Is Gallifrey Feminist SF?

posted January 24rd 2024

this post may contain spoilers for Gallifrey Series 1-3!

About two years ago now, I got sent a link to a blog post which proclaims that Gallifrey is 'what feminist SF looks like'[1]. Though it cannot be denied that Big Finish do wonders for the female characters of the Doctor Who Universe and beyond, I would hesitate to describe the entire catalogue as 'feminist SF', and the question of Gallifrey being an explicitly feminist series is one that I have been mulling over for months.

The first question to ask when considering if Gallifrey is feminist SF must then be, 'what is feminist SF?' Like with its sister question 'what is SF?' this is a huge question with no clear answer and has been debated by hundreds of people over many years. However, I would argue that there is a distinction between SF with women in it and feminist SF, as even if the women in said SF are generally portrayed in a feminist way, I would agree with the argument that 'feminist sf is not simply sf about women; it is sf written in the interests of women'[2] Calvin gives this definition: 'feminist science fictions seek to highlight, challenge, or alter social, cultural, and political structures regarding sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, age, and ability'[3]. Although this seems like a very broad and flimsy pair of definitions, once you start examining SF it becomes clear very quickly that there are many, many texts that have no interest in saying anything at all about society, let alone about women who exist there.

So, is Gallifrey feminist? As with any long-running series, this is another question that is not easy to answer. Over the last 19 years, Gallifrey has been through several eras, each with their own distinct tones, themes, writers, and producers which make comparing them to each other both interesting and difficult. If one were to listen to Lies, Extermination, and Celestial Intervention back to back without context, it would almost be impossible to comprehend how the story managed to progress in the gaps and the tonal whiplash would be severe. This is not necessarily a negative - if anything, it echoes Doctor Who itself, a programme that has changed every few years since its inception. However, it does make analysis of the overall series a more complicated. In this post, I want to look more closely at series 1-3 as discussed in Rayner Robert's blog because these series form what I refer to as the 'Early Russell Era' - so-called as these original three series were directed and produced by Gary Russell and form a complete story arc by themselves.

The Early Russell era is often hailed by fans as some of the 'best' stories in Gallifrey. Rayner Roberts certainly seems to agree with this, celebrating the fact that Gallifrey demonstrates 'that you can tell interesting, crunchy science fiction stories in which the most important characters happen to be women (most importantly, more than one woman), without it necessarily having to be a story about traditionally female concerns.' By Rayner Roberts' assessment, the fact that Leela and Romana are the main characters is what makes Galllifrey a feminist series. It is true that in SF female characters often get dismissed and shrunk into subservient doormats or else are cold warriors who need to be warmed up by falling in love, and in this way Gallifrey is unique as it is their unwavering friendship despite all their conflicts that makes up the heart of the series.

I would be doing the series an injustice not to mention Spirit at this point, a widely beloved episode which allows both Leela and Romana to gain a unique insight into each other's worldview. Spirit shows the story that Gallifrey wants to be - a story that demonstrates how Otherness can be used as a weapon, how dangerous that can be, and how togetherness makes people stronger. Leela herself says 'we have won because we believe in different things. That is good.' This, to me, is exactly what feminist SF should be: an interrogation of cultural issues, especially ones that affect women. Spirit certainly makes use of feminist SF's 'potential for imaginative re-presentations of the gendered subject, for re-presentations of difference and diversity'[4], and can only do this because the characters of Romana and Leela are so distinct from each other.

The cover art for Spirit which features Romana and Leela facing away from each other blurred into a blue background
Gallifrey: Spirit

The strength of Spirit, then, lies in the fact that it allows Leela - who is always the Other in Gallifrey[5] - to fight back against the idea that her beliefs are primitive. Not only this, but it explicitly confesses that Romana is wrong to dismiss Leela's emotional logic. In almost every story that Leela appears in, regardless of medium, she is called a 'savage', which not only has highly negative racial implications, but also serves to belittle and dismiss everything she thinks with the intent of 'civilising' her. Otherness is at the core of Spirit, and to an extent, at the core of Gallifrey, following a common trend that '“otherness” is frequently coded within science fiction as foreignness or alienness.'[6] This is obviously true of Leela, but is also addressed very focally in Insurgency, an episode which shows the downfall of Romana's initiative to allow alien students to learn at the Gallifreyan Academy. Although she has a noble aim, the initiative ends in xenophobic infighting, death, and the expulsion of the alien students.

The episode is explicit in its condemnation of the way the Academy falls apart, but it is an interesting episode for Romana as it serves to Other her completely. Throughout, she has had to fight to be seen as legitimate, but Insurgency is a tipping point for her as it leads her to take drastic and dictatorial measures in order to be heard. Although it is never particularly presented as a gendered issue in Gallifrey when it comes to all the politicians trying to undermine Romana, the scenario of a room full of men talking over you when you are trying to be the authoritative voice is one which will resonate with many women. It may be obvious to call Leela the Other, but the fact that Romana is also an Other in a different way among her own people is one of the things that allows them to unite in such a tight friendship.

These things, then, strongly point towards Gallifrey being a feminist series. It is impossible to argue against Leela and Romana being feminist characters, as both of them 'push against the generic codes of science fiction or must utilize the generic code in order to further a feminist aesthetic and social aim.'[7] However, does the presence of characters who break convention make a narrative feminist? I could not disagree with the assessment that both Spirit and Insurgency have strong feminist themes, but I think almost anyone would hesitate if you were to call Square One a feminist story, an episode which forces Leela to pose as an 'exotic dancer' and leans into a typical SF portrayal of women as either controlling and cold or sexy and brainless.

It may be unfair to judge a series entirely on its extremes, but I think it tells a lot about Gallifrey that it idolises Leela and Romana but then does no further work with its other female characters. In fact, almost every other female character in series 1-3 is revealed to be villainous. It can of course be highly enjoyable to have female antagonists such as Inquisitor Darkel, whose ruthless ambition and manipulative, masterminding tendencies is another rarity in SF. She has no redemption or softening, which in isolation is refreshing for a female villain, but she becomes almost a caricature when in context as just another antagonistic woman being power-hungry and mad.

Indeed, it is this assertion from Raynor Roberts that gave me pause in the first place: 'in Gallifrey, we often get multiple women driving the story, and getting the opportunity to work together.' This, to her, is what makes Gallifrey a feminist series. However, the only episodes for which this is true beyond the pair of Leela and Romana are A Blind Eye and Lies. Of course, the team of Leela and Romana is a strong one, but by series 3, they are the only women besides Darkel and Pandora, who may appear to have the 'opportunity to work together' but still are seeking to betray each other and suffer incredibly gruesome deaths for their ambition. Though this is narratively cathartic to see the villains defeated, their deaths further the idea that women with ambition and power will suffer for it.

This is perhaps a cynical analysis of the series, but it must be considered that the subversive and feminist characters of Romana and Leela are constantly being dismissed and derided because of their strength. I would not call it feminist at all that Romana is seen as a threat because she refuses to be a weak or subservient president and that the entire narrative of the series is based on the male characters around her trying to strip her of her power and put her in her place. If anything, the idea that a strong woman must be made put in her place and made weak is a worrisome one, and though it does not seem to be the intent of Gallifrey to say this, it is the position that Romana is put in.

Louise Jameson and Lalla Ward sitting outside smiling for behind the scenes photos
Louise Jameson and Lalla Ward.

Series 3 is the most egregious example of this, as Romana's final attempt to hold onto power have caused a civil war and for her reputation to be disgraced. It isn't enough that she is deposed; she is thoroughly humiliated and physically weakened to the point of being bedbound in Appropriation, all while her enemies delight in seeing her like this. It is Romana's attempts to bring a more open-minded and outward-looking politics to Gallifrey that have caused her downfall, something which she never really recovers from even in later series. Series 3 also decides to punish Leela for being strong, even if her strength is more literally physical than Romana's. In Fractures and Warfare, she is seen fighting in the war and being successful at it, enough even for Annos to say she is 'becoming a clever strategist'.

In fact, this is the most respect Leela ever gets from the Time Lords - when she is fulfilling the role of 'savage warrior', the thing they all see her to be. Despite this, however, she is also blinded at the start of Fractures. Just as she is beginning to gain some respect, she is disabled as if this is a punishment for her newfound power. On top of this, she grows actively sucidial, saying she has 'nothing left here but the fight' as if she herself cannot see her worth beyond her warrior identity. Both Romana and Leela literally have their strength taken from them in series 3 in a way that may be an 'interesting, crunchy science fiction [story]' that isn't 'about traditionally female concerns', but by removing the power of the two most subversive characters, Gallifrey certainly isn't upholding a feminist story.

The question of whether Gallifrey is feminist or not is one that could be argued much further, and in much more detail than I have here. However, on examination of the first three series, I would disagree with the assessment that this section of the Gallifrey canon is explicitly feminist. It is easy to do a feminist reading of it, and there are many feminist elements in individual episodes, but overall I would not argue that it was written into the text to be particuarly subversive or challenging. This to me is especially true of its female characters who, despite being nuanced and unusual in themselves or perhaps because of this, seem to be punished for existing in the world of the story. I do not believe this was written purposefully, but it is there to see clearly in the text itself without being challenged at all, and that to me does not make it a work of feminist SF.

Episode List
Gallifrey 1.2 Square One
Gallifrey 2.2 Spirit
Gallifrey 2.4 Insurgency
Gallifrey 3.1 Fractures
Gallifrey 3.2 Warfare

1. Rayner Roberts, T. 2011. This is what Feminist SF looks like: Big Finish, and Gallifrey.
2. Page 128, Hollinger, V. 2003. Feminist theory and science fiction. In E. James & F. Mendlesohn (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. (Cambridge Companions to Literature, pp. 125-136). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3. Page 21, Calvin, R. 2016. Feminist Science Fiction and Feminist Epistemology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
4. Page 127, Hollinger.
5. I do realise exactly how funny calling Leela 'the Other' is when you know about Lungbarrow. I'm trying not to make more jokes about it.
6. Page 21, Calvin.
7. Page 47, Calvin.