Quick Thoughts On What Was Wrong With “Deep Breath”

Now, I’m mostly going to be echoing what a lot of other people have been saying about last night’s new episode of Doctor Who, and many of those people will have said it better than I do.

Before I get started, let’s get this out of the way: I enjoyed the episode, and I think Peter Capaldi’s Doctor has potential. I do criticise Doctor Who fairly often, but once again: I like the show, as the fact I’m still watching it shows. I do think it’s worth looking at why Doctor Who attracts the criticism it does, though.

I’m skipping over the boring, trivial issues – yes, the episode has some really dumb plot points, but it’s a rare episode of Doctor Who that doesn’t, and in fact the rare TV show these days where dumb things don’t show up now and then (Orphan Black, I’m looking at you…). The issues worth noting concern the way the episode treats women.

It’s not so much about what Steven Moffat put in the script, but about asking why it was included.

A big deal was made in “Deep Breath” about Clara having difficulty adjusting to the new Doctor – and Madam Vastra outright accuses her of only being with the Doctor because he was young and good looking. This means that a significant part of the episode is spent on Clara having to explain that she isn’t and never has been interested in young, pretty men; the implication being that it would be wrong if she was with the Doctor partly because she found him attractive. The question is, why would that matter at all, and why is it relevant to the episode, to the point that they put this much emphasis on it? Why did Moffat feel the need to have Clara challenged on the issue of being attracted to the young Doctor, and have her accused of rejecting the new one because of his age?

The thing is, Vastra’s reaction to Clara and the subsequent interrogation seems entirely unwarranted. Yes, Clara is confused and upset by what has happened to the Doctor – she doesn’t know how his regeneration works, and he’s suddenly turned into a very confused old man. Vastra’s hostility to Clara comes when she asks the perfectly valid question – for someone in her situation – of how do we fix him?

Later, we have the scene where Strax, where he gives Clara a physical examination with some kind of alien device. The question again is why this scene was necessary. It’s another excuse to get some jokes out of Strax’s complete ignorance of human biology and lack of social graces, but beyond that it serves no purpose other than to make some jokes about Clara’s body, and one about female aging in particular. There’s also a bit about Clara’s subconscious being full of images of muscled young men doing things that may or may not be sports. While I do not object to the depiction of Clara as someone with a sexual side in itself, in the context of the rest of the episode it comes out as another attempt to belittle her for her sexual attractions. I’m only glad the scene managed not to have her react as if she were ashamed herself of those thoughts.

And finally there is the way Madam Vastra was depicted in the episode. Vastra is a lesbian, married to her “maid”, Jenny, and the episode takes every opportunity to use her to objectify the other two women in the cast. In the middle of a murder investigation, we see her having Jenny pose in a revealing outfit for what seems to be a portrait – but oh ho ho, she’s really tricked her wife into posting in her underwear for no reason, isn’t that hilarious. (Not really, no.) There are also repeated references to Vastra, a happily married woman, being attracted to Clara – including Clara accusing Vastra of thinking she is shallow just because she is attractive. Immediately after Vastra’s abuse of Jenny’s trust to get her to pose barely dressed is revealed, Clara walks into the room, and Vastra attempts to get her to take her clothes off also.

The scene’s only purpose in the episode is to laugh at Jenny’s expense and depict Vastra as a woman who eagerly objectifies other women. Anything relevant to the larger plot happens after this part is over.

Now, I think the key point to make here is that these latter two scenes are both played for laughs, and it’s very easy for people to just let those things slide when you do so. If something is portrayed as a harmless joke, a lot of people will gloss over it, and not realise the issues at play. Even minor things like these, though, are problematic because of how they normalise certain jokes and behaviours. Objectifying women is funny, women having water retention is funny, oh, ha ha, this young woman can’t stop thinking about young, attractive men, isn’t she silly. Funny how the show doesn’t do any of this stuff with male characters.

And the former scene I mentioned has its own whole host of issues, for the way it implicitly criticises women for liking the Doctor – which would probably include Doctors Smith, Tennant, and Eccleston – in part for being good looking. Given the large female fanbase of the show, this has not been well received.

Once again, I am not condemning Doctor Who. I just think the people making the show, particularly writer/showrunner Steven Moffat, need to ask themselves questions like why they’re including these jokes, and at whose expense they are being made.

(These quick thoughts have not been as quick as I intended.)

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The Hugo Awards 2014

So the Hugo Awards were handed out on Sunday, and I was there for the ceremony. Despite some of the controversy about the shortlist – which I’ve spoken about before but won’t go into now – the results were pretty pleasing.

Ancillary Justice continued its clean sweep of the major awards – it has now won Hugo, Clarke, Nebula, BSFA, Locus, and Kitschie Awards, was shortlisted for the Philip K Dick award, and made the Tiptree Award Honors List. It’s pretty much the most successful novel ever published in the genre in terms of award wins. And there’s a sequel out soon, so expect to see that making a pretty big splash.

I was very happy to see John Chu and Mary Robinette Kowal take home awards for their stories, but I was a little more surprised by the Stross win – Equoid was a good story, but in my mind the category was between Cat Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White and Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages’ Wakulla Springs, and the panelists on Friday’s discussion of the short fiction ballot at Loncon3 had suggested the same. Looking at the full voting figures, it turns out Wakulla Springs wasn’t even close.

Kameron Hurley was a big success this year, taking home Best Fan Writer and Best Related Work for her essay “We ave Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative”. That essay may have also played a part in the victory of Aiden Moher’s A Dribble of Ink in the Best Fanzine category. As I said back in my post about my votes, I had been very uncertain of what the “best” work was in the Related Work category, because it’s so hard to compare the different things; but Hurley’s work is one I can get behind winning the award.

Going through the full statistics is one of the more interesting parts of the Hugo Awards announcements; it’s always enlightening to see the actual numbers behind the results. Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form was always going to draw my eye, as I like to spot where the Doctor Who votes go as each entry is eliminated. “The Name of the Doctor”, among the worst episodes (that nevertheless made it onto the ballot), received the fewest votes for 1st place and ultimately ranked 5th. Interesting to note that of the 83 who ranked it 1st, 50 ranked “The Day of the Doctor” 2nd, and 6 listed no other preference after this one episode. Most of the votes for “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot” similarly went to “The Day of the Doctor” or “An Adventure in Space and Time” when it was eliminated. The key here, though, is that it looks like almost as many people ranked Game of Thrones below their first choice Doctor Who item; that and the 2nd place votes of half the Orphan Black fans kept “The Red Wedding” in the lead.

The nomination details can be pretty interesting too; not only can you see what almost made it (The Shining Girls, Locke & Key, and Joey Hi-Fi were very close to the ballot in their respective categories), you also get to see just how low the bar is for nomination. While it takes about 100 nominations or more to get onto Best Novel, the Short Story that went on to win the award had only 43 nominations. All but one of the Best Graphic Story nominations received less than 40 noms (Saga was miles ahead with 164). And fully half of the Dramatic Presentation, Short Form list received less than 50 nominations. (The really awful Doctor Who Christmas special, “The Time of the Doctor”, was itself only 3 nominations short of the ballot, at 35.)

And looking at these numbers, I actually feel encouraged. Not because it’s a good thing they’re low, but because it means that the things that got onto the ballot that maybe weren’t very good, well, they actually weren’t that popular in the first place. It takes surprisingly little to get something on the shortlist, but once on there, it’s quality that tends to win out, as the wins for Ancillary Justice and “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere” show. So I find myself wanting to keep taking part, and to encourage others to do so. I want to be one of those numbers, to bring the numbers required upward, and in so doing maybe to help make what’s on the ballot better reflect what’s good in the genre*.

I have nominating rights to next year’s Hugos, as a member of Loncon3. I might decide to buy a supporting membership to Sasquan, so that I can vote on the awards and also for Helsinki to host in 2017. Whatever I decide, I will be taking part on some level next year.

* I realise I sound like I’m trying to prescribe what other people should like, here. I don’t intend to fault people for enjoying what they enjoy; I just think it’s possible, for example, to like Doctor Who while acknowledging that it’s pretty often badly written and not on the same level as other eligible works. I enjoy watching Doctor Who; I just don’t think it’s great television.

Hugo Award Shortlist

The shortlist for the 2014 Hugo Awards (and the 1939 Retro Hugo Awards) was just announced. You can see it on the Loncon3 website. I wanted to just make a quick post looking at the shortlist compared to my own nominations.

Overall, 11 of my nominations ended up on the final ballot. Unfortunately, not all of the ones I was most excited about: The Shining Girls, Rupetta, and Locke and Key are nowhere to be found. Oh well.

Also, while Doctor Who used to be a good show, these days I don’t think it really deserves to have two episodes on the ballot. Of these two, “The Name of the Doctor” was bad, “The Day of the Doctor” wasn’t. At least the godawful “The Time of the Doctor” didn’t make it. But, this is a popular vote and it’s a popular show, so no use getting worked up about it. I have no issue with the two other Doctor Who-related things that made the short form ballot – I even nominated one of them.