Doctor Who, Female Writers and an Inconvenient Truth

I think I said most of what I have to say on the subject of bringing more female writers in to work on Doctor Who last year and I really can’t see that much has changed or moved on in last twelve months, other that maybe that Jane Goldman could be entirely forgiven for telling the British SF community to go fuck themselves after the way her husband, Jonathan Ross, was treated over an invitation to present this year’s Hugo Awards.

Just because I’ve nothing much to add at the moment doesn’t mean, of course, that this issue shouldn’t or that it’s wrong to ask searching questions about some of the editorial decisions that will shape the next series. There are, I think, much broader debates to be had here about the overall paucity of opportunities for new talent, and especially new female talent, in the BBC’s drama output and indeed about the extent to which the science fiction community has been, and still is, very poorly served by the BBC. December 2014 will, for example, see the 60th anniversary of the BBC’s one and only adaptation of Orwell’s “1984”, in which Peter Cushing took on the role of Winston Smith to go with a grand total of zero television adaptations of classic British SF novels such as Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, H G Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” and “The Time Machine” and John Wyndham’s “The Midwich Cuckoos” – and that’s just the stuff that occasionally gets accused of being proper literature.

That’s not to say that complaints about the lack of female input into the writing of Doctor Who are somehow trivial or irrelevant, rather it is point out both that there is wider context into which that specific debate fits and that, actually, this specific debate matters not just because it’s one of the BBC’s flagship shows but because, if you are a female SF author then it’s pretty much the only show you could aspire to write for.

There is one little thing about this debate that is bothering me at the moment and that’s people throwing large chunks of counterfactual nonsense into the debate like this:

However (and yes, you probably knew a “however” was coming if you were paying attention to that list of writers), this is now the fourth season in a row that has employed precisely zero female writers.

In fact, since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner in 2009 he has never hired a single female writer. And only once has he brought on a female director, back in season five. Needless to say, this track record only adds fuel to the ever-growing number of fans who say Moffat is taking Doctor Who in a more conservative and sexist direction.

Historically, Doctor Who has been a socially progressive show. That’s surely why so many viewers have singled out Steven Moffat for hiring such a vast number of white, male writers while female characters kept turning into flirty sidekicks and the number of non-white characters plummeted. The most popular explanation is that the vast majority of British science fiction TV writers are white men, and only the cream of that crop can be hired to work for the BBC’s flagship show.

However socially progressive Doctor Who may have been during it’s fifty year history in terms of what appeared on screen, what went on behind the scenes looks very different, even allowing for the involvement of Verity Lambert in the creation of the show.

Over the course of its fifty year history, there have been a total 90 credited script writers that have worked on Doctor Who of which just six have been women and two of those are rather dubious credits. Lesley Scott, the first women to receive a writing credit for the 1966 story “The Ark” didn’t actually write any part of the script while “Paula Munro”, who is credited with the two-part story “Attack of the Cybermen” in series 22, is the pseudonym of an ex-girlfriend of the-then series editor Eric Saward whose actual contribution to that story is shrouded in uncertainty and dispute.

So that definitely takes us down to five female writers – and quite possibly down to just four – in fifty years and between them they account for a total of between 22 and 24 individual episodes out of 800 (depending on how you view the “Munro” situation) of which around half of were the work of a husband and wife writing team, Pip and Jane Baker, who are probably best known as the creators of The Rani. In fact, once you take the dubious credit awarded to Lesley Scott out of the equation, it took 20 years and 5 Doctors for the series to acquire its first actual female scriptwriter, Barbara Clegg, who was responsible for a single four-episode story; “Enlightenment”, which served as the final part of the Black Guardian trilogy.

Okay, so you could argue that Russell T Davies was a bit of an improvement on his predecessors, insofar as he brought in Helen Raynor to write a couple of two-part stories. Four episodes out of 59 (6.7%) is somewhat better than the all series average of 22-24 out of 800 (2.75%-3%) but let’s not kid ourselves that its any kind of stellar track record or major advance on what had gone before.

Again, I should stress that none of this is intended to diminish or dismiss the arguments being made about Moffat’s tenure, rather it’s to point out the obvious; that appealing to the show’s “socially progressive” history and Russell T Davies’ penchant for mixing a bit of contemporary politics into his storylines looks just a little bit daft when you look at the facts and realise that since day one Doctor Who has had an absolutely fucking terrible record when it comes to employing female scriptwriters, a fact which, if anything, should make for an even stronger argument for change.

  • JSintheStates

    So we’re down to asking Mr Moffat,”What is the fucking problem? Where are the women writers already?”

  • David_Boothroyd

    I’m afraid the 1954 adaptation by Rudolph Cartier and Nigel Kneale is not the only BBC adapatation of Nineteen Eighty Four. There was also a 1965 version, which used the same script but different directors, and was made for the BBC 2 ‘Theatre 625′ strand. Long thought lost, it was recently rediscovered in the Library of Congress.

  • ChrisEstMonNom

    I very much doubt that they’re deliberately not hiring female writers. Why would they do that? Because the internet feminists have declared Moffat to be an arch-misogynist?

    Of course women could write Doctor Who as well as men could, but it appears they’re less likely to want to.

    As for white, well, it’s a mostly white country, isn’t it? I suspect a lot of that sort of criticism comes from the US, where there are a lot more minority people and they maybe don’t realise Britain isn’t quite the same.