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New Who 9.4 Before the Flood

Right, I'm ready to write about Doctor Who now. So, basically I liked this episode. I liked the self-referentially paradoxical time-travel stuff; I liked the Doctor breaking the fourth wall to narrate his own story at the start of the episode; I liked that it was actually the TARDIS which stopped the Doctor from trying to change time even when he'd decided to break the rules; I liked the character-driven drama and the creeping sense of tension and the visual realisation of it all. Fundamentally, I feel we've now had four strong episodes in a row - which hasn't happened for a long time.



There is a trope in SF and horror stories which has annoyed me for a long time, which involves a woman being told to stay somewhere safe by the male characters, her refusing to follow their advice and going off on her own into danger anyway, and then her getting into danger and / or compromising the success of whatever mission they are all involved in as a result. I've complained about it multiple times in reviews of such stories, for example here in relation to Isobel in the Second Doctor story, The Invasion (1968) or here in relation to Jessica Van Helsing in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), and it's now occurred to me to check whether or not it has an entry in TV Tropes. Sure enough, it seems to be a sub-type of Stay In The Kitchen, which in its simplest sense just involves men telling women to stay in the (metaphorical) kitchen, but here is extended to 'prove' that such advice should be heeded in the first place by acting out the negative consequences of women ignoring such advice.

The TV Tropes article claims that "Nowadays, when this trope is invoked, this character [i.e. the man telling the woman to Stay In The Kitchen] is unlikely to be treated sympathetically for his opinion." But there seems to be no 'nowadays' about it in Doctor Who. What we saw in this episode was exactly in line with the examples I've mentioned above - O'Donnell being told by the Doctor and Bennett (both male) to stay on board the TARDIS for her own safety, her responding with scorn and derision and coming with them anyway, and then her dying horribly about two minutes later. It doesn't matter that we learn later that the Doctor had a good reason for telling that particular character to stay somewhere safe, since he knew from the message left by his own hologram-ghost that she was going to be the next person in their party to die. Writer Toby Whithouse had a choice about which character he was going to put in that position, and it could equally easily have been the male character Bennett without making any other different to the plot. But he chose a female character.

Meanwhile, we can now also confirm that the black character who appeared to die first in last week's episode really did die - just like the one at the beginning of the previous story. That, too, was a choice, both times. I also find it pretty disquieting that this is now the second story in a row when the Doctor's actions have been motivated by Clara's death. Last time, Clara wasn't really dead, but the Doctor's belief that she was drove him towards reckless confrontation with Davros and the Daleks. This time, he deliberately tricks himself, programming his hologram to make his earlier self believe she is about to die, again in order to make himself put aside his fears of his own death and confront the Fisher King. I'm sure this is all just meant to convey how strong the emotional bond between Twelve and Clara now is, but to me it has much darker undertones. I'd like to think the Doctor is capable of doing good / strong / difficult things without needing that motivation, and I fear for what it's going to mean for Clara later in the season, too.

In short, then, we've got three really crappy discriminatory tropes in full, unproblematised flow here: Women in Refrigerators, Black Dude Dies First and Stay In The Kitchen. And what makes all this even more bizarre is how hard the Doctor Who production team is obviously trying to introduce diversity into this season's stories. We had black faces in a 12-century crowd in The Magician's Apprentice, a nearly gender-balanced cast in this story, an actual deaf actress cast to play a deaf character in this story, and (later in the season) trans actress Bethany Black - though apparently she won't be playing a trans person. All that, and yet falling face-first into obvious discriminatory tropes which anyone who has spent five minutes on internet forums discussing SF, fantasy and horror ought to be familiar with? What's going on, Doctor Who? And when can it stop?

So I feel like this is hardly a 'review' of the story at all, and just a massive rant about diversity and -isms in TV shows instead. Let me go back to the beginning - the story, as a story, was good. I liked it - I really did. Its narrative arc, its characterisation and its ideas were all good. But having tropish fails at work in the same story throws me off what would otherwise have been a very enjoyable experience, and ends up making all the actually-good drama fade away into the background. I'd really like to not have to keep being distracted from a show and character I otherwise love by all this.

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( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 12th, 2015 05:32 am (UTC)
I think these are very fair points - although, minutes before O'Donnell got killed I was saying to my daughter, "New companion material? She's feisty, excited about the Tardis, doesn't stay where she's been told - all requirements for the job." And even after her violent death had rendered that prospect less likely (with Doctor Who you never know for sure), I watched Clara leave the safety of Faraday cage that she herself had declared she must stay in, along with Cass, who was defying Clara's orders even more blatantly than O'Donnell had resisted the Doctor's. Only Cass survived, of course, as did Clara. Perhaps then it's only when a man's order to Stay in the Kitchen is defied that it's punishable by death?
Oct. 12th, 2015 12:16 pm (UTC)
Plus O'Donnell was clearly being held up as a mirror for Clara/predictor of where things are going. O'Donnell got demoted for being a bit too reckless, thought she knew better, was bristling with hubris (like Rose before Doomsday and Clara now), paid for it with her death. So no, it wouldn't have worked with Bennett, because he was weedy and cautious and nothing like Clara (as well as being male).
Oct. 12th, 2015 06:49 pm (UTC)
Plus O'Donnell was clearly being held up as a mirror for Clara/predictor of where things are going

Do you think so? I freely admit that I watched this episode with a pretty zonked-out head on, having had to work all day at a University open day, so I very probably missed cues which set that up.
Oct. 12th, 2015 08:19 pm (UTC)
Yep. I thought the parallels were quite clear, and we've had plenty of indicators that Clara thinks she is the Doctor and has been hardened by travelling with him, but believes he owes her and must never leave her. And then Clara was asked by Cass if she'd always put people's lives at risk (which is something O'Donnell had done in her previous role, in UNIT intelligence) or if that was something she'd picked up from the Doctor. Everything is set up with foreshadowing for Clara to die and to die because she takes a stupid risk rather than a brave one. Whether or not that will actually happen...
Oct. 12th, 2015 06:47 pm (UTC)
Perhaps! I don't expect there is any very consistent vision behind it - indeed, the lack of any overview of how these things play out is rather the heart of the problem. I agree that O'Donnell was a great character before she died, though.
Oct. 15th, 2015 11:29 am (UTC)
You make a valid point about O'Donnell. I was focus on her point of not being told what to do and "don't mess with me attitude". I did think it was strange that the Doctor just let her come with. Then we got the reason.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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