Last weekend, Matt Smith announced that he will be leaving Doctor Who after this year’s Christmas Special. In response, Laura Helmuth at Slate argued that the 12th Doctor should be a woman, citing proof of Time Lords' ability to change sex and the show's recent regression into stereotypical gender roles as reasons. Helmuth goes on to admit that she would accept another male doctor if the female characters on the show became more complex.
The only part of Helmuth's article I disagreed with was the assertion that the Doctor's recent companions are weak portrayals of women. Since Steven Moffat took over as Executive Producer in 2010, his companions - Amy Pond and Clara Oswald - have been described as passive and pathetic by critics. Ted Kissel at The Atlantic observed that these companions have gotten younger and weaker under Moffat's rule. However, I disagree that the modern companions have been purely passive. Instead, I see qualities in these women that make them strong female characters.
I don't point out these qualities to negate the need for a female Doctor. Rather, I think the strength of these female companions proves their worth to be promoted to Doctor. While the companions aren't perfect feminist portrayals, the show can learn from what it has done well in looking forward to increasing female representation. Here are the best qualities of each modern companion (those from both Moffat's and previous Head Writer Russell T. Davies' tenure) that should be considered if a female persona for the Doctor is to be developed.
1. Rose Tyler's challenges to authority
Rose Tyler, played by Billie Piper, is the companion often credited with the success of the show's revival. Rose is clearly a modern woman, and her character is refuses to accept the power structures she's faced with. In her first episode, when the Doctor refuses to tell her his full name in traditional style ("Just the Doctor"), Rose responds, "Is that meant to be impressive?" Later, when the Doctor describes how the fate of the world lies in his hands, Rose questions, "So what you're saying is that the whole world revolves around you? ... You're full of it." Rose refuses to be told who's in charge and instead of following other's lead she takes control. Piper has described Rose as "positive, ambitious and full of conviction and confidence. She's ballsy and goes with her gut instinct. She's a good character to relate to or aspire to." I agree.
2. Martha Jones's successful career
Martha Jones, played by Freema Agyeman, is in medical school studying to be an actual doctor when she meets the Doctor while her hospital is transported to the moon. Martha uses her brains throughout her travels with the Doctor, and is the only modern companion who chooses to end those travels on her own terms. Martha recognizes that her unrequited love for the Doctor isn't the best thing for her, so she returns to Earth, where she goes on to thrive. The next time we meet Martha, she has her medical degree, is engaged, and has leadership positions in UNIT, a paranormal military operation. In fact, Martha is so strong on her own that she goes on to make guest appearances on spin-off series Torchwood.
Martha prioritizes herself and her career over love, and is successful as a result.
3. Donna Noble's courage to speak her mind
We're introduced to Donna, played by Catherine Tate, in "The Runaway Bride" Christmas Special as a bride who gets stuck in the TARDIS. Donna is immediately free with her words, yelling at the Doctor throughout the episode. Initially Donna seems simple-minded and annoying, deceived by her fiancée and told by the Doctor in "Journey's End" that she "can't even change a plug." Even then Donna is outspoken, and soon the audience sees the wisdom behind her wit. Donna speaking her unique perspective saves both hers and the Doctor's life, and towards the end of her time on the show, Donna actually absorbs a Time Lord's brain into her own, proving her intelligence and potential.
While this leads to the tragic necessity of her memory loss, even without proof of her ability Donna remains outspoken in her final scenes, a kind of bravery worth respect.
4. Amy Pond's feminist one-liners
In "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" a man named Riddell rushes to help while telling the Doctor, "This is a two-man job!" When Amy picks up a tranquilizer gun and he questions her motives, she simply responds, "I'm easily worth two men. But you can help if you like."
Played by Karen Gillan, Amy continually asserts herself in empowering one-liners. In the same episode, when asked "Are you the Doctor's queen?" Amy responds, "No, I'm Rory's queen. Er, wife. Please don't tell him I said I was his queen." Amy has the upper hand in her relationships with men. Even when teased by others, Amy owns her sexuality, even working as a kissogram. When her husband Rory tells her "I thought I'd lost you" in the episode "Cold Blood," Amy jokingly responds, "What, 'cause I got sucked into the Earth? You're so clingy." Amy switches the traditional power roles in heterosexual relationships. Instead, she asks Rory out and proposes in "The Wedding of River Song." Amy correctly refers to the Doctor and husband Rory as "my boys" in "The Vampires of Venice." Rory protests, "We are not her boys!" to which the Doctor responds (and Rory eventually agrees), "Yeah, we are."
Amy's comical use of language is empowering in its challenge of gender roles.
5. Clara Oswald's reversal of the damsel in distress trope
It took me a while to warm up to Clara Oswald, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman, but the recent season finale "The Name of the Doctor" proved her power. While previous companions have saved the Doctor in occasional episodes, it is largely the Doctor who does the saving - a typical damsel in distress story line. However, in the last episode Clara embeds herself in the Doctor's timeline to save him, reflecting, "Sometimes it's like I've lived a thousand lives in a thousand places. I'm born, I live, I die. And always, there's the Doctor. Always I'm running to save the Doctor. Again and again and again. And he hardly ever hears me. But I've always been there. Right from the very beginning. Right from the day he started running."
By bringing the past reincarnations of the Doctor into the mix, Clara is shown to have saved his life repeatedly through all of his lives. This is the ultimate reversal of the damsel in distress trope; even when the Doctor was saving his past companions Clara was busy saving him. Clara, the Doctor's "Impossible Woman," has made the impossible possible.
Let's hope she continues to empower her character and take action in the next season, because Coleman has already signed on for next season. Regardless of the identity of the next Doctor, Coleman will have the ability to portray a complex, powerful woman on the show.
6. Bonus: River Song's everything
While not officially a companion, the Doctor's wife and Amy Pond's daughter River Song (played by Alex Kingston) deserves a shout-out. My only complaint about River is that we need more of her. She has Rose's challenging of authority (she never lets the Doctor boss her around), Martha's career drive (River is a professor), Donna's outspokenness, Amy's feminist one-liners, and Clara's reversal of the damsel in distress. River saves the Doctor, not just his life, but saves him by teaching him how to love as well. Though River died in a past episode, her upload to a database means there are hints of her returning in the future. River is also the only female time-traveler who doesn't rely on the Doctor for her transportation, and she saves the world on her own time. In some ways, River has already taken on the role of Doctor without the title, and has proven that the Doctor's wife is just as capable as he is.