It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these; eight months, in fact. However, in light of my successful panel at this year’s Geek Girl Con — Moffat’s Women: Companions, Travelers, Gender Roles and TARDISES in Doctor Who — I’ve decided to get back to it, as there are several intriguing female characters created by Moffat for his episodes that I’ve yet to talk about! There’s a queen, another Girl Who Waited, a lesbian crimefighting duo, and the many faces of a daughter who’s older than her parents. There are also some gender-related issues that have come up in Moffat’s episodes that I think merit some heavy discussion and scrutiny.
So, stay tuned to the Moffat’s Women series, because there’s oodles left to talk about!
Now, on with the show...
We meet Liz X (played by Sophie Okonedo) in the Series 5 episode “The Beast Below,” where the Doctor and Amy happen upon Starship UK in the year 3295, after solar flares have forced humanity into the skies to escape a boiling Earth. She appears to us as a mystery at first, in a long red cloak and a porcelain mask, encountering the Doctor as he investigates the strange lack of engine noise on a ship being propelled through space. We don’t know who she is, but we know she’s smart — she knows exactly why the Doctor is checking glasses of water on the ground — she knows the Doctor, and she maintains an air of authority even around him. Usually, those who know the Doctor defer to him. Yet, even before her identity is revealed, and without explaining herself to the Doctor, she orders him to help her explain the strangeness on the ship, then when he asks how he can get in touch with her again says, “I will find you.”
When she does find the Doctor later in the episode, it’s just in time to save him and Amy from an onslaught of Smilers (the creepy robots in the episode). She appears, guns blazing — in a very River-esque fashion, now that I think about it (interesting that she later holds River at gunpoint for stealing a painting in “The Pandorica Opens”) — and it’s here that she reveals her identity to the Doctor, spotlighting some choice Doctor/Royalty moments in the process (apparently “The Virgin Queen” wasn’t, and it’s all the Doctor’s fault!). It’s unfortunate that after a scene full of badassery and humor, Moffat decided to give her the most cliched, dated, corny line ever. “Basically, I rule.”
I cringe at that line every single time I watch the episode. Why didn’t Moffat just have her say “Girl Power” and flash a peace sign while he was at it? Sheesh!
However, that cringe-worthy moment is redeemed by the rest of the scene in which she is capable, confident, and even finds the time to be funny and snarky. My favorite bit is when she takes the time to notice Amy’s hair after Amy and the Doctor have made it out of the belly of the beast: “Love your hair. Shame about the sick.”
The last time we see her in the episode is when she is confronted by advisors who, unbeknownst to her, were acting on her orders to capture and torture the star whale around which they built Starship UK to carry them to safety, while allowing her to forget so that she could remain “the heart of this nation, untainted.”
Liz X is intriguing to me for many reasons. She takes her duty to her country very seriously. Yes, she was born to rule, but she also cares about ruling well and being fair, and sometimes that means making very difficult choices for the good of the people. It’s interesting that, in this episode, the Doctor gets all uppity about the life and death choices he has to make and says that “nobody human has anything to say to me today,” as if he’s the only one who has to make tough calls. He totally ignores the fact that he is making the exact same choice Liz X made without the Doctor’s know-how. Had Liz X, or anyone on her staff, had the knowledge to be able to do what they did in a way that was painless for the star whale, everything we learn in the episode about her personality leads me to believe that she would have done it. Liz X made the best choice she could with the options and the information she had, and she made that choice not out of malice, or concerned with her own power, but for her people.
This episode, to me, was one of the Doctor’s lowest moments, in that he allowed his self-pity at being an alien among humans, at being the last of the Time Lords, to affect his decision making, heartlessly yelling at Liz and Amy about more than just the torture the star whale was forced to undergo. He was angry because he felt small and alone, and he didn’t like it, and he projected himself onto the star whale in a negative way. Amy, meanwhile, having had a lifelong relationship with the Doctor had that knowledge to work with. Whereas the Doctor knew how to send an electrical charge that would make the star whale brain dead without killing it so Starship UK could go on, Amy knew the Doctor, and was able to project the Doctor onto the star whale in a positive light, saving them all by knowing that the star whale, like the Doctor, would volunteer to help, because it couldn’t stand to see children cry.
Liz X is a capable and fair leader with a heart, saving her nation the only way she knew how. What I have mixed feelings about, however, is her choice to forget. To remain the “untainted” heart of the UK. She is clearly intelligent and strong enough to rule a nation, and yet she placed the moral burden of the choice she made on those working for her, rather than taking it on herself. So, she was strong enough to make the hard call, but she wasn’t strong enough to live with it? Is she a captain that wouldn’t go down with her ship?
Or is that wisdom, and knowing her limitations? She knew she couldn’t live with her choice, so she implemented a plan to have the choice be carried out in spite of her. I go back and forth on whether or not this is a good thing, and I can’t help but think of her advisors who don’t get the luxury she does of not knowing what’s going on. And yet, with their limited knowledge, the only other option was letting her nation die, and it becomes much more difficult to worry about morality when you’re worrying about survival.
Something I noticed when rewatching the episode was that if you changed the relevant gender pronouns, Liz X could have easily been a male character. There was nothing in her dialogue that was stereotypically female. In fact, even her lines about her relatives, calling the Doctor a “bad, bad boy” for his dalliance with Elizabeth I, could’ve been seen as a chiding, feminine comment or a permissive men’s locker room comment. In Liz X’s case, I think it was both! She didn’t fall in love with the Doctor, or anyone else either, as her priority was the UK. Her one nod to femininity was in complementing Amy’s hair, and even that was a positive female moment in that it was a genuine compliment and apology for what Amy had just been through. As far as I’m concerned, the more we can see women being friendly and supportive with each other and not competing or talking about men on television, the better.
Lastly, it’s important to acknowledge that Liz X is black, which makes me happy for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that it gives female, black Whovians an awesome character to cosplay other than Martha (more, please!). I’m not sure if her race was mentioned in the script, or if it was a matter of casting Okonedo after the fact, but it added an interesting, subtle nuance to the episode, acknowledging that somewhere in the millennia between now and Starship UK, people of different races married into the Royal Family. That shouldn’t be a shocker, or a novelty, but I suppose it is. The most interesting thing about that, and the thing that leads me to believe that her race was written into the script, is that we don’t know that she’s royalty until she starts to talk about it. I wonder if having a white actress play that role would’ve been too much of a “giveaway?” If so, was that a decision on Moffat’s part, or is that baggage that viewers bring with them? What does it mean if a viewing audience would “never suspect” that a black woman is the Queen of England until a big reveal? What does it mean if a writer plays on that audience reaction for dramatic effect? Again, I have mixed feelings about the character from this perspective, as I go back and forth between thinking the character’s race is a progressive choice or thinking it an unconscious product of racism.
Liz X is not set-dressing, or someone’s girlfriend. She and the Doctor are more similar than he might like to admit, and she is clearly a powerful woman without being completely emotionless. The fact that the character, on paper, could be male or female is probably the role’s largest asset for me, while the character’s race allows for a larger conversation to be had about representation in the media. Liz X is a complex, intelligent, nuanced, strong, but flawed human being, and it’s this complexity in the character that makes her one of Steven Moffat’s more successful female characters.
What do you think of Liz X?
And don’t forget that DOCTOR WHO IS BACK this Saturday, September 1st at 9PM on BBC America!
Teresa Jusino loves “The Beast Below” more every time she watches it, which is weird since she wasn’t crazy about it when she first saw it. Her Feminist Brown Person take on pop culture has been featured on websites like ChinaShopMag.com, PinkRaygun.com, Newsarama, PopMatters.com, and she’s recently joined Al Día, the #1 Spanish-language newspaper in Philadelphia, as a pop culture columnist. 2012 will see Teresa’s work in two upcoming non-fiction anthologies, and she is also a writer/producer on Miley Yamamoto’s upcoming sci-fi web series, RETCON, which is set to debut in 2013. For more on her writing, get Twitterpated with Teresa, “like” her on Facebook, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.