Wednesday, 9 May 2018

When the Doctor got too big for his boots

By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster



A well-known feature of Doctor Who is the Doctor’s ability to change his/her physical appearance (and, to an extent, character) through regeneration.  This has proven an invaluable device for refreshing the programme with new lead actors.  The 2017 Doctor Who Christmas special “Twice Upon A Time” took advantage of regeneration to imagine an encounter between the twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and the first Doctor (originally William Hartnell, here David Bradley) and to explore the tensions between them.

The Doctor....and the Doctor.
I am not here referring to the rather overdone drolleries about the first Doctor’s sexism (something which was not actually so very apparent in the years when William Hartnell played the Doctor).   Rather, the first Doctor and twelfth Doctor have a series of disagreements which resonate with other political interpretations of Doctor Who

  • The first involves the protection of Earth.   When an alien entity materialises, the first Doctor tells it that Earth is a level five civilisation.  The twelfth Doctor chips in: “And it is protected!”  The first Doctor is taken aback: “It’s what?  Protected by whom?”

  • The second involves whether the Doctor is “the Doctor of war”.  The alien later declares to the first Doctor that he is known by all in the Chamber of the Dead, since he is the Doctor of war.  Indignant, the first Doctor denies being the Doctor of war.  He later misunderstands the title as meaning that the Doctor saves lives during wars.

  • The third involves the twelfth Doctor’s (and other recent Doctors’) habit of bragging.   When the twelfth Doctor threatens the alien, the first Doctor retorts: “Why are you advertising your intentions?  Can’t you stop boasting for a moment?  Who the hell do you think you are?”

The tale of two Doctors

The differences between the first Doctor and the twelfth Doctor thereby emerge as a pervasive theme in “Twice Upon A Time”.   The Doctor’s contemporary sense of self-importance and his military dimension certainly seem to form a contrast to the show’s early years, where the eccentric gentleman would gad hither and thither, meddling sporadically with no grand mission.   Yet these differences cannot entirely be ascribed to politics.  To an extent they are due to the sheer flow of time.   

The Doctor commences his role
as defender of Earth
In this regard it would be misleading to draw too bright a line between the two Doctors.  When it comes to the Doctor’s roles as protector of Earth and Doctor of war, the seeds were actually sown during the first Doctor’s era.  In “The Daleks” (1964-5) the Doctor unequivocally acts as a war leader, helping the Thals against the Daleks – who end up being exterminated.  In Doctor Who – A British Alien? (2018) I argue that the Doctor’s war is difficult to justify, since the Daleks (whose genocidal ways we do not know at this early stage) express their desire to eliminate all Thals only after the war has begun.  Furthermore in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” (1964) whilst the Doctor does not quite articulate a role as defender of Earth he nonetheless states that he must prevent the Daleks’ plans to pilot the Earth right out of its orbit since that would “upset the entire constellation”.  This was a significant development in the Doctor Who formula.  Prior to this, the Doctor and his entourage would often leave the TARDIS to see if they had landed on contemporary Earth so as to return the Doctor’s original companions Ian and Barbara back home.  They would somehow get separated from the TARDIS and the adventure would revolve entirely around the effort to return to the ship.  “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” gives the Doctor a more heroic mission. The foundations of the Doctor’s roles as Doctor of war and defender of Earth are therefore readily apparent in the first Doctor’s era. As time wore on there were more such adventures.  The instances of the various Doctors’ Earth-saving and military-style meddling simply mounted up and attained critical mass, so that the titles of “defender of Earth” and “Doctor of war” were no longer fanciful – and the Doctors had something to boast about.

The tale of two eras

By the same token, completely to exclude a political dimension is not entirely convincing either.  In the 1960s when William Hartnell played the first Doctor, British foreign policy was comparatively peaceful.  In particular, whilst expressing support for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam campaign, the 1964-70 Labour government kept British forces out of it.  The 1960s were also a time of decolonisation as the transformation from Empire to Commonwealth continued.   Against this backdrop Doctor Who could conceivably have developed to place more emphasis on the Doctor fostering co-existence and on care for the Other as well as the human/humanoid.  Alas, this did not quite happen. 


By contrast, however, post-2005 new-Who was broadcast in a very different climate.  In the wake of the 9/11 terrorism, Britain under the Labour government of Tony Blair joined the Americans in invading Afghanistan and later joined the invasion of Iraq.  Interventions in Libya and Syria also ensued.  This more aggressive stance vis-à-vis the rest of the world was reflected in Doctor Who in a critical fashion.  Undeniably the importance of the Doctor’s military and defence role has increased in post-2005 Doctor Who, reaching its logical conclusion in “A Good Man Goes to War” (2011) where the very word “Doctor” is accorded a new meaning of “mighty warrior”.  This stance is amplified by the twelfth Doctor’s opening series in 2014 where the pervasive theme was whether the Doctor was “a good man” or “a blood-soaked general”.  The programme increasingly dwells on the idea of the Doctor having fashioned a military and defence role, and does so in a very explicit way.  It also tries on occasion to soften this assessment with talk of him being “kind”, or being just “an idiot with a box” who “helps out”.  Suffice to say that sometimes the Doctor metaphorically critiques Britain’s role in the world.  Yet at other times he himself serves as a metaphor for Britain’s role in the world.  Through him, contemporary politics is exposed on screen for pitiless appraisal. 

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

A Whoniverse of Welsh women

By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster




Acting in Doctor Who used to be fraught with danger.  Concern over being typecast deterred some actors from accepting roles (e.g. Peter Jeffrey declined to play the second Doctor) or shortened the duration of their stint in the programme (e.g. Anneke Wills' Polly made an earlier exit than the production team desired).   Nowadays the culture has quite changed and the threat has receded, as evidenced by some of the plum roles in which former Doctor Who actors have subsequently excelled.

Jenny in action, accompanied by the Doctor
In this regard two crime dramas may slip under the radar, being primarily aimed at a Welsh audience. Catrin Stewart, who played Jenny Flint, Victorian maid and wife of the reptilian Madame Vastra, in Doctor Who, played policewoman Gina in S4C's Bang last year (S4C being the public service Welsh language broadcaster).  Eve Myles - Gwen Cooper in Torchwood and Doctor Who - is presently playing Faith, a solicitor, in S4C's Keeping Faith.  What is remarkable about these two programmes is how easily they can be read as more feminist than Doctor Who itself.  

Catrin Stewart's Welshness would not be obvious to Doctor Who viewers given Jenny's impeccable Cockney accent.  Yet she is indeed Welsh, and Bang was a bilingual series, with part of the dialogue in English and part in Welsh.  Given her Welshness it is regrettable that Doctor Who did not allow Stewart to use her Welsh accent as Jenny.  After all by contrast with the Welsh, Londoners and London are not exactly under-represented in Doctor Who.   Eve Myles' Keeping Faith is bilingual in a different way, with viewers able to choose between watching a version entirely in English and a version entirely in Welsh.  
Gwen and Captain Jack investigate

In the Whoniverse neither Jenny nor Gwen were allowed to entirely fulfill their potential.  In "The Crimson Horror" (2013), possibly Jenny's finest hour, she rescues the Doctor in an intrepid investigation on her own, culminating in an Emma Peel style action sequence, but her performance is undercut by being forcibly kissed by the Doctor -  a sexual assault which Alyssa Franke rightly criticises in her Whovian Feminism blog.   As for Gwen, in Torchwood she comes to assume the role of second-in-command of Torchwood Cardiff next to Captain Jack Harkness, yet not even for a short period do we see her lead the organisation.  Lorna Jowett praises Gwen for producing many critiques of Jack, but notes that when she needs more depth her family tends to get wheeled out (Lorna Jowett, Dancing with the Doctor, London: IB Tauris, 2017: 26, 52).

Perhaps one should be grateful for small mercies.  "Classic" Doctor Who (1963-89) did not exactly distinguish itself in its depiction of Welsh women.  In "The Green Death" (1973), an adventure set in Wales, Welsh women are far from prominent.  A character called Nancy actually makes the fungi-health-cake which kills the story's giant maggots, but Nancy is marginalised.  Indeed the most memorable woman in the serial (other than English companion Jo Grant) is the Doctor's comic impersonation of a cleaning lady.  In "Delta and the Bannermen" (1987) - which also has a Welsh setting - Welsh character Ray (Rachel) is relegated to being the tale's spurned love-interest.  The most high-up Welsh woman in classic Who was probably Megan Jones, head of the nationalised energy company in "Fury from the Deep" (1968), though her main contribution is to let the Doctor get on with it.

Always a worry:
Gina and her brother
By contrast with Doctor Who new and old, Catrin Stewart's and Eve Myles' characters in their Welsh crime dramas strike a more feminist note.  Bang is a series about a brother-sister relationship.  The programme persistently contrasts Gina (Stewart) with her ne'er-do-well brother.  She is clever than him, more competent, with a keener sense of public duty.  He by contrast falls (albeit from the best of intentions) into criminal ways and ends up acquiring a gun, hence the show's title, leading to mayhem.  Keeping Faith concerns a marriage in which Faith's (Myles') husband vanishes.  This leaves Faith having to juggle investigating his disappearance with keeping their struggling law firm afloat, and looking after their three children.  She makes mistakes and is herself suspected by the police of doing away with him, yet her strength of character shines out.  What unites Bang and Keeping Faith is the pervasive theme of the women outshining the men.   This rather contrasts with Doctor Who where, as Lorna Jowett points out, women characters are too often defined by their relationships with men (Lorna Jowett, "The Girls Who Waited?  Female Companions and Gender in Doctor Who" Critical Studies in Television 9:1, 77-94)
Faith encounters a rather inadequate client

Yet it ought to be the other way round.  Doctor Who, after all, is the science fiction programme.  As such it has special dispensation to depart from the real world into the realms of the speculative, the imaginative, the uncanny.  It should be able to imagine and fashion relationships which depart far from the "dominant man, subordinate woman" template of the show's 1970s era.  As Jodie Whittaker takes command of the unruly console as thirteenth Doctor, the programme has much ground to make up.  






Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Chips and the Doctor

By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

Making, serving and eating chips (fries or French fries in the US and Canada) is something which recurs in Doctor Who.  An important dish in Britain (not least as part of the famous fish and chips), chips have been used in the post-2005 programme to project the closeness between the reassuringly familiar and the humdrum. 

Chips have their downside
Thus in “The End of the World” (2005), the Doctor and companion Rose Tyler witness the final moments of the planet Earth.  The TARDIS then transports them back to contemporary London, as the Doctor grimly reflects on his own dead world and on being the last of his kind.  Rose’s response to this trauma is: “I want chips!”  “Me too!” adds the Doctor.  Chips are therefore something cheering: the familiar after the unnerving.  Two years later in “The Sound of Drums” (2007), chips again represent a clinging-to-the -familiar when companion Martha Jones buys them for the Doctor and Captain Jack Harkness, the trio having returned to Britain only to find it is being governed by despotic Prime Minister Harold Saxon, in reality the Doctor’s arch-enemy the Master, who is hunting them down.

Bill Potts winks at her love interest whilst serving her
a generous portion of chips
A decade later in “The Pilot” (2017), chips serve to make banal something previously rare in Doctor Who: a romance between two women.  New companion Bill Potts, a black lesbian, tells the Doctor a yarn in which she favoured an attractive woman with extra chips when working in the university canteen, unintentionally fattening her: “Beauty or chips.  I like chips.  So does she, so that’s OK”.  The Doctor questions whether she really came to university to serve chips and promptly offers himself as her personal tutor. 

Yet the reassuringly-familiar can blur into the dull.  In “The Parting of the Ways” (2005), the Doctor deliberately separates himself from Rose to save her from the Daleks, sending her back to present-day London.   Her mum Jackie and friend Mickey take her to a chicken-and-chip shop to have chips.  Rose mentions eating chips as part of the routine of the mundane life, contrasting that to the better way of living shown by the Doctor where “you make a stand and say no”.  Here, therefore, eating chips is not cheering but depressing.  As Ken Chen observes, the scene provides the misery of banality contrasted with the escapism of adventures with the Doctor (K. Chen, “The Lovely Smallness of Doctor Who” 2008-01 Film International 52).  Again, in “The Doctor Falls” (2017), Bill Potts’ girlfriend Heather, having saved Bill’s life by turning her into a water-based being, offers Bill a choice:
“I can make you human again…I can put you back home, you can make chips, and live your life; or, you can come with me.”
Bill seemingly opts for life in her new form with Heather, rejecting the reassurance of her previous existence in favour of adventure.  It is worth noting that the two Doctor Who companions particularly associated with chips - Rose Tyler and Bill Potts - are (alongside 1960s companion Ben Jackson) the Doctor's only working class companions in the Doctor's largely middle class cohort of TARDIS fellow-travellers.  


Companion Rose Tyler shows her fondness for chips
One instance of Doctor Who’s use of chips disrupts the simple spectrum of the comforting and the familiar shading into the humdrum.  In “School Reunion” (2006) chips are deployed in something of a metaphor for privatisation.  Set in a secondary school, chips loom large in the school dinners served by Rose Tyler.  The Doctor, posing as a teacher, complains that the chips are “a bit…different” whereas Rose thinks they’re gorgeous.   Most of the teachers (who are alien Krillitane posing as humans) attach importance to the children eating the chips.  It becomes apparent that there is something odd about the oil in which the chips are cooked.  It is Krillitane oil, which boosts the children’s intelligence, enabling the alien Krillitane to use them as a giant computer.  The idea of unwholesome school dinners and the ulterior motives of those who arrange them corresponds to concerns over the contracting-out of school dinners and the way in which they contain too much processed food, leading to programmes like Jamie’s School Dinners (2005).  Yet “School Reunion” fashions a science fiction mirror image of the British problem in which poor nutrition adversely affects school performance.  Obesity, including childhood obesity, remains a major problem in Britain.  Even when it comes to chips, therefore, Doctor Who does not evade the political. 


Announcement: lecture in London on Doctor Who's politics and law: all welcome

Professor Danny Nicol will be delivering a lecture on the themes of his new book Doctor Who - A British Alien? on Tuesday 6 March 2018, 5.30pm-6.30pm at the University of Westminster, Regents Street, London.  All welcome.  Obtain your ticket via the link below.

The lecture will explore the political dimensions of Doctor Who, the world's longest-running science fiction television series, arguing that the programme is just as much about Britain and Britishness as it is about distant planets and monsters.  The lecture interrogates the substance of Doctor Who's Britishness in terms of individualism, globalisation, foreign policy adventures and the unrelenting rise of the transnational corporation.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/ssh-professorial-lecture-doctor-who-a-british-alien-tickets-41943051797

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Announcement: lecture in London on Doctor Who's politics and law: all welcome

Professor Danny Nicol will be delivering a lecture on the themes of his new book Doctor Who - A British Alien? on Tuesday 6 March 2018, 5.30pm-6.30pm at the University of Westminster, Regents Street, London.  All welcome.  Obtain your ticket via the link below.

The lecture will explore the political dimensions of Doctor Who, the world's longest-running science fiction television series, arguing that the programme is just as much about Britain and Britishness as it is about distant planets and monsters.  The lecture interrogates the substance of Doctor Who's Britishness in terms of individualism, globalisation, foreign policy adventures and the unrelenting rise of the transnational corporation.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/ssh-professorial-lecture-doctor-who-a-british-alien-tickets-41943051797

Sunday, 26 November 2017

It's grim up Doctor Who's North


By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

Doctor Who is not just science fiction: it is also a television programme which seeks to represent the British nation.  In this regard, in November 2017 the British Broadcasting Corporation announced that it would arrange big-screen viewings of the Doctor Who Christmas special in advance of Christmas Day.  These would be held exclusively in towns in the North of England: Hartlepool, Hull, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Middlesbrough, Salford, Durham and Bradford, tickets to be allocated by ballot, with some preference being accorded to local people.

Clara and the Doctor follow the no-nonsense Mrs Gillyflower
in  Yorkshire-set "The Crimson Horror" (2013)

The concession to Northern England reflects the fact that the North is neglected compared to Southern England.  This in turn was reflected in the majority of voters in most Northern towns registering their dissatisfaction by voting “Leave” in the EU referendum of 2016.  This was seen as a cry of community outrage against disparities of wealth and power.  There is endless talk by government of building “economic powerhouses” in the North, but not much seems to materialise.

Yet the “concession” of an early viewing of the Christmas special seems rather tokenistic.  It is, after all, a lottery: only a small proportion of local Doctor Who fans will benefit.  Moreover the prize is double-edged, forfeiting the traditional element of surprise on Christmas Day.

There are surely more substantial ways of making Doctor Who more inclusive in terms of its representation of Northern England.

One, as argued in the blog before, would be to have the new Doctor play the role in her own accent.  Jodie Whittaker hails from Skelmanthorpe in Yorkshire, in the North of England, and has already played several prestigious roles in her own accent.  It is to be hoped that, like Christopher Eccleston, she plays the Doctor with a Northern accent.

Christmas jollities: tensions at the Yuletide table for
 Clara and family
Another way would be to have Northern companions, but to take their Northernness seriously by locating their back-stories far more markedly in the North.  The failure to do so is seen in Clara Oswald’s (Jenna Coleman’s) tenure of the role of companion.  Clara came from Blackpool, yet worked as nanny then teacher exclusively in London.  Even when she invites her family to a rather strained Christmas dinner in “The Time of the Doctor” (2013), this proves a peripheral element of the story, detached from a Northern setting.


Three Time Lords in the North East: the Rani,
 the Master and the Doctor in "The Mark of the Rani" (1985)
A third way would be to set more Doctor Who adventures in the North.  So far only two Doctor Who stories have been set in the North of England in the show’s long history.  “The Mark of the Rani” (1985) was set in North East England, with its actors failing rather lamentably with the region’s difficult accent (The film I, Daniel Blake (2016), set in Newcastle, made the better choice of using local actors).  “The Crimson Horror” (2013) was set in Yorkshire.  Depressingly, in both instances, the TARDIS had veered off course: the Doctor meant to transport his companion to a Southern English setting.  Even in the latest series the programme relocated the Doctor to a university in Bristol, another southern city, albeit in England's south west rather than the south east.  If Doctor Who is to represent Britain properly, this will require a determined effort to shift a critical mass of Doctor Who escapades from the show’s southern comfort-zone.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The lying of the land: post-truth politics in Doctor Who


By Danny Nicol
University of Westminster

Deceiving others has been part of the drama of Doctor Who since the programme’s inception.  In “The Daleks” (1963-4) the Daleks deceive the Thals, offering them food when they mean to ambush and kill them.  In “The Keys of Marinus” (1964), mind-control is used to make squalor seem like luxury.  Sometimes, however, the deception in Doctor Who is particularly strongly linked to politics here on Earth.  This theme was present in the classic era Doctor Who (1963-89) but has become even more pronounced in post-2005 Doctor Who.

Aiming to be global dictator: Salamander
“The Enemy of the World” (1967) is the story of Salamander, a would-be world dictator with a curiously strong physical resemblance to the Doctor.  Salamander is gaining power by predicting earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other natural catastrophes, and dealing with the consequences.  In reality Salamander is engineering these disasters himself.  He has deceived a subterranean group of humans that they are survivors of an endless nuclear war which they must continue to wage by creating natural catastrophes from below ground.  When he blunders and the underground people start to suspect him, one of them says: “I won’t take your word for it: I want to see for myself!” Ultimately this proves Salamander’s undoing, and the war is exposed as a myth.

Harold Saxon: British Prime Minister turned despot
Political deception becomes, if anything, an even more pervasive theme in post-2005, new-series Doctor Who.  In “The Sound of Drums”/“The Last of the Time Lords” (2007) the Doctor’s long term adversary, the Master, becomes British Prime Minister, using the name Harold Saxon.  Manufacturing a phoney past for himself, Harold Saxon never existed. The Master gets the public to believe in him, and to vote him in, by subjecting them to some form of hypnosis, suggesting an inability of the political elite to connect with people in the absence of bewitching powers.  Aspects of Saxon’s rule (cult of the individual, pursuit of celebrity, “cool Britannia”, disdain for Cabinet government) seem like a satire on Tony Blair’s period as Prime Minister.  Saxon subsequently establishes a worldwide tyranny.

More recently still in “The Lie of the Land” (2017) a species of alien monks invade Earth.  Through mind control the monks confect a past in which they have been guiding humanity since the very beginning, tenderly shepherding mankind through its formative years as part of a blissful partnership.  All they insist upon from the human race is total obedience.  In reality the monks have only been on Earth for a few months.  Anyone who points this out is imprisoned under a fictitious Memory Crimes Act 1975.  The Doctor’s companion Nardole explains: “however bad a situation is, if people think that’s how it’s always been, they put up with it”.

The public finally realise the truth about the monks
and turn on them
In his book The Rise of Political Lying (London: 2005, The Free Press), Peter Oborne advances a thesis which would explain why modern Doctor Who puts even more emphasis on political lying than classic-era Doctor Who.  Oborne contends that Britain now inhabits a post-truth political environment, and that this is new.  Reality has been replaced by pseudo-reality.  Within this construct, it is quite legitimate to deceive in order to obtain power.  The consequences can be horrendous.  For instance “in 2003 Britain went to war on the back of a fiction: the proposition that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.  It did not, but tens of thousands of people died as a result” (p.6).  Oborne further argues that New Labour in power started to mould the past to suit its own purposes, regularly attributing to ministers remarks they had not made and denying remarks which they had actually made (pp.73-7). There seemed little evidence of an upsurge of truth-telling when New Labour made way for the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition followed by a Conservative administration.

How might one explain the “abolition of the truth”?   Oborne suggests that the answer may be found in the theory of post-democracy put forward by Colin Crouch: that differences between parties have largely been replaced by the establishment of a homogenous political elite in the tradition of the pre-democratic era, and that this goes hand-in-hand with the corporate domination of our society.  (Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy (London: 2004 Polity Press.))  The political elite are striving to conceal the true nature of the entire regime, so systematic lying goes with the grain of the system.  Thus post-truth and post-democracy run together.  It is in all likelihood this predicament which contemporary Doctor Who is seeking to address.


Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Hedonistic departures from the TARDIS?

By Danny Nicol,
University of Westminster


In Doctor Who the way in which the Doctor’s companions quit the programme is important, not least for representations of gender in the show.  By indicating what is likely to happen next in a companion’s life the programme can show whether she is going to make use of the skills and sense of empowerment gained during her adventures with the Doctor.  In post-2005 Doctor Who, the Doctor’s companions have, until recently, tended to be prised out to the TARDIS against their will, but given the consolation prize of settling down with husband and home in some form.   In an article co-written with Alyssa Franke of Whovian Feminism fame
we chart how this pattern, specifically in the cases of companions Donna Noble and Amy Pond, fits with post-feminist notions of retreatism.   The piece will appear in the Journal of Popular Television in Spring 2018.
Bill takes her leave of the TARDIS with Heather

This post considers more recent departures from the TARDIS – those of Bill Potts and Clara Oswald - and their implications for representing gender and sexuality.   When in “The Doctor Falls” (2017) Bill Potts seemingly takes her leave of the Doctor the nature of her departure forms a stark contrast with that of Nardole, the series’ male companion and, I would argue, serves to undercuts her as a character.

One-series wonders: Martha Jones and Bill Potts

Companions of short duration: Martha as well as Bill
Before discussing her departure and the contrast with Nardole, the comment should be made that we are losing Bill Potts rather too early, not least given Pearl Mackie’s exceptional merits as an actor.  In particular it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth that the Doctor’s two black companions – Martha Jones and Bill Potts - only lasted one series each, whereas three white companions Rose Tyler, Amy Pond and Clara Oswald all occupied the TARDIS for two series or longer.  This discrepancy resonates with academic analyses which show that whilst Doctor Who shows admirable diversity when casting one-off characters it is poor at ensuring equality with regard to the show’s starring roles (see Lorna Jowett "Doctor Who and the politics of casting" (2018) Journal of Popular Television, forthcoming).

Bill’s short tenure might be explained by the need to “clear the decks” for new showrunner Chris Chibnall.  But why should we accept an iron law that new showrunners start with a clean slate of actors?  It is all rather precious.  The show’s longest-serving producer John Nathan-Turner inherited both a companion (Romana) and a robot dog (K9) with no ill effects.

Girls just wanna have fun?

Perhaps compared to the fates of Rose, Martha, Donna and Amy the futures envisaged for Clara and Bill are an improvement of sorts.   They are more jolly.  They are, on a superficial level, very positive about women's same-sex relationships.   They are also strikingly similar to each other, evincing a repetitiveness in Steven Moffat’s writing.

Clara and Ashildr begin their travels
Essentially, both women find a same-sex partner together with a means of travelling around time and space.  Clara finds Ashildr, a part-human immortal, and goes off in a spare TARDIS.   Bill is rescued from existence as a Cyberman by Heather, who was transformed into a water-based alien able to transcend time and space in Bill’s introductory story “The Pilot” (2017).

So for Clara and Bill alike travel and adventure beckon.  Yet for both women everything about the future is left rather vague.  In particular, what exactly are our two heroines doing, zapping through the galaxies on their romantic, fun-filled travels?   Is there actually any point to this endless milling around? 

Since no other motivation is expressed it would seem that Clara’s and Bill’s travels are intended as a fun-seeking exercise, their mission is to please themselves. Yet this life of sight-seeing and pleasure-seeking is ultimately somewhat empty, though rather in line with the spirit of the age.  David Ciepley has observed that modern capitalism has come to rely on hedonism which has displaced the Protestant work ethic.  Capitalism has fashioned an individualist society in which work is not “a calling” but a means of consumption.  The short-term focus of the hedonist has, under neoliberalism, gained control of the arena of production.  ((2017) 1 American Affairs 58-71).   Oliver James contends that under neoliberalism, status-competition for consumer goods accelerated and became a social imperative (The Selfish Capitalist, London: Vermillion, 2008) 152-3).   It could be argued that more recently the acquisition of experiences has perhaps partially eclipsed the acquisition of possessions as a target for getting-and-spending.   Yet the mildest tweaking of Clara’s and Bill’s departures could have served to indicate that there was some more virtuous, unselfish purpose to their future adventures than a quest for personal enjoyment. 

Nardole’s nobler calling?

Nardole is tasked with saving the children
By contrast Nardole has a nobler finale.  He leaves when the Doctor charges him with defending a group of people – mainly children – from being turned into Cybermen.  He is thereby made a welcome addition to the rather short list of Doctor Who companions who explicitly leave life in the TARDIS to go off to do something worthwhile.  Steven Taylor departs in “The Savages” (1966) in order to act as an “honest broker” leader between two ethnic groups, the Elders and the Savages.   Nyssa leaves in “Terminus” (1983) in order to help cure people suffering a deadly disease.  And Romana leaves in “Warriors’ Gate” (1981) in order to save an alien species.  (“Will she be alright?” queries the Doctor’s remaining companion Adric: “Alright?” retorts the Doctor, "She'll be superb!”)
Magnificent Romana begins her new mission

Against this backdrop there is something rather demeaning to Clara and Bill that their departures are depicted in purely hedonistic terms.  It also devalues the portrayal of their same-sex relationships.  For many individuals, “pure” pleasure-seeking, bereft of concern for a community, is ultimately unsatisfying.  It ought to be all the more unsatisfying to viewers of Doctor Who, a programme which is often about intervening in support of the endangered or oppressed.