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Why Doctor Who needs more female writers
The new season of Doctor Who, starting Saturday, doesn't use a single female writer. The count is similarly poor for other British science-fiction and fantasy shows – so what's the problem?
On Saturday, Doctor Who returns, kicking off the second part of the seventh series with a James-Bond inspired episode that sees the Doctor and Clara whizzing round London on a motorbike. Which is exciting if you like interesting drama with witty banter and thoughtful concepts. But less exciting if you like interesting dramas that include women on their writing teams.
Because season seven of Doctor Who will feature no female scribes at all. Not in the bombastic dinosaurs and cowboys episodes that aired last year, and not in any of the new episodes we're about to receive. In fact, Doctor Who hasn't aired an episode written by a woman since 2008, 60 episodes ago. There hasn't been a single female-penned episode in the Moffat era, and in all the time since the show was rebooted in 2005 only one, Helen Raynor, has ever written for the show.
Isn't that is a pretty terrible record for a flagship TV programme? It even prompted website Cultbox to put together a list of women they would like to see writing the show, any of whom would be great.
When questioned on the subject last year, Caroline Skinner, the show's recently departed executive producer, said that it was her intention to see more women writing for Doctor Who. But none has emerged. So I asked producer Marcus Wilson about his plans to improve the balance of male and female writers on the show. "Due to schedules and other projects, both male and female writers whom we have wanted to join the team simply haven't been able to," he said. "For us it's about who can write good Doctor Who stories, regardless of gender."
There must surely be women capable of writing a good Doctor Who episode. But this problem of male-dominated script credits isn't just the good Doctor's. The writers' rooms of fantasy and science-fiction shows in the UK seem to be notable for their domination by men. Of 65 episodes of the recently axed Merlin, for example, only four were written by a woman. And the show bowed out with a series in which no women writers credited at all.
Other shows can't even reach the giddy heights of one woman writer on the team. And in cases when a show comes from one just one writer, it tends to be a man who is behind the script, from The Fades to Outcasts to Misfits, which began with Howard Overman at the helm and then brought on board other male writers. (Overman will also write new BBC1 show Atlantis.) On CBBC, The Sarah Jane Adventures, a show rightly lauded for it's sixtysomething female lead, employed no female writers whatsoever. And the new Wizards vs Aliens? None there either.
It's woeful. Author Jenny Colgan who, as JT Colgan, wrote a Doctor Who tie-in novel, says there are plenty of women writing fantasy and science fiction. "There should probably be more women in the room," she says. "I think producers and commissioners should sometimes be a bit bolder about trusting girls with their toys. I mean, come on: Margaret Atwood, Ursula le Guin, Madeleine L'Engel, Audrey Niffenegger, JK Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Stephanie Meyer ... it's hardly as if women don't have a proven track record."
Given this raft of talent in literature, why aren't women writing in these genres for television? "A lot of it is down to mere tradition," says Paul Cornell, who has written for Doctor Who and Primeval. "TV writing itself, and then geekdom, have both, historically, been seen as male pursuits. But in both cases, that stereotype is over. OK, it persists as a joke about geekdom, but the reality of it is vanishing."
Things are getting better, he suggests, with a growing number of female TV executives. "I think those executives are genuinely searching for new female talent, [so] perhaps we're just living during a couple of decades of that talent slowly arriving," he says.
The situation is perhaps more promising in the US: while fantasy epic Game of Thrones, which also returns over the Easter weekend, is hardly bursting with female writers, it does have Vanessa Taylor on the team. Female writers have been working on shows such as True Blood and Once Upon a Time.
"The good news [in the US] is, there have been a number of great women writers coming into genre television in the past decade, and this has coincided with a noticeable improvement in not just the female characters but the writing in general," says Charlie Jane Anders, co-editor of SF blog io9. "But there's still plenty of room for improvement – especially in the UK, where genre television seems to be entirely the work of a small group of male writers."
Dramatist and author Stella Duffy – who has noted the absence of women writers, and indeed directors, from Doctor Who on her blog – thinks that there needs to be a conscious effort to recruit writers from outside the usual small pool of male writers. "Try harder. Stop assuming that men can do the job well enough. If women are saying they feel left out (and they do), if women are saying they feel marginalised (and they do), if women are saying they do not see their voices on screen ... Listen to them and do something about it," Duffy says.
"We can knock and knock, but if they won't let us in, we'll never get to see how big the Tardis really might be inside. Right now, the Tardis only holds men, so maybe it's not that big, after all."