Published: Aug. 1, 2011 By

[1] The notion of genre has long proved useful as an organising category for scholars approaching popular British television drama. For example, relatively early academic work on the soap opera (Dyer, Ang, Geraghty), the detective or police series (Clarke, Sparks) and the costume drama (Brandt), placed these popular genres firmly on the research and teaching agenda. As television studies has grown into an established academic discipline, scholars have attempted a broader and more inclusive account of how genre operates in British television and have begun to construct the histories of previously ignored or under-researched genres. For instance, the last few years have seen a gradual increase of interest in programmes that have been variously categorised under the generic headings of “science fiction television” (Cook and Wright), “telefantasy” (Johnson), or “cult TV” (Abbott). This kind of television has been sidelined in the past and I suspect that part of the reason for this is because it did not tie in with developing ideas about the nature of British television as a medium. While overarching concepts like “flow” (Williams), “familiarity” (Ellis) and “intimacy” (Jacobs) have proved useful in defining the apparent specificities of the medium, television science fiction’s emphasis upon unusual visual spectacle, its frequently epic form and tendency toward a more distancing mode of address, has meant that it does not readily conform to these predominant paradigms.

[2] The sidelining of science fiction television in past academic studies in Britain can also be traced back to earlier efforts to promote the study of television drama as a creditable pursuit. Borrowing from theatre, literature and cinema studies, attention has been paid to authorship, to programmes that could be easily read in terms of their political dimensions, or to programmes that seemed important to wider ideological and sociological debates. Thus, radical television plays or drama series written and/or directed by the likes of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and so forth provided suitably worthy texts for academic engagement. Equally, whilst it might not have dealt with politics with a capital “P”, the serious study of soap opera fell into line with a growing academic interest in the 1970s/1980s in representations of gender and the demarcating of television genres along gender lines. What is also evident in past studies is an emphasis on realist drama; drama that in its form, content or style relies upon a recognisable degree of socio-historical verisimilitude. So, science fiction television has been previously marginalised because of its perceived status as non-realist, because it has seemed trivial, or because it has not provided an easy or obvious fit with the concerns of earlier academic studies of television.

[3] Aside from an obligation to build a more complex and inclusive account of genre in the construction of television history, I do not see the study of science fiction as necessarily conflicting with the interests exhibited in earlier approaches to television drama. In acknowledging the metaphorical charge of science fiction, it is perfectly possible to trace how it has engaged with socio-political issues, as much as it is possible to work through questions of gender in alliance with this genre. As I have argued elsewhere in association with science fiction cinema (Cornea), this is a genre situated in a formal liminal zone, relying as much upon the realist as it does upon the non-realist in its visual and narrative structure. Indeed, the genre thrives on the tensions produced between these two poles. So, in many respects, science fiction is perfectly positioned to raise ideological questions, to highlight social conflict and to draw attention to issues surrounding gender and the production of social identities. In fact, feminist academic criticism has had a long and fruitful association with science fiction, although analysis has tended to concentrate on novels and films. Since the advent of “second wave” feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, fiction writers have not only adopted the genre to explore feminist concerns, but have also generated critical examinations of their own and others work (LeGuin, Russ). In addition, feminist scholars have regularly turned their attention to the ways in which gender is played out in science fiction novels (Lafanu, Barr). As Nickianne Moody has noted, although numerous science fiction novels work to reinforce traditional notions of sex and gender, it is also a genre that offers “the proviso of the future that is open to change” (195). In this sense, the codes and conventions of the genre allow for the defamiliarization of normative gender constructions and the imagining of alternative societies. Further, a succession of influential feminist readings published in the early 1990s concentrated on the representation of gender in films like Alien (USA/UK, 1979), Blade Runner(USA/Hong Kong, 1982) and The Terminator (UK/USA, 1984) (Newton, Penley, Silverman, Creed, Tasker). So these academics were keen to look back to 1970s/early 1980s examples of this genre on the big screen, in part to reveal the impact of second wave feminism.

[4] Given this backdrop, it is arguably surprising that earlier feminist criticism and historical analysis rarely acknowledged television examples of this genre. Recent years have seen science fiction promoted to “quality TV” status with a number of high profile productions (e.g. The X-Files [USA/Canada, 1993-2002],Steven Spielberg presents Taken [USA, 2002], Battlestar Galactica [USA/UK, 2004-09], Lost (2004-10), and the “quality” revival of Doctor Who [UK, 2005 – ]), which have, to some extent, legitimated serious analysis of this television genre. Nevertheless, there is still remarkably little feminist criticism engaged with earlier science fiction television or historical analysis looking at the ways in which this television genre might have mediated the second wave in Britain. This represents a significant gap in not only science fiction and feminist scholarship, but also in television historiography. So, with this in mind, I set out to examine the representation of women in British examples of this television genre, concentrating on those years that saw the public identification of the Women’s Liberation movement, as debated and played out in various media texts in Britain (the 1970s through to the early 1980s). The sheer scope of this project quickly became evident; compared to earlier, British-produced television examples there were an unusual number of central female figures populating the genre at this time. Although British television was largely defined by the BBC-ITV duopoly over this period, I imposed a further restriction: limiting scrutiny to the BBC and settling upon two particularly prominent science fiction series with Doctor Who (1963-89) and Blake’s 7 (1978-81). In justifying this focus, I see the 1970s-early 1980s as an interesting phase in the history of the BBC as a public service institution, particularly in terms of the challenges it faced to its traditional role as arbiter of dominant morals and values in British society. As Jamie Medhurst comments in his overview of this period, from the Pilkington Report of 1962 to the establishment of the Annan Committee on the future of broadcasting in 1974 and through to the Annan Report of 1977, “the focus shifted from the need for broadcasters to provide moral leadership, enlightenment and betterment to that of pluralism: providing a service and satisfying the needs of the full range of groups in society” (42). Also, while it was not possible to cover all the science fiction output on the BBC at this time, I was keen to look at how the BBC negotiated changes in British society within what are widely considered as quintessentially British examples of science fiction television. For example,  Jonathan Bignell and Andrew O’Day read the British Blake’s 7 in opposition to the US-produced Star Trek (1966-69) (113-178), and James Chapman writes that “the format of Doctor Who places it directly in the historical lineage of British literary SF” (5). Finally, I am aware that this kind of overview is really only possible with the later release of science fiction series on video and DVD. Re-viewing series in this way is a different experience from the week to week viewing of a contemporary audience. Features or patterns become especially visible in a temporally condensed viewing, and present day perspectives on particular historical periods are likely to inform how a series is read and understood. Bearing in mind these provisos, it is my hope that a contextualised analysis of these two series reveals some of the ways in which the BBC registered the impact of feminism and engaged with the apparently changing role of women in contemporary society through this popular television genre.

Changing roles: political, social and cultural background

[5] During the 1970s, unrest and change were evident in Britain on a number of levels. While the 1960s and early 1970s saw successive governments struggle to retain a balance between economic growth and inflation, following the 1973 oil crisis Britain was hit by a period of economic recession. As the 1970s decade wore on, both political and social division became increasingly conspicuous. This was a period that witnessed the Provisional IRA’s mainland bombing campaign in England, talks of devolution (with the suggested formation of Scottish and Welsh Assemblies), and widespread strikes that culminated in the so called “Winter of Discontent” (1978-79). So, during this phase in British history national consensus and state hegemony appeared to be breaking down in a variety of ways. With confidence in conventional politics dissipating, attention was turned to peripheral political groups and alternative philosophies and beliefs. Alongside a proliferation in the number of marginal, largely issues based political parties and lobbying groups, various religious or quasi-religious sects also attained popular appeal. Unconventional philosophies that had begun to take hold in the 1960s, flourished in the 1970s, as people searched for alternative ways of life and models of being in a world that appeared to be breaking apart. Traditional Christian faiths (in particular the state endorsed Church of England) that had once formed the social and moral bedrock of British society had been in decline since WWII, but interest in a variety of neo-pagan or occultist religions grew during the 1970s. Particularly popular in Britain were sects built around the re-invention of Wicca or witchcraft, those that referred back to polytheistic religions associated with Celtic myths and legends, or sects assembled under the sign of exotic Goddesses derived from ancient Egyptian, Roman, Grecian, Indian culture. So, the plethora of minority faiths and mystical sects that thrived in 1970s Britain attested to the apparent failure of traditional religion to provide appropriate social and moral leadership during these changing times.

[6] Social fragmentation was also evident and visible with the rise of what might collectively be termed “identity politics”. The advent of Gay Pride marches in London at the beginning of the 1970s and the evident rise of the Women’s Liberation movement indicated that change was occurring on a fundamental level within British society. If readers in Britain were not already familiar with Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystiquesimilar ideas were promulgated in British publications, like Hannah Gavron’s The Captive Wife: Conflicts of Housebound Mothers (1966), Juliet Mitchell’s Woman’s Estate(1971), and Ann Oakley’s The Sociology of Housework(1974).Women were also entering the workforce in increasing numbers: between 1971 and the early 1980s the number of working age women in the labor market grew from about 56% to well over 60% (see “Women in the Labour Market”). In addition, the period saw the introduction of the 1970 Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. Nevertheless, a growing Women’s Liberation movement in the 1970s maintained there was much more to be done and questioned the foundations of social relations and what was understood as political power. For example, the early 1970s saw the arrival of Eva Figes’ Patriarchal Attitudes, as well as international bestsellers like Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, and Shulamith Firestone’sThe Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist RevolutionIn their different ways, these radical feminist publications attacked existing social and political arrangements that worked to oppress women on a number of levels.

[7] Certainly, drama programming across both ITV and BBC during the 1970s-early 1980s was influenced by the political and social upheavals of this period. Following the trajectory of the police or crime genre at this time is illuminating. The introduction of grittier and more violent police and crime series, like The Sweeney(ITV, 1975-78) andThe Professionals (ITV, 1977-83) can be understood as a response to feminism. While the tough and ruthless Detective Inspector Regan inThe Sweeney might have been seen as the ultimate upholder of the law, as Sue Thornham and Tony Purvis have pointed out, this series was “concerned less about threats to law and order than with anxieties about masculine identity… women in the series are either symbols of threatened purity – innocent princesses who must be rescued by the hero – or sexualised and ‘deviant’ figures who represent a threat to (masculine) authority” (103). However, the later appearance of leading police-women within this previously masculinist television genre (with The Gentle Touch [ITV, 1980-84] and Juliet Bravo [BBC, 1980-85]) suggests that feminist concerns and women’s changing role in society were being addressed in some way. In addition, the latter part of the 1970s decade saw a range of unusual female characters presented to television audiences: the women’s prison drama Within these Walls (ITV, 1974-78) featured a variety of atypical female characters; the shockingly risqué serial Bouquet of Barbed Wire (ITV, 1976) focused on the perverse relationship between a middle class father and his attractive and manipulative daughter; Rock Follies (ITV, 1976) fixed on the antics of an all-female rock band. Even the traditionally staid historical drama became highly controversial in the 1970s. While sexual politics was a rather literal feature in the steamy and violent I, Claudius (BBC, 1976), further historical dramas introduced uncommonly strong and independent leading female characters. For instance, set in the early 1900s, the BBC’s The Duchess of Duke Street (1976-7) centred on an ambitious and tough female character, Louisa Trotter (Gemma Jones), who crashed through gender and class barriers to become the proprietor of a successful London hotel, and the historical mini-series Edward & Mrs. Simpson (ITV, 1978) offered a dramatized account of Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne in order to marry the “racy” American divorcée, Wallis Simpson. So, female characters were increasingly represented as a threat to a masculine order or as active participants within what had previously been denoted as a masculine public realm and were often depicted in roles formerly preserved for male characters.

[8] The above outline has concentrated on television dramas that can be easily categorized as realist, both in terms of their formal construction, audience address and their relationship to a recognizable social world. This outline indicates noticeable shifts in women’s roles in a range of television dramas; shifts that can be connected to historically specific anxieties and debates. The credibility of leading female characters in these dramas was in some ways supported by the advent of second wave feminism and underpinned by apparent modifications in women’s status within the public world of work and politics. But equally noticeable and in some ways more fascinating were representational shifts occurring within the ‘non-realist’ science fiction genre; in particular the undeniable prevalence of powerful female characters depicted within the television genre at this time. Peter Biskind’s analysis of science fiction films produced in America during the 1950s sees them as intimately connected to the specific historical and political context from which they emerged. Made in the shadow of the “red scare” and the constraints brought about by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Biskind sets about classifying these films according to their covert political affiliations (102-159). Following Biskind, many studies have since understood this film genre as culturally significant, as conducive to the playing out of difficult political and social questions in a fantasy environment. For Biskind the genre offered a safe setting for “undercover” political debate in 1950s America; the obliquely metaphoric operations of the genre allowing for a high degree of deniability. However, within the context of 1970s/early 1980s television, I would say that the powerful female figures that populated British science fiction television at this time represented a more overt engagement with feminist concerns. I will argue that these “fantastic females” connected with feminist discourses circulating at this time in ways that were perhaps more obvious than some of the realist dramas mentioned above. Issues surrounding women’s changing roles within society were often at the forefront of science fiction television at this time, evident in the many “battle of the sexes” scenarios adopted by the genre, the sheer number of female authority figures represented within the genre, as well as the repeated figuration of powerful feminine archetypes like the hag, the witch, the female warrior, and the ice goddess. On the one hand, seeing these characterizations turn up in such numbers in what had been regarded as a traditionally masculine genre might indicate the potent threat that feminism represented to patriarchy at this time. On the other hand, these characterizations frequently placed the female at the centre of the narrative action and allowed them to become more actively involved in the quasi-scientific worlds of the genre.

From Feminism to Thatcherism

[9] The following analyses concentrate on the previously mentionedDoctor Who series (between the years 1970-79) and Blake’s 7 (1978-81). Aside from the odd reference back and forth in time, my contextualized reading tracks a historical pathway that begins withDoctor Who and follows through to discussion focused upon Blake’s 7, toward the end of this article. This diachronic approach is useful in tracing the historical shifts and developments in representational strategies over this period. Doctor Who was generally scheduled for the Saturday, early evening, “family audience” slot on BBC1. However, its suitability for the child in this audience was often debated, and from about the mid-1970s onwards it entered what James Chapman has called “its most ‘adult’ period in terms of style and content” (99). The eponymous “Doctor” and lynchpin character of this series was a scientist and visitor to Earth from a highly developed, alien race called the Time Lords. Using advanced technology, the Doctor was able to travel through time and space and was also capable of something called “regeneration”; a device that allowed a variety of male actors to take up the role as the series continued. Each successive Doctor adopted a significantly different characterization, ranging from eccentric boffin to masterful tactician. Accompanying the Doctor were his close “companions”: these were sidekick characters, picked up and dropped off over the course of the Doctor’s travels. During the 1960s the Doctor was usually accompanied by several companions at one time, of various sex and age. However, after John Pertwee took over the role of the Doctor in 1970, the format of the series shifted with the introduction of the lone adult female companion. My point is that the featuring of the solitary female companion placed a particular focus upon this figure in the 1970s and invited comparison with the Doctor along distinct sex/gender lines. Having said this, there is a noticeable discrepancy in academic studies of the series between the attention paid to the Doctor and the female companion. Although examination of the Doctor as the embodiment of British sensibilities within a particular socio-historical context is often detailed and thorough, the female companion has received far less attention. This is perhaps not surprising given the central placement of the Doctor within this series, but the opportunity for comparative and contextual analysis offered by the run of female companions in the 1970s has been largely overlooked.

[10] Pertwee’s Doctor was a masterful technocrat and man of action, who was first partnered up with Liz Shaw (Caroline John). Liz was a scientific researcher who, within the restrictions of a macho military taskforce called the UNIT, worked alongside the Doctor and proved to be a skilled helpmate. After a notably short run in the series, Liz was quickly replaced by the less than capable Jo Grant (Katy Manning). Jo’s costuming (i.e. mini-skirts, shiny boots etc.) and wispy hairstyle marked her out as a product of the “swinging sixties”. While Jo could be described as more free-spirited than Liz, her central purpose was to ask numerous questions that allowed for expository speeches from the Doctor and to act as counterpoint to his heroic exploits. In this, she was a reactionary figure and any adjustments made in the name of feminism with her characterization were purely cosmetic. It was with the later arrival in 1973 of Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) that the series explicitly acknowledged the impact of the second wave upon the Doctor’s female companions. Sarah Jane’s costuming (i.e. trouser suits, knickerbockers, waistcoats etc.) indicated a more active and assertive role and this characterization has since been understood as influenced by the second wave: in a 1983 publication, John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado claimed that Sarah Jane represented 1970s “Women’s Lib” (211), and, today, the official BBC website for the “classic series” describes her as having “feminist views” that “frequently got her into trouble” (“Sarah Jane Smith – Character Synopsis”). Like Jo, Sarah Jane still required rescuing on numerous occasions and she was certainly not an intellectual match for the Doctor. Nevertheless, the “companion questions” raised by Sarah Jane were often inflected by feminist concerns and were not always adequately answered by the Doctor. My point is that a space was made for feminism through this characterization, even though the issues raised were rarely worked through in the scripted dialogue.

[11] Following Pertwee’s “regeneration” in 1974, Sarah Jane continued as companion to Tom Baker’s Doctor (1974-81) until 1977. Chapman aptly describes Baker’s Doctor as “a bohemian middle-aged student-type whose floppy hat and absurdly long scarf were suggestive of counter-cultural associations” (4), and Tulloch and Alvarado, read him as “a reaction against the more unitary and coherent moralism of Pertwee” (130). For Tulloch and Alvarado, this new Doctor was “defined by contraries” (140), which, they point out, was fore grounded in the turn toward a Gothic styling in the series and the regular featuring of the “Gothic villain” as representative of the Doctor’s alter-ego (137). So, the Doctor became an increasingly complex individual over this period, necessitating a more or less constant round of opposing villains who both reflected back upon aspects of the Doctor’s character and worked to define him by what he was not. But little has been said about the bearing of the female companion upon this structured pattern of events. For instance, might the introduction of the “feminist” Sarah Jane be understood as activating this apparent crisis of identity in the Doctor? Are the elements of Gothic horror linked to the figuring of the stronger female companion? Surely it was no accident that these Gothic environs also allowed for the regular presentation of hags, witches and powerful priestesses, which became a common feature at this point in the series.

[12] To illustrate my point I will refer to a small selection of serial narratives, as indicative of wider trends in the series over this period. Beginning with the four-part serial, “The Brain of Morbius” (3 – 24 January 1976): an evil male scientist called Solon is pitted against an all-female cult with supernatural powers, called the Sisterhood of Karn. In an obvious reference to Mary Shelley’s FrankensteinSolon is attempting to construct a living being from the various body parts of murdered visitors to the planet. The audience soon learn that Solon intends to place the disembodied brain of an evil Time Lord called Morbius into this reformed body, effectively unleashing his malevolent powers upon the world. Meanwhile, the Sisterhood have captured the Doctor and in an act of female retribution are getting ready to burn him at the stake. It is at this point that we learn the Time Lords were once in alliance with the Sisterhood. However, the high priestess of the Sisterhood argues that the Time Lords only acted out of “self interest”: according to the priestess, the Time Lords wanted access to the “elixir of life” that the Sisterhood jealousy guard and use to attain immortality. We also learn that this elixir is now in short supply because the flame that creates this liquid is burning out. In a gesture of peace, the Doctor restores the flame, assuring the immortality of the Sisterhood. Even so, he goes on to argue against the Sisterhood’s means of existence, stating that their immortality prevents any hope for “progress” in the world.

[13] The Sisterhood featured in “The Brain of Morbius” appear to be an amalgamation of historical and mythical stories of similar all-female sects associated with ancient ritual and religion. For instance, the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome were assigned various religious duties, which included tending to a sacred flame. Also, elements in the “Morbius” narrative associate the Karn sisterhood with paganism, with witchcraft and stories of the so called “burning times”, when recalcitrant women witches met their fate at the hands of a Christian State during the Early Modern period (see Purkiss, 7-29). At the same time as the Sisterhood of Karn was obviously drawn from these legendary stories of female power, there are also implied links to contemporary feminism. The notion of sisterhood was central to second wave feminism; not only did it suggest kinship, shared experiences and aims within particular activist groups, but it was also used to describe inter-community relations between feminist groups. When Robin Morgan edited the 1970 collection, Sisterhood is Powerful, the concept was activated as a binding term for “different forms of (feminist) consciousness” and the “wide spectrum of political theory and action in women’s liberation” presented in this published volume (xviii). Also, in the radical feminist publication, Gyn/Ecology(first published in 1979), Mary Daly evoked the witch – “the Great Hags of our hidden history” – as an enabling figure in the construction of a past lineage and sisterhood of resistant and powerful women (15). Relevant to my project here is that Daly pitted her re-imagined witch against what she saw as a masculinist agenda in science fiction:

Patriarchy is everywhere. Even outer space and the future have been colonized. As a rule, even the more imaginative science-fiction writers (allegedly the most foretelling futurists) cannot/will not create a space and time in which women get far beyond the role of space stewardess (1).

In fact, feminism and witchcraft were frequently and publicly linked, both in practice and theory, in America and in Britain. For example, Zsuzsanna Budapest founded the feminist “Susan B. Anthony coven” in Los Angeles in 1971 (see The Feminist Book of Light and Shadow). Also, feminist activist, Starhawk, co-founded “Reclaiming”, a witchcraft community set up in San Francisco (see Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess and Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics). As a public witch in Britain, Doreen Valiente published An ABC of Witchcraft (1972), Witchcraft for Tomorrow(1978), and included a chapter on “Feminist Witchcraft” in The Rebirth of Witchcraft (1989). So, within this discursive and cultural context it is easy to see how the Sisterhood in the “Morbius” episode might be related in some way to Sarah Jane’s “troublesome” feminist views. If Solon represented the dark side of the Doctor’s scientific pursuits, then this witchy Sisterhood represented an extreme and “dangerous feminism” (read radical feminism) in comparison to Sarah Jane’s more liberal leanings. Even as the appearance of these figures alludes to feminist concerns, what is telling is the way the narrative brackets their activities. Rather than inspiring change, as the high priestess says, “nothing here ever changes”. At one point, Sarah Jane is temporarily blinded by the high priestess: instead of supporting a more active characterization of Sarah Jane, the Sisterhood literally make her more vulnerable to Solon’s aggressive desires. Also, in the mind of the Doctor, the Sisters are regressive figures who are stuck in the past; they are displaced figurations of a threatening feminism that apparently resists scientific and social progress.

[14] In 1977 Sarah Jane was replaced by a rather different female figure: the “woman warrior” Leela (Louise Jameson). Where the special powers of the archetypal witch are understood as essentially female, the “woman warrior” is generally defined through her “masculine deeds”. Leela was picked up by the Doctor on a planet inhabited by two warring tribes: the primitive and aggressive Sevateem and the technologically superior Tesh. At the beginning of this four-part serial (“The Face of Evil,” 1 – 22 January 1977) the opening scenes reveal fundamental disagreements between Leela and the Sevateem, which result in the sacrificial death of her father and her banishment from the tribe. Her status as outcast is emphasized by the fact that she appears to be the only female member of this tribe. Indeed, she is the only female in the entire serial, as later scenes reveal that the Tesh are also an all-male tribe. While she is obviously the product of a masculine culture, the casting accentuates her exceptional difference as lone female. Leela’s evident martial skills and open aggression might mark a departure from the more “traditionally feminine” human companion, but her skimpy costume is clearly designed to heighten her sexual allure. So, although the Doctor is sympathetic to Leela’s predicament, a clear-cut opposition is upheld: Leela’s “uncivilized” sexuality is set off against the Doctor’s highly developed and complex masculinity. Yvonne Tasker’s comments in relation to the “independent” woman in action film and television of this period are useful in understanding Leela. Tasker notes that “the combination of supposedly masculine and feminine elements in the gendered images of the 1970s posed all sorts of iconographic problems for television producers and film-makers. Producers often sought to allay, if not resolve, the uncertainties posed by the action heroine through either the sexualization of her persona or the use of comedy, or both” (20). The use of comedy was a feature of Tom Baker’s performance in the role of the Doctor and Leela’s sexualization can certainly be read as an attempt to both titillate and reassure the viewer. However, in this context, I would say that the uncertainties ignited by this “warrior woman” are not so much alleviated or resolved, as continually worked over. Unlike earlier female companions, Leela enthusiastically offers the Doctor physical protection, but this frequently proves a hindrance rather than a help. In those moments when this is played for comic effect, anxious undercurrents remain in the Doctor’s response to Leela. Also, appalled at her lack of conscience in dispatching adversaries, the Doctor’s not altogether successful attempts to moderate her murderous behaviour continuously re-position Leela as a wild and disruptive companion.

[15] Leela’s status as “woman warrior” is, of course, prefigured by a range of both mythical and historical characters, from the biblical Judith (from the “Book of Judith” in certain versions of the Bible), the Celtic Queen Boudica, Joan of Arc, through to the fabled all-female warrior tribe of Amazons. However, there are important differences amongst the various women warriors listed above, which largely depend upon what she is seen to be fighting for: whether she is fighting for God, nation, or for sexual and social independence. Looking at the narrative construction of powerful women in Greek mythology and in history, Mary Ann Jezewski notes that this kind of character “most frequently received her power from her father or through her marriage” (68). Leela’s inherently aggressive nature and athletic physique suggest she is closer to the Amazon than, say, a Judith or a Joan of Arc figure, but, at the same time, she fits within the narrative scheme identified by Jezewski, in that she has obviously adopted her father’s warrior ways. Also, the motivations for Leela’s action change through the course of this serial: Leela initially uses the skills of the warrior to protect herself from the murderous advances of male warriors, but she later uses these same skills in her attempts to form an alliance with Doctor. Peter Davies claims that the Amazon myth often surfaces “as a means of interpreting moments of social change as catastrophic clashes between the all-embracing systems of matriarchy and patriarchy” (48). Davies’ comments arise in his study of the women’s movement in Germany, but it is not too much of a stretch to assume that, in 1970s Britain, the Amazonian figure of Leela might also signal social change; specifically as associated with the rise of the second wave or with the increasing visibility of women within the public sphere of work or politics. Therefore, on one level, Leela signals social change, but on another level, aspects of her character are softened by the appearance of an alternative father figure in the form of the “civilizing” Doctor.

[16] Several sources report that the writer of this serial, Chris Boucher, based the character of Leela upon the Palestinian revolutionary, Leila Khaled (Miles and Wood, 137; Sullivan, “The Face of Evil”). Khaled belonged to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and became internationally renowned as the female member of a PFLP team that hijacked a TWA Boeing in 1969. The “fighting woman” was also made prominent during the early part of the 1970s through press reports about the terrorist activities of the West German “Baader-Meinhof” group: Ulrike Meinhof being the female journalist turned terrorist member of the group who was arrested in 1972 and brought to trial in 1975. Together with these notorious figures, reports focusing on conscripted women in the Israeli Army were not uncommon in the British press, particularly following the Arab-Israeli war in 1973. While these figures might have seemed exotic and remote, the ramifications of the fighting female were also brought home in occasional media coverage of activism associated with the women’s movement in Britain. For instance, high profile Women’s Liberation demonstrations at the Miss World contest in the early 1970s, campaigns leading up to the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, “Reclaim the Night” marches in the latter part of the 1970s and so forth, were used in evidence to support the ubiquitous depiction of the aggressive and militant feminist in media reports. So, there is a sense in which Leela may well have stood for feminist militant activity as much as she might be allied to contemporary depictions of the armed and dangerous, female revolutionary or soldier. Taken this way, it seems that the portrayal of Leela does offer some kind of challenge to the masculine authority of the Doctor, but it is also pertinent to note that her approach to the world is repeatedly interpreted as uncivilized, misguided and childish within the narrative world of Doctor Who.

[17] The final companion up for consideration here is a member of the Doctor’s own race of Time Lords. As played by the statuesque Mary Tamm (1978-79), Romana is physically imposing and during her first serial narrative, “The Ribos Operation” (2 – 23 September 1978), is set up as an authoritative character who, much to the Doctor’s dismay, insists on calling the shots. This new female companion is professional, logical and, initially at least, assigned the sort of “techno-babble” more usually reserved for the Doctor. The justification for the introduction of Romana comes when a male character called “The White Guardian” assigns the Doctor an important mission: to restore the balance and stability of the universe. This mission forms a six-serial narrative arc (collectively known under the title, “The Key to Time” 2 September 1978 – 24 February 1979), during which Romana accompanies the Doctor to curb his unorthodox methods and to make sure that this assignment is completed.

[18] Dressed in a voluminous pure white gown, the initial appearance of Romana can be read off against Leela. Whereas the swarthy and primitive Leela was coded as exotic and foreign, Romana is the picture of civilized, white woman-hood, writ large. Cold, rational and emotionally distant, she takes on the role of the archetypal “Ice Goddess”,  only here these characteristics are associated less with essential and mystical female powers than with a reasoned and scientific approach to the world. The “restoration of balance” arc seems to speak directly to the state of the nation at the end of the 1970s and the commanding figure of Romana can clearly be read in alignment with Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power during this period. Thatcher had ascended the ranks of the Conservative Party over the course of the 1970s, to eventually become their leader in opposition in 1975. In the lead up to the Conservative win in the general election of 1979, Thatcher’s steely resolve, “one nation” rhetoric and apparent aim to restore hegemonic control was designed to appeal to those left reeling from the many divisive issues besetting Britain during the late 1970s. Romana’s authoritative behaviour and cool determination to “restore balance” links her to the Thatcher image of this period and anticipates the prospect of female leadership on a grand scale.

[19] “The Key to Time” serials are highly Manichaean in their construction: opposing White Guardian against Black Guardian, good against evil, mysticism against science. As previously suggested by Tulloch and Alvarado, this structure is used to play out various aspects of the Doctor’s character, but I would like to draw attention to those instances when this narrative structure seems to revolve around Romana. An interesting example occurs in “The Stones of Blood” serial (28 October  – 18 November 1979). This serial brings the Doctor and Romana back to a contemporary England, landing near a stone circle in the middle of Boscombe Moor in Cornwall. There they meet an elderly archaeologist, Professor Amelia Rumford (Beatrix Lehmann), and her assistant, Vivian Fay (Susan Engel). While the Professor views the stones with academic interest, it soon becomes apparent that they are also connected to the mystical activities of a local Druid sect. The Druids are attempting to call upon the powers of an ancient Goddess known as Cailleach (a reference here to the “divine hag” or Goddess of winter in Celtic mythology). The plot thickens when the stones magically come to life and chase around the countryside in search of human blood. But rather than slipping entirely into Gothic horror mode, it is later revealed that the stones are a silicon-based life form accidentally brought to Earth in an alien space ship. In addition, the Doctor and the Professor find out that Vivian is not all she appears to be and has been living in the area for more than 4,000 years. Her secret uncovered, Vivian announces that she is Cailleach. But, in true Doctor Who fashion, scientific analysis reveals that Vivian is neither a Goddess nor in possession of supernatural powers; instead she is an escaped alien criminal with access to sophisticated technology rather than magical powers.

[20] In contrast to earlier serials, the gendered opposition between science and mysticism is complicated with the arrival of Romana. For instance, in “The Stones of Blood” not only does Vivian resemble Romana, but the relationship between them is underlined when they effectively swap places. Following a stand off between the two, Romana finds herself imprisoned in the “hyperspatial” ship that once carried Vivian and the silicon stones to Earth. The inference being that with the “good Romana” trapped in hyperspace, the “evil Vivian” is free to wreak havoc back in England under the guise of a supernatural Goddess. Romana’s deeds are lawfully sanctioned by the masculine figure of The White Guardian, but Vivian unlawfully pursues her own aims in a bid for power. The doppelganger effect is made especially evident in this serial: aside from the pairing of Romana/Vivian, earlier scenes feature evil look-a-like doubles of both the Doctor and Romana. Rather than demonstrating easy differences between characters, pairings or doppelganger characters are used in the “Key to Time” serials to disturb gendered binaries or oppositions. Instead of the simple opposition between good/masculine/science and bad/feminine/mysticism, there is a proliferation of doubling here that complicates these established conventions.

[21] Over the course of these serials there is a recurring narrative investigation of Romana’s character: just who she is and what she really stands for is often open to question. This kind of narrative inquiry in some ways mirrors the relationship between Thatcher and the media at this time. With the Conservatives looking more and more likely to succeed in the general election, imagining the ramifications of a female Prime Minister was being busily undertaken in press and media reports. Over the years, Thatcher’s persona had undergone several transmutations: from glamorous millionaire’s wife, to hard hearted “milk-snatcher”, to dutiful daughter of a greengrocer. The age of the celebrity politician well and truly arrived when ITV producer, Gordon Reece, began the job of re-moulding Thatcher’s look and lowering her voice; melding the image of respectable British housewife with the masculine tones of authority. At the time of the election, nationalistic rhetoric did much to reinforce her status as a true-blue Conservative, but her political and economic skills were also associated with the skills of an experienced housewife. In this the Thatcher persona negotiated the perceived mismatch between an acceptable femininity and a masculine right to rule. In some respects, second wave feminism could be understood as creating a backdrop for Thatcher’s claims to power, but the gulf between feminism and Thatcher was also clear given that she had little interest in women’s issues. In May of 1979, when the Conservatives were elected, according to Tim Lott, “feminists demonstrated in Finchley, bearing placards that read, ‘We want women’s rights – not a right-wing woman’” (5 February 2002). In the lead up to election, the emphasis upon Thatcher’s relationship with her father implied that she was working for, not against, patriarchy. In a 2009 article for The Guardian,Germaine Greer commented: “Thatcher was exclusively a man’s woman, beginning with her performance of the role of her father’s daughter… Even as she bulldozed and dragooned her cabinet colleagues, behind the scenes Thatcher was doing as she was told” (“The Making of Maggie”). Romana’s glamorous costumes, bossy attitude and reverent obedience to The White Guardian therefore brought together aspects associated with the various incarnations of the Thatcher persona.

[22] Although connections between Romana and Thatcher have not, to my knowledge, been commented upon before, my reading is plausible in light of recent remarks made about later Doctor Whoserials. In a 2010 interview for the  Sunday Times both Sylvester McCoy (7th Doctor, 1987-89) and Andrew Cartmell (script editor during the late 1980s) claimed that snipes at Thatcher were deliberately built into the Doctor Who narratives in the late 1980s (see Horne). They also confirmed that a direct caricature of Thatcher appeared in the form of an alien tyrant called “Helen A” in the three-part serial, “The Happiness Patrol” (1988). Even as McCoy and Cartmell are talking about much later episodes of Doctor Who, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that a form of socio-political commentary was being carried out within the series in the previous decade. Moreover, alongside Tamm’s Romana, a comparable image of female authority was to be found in another BBC science fiction series, Blake’s 7 (1978-81). Pre-dating Romana’s first appearance inDoctor Who by several months, Supreme Commander Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) was introduced toBlake’s 7 in episode 6, “Seek, Locate, Destroy” (6 February 1978). The resemblance between Servalan and Romana is unmistakable: both are initially costumed in flowing, all-white gowns and both are characterised as cold and rational. But, unlike the more equivocal Romana, Servalan’s motivations and behaviour are unquestionable: like the femme fatale of film noir, Servalan is sexually seductive and manipulative, ambitious and lethal. As such Servalan can be read as “a symptom of male fears about feminism” (Doane, 2-3), and, I would add, a symptom of male fears about the prospect of a female Prime Minister. In contrast to the dutiful Romana, Servalan uses her powerful position to her own ends. At the same time, any suggestion that this powerful female might serve as a feminist role-model is consistently undercut by her dismissive or outright homicidal attitude toward other female characters: as Jonathan Bignell and Andrew O’Day politely point out, she “does not form a common bond with other female characters but actively works against them” (175). This side to her characterization can be explained in a reading of Servalan as a Thatcher figure. In her feminist analysis of the Thatcher persona, Heather Nunn comments: “Her authority seemed to derive from both her movement across gender identities, troubling the binaries of sexual difference, and also through the way she endorsed an unequal gender divide by locating women within the domestic and moral sphere and placing men as active public subjects” (17). In an extreme enactment of the Thatcher brand of authority, preservation of power for Servalan relies upon the manipulation of male characters and the removal of any politically active women from her public sphere of governmental action.

[23] Blake’s 7 was about a group of outlaw freedom fighters, who, having gained accidental access to a highly sophisticated alien space craft called the Liberator, escape the clutches of an oppressive and corrupt government called the Federation. Episodes detail their adventurous travels around the universe and their ongoing battles with Servalan and the Federation. The fact that a number of creative and production personnel worked on both Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 might partly explain the resemblances between Servalan and Romana, but, unlike Romana, correlations between Servalan and Thatcher have been repeatedly commented upon (see, for instance, Ariana, “Seek – Locate – Destroy”). Even Jacqueline Pearce reportedly described her character as “a sort of Margaret Thatcher in space” while the series was being broadcast (McCormack, Brown and Marrs, “Paul Darrow at the Sidgwick Room”). The later, weekday, mid-evening scheduling ofBlake’s 7 indicates it was aimed at a broad adult or youth audience, as opposed to the “family audience” slot assigned to Doctor Who. The apparent demographic for Blake’s 7 could therefore account for discussions of the series as political allegory in both contemporary and later reviews and analysis. Although Blake’s 7 was accessible for a young audience and even though action and adventure elements were undoubtedly entertaining, adversarial dialogue and ideological bantering between primary characters implied that the series was tackling real political issues.

[24] On one level, Servalan’s character was given the psychological depth befitting a more adult and serious mainstream drama. But on another level, Servalan’s function is simple and clear: she is the evil autocratic leader of an unmistakably right-wing Federation, placed in opposition to the more tolerant, left-leaning resistance leader Blake (Gareth Thomas) and his motley crew of outcasts. In fact, the image of female authority embodied by Servalan overwhelms the series, as if to suggest that alternative forms of female influence, power or leadership are somehow unimaginable in the futuristic world of Blake’s 7Although there are a few episodes that feature other female authority figures, these are usually leaders of resistance groups who are quickly despatched by Servalan. An interesting example occurs in series two, episode 5, “Pressure Point” (6 February 1980), in which a female resistance leader called Kasabi (Jane Sherwin) is captured by the Federation. Under orders from Servalan, Kasabi is tortured by Servalan’s aggressive male side-kick, Travis (Brian Croucher). While the aims of Kasabi and Servalan are obviously very different, during torture it emerges that Kasabi actually trained and tutored Servalan when she was a young cadet. However, having extracted the information she needs, Servalan administers a last, lethal injection to Kasabi; effectively eliminating the opposition and obliterating the past. For Una McCormack: “Blake’s 7can find little space for resistance, whether individual or in the progressive movements of the 1960s and 1970s such as feminism” (“Resist the Host,” 186). McCormack’s viewpoint is well founded as the killing of Kasabi, along with other female resistance leaders featured in the series, suggests that what could be construed as feminist activism is rather literally snuffed out with the arrival of Servalan. In this sense the characterization of Servalan operates on two levels, as the embodiment of male fears and as a caution to the recalcitrant feminist.

[25] The series also features female characters as members of Blake’s crew, but their potential as alternative figures of female authority or power is rarely explored. Although it is established that Jenna (Sally Knyvette) is a skilful smuggler and space pilot, she basically functions as helpmate for Blake. While Callie is introduced as an anti-Federation guerrilla fighter, her skills in this area are rarely showcased. Also, as much as the initial conflict between Servalan/Federation and Blake/Resistance offers the opportunity to address issues brought up by feminism, the series increasingly relegates any kind of gender politics to heterosexual foreplay. For example, Servalan uses her sexuality to persuade Space Commander Travis to do her bidding. Moreover, when Avon (Paul Darrow) takes over from Blake as leader of this resistance group in series three, the sexualized sparring between Servalan and Avon reduces ideological discussion to sadomasochistic power play.

[26] Series three, episode 8, “Rumours of Death” (25 February 1979), provides a comprehensive example of the sexual politicking undertaken in Blake’s 7.An early scene presents the audience with the murder of an important Federation dignitary called Chesku (Peter Clay) by his wife Sula (Lorna Heilbron). The couple initially appear relaxed, but political differences emerge when, looking toward Servalan’s Presidential Palace, Sula exclaims: “We could have built two cities for what it cost to reconstruct that absurdity”. Then as Sula pulls a gun on her husband, Chesku whimpers: “I don’t understand – you’re my wife”. To which Sula simply replies: “That’s all over now” and promptly shoots him. This startling scene is later explained when it emerges that Sula is not who she appears to be: Sula is actually an undercover agent for another resistance group and was previously known as Anna Grant. Meanwhile, a parallel plot follows Avon’s quest to avenge the death of the only woman he ever loved. These separate lines of plot are brought together when the audience learns that the woman Avon had assumed dead is none other than Sula/Anna. During the course of the episode it emerges that, in her past relationship with Avon, Anna was also acting undercover – only at this time she was a government agent sent to thwart Avon’s plans to steal money from the Federation. Over the ensuing years Anna has changed sides and now leads a revolt against Servalan. The final showdown sees Avon and Anna brought together in a makeshift dungeon, where Anna has shackled a battered and bruised Servalan. A shoot out between Anna and Avon results in Anna’s death. With Anna out of the way, Servalan works her seductive wiles upon a distraught Avon and he sets her free. Still, rather than showing “womanly gratitude” toward her “rescuing hero”, Servalan takes this opportunity to attack Avon and the two part company.

[27] Political and ethical differences are undoubtedly sexualised within the complex narrative of this episode. Anna’s brand of left-wing politics makes her incompatible with both her right-wing husband and, ultimately, it seems with Avon. In contrast, the proclivities of both Avon and Servalan are not so dissimilar. Like Servalan, Avon is also interested in wealth and power. However, a distinction is tenuously maintained between these two: while Servalan flaunts her assets and exploits her commanding position, Avon justifies his material aims as an alternative route to freedom and autonomy. When Thatcher’s Conservative government came to power they introduced sweeping economic change in Britain: rejecting the Keynesian approach that underpinned the post-war consensus, Thatcher moved toward an American-style economic agenda or what she later referred to as “popular capitalism” (“Speech to Conservative Central Council”). The figure of Servalan as Federation leader legitimated female ambition, but only in the sense that she embodied a new economic agenda fuelled by amoral, aggressive competition and personal greed. Representative of Thatcher, the femme fatale characterization of Servalan played out the “dangerous attractions” of this new economic agenda for the left-leaning male. As focalized through our group of resistance fighters, the series could be said to display left-wing sympathies. However, its sexual politics crossed party lines: whatever their political allegiance or goal, female authority figures were either killed off or presented as treacherous and dangerous.


[28] In looking at the utility of television historiography, John Corner argues: “The density of the historical moment, so it appears, properly explored and interpreted, can turn contingency and the circumstantial intopattern (Corner’s emphasis)” (275). What I hope I have done here is identify a “pattern” within this genre, which specifically speaks to the questions raised by second wave feminism at this time. Given the large amount of material I have dealt with, even in confining myself to the specific analysis of two prominent series, the focus on key female characters reveals a quite astonishing engagement with the intersecting issues of feminism, gender, and politics. These series undoubtedly engaged in one way or another with questions brought to light by second wave feminism and important socio-political shifts of the period in a variety of interesting ways. Contextual analysis of these two programmes therefore alerts us to how the science fiction genre was used to navigate the burgeoning issues surrounding gender and identity at this time. Representational shifts in gender roles in television dramas over the 1970s can certainly be understood in the context of Thatcher’s rise to power and her eventual election to become Britain’s first female Prime Minister in 1979, but the cultural impact of second wave feminism was also a defining factor at this time. Having said that, my contextualised analyses seems to reveal a shift or a trajectory in the figuration of powerful female characters in these two BBC series: from those characters more readily understood as representative of feminism, to those associated more specifically with Thatcherism. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that this trajectory has revealed the ways in which references to Thatcher appear to eclipse feminism. Looking at the treatment of these female characters within this genre surely tells us something about the mediation of feminist concerns and cultural attitudes towards female authority. This article has aimed at filling in some gaps in assessment of this television genre, as well as gaps in feminist television historiography and feminist criticism of science fiction television produced during this period. However, I am not pretending that my analysis of this topic is in any way exhaustive. On the contrary, I see this as part of a project in building a more comprehensive and complex picture of this period in British television.


I thank the British Academy for funding that enabled me to gather initial materials in connection with a larger project looking at US and UK television (‘Post-Apocalypse on the Small Screen’). A portion of this funded research has been drawn upon for this article.

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