The BBC’s all-conquering Sherlock recently ended its second season run, and despite it still being one of the wittiest, slickest, best-directed shows on TV, starring the dream-team of Benedict Cumberbatch & Martin Freeman alongside an excellent supporting cast, the backlash has already begun.
We can all ignore the wholly expected Daily Mail pre-watershed nudity quibbles, but a suggestion that’s less easy to disregard is that Steven Moffat, the man currently putting words in the mouths of both Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor, might actually be sexist. Some people felt that Irene Adler (above), played brilliantly by Lara Pulver, was a little too damsel-in-distress by the end, being fed information by a male villain and needing to be rescued by the male hero. Considering that this is the woman who famously beat Sherlock Holmes, she doesn’t really actually beat him here. Unless you come at it from the other angle, and believe that Sherlock’s rescue of her in the closing minutes was her plan all along – she made the emotionless, asexual Holmes care enough about her to save her life, which is quite the victory. Either way, her power no longer comes from her impressive intellect, as in the books, but rather from her sexuality, which is a bit of a step back.
Let me begin by saying that I don’t mean sexist in an intentional way. No-one’s saying that Moffat thinks all women should look pretty, do the cooking and have the babies. But he does seem to have the occasional problem writing them. Back at the start of his career, Coupling was half a great series about three guys hanging out, having relationship troubles and too many legs (“oh Jeffrey...”). Sadly, the other half of the show was about three neurotic, irritating, badly written women who really should have been left out altogether. He continued to struggle with female characters in Jekyll, a flawed but fascinating series let down by the astonishingly annoying Gina Bellman.
Then, of course, came Doctor Who. In his first two-parter, The Empty Child, Moffat writes Rose Tyler as a hot-blooded female, beginning his tradition of bringing sex to Doctor Who. His Rose is funny, capable and flirty. She’s completely besotted with Captain Jack and plays it for laughs, giving Billie Piper a chance to stretch her comedy muscles. But it goes slightly against the Rose we’ve seen previously, who usually manages to simultaneously be in love with the Doctor and behave rationally. Moffat’s Rose, in both The Empty Child and The Girl in the Fireplace, is defined by the bloke she fancies – first Jack, then the Doctor. Yes, she’s feisty in Moffat’s hands, and gets some great lines, but would Russel T Davies’ Rose sit patiently waiting for the Doctor to come back and rescue her when he’s essentially run off with another woman? No.
Before taking on the full-time show-runner role, Moffat had the chance to create another few Who females. Madame Du Pompadour was never expanded beyond being the Doctor’s ideal woman, but he fared better with his other two original creations: the iconic River Song (who we’ll come to later) and Sally Sparrow, who I suspect may just be his best female creation. She was a character in her own right, not a foil for a leading male character. The absence of the Doctor allowed her to have almost complete agency across the episode, bar a last minute save, which, seeing as the show is called 'Doctor' Who, had to happen. Sally is one of his most naturalistic, downplayed female characters, which gave the excellent Carey Mulligan room to instill a fascinating melancholy into her that hinted at a rather dark, grown-up past. In fact, it’s highly possible that Moffat, caught up in the twisting mechanics of one of his most complicated stories, forgot to create a character for Sally, and her success could be entirely down to Mulligan’s performance. But whoever was responsible, she was undeniably a great character.
Once given free rein, Moffat reverted to his default mode: genius, alien men and ‘iconic’ women. I think Moffat adores his female characters. I think he gets a real kick out of writing an Amy Pond who’s forever having a go at the Doctor and keeping the adoring Rory on his toes, and a River Song who, with that hair and that gun, has become an instantly recognisable action heroine. River is a triumph, a mysterious figure who’s had two series worth of plot wrapped around her, a shoot-first, sexually knowing counterpoint to Matt Smith’s pacifist, sexually naive Doctor. Her catchphrases are quoted almost as frequently as the Doctor’s. Finally, here is a supporting character who is the Doctor’s equal, regenerations and all. Or is she?
Here’s the problem: River is in love with the Doctor. We’ve known this from her very first appearance. In fact, she dies for him. She even gives him all her regenerations. We know that River has a career of her own as an archaeologist, and we assume that she has adventures without the Doctor. But every time we see her, her motivation is 100% wrapped around the Doctor. Strange, considering her parents travel with him too (although that couldn’t have been revealed for a while, for obvious reasons). The independent, feisty, feared-by-Dalek’s River is an image, an icon – when it’s all boiled down, she’s just the Doctor’s adoring paramour. And she quite clearly loves him more than he loves her.
As for Amy, a combination of inconsistent writing and an untested actress left her utterly unlikable for a series and a half. Moffat himself has said publicly that he was only persuaded to hire Karen Gillan when he saw her legs. On paper, the idea of a confident, stubborn, sexy companion who isn’t in awe of the Doctor sounds good. Kind of a hot Donna Noble. But in reality, she came off as stroppy and childish, not to mention a complete bitch who attempts to cheat on her lovely, besotted fiancé. That was a horrible misstep that almost destroyed the character. Over the two series, Moffat has struggled to add any sympathetic layers to Amy. You never believed that she really loved Rory, or that she was grieving for her stolen baby. It’s hard to love a character who shrugs off losing a baby. Moffat was so determined to make her ‘tough and sexy’ that he completely forgot ‘relatable and human’.
It took two other writers to craft an Amy that I came to love. Tom McRae wrote the old Amy in The Girl Who Waited as a woman who got tired of waiting for men to rescue her a long time ago. In the end it’s her love for her husband that leads to her taking the risk of putting her faith in another human being again. And, of course, at the end she’s the one who saves them, sacrificing her bitterness and eventually her very existence in order to save her younger self. Yes, it’s an episode in which the male characters spend a lot of time discussing what they’re going to do about her, but ultimately she’s the one who makes the final decisions. Then, in The God Complex, Toby Whithouse delivers a psychological study of Amy that finally makes sense of the character flaws Moffat gave her seemingly by accident.
I wouldn’t say that Steven Moffat writes bad female characters. He writes the sort of heroines you want to dress up as at fancy dress parties, and God knows there are few of those. But he definitely has a problem with getting into their heads. He writes women who are idealised through his own eyes, the sort of tough, take-no-shit women he’s clearly attracted to himself, which isn’t a problem. Those are good character traits. What’s missing is much sense of their internal life. He gifts the Doctor and Sherlock such beautiful lines, hinting at what’s going on in their troubled, brilliant minds. He gives River and Irene teasing, suggestive lines designed to elicit a very specific below-the-belt reaction from the men they’re speaking to (thanks to Alex Kingston, a woman born to deliver Moffat dialogue, the word “spoilers” will never sound clean again). He also, most worryingly of all, makes his female characters utterly in love with the central male genius. You can’t help but assume there’s a bit of wish fulfillment going on there.
Look, for example, at female characters written by other Who scribes. RTD wrote a Doctor who needed and loved Rose as much as she loved him. He redeemed Martha by making her decide to leave the Doctor instead of putting up with the hell of unrequited love. He wrote women who were believably flawed and human. They might have been more mundane than Moffat’s showy women, but at least I believed that these were women I might pass in the street. Real women in unreal situations. Toby Whithouse, in School Reunion, could easily have set Rose and Sarah-Jane up as jealous rivals, but instead had them come to a deep understanding and bond over their shared, impossible experiences. Paul Cornell wrote Martha at her most likeable and resourceful in his excellent Human Nature two-parter while also creating the dignified, strong Nurse Redfern.
Moffat is a brilliant writer. Few writers in Britain at the moment can rival him for wit and mind-bending, inventive plotting. But often, this impressive, showy surface hides his dark secret – he really struggles with female characters. He can’t view them through anything other than a straight male gaze (something plenty of other male writers have no trouble doing) and as a result his female characters are fantasy creations. When a good actress is put in the role, like Alex Kingston, Lara Pulver or Carey Mulligan, the character transcends their limitations on the page. But with less skilled actresses like Sophia Myles and Karen Gillan in the role, the character will never be more than a cardboard cutout of Moffat’s dream woman.
Still – he’s got better since Coupling.