Tabula Rasa

Tabula Rasa

Search / Site Map


Doctor Who




Young Girls





DW Fandom



Season 5

Season 14

Stones of Blood

K9 and Company novel

Arc of Infinity

Season 22

Doctor Who: Voyager

Doctor Who: Voyager (again)

Seasons 25 and 26

Season 26

Timewyrm: Revelation


Fan fiction

Tabula Rasa

She Leads a Lonely Life

by David Carroll, 1992

The cover of Cat's Cradle: Warhead has a picture of Ace firing a sub-machinegun. Professor Bernice Summerfield, Paul Cornell's creation to rival the Doctor intellectually is introduced to us on the cover of Love and War. She is also firing a sub-machinegun. Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart, the next in line on the Magical Mystery Tour, is young and physically-augmented, trained as warrior. In her world and mindset sub-machines are undoubtedly obsolete, but hey, they do the job.

A bit of a change from Mel, you might say, who coped with a strange and frightening universe by assuming just about everyone was nice, and didn't really know what to do if they weren't.

It should, of course, come as no surprise to find a strong female character in literature. The whole point of literature is, after all (and in my own humble opinion), the examination of character and females constitute some 51% of the human race. But even in this 'enlightened' day and age such a thing is a surprise, or at least a little unusual -- certainly a topic worthy of writing an article about.

But more and more examples are coming to the fore, and I'll give you a couple of quick ones to demonstrate. Fright Night II is a reasonably typical horror/comedy/teen flick, both well-written and well-made. The hero is male, and he has a girlfriend who isn't too keen on sex -- at least until said hero defeats the vampires and shows he is worthy of her bed. Again, fairly typical. What isn't typical is the fact that the girlfriend is intelligent, resourceful, practical and quite prepared to stand up for herself and her loved one -- in no way a token female character. Mermaids is the adventures of three females -- supposedly a comedy but without sparing the viewer a journey into emotional hell before the happy ending. Thelma and Louise is a wonderful trip alongside two girls breaking free from their bonds. The Hellraiser series has some no-nonsense females within. Nightmare on Elm Street had the heroine fighting back while Johnny Depp was being puréed. Gerald's Game certainly reverses Stephen King's usual emphasis on male characters. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, well, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

And of course there is Clarice Starling.

There have also been a great increase in female villains lately, in the likes of Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Poison Ivy... Is this part of the same trend, or is it all part of the 'Feminist Backlash'? It seems to me that the increase in heros is well matched by the villains, and both are simply balancing the scales. And the villains are, after all, often the most interesting thing about a film.

Another concern is whether this emergence of tough females is simply giving them male qualities of machismo. But this is popular literature -- adventure, excitement, fighting back against horror. They have to do something -- and females seem to be well supported in the less mainstream literature, Michael Tolken's The Rapture comes immediately to mind.

There are, however, two principal examples of a genre that are of particular importance here, because Doctor Who has been heading down the same path. The tough female who is deeply inured in the male-dominated world of big guns and fast action. A character that, building on the years and years of male-predecessors, has almost become an instant stereotype -- just add blood.

It all started in a rather well-known movie, not too long ago. Much has already been said about the similarity of Dragonfire and Aliens, James Cameron's 1986 flick about the universe being an unfriendly place. The young girl, the marines, and of course the Dragon itself was somewhat similar to H. R. Giger's conception. Aliens is perhaps remembered most for one thing, however: Sigourney Weaver with a big gun (and a flame-thrower, and a grenade-launcher, and...), and there is some strange symmetry in Ace turning out the way she has.

But Ellen Ripley is by no means an easily pigeon-holed woman. In each of her three films she has had a different role to play, and it is a tribute to the scripts and the actress that this has been done without jarring or inconsistent characterisation. In Alien she was very much the survivor. She does what she has to, and does it well enough to come out of it with her skin in one piece [1].

In Aliens she has more than herself to look out for. With marines are dropping like flies around her, she does have to be heroic. Newt is depending on her. In the extended version it is revealed that Ripley is a mother herself -- her daughter old and dead. This leads significance not only to her relation with Newt, but to the Queen Alien as well.

And in Alien3 she is neither a survivor nor a warrior. The most overwhelming impression we get is a feeling of tiredness. She has faced her terror and won, but now the terror has become the only thing in her life, and she is waiting to die. It has been suggested that Alien3 is one big AIDS metaphor, and if nothing else this provides a nice explanation for the needles and casual sex.

I think Ace would have been a big fan of Aliens, and possibly the original as well. But these two films don't tell us much about how Ace ticks. She is neither a simple survivor nor driven by the mother instinct. What relevance the third movie has we shall see a little later.

Because now we come to James Cameron's 1984 and 1991 films, The Terminator and Terminator II, and the parallels here are somewhat pronounced.

Sarah Connor is a waitress who has trouble with the customers and can't get a steady date. Until a warrior picks her up off the floor and says 'Come with me if you want to live'. She does live, but her new life is completely alien from anything she had experienced before. By the end of the first movie she is ordering Reese about like a parade sergeant, and in the second movie she is so completely caught up in the idea of her son's destiny she has become a veritable automation herself, a machine built to survive, to protect her son at all costs, and perhaps to kill.

I don't know about you, but the scene from this movie that has proved most memorable is, special effects notwithstanding, the bit where Sarah whirls, gun instantly in hand, to greet her Mexican friend. And while the detour to Miles Dyson's house is perhaps a lull in the movie's action, what Sarah goes through in the process makes it the logical and thematic climax of the piece [2].

Once again the character is no simple warrior. Sarah's claim that only the female of the species knows what it is like to truly create is justifiably dismissed by her son as unconstructive. But she herself must learn to give up her survive-at-any-costs attitude before she can join rejoin her species again -- or at least that portion of it the poets call human.

This is the character that comes closest to Ace's own. Not only do the two start off as waitresses before plunging into fantasy and ending up self-sufficient, but the progress of characterisation itself is very similar. In Seasons 25 and 26 Ace must come to terms with her human frailties -- face the love/hate relationship she has with her mother, overcome her fears of the different and the unknown. She grows up -- finds love, only to lose it again. She finds within herself the ability to start organising the group of humans in Survival. She has become self-sufficient, and her relationship with the Doctor herein is notably distant. She is, as Peter Darvall-Evans describes her, slightly feral. This is where Sarah Connor is after the first movie. But something pushes both of them over the edge.

In Sarah's case it is the knowledge of Judgement Day, inescapable nuclear Armageddon. In Ace's case it is a lot more subtle.

Somewhere between Survival and Andrew Cartmel's Warhead she changes, she moves from self-sufficiency to mercenary. She has what it takes to organise a group of Kurdish guerillas in an attack, she survives alone in a land where people are trying to kill her. She has outgrown childish inhibitions about sex, and perhaps outgrown love itself. And as she says half way through the book:

I'm just twenty-two, and I don't mind dying
At the end of Paul Cornell's Love and War she leaves the Doctor, spends three years as a mercenary of the Terran Empire, killing Daleks. And when she rejoins the Doctor it is as a very different figure from the sixteen-year old who was offered the sights of the universe way back in Dragonfire.

What happened to her?

It has never been explicitly stated, at least not yet, but I believe she has simply spent too much time with the Doctor. In S25 and 26 the Doctor was working towards making Ace feel good about herself. But he was also using her as a piece in the game. The Doctor saves lives and saves worlds or a fairly regular basis, the scale he works on is immense. To be a part of this, to be used as a part of this -- well, it would be enough to blow anyone's sense of perspective.

This is not new within Doctor Who, though it is only a product of the darker eighties and nineties. Turlough had no pretensions about what was going on, and even after Enlightenment he kept himself safely separate from the Time Lord. Tegan got too personally involved, in the people she met, in the bloodshed. I think it drove her a little insane, and at the end of Resurrection she just couldn't handle it any more.

And Peri... Peri was, of course, a whinger. But if you look closely at the character you see a girl lost and subjected to things she doesn't understand and had no control over. Of course she isn't a hero -- she was simply, and very understandably, scared, and tried to do her best anyway.

But Ace has caught herself up in the Doctor's affairs, she has become part of the 'fight against evil', which after a while might simply seem like the fight.

Sarah Connor realised, through the love of her son, that the world wasn't quite the bleak picture she had painted for herself. But what will draw Ace back?

Not the Doctor, I suspect. And not her family, because she has long ago made her peace with her memory, if not the actuality. She has outgrown their power over her.

Like Ripley, she has spent so much time with the horror that it has become a part of herself. She is tired, but she just keeps on swinging, through force of habit.

Ripley died, there was nothing else for her.

Ace, of course, will eventually die herself. But will she find peace before that final day? That is for the future, and we can but wait and see.


[1] Stephen King has pointed out that the bit where she returns for the cat is a bit of girlish silliness forced by the writer. I'm not so sure -- and remember that Ripley is, in effect, the equivalent of a olden-times sailor, a superstitious bunch at the best of times. To abandon the ship's companion would be a crime against the gods indeed. (And no, I'm not trying to say that she is stupid.)

[2] It sort of goes down hill from there. As Kyla Ward so wonderfully put it, it's all over bar the shooting.


©2011 Go to top