Women Writing Doctor Who

On Saturday, the first episode of Doctor Who written by a woman since 2009 will be broadcast. In the 6 years since The Poison Sky there have been 75 episodes of Doctor Who broadcast, every single one of them written by a man. Catherine Tregenna will be only the second woman to write for the show on TV since the 1980s and I think only the sixth to write for it in the 53 years so far. Numbers, numbers, I’m going to come back to numbers, because these numbers are a problem.

If I’d written this post a year ago, when I meant to, it would’ve solely been a rant. But now I can also celebrate the fact that with two women writers this year, the green shoots of change are showing. But I promised to write down my thoughts a year ago, after Ben and Eugene on the Fusion Patrol Podcast wondered whether this wonderful new writer on the show was a female Jamie, or a male one, not that it mattered. In our discussion in the comments, Eugene quite reasonably said “Surely the only meaningful measure of a writer is the work that they produce?” I shouldn’t be worrying about whether the writers are men or women, just are they good or bad.

Do you think we’re think the quality of the writing is suffering because there are few or no female writers (depending if you want to look at Moffat era, New Who or All Who) and, if so, why?

I’m going to set aside, for this post, the wider question of whether it is inherently important for women to be contributing creatively to all aspects of this show (it is) and address what, to the dedicated Whovian, is the key point about quality. I’ve got two arguments, and the first comes back to the numbers.

In fact, all the numbers have been crunched splendidly in a comprehensive and brilliant post by Madelyn Glymour (h/t Eugene). In brief, even for a British show, even for sci-fi, Doctor Who employed a below the average number of women writers (24% British shows, 13% British sci-fi). To over-simply for a moment, it would appear that for some reason women aren’t getting hired for Doctor Who. These reasons may be complex and difficult to resolve, but if if the show were in line with others, we’d expect 13% or 24% or hell, even 50% and the fact we’re not suggests we’re missing out on the very best scripts those women could be producing, and getting the next-best available from the men instead. I do realise this may not be an easy problem to solve, but step one is recognising there is a problem, and acknowledging the cost to the show.

The second argument is something Glymour has niftily helped me in defining when she distinguishes between ‘auteur projects’ which rely on the singular distinctive voice of an individual writer, and shows where the scripts come from a range of authors. Doctor Who is above all else a show with a remarkable capability to regenerate into anything – its longevity is due to the variety as well as the quantity of extraordinary creative talents who have contributed over the half century. It is distinctive because it can tell stories from any time or place, and from any perspective. It needs writers with different styles, from different backgrounds and of different race, class and, yes, gender to provide that variety.

Jonathan Morris (who is, incidentally, one of the best current Doctor Who writers in any medium, and who I believe has commissioned more Doctor Who scripts from women than Steven Moffat) put the argument against this quite succinctly:

the whole point of being a writer is that you can not only Write What You Know but you can empathise with people from other walks of life and write them well. So if the problem is, say, that the female characters aren’t well written, the solution isn’t to get more female writers, it’s to get better writers, writers that can write female characters, irrespective of whether the writers themselves are male or female.

This all sound fairly plausible, but I think Morris’ diatribe, whilst as fluent and witty as usual, fails entirely to address the key point. “There are plenty of men out there who can write women;” he says, and “there are women out there who can’t write women.” Which is true, if rather trivial. But I do not believe that empathy alone can allow a writer to give authentic insights into the perspective of just anyone. Surely it has to be connected at some deep level with the writer’s real, lived experiences? To empathise is to extrapolate; there are things we might imagine but simply cannot truly understand without living them and feeling them, day after week after month after year. It’s not a question of finding the voice of a particular character whose background, ethnicity or gender might be different; it’s about how someone’s entire perspective on society, humanity and the Universe at Large shapes everything they see and everything they write. People are dealt very different hands in the game of life; writers are people; and Doctor Who needs show the world from all the different angles they see it. I just don’t see how it can do that without any women at all writing for the show.

As I say, I’m pleased I can end by looking forward to the start of what I hope will be a number of stories by women writers. Better yet – if you’d asked me which women writers I’d like to see contribute to Who (outside of Torchwood, that oasis in the Whoniverse where there have actually been quite a few scripts by brilliant women writers – Catherine Tregenna, Jacquetta May, Doris Egan, Jane Espenson) I’d have said Lizzie Mickery (The State Within) and Sarah Dollard (Cara Fi). To my delight, Dollard is one of the two women to write episodes this year. Hurrah!

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

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