Dr Who at Christmas is an established fixture, as festive as sausages wrapped in bacon and Noel Edmond's jumpers. And yesterday's annual fare, Dr Who: The Snowmen was alright. Like any good Steven Moffat episode, it made sinister the (wintery) accoutrements of childhood - snow, the eponymous snowmen, snow globes - and wrapped them around an absurd plot to conquer the world with ice people. The story arc for the 2013 season is set up nicely as the new companion, Clara Oswin Oswald (Jenna Louise Coleman - pictured), is seemingly reincarnated at different points in history (in The Asylum of the Daleks, The Snowmen's Victorian setting, and, as revealed by the coming season's teaser, the present day). And, for the proper purists, this special acts as a sort-of prequel to a couple of 1967 episodes featuring yetis and the London Underground, or something.
Okay, now is the time to talk about Steven. To put it mildly we know Dr Who's lead writer is a flawed genius, and the blemish on his character is, sadly, sexism. The last Christmas episode I reviewed was very suspect. And it's not just me who thinks this, nor is the Doctor the only Moffat production to manifest dodgy gender politics. There's this piece in the New Statesman on his re-imagined Sherlock, there's this hoo-ha over Coupling, and this takedown of episodes broadcast while Russell T Davies was still at the helm. Five minutes with your favourite internet search engine will turn up countless articles and blogs on the subject, including how Moffat deleted his Twitter account after another round of call-outs over recurring sexist themes.
Now, I accept all these arguments. I don't know why Moffat persists with rolling out the tired old sexist cliches. Perhaps he has a problem with women. As a bare minimum he drags around a load of unexamined and unacceptable assumptions. I don't know what his issues are, and wouldn't care if these attitudes didn't crop up and disfigure what is otherwise fine - and popular - work. But they do, so here we are.
However, on top of and in addition to emasculated men, and troublesome, objectified, infantilised women, I'd like to make a couple of other quick observations that may point to a contradictory influence on Moffat's Doctor writing.
A number of people have pointed out that Moffat just can't write women. In yesterday's episode, Clara proved to be flirty, chatty and sassy. Just like Riversong (Alex Kingston) and Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) who preceded her. Okay, so Moffat's women are cardboard cut outs. But this sits very much inside the Who 2.0 tradition. Russell T. Davies didn't use the show to play out questionable gender politics, but his female characters were cut from a similar cloth. You don't need an abiding knowledge of Joss Whedon's work to realise Davies and Moffat both owe more than a passing debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But I don't think their continuing and recycled "tributes" to her is accidental.
Who episodes and new characters are not conceived in a creative vacuum. They are part and parcel of a cultural phenomenon. It not only is a money spinner but has, strangely, become inscribed in the national character of modern Britain. As well as to entertain and nod occasionally to the canon built up over 50 years, Dr Who has to reflect something of what makes modern Britain back at its audience. Buffy knock-offs the female characters largely are, Moffat and every other writer are tasked with developing personalities that must appeal to its audience. And because, in all essentials, Dr Who is a *children's programme* characters have to walk the tightrope of being role models for kids and safe enough for parents. The political economy of the show's popularity demands women characters who safely convey initiative and the capacity to stick up for themselves. Similarly the men - the Doctor, Rory, and even Captain Jack (remember him?) - are emotionally engaged and right on, if bumbling and unsure of themselves at times. They are pretty much what we would have called 'new men' back in the early 90s. In other words, Doctor Who labours to reflect back what its audience thinks or, more accurately, *aspires* contemporary gender normativity to be (normativity is, of course, always conditioned by modern cultural and particularly media representations of what is 'normal' for 'normal' women and men, but I digress).
What this means is writers like Moffat labour against an ever-present background of expectation. It's a tension. The BBC expect a compelling ratings smash, as it does every year. Parents and children want some safe fare while Christmas dinner ablates in distended stomachs, and Whovians and sad folk like the author of this blog expect a little something we can rant on the internet about. Together, this background of expectation acts both as a parameter disciplining Moffat's writing, and as a countervailing force conditioning character development along the lines of certain sets of infinitely repeated but loosely progressive traits. Clara, Amy, Riversong, the Doctor, Rory - every other recurring 'good' character that has featured since the 2005 reboot are you and me. They are every woman, and every man; or the men and women we and our children would like to be.
So far, the sexist graffiti Moffat sprays about his episodes have yet to undermine this convivial quality. But continued vigilance, calling out and critique will be necessary for as long as we wish Dr Who to stay that way.