This article is the second of two on gender dynamics in Doctor Who. The first appears here.
In 2013, I suffered a minor psychological breakdown, triggered by, among other things, the new Doctor Who monster, a race of creatures called “the Silence.” The Silence, likely an homage to Joss Whedon’s the Gentlemen, are creatures with one singular power: the ability to make anyone who saw them forget that they had the moment they looked away. The horror of seeing one of the Silence inheres not in witnessing the creature’s hideous visage and diabolical nature but in remembering all the other times you had already seen the Silence and forgotten they were there. Not just “there” but everywhere.
These creatures had been distorting human history since its beginning, silently manipulating the fate of the world for their own diabolical ends. As one explains, “we have ruled your lives since your lives began. You should kill us all on sight but you will never remember we were even here. Your world is ours… we are The Silence.” For how long have they been doing this, someone asks the Doctor, “as long as there’s been something in the corner of your eye, or creaking in your house or breathing under your bed or voices through a wall.”
The Silence are one of the most successful villains of the new Doctor Who, since its resurrection by Russell T. Davies in 2004, an adversary that has sent English children back to their proper viewing perch for the classic series, behind the sofa. While the Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans, the totalitarianism monsters of the Second World War and Cold War have returned, they mainly offer viewers a sense of nostalgia and continuity, not terror. Nor has there been any great effort to update monsters who are more adaptable to our contemporary fears of inhuman authority, dehumanization and the annihilation of culture and emotion; there are no new, scarier Autons or Axons to speak Matrix-esque fears of the present day.
I would suggest that this is because our modern risk of cybernetic dehumanization inheres, in part, in our loss of any clear sense of implicit threat as our phones and consoles merge with our bodies, the kind of fear that was narrated more easily a generation ago in David Cronenberg’s Existenz. For this reason, such fears are not central to the reinfusion of terror into Doctor Who.
As in the original series, the Doctor must convey a sense of manly heroism relationally and symbolically, by protecting a female companion from danger. Because the main character has been transformed from an asexual being into an ambiguously and ambivalently sexual one, the non-consummated nature of the Doctor’s relationship with his companion is one that, even more strongly, conveys a Victorian restraint-driven manliness. Now, the Doctor is tempted, from time to time to engage romantically or sexually with his younger female companion. And yet, for some important reason, he must restrain himself from doing do.
In trying to understand why this must be, the show’s queer subtext seems a logical explanation; Russell T. Davies’ Doctor feels fleeting moments of attraction to his female human companion but not enough to actually sustain the rich, romantic, sexual relationship she wants and “deserves,” with some more suitable male partner, the Will and Grace “fag hag” dynamic played out episode after episode.
But let us, for a moment, consider how the nature of the Silence and the other popular new monsters in Doctor Who link the unconsummated sexual dynamic to the return of the show’s ability to convey horror. Steven Moffat has struck fear into the heart of a new generation of youngsters (and adults like me!) with the Silence and the Weeping Angels by triggering the fears of contemporary watchers the way the Daleks and Cybermen played on the fear of totalitarianism that existed in audiences of half a century ago.
Like the creature lurking under beds and behind curtains in the current season, the Weeping Angels and the Silence evoke the consciousness of victims of childhood abuse and sexual violence, and the ways in which the resulting trauma plays on the memory of survivors. While the Silence are creatures one forgets every time one looks away, only to recall, with ever-increasing horror all the times one witnessed and forgot, when one sees them again, the Weeping Angels speak to the vigilance that survivors of trauma experience.
Weeping Angels are monstrously strong and lethal creatures that can only move when no one is looking at them. One must never close one’s eyes, never look away, never let the lights go out, never blink or the Angels will set upon you and tear you limb from limb. For so many victims of childhood sexual violence, this fear of the dangerous world that comes into being when the lights are out has left a residual vigilance, that permanent imprint of trauma that remains sleepless and vigilant, hoping to delay the seemingly inevitable reckoning with horror.
Before I met the Silence, I had always found the idea of “repressed” and “recovered” memories hard to understand, hard to believe in. How could something so life-altering and horrifying really be forgotten? How could one go through life never remembering things around which an abused child’s life is organized? But that misses the point of repressed memories—the horror of repressed childhood trauma is not repressed once; it is repressed again and again. And even as the events themselves recede, the horror only grows in power because every time you remember the event again, every time it breaks through repression and localized amnesia, you remember all the other times you saw the monster and repressed it again because you could not bear to gaze upon its visage. The work of repression is constant, repetitive and exhausting; through it, we become unwitting, involuntary accomplices in the conspiracy of silence that surrounds trauma and abuse.
When we hear the voice of the Silence, we hear generations of priests, teachers, parents and relatives whispering those words, “we have ruled your lives since your lives began. You should kill us all on sight. But you will never remember we were even here. Your world is ours… we are The Silence.”
It is in this light that we must understand the unconsummated nature of the Doctor-companion sexual dynamic. The Doctor cannot sleep with his companions—not because he is gay—but because he knows their secret: that they are victims of trauma and abuse, and that he would be exploiting his knowledge of who and what they really are if he did so, much as he might wish to.
It also helps to explain the feature of the series that fans find most aggravating: that nearly every companion, in her childhood, became entangled with the universe-threatening monster the Doctor is fighting. And it is her prior encounter with the trauma-inducing events and creatures that set her on a path that will, inevitably, intersect with the Doctor’s. Here, our modern Dcotor stands in for the charismatic, altruistic future therapist, police officer, social worker, foster parent with whom the traumatized person must confront the foundational evil that has been hanging over her life, a hero bound by ascetic vows never the turn that intimate relationship into a sexual one.
Serial killers, rapists, human traffickers—these are our new demons in popular culture; they have replaced the Nazi war criminals and Soviet agents of half a century ago. They hold that status because they threaten our patriarchy’s minors, our home front; they target “our” women and children, not men. And by interposing oneself between these predators and the women and children of England or America, one becomes a masculine hero, no matter how effete or unmanly one’s body or personality. This gendered, relational position doesn’t just permit the Doctor to be a dandy hero; it gives us Gil Grissom, Spencer Reid and a host of other otherwise-insufficiently masculine men who hunt the monsters who threaten the new home front.
At this point, people who are not me might focus on the ways in which this argument shows Doctor Who to have always been a patriarchal show that subordinates women to men (perhaps aside from the 1979 and 1980 seasons). This can be said of most shows on TV and, frankly, most good ones, not because the film industry is full of misogynists but because we continue to live in a patriarchal society that constantly re-inscribes its gender dynamics in its literary and dramatic production.
What interests me are the ways in which the show operates within these gender dynamics to adumbrate new possibilities for narrating the deeply gendered repression that remains near the heart of our society. I have yet to see any portrayal of repressed memories of abuse more compelling than the Silence, one that engages not just individual trauma but the multigenerational, structural character of abuse and trauma.
When Jack Cram, the radical native sovereigntist lawyer went mad, he spoke—inaccurately—of our society being run by a conspiracy of pedophiles in our courts, churches and legislatures. There is, of course, no such conspiracy. It is just that our society runs as if there were. When I wrote of the lethal silence that powered southern lynchings, the silence that enables predators like Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi to seek out and assault new victims with impunity, the picture in my mind was of the Silence, as depicted by Stephen Moffat, that powerful force, as old as the human race itself that stops us telling others what has happened to us, that chokes cries for help in our throats, that seeps into our houses and places of work, stifling our words.
While there is much to criticize about the new Doctor Who, in particular, the direction of the show since the Davies’ departure, I continue to draw inspiration about how to be an ethical man enmeshed in a patriarchal society. Just as the old series taught me how one could be clumsy, eccentric, hard-to-understand, strangely-dressed and yet mysteriously heroic, I choose to draw inspiration from the possibilities the show lays before us. All that is needed to be a man, Doctor Who continues to tell us, is to fight to protect the home front. As the Doctor says of the Silence, “they’ve been running your lives for a very long time now, so keep this straight in your head. We are not fighting an alien invasion, we’re leading a revolution. And today, the battle begins.”