Thursday, June 26, 2014

Feminist Doctor Who, Part 3: Martha Jones

I’m a Whovian, which means that I’m a member of the Doctor Who fandom. Doctor Who, the smash BBC hit that was named the longest-running science fiction television show by Guinness World Records, was revived in 2005 after over a decade of hiatus. Throughout the classic show and modern revival, the Doctor travels in his TARDIS spaceship through time and space with companions, saving small cities as well as the entire universe from disaster. Many feminist Whovians have analyzed the Doctor and his companions’ representations of gender, race, and sexuality; in this series, I give some of my own interpretations.

After Rose is parted from the Doctor in Series 2, Martha Jones, portrayed by Freema Agyeman, joins the Doctor as a companion for his travels for Series 3. In the modern series, she is the second companion of color (after Rose’s boyfriend Mickey) and first female companion of color. Her race is rarely recognized; one of the few exceptions to this rule is when the Doctor takes her to Elizabethan England in “The Shakespeare Code,” and Martha expresses concern that she could be taken as a slave because of her skin color.

Martha’s race is tacitly acknowledged in Series X, when viewers learn that she and Mickey got married. This color match – the happy coincidence that the only two major characters of color just end up together, despite originally living in completely separate universes – has not remained unnoticed by Whovians. Although there is certainly a plethora of fans who ship the two and write Mickey-Martha fanfic, their marriage is largely unpopular, and I can’t say I like it either. Mickey and Martha are two very different people, but past their shared skin color, proclivity for adventure and aliens, and association with the Doctor, there is little that they have in common.

Although the show itself does not often directly acknowledge Martha’s race, it is an integral part of how her character is portrayed. Martha falls into the racialized and gendered trope of mammy, as care of the Doctor falls into her hands. This is unique to her among all of the companions; when the other (white) ones are gendered, they are usually treated as damsels in distress. This caring role can be in the Series 3 episodes “Human Nature/The Family of Blood,” when the two spend time in 1913 and Martha pretends to be the Doctor’s maid. Science fiction and feminist writer K. Tempest Bradford points out that “Human Nature/The Family of Blood” was adapted from a Doctor Who book about the Doctor and a white companion who pretends to be his niece, not his maid, making the Series 3 episodes even more troubling.

Martha cares for the Doctor again in the following episode, “Blink,” when the two find themselves in 1969 and she gets a job in a shop to support him. It is possible that working as a shop girl is the only job open to her as a black woman in the 1960s, even though the show has previously established the undesirability of such a job (after all, Rose runs from her position in that profession the moment she can) and Martha is a medical student who is qualified to do much more. Bradford once more faults Doctor Who writers for putting Martha into an era where she would be particularly vulnerable to prejudice. Why do they never get trapped in the future, where there is presumably less racism, or perhaps – even more radically – it is even gone? If homophobia has been erased by the 51st century, would racism not also be an extinct social phenomenon, particularly in light of the diverse number of alien races shown in Doctor Who that mingle with humankind by that point in the future?

Martha’s mammy-like care for the Doctor is not only physical; she also takes care of the Doctor emotionally, assuming the responsibility of helping him heal in the wake of losing Rose. Her facilitation of the Doctor’s healing is done at her own expense, as she falls into unrequited love with him. Many Whovians have expressed their frustration with the fact that Martha possesses this unreturned crush on the Doctor for the entire Series 3. I have to admit that I really like Martha, but her season-long crush was irritating. She is a rich character in the first place, rendering the love plotline entirely unnecessary, particularly because it does not lead to any character development.

However, not every Whovian holds Martha’s crush on the Doctor against her. Some feel that it enhances Martha’s character, making her more relatable. Others defend Martha by pointing out that many people would fall in love with an exotic person who travels through time with them and takes them on all sorts of exciting adventures, and that when Martha realized that traveling with the subject of her unrequited crush was unhealthy, she actively decided to leave the situation. Martha’s choice to leave the Doctor for self-care, and her subsequent successful career at UNIT, the extraterrestrial investigations agency, sets an excellent example to Whovians in unproductive relationships.

Overall, I do think that Martha is a feminist character. Despite all of the setbacks she experiences while traveling with the Doctor due to both her race and her gender, she manages to find adventure, enjoyment, and fun during her visits throughout time and space. Although she is only the Doctor’s regular companion for one season, her influence on viewers is still strong, encouraging them to find their way in the universe, whether flying solo or with a partner. Either way, you’ll still be able to lead a happy, enjoyable life. 

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