The Perfect Companion
Yes, the female companions of the Moffat era are smart, strong, capable, multi-talented, capable, prone to saving the day, etc.
But this is just the job of the companion. Even the worst of the classic series companions – Victoria, Dodo, etc – gets to be smart, strong, capable, etc when required. They don’t tend to save the day in the classic series, but they always do what is needed and expected of them. It’s a tautology: the companions do the companion things more or less successfully. That’s not something that’s entirely untroubling, but – for good or ill – it’s how this works. In the revived series, a great deal more is expected of the companions. It’s actually worrying just how much is expected of Martha. But the point is that they all step up because that’s what they’re in the text to do. The ones that don’t, fail to be companions (i.e. Adam).
You also have to look at what they do and what happens to them on top of their basic role as companion. Rose rejects the roles of shop worker, daughter, girlfriend, etc. in favour of gradually becoming a committed social actor. Sadly, she is reabsorbed into such roles by the end (a major disappointment). Martha throws herself into the role of social actor to a huge extent, ultimately rejecting the Doctor because he cannot satisfy her level of newly self-created level of self-esteem. Donna escapes her emotionally unsatisfying family life and work life to, once again, become a social actor. The theft of this from her is horrific, and is clearly meant to be. It all goes wrong by the end of the RTD era, with them all married off, etc. But this, however awful (and it is crushingly awful), is still a relatively late development.
The early-to-mid Moffat-era companions, by contrast, are given the arrangement of their domestic lives as their main extra-curricular activity (so to speak) on top of their ‘duties’ as a companion, right the way through.
Amy’s character – i.e. what she does, says and thinks on top of all the fulfilment of ‘companion duties’ – is focused upon getting married or not getting married, being a mother or not being a mother, having a domestic home life or not having a domestic home life, being a wife, saving her marriage, etc, etc etc. The Doctor actually intervenes, several times, to ensure that her personal life runs along the proper lines. Whereas, in the RTD era, the Doctor was a force that (selfishly) drew the women out of the confines of personal and work life and into the wider arena of social action, in the Moffat era the Doctor actively tries to provide Amy with a perfect, middle-class domestic idyll. House. Car. Marriage. Etc.
River is ostensibly an archaeologist, or sometimes an assassin, but her character arc (if the random string of things she does can be called a character arc) is all about her assimilation into stability via her romance with, and marriage to, the Doctor. Far from dragging her out of domesticity into social action, the Doctor saves her by dragging her the other way…and she does the same to him.
Clara, it must be admitted, is a little different. She’s got hardly any personal life at all, and has her duties on top of this absence. They are initially employment duties which seem to meld strangely with her companion duties (i.e. the kids in ‘Nightmare in Silver’).
She’s interesting actually, because she’s an inflection of the true neoliberal ideal of the female as both domestic provider and multi-tasking worker. Her work is domestic. But she also plays whatever role is required of her by whatever episode she’s in. She is fractured into multiple selves, all of whom perform necessary tasks. She’s even shown to literally moonlight between two jobs in ‘The Snowmen’.
The objection that she doesn’t revolve around the Doctor because she chooses to enter his timelines and save him, and that she is therefore her own woman and the solution to her own riddle, flounders on the realisation that she has, essentially, accepted a job or a duty and the fracturing of self that this entails.
Admittedly, Clara is not depicted without a certain occasional ambivalence towards the idea of absorbtion into the workforce as a multi-tasking, multi-skilled drone with multiple jobs. In her debut proper, ‘The Bells of Saint John’, she is caught in a vast corporate machinery of soul-sucking employment. However, ultimately, the inescapability of neoliberalism is arrived at, once again, as she enters a similar kind of self-fracturing machinery of work by her own choice. The ‘good’ machinery rather than the bad. The ultimate irony here may be that the self-fracturing machinery of work in question, the supposedly good machinery, her ultimate destination, turns out to be the Doctor himself.
No, actually, that’s not quite an irony… because this has always been latent in the companions, to a greater or lesser extent, almost since day one. Remember above, when I said that it wasn’t entirely untroubling that companions had to fulfill certain demands and do certain jobs simply in order to remain functional within the texts as companions? Clara may be the final and open acceptance, on the part of the show, of one version of what the companion is: a precariously employed worker with great and various demands made upon them because of their (usually) voluntary decision to serve the Doctor. She is the moment when that troubling, duty-laden, ideologically market-based conception, triumphs over the others.
Does this mean, then, that the pre-Clara Moffat companions are actually the most liberated from this syndrome, given the emphasis placed on their private lives aside from their ‘duties’? Well no, I don’t think so. They are still dragged away from the role of social actor – the potential positive flipside of the ‘Doctor’s happy worker’ model – by their entanglement within extremely gendered conceptions of personal/emotional life. They are dragged away from being either workers or social actors by also being women.
The better course to have taken would have been to trump RTD’s failed (self-betrayed) project to fully embrace the companion as transitioning from the truncation of personal life under neoliberalism into independant – sometimes emancipatory – social action. Instead, one way or another, Moffat does the exact opposite.
March 27, 2014 @ 9:04 pm
Did you throw this together just now, based on that brief bit of facebook silliness? If so, I'm impressed 🙂
I agree that the way RTD's companions' development into social actors is undermined is a betrayal. And I think your observations about the Ponds and their daughter are pretty much spot-on. I'll have to have a think about what you've sad about Clara, cos I don't think I'm quite getting what you're saying there – it's less to do with your writing than my comprehension. Are you saying that Clara becomes the quintessential modern worker because she fully and unquestioningly embraces the necessity of the fractured self to meet the various demands made of her?
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March 28, 2014 @ 5:30 am
I might not use the term "quintessential" myself, but otherwise I think you put it well.
March 28, 2014 @ 6:13 am
I'm not quite sure sure what your argument is here. That it's impossible to be a 'social actor' with a spouse and a job fighting aliens?
Oh, and could you point me to the essay where you explain what you mean by social actor? The meaning isn't made apparent in this context.
March 28, 2014 @ 6:28 am
By 'social actor' I just mean someone who intervenes, as part of a collective endeavour, in wider societal conflicts, with societal objectives. Definitely possible to be a social actor with a spouse. In fact, the most obvious objection to what I've said about Amy is that she does just that. She continues to have adventures after marriage. But I think there's a marked difference between what she does and what, say, Rose does (before the character of Rose goes wrong). Listen to Rose's statement of priorities in 'Parting of the Ways', for instance. To be fair to Moffat, the idea that there's some kind of antithesis between being a social actor and having a domestic life is not his alone. Indeed, the idea of such an antithesis is part of what goes so horribly wrong at the end of RTD's tenure… though even when Martha and Mickey get together (so, so wrongly) they are still out there, actors in the world, fighting.
March 28, 2014 @ 8:00 am
Fascinating. So, is this your conception of what another critic might have called "The Problem of Susan"? Of course, as you pointed out, Amy's role as a "social actor" (in the sense of having adventures, which is odd as a definition) doesn't end at The Big Bang, but I'm not sure to what extent we can assume it ended as of The Angels Take Manhattan either. The previous episode indicated that she became a journalist, and afterwards we have indications that she adopted and became a writer.
March 28, 2014 @ 8:28 am
I wouldn't define being a social actor as 'having adventures'. Indeed, the distinction is crucial. And, sure, Amy is active in the world after her departure from the TARDIS. But here we're paying far too much attention to diegetic information which is provided to us, as opposed to what we actually see characters doing in the texts.
March 28, 2014 @ 1:26 pm
I would really love to see just one companion on the new series who had an intellectual passion of some kind and travelled with the Doctor at least in part in order to satisfy it. Archaeology would have worked. Botany would have worked. Even medicine would have worked. Biology? Geology? Anthropology? Even linguistics, if you could shut off the telepathic translation feature from time to time. Picture it: they visit strange worlds and strange times because the companion wants to check out their microbes or their eyebrow-based language, and gradually the companion becomes just as engaged by the social issues they encounter as the intellectual pursuit.
March 28, 2014 @ 3:29 pm
Rose with Nine fits that description as an agent of social change. Rose with Ten is more interested in giggling with him about werewolves than helping people, and suggests that she wants to settle down back into her domestic life (though perhaps moving up in class) dragging the Doctor along with her, an idea he finds abhorrent, because he can't stop moving. Her relationship with him is the most important thing in her life, and so she presents a problem never seen in companions before or since: nothing will make her choose to leave him, so the only option is to rip her away from him for major drama. But then so strong is her drive to rejoin him that she tears holes the multiverse in order to rewrite this narrative, and is only appeased by getting a carbon copy of the Doctor for her very own. Her happy ending is the return to domesticity she wanted, along with a version of the Doctor permanently separated from his TARDIS, with only her and her domestic happy ending in his future.
March 29, 2014 @ 4:49 am
There's some truth to that, though I would say that the arc in Series 2 is supposed to be about Rose and the Doctor's thinking going wrong in various ways, leading to them getting to their comeuppance. Of course, they don't really. I won't stint on complaining about how RTD bungles it, with the appalling end to Series 2 in which Rose is forced back into a domesticity that reunites her fractured family, thus rendering meaningless all the growing she's been falteringly doing. And don't get me started on the Doctor-shaped lovetoy she acquires at the end of Series 4. Or the end of Series 4 generally.
March 29, 2014 @ 4:53 am
You get glimpses of that with Martha, even with River. River (more-or-less) as she appears in 'Silence in the Library' is a character I'd kill for. An older woman archeologist who keeps meeting the Doctor in the course of her own investigations? Wow. Just jettison all the rest of it.
TBF, we don't get much in the way of intellectually-engaged companions in the classic series, beyond occasional portrayals of Ian and Barbara, Romana and Nyssa. But the potential seems strangely more present, even at the worst of times. Even Peri occasionally gets curious about local flora.
September 6, 2014 @ 1:26 am
Of course, Evelyn Smythe is incredible.