Female Writers and Doctor Who

Over at The Guardian, Mathilda Gregory points out that women are woefully under represented on the writing side of TV science fiction and fantasy shows:

On Saturday, Doctor Who returns, kicking off the second part of the seventh series with a James-Bond inspired episode that sees the Doctor and Clara whizzing round London on a motorbike. Which is exciting if you like interesting drama with witty banter and thoughtful concepts. But less exciting if you like interesting dramas that include women on their writing teams.

Because season seven of Doctor Who will feature no female scribes at all. Not in the bombastic dinosaurs and cowboys episodes that aired last year, and not in any of the new episodes we’re about to receive. In fact, Doctor Who hasn’t aired an episode written by a woman since 2008, 60 episodes ago. There hasn’t been a single female-penned episode in the Moffat era, and in all the time since the show was rebooted in 2005 only one, Helen Raynor, has ever written for the show.

Isn’t that is a pretty terrible record for a flagship TV programme? It even prompted website Cultbox to put together a list of women they would like to see writing the show, any of whom would be great.

As arguments go, there’s nothing much to disagree with here in terms of underlying principles.

If women are under represented in a particular field, and they certainly are here, then as a rule its probably the case that something more should be done to increase their involvement. That may not always be true because there may very well be male dominated fields of endeavour that women quite sensibly wouldn’t want to touch with a bargepole – even after the Sex Discrimination Act became law in 1975, women were prohibited in law from working underground in the coal mining industry and I don’t recall anyone rushing to mount to a legal challenge to that ban, so there are some sensible exceptions to that rule.

Where the argument here rather begins to fall down, for me, is when its gets into the specifics and starts idly tossing around the names of specific female authors in support of the article’s general line of argument:

Author Jenny Colgan who, as JT Colgan, wrote a Doctor Who tie-in novel, says there are plenty of women writing fantasy and science fiction. “There should probably be more women in the room,” she says. “I think producers and commissioners should sometimes be a bit bolder about trusting girls with their toys. I mean, come on: Margaret Atwood, Ursula le Guin, Madeleine L’Engel, Audrey Niffenegger, JK Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Stephanie Meyer … it’s hardly as if women don’t have a proven track record.”

Oh dear…

Of the seven named authors in that paragraph we’ve got just one truly great SF/Fantasy novelist, Ursula LeGuin. There are two mainstream authors who’ve written SF, Atwood and Niffenegger – and, admittedly Atwood’s main contribution to the genre, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a genuine classic – and four women who, to put it bluntly, write popular but derivative teen fiction of which one, Madeleine L’Engle has even had her name misspelled.

To be scrupulously fair, there is an ellipsis in there, so Colgan may very well have gone on to add several other names to her list but what made it into print here is a list of female authors that the Guardian thinks its female readers will have at least heard of, mostly by way of their adolescent offspring, and not a list of women with a proven track record in SF/Fantasy; a list that would at the very least have included Doris Lessing, Lois McMaster Bujold, CJ Cherryh, Vonda McIntyre, Connie Willis and Nancy Kress.

Cultbox’s list is scarcely an improvement.

Two of its five female writers, Caitlin Moran and Abi Morgan, have absolutely no background in SF whatsoever, and quite possibly no interest in writing in this genre, while Michelle Paver is another children’s author whose sole fantasy series, Chronicle of Ancient Darkness, sound suspiciously like ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ for kids, albeit rather better written than Auel’s novels if the critical reception that she’s received is anything to go by.

Jane Goldman’s track record might look good on paper – Stardust, Kickass, X-Men First Class and The Woman in Black – but the only solo project on that list (The Woman in Black) is an adaptation of  an existing novel and her own description of her screenwriting partnership with Matthew Vaughan doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence:

“Matthew’s the architect, and I do the construction work,” she says. “I do the interior designing.”

I guess it depends on whether Steven Moffat wants his writers to provide architecture as well as interior design.

That leaves us with Jane Espenson, who brings a decent-looking track record in US SF/Fantasy to the table by way of Buffy but whose one foray, to date, into British SF was the abominable and, in all likelihood, series killing ‘Torchwood: Miracle Day’. ‘Miracle Day’ was, by any reasonable standards, a desperate disappointment as a follow-up to the ‘Torchwood: Children of Earth’, which was quickly dubbed ‘Quatermass 5’ by British SF aficionados and criticised by some TV reviewers as an alleged rip-off of Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, which just goes to show what some TV critics know about SF – nothing.

What’s desperately lacking in all this is any consideration of whether any of the named authors would slot seamlessly into Steven Moffat’s overarching conception of the Who-universe, which is not only very different from that of his predecessor. Russell T Davies, but which, stylistically and thematically, is heavily influenced by a very specific sub-genre of British science-fiction/fantasy, the ‘new wave’ of the 1960s.

Integrating new writers into the Who TV series, in particular, is not as simple as saying ‘ooh she’s/he’s good or popular at the moment, so why not give her a go’.

There is a very particular conceptual shape to Moffat’s take on Who which draws extensively on influences from the likes of JG Ballard, Brian Aldiss and, in particular, Michael Moorcock, within which any new writers brought into the series would need to work effectively, irrespective of their gender. Moffat’s last full series, in particular, had a narrative shape that harks back to Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels/short stories while the character of River Song seems, to me at least, to bear far too many similarities to that of Una Persson from the Cornelius and Oswald Bastable novels to be a matter of pure coincidence. Indeed, from what I’ve seen thus far of the Doctor’s new companion, Clara/Oswin Oswald, fans of the series who’re looking for clues to help them unravel this new character could do worse than familiarise themselves with Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series and the interplay between the various incarnations of the Moorcock’s Champion, Companion and Consort – although what I wouldn’t pay any attention to is the spurious addition of  The Doctor as an incarnation of the Eternal Champion on Wikipedia. Moorcock did publish a Doctor Who novel in 2010, The Coming of the Terraphiles, but the link back to his own Eternal Champion series from that novel is by way of the novel’s antagonist, a space pirate named ‘Captain Cornelius’.

As such, Moffat’s new wave sensibilities present a bit of problem for those throwing around the names of female writers as possible additions to writing team for Doctor Who. Of those listed by The Guardian and Cultbox, only Goldman, who is clearly well thought of by Neil Gaiman, seems likely to be a good fit for Moffat’s version of Doctor Who, and even then, on her track record to date, there remains an open question as to whether she has the ability to produce an original episode from scratch without someone else providing the architecture of the story. The rest may be very good writers – well, some of them may be, let’s not get into Stephanie Meyer – but none of them strike me as natural fits for Moffat’s version of Who.

And there rests the slight problem I have Gregory’s argument vis-a-vis Doctor Who.

While there are any number of brilliant female writers around, I’m really struggling to think of any that have the kind of new wave sensibilities that would gel with Moffat’s take on Who, a thought made all the more depressing by the realisation that none of the three female authors whose style would have worked beautifully in that setting are still with us – we lost Joanna Russ in 2011, Kauro Kurimoto in 2009 and Angela Carter as long ago as 1992.

Jeebus, that’s a sobering thought. We lost Angela Carter to lung cancer more than twenty years ago and at just fifty-one years of age. That’s no age at all to be losing an author with that kind of  talent and were she still with us, I’d cheerfully blow half the series’ CGI budget for a single episode written by Carter – well, maybe not a single episode, I’d want a two-parter because you just don’t limit that kind of talent to a mere 45 minutes of TV time.

The lack of obvious female candidates is not, for me, just a sign that TV producers are too often unwilling to take a chance on female writers of genre fiction but part of a deeper malaise that goes hand-in-hand with the decline in mid-list publishing and outlets for short-fiction, or at least outlets that pay decent rates, and the loss of specialist bookshops, not to mention the unwillingness of many generalist bookshops to stock anything other than a very limited range of best-selling authors and a few racks of TV, film and game spin-offs.

The mid-list was where you used to find the interesting writers, the place where authors of genre fiction could stretch their talent, play with ideas and demonstrate what they were actually capable of and much of that has now gone. If there is a new Angela Carter or Joanna Russ out there then chances are their talent for writing genre fiction will go unnoticed because, if they’re writing genre fiction at all, they’re most likely knocking out fantasy trilogies in an effort to cash-in on the current popularity of ‘Game of Thrones’ or, alternatively writing formulaic Film/TV show/game world spin-offs because that, sadly, is where the money is.

It’s a deeply depressing thought, but if the late, great, Kurt Vonnegut were to approach a publisher, today, with a first draft of Slaughterhouse-Five they’d probably ask him to tone it down a bit and change the setting so it would fit into the Halo universe.

So, yes, while I agree with Mathilda Gregory in principle, in practice unearthing talented female writers from under mounds of formulaic dross that, today, dominates the SF/Fantasy market may be a rather more difficult proposition than she supposes – then again, I’ve just found out that Pat Cadigan now lives in the UK, so maybe there is some hope after all.

  • Londonkds

    There’ve been lots of decent Doctor Who writers who didn’t previously have an SF pedigree.

    Also, Moorcock explicitly declared the Doctor to be the Eternal Champion in an early chapter of “Terraphiles”.

  • Russell

    Great post, great site site

  • Devil’s Kitchen

    I would have loved to see a Diana Wynne Jones-authored Doctor Who episode but, alas, there is another great author who is no longer with us.

    And, appallingly, Iain Banks is about to join the ranks of truly great, dead sci-fi writer…

    DL