On the 11th Doctor, little boys and grown women
I was recently hooked on Matt Smith’s incarnation of Doctor Who. It’s on Netflix – you should join me in this addiction.
Alert: Very light spoilers for S05E01, along with the disclosure of a character first introduced in S04E08. You stand warned.
For the uninitiated, here’s what you have to know:
The Doctor is a nigh-immortal being from another world. He has a time machine called a TARDIS, which is charmingly disguised as a British police phone box. The Doctor travels with human companions all over time and space. Most episodes take place in a new setting, with a variety of creatures, challenges and disasters each week.
So who’s the hero?
Often, sure, it’s the titular, male character.
Just as often, others get a turn.
The Doctor first encounters Amy when she’s a little girl. They have a pretty formative adventure together, then he leaves, promising to come back for her within a few minutes. Thanks to problems with the TARDIS, he doesn’t reappear until Amy’s early 20′s.
Meanwhile, Amy grows up a weirdo, believing in a man from another world who’s coming to get her any minute now.
This independent streak gives Amy some fantastic moments of heroism. She doesn’t let The Doctor order her around, she plunges headlong into danger, and she takes care of herself with the same aplomb as any other action hero. She may be a fish out of water at times, but she’s not helpless.
In one of the most powerful episodes I’ve watched so far, we see Amy separated from her companions and forced to live three decades alone, fighting well-meaning robots who will nonetheless kill her. She’s ruthless and strong – but still worthy of love from her companions.
I love River Song. She’s one of my favorite characters across this whole genre.
River is another badass time traveler. She’s certainly a rogue – the series makes both subtle and overt references to a criminal past. Her motivations are far more complicated than petty crime, though, and she cares a lot for The Doctor and his companions. She’s played pitch-perfectly by Alex Kingston.
Who’s 50 years old.
While River isn’t part of the main cast, she’s had a big role in The 11th Doctor’s arc so far. It occurred to me that you just don’t see that many women past their 30′s playing major roles in action series. This stuff is usually the domain of young men and whatever flavor of the week they feel like romancing.
Casting Kingston brings a confidence and credibility to the role that a younger actress just couldn’t portray. Within minutes you buy that she has traveled all over time and seen shit you can’t imagine.
So what about the little boys?
When I was a boy I would have loved Doctor Who. It’s a fun fantasy world with surprising, satisfying stories.
I really hope a whole generation of nerd boys – and girls! – are growing up as they’re enjoying this show. It promotes a healthy picture of both men and women being able to make substantive contributions to difficult problems. It portrays women as having agency and intelligence. It portrays men as having feelings and relationships. It portrays a world where more than just 20-somethings can get things done.
In short – it’s a refreshing antidote to the princess story poison so often fed to young minds. Rather than shellacking kids into rigid gender roles, Doctor Who describes a world where anyone can have courage, smarts and strength, no matter their age or the contents of their underwear.
I’m happy these stories have a found popular success.