DAYS TO DOCTOR WHO IN THE US: 4
For the previous Moffat’s Women piece, which is devoted to Sally Sparrow, CLICK HERE.
It’s as though every Doctor Who episode Moffat had written up until this point was all preparation for River Song.
“Silence in the Library,” the first of a two-part story in Series 4, finds The Doctor and Donna mysteriously summoned to The Library, a planet-sized treasure trove of books and information. As things start getting weird, an archaeological expedition joins them, led by the indomitable River Song, a woman who seems to have history with The Doctor, despite it not having happened yet. The group encounters the Vashta Nerada, a piranha-like species that hides in the shadows. In Part Two, “Forest of the Dead,” the entire group deals with intense loss, The Doctor and Donna are both tested, and River is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. All the while, a child watches it all on her TV screen, calling the place “her” library.
“Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead” excel in female characterization, because it isn’t just that there’s one female character that shines. Moffat has created a cast full of complex female characters, when it might have been easier to have them stand around as set dressing, or even just make them male. Moffat even goes so far as to give two of the male team members the same name, calling them Proper Dave and Other Dave, emphasizing the redundancy of the men in the episode!
In a strange way, it reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill in that when a male character dies, it’s comedic and their deaths are laughably easy, but the women suffer, fight, and die like warriors. In the case of Kill Bill, Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo quickly dispatches with the men of the Crazy 88; Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver doesn’t even bother fighting Budd, choosing instead to trick him into being bitten by a black mamba in a suitcase full of money; and crazy, 17-year-old Gogo stabs a hapless flirt in a bar just because. When the women interact, however, it becomes another story. Even as Beatrix is fighting a nameless female member of the Crazy 88, everything else around them stops, and they fight each other with respect, even as Beatrix’s just easily sliced and diced her way through her male counterparts. Beatrix then goes on to fight O-Ren Ishii, Vernita Green, and Elle Driver in brutal, drawn-out fight sequences that treat all the women involved as capable soldiers. It isn’t titillating, and it isn’t done to emphasize the difference in their gender, and it isn’t done to show that women somehow fight “like men.” It shows that women are skilled, brutal, forceful, and determined. Those are not instances of women taking on male attributes; they’re instances of women being what they are.
Obviously, Moffat’s episodes of Doctor Who aren’t nearly so blood-soaked, but the comparison is apt because the women of “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” also suffer, fight, and die like warriors, whereas the men are killed and used by the Vashta Nerada like puppets.
ANITA The Doctor “really liked her,” and it’s easy to see why. Though she had the least lines and the least involvement in the story, whenever she was on screen, you knew you were in the presence of someone strong, funny, and capable. She wasn’t without flaws. Anita was just as guilty of being judgmental and saying snide things behind Miss Evangelista’s back, which I’ll get to in a moment, so she wasn’t a model of perfect human suffering being martyred either. She was a complete, complex human being, despite her limited role. Though she was afraid, even “stooping” to the very feminine sin of crying, she died bravely. Both Moffat’s words and a strong performance from Jessika Williams made what could’ve been a cardboard cutout of a character completely lived-in and real.
MISS EVANGELISTA Strackman Lux’s assistant is intriguing precisely because Moffat starts her out as a stereotype of what a female character should be in a life-threatening situation like this. She stands around useless. She is well-intentioned, but doesn’t really know how to do much of anything. The team members taunt her behind her back and think her stupid, which she sort of is. However, this is less a matter of fact and more a matter of a lack of confidence on Miss Evangelista’s part, which highlights a problem many women deal with. Apparently, someone somewhere in society decided that good looks and intelligence are mutually exclusive, particularly in the case of women. Women aren’t allowed to be both, and a woman who is both is highly suspect. So, if she is good-looking which is obvious. Just look at her! chances are she’s not really as smart as all that. I mean, how could she be, right? It is clear that Miss Evangelista’s not being too quick on the draw has as much to do with how she’s treated than with her actual ability. Her death is heartbreaking, and a good five minutes of the episode are devoted to it, highlighting not only how wrong people were to have misjudged her, but also highlighting one of Donna’s strengths, which I’ll get to later. When we see Miss Evangelista again in “Forest of the Dead,” we see the whole of her purpose in the episode. Her consciousness is saved by The Library’s computer, but the file was corrupted in the transfer, leaving Miss Evangelista’s face a hideous mess. She, however, sees this as ultimate truth. She is free to be as smart as she likes and assert herself without having people be wrapped up in her looks, and she helps enlighten Donna in the process.
DONNA She was obviously not a Moffat creation, but I’m highlighting her here, because I think Moffat used her extremely well in these episodes. Donna’s been a strong female character from the get-go. She is more mature than the other companions, not in age so much as demeanor, and she has absolutely no romantic interest in The Doctor whatsoever, which allows them to truly be best friends. What Moffat gives us here is more insight into Donna underneath the defense mechanisms of humor and sarcasm. Remember, The Doctor first meets Donna on the day of her wedding; a wedding that ends up not happening because it turns out her fiancée was cooperating with an alien invasion. She is someone who wants to be in a loving relationship. When she goes off with The Doctor, since she doesn’t see him as a romantic possibility, she is essentially giving up her desire for marriage and a family in exchange for an escape from her mundane life as a temp from Chiswick. However, in “Forest of the Dead,” we see what happens when Donna gets to experience what she might have had. Despite the strange circumstances of it, she relishes having a husband and children. She is happy, and when she learns that what she’s experiencing isn’t real, it is harrowing and sad, because it is then that we see just how big a sacrifice she’s made in traveling with The Doctor. It is a common feminist ideal to “do it all”; to have the career and the husband and kids. But sometimes you can’t. Sometimes, in order to do one, you have to give up the other, and that choice is never an easy one to make. It takes a strong person to make it, and an even stronger one to be able to deal with the ramifications of regret head-on. This strength is part of what makes Donna special, but it isn’t the only thing. The other quality that is highlighted in Donna here is her ability, rather like The Doctor’s, to see potential in the unlikeliest people. When everyone else is looking down on or ignoring Miss Evangelista, Donna is the only one who treats her like a human being, deserving of respect. When Donna is inside the computer and meets Lee, the man she ends up marrying in virtual reality, she finds his stutter endearing and accepts him in spite of it. Of course, she makes a joke to The Doctor later about Lee being perfect because he was attractive and could barely say a word, but we know better. We know that she was in love, and that she was combating a great deal of pain in order to make that joke. Moffat, aided by a stunning performance from Catherine Tate, took an already phenomenal companion and made her sparkle.
CAL Moffat seems to be a fan of writing clever young girls who are self-possessed beyond their years. Originally, Sally Sparrow was a 12 year old in the short story that inspired the episode, “Blink,” and here we have Charlotte Abigail Lux, whom we come to know as CAL. At first, we see her as a young girl watching the events that unfold in The Library on television. She seems to be a child demanding to be taken seriously by her parents, which already takes a great deal of knowledge of self to do at that age. However, over the course of the episodes we discover that she is The Library, or rather, she is the library computer. Strackman Lux’s grandfather had put her consciousness into The Library’s computer core so that she could be surrounded by books for eternity, be watched over by another computer program, known as Doctor Moon, and not die of a terminal illness she suffered. Already, this character has an intriguing back story, but what makes her really interesting is the way she “saves” 4022 people into herself when the Vashta Nerada attack The Library. She does this even as it’s causing her harm, and the fact that she even thinks to do it demonstrates both a huge intelligence as well as extraordinary selflessness and compassion. Not bad for a kid.
RIVER SONG Finally, we get to River Song. She is an amazing addition to Doctor Who, because she is the only person who has ever stumped The Doctor, and it’s refreshing to see him not be so sure of himself and others for once. While she speaks cryptically, in the interest of not giving The Doctor “spoilers” about his future, we know that she has a keen mind, is madly adventurous, and is seemingly very sexual. She also know that she can keep up with the Doctor in every way, and that the future Doctor trusts her with his life, which is a huge thing. The most important thing about River, though, is that she loves The Doctor so much that she is willing to give up her life for his. However, it isn’t just about saving him either. She saves him, because if he dies then, she’ll never have met him, and she wouldn’t trade having met him for anything. She saves him, not just for his sake, but for the sake of her own happiness. And so, River Song ends up being the perfect blend of everything that makes any character, male or female, complex and interesting. She is also the culmination of everything embodied by all the other female characters in this episode. River is at once emotional and practical. She loves, but she doesn’t allow that to cloud her judgment. She is a leader. She is fun. She is powerful, and she is both fascinating in her own right as well as a doorway into a wealth of insight into The Doctor.
River Song, like the other Women of The Library, suffers, fights, and dies like a warrior. Moffat’s Women, in all their episodes, are soldiers on the front lines, steering their own courses and showing us how to steer ours. They teach The Doctor as much, if not more, than he teaches them, and they give me great hope for Amy Pond in the latest series of Doctor Who.
Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. She is 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 calledThe Pack, which is set to debut Fall 2010! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, Follow The Pack, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.