Amy Pond, played by Karen Gillan, accompanied Matt Smith’s Doctor from 2010 until 2012. At the start of her run, it was easy to imagine her in a spanking scenario even though, of course, no such thing ever actually happened.
But by the end, that had become almost unthinkable. This was the time when Doctor Who really began to lose its way, and part of that process of fundamental change involved the typical role and function of the female companion.
It all began so straightforwardly, and indeed just straight. The series, and therefore its casting, had just passed into the control of a new showrunner, and for the first time since 1979, he was not gay. He cast an attractive actress with few inhibitions, who had performed in sexy sketches on The Kevin Bishop Show (2008-9),
worked as a model,
including posing in her underwear for Esquire,
and seemed content to be something of a paparazzi magnet:
That’s not a career profile with any of the icy distrust of the ‘male gaze’ that has recently done so much to interfere with the harmless pleasures of heterosexual men, and Karen’s post-Who work continued that trend, notably including a gorgeously gazable regular role in the sardonic sitcom Selfie (2014).
When it came to deciding on the look of Amy Pond, the costume designer’s first thoughts had been primarily practical, even though this would arguably not have made the most of her body shape. To put it simply, Karen Gillan is not the pneumatic kind of girl who is seen to best advantage in trousers.
The point may be underlined most effectively by showing her out of trousers, and indeed out of almost everything else, in the film Not Another Happy Ending (2013), which she made soon after leaving Doctor Who.
And it was Karen herself who proposed that Amy should usually wear miniskirts and shorts, capitalizing on her long, lissom legs, because she thought such outfits better suited Amy’s ‘sassy’ character.
That initial preference for short skirts had implications for the very first the audience saw of Amy Pond,: in a specially shot trailer for her first series. She is shown floating around in space, menaced by monsters,
and at one point she is blown head over heels, meaning that, even before her series debut, the male audience had already been treated to a view of her panties…
What might be called a ‘heterosexual agenda’ began full on when Amy (at least in her adult form) makes her first appearance wearing the kind of policewoman’s uniform that’s unlikely ever to have graced the local ‘cop shop’,
because it is soon established that she is employed as a kissogram, with her other work clothes including such common fantasy figures as a French maid, a nurse and a nun – but, perhaps disappointingly, not a naughty schoolgirl.
(No, that’s another one from The Kevin Bishop Show…)
But never mind, there is something rather schoolmasterly about the way the Doctor typically interacts with her, especially how he addresses her by her surname, ‘Pond’: the series’ usual M/F authority dynamic was alive and well in 2010.
And then it all started to go wrong.
Part of the trouble arose from an effort to extend the show’s range by putting more and more reality into it, whereas with Doctor Who the key was previously always to make the characters relatable and their adventures engaging whilst leaving out whole stretches of real human experience. Amy’s sexuality was a case in point. It wasn’t necessarily a problem that the characterization dabbled with the idea that a companion might have overtly sexual feelings for the Doctor: the previous few series had developed the possibility of a romantic dimension to the relationship, so it wasn’t a complete stretch for one episode to end with an awkward attempted clinch.
And indeed, this at least allowed for an equal-opportunities approach to ‘gazing’: if Amy’s introduction seemed calculated to appeal to the straight male viewer, Amy herself is shown enjoying the view from the other side as the Doctor changes clothes later in the same episode.
The problem, instead, lay in the fact that Amy was also given a fiancé, Rory, who then became her husband, then her ex-husband, and then… as her Facebook relationship status might have put it, ‘it was complicated’. Needlessly complicated. Sometimes in the past the arrival of a husband or other primary relationship was a reason for the girl to leave the program. Now Amy had to deal with everyday matters like marriage and sex and pregnancy and divorce through her time in the series rather than making it an escape from such things. This meant not only that her relationship with Rory existed in competition with her relationship with the Doctor, but also that the regular characters became obtrusive, getting in the way of the stories whose telling they should be there to facilitate. They sucked screen time away from stories that were already struggling to fit themselves into a short-form 42-minute format: Doctor Who became a series more about its regular characters than their adventures, and the upshot was cramped, perfunctory storytelling and suspenseless drama.
The other dimension was the producers’ developing disenchantment with the series’ traditional M/F dynamic. Instead, they bought into the crudest form of modern feminist sexism, most obviously when the 2011 Christmas special featured aliens whose words for male and female translated literally into English as respectively weak and strong, and the story was contrived to uphold this.
(Do I need to make the customary disclaimer here? Let’s just say that I think it’s deplorable to assume that saying something positive about one gender necessarily entails saying something negative about the other, and that in any case gender is so broad a category that if it is made the basis for a generalization, the outcome is bound to be reductive, patronizing and oppressive.)
Amy and her marriage was at the center of this development, too. If the Doctor Who girl will always and necessarily be to some degree ‘sub’ in relation to the more capable Doctor, the concurrent relationship with Rory enabled her also to be ‘dom’. (I mean that primarily metaphorically, but it is also said that she sometimes hits Rory.) What they really wanted was to elevate Amy to a position not just of equality with the Doctor, but to make her, in effect, identical with him: she gradually took on aspects of his narrative function and characteristics, and by her last series she was even using his catchphrases.
This process of deracinating the series did touch on spanking, in its usual modern role as a bogeyman shorthand for misogyny, in the woeful 2012 episode ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’. The title suggests the kind of strange time-travel juxtaposition that Doctor Who has always been well placed to do, but what it doesn’t prepare you for is the undisciplined ‘mix and match’ approach whereby Amy gets a pair of companions of her own in the form of the historical Egyptian Queen Nefertiti (Riann Steele) and the fictional Victorian big game hunter John Riddell (Rupert Graves), put together out of time for no better reason than that the TARDIS makes it possible.
The episode is written to imply that, if anyone is the dinosaur on the spaceship, it is Riddell, and spanking defines his nadir. He stupidly refuses to accept the reality of the strange situation (it’s ‘absolute tommyrot’, he says), and Nefertiti, as the voice of reason, comments, ‘Only an idiot denies the evidence of their own eyes.’ Riddell’s response is overtly presented as a gratuitous and rather crass overreaction:
‘Egyptian Queen or not, I shall put you across my knee and spank you.’
Amy Doctorishly tries to defuse things by telling them, ‘I will not have flirting companions’, which at least allows a harmless interpretation that isn’t coming across from Nefertiti’s side; but she gets to deliver the real message later when she tells Riddell that he needs ‘lessons in gender politics’ – a phrase not previously heard in Doctor Who.
And that makes it pertinent to ask whether all this reflects a genuine change of mind on the part of the series’ producers, which would have been honest even if misguided, or whether on the other hand the early cultivation of Amy’s ‘gazeworthiness’ was a deliberate piece of misdirection as part of a wider overall project of giving the male heterosexual audience some of those ‘lessons in gender politics’. Were we being straightforwardly given the pleasure of admiring a pretty Doctor Who girl, or was it given so that it could then be taken away?
Exactly why this is misguided is a broader matter for another time; but at least, as I’ve already both noted and demonstrated, Karen Gillan has been able to do well for herself through accepting and embracing her own attractiveness, as well as her manifold other gifts and talents. In 2015 that even included voicing the role of Anastasia Steele in a 50 Shades of Grey parody sketch in the animated series Robot Chicken – though sadly without any of the spanking that ought to come with the territory. And at least those who are inclined to regret that omission can still play with their Amy Pond action figures,
or get creative with their pens.
For those sticking with contemporary broadcast Doctor Who, though, things were only going to get worse.