed….And there was the second TimeLord woman also….It was the whole “I was lost once” bit which made me particularly hopeful. That and the fact she was clearly a TimeLord. Nonetheless, I think Romana is still someone who can reappear sometime in the future.

100 Sci Fi Women #9: Leela

Leela Doctor Who

250px-Leela

Leela has probably always been my favourite of the Doctor’s companions (except, maybe, Romana, maybe). At the young age I encountered her, there were not many women I saw who were effective wielders of violence, tough and assertive in the way that Leela was. And while she wasn’t educated, she was smart, and she often picked up on trouble before even the Doctor did. She showed us that girls didn’t have to scream and run away at the sight of trouble and that we could face danger boldly. Leela may have been, in part, eye candy for the Dads, but for the little girls watching, she opened our late seventies eyes to another possibility for women.

Doctor, you make me wear strange cloths, you tell me nothing, you are trying to annoy me.

Companions, sexual tension and the Doctor

Maybe it was because my first exposure to Doctor Who was when I was young, or because Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee in particular never held even the remotest of sexual interest for me,  but I have always tended to think of the Doctor as somewhat outside of or beyond sex.  Sure, I am willing to recognise that there is sexual tension between Doctors and their companions, but I would never have thought about the Doctor in that way. It is just wrong. And despite the fact that our current Doctors are younger and more attractive, I still can’t bring myself to consider the Doctor an object of sexual interest.

Hence, I have felt a certain discomfort with the new Doctor Who. I loved it when it came back and particularly the way it incorporated old lore into a new shiny approach (though I did miss the old control room of the tardis. but that is a minor point). And while the Doctor and Rose were obviously close, the presence of Mickey and the general construct around the relationship allowed me to view it as a spiritual and intellectual closeness, not a sexual one. A little bit of underlying, unspoken sexual tension is fine.

But then along came Martha Jones. And I hated her. Not because she was intrinsically bad as a character. No, she was smart and attractive and capable, so all good there. But all that was nothing against the whole unrequited love aspect of the series. It was just painful. Painful because it turned an otherwise intelligent woman into a drooling idiot and because it violated that unspoken agreement that the Doctor is not there for sex. Everytime she did the whole he-just-doesn’t-care-I’m-alive rubbish it made me wince, particularly because OBVIOUSLY, he did care about her – the Doctor always cares about his companions, just NOT IN THAT WAY.

So the arrival of Donna was a fabulous relief – back to a no-nonsense Doctor-companion relationship. I wondered whether the Doctor Who powers realised they had pushed that envelope into the realm of discomfort with the running joke of the season involving people constantly assuming they were married, and the definite negative reaction from both. THe interesting thing was that the appearance of Professor River Song who seems to have had some sort of relationship with the Doctor didn’t actually worry me – she seemed so tough and businesslike, not sappy and annoying. And yet she may have been more than the usual travelling companion, signalling a time where the Doctor almost settles down, or something.

As we get an even younger Doctor with another young, attractive female companion, one wonders whether the whole sexual tension thing will again rise to the surface. Let’s really hope that no one thinks it is a good idea for him to have an actual relationship with kissing. Eewk – I might have to stop watching then!