Doctor Who is once again bringing in a woman of color as a companion. I haven’t watched the show regularly since Clara came on board, so I’m not as up with what’s going on. But author Na’amen Gobert Tilahun tweeted a link to a post on io9 with the headline “Doctor Who teaser shows new companion is cool with dying for the Doctor, and she might.” which… well, read this whole thread for thoughts similar to mine about all that.
Given these developments, I thought it would be a good time to post this essay online for all to read. It appeared in Chicks Dig Time Lords, a book you should read if you love Doctor Who.
Martha Jones: Fangirl Blues
When you’re a fan of Doctor Who, there are two discussions you’re bound to have with other fans, no matter what the setting: “Who is your favorite Doctor?” and “Who is your favorite companion?” Most people don’t make assumptions about my choice in the first category (Nine, by the way), but almost always assume that my choice for the second is Martha Jones. They assume this because I’m a Black woman. I find that annoying for reasons you may well imagine. The main one being that Martha is my favorite, but not just because she’s Black.
When the announcement came that Freema Agyeman would be the next companion, I was happy that there would be another companion who was also a person of color. Unlike some fans, I do count Mickey as a companion and I also count Chang Lee from the (admittedly horrible) American Doctor Who movie. But Freema would be the first on-screen “main” companion of color.
This kind of thing means a lot to me, but it didn’t mean that I’d automatically like the character or even prefer her over others. It remained to be seen if Martha Jones was made of awesome or just another stereotype.
The answer turned out to be a complex mix of both, with much of the blame lying with the show’s creators and writers, and much of the success attributable to the actress.
Made of Awesome…
The writers did many things right in introducing Martha. The character was impressive in her very first episode, but it was a bit of dialogue in the second that sealed the deal for me. In “The Shakespeare Code,” Martha steps out of the TARDIS and into the past. The Doctor is going on about similarities between Elizabethan London and her own when Martha asks a question that I’m sure many black fans had in the back of their mind:
Martha: Am I all right? I’m not going to get carted off as a slave, am I?
The Doctor (look of utter bewilderment on his face): Why would they do that?
Martha: Not exactly white,‘case you haven’t noticed.
The Doctor: I’m not even human. Just walk about like you own the place. Works for me.
Though the Doctor blows off the question, I believe my first reaction to that line was thank you. If I was traveling in the past, that would have been one of my chief concerns, too.
This is indicative of everything that made me love Martha from the beginning. When her hospital gets transferred to the moon in “Smith and Jones,” Martha doesn’t panic, logically deduces that the windows can be opened, and, when asked by the Doctor who she thinks is responsible for transporting the hospital, she immediately answers: extra-terrestrials. This was a very pointed way for the show’s creators to indicate that Martha was a companion worthy of the Doctor1
Another thing I liked about Martha was her willingness to stand up to the Doctor and tell him off when it was clear he needed it. Badly. At the end of “Gridlock,” she forces him to stop being oblique about himself. As things began to go south in “The Sound of Drums,” she refuses to simply follow his orders and puts her concern for her family over his priorities. In “The Sontaran Stratagem,” she won’t let him make her feel guilty for being part of UNIT operations that involve guns (as if there are any other kind).
I love that even before Martha met the Doctor, she was already clever and competent and doing something with her life. She didn’t need him to help her escape from a mediocre existence, she didn’t need him to blossom into an extraordinary person. That she did grow due to their travels is a bonus, but because she came from a solid foundation, she was better able to walk away from the Doctor when she needed to. The scene where Martha left the TARDIS was the perfect end to that season, especially given all the crap she had to endure while inside it.
Just Another Stereotype…
Though Martha is a great character, there were several choices the show’s creators made that diminished my enjoyment of the episodes where she appeared. Some have to do with her interactions with the Doctor, but most have to do with some troubling attitudes toward race and the introduction of a heinous stereotype.
Within the show’s continuity, Martha meets the Doctor a short while after Rose was accidentally sucked into an alternate dimension and trapped there. The Doctor is still mourning Rose, which is natural, and he constantly reminds Martha that she is not as good as Rose, which is a punk move. I often bemoan the fact that the Doctor is a huge jerk, despite being the hero of the show2. In Series Three, this quality is often on display when he interacts with Martha.
He screams at her (“Utopia”), treats her like second best (“The Shakespeare Code”), hides important information from her (“The Sound of Drums”), lies to her (“Gridlock”) and strings her along as regards how long she can travel with him (“The Lazarus Experiment”). This can be explained away by the whole Jerk thing–it’s part of canon, after all, that the Doctor can be nasty and mean just as easily as he is heroic and kind–but what cannot be explained away is why he treats her so differently than almost every female companion he’s come across since his ninth incarnation.
Though it can be infuriating and infantilizing, the Doctor tends to treat his female companions as damsels in distress. Rose gained some agency by the end, but there was only one time3 in her tenure on the show when the Doctor blithely disregarded her safety and well-being in favor of whatever dangers were going on around them or other people. Donna, abrasive as she is, still gets the damsel treatment, though she often chafes against it. Astrid (“Voyage of the Damned”) definitely fits into the damsel profile.
Martha gets to play a different stereotype: that of the Mammy.
In her July 2, 2007 post in the LiveJournal community lifeonmartha, blogger Mikki Kendall laid out many of the problematic racial and sexist elements that cropped up during Series Three. She noted that the damsel stereotype is more often applied to white, female characters and that, “Damsels are always desirable, no matter how much ass they kick (or don’t) and nothing they do makes them unworthy of love or protection.” However, black women on television are often only given three choices: Mammy, Jezebel or Sapphire (a “nagging shrew constantly emasculating a weak black man,” as defined in the post). Martha flirts or pines after a couple of men, including the Doctor, but she isn’t wantonly sexual, so she doesn’t fit Jezebel. But she most certainly fits the Mammy stereotype, which is also closely associated with the Strong Black Woman stereotype. Kendall laid it out perfectly by saying: “[Martha] is supposed to be willing to sacrifice everything to protect the ones that can actually do some good.”
The first, and probably most annoying, example of this is in “Human Nature/The Family of Blood,” wherein Martha literally works as a maid for the Doctor who is disguised as a human in 1913 England. What I find most interesting about this episode is that it’s based on a Doctor Who novel, Human Nature, which was originally written with the seventh Doctor and a white companion. In the novel, the companion poses as the Doctor’s niece. Obviously, in the adaptation to television, this detail needed to be changed. But the nature of that change is troubling, especially for a black, female viewer such as myself.
From an in-series perspective, one wonders why the TARDIS chose an era which necessitated Martha having to play the part of a maid surrounded by people who would most certainly be horribly prejudiced toward her. Or why the Doctor didn’t offer it some guidance for eras of history perhaps best left alone. Imagine if they’d ended up in the American South just before the Civil War. From an outside perspective, one wonders why the show’s creators didn’t see this as a real problem. Of course, the disparity between Martha’s situation in 1913 and what she can achieve and be in 2007 is acknowledged within the script. That doesn’t absolve the creators of a sketchy thought process, though. I wish that they had waited to produce this episode with a different companion. Beyond this aspect, it’s one of the best in the series4
We again see Martha playing Mammy in “Blink,” where it’s revealed that she has to work in a shop in order to support the Doctor while he, supposedly, works on getting them home. The burden of being the care-taker falls on her again. Why the Doctor can’t also get a job is never explained. Nor why a highly educated person such as Martha would end up in a shop, a career path often held up in the Whoniverse as being highly undesirable and something to escape from (“Rose,” “World War Three,” “The Parting of the Ways”). It may be that Martha couldn’t get anything else due to her race or gender. If so, we have another instance of the creators putting Martha in a setting where she’s not allowed the same level of respect and autonomy, for no good reason. Then in “The Sound of Drums,” Martha is the one who has to brave being caught by the police to get food for the Doctor and Jack while they’re on the run. I also have to wonder if the Doctor would have asked Rose to wander the world, spreading the gospel about him, as he did Martha (“The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords”).
It’s a troubling trend, both seen within the context of the show and from without. This is the kind of thing that people of color often fear when one of us is included on mainstream television–there’s a community called deadbrowalking on LiveJournal for a reason5. For all that is awesome about Martha Jones, my enjoyment of her tenure on Doctor Who was marred by the subtle current of racism and sexism that runs throughout.
I know from watching episodes of Doctor Who Confidential that the producers and directors are very impressed with Freema and call her a great leading lady for her ability to exude and give energy to everyone around her. She infuses Martha with this energy, plus confidence and intelligence. Though obviously the character was written with this intention, the wrong actress or the wrong attitude could have ruined it all. She wasn’t given the greatest material to work with, but she always appeared to approach episodes with an eye toward squeezing the best out of them. In the Confidential episode “Alter Ego” (companion to “Human Nature”), Freema talks about how the script touches on issues of racism and how great it is to play a character that overall doesn’t have limitations due to race or gender.
In many ways, she’s right. In another time, Freema would have been given the part of a maid as a matter of course instead of an ironic, if problematic, twist. Her recognition of this lends weight to her performance, not just in this pair of episodes but all of them.
The elements of Martha’s character, both positive and negative, could so easily have slipped into triteness. The unrequited love thread throughout Series Three annoyed me to the point of distraction in nearly every episode. A lesser actress would have allowed that aspect to overwhelm everything else about the character–who doesn’t love a love story? But Martha is more than just a woman in love with a man who doesn’t love back. Freema worked hard to bring out all the other, deeper things that make Martha who she is.
This is why, despite all of the issues I have with the show and the creators, I still love Martha. Hell, I still love Doctor Who. After all that, many might quite rightly ask: why? The troubling race stuff doesn’t begin or end with Martha. I’m not even an old school legacy fan–the first episode of Doctor Who I ever watched was “Rose.” So, why?
There’s no easy answer.
The very basic one is that I just love the show. I love it down to the bottom of my toes. The SF geek in me loves all the cool aliens and different cultures and new planets and fantastic ideas. And the running. The running is awesome. I still love adventure stories, and stories about good people triumphing over the badness in the universe.
Doctor Who is a complex show, especially when compared to most television. Even when it’s being an adventure or good vs. evil and all that, the core of the story isn’t necessarily simple or straightforward. The Doctor is a flawed, damaged, brilliant, dangerous alien. He’s also the hero. How can any show with such a character at the center of it be simple or straightforward?
Yes, the show’s creators make thoughtless mistakes and probably don’t understand why many of the issues I raised are problematic. They aren’t completely clueless, though. And they are trying–note the number of interracial couples on Doctor Who and Torchwood ((I do realize this is a contentious issue on its own. Even allowing that Martha and Mickey wound up married, somehow, many fans of color often wondered if the show creators knew that people of color sometimes dated and even married each other.)). There does appear to be an effort to show the future as multiracial, and to give characters of color a range of personalities from hero/heroine to villain/villainess and the many, many shades in between.
I love the universe that Doctor Who often shows me. I love the other companions–Rose and Mickey and Jack and Donna–and I even love the Doctor. Whatever the faults of the show’s creators, they obviously love Martha, too. And it helps that Freema is a great actress that breathed life into her. Good acting is often able to make up for defects in writing and execution.
So I keep watching. And hoping.
Hoping that the writers do away with both the damsel and the Mammy stereotype. Hoping that they will stop underutilizing Martha so criminally. Hoping that they will, by some miracle, begin to Get It.
Because, yes, Martha Jones is my favorite companion. She’s clever and brilliant and brave and amazing. She’s less needy and more independent than Rose and more faceted and less abrasive than Donna. I want to see her treated better by all involved. She deserves to be only awesome and more than just another stereotype.
- Compare her to Donna in “The Runaway Bride” (who was always away on vacation when major alien events happened and was therefore ignorant–or just in denial–of them), and Gwen in the Torchwood episode “Everything Changes” (who knows about the incidents but denies that any of them were real). [↩]
- See my essay “The Lonely God is a Jerk” at Fantasy Magazine [↩]
- “The Girl in the Fireplace” where the Doctor essentially abandons Rose in the future in order to save Reinette, which makes no sense given the history of the characters. [↩]
- It’s worth noting here that several years after I wrote this essay I ended up having a conversation with the episode’s writer, Paul Cornell on the blog. It was very illuminating and adds to an understanding of where he was coming from and how his intention didn’t match up with the outcome. [↩]
- Might not be there, anymore. [↩]