Defence in Heaven II: Feminist Boogaloo
Guest contributor Kevin Burnard addresses further criticisms of the Series 8 finale.
I recently wrote an article on the misleading structure of Death in Heaven, and how it innovates what initially appears to be a very straightforward Pertwee-era narrative. However, there were still complaints, high among which was that of Clara’s appearance in the title credits, declaring herself to be the Doctor, cited by many as a ploy just for the trailers. Furthermore, I offhandedly mentioned the episode’s progressive, feminist, femaleDoctor agenda as another aspect I loved about the episode. So, hopefully tying it together, here is the impromptu sequel. For along with twisting the basic narrative structure of the UNIT-era Master invasion narrative into a quieter character piece, Death in Heaven twists the masculine, patriarchal dominance of the era, feminizing it and feministizing it to rewrite the past for modern feminist sensibilities.
First and foremost is, of course, Missy. She’s the most obvious example, being a main focus of the narrative. She is the first Time Lord to be shown in the televised show to have regenerated into a different gender, following decades of speculation and years of dialogue (largely written by Moffat) to that end. Unlike the last piece of official Doctor Who media to deal with the issue headon, Exile, a 2003 Big Finish audio, the change is entirely without stigma. Exile actively condemned the change, with the Time Lords imprisoning the alternate female Doctor largely because of her regeneration, the result of suicide. The thematic goal of the audio was to present a Doctor antithetical to the one we know and love, and changing her gender was part of that argument. Missy, meanwhile, is perfectly happy in her body. Its a wonderful portrayal full of trans positivity, a comparison emphasized by her name change, echoing the common practice of transgender individuals changing their names to fit their gender identities. The Master, a core part of the classic UNIT narrative, is transformed into a figure of transgender positivity and a signifier of the inevitable female Doctor.
However, Missy’s now explicit romantic feelings for the Doctor do create an unfortunate atmosphere of heteronormativity. Many have claimed Moffat just turned the Master into a woman so she can kiss the Doctor, which on the surface does seem plausible. However, examining Moffat’s past work, the two concepts of the Doctor/Master romance and the genderchange regeneration only ever cross once before in The Curse of Fatal Death, while they have appeared separately in numerous lines of dialogue. It seems likely to me that the two concepts only overlap because Moffat wanted to implement them both, with Missy just happening to be the first Time Lord other than the Doctor that Moffat had the opportunity in his scripts to change the gender of. Furthermore, seeing as she also offered to kiss Clara, it’s fairly evident Moffat’s goal has not been to create a straight Doctor/Master romance. The explicit writing of the Master as an LGBT character and the romantic angle between the Doctor and the Master essentially rewrites one of the main conflicts of the deeply heterosexual, masculine UNIT era into a bunch of gay flirting. It’s a ballsy, subversive retcon, though admittedly not without precedent, editing the stories of the past and present into something more progressive.
As for UNIT itself, there has been a steady move away from the boy’s club of the seventies. The erasure of Liz Shaw, written out without so much as a goodbye scene because she was too smart, has left its wound, but this has been increasingly countered by the new female UNIT. Brigadier Bambera and Martha Jones were merely the first steps, leading up to Death in Heaven, in which the new recurring face of UNIT comes in the form of Osgood and Kate. Crucially, unlike Bambera and Martha, both Osgood and Kate are modifications of classic UNIT soldiers, namely Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and Sargent Osgood, again substituting the classic UNIT era for a feminist modern narrative. Furthermore, UNIT has been reinvented as a scientific institution as of The Power of Three, repairing the wound of Liz Shaw’s departure by recasting the face of UNIT as nothing but female scientists, who themselves recast male soldiers from the seventies.
Meanwhile, the role of the soldier, classic UNIT style, falls to Danny, But in this story, Danny is not the action hero, instead being a victim and in pain. His masculinity as a soldier is deconstructed, exploring his desire to keep others safe and his guilt over harming the innocent. Emotion, a traditionally feminine trait, becomes the core of his character and a strength. Even his surname, Pink, flies in the face of the masculine ideal. Yet he ultimately is the one who saves the day, failing to conform into the emotionless, masculine soldier of the Cybermen, instead still feeling love, a strength shared by the Brigadier in another retcon of the masculinity of the Pertwee era. The ideal of the masculine, unemotional soldier is rejected. Danny Pink is upheld as the ideal, an emotional man who dies to save the one he loves. UNIT and the soldier are both rewritten as feminine and feminist. So two of the three elements of the classic Master invasion have already been rewritten, UNIT and the Master. That just leaves the Doctor.
Death in Heaven does, in fact, introduce the female Doctor. However, she is played by Jenna Coleman and goes by the name of Clara Oswald. She has been described by Moffat before as the Doctor as a girl in contemporary London, and at the very beginning of Death in Heaven she finally claims that title. Says he, “When I first wrote Clara, I thought, ‘Oh, this is fun. If the Doctor were a young woman living in contemporary Britain, it’d be a bit like her.’” Her face in the credits, then, is not merely a fun little moment to troll the fandom, though it does accomplish that quite well. It is the fulfilment of an aspect of her character, with her ready to assert that she is every bit as clever and heroic as he is.
Clara is the promise of the future female Doctor made physical. Furthermore, she gets to pose the question of the Doctor himself someday becoming a woman in their goodbye in the cafe, to which he responds positively. In their goodbye, Clara and the Doctor lie to each other in the same way, sharing the same faults and heightening the parallel. Between Clara, Kate, Missy, Osgood, and Danny, and the female Doctor somewhere on the horizon, Death in Heaven takes several dramatic steps in progressing Doctor Who as a feminist show, revising and rewriting the past to build for the future.