Tackling this sort of subject matter is always going to be tricky. In the process of doing so I encountered a few people who thought I was overreacting and one or two feminists who felt it trivialised male-on-female violence. I contend that neither statement is true and that I’m making a valid point – but I would add that this was written before series 9, which seemed to fix many of the problems we’d had. Whether that was down to a general lightening of the Doctor’s character, a shift in tone, or perhaps a growing realisation that casual slapping was both dramatically lazy and downright irresponsible, I’ll never know. The third option is somehow unlikely.
Thinking back, I wonder if I shouldn’t have used the words ‘domestic violence’. But I stand by the content, so I trust you’ll forgive the occasional lapse into sensationalism.
Slap in the face: Why Doctor Who’s domestic violence has to stop
Published: 19 August 2015
Picture the scene. The TARDIS’s lights glow eerily. Up at the console, the Doctor flicks switches, pulls a couple of levers in quiet desperation. Finally, with an anguished sigh, he gives up. “It’s gone,” he tells Clara. “Gallifrey. Completely gone. I’ll never see it again.”
Clara, who is feeling particularly mean this afternoon, gives a nonchalant shrug. “You were the one who lost it in the first place. Can’t leave you alone with anything, can they?” Whereupon the Doctor turns from the console, striding across the floor of the TARDIS and slapping her savagely across the face.
The inclusion of a moment like this is more or less unthinkable. Even if you could write the characters this way, the OFCOM fallout would be potentially catastrophic. The tabloids would have a field day. The Mail’s headline would be a smug “BBC GOES TOO FAR”. The forums would be clogged with debates about whether the Doctor has become irredeemably dark, irreversibly unpleasant, and whether we need to see violence against women represented at this scale – counter-balanced against the views of those who simply see it as a natural progression, a chance for the show to journey into uncharted waters.
You’ve probably already seen where I’m going with this, but just in case it needs pointing out, when the reverse happens – as it does, with increasing frequency – the net result is a string of animated GIFs and YouTube compilations and the sound of much laughter. Because slapping in Doctor Who is something that they seem to do a lot, and while it’s undoubtedly a source of much hilarity to most of the Tumblr brigade, I’m not one of them. And every time it happens, I get very uncomfortable.
There’s certainly been a history of Doctor-companion violence. Perhaps one of the most notable early stories was The Edge of Destruction, with its strangulation cliffhanger and the notorious scene where Susan attacks Barbara with a pair of scissors. It was a stage in the production history where they were still working out tone and it’s almost inconceivable that it would have happened even, say, a year later. Meanwhile, strangulation rears its ugly head again in The Twin Dilemma, as a paranoid, post-regeneration Doctor shouts poetry at Peri before trying to throttle her. I’ve had dates like this, but it’s a nasty scene in a largely ridiculous story, and we will not dwell on it.
Besides, such things seem to be anomalies in twenty-five years of comparatively chaste television, in which the relationship the companion has with their Doctor is seldom discussed openly. For better or worse, a companion-based intensity is central to the dynamic of New Who, and generally you either love it or hate it. The Ninth Doctor famously tells Rose that he doesn’t “do domestic”, but that almost feels like Eccleston himself protesting against the tide of relationship issues that clogged the show both during and after his stint in the leather jacket.
That’s a different debate, of course, but it has fallout. The Doctor is slapped by Jackie Tyler for taking away his daughter. Francine Jones slaps him because she believe he’s a threat. A bolshy, pre-enlightened Donna Noble slaps him because she thinks she’s been kidnapped (and then again when she thinks he’s making light of a serious situation). Martha slaps the Doctor to bring him out of his self-induced fugue.
Some of these are understandable within the context of the narrative, even if we could question the writers’ decision to subsequently make light of them (the Doctor and Rose share a joke about Jackie on a rooftop, while a reeling Tennant remarks “Always the mothers” while he’s getting up). But that’s television. The comedy value of a good slap in the face is, apparently, worth its weight in gold, whether it’s Tasha Lem in Time of the Doctor, or Clara’s assault on the Cyberplanner Doctor in Nightmare in Silver. It would be churlish to single out Doctor Who for this sort of thing. It happened practically every week in Friends. It goes back to the golden age of television and beyond. Every short film Leon Errol ever made would end when his wife hit him over the head with a vase.
Perhaps comedy slapping has its place, given the right characters and context. But there’s been a shift over the years from a literal slapstick – the Eleventh Doctor hitting himself for his own stupidity – towards a darker, violence-as-reaction ethos, and perhaps that’s what makes me uncomfortable. I’ve mentioned the mothers, but the rot truly sets in when Matt Smith enters his second series: River’s reaction upon seeing an apparently resurrected (but actually two hundred years younger) Doctor is to slap him. She does it again when he fixes her broken wrist. Clara’s about the most violent of the lot, particularly when she’s working with Capaldi: thoughtless behaviour is punished with physical abuse in both Last Christmas and Into the Dalek, while she threatens, in Kill the Moon, to “smack you so hard you’ll regenerate”.
“But surely,” I can hear people arguing, “It’s OK, because the Doctor’s an alien?” And yes, the Doctor’s not human. He’s already demonstrated amazing resistance to injuries. He’s probably got a healing factor. He’s like an abrasive, declawed Wolverine, so that makes it OK. Besides, thumping non-human life forms isn’t a problem: if Han Solo’s response to being captured by the Ewoks had been to punch one of them in the face, I’m sure that would have been entirely acceptable to most children. It’s a poor analogy, but it illustrates that the line’s very hard to draw. To what extent do we disavow the actions of a character on the grounds that the humanoid patriarch they’ve thumped has two hearts instead of just one?
“Or,” the argument continues, “he deserves it, right?” Well, yes, of course he does. The Twelfth Doctor’s an alienating (in a quite literal sense of the word), clinically detached sociopath, at least in his worst moments. He says the horrible things we’re all thinking, only the little switch inside his head that stops you saying them out loud doesn’t seem to be working. That’s a perfectly justifiable reason for casual domestic violence. He deserves it in the same way that provocatively dressed women presumably deserve to be raped.
Why even question the motives of the one doing the slapping, when the one being slapped is so obviously asking for it?
I watch quite a lot of Jeremy Kyle on the weekday mornings I’m folding laundry instead of writing, and a couple of months ago one particular guest recounted the time he was locked in his flat by a girlfriend who supposedly beat him. The authenticity of his narrative was ultimately disputed, of course, but long before that happened Kyle had taken the audience to task for laughing. “If this was the other way around,” he said, “and if a woman was sat here and a bloke had locked her in a flat and she’d been forced to jump out and injure herself you would not be laughing. You would be saying he is a complete nightmare, he should be locked up and that’s disgraceful, but somehow if it happens to a bloke that’s funny. That’s not funny.”
If I could say that the show were making a valid point about this sort of thing, I’d probably be more tolerant. But it doesn’t: moral debate is sandwiched into inappropriate contexts where it is dealt with poorly and rapidly (Kill The Moon again) or, more often, sidestepped entirely. So by turns we’re supposed to laugh, or shake our heads in dismay and mutter “Well, he was asking for it”. We laugh because it’s a powerful Time Lord being brought down off his pedestal by a weak and feeble human. And we shouldn’t, because when it’s supposed to be funny, it usually isn’t, and when it’s supposed to be angst-ridden, it just comes across as nasty. Besides, it’s not just the Doctor. In Asylum of the Daleks, Amy slaps Rory twice. At least that’s consistent. Amy spends most of that story being an absolute bitch, whether it’s the arrogant smugness that pervades the early scenes, or the tirade of fury directed at her ex-husband for considering himself the wronged party (“Plastic man standing outside in the rain for two millennia? Pah. I THREW YOU OUT OF THE HOUSE BECAUSE I CAN’T HAVE YOUR BABIES!”).
I’m not advocating a reduction of violence. I approach many of these situations – inevitably and unavoidably – from the perspective of a parent, but that doesn’t mean I think the show is too unpleasant. I recently showed The Deadly Assassin, arguably the peak of 1970s unpleasantness, to my eight-year-old (and was thrilled when, just last week, he remembered an obscure detail while forming an analogy). The most sensible response to stories that cross your own particular line of acceptable viewing is to simply not watch them.
But I am worried about the show I’m watching. Perhaps Series 8 was Capaldi’s Twin Dilemma moment, borne out across twelve weeks, and the lighter touch hinted at in Series 9 will mean Clara no longer needs to react in anger. Or perhaps not. Perhaps this is the way Moffat and the producers choose to do things; a sort of counterbalance to the sexism charges thrown his way last year. But I know we live in a world where The Sun spearheads a campaign to highlight battered women with one hand and dismisses a marital assault charge against its (female) editor as “a silly argument” with the other. I know it’s a world where domestic violence against men is granted less credence than its (admittedly more common) antipode. Once again, that’s another debate for another day. But above all I know this: it’s not the sort of thing I want to see in Doctor Who.