Moffat’s Women #1: Nancy

On the BBC America website’s Doctor Who page, the description of Karen Gillan, the actress who will be playing 5th series companion, Amy Pond, contains this quote from Who’s new showrunner, Steven Moffat:

We saw some amazing actresses for this part, but when Karen came through the door the game was up. [She’s] funny and clever and gorgeous and sexy. Or Scottish, which is the quick way of saying it. A generation of little girls will want to be her. And a generation of little boys will want them to be her too.

OK…well, I’m glad he has so much faith in his new leading lady, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing her. At the same time, when I first read that quote, something hit me the wrong way. Funny. OK, great! Clever. Awesome! We like clever! Gorgeous. Well, duh. Just look at her. And sexy. Um, OK, I get it. She’s hot. And then he throws in the bit about how all little boys will want all little girls to be her, and that’s when my panties started to bunch. Will those little boys want little girls to be her because she’s funny….clever….or gorgeous and sexy? I mean, hopefully all four of those things (which are really three), right? Right? *sigh* I decided not to be such a whiny girl about it, unbunched my panties, and thought nothing more of it. Surely, I was overreacting. I mean, they’re not trying to market this new series of Doctor Who the way SyFy is marketing Caprica, right? Then I started seeing the tribute videos on YouTube with the hot photos and all the *drools* and the “I’d bone her”s and the “She’s totally hot”s, and I thought Oh my God, this really IS all anyone cares about, isn’t it?

But then I decided to breathe. After all, it’s the writing of the show that will determine whether or not Amy Pond is a fully realized character or a pin-up that gets lines, and on that score, I have oodles of faith in Moffat. After all, he’s responsible for not only some of the best Doctor Who episodes (“Blink” and “The Girl in the Fireplace,” for starters), but for some of the most interesting, complex, and powerful female characters on the show. And so, to remind myself, and the world, of this, I’ve decided to spotlight Moffat’s Women! Because, well…what the hell ELSE are we supposed to do until the spring?

Allons-y! (*sniff*)

NANCY

In the 2005 Series 1 episodes  “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances” (a two-episode story), the character of Nancy could have easily been a caricature in the wrong hands. In it, The Doctor and Rose end up in London during The Blitz, having chased a mysterious cylinder through space. They end up coming across a little boy in a gas mask (the titular Empty Child, whose name is Jamie), who keeps asking for his mother. Meanwhile, there seems to be an epidemic of people in gas masks who have lost themselves, everything in their heads wiped clean and replaced with a single question, “Are you my Mummy?” The Doctor and Rose, together with Captain Jack Harkness (making his first appearance in this episode!) attempt to piece together the mystery of the strange malady and figure out what connection it has to the fallen cylinder. And then there’s Nancy, a London girl who is the leader of a band of homeless children, all orphaned or having escaped evacuation. She, too, is connected to Jamie, who seems to be following her and the children, and whose touch causes the strange illness.

Nancy is brave and resourceful, providing for her makeshift family by going out to scavenge for food in people’s homes during air raids, when all of London’s citizens are in their bomb shelters. When The Doctor’s TARDIS phone rings despite it not working, Nancy happens to be passing by and warns him not to answer it. When he surprises her and the children by turning up at dinner, despite the precariousness of her situation, she remains collected, addressing The Doctor’s questions, being firm with him when asking him to leave, and coolly ushering the children out of the house when Jamie finds them yet again. Despite her own fear, which is clear all over her face when she is alone with Jamie, she never lets it show in front of the children, for whom she has to set a calm example. Instead, she tries to instill civility into them, despite their “living rough” during wartime, by reminding them to do things like “chew [their] food.”

It is clear from what we see of her in “The Empty Child” that Nancy is symbolic of England during WWII: persevering, remaining civilized, keeping a stiff upper lip, and fighting back when necessary. Or, as The Doctor puts it:

Nothing can stop [the German war machine]. Nothing. Until one tiny, damp little island says “No!” No, not here! A mouse in front of a lion. You’re amazing, the lot of you. Don’t know what you do to Hitler, but you frighten the hell out of me. Off you go, then. Do what you’ve got to do. Save the world.

We see more of what keeps Nancy from deteriorating into Clichéville in “The Doctor Dances.” She is caught stealing food red-handed by the family’s patriarch, who’s called the police and reprimands her saying that “the sweat of his brow” put that food on his table. Instead of becoming flustered, or resorting to feminine wiles or crying to get out of her situation, she reveals that she’d been casing the house and watching him for weeks, and suggests that if the gentleman doesn’t provide her with everything she asks for, she will correct the neighbors’ assumption that he has so much food because his wife is sleeping with the butcher by informing them that it’s not the wife that’s doing the butcher-shagging. When he looks at her, clearly defeated, she delivers one of the best lines of the episode: “Ah. There’s the sweat of your brow.”

Her wit is something else that sets her apart and makes her memorable. In a scene where The Doctor has followed her, they have this fun exchange:

Nancy: How did you follow me here?
The Doctor: Good at following, me. Got the nose for it.
Nancy: People can’t usually follow me if I don’t want them to.
The Doctor: My nose has special powers.
Nancy: Really? Is that why it’s so…
The Doctor: What?
Nancy: Nothing.
The Doctor: What?
Nancy: Nothing.
[pauses]
Nancy: Do your ears have special powers, too?

When she’s captured by the military, and handcuffed in the same room with an infected soldier, she demands to be set free, trying to tell the soldier while he still has a mind that “It’s too late for [him], but not for [her].” When he finally transforms completely, becoming another Empty Child, she buys herself time and keeps safe by singing the “child” to sleep with a lullaby. What’s interesting about Nancy, too, is that later, she’s smart enough to believe Rose when she tells her that she and The Doctor are time travelers, but she’s so jaded by the war that she doesn’t believe they’re from The Future, because she doesn’t believe there’ll be one.

And lastly, there’s the heartbreaking reveal at the end of the episode that she isn’t Jamie’s sister, as she’s insisted throughout the entire story, but his mother. Pregnant as a single teenager in 1941, she hid, and when the child was born, she lied to him to protect them both by telling him he was her brother. And so we realize that all this time, as painful as we’ve thought it was that she has to run from her empty shell of a brother, she is actually running from the empty shell of her son. And how much more of a burden is that to bear? In the end, the survival of humankind as they know it is on her shoulders, and she bravely, without knowing what the consequences will be, steps forward to face Jamie and answer his question. I am your Mummy. I will always be your Mummy.

These episodes were blessed to have a finely-etched performance from Florence Hoath in the role. However, it was Steven Moffat’s writing and the very specific way in which he took great care to give her a personality that make Nancy the successful character she is.  These two brilliant episodes of Doctor Who demonstrate that even supporting female guest roles can have the emotional weight and depth of a male lead.


Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. She is the NY Geek Culture Examiner at Examiner.com, and she’s also a contributor to PinkRaygun.com, a webzine examining geekery from a feminine perspective. Her work has also been seen on PopMatters.com, on the sadly-defunct literary site CentralBooking.com, edited by Kevin Smokler, and in the Elmont Life community newspaper. She is currently writing a web series for Pareidolia Films called The Pack, which is set to debut Summer 2010! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, Follow The Pack or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.

12 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!