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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

28 Comments

  1. David B
    September 9, 2011 @ 2:01 am

    Good dissection of the story there and the problems/strengths that are found within it. Enjoyed reading that.

    Reply

  2. Tom Watts
    September 9, 2011 @ 3:11 am

    Have you seen Four Lions? Rather than Dad's Army, now I'm reminded of the Time Warrior, with its portrayal of incompetent, innocent thuggishness, set against the more refined idiocy of Dot Cotton and her husband.

    But I want to take issue with your comment on the way Holmes tends to start on the good guys (with all the malicious abandonment of Mr Sin at the House of the Dragon). To me, that's his major strength, and it's particularly true of The Sunmakers: he completely satisfies no-one; everyone comes from a Holmes story disappointed in some respect, with at least one small personal illusion clouded. Far from being irresponsible, I think it's a sign of artistic courage (which just means to say "I like it", because courageous comedy is always irresponsible). It's supremely comforting TV which is never somehow comfort food. It's also a bit punk: there's an side to a lot of great creative works that sneers and gobs at the audience. Why should sensitive and intelligent young women be made to feel welcome?

    And I want to raise a flag now to state, pre-emptively, that Invasion of the Dinosaurs is one of the greatest stories ever and Hulke's best script, that Monster of Peladon is just as good as Curse, that Death is a mile better than Planet (not difficult) and that, well, you get the picture. Season 11 is Pertwee's finest.

    Reply

  3. Steve Hogan
    September 9, 2011 @ 4:05 am

    I think in general there was an awkwardness in the way discussion of feminism was shoehorned into early Sarah Jane stories. I just re-watched "Robot", and it's two clunky references to the issue wind up creating a story paradox. (An organization that sneers at pants wearing women being lead by a feminist.)

    At any rate, I think the scene with Sarah Jane and the scullery maids was more so Holmes could get in the "You're all living in the Middle Ages!" punchline than a real stab at commentary. Her effectiveness at doing things throughout the story (Practically running the rival King's affairs at some points.) speaks better on the issue.

    Reply

  4. Seeing_I
    September 9, 2011 @ 4:50 am

    I agree with Steve – Holmes gets in a lot of feminism jokes, mainly by confronting SJS with brute sexism in its rawest form (you think the 1970s are sexist, try the 1270s!) – but she STILL runs rings around the brutes and even gets the drop on the Doctor.

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  5. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 9, 2011 @ 4:54 am

    But that's standard for companions. Jo did it too. So did Zoe. And Barbara. And Vicki. Being a strong female character is not a new invention in Sarah Jane. But going out of your way to put her in sexist situations so she can complain about them is.

    So basically, we have a companion who is as strong as past companions, but who is now treated with overt sexism far more often (and not just from Irongron – remember, the Doctor opens with an out of character sexist line just so that the establishing dialogue that Sarah is a feminist can take place) and who is apparently expected to justify her strength instead of just being allowed to have it.

    By any measure, this is a step backwards.

    Reply

  6. Steve Hogan
    September 9, 2011 @ 5:16 am

    That seems more like a commentary on the male characters than Sarah Jane though.

    To contrast: while Jo managed to become far more than the damsel in distress that Dicks wanted, (It's surprising to go back and see her judo chopping baddies like she's Emma Peel.) she tends to maintain a non threatening childlike waif-yness. Sarah Jane is probably less of an action heroine, but she's more independent and tends to demand respect rather than hope for paternal indulgence. It's hard to imagine her putting up with some of the condescension Jo got treated with.

    Which isn't to say how this gets handled in the series isn't awkward and off putting at times. As a general rule, middle aged men in the 60's-70's weren't particularly good at dealing with this issue.

    Reply

  7. Steve Hogan
    September 9, 2011 @ 5:36 am

    Just to compare: In the previous episode, Jo falls in love with a guy who spends the bulk of the story contemptuously treating her like an idiot, and then is hunky dory when (In what was easily the most jaw dropping moment for me.) he unilaterally declares that they are getting married when they haven't even been on so much as a date!

    Reply

  8. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 9, 2011 @ 6:03 am

    To be fair, though, I criticized that too, and part of what I criticized it for was specifically how poor a job it did of providing an adequate capstone for such an otherwise excellent companion.

    Again, my point is that Sarah Jane, at least in this story, far from being a step towards a more enlightened and feminist companion, is a visible step backwards, in that her inclusion becomes an excuse to make overt sexism a routine part of the narrative. And it's not balanced out – yeah, she's headstrong and take charge, but the scenes where she's running things are the ones where she gets it all wrong and thinks the Doctor is the bad guy. Once he meets up with her again in episode three she's disabused of that notion and becomes a good little test-tube hander for the rest of the story. Even the basic logic of her – that being a strong female character has to be explained in some fashion – is problematic.

    And there are a lot of people involved in that problem. Holmes is one of them. Dicks and Letts are probably bigger ones, given Moonbase 3 (which I just watched the last episode of last night, and it may be the most horrific piece of rape apologia I've seen in recent memory). I don't think that the "Holmes skewers everyone" argument someone gave upthread holds, though. Being an equal opportunity offender is not a virtue in a world where not everyone deserves equal attacks. It may be artistic courage, but its morally bankrupt to turn feminism into an object of mockery.

    I mean, obviously Sarah Jane turns out all right. Better than all right, really. She's one of the best female characters in television history, and has done indescribable good in terms of giving young female viewers someone to look up to on television.

    But she had a rough start.

    Reply

  9. Gnaeus
    September 9, 2011 @ 6:10 am

    To begin with, sorry, but this is one of those little things that bug me:

    "really reaches a head with the wiping out of the Heath Prime Ministership."

    I think you mean either the Heath Premiership or the Heath Ministry. I have no idea whether "Prime Ministership" is officially acceptable or not, but it's an immensely clumsy usage, regardless.

    Sorry, I know it's a minor thing.

    Reply

  10. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 9, 2011 @ 6:11 am

    No, I appreciate it. I couldn't remember the correct term, and that was a guess. Premiership. Excellent. The mistake shall be made no more. 🙂

    Reply

  11. Steve Hogan
    September 9, 2011 @ 7:37 am

    It's possible that I'm a bit influenced by an earlier recap by Christopher Bahn over at the AV Club website:

    http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-time-warrior,60140/

    (It's worth noting that a link in his previous entry on The Mind Robbers was how I found your blog.)

    He has a more benign take on the episode, suggesting that The Doctor was kidding about the coffee, that Sarah made a reasonable mistake about the Doctor's intentions and that the bit with the kitchen wenches was just a setup for a funny line.

    I guess arguments can be made for both interpretations, and certainly differing opinions are what keep the internet interesting. I personally don't see this episode so much as "Let's dump on the feminist" as trying to squeeze some (Awkward) topical humor out of a character who's a different sort of female companion.

    I would agree though that the show was probably doing a better job with female companions in earlier stories where it wasn't self conscious about gender issues and focused more on individual personalities. Sarah Jane becomes a better character when she stops being pigeonholed as "Sarah Jane: FEMINIST!" and is allowed to simply be the sort of person a feminist would admire.

    At least one sexist aspect we should all agree on: why the Hell didn't anyone evacuate those poor kitchen wenches from the castle?

    Reply

  12. inkdestroyedmybrush
    September 9, 2011 @ 9:06 am

    I tend to agree with the other writers of the comments section, that Holmes isn't dumping on Sarah Jane so much as he is struggling with writing up to the times: i.e. working hard to decide how to deal with these bra-burning feminists from the real world in fiction. And, lets face it, he doesn't do that great a job. He's saved, of course, by Lis Sladen bringing warmth and conviction to the character,as well as dignity in a socially explosive situation.

    I'm not sure that i see Holmes' greatest failing as a writer being his cynicism. It may have been too openly acknowledging his influences and not trying as hard as he could to make them in to something the resembled new. Certainly, when given the opportunity to, he was able to infuse his parables with memorable characters that would elude almost all the rest of the writers for Doctor Who combined. Did anyone else ever spend the time to develop a Binro in Ribos?

    It certainly seems like, when Holmes knew what he had in Lis that he was able to stop with the "Sarah Jane: Feminist!" declarations (post Robot) and come up with more subtle touches of male/female dynamic that said the same thing: i.e. the crawling through the air ducts scene in Ark. Baker's taunting of her is a far better showing of the Doctor's confidence in her, and his belief in her ability to handle the job while teasing her with something that we know will just get under her skin.

    Reply

    • Elton Townend-Jones
      September 14, 2021 @ 3:28 pm

      Y’know, I’ve been watching this funny little monster show for 50 years next year, and the more I think about it, the more I prefer Holmes as a script editor than as a writer.

      Reply

  13. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 9, 2011 @ 9:31 am

    I certainly agree that it's under Holmes that Sarah Jane becomes a feminist icon instead of becoming a badly done attempt at pandering. But that doesn't reduce the problems of this script.

    Reply

  14. 7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194
    September 9, 2011 @ 9:52 am

    "the show's reaction to feminism is actually to make its major characters more sexist"

    That seems to have been the standard way that 70s shows tried to address feminism — to make the male characters even more overtly sexist than usual so the female characters could then complain. (That's not a defense! Just an observation.)

    "the Doctor opens with an out of character sexist line"

    But to be fair, the Doctor was dying! And sexist remarks are totally ok when you're dying.

    Oh sorry, wrong episode.

    Reply

  15. 7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194
    September 9, 2011 @ 9:57 am

    Although this is a bit ahead of the schedule, I always thought Sarah Jane's departure in The Hand of Stony Badness, where she fakes a petulant tantrum while wearing an absurd children's costume, was a particularly weak and unfortunate closeout for her character.

    Reply

  16. Steve Hogan
    September 9, 2011 @ 10:49 am

    Well as Phillip's blog does an excellent job of pointing out (And even though I've been disagreeing a little here, I'm still a big fan.) this is a show that's constantly trying to figure out how to do different things. (And not always getting it right the first time.)

    And when it comes to unfortunate closeouts and bad outfits, poor Sarah's still got that K-9 pilot to get through…

    Reply

  17. 7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194
    September 9, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

    I rather like Sarah in the K-9 pilot. It's a good presentation of her character.

    I don't much like anything else in the K-9 pilot, though.

    Reply

  18. Steve Hogan
    September 10, 2011 @ 4:00 am

    I'm just thinking of the hair and leg warmers. She looks like she's heading off to a hot date with Napoleon Dynamite.

    Reply

  19. Keith
    September 10, 2011 @ 6:08 am

    Regarding the issue of feminism in this episode, what about Lady Eleanor? I seem to recall the script treating her character like a good version of Lady MacBeth, prodding her weak-willed husband to make the right choices.

    Reply

  20. Gavin
    September 11, 2011 @ 2:51 am

    I might cautiously try to split the difference.

    First, the original post is absolutely, unquestionably right (that is, in my opinion…) that the Doctor is characterized as sexist.

    I'd maybe quibble about how out of character it is. I feel that it only explicitly articulates something that was implicit in the Pertwee Doctor's relationship with Jo, as well as in his general aura of old-fashioned male authority. To a certain extent, this is hard-wired into the set-up that the Pertwee era introduced (which then became the default norm for DW): the Doctor as male lead with a young woman as female lead.

    This is not, obviously, the Doctor as we would like him to be, but I don't think it would be anything like as jarring as (Spoilers for Let's Kill Hitler!) That Bit was in LKH.

    Second, however, there are certain aspects of The Time Warrior that palliate what Philip is complaining about. (Palliate, no more than that. There's still a problem.)

    1) Sarah Jane is playing the straight man role that Philip earlier discussed in connection with the Brigadier: the sane and sensible person who refuses to see that she's entered an insane world. The association of this role for the previous three years with a quintessential masculine authority figure cuts down on the problems with associating it with Sarah Jane here.

    It matters that she's a journalist, another stereotypically hard-headed and cynical profession. A refusal to accept surface impressions is an important aspect of the character that differentiates her from the innocent Jo (cf. Robot). This story turns this up to 11 for humorous effect, but it's still a fundamentally admirable aspects of the character (much as the Brigadier's unflappability is still admirable, even when the show makes fun of it).

    2) It's crucial that The Time Warrior is set in an overtly ersatz Middle Ages, not an attempt to suggest a real visit to the medieval period.

    (This is something that I'd have been interested to read Philip discussing, since t's only in hindsight that the Sontaran and Sarah Jane is the most important thing about this episode. After all, if this blog is a meditation on utopianism, then versions of the medieval period – both a traditional British touchstone for an idealized escapist past and a byword for backwardness* – might have something to offer.)

    Anyway, when Sarah Jane believes that this must be some sort of exploitation of cliches about Merrie Olde England for tourists, she is, in a sense, completely correct. The entire thing is put together from exactly those cliches, especially as enshrined in Technicolor Hollywood epics (occasionally reversed for comedic effect). While point 1 above is about the way in which Sarah Jane is the only person who isn't in on the joke, this (point 2) is about how she's the only person who is in on it.

    *Unfairly, before a medievalist emerges to hit me.

    Reply

  21. Spacewarp
    September 11, 2011 @ 10:41 pm

    I kind of get what you're saying about he way the story treats Sarah Jane, but I don't think that's a waste of her character or in any way denigrating it. One way to highlight a particular character trait is surely to test it. A character who claims to be a pacifist is often goaded by other characters to fight, more so than normal. For example Kwai Chang Caine in "Kung Fu" or Mr Spock in "Star Trek". Arguably Spock had the mick taken out of him more than Kirk, simply to highlight the fact that he would always talk his way out of a situation rather than result to fisticuffs…until of course (like Caine) he showed that he was ultimately a better fighter than you anyway and you shouldn't mess with him.

    Surely by writing Sarah as a "modern feminist" one has to provide areas in the script to highlight this, otherwise how do you know she's a feminist? Jo Grant was written largely as a pretty blonde bimbo, long on looks but short on brains. By allowing characters to continually patronise and talk down to her, you allow her to either confirm or subvert these traits as and when the script requires. In the same way you can ask a stereotypical feminist character to "make the tea" and elicit a diatribe on how women are much better than that; or you can tell her she's looking pretty today, expecting another rant, and be surprised when she smiles and says thank-you.

    Reply

  22. Abigail Brady
    September 12, 2011 @ 3:01 am

    But there's no need for the character who makes those sexist tea-requesting comments, or the like, for the feminist character to react to and define her, to be the supposedly sympathetic leading man. I think that's the part of it I found most objectionable.

    Reply

  23. Spacewarp
    September 12, 2011 @ 3:31 am

    @Abgail Brady. But if you want to show how a character will react to someone asking them if they're gay, lesbian, feminist, or will they make the tea, then you have to have another character ask them that. We may well not like what one character says to another, but we can't argue with the writer's reasons for putting them there. We just may not understand why it was done, either because the writer didn't get the point over sufficiently, or because social mores have changed over time.

    Reply

  24. pbristow
    November 21, 2011 @ 10:49 am

    "We may well not like what one character says to another, but we can't argue with the writer's reasons for putting them there. "

    Oh yes we blinkin' well can! =:o}

    To clarify: You seem to be assuming that the author's reasosn are unknowable, and therefore inaccessible to criticism. While that may sometimes be the case, it rarely is in "Who", with such a vast wealth of disclosure of authorial (and actorial, and producerial, and… (etc.) ) intent down the years!

    Reply

  25. William Whyte
    December 21, 2011 @ 8:05 pm

    @Spacewarp: It has to be another character, but it doesn't have to be the lead character.

    Phil — you usually have a good eye for counterpoint but you seem to have missed the obvious one here. Linx isn't a stand in for the Master — he's a stand in for the Doctor. He's trapped on a planet he hates, he allies with a militaristic crowd of idiots, he helps them out, flatters them, and insults them behind their back, while all the time his main aim is to get away. I even suspect the helmet gag (with bald head underneath) is a conscious jab at Pertwee's visits to the hairdresser. The actual contrast / joke is that in the case of Linx he's even more militaristic than the idiots he ends up allying with, and that if anything leads to Linx having more fun than the Doctor did.

    On one level, this is just an observation about the effectiveness of fish out of water scenarios (and, of course, putting Sarah in the past gives us another fish out of water scenario and a clue, perhaps, that Holmes is playing this for comedy more than to make a serious point about feminism). On another, it's making a very serious libertarian/conservative statement about morality. If the Doctor and Linx map so well onto each other, the reason why Linx is bad and the Doctor is good is that Linx doesn't care about the effects he has on the primitive planet and the Doctor is very careful not to interfere with the self-progression of the human race (he saves it from invasions, obviously, but that's an effect he has on the external situation of humanity, not the internal one). He doesn't share his technology, he doesn't explain anything; in order to avoid sharing his technology he has to take on a lot of personal danger. In other words: leaving people alone to take responsibility, even if that means they get hurt in the short run (think of the diseases the Doctor could cure!), is a high moral calling.

    Maybe that's an overstatement. All the Time Warrior really says is you shouldn't give other people bigger guns. That's a low bar for morality. But even so it illuminates Holmes's approach: despite his name, the Doctor is a policeman rather than a doctor, and being a policeman is about as good as you can hope to be.

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  26. Elizabeth Sandifer
    December 22, 2011 @ 7:20 am

    … Shit, you're totally right about Linx as a Doctor parallel.

    Reply

  27. Henry R. Kujawa
    March 28, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

    Linx as Doctor parallel: BRILLIANT! I've seen this story maybe a dozen times now (and again just 2 days ago), and somehow never really noticed that.

    I sometimes wonder if I'd have come to like Sarah as intensely as I did for the whole of the 80's if I'd been able to see her 1st season before seeing her other 3 (instead of 5 years later). She is so on fire in this story, and yet it is hilarious how much she gets wrong. In her first TWO stories, she actually makes Jo seem much smarter by comparison. Then, in her 3rd story, she suddenly seems smarter than The Doctor! Half the problems in "DEATH TO THE DALEKS" began when, after she asked, "You're not going to run off, are you?" the first thing he does when she's out of sight is WANDER OFF. Idiot!

    I love to contrast Jo and Sarah. My initia reaction to Jo was identical to The Doctor. "Oh, NO!" (I really liked Liz, and was shocked when she disappeared and was replaced with… Jo.) Took me until "DAY OF THE DALEKS" to really LIKE either Pertwee OR Jo, to tell the truth. Eventually, they grew closer, in an uncle-niece sort of way.

    Compare that with Sarah. HE took to her IMMEDIATELY! I think that fire and short temper only attracted him more. A real kindred spirit. Only problem was that chip she had on her shoulder (but look at seasons 7-8 and he had an even bigger one, except around Liz). I suspect he wasn't thinking too clearly in "DEATH…" Maybe he was in love?

    I also note that Sarah, like Romana, got MUCH smarter when she stopped trying so hard to prove how smart she was. And Romana was the only one besides Sarah I ever saw as a real "perfect match" for him.

    Reply

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