WARNING: Spoilers, descriptions of misogyny, and critical thinking. Oh, and some swears.
There’s been a lot said on the interwebs recently on how Steven Moffat, head writer of hit BBC dramas Doctor Who and Sherlock, can’t write female characters – to the point of out-and-out sexism. Like too many heterosexual men, Moffat thinks that a strong female character equates to a femme fatale; as such, he chooses to bypass character development in favour of shooting straight for sex appeal. Whether its Amy Pond, River Song or Moffat’s mutilated vision of Conan Doyle’s Irene Adler, it seems that Moffat can’t help but write really shoddy female characters.
To be fair to the Moff, there are plenty of things he does exceptionally well. He has a marvellous sense of fun and suspense, and is deliciously willing to apply the rule of cool when coming up with concepts, which is refreshing given his predecessor Russell T. Davies’ fondness for high drama and the Sorting Algorithm of Evil over mere enjoyment. Moffat is also very, very good at writing eccentric, rather surprising male leads. Now, listening to him interview, it’s not hard to see why – there’s plenty of Moffat’s loquacious charm in both The Doctor and his rendition of Sherlock Holmes. But, again unlike Davies, Moffat’s female characters are just awful. Amy Pond is essentially passive, River Song is a hideous Mary Sue and Oswyn Oswald, Amy’s speculated replacement from last weeks’ episode, is basically an Amy clone – but with more brains, less boyfriend.
Which brings us to last night’s offering – Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. This was written not by Moffat himself, but by Chris Chibnall – yet another nerdy straight white dude; a demographic that seems heavily over-represented in Moffat’s writing team. Befitting this rather dubious statistical anomaly, Chibnall has produced what is even more sexist steaming pile of dirt than his two previous episodes under Moffat’s tenure; The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood.
In Dinosaurs, The Doctor is called by the Indian Space Agency (a cool touch, it has to be said), which has picked up a spaceship that is on a collision call with Earth. Spontaneously decides to form a little “gang” (gangs are cool now), bringing along Queen Nefertiti, an imperial big game hunter named Riddell, and the Ponds, for the ride. They discover the ship is filled with dinosaurs, although their keepers have mysteriously disappeared. With only six hours before a bunch of Indian missiles take the spaceship out, the Doctor has to race against the clock to save the vessel’s precious cargo from destruction, and discover who is responsible for this seemingly abandoned arc…
The episode was enjoyable enough, to be sure. It was well scripted and the plot was brisk and exciting. But as you’d expect from my preamble, Chibnall couldn’t resist doing a Moffat and reducing the major female characters into empty vessels for playing out male fantasies.
Amy Pond was on good form, successfully pressing a couple of buttons at random (because the Doctor does it, too) and miraculously revealing that the Silurians are the absent owners of the vessel. She also manages to shoot a couple of raptors while being supervised by Mr Big Game Hunter Riddell, despite expressing disdain for his harming endangered species earlier in the same episode. I shit you not, she goes from saying “Meh, I just don’t think killing a bunch of rare animals is that worthy of my attention” to “It’ll be better when they [some raptors] go back to being extinct.” (I paraphrase). The reset button clearly activates between scenes now, too.
But the really horrible stuff is reserved for a character who, as a real person from history, deserves a little bit more respect than the miniskirt-wearing product of Moffat’s fevered imagination. Queen Nefertiti is first shown demanding (sexually) the Doctor take her with him following a visit to Ancient Egypt where the Doctor defends the Egyptian people from a plague. Okay, fair enough. Nefertiti is a living goddess, and The Doctor is a Lonely God with a fondness for royal ladies – I can accept that they might feel some attraction for one another. But the story goes on.
Initially, Nefertiti doesn’t seem to be straying into problematic territory. She isn’t wearing a particularly revealing outfit, and she’s employed in something other than prostitution, which is something. She is intelligent, brave and open-minded, which is more than can be said for Riddell, whose primary asset seems to be his *ahem* large gun. And, when Riddell makes a series of extremely creepy, lascivious remarks at her, Nefertiti initially responds as any true feminist would – by telling him where he can stick his Nitro Express. At that joyous, split second moment, I thought “Oh my gods… Chibnall is subverting Moffat!”
I thought too soon, however. Riddell, undeterred, continues his virulent misogyny to new heights by threatening to spank Nefertiti for biting his head off. And then, the smile happens. Nefertiti grins, not in a “What a fucking arrogant cockhead” sort of way, but in a “Oooh, now you threatened to physically abuse me for refusing your advances, I’m actually kindof hot for you!” sort of way. Ugh.
Cue Amy, who tells them to stop flirting. All hopes that I had misread the Lady of Grace’s smile were dashed in that moment. Because putting a statement like that in is a clear bit of writer signposting – a way of making it absolutely crystal clear to the audience what is actually going on is some hardcore verbal foreplay, rather than (heaven forbid) a woman not wanting to sleep with a douchebag. Like that’d happen!
Subsequently, if Nefertiti’s golden legacy hasn’t been besmirched enough, she is appropriated by the main antagonist – a greedy trader named Solomon, who murdered the Silurian residents of the arc and who proceeds to make all sorts of unfair demands on The Doctor, including that he hand over Nefertiti. The Doctor, being an honourable chap, naturally refuses; but The Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt demands to be handed over, sacrificing herself to Solomon’s lecherous appetites so the rest of the group can go free.
After a bit more creeping over the Lady of all Women, Solomon teleports back to his ship with his prize. The Doctor then concocts a plan, managing to steal on board and rescue Nefertiti, who resolves an impasse between The Doctor and Solomon by knocking the weapon from Solomon’s hand. To top it all off, we’re treated to a little scene at the end showing a ruffle-haired Nefertiti emerging from Riddell’s tent in Africa – clearly having made good on all that flirting from earlier.
There’s so much wrong with this, it’s difficult to know where to start. Quite obviously the damsel-in-distress trope is iffy to say the least, and having the girl do something vaguely assertive by kicking the gun from the villain’s hand might have been a boldly feminist move in the 1950s, but it doesn’t cut the mustard now. Even worse is the entirely odious “love story” (if you could call it that) between Nefertiti and Riddell – as a woman who has amorous designs on the Doctor, and has a God-King at home, settling for a gun-toting, incompetent, disrespectful sleaze from the 19th century seems about as in-character as River Song joining a convent. The similarity between Riddell and Solomon seems to have entirely eluded Chibnall – both denigrate Nefertiti, and attempt to circumvent her dignity in order to have sex with her. The fact that Riddell succeeds where Solomon fails only serves to praise one form of patriarchy over another; owning women as things is bad, yeah, but if you treat them like shit anyway they’ll still sleep with you! Yay!
And none of what I’ve written above even touches upon the troubling symbolic associations of a European colonial wooing and boning a literal African Queen.
But the worst thing about all of this is that Nefertiti has absolutely no character development in the entire story. Her driving animus – which seems to be to find a “man” – remains unexplained and unexplored, as does her ability to happily accept dinosaurs, spaceships and alien worlds despite being from Bronze Age Egypt. In fact, despite her choices being pivotal in the finale (much as Rory and his dad’s relationship, which is tenderly and rather subtly developed), we get next to no insight into her inner life; Nefertiti is just a closed book. Like Pond, Song, Oswald and Adler, Nefertiti is simply a physical embodiment of a straight male nerdy erotic fantasy: a brainy girl with a gun.
Unlike the male characters in the Doctor’s “gang”, who seem to serve the purpose of helping the Doctor by doing cool things – Riddell tranquilizes a bunch of raptors, protects Amy while doing so, then fucks Nefertiti; Rory and his Dad get to talk gadgets, bond and ultimately pilot a spaceship together – Amy and Nefertiti don’t “do” very much. Unlike the male characters, they don’t open up new possibilities through acts of genius or by taking control of the situation. Instead, they move the plot by trying things at random (Amy) or by just being there (Nefertiti), or by joining in with a male character doing something cool (Amy again), or by acquiescing to his wishes (Nefertiti again). To me, this makes the functions of the characters rather clear – while boys are the Doctor’s pals, the girls are mere accessories.
Whether these issues reflect choices made by Chibnall or Moffat, one thing is certain – there is more than one kind of dinosaur aboard this spaceship.