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Heroes, bumblers, and patriarchs: Fathers on Doctor Who

The latest season of Doctor Who (a long-running UK scifi/fantasy series about a time traveling even-longer-lived body-changing alien — whew, shortest summary ever!), the second of current showrunner Stephen Moffat’s tenure, lacks depth and humanity when it comes to anyone who is not male, white, and straight. And, indeed, spends rather a lot of time killing off women’s autonomy and autonomous women. Although Doctor Who has always been another TV iteration of the story of the Independent Rich White Man Having Adventures, in the first few years of the reboot (seasons 2005-2009), with all that can be said against it, there were at least engaging female characters who grew over time. As Moffat seems to have given up characterization in favor of baroque, excessively complicated storylines, the viewer has been deprived of these dynamic, if flawed, portrayals of women. There’s just not much there to engage with when it comes to complex female/nonwhite/queer characters, and none of it is good. So lo! Let us talketh about the men, and — because it ain’t for nothing that “patriarchy” means “rule by the fathers” — about dads particularly.

Fatherhood strode from the sidewings to center stage in the form of the Lone Centurion (aka Rory Pond, nee Williams) in “A Good Man Goes to War,” and continued in “Night Terrors” and “Closing Time”. In these episodes, we see first a portrayal and then subversion of the most common tropes of fatherhood; respectively, the Hero (the aforementioned centurion-slash-nurse Rory), the Abandoner (Alex), and the Bumbler (Craig). Assisting each we have, of course, the Doctor — a man who, 10 incarnations and nearly 50 boringly linear human years ago, was himself a grandfather. Although most versions of the show between 1963 and now have glossed over the central character’s implied fatherhood, here he is portrayed in full Wise Patriarch mode, taking these three men — and the viewer — on a transformative journey that amounts to a guide to Moffat’s vision of Enlightened Fatherhood.

Rory the badass, er, Hero appears to rescue his and Amy’s infant daughter — only to discover he has been duped into accepting a substitute, which later, quite spectacularly, dissolves in a goopy puddle. This is the first inversion, and sets up the pattern of impassioned but imperfect fathers; men who are flawed but love their children deeply and are devoted to them. Here, Moffat tells the viewer that although the Hero might seem to be a “positive” paternal model to aim for, as opposed to the more obviously poor examples of the Abandoner or the Bumbler, even he is not a realistic goal. Rather, the ideal set out in this season is intense involvement. This stands in contrast with the usual TV representations of fathers who stand apart from their offspring, whether via perfection (the pedestal from which Rory falls), or incompetence, or distance.

Alex in “Night Terrors” explores that last trope. When the Doctor and the viewer meet him he is a man on the verge of abandoning his admittedly-challenging child. Though he is he not yet fully the Abandoner (or deadbeat dad), he has separated from his child emotionally, and is contemplating doing so physically by sending the easily-terrified George away. Through the Doctor, Alex learns he must fully embrace his child, quirks and (as is discovered) alienness and all, and assure young George of his commitment to fathering him, in order to save George, himself, the Doctor, and the day.

In Craig we see the Bumbler, the man believed — even by himself, despite his public protestations to the contrary — to be so incompetent he cannot be left alone with his child even for a weekend. By the end of the episode, however, the Doctor has helped him learn his own competence: Craig has survived the weekend, is wearing his child in a “papoose,” has a fully clean house (courtesy the Doctor and his time machine, but still), and through pure love (and some very bad special effects) has saved his son, himself, and the world from the threat of the Cybermen.

So far so idyllic: under the guidance of an old man whose own children (and grandchildren) are under his care no longer, the viewer has learned to embrace fatherhood, keep his children close, believe in his own parenting abilities, and avoid the trap of playing the Hero. Surely men following these lessons would be stellar fathers.

If only ’twere so.

You might think that the lack of discussion of mothers in the above is editorial only, a deliberate choice by this author to focus on the men, but, alas, it reflects a true thematic lack. There are mothers in Moffat’s universe, but it’s almost as though they exist to, through no will of their own, provide children for Moffat’s men (the only two children for whom we are told origin stories come into existence without their mothers’ will, one being gestated and born without so much as the knowledge of the woman whose body is being so used, and one inserted, alien-style, into the family without any intervening pregnancy — or choice). Claire in “Night Terrors” and Sophie in “Closing Time” appear only at the beginnings and ends of their episodes, leaving the thus-abandoned fathers to care for, and be transformed by, the children in their absence. The absence of mothers, we are left to infer, is required for the activation and maturation of fathers. Though Amy receives more screen time than her counterparts, she does little more parenting; the only act of direct, willful mothering by Amy, the incubator for Rory’s offspring, is to tell their daughter of Rory’s heroism; the infant is otherwise raised by members of the religious order The Silence (more on this in a moment).

If the women in Series 6 are blank cut-outs meant to provide men with Transformative Parenting Experiences via their uteri, the children, though they receive more screen time (Rory and Amy’s infant daughter excepted, though her absence is made up by the sheer quantity of time spent talking about and/or searching for her), do little better. Much like the child-like automatonic monsters-of-the-week our protagonists spend so much time running from, George (“Night Terrors”), Stormaggedon (“Closing Time”) and Melodie (“A Good Man”) are little more than child-shaped props, waved vaguely around the screen for the central characters — that is to say, the men — to react to. Though perhaps we could forgive the infants for lacking in complexity, the lesson learned from the child-aged George is that he, the child, exists solely as an extension of his father’s ego. This message is delivered explicitly by the Doctor to Alex when he says: “he’ll adapt perfectly now; he’ll be whatever you want him to be.” This message is reinforced in “Closing Time,” when the infant relents his self-chosen name (Stormaggedon) in favor of the one his father gives him (Alfie). In both Alex and Craig’s cases, the man’s transformation into idealized father results in the child’s very identity being rewritten according to his father’s will.

The case of Rory and Amy’s daughter Melodie/River provides a telling contrast to this meme; instead of being raised by her involved father or her Good Mother, she is taken by a figure playing the role of the evil witch. This infant is equally seen as a blank slate, onto which anything can be written, but in the hands of the evil witch — a woman portrayed without any mediating male counterpart; no fantastic fathers here, only a horde of near-wordless shadowy and abusive male figures — she becomes not the ideal child, as George and Alfie are, but the near ideal psychopath.

Only near ideal, however, because the Patriarch (the Doctor) is able to break her programming, bringing her back into the patriarchal fold and setting her on a path of goodness once more. Just as with Alex and Craig, a father’s love is not only deep but redemptive; Melodie/River’s greater deviance from ideal requires the greater love of the Doctor to be corrected. Further, as is echoed with Craig and Stormaggedon/Alfie, the Doctor renames Melodie to River as part of her redemption, and alteration to his vision of her, in “Let’s Kill Hitler,” completing his domination of her identity. (I could go off here on the Electra-ness of that particular story line, but I would like to be able to sleep tonight without the heebeejeebees, so let’s move on…)

Ultimately the lessons laid out herein on paternal love, though well-intended, are unsatisfying. These men might be better off than their cultural predecessors, but their fatherhood is still deeply sexist, predicated on the absence of mothers and malleability of their offspring. The love of these fathers is real and complex enough, but the objects of their love are not (literally, in the cases of faux-Melodie and alien George); they, and any men following the directives of the Doctor/Stephen Moffat in this season, are still unable to be in relationship with fully present partners and annoyingly, gloriously autonomous children.

Is that too much to ask for from a show that is, at its core, about a madman with a box? Perhaps, but — if you’ll forgive the break in authorial distance — as I sit here with an infant in my lap and my Doctor Who obsessed son next to me, this doesn’t feel like merely a quibble or a minor imperfection from meaningless entertainment. Intended as guides or not, from shows such as these the next generation is learning how to be fathers, how to treat mothers, and what to expect of their children. Far from being trivial, this is nearly as important as (pardon the pun) pop culture gets. I may not have much reason to hope for better, but, to quote the Doctor, “I am and always will be the optimist. The hoper of far-flung hopes and the dreamer of improbable dreams.” If not from Moffat, than perhaps from the next person to take the reins of this fabulously ridiculous and ridiculously compelling cheesy scifi show.

5 thoughts on “Heroes, bumblers, and patriarchs: Fathers on Doctor Who

  1. Well done! These past two season’s sexism was bothering me (mostly in the form of the two-dimensional Amy and River) but the fatherhood angle exposes the sexism much better.

    It’s even more annoying because Moffat fans are quick to defend Amy/River by saying, “no way, she’s so badass and sexy.”

    But that’s the problem. As my boyfriend pointed out:
    Stephen Moffat seems to think an ’empowered’ woman means they’re kinky/flirty/coy and carry a gun.”

    That’s in direct opposition of the Eccleston/Tennant seasons, and it’s not an improvement.

  2. Your review holds a lot of truths, but Looking at the two years compared to the Russel T. Davies era previously, I see this as a wonderful break, if imperfect.

    For the first 5 years of the Who reboot, so many of the fathers were missing, emasculated, abusers, abandoners, etc… I as a male was annoyed with the non-representation of the good father. Look as Rose’s dad, he was dead, yes, but in his life he was a failure, unable to provide for his family. In the Series 2 Cybermen 2-parter, he finally lives, but they now have no children, i.e. no fatherhood. In the Empty Child the main character was a very young single mom, no dad. In Idiot’s Lantern, the father is abusive. Fear Her has another dead father, this time, abusive too. Martha’s dad was divorced, and a cradle-robber, looked down upon by his former wife, the mother figure. Sarah Jane had no father figure for her “son”.
    We finally get a good father in SERIES 3 in Gridlock. but no more, and then the only Hero father in this entire run is Wilf, Donna’s grandfather. During these five years there are so many strong, good mothers, I can’t even count.

    So as flawed as Moffat’s resulting lack of strong mother figures are, He is still one up on Davies, in only two series, vs. five.

    ps. You missed another good father in this series. In the Rebel Flesh/Almost People, Jimmy dies defending the world for his son, and Ganger Jimmy takes over as the good father. As well, Moffat shows in the Christmas Carol, the bad father of Kazran, so he’s not adverse to showing unredeeming fathers too.

  3. I think you missed a few. In the RTD era, there are also good fathers in the form of the father of the Roman family in “The Fires of Pompeii,” and the father in “The Next Doctor” (mother conveniently deceased in that one). The Doctor himself grapples with his issues surrounding fatherhood in “The Doctor’s Daughter.”

    I was quite happy to see great characters in the new Doctor Who that come from single-mother households, such as Rose, Donna, and Luke. I was raised by a single mother, like many people are, and I felt the sting of societal stigma growing up. The media almost never portrays kids from single-mother households in a good light. Single-parent households in popular entertainment are much more likely to be headed up by dads, even though in real life that’s hardly the case, and the dads are treated like heroes for doing the things women are expected to do for no praise.

  4. There was also an intact family with mother, father, and two children in “Human Nature/Family of Blood.” They were all evil, of course, but definitely close-knit.

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