Chicks Unravel Time
Kaite Welsh talks about Chicks Unravel Time, a sharp new anthology of Doctor Who essays written by women for people.
I meet author, journalist and activist Kaite Welsh in a cafe in Bethnal Green. Surrounded by child-size wooden rocking horses, we sip tea as a couple breaks into an impromptu swing dance. This cafe is a favourite haunt, close to Viktor Wynd’s emporium of anachronistic oddities and a very fitting place to talk about orphaned aliens and time.
With curled dark hair, an inquisitive and fiercely intelligent face and her trademark lovely pearls, Kaite looks like something of a Doctor or Timelord’s assistant herself. Which is also fitting, and yes I will use that word twice, because we’re here to talk about Chicks Unravel Time. Imagine it, if you can: A new anthology of bloody marvellous essays about every single season of Doctor Who, and it’s written by women for people.
It was exactly like this…
It seems to me that a book like Chicks Unravel Time is long overdue…
I know, right? It’s a sequel to the fantastic Chicks Dig Time Lords, which had female fans looking at what they love about the show. But it’s really nice that we got to do a substantive analysis of each season of Who. It’s rare that outside of specifically female-centric collections like these that women get decent representation in critical studies of sci fi. I think Smart Pop books might be an exception, but if you go into Forbidden Planet and pick up any of the books that examine Doctor Who, you’ll find a lot more male writers than women.
Buy Chicks Unravel Time on Amazon. It will discuss many things, including David Tennant’s arse.
Tell us about your essay, “I Robot, You Sarah Jane”…
When Liz and Deb initially spoke to me about writing a chapter, I sent back a capslocky email along the lines of ‘SARAH JANE I WANT TO WRITE ABOUT HER AND WHY SHE IS SO AWESOME’. Rather than patting me on the head and sending me away, they gave me Season 12 to write about. I mainlined the series, and ended up writing about three different drafts of very different chapters – at one point I was just going to focus on Harry Sullivan, then I was going to talk about technology and feminism using Donna Haraways’ Manifesto for Cyborgs as the basis. I still sort of wish I’d written that one! But in the end, the essay wrote itself. There’s so much going on in Robot, and even though it’s generally considered as not the best of the season, I’ve got a real fondness for it and Sarah gets so much to do.
In terms of its reception – someone described it as ‘amazing’, which was very nice! Mostly, I’m just happy that nobody came to take my Serious Writer card away from me. Every time I put pen to paper, I’m convinced that’s what’s going to happen.
Doctor Who engenders such personal reaction and emotive fandom, the same way Whedon shows tend to. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s just good writing. You get so invested in the characters, and it hurts when you feel like the canon storyline lets them down – I’m thinking of the wasted potential of the Amy & River relationship in Who, or Adelle Dewitt in Dollhouse, or even Lady Cora in Downton Abbey. I know Elizabeth McGovern has an adorable frown, but Julian Fellowes really needs to give her more to do.
So maybe it’s about bad writing as well…
I think it helps, too, that the writers are very aware of the history of the shows and genres they’re writing in. Whedon and Russell T Davies are total fanboys, and that enthusiasm is infectious. With Buffy, you got the trope of the Final Girl, the blonde who survives the horror film, and it gets turned on its head by making her this badass superhero. Moffatt and RTD both pepper Who with shout-outs to the classic era. And look at the reboot of the Bond franchise – part of the reason it works so well is because it really has fun plays with the iconography.
And I think emotional engagement is a tricky concept – recently, an academic at a pop culture conference used the book as an example of the way women engage with fandom and argued that it was purely emotional. Apparently he used the word ‘squee’. Whilst I’m as guilty of capslocked Tumblr posts as the next fangirl, this fills me with feminist rage. Women engage with fandom and with the source text in so many ways, to dismiss them as ’emotional’ is ridiculous and gender prejudiced. These essays are a serious critical examination of a show. That occasionally talk about David Tennant’s arse.
As the Whovian sites endlessly proclaim, you never tire of your first Doctor. Who is your favourite Doctor, companion and monster?
Technically, my first Doctor is Pertwee thanks to the BBC2 re-running Who straight before Buffy back in the late 90s. But my heart belongs to Christopher Eccleston – I think it’s a Northern solidarity thing. And I like that he wasn’t pretty – Tennant and Smith are terrific, but Eccleston had that gritty quality. My favourite companion has to be Sarah Jane, no contest. Feisty feminist journo with odd dress sense? Sign me up. Although Alex Kingston as River Song comes close – she’s vampy and brilliant and a bit broken. And I love Amy Pond. And both the Romanas. And Liz Shaw. And Donna. And I am so excited about the new companion because she seems so sassy! OK, choosing a favourite is hard… For me, the scariest monsters are the Weeping Angels. I don’t always agree with Moffatt’s choices, but he hits all my fear kinks like a pro. After the end of his Jekyll miniseries, I slept with the light on for a fortnight.
Is there a storyline that’s most affected you? If you watched Doctor Who in your formative years, what, if any effects did it have on your sensibilities?
By chance, when I was about 14, I caught the first episode of the Pertwee era – something about the disorientation of regeneration and Liz Shaw’s bad ass academic hooked me from the start. I’d been watching a lot of The Avengers, and she had this mod-ish, Emma Peel-esque quality that I really liked. I think I ended up writing about 20 pages of a sci fi novel with a thinly-veiled Liz Shaw as the protagonist. Thankfully, this has been lost in the mists of time.
Do you ever get shout at the screen moments when watching Doctor Who?
Frequently. Mostly they’re calling out gender prejudice, though. Great show, still not perfect. And I tend to swoon over River Song in a somewhat vocal fashion…
The essays in this book are permeated with the (backed-up, obviously) notion that Doctor Who has always had gender equality at its core, even with the (in my mind) irritating companion Leela, even thirty-odd years ago when it was sailing against the wind with such conceptions. Do you agree?
Firstly – don’t bash Leela or I will take. you. down. I love you, Magda, but never make me choose between you and a badass warrior chick. Secondly, I think there’s a great history of kickass women on TV – I talked about Emma Peel before, and her predecessor Cathy Gale is another awesome strong woman. And the 1960s, when Who first aired, was the start of the sexual revolution and and awesome new wave of feminism. I think the strong female characters grew out of that. And Elisabeth Sladen said something that I quote in my chapter and really resonates with me – that the Doctor would never travel with someone who was just silly and decorative. My boy’s got better standards than that.
Female Doctor? Donna. Amazing, right?
God, I love Donna. I have to admit, though, that fun as her being Doctorish was at the end of her story, I hate the way RTD’s women can only achieve their potential by being more than human – Rose Tyler and the TARDIS as Bad Wolf is another example. God forbid a shop assistant or a temp save the world by themselves…
I want a female Doctor like burning, though. There was a phase a while back where fans wanted Rachel Weisz as the first female doctor, which I think would be awesome. Maybe they could bring her husband Daniel Craig in as companion once he’s done being Bond…
We’re getting low on regenerations. But they’ll come up with a plot rejig to solve that… won’t they?
I think they did, actually. Pretty sure it was mentioned in The Doctor’s Wife that the 12 regenerations is more of a guideline than a strict rule.
Yeah, I’m a geek.
Buy Chicks Unravel Time on Amazon. It’s really ever so good.
Buy Chicks Unravel Time on Amazon