Thursday, May 30, 2024

An Open Letter to Steven Moffat

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Dear Mr. Moffat,

I’m not a current viewer of Doctor Who, but I know people who are. People who were excited and happy to see not only an openly queer woman as a companion, but a queer woman of color. People who are now hurt and angry because of your choices.

I admit, I’m not the biggest fan of your work, not since series 6 of Doctor Who and the mess that Sherlock became after the second series. The more I watched your shows, the more I realized that you only knew how to write one kind of female character over and over again, just in different forms. I call her the Sexy Mystery™, the female character who exists to puzzle and delight the endlessly intelligent white male protagonist. She snarks and Kicks Ass™, but at the end of the day, her character revolves around said white male protagonists and exists only for him. As soon as her role in keeping him entertained and/or mystified is over, she gets the boot.

This kind of Faux Feminism™ turned me off even before I knew what to call it. Then you decided that ‘feminism’ meant a man talking over women and explaining their anger to them. I knew I was done then.

But then, you introduced Bill Potts. A proud, out lesbian and a black woman. I was intrigued, because she seemed so different from the string of interchangeable thin, white women you’d been using as companions (and characters on other shows). I watched trailers. She was funny, honest, optimistic, and not afraid to challenge the Doctor. She was a huge ball of sunshine and a delight. The age gap and her lack of romantic interest meant that a new dynamic had to be wrought between the Doctor and Bill. Still wary, I promised myself I’d keep an eye on the season and maybe watch once I’d seen how it ended.

The news I heard was encouraging. Bill seemed well on her way to being a new kind of companion. I let myself hope that you might be learning from your mistakes.

Yet, there were signs not everything was as I hoped. Bill Potts, a queer woman of color, was the first female companion without a romantic interest since the revival. White Feminism would say, “Excellent! This means her character doesn’t revolve around a man or romance. Win!”. Intersectional Feminism reminds us that women of color are frequently sidelined from being a romantic interest if they are the main character on a show. Often with the excuse of “she don’t need no man”. Even if the intentions here were innocent, someone ought to have been consulted to avoid falling prey to this common trap for lead women of color.

Add in that she’s a queer woman of color, and the implications double. Because the other female companion of color, Martha Jones, was given a romantic interest in her tenure on Doctor Who. The implication seems to be not so much her skin color, but her orientation led to her not being given a long-term canonical love interest. Yes, she got to talk about being into women, which is great. She even got two girls to express interest in (one of whom, Heather, died), which was more than I thought to see. I was half expecting her orientation would be brought up in the first episode then never mentioned again.

But, companions on Doctor Who have always had a love interest. Whether the Doctor himself or someone else, and not just a one off guest star in an episode. Rose, Martha, Donna, River, Amy, Clara, they all had one. Not giving your queer woman of color a love interest when it has literally always been a feature of the show? Now that just looks BAD.

It almost ends up looking like you wanted credit for creating a diverse, intersectional character without having to commit to following through on a sensitive portrayal of that character. You want the kudos for creating a black lesbian, but not have to actually write a wlw romance. Now, I can’t say that’s your motive, I’m not in your head. But for those of us on the outside, it sure as hell feels that way.

We feel robbed of the story every other female companion got. Since this is the first canon lesbian female companion on the show, not giving her a romance like every other female companion is a ripoff. It communicates that we matter less to you. Our love stories do not interest you since you can’t make the Doctor the center of it the way you could with the straight romances. Since you can’t make a man the center of a romantic relationship with a lesbian, you don’t care to give her a romance. Again, this is how it feels, not necessarily your intent. But its only fair that you understand the way your story affects us since we’re supposedly your intended audience.

The lack of love interest would have been frustrating enough if you hadn’t have killed her. Well, mostly killed her then turned her into a Cyberman. Yes, you had the ‘decency’ to forewarn us that the Doctor would witness the death of someone he cares about (the best candidates being Bill and Nardole). That’s at least more than many of us got last year when dozens of wlw characters were killed off of our screen. But it won’t win you brownie points.

Not after what we’ve been through. I’m not sure if you’re aware of the Spring Slaughter. That’s the phrase we use to describe the high number of deaths of queer female characters in the 2015-2016 season. That year, queer women made up roughly 1% of all characters on TV, but 10% of all deaths. We were dying at ten times the rate of our representation, so excuse us if we’re angry when another queer female character gets treated this way, especially a queer woman of color. There are precious few of them on our screens.

You know what? No. I take that back. We have every right to be angry. I have trouble believing you didn’t know this was an issue. Even across the pond there’s no excuse not to know given the prominence of this discussion in American media over the past 18 months. When your TV show has a large American following, you can’t not know the problematic trends in American television.

So I can only conclude that despite knowing, you thought this ‘didn’t fit’ the Bury Your Gays trope, as so many other showrunners have claimed in the past year. Maybe because you didn’t technically kill her…yet. So yeah, not buried, but half in the grave doesn’t count for much these days.

Yet, I’m sure you believe it’s fine. You probably had narrative reasons for making this choice. You probably had character reasons, too. The thematic point made about a queer woman of color as a victim of the classism in this society wasn’t lost on me. It’s valid, even interesting. But you know what? I don’t care. We’ve suffered enough.

Having to watch 33 queer female characters die in the 2015-2016 season followed by 20 more in the 2016-2017 season sucks ass. Do you know how much trauma this community has suffered seeing ourselves maimed, murdered, killed, and/or denied happy endings? Add to it the very real violence that the LGBT+ community has witnessed this past year and you can see why we’re Done with being killed off of media. We’re literally being destroyed on screen and killed in real life. We just want to exist and see ourselves represented as people without having to suffer violence and trauma on screen and off of it. The last thing we need is the only queer female companion on this show, the only queer female of color on this show, to suffer a gruesome almost-death and turn into a soulless murder machine.

Because full offense, not even thematic reasons can justify the protracted and macabre manner of Bill Pott’s death and transformation into a Cyberman. She’s shot in cold blood less than 10 minutes into the episode, a melon-sized hole blasted through her chest. Now, you may not realize this, but the death that brought attention to the issue of dead wlw characters last season was Lexa kom Trikru from the TV show, The 100. She was shot in the abdomen and bled out. It was gruesome, senseless, entirely unnecessary, and caused more collective pain than you can imagine. So you can see why a lesbian with a giant hole in her fucking torso would be traumatic for us.

Then you make it worse by giving us flashbacks with Bill hoping against just this eventuality, more lingering shots of the gaping hole in her body, and even make jokes about how mortal and fragile human beings are. I’m glad the death of a queer woc is a joke to you. Because it sure as hell isn’t to us. It’s our lives, not a wisecrack.

We then have to live the rest of the episode in a macabre, twisted parody of a hospital. We’re literally living our worst nightmare. A cross between institutionalization and experimentation, a throwback to the dark days of US history when LGBT+ people were treated as psychologically or physically damaged an in need of ‘repair’ or ‘fixing’.

Once again, other characters make jokes at her expense. And again, the humorous attempt to lampshade the horror happening to Bill fails to ameliorate or undermine what’s happening to her in light of what the queer community has faced the past few years. It doesn’t even matter if you’re going for levity or to lighten the mood. Given the context, it feels like mockery. Especially in hindsight knowing what happens to her at the end and how long she waited for the Doctor to return.

You turned her into a Cyberman. The heartless, emotionless, machines intent on killing all humans. This isn’t even the first time a black woman has been partially or fully upgraded to a Cyberman in the recent Who Universe. Lisa Hallet may not have been your creation, but having two black female characters turn into inhuman murder robots and turn on their friends and loved ones really doesn’t look good. And from what we’ve seen (and you’ve said yourself) in the trailer for next episode, Bill is going to go the way of Lisa, at least for a while.

“Well she’s a Cyberman from now on…she’s one of those ones in the trailer, just killing people. That’s the way it is sometimes.”—Steven Moffat

Yeah, fuck that.

In a perfect world, there would be no problematic implications for blasting a hole through a black lesbian character’s chest and turning her into an unfeeling killing machine. But guess what? We don’t live in that world. We live in a world where wlw characters are killed off at a disproportionately high rate. A world where our community has faced betrayal, hurt, and pain at that hands of showrunners. Some were ignorant of our hurt, some well-intentioned. But guess what? That didn’t change how much it hurt.

“That’s just the way it is sometimes” isn’t going to cut it. Not when we’ve had to watch ourselves die and showrunners excuse or justify the deaths of their queer female characters over and over and over again. Showrunners with great track records with the queer community have not escaped criticism for the deaths of their LGBT+ female characters in the past few years. And lets face it, your record on Doctor Who is pretty thin.

Madame Vastra and Jenny did have a warm, genuine, and lovely relationship from all I’ve heard. They weren’t main characters, but they were a welcome addition and well written. But they aren’t the only LGBT+ female characters. Sticking to the best representation is an unclear picture of your track record. River Song might as well be straight for all that her bisexuality is mentioned, much less given space to inform her character in any meaningful way. Just compare her with Jack Harkness. And speaking of bisexual erasure, Clara Oswald. The character who talks about “going through a phase” in college with a girl. Oh, and of the two women Bill expressed interest in, one of them is dead.

So yeah, you have made an effort to include queer female characters. It is more than other showrunners have done. But, it’s a low fucking bar. Five wlw characters in six years as the showrunner and only two of them get both a happy ending and the space to discuss their sexuality and relationship openly. The two bi characters have their sexuality regularly erased. And the fith, Bill Potts, the show’s first openly lesbian companion and a woc, you just shot through the chest and turned into a Cyberman.

She’s also the companion who has been given the least amount of screentime so far, which just adds insult to injury. Clara was a Dalek before she was a companion, so a comparison between the two doesn’t really count. River, like Clara, got her run as a companion after her ‘death’, so again, not a good comparison.

Clara isn’t even truly dead, just frozen in time, and River may have lost her body, but her consciousness is preserved in the Library, so again, not the same as turned into a murderous robot. The other four companions—Rose, Martha, Donna, and Amy—all got happy endings. If this is how Bill Potts exits the show, it would be unprecedented in terms of both an unhappy ending and a permanent transformation into a villain. That might be meaningful in terms of your ability to write consequences, but given who Bill is and the communities she represents, this wasn’t the right choice of character to prove you’re capable of killing off companions.

Even if she finds a way to become human again, she’s still the only companion to have been both killed(-ish) and turned into a villain during their run as a companion. Her being a queer woc may be a writing coincidence (i.e., you may have written any companion this way at this point in the story), but the queer women and women of color in your audience probably don’t experience it that way.

More to the point, even if you did write a way for her to ‘come back’, the damage has been done to queer communities and communities of color. You reopened old wounds and made some new ones along the way. Because you know what other pattern Bill’s death falls into? The killing off of lead female characters of color. Abbie Mills from Sleepy Hollow, Poussey Washington from Orange is the New Black, among others, and most recently, Veil from Into the Badlands. There are multiple communities hurting right now from this decision and that can’t be undone.

You already chose to make a traumatic, dramatic experience out of the near-death and de-humanization of a queer woman of color. You prioritized a Shocking™ cliffhanger over sensitivity to marginalized communities. Communities you may not have meant to hurt, but you did regardless. It may not be malicious, but it was insensitive and thoughtless.

Being flippant about it in an interview really isn’t doing you any favors or helping your image, either. You might be able to brush it off as ‘just what happens sometimes’, but you are neither a queer woman nor a woman of color. You don’t get to just be flippant about the way you treat an intersectional character. Maybe it’s your way of communicating it’s no big deal because she’s coming back. Doesn’t make the behavior any less insulting.

This whole thing is just…really, really unfortunate, and that’s being as positive as I can be. Mostly, I’m gobsmacked you and your team decided this was a good direction, that no one said ‘how about not.’

You just touched some very raw, very painful wounds. Bill Potts gave a lot of people hope and joy given the shit year queer women and women of color have had in terms of representation. Finding a way to ‘bring her back’ doesn’t negate the damage. The initial traumatic reaction can’t be erased or undone; it can’t be un-experienced even if the character somehow survives or becomes human again. You sentenced Bill, even if just for a time, to gruesome near death followed by a fate worse than death. That’s horrific and painful for us to see happen to a beloved (and much needed) character.

I can only hope that in the coming days you think long and hard about how to interact with these communities online. Many other showrunners have stumbled in reacting to the pain by justifying or excusing their choices instead of listening. Please listen, please understand. We’re wounded people, hurting people. People who have been scarred, betrayed, and dismissed. Don’t be yet one more name on the list of showrunners who proved their disregard for us and our experience in the aftermath of a problematic choice to kill off (or nearly kill off) a prominent queer female character .

I know that there’s still one episode left and as of Sunday, you hadn’t even finished it yet. Perhaps that means there’s hope you’ll hear how upset people are and make changes. If you had planned to kill off Bill, perhaps this means there’s time to have a different ending.

Whatever happens, though, bear in mind that no matter where the show goes from here, you’ve already hurt people. And that didn’t need to happen.

This adorable, precious face deserves better.

Images Courtesy of the BBC

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