Making the Case for Donna Noble

I have been thinking about Donna Noble a lot recently.  Ok, I think about Donna Noble a lot of the time.  It’s not everyday that one is presented with so perfect a tragic character. And boy am I a sucker for tragic characters!

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Recently, after having the opportunity to meet Catherine Tate at Awesome Con last month, I’ve been rewatching Doctor Who and reevaluating Donna’s character. There are a few key aspects to Donna that I had missed in previous viewings.

Donna is the empowering woman we should all strive to be. She does not treat other women as competition.  As much as I love Rose and Martha, both of them fell into the trap of seeing other women as a challenge to their romantic interests in the Doctor. Because Donna doesn’t have any romantic interest in the Doctor, she does not exhibit the same jealousy.  Instead, Donna takes joy in the Doctor’s potential reunion with Rose at the end of season four. Donna delights each time that she meets a new woman. She is thrilled to meet Agatha Christie, and goes out of her way to encourage her (The Unicorn and the Wasp). Donna and Martha become fast friends (The Sontaran Stratagem).  Donna encourages Miss Evangelista (Silence in the Library) after the others insult the young woman’s intelligence. Donna encourages the Doctor to give Jenny a chance (The Doctor’s Daughter). Throughout her series, Donna Noble is an empowered woman that seeks to empower the women around her. It is a beautiful thing to watch.

 

Donna is not the ‘desperate to marry’ woman that I thought she was. All of the times that I’ve watched Doctor Who, I’ve always felt that Donna was that woman who was desperate to get married.  I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with having such a desire.  As long as the characters are acting with agency I’m (mostly) happy.  However, after Rose and Martha’s desires to be with the Doctor, I was worried that the show was pigeon-holing women as relationship-dependent. It is easy to think Donna fits into this mold. When we are first introduced to her, it is the day of Donna’s wedding.  She spends the entire Christmas special in a wedding dress. Similarly, Donna’s last scene shows her finally getting married to a decent guy.  When you consider the simulated-reality in “Forest of the Dead,” that’s three times that we see Donna Noble in a wedding dress. However, to dismiss Donna as a woman who is desperate to marry is to ignore a very important part of a characterization – a part that I’m embarrassed it took me this long to pick up on.

Donna doesn’t want to be married.  Donna wants to be validated.  The old Donna views marriage as the tool for achieving this goal. As soon as she meets the Doctor, Donna has no use for marriage or romantic entanglements.  She even tells Martha “I’m going to travel with that man forever”. Since Donna shows no interest in romantic attachment while traveling with the Doctor, then it’s logical to assume that Donna had no intentions of marrying while she was a companion. Donna came into her own with the Doctor. She did amazing things and, in the very last moments, found her own worth (even though we’d seen it all along). This is evident when she tells the Doctor that she doesn’t want to go back to the way that she used to be.

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In what is one of the saddest character endings I’ve ever witnessed, Donna’s memory is wiped and she’s reduced back to the woman she was at the beginning of the series – a woman incapable of seeing her own worth. It’s a rare day when I leave a show thinking that it would have been more merciful for them to kill off my favorite character.

In “The End of Time,” the Doctor visits all of his companions for a final farewell. We see Donna walking out of a church, having just married Sean. She is overjoyed, seemingly the happiest that she’s ever been.  When the camera angle switches to the Doctor, he is visibly upset.

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Because the scene is from the Doctor’s POV and not Donna’s, the Doctor’s emotions set the tone. We realize that Donna’s marriage is the consolation prize for her never being able to remember the Doctor. Sean will love and respect her – but she’ll never love and respect herself.  Not the way that she did when she was with the Doctor. The theme is cemented further when you realize that the Doctor and Donna are separated by a cemetery (Donna’s figurative death).

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Donna was never a woman desperate to marry.  Donna is a woman restricted by the belief that she can only find value and validation through marriage. That is the second tragedy of Donna’s ending.

My Top Female Sci-Fi Characters

As with any list, this one is highly subjective based on my personal history, life experiences, personality, and preferences.  It is by no means meant to serve as a comprehensive ‘best of’ list. It is simply the female sci-fi characters who have influenced and inspired me the most.

Captain Kathryn Janeway

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Star Trek: Voyager premiered when I was 13-years old. Even though I grew up in a house that regularly watched Star Trek, I’d never seen anything like Janeway before and I was immediately transfixed by her. Kathryn Janeway is the captain of the starship Voyager, when an alien transports the vessel to the Delta Quadrant – 70,000 lightyears away from home.  Alone in unknown territory, getting Voyager‘s crew home falls squarely on Janeway’s shoulders.

It was not lost on my young, impressionable mind that Janeway was unlike all previous Starfleet captains – she was female.  Amazingly, her crew never took issue with her gender. In fact, one main method the show used to show that a civilization was less advanced was to have the aliens take issue with it. Her crew adored and respected Janeway, to the point that they nearly committed mutiny to save her that one time (Resolutions). Nobody was risking their necks to save Chuckles.

There is a scene in the second season finale (Basics) when Maje Cullah and his clan have seized Voyager and taken the bridge crew hostage. All of the main officers are on their knees, and Janeway stands up to speak to Cullah.  When she does this, Cullah smacks her hard across the face, knocking her backward. Without hesitation, Janeway stands right back up.  That moment exemplifies the biggest lesson Janeway taught me.  No matter how many times you get knocked down, you get right back up and take your ship back like the BOSS you are.  And when all else fails, sometimes you just have to punch your way through.


Laura Roslin

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How does one even describe Laura Roslin? Laura is a woman who never wanted to lead. When a catastrophic attack by the Cylons (human-like machines) all but destroys humanity, she is the highest ranking government official left – the Secretary of Education – and is shortly sworn in as President of the Twelve Colonies. It becomes her duty to ensure humanity’s survival; all while secretly battling terminal cancer.

I will be completely honest.  I was pretty lukewarm toward Roslin for the better part of the first season.  I was not confident that she had the necessary skills to ensure the fleet’s survival. She and Admiral Adama frequently butted heads over the proper course of action – Adama always wanting to fight the enemy, Roslin recognizing the war was over and retreat was the only option. I thought that Laura was cowardly, that she was simply afraid of her own mortality, and that she should fight.  I was so wrong.

I can’t tell you the precise moment that I fell in love with every character on this list, but I can tell you when it happened with Laura. It’s at the end of Flesh and Bone when Laura intervenes on an interrogation that Kara Thrace has been conducting on Leoben, a Cylon that infiltrated the fleet. She appears to be showing Leoben mercy at first: ending the interrogation, releasing restraints, offering a peace.  When the offer is refused and Leoben attempts to undermine Laura’s faith, she has him immediately put out the airlock. “You don’t keep a deadly machine around when it kills your people and threatens your future.  You get rid of it.”

Laura isn’t afraid to fight.  She just knows how to pick her battles. Laura can exhibit ruthlessness that hedges on dictatorship at times. She will push the envelope for acceptable behavior. She can also be overwhelmingly compassionate, like when she pardons all colonists who participated in the Cylon government on New Caprica. At all times the survival of the human race is her top priority. All Laura wants is to save us all.

Laura Roslin taught me that there is no shame in retreat; recognizing a lost cause is a strength, not a weakness. She taught me that all good stories have endings. She taught me that it possible to be so completely devastated by a character’s death that even years later, thinking about it can get me all teary-eyed


Helen Magnus

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Helen Magnus is the woman that we all strive to be, if we could all live to be 270. As the leader of the Sanctuary network, Helen protects abnormals (unusual creatures, mythical beings, and the likes) from humans and vice versa. Helen heads a global organization, is respected by numerous governments, protects the innocent, fights villains, and does it all with perfect hair. She is the boss and she calls the shots. Helen doesn’t answer to anyone.

Coming of age in Victorian England, Helen audited classes at Oxford long before women were allowed to officially enroll in courses. She became a medical doctor in a period when women were still legally viewed as property. What’s unique about Helen, aside from her immortality, is her leadership.

Even while attending classes at Oxford in 1888, Helen is the leader of her scientific research group (The Five). When the group decides that another student(Adam Worth) will not be allowed to join, it is Helen who breaks the news to him.  In the 1890s, when the English Prime Minister makes a proposal to the Five, he addresses Helen first. Even once the others are admitted into the room, the PM directly addresses Helen. The others defer to her for their response.

This theme carries throughout the entire series.  When Helen finds herself in trouble, there’s no ‘higher up’ male for her to call. All of the men work for her. And she is the one constantly saving them, not the other way around.

Equally important, Helen is a bisexual character; yet her sexuality is never exploited.  It’s merely one part of her personality. The series ran for four seasons.  If you take the webisodes into consideration, Helen had five onscreen kisses over the course of the series. She is a refreshing break from the stereotypical, oversexed bisexual.

Helen taught me to be as crazy as possible, because no matter what I do, it’ll never be as crazy as she is. Helen taught me that sometimes life is incredibly painful and difficult, that you lose people long before you are ever supposed to, but that doesn’t mean that you give up.  You have to stand up and continue the fight, because if you don’t, who will?  Helen taught me to be my own hero.


Janet Fraiser

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Janet Fraiser might just be the most underrated character on Stargate SG-1. I once sat down and figured out the amount of time that Janet would have spent in med school, doing residencies, etc. and determined that from the time that she finished training to the time that she became Chief Medical Officer at Stargate Command was roughly about five years.

The post at SGC would no doubt be one of the highest, and most sought out, postings in the Air Force; Janet got this posting in five years. When you factor in the fact that she didn’t join the Air Force until after she divorced her husband in her 20s, yet still has more medals than Samantha Carter, you start to realize just how amazing Janet is.

Janet generally treats alien diseases no one has ever encountered before and life threatening injuries.  Miraculously, she manages to keep the Stargate teams mostly intact against great odds. At the very least, she is an amazing doctor.

But she is so much more than that. Janet Fraiser is a good man in a storm.  She always shows up.  And she always has your back. Janet taught me that courage isn’t always swaggering into battle brandishing a huge gun.  Sometimes it’s showing up, doing your best, and supporting those around you.


Donna Noble

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Donna Noble has never believed in herself.  She’s never thought that she had any potential at all.  Who can hardly blame her.  If we all had Sylvia whispering in our ears that we are failures, we’d probably be just as hard on ourselves. When we first meet Donna,  it’s on her would-be wedding day.  Until she finds out that her future husband has been conspiring with a giant spider to take over the world. Talk about a bad day.

When her would-be husband then breaks out into a tirade about how “tiresome” it was to have to tolerate Donna over the past few months, her face drops, her eyes tear as she soaks up all of those words and accepts them to be true. She believes herself to be unlovable and worthless.

Throughout her adventures with the Doctor, Donna is loud, outspoken, and boisterous. However, the front is only skin deep, and glimmers of Donna’s self-doubt are ever-present.  It’s evident anytime that the Doctor compliments her and she brushes it off with “I’m nothing special.” Even with her self-doubt, Donna manages to accomplish amazing things. She, quite literally, saves the entire universe from destruction.  Everyone else sees her as the most important woman in the universe, while she sees herself as nothing.

Donna taught me that we are all so much more worthy than we give ourselves credit for. She taught me that you have to face your fears and you have to try, because not recognizing your potential is a fate worse than death.


Sharon ‘Athena’ Agathon

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Sharon Agathon is one of those characters that’s far too good for the world they exist in. A Cylon who has been ordered to seduce Karl Agathon in attempts of creating a human-Cylon crossbreed, Sharon redefines the very meaning of humanity. Sharon develops an intense bond with Karl, resulting in Battlestar Galactica‘s most consistent romantic pairing. In order to protect Karl, Sharon turns her back on fellow Cylons, joins the human fleet, is eventually welcomed as a crew member of the Galactica, and is revealed in the series finale to be the mother of Mitochondrial Eve. Wouldn’t that arguably make her ME?

Throughout her journey from Cylon to human, Sharon faces unimaginable hardships. When she and Karl are rescued and return to Galactica she is immediately imprisoned. Even though she provides the fleet with crucial intelligence and proves her allegiance over and over again, she is denied release. She has her daughter kidnapped and is misled to believe that the child is dead.  She is tortured and sexually assaulted.

And yet, she stays true to Karl, and to the humans she’s sworn allegiance to. She proves herself over and over again. She reminds the humans how to behave with humanity. Sharon’s lasting impact is the realization that no one else gets to define us – we define ourselves. She taught me that you pick your side and you stick – you don’t cut and run when things get ugly. Otherwise you’ll never have anything.


Samantha Carter

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Samantha Carter walked into the Stargate Command conference room, heels clicking and head held high, ready to take on the ole’ boys club.  As a career Air Force pilot, Sam is already well used to the discrimination and harassment military women face by the time we meet her. For the most part, she’s more than happy to prove those men wrong with her expertise rather than her words. That doesn’t stop her from getting her shots in every now and then.

One of the crowning moments in Sam’s introductory scene comes after the men in the room mock her credentials as a scientist and her right to be at the table. I logged over 100 hours in enemy airspace during the Gulf War. Is that tough enough for you? Or are we going to have to arm wrestle? Sam Carter came to do a job, and she’s not going to let outdated, sexist ideas stand in her way. And if you insult her intelligence one too many times, she might just punch you in the face. I’m looking at you Ba’al.

Sam is my favorite kind of feminist.  She finds herself in a position where her gender is viewed as a weakness.  And then she very quickly proves to the men at Stargate Command that she can do her job just as well as they can – sometimes better.

She also refuses to be sexualized without consent.  A lot of this is thanks to Amanda Tapping telling producers that she would not wear a different, more revealing costume than the men wore and insisting that if she was going to play the part, she be dressed the same way the men were.

In addition to being an adept military officer, Sam is also generally the smartest mind in any room.  She holds a Ph.D. in theoretical astrophysics and isn’t afraid to think outside the box.  No matter what the problem is, given enough time to figure it out, Sam Carter will find a solution – even if it involves blowing up a sun. She even has a trope named after her.

Sam Carter taught me to ignore the opinions of others. It does not matter what other people think of you. What matters is that you behave with integrity and follow your heart. Those who doubt your abilities will inevitably be proven wrong.


Martha Jones

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In full disclosure, I did not appreciate Martha appropriately the first time I watched Doctor Who. It’s embarrassing to admit that as a hardcore Rose/Doctor shipper, I disliked Martha simply because she wasn’t Rose.  I was upset that Martha had a crush on the Doctor. couldn’t she see how heartbroken and wounded he was over losing Rose, and could she please just give him a break already!

Upon re-watching the series, with my emotions more in check, I realized just how wrong my initial perception of Martha was. Yes, Martha had a crush on the Doctor. Who can really blame her for that, though? Wouldn’t we all be crushing if Ten showed up on our doorstop and offered to take us on the journey of our lives?

But Martha is so much more than a lovestruck woman. Of all of Russell T. Davies’ companions, Martha arguably has the most agency. When we meet her she is starting her residency program.  She’s intelligent, independent, and close with her family. She is tough and unafraid to stick up for herself. She comes from a middle-class family. And, most importantly, she knows her worth.

When Martha gets tired of being second-best and realizes that the Doctor will never value her the way that she deserves to be valued, Martha makes the painful decision to walk away, but not before calling the Doctor out. “I spent a lot of time with you thinking I was second best, but you know what. I am good.” Walking away allows her to get a job with UNIT (a job we see her thriving in later), to settle down with Mickey, and to live her own happily ever after.

Martha taught me that sometimes it’s necessary to walk away from what you think you want, in order to get everything that you need. She taught me that you should always know your worth, and be willing to walk away from anything or anyone who doesn’t value you.


Jillian Holtzmann

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Jillian Holtzmann has the distinction of being the most recent character on this list, as well as the only film character. As a general rule, it’s much harder for film characters to impact me in the same way that television characters do.  A two-hour story just doesn’t have the same impact that dozens of hours of story-telling do for making a character fleshed out, realistic, and relatable in my opinion.  I say all of this to preface just how significant Jillian Holtzmann is.

At the point of writing, I have seen Ghostbusters four times in the movie theater. This is an impressive feat because: 1) I very rarely see films in the theater these days, 2) The film came out three weeks ago 3) I’m probably not even done seeing it yet.  I’ll watch it at least once more before it leaves theaters.

Holtzmann is everything that I want to be.  She is unapologetically herself and she refuses to shrink herself. While most of the female team are quite comfortable in their own skin, Holtzmann seems to take self-acceptance to a whole new level. She refuses to hide her excitement. She dances around the room with glee. She slouches, puts her feet up on desks and generally “manspreads” all over the place. She is everything women would be if we weren’t conditioned from birth to shrink ourselves, to take up as little space as possible.

Holtzmann taught me to embrace my personal weirdness.  We all have those things that we geek out to. Whether it be sports, or politics, or female sci-fi characters, each of us have our passions. When a female character is seen fully embracing her passions and all of the other characters around her not only embrace but encourage that passion, it is a beautiful, validating experience. So many fangirls and fanwomen are shamed into hiding those more passionate sides of our personalities by society’s perceptions.  Holtzmann reminds us to be authentic to ourselves above all else. Her giant ‘Screw You’ to stereotypical gender roles is as visible as the necklace that hangs from her neck.