[Guest Post] Perspectives on Ruth Doctor

Elizabeth A. Allen and Jonah Akos got together recently to geek out about one of their favorite additions to Doctor Who: Ruth Clayton, a.k.a. the Fugitive Doctor. Played by Jo Martin, “Ruth Doctor” became the first Black Doctor in the show’s history. She appeared in two episodes of Season 12, “Fugitive of the Judoon” and “The Timeless Children,” generating polarized responses from viewers. Elizabeth and Jonah talked about Ruth Doctor’s characterization, her significance to the show and fandom, and her possible future.

Elizabeth is a white, queer, nonbinary writer and editor. Jonah is a Black, nonbinary trans man. Their identities shape their experiences with Doctor Who and with Ruth Doctor in particular.

Jonah: Let’s start with what we enjoyed about her.

Elizabeth: Yeah, let’s! I really love how Ruth Doctor was so quickly and deftly characterized.

Jonah: I think that was a great way to start — focusing on her POV for quite a bit of time. It helps you feel like she truly exists in the world. Even before knowing who she was, I liked her because she felt empathetic, but also confident in herself.

Elizabeth: Her happiness with her husband and the people she said “hi” to really grounded her. They also gave a perfect illustration of one of the Doctor’s best traits: At the best, the Doctor really CONNECTS with people. They CARE. They make friends.

Jonah: I also liked that she got to have a love interest. Allowing an older, dark-skinned Black woman to have love at all is rare. To show them as able and worthy of it.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I’m glad that she had some romance too! The snippets of domestic life and normalcy make Ruth a much more approachable Doctor than any other I’ve encountered.

Jonah: Definitely agree. I think sometimes the Doctor has to gain relatability throughout their runs. You see the alien first and then the human is revealed after. With Ruth, we got the human first. I really enjoy the more human Doctors and having her be one of them really worked here.

I really love her personality. She seems like a Doctor who is focused on surviving and is a little more prickly, more like some of the classic Doctors have been, but you can clearly see her care and empathy and emotion under that. For example, she mocks Thirteen for the sonic screwdriver, but still won’t actually use a gun. I have complicated feelings about her having a gun, but I like that she never intended to use it and was just essentially lying.

Elizabeth: It’s also interesting to compare her to some of the early doctors, like One, Two, Three, and Four. All of those incarnations are basically old white men. They share a certain arrogant assumption that humans should understand them intuitively.

In contrast, Ruth strikes me as a much more welcoming and enthusiastic Doctor. When she pulls Thirteen into her TARDIS — “You’re going to love this!” — that moment demonstrates, to my mind, the best of the Doctor: irrepressible enthusiasm, curiosity, and wonder.

Jonah: She’s exactly the kind of Doctor I love, whose love for adventure and sharing that adventure with others seeps through every interaction, even when things are dire.

She reminds me a bit of Nine in some ways. There’s trauma and a sense of protecting herself there, but also that love and joy of exploration and knowledge, which is part of most Doctors, but I feel like Nine embodied that balance the most. Nine and Ruth have their differences, though. For Nine, he had lost his people, and, for Ruth, she’s fighting against her people.

Elizabeth: That’s a great observation. Both Nine and Ruth are alone after great conflicts. They’ve also both been separated from their people, albeit in different ways.

While we’re making comparisons between Ruth Doctor and other Doctors, I just realized that Ruth Doctor is in a really odd position in the story. Doctor Who is supposed to be about the Doctor. But Ruth Doctor is a secondary character in Thirteen’s adventures.

Jonah: Yeah. She’s the only Doctor to ever just be a side character (to my memory, but I haven’t gone through all of Classic Who).

Elizabeth: The closest I can think of is the War Doctor. But he and Ruth Doctor are portrayed differently. We know where the War Doctor is coming from (there’s a mini episode where Eight decides to regenerate as him), while Ruth Doctor’s past remains mysterious. Also, even if he has renounced the name of the Doctor, the War Doctor is still not alone. He has companions, allies, and a definite connection to other incarnations of the Doctor. Right now Ruth Doctor has none of that, which really makes me worry for her.

Jonah: Yeah, I don’t think they’ve really bothered to think about the background and implications behind everything they’ve put into her story. Any other Doctor with all the things she has going on, all the pain, all the loneliness — they’d have a whole arc at the very least, if not a season or two.

Elizabeth: I agree about the BBC not really thinking through the implications of everything in her story. For example, the first Black Doctor we get is running away from enforced labor in the Division. Her official name, according to the BBC, is “the Fugitive Doctor.” Her framing is ickily similar to that of an escaped enslaved person.

Jonah: Yeah, she’s a Black person in a story very reminiscent of a “runaway slave” narrative (using the term with as much distaste as is warranted). I feel like, in order for there to be any justice to telling a story, she deserves more. They need to hire Black writers to bring the necessary nuance and realness to it.

Elizabeth: They need more Black talent at every stage of production. They also need Black characters with longer durations. The BBC creates characters like Bill or Ruth Doctor, but these characters are only around for a season (Bill) or a few episodes (Ruth Doctor).

Jonah: They put a Black woman in and do the very minimum so they can check off the box.

Elizabeth: Exactly. They also tend to put Black women in positions of suffering and victimization — like Bill. I will always be enraged and sad about her mistreatment in the S10 finale.

Jonah: It’s a common habit of non-Black writers to put Black women through the worst tortures, most likely because of that old myth that they’re stronger, tougher, or feel less pain than non-Black people. It leads to this trope of proving Black women’s strength by breaking them down harder than any other character.

Elizabeth: Yeah, good point. And we can see that assumption of extra toughness in Ruth Doctor’s first appearance. For example, she just doesn’t defeat a bunch of Judoon in close combat. She goes even further and rips one’s horn off, which is an act of humiliation, according to Thirteen. She’s excessive in her use of violence. The association between a Black women, and an ideal of super toughness, and super aggressiveness is worrisome.

Jonah: I thought the same thing when seeing it. It was cool and all, but it made me very, very worried. Why have her specifically doing this? It’s impossible to not have her Blackness be a factor in why she did something violent that most other Doctors wouldn’t.

Elizabeth: The BBC didn’t think critically about how Ruth Doctor’s race would intersect with her use of violence.

Jonah: Yeah. They probably gave her these traits on purpose, but didn’t even bother to think about the implications of those choices. That’s usually how it goes.

Elizabeth: While we’re discussing violence, let’s talk about the scene with Ruth Doctor, Gat, and the gun.

[Transcripts are from Chrissie’s Transcripts Site.]

RUTH: Don’t do this.

(Gat fires the rifle. It backfires, destroying her.)

DOCTOR: Oh! You knew that would happen. You sabotaged the gun.

RUTH: I told her not to do it. I begged her not to fire.

DOCTOR: But you knew she would!

RUTH: Don’t take the moral high ground with me.

DOCTOR: The Doctor never uses weapons.

RUTH: I know. Shut up.

Jonah: I was very annoyed that Thirteen was upset with Ruth Doctor for Gat firing that gun. Least favorite moment of the episode. Ruth is right. She told Gat not to fire it. Ruth didn’t kill anyone, and Gat pulled that trigger intending to kill Ruth. Thirteen has 100% done similar things in many incarnations without being seen negatively.

Elizabeth: I didn’t like Thirteen’s judgmental reaction either. But I think my interpretation of Gat’s death by Ruth Doctor’s gun differs a bit from yours. From my POV, Ruth Doctor gave Gat the gun and told her not to use it in a way that just tempted Gat to do so. It seemed like such an obvious piece of reverse psychology to me that I seriously disliked it.

Jonah: That’s a fair interpretation. I think both interpretations lead to their own problems. In my view, it was more like the gun was a backup, just in case Gat tried to kill Ruth. If Gat tried to kill Ruth with that gun, it would kill Gat, but Ruth was giving her the opportunity to not use it. Therefore anything that happened after wouldn’t be on Ruth’s conscience. From that interpretation, Thirteen’s response as very off-putting to me.

Elizabeth: That wasn’t the only reply of Thirteen’s that rubbed me the wrong way. This moment below, for example, really came off as a white woman insisting that a Black woman could not be in charge because the white woman could not imagine it as a possibility.

DOCTOR: Stop. Who’s Gat? And who are you, really? Truly.

RUTH: I told you, love. I’m the Doctor.

DOCTOR: You can’t be.

RUTH: Yeah? And why’s that?

DOCTOR: Because I’m the Doctor.

Jonah: Thirteen’s insistence that Ruth must be lying was odd. It seemed out of character. It was as if, even subconsciously, the writers were questioning a Black woman being in that position of authority.

Elizabeth: I agree. The white writers’ skepticism about Ruth Doctor’s very existence seems to be leaking into the characters’ lines.

Jonah: Anyway, back to what we liked… I love that “Fugitive of the Judoon” centered a Black woman’s life. I want more of that! I think Ruth Doctor deserves her own season! I want to see Black women interacting in a positive, happy way. They can have tough times because that’s how it works, but I want to see laughter and happiness and love and silliness. I just want to explore this character on screen so badly.

Elizabeth: Me too! She also needs a fam. Ruth Doctor is profoundly alone. Her partner/husband is dead. She has a TARDIS, but no companion. She has no community and no support. D:

Jonah: Yessss! The Doctor should really never be alone. It’s generally painful and extremely lonely when that happens (like the Time Lord Victorious). And Ruth Doctor needs companionship even more than most iterations.

I think a run with her could play off a lot of parallels with Nine. I think Nine’s would be a fitting story for her, to heal from trauma through love and to re-explore herself with other people around her. It’s a story that Black women don’t get a lot.

Elizabeth: Yeah, plus, as a bonus, a story like that could counteract the image of the Black woman as a stoic, independent, isolated figure.

Jonah: No matter what, I want Ruth’s arc to be her breaking down the independent shell and showing a more heartfelt and vulnerable side. Also her being a dorky kind of Doctor sometimes like we get often that is so endearing. The talking to the TARDIS and all.

Elizabeth: I would love for Ruth to get together with Bill. They could have adventures in which they could be struggling against someone who seemed antagonistic, but was actually trying to help them. I think that, if they repeatedly encountered kindness and helpfulness, that would help both characters as individuals. Anyone you’d like as a companion for her?

Jonah: I kind of want her to have her own new companion. She’s reluctant to open up at first or even to admit they’ll be sticking with her long-term, but eventually allows it. She starts to open up and have fun, joke around, be emotional.

Elizabeth: Ooooh yeah! How about a Black girl in her early teens? Black Girl Magic!

Jonah: Yes, a younger Black girl would be amazing. One of my favorite things about companions is the Doctor taking an average person and showing them that they are incredible. What an amazing story that could be for Black girls to watch!

Elizabeth: I would 103% watch that! Shall we talk about what Ruth means to us and to fandom?

Jonah: Despite my problems with her portrayal and her short time so far, Ruth means so very much to me. To me, Ruth respresents lost history and being able to rediscover that. Lots of POC, especially Black diaspora, experience this collective loss of our own past. So to have her respresent, in a way, those past incarnations as a whole, is very fitting to me. Who knows this kind of pain, from systemic abuse and colonization of the very self, better than Black women?

At the same time, a large portion of the fandom seems not to like her because to them she represents erasing lore and rewriting the story they know.

Elizabeth: The anti-Ruth portion of fandom has a really narrow idea of canon and lore. They forget that Doctor Who has always had multiple competing narratives.

Jonah: Yes. The story has always been contradicting itself. Besides, to me, erasing some of the familiar background isn’t a bad thing because it was so white and male and cis.

Elizabeth: I agree. In terms of positive reaction, I’ve seen essays by Black women who were thrilled to see a Doctor that looked like them.

Jonah: Yeah. I haven’t seen many Black fans dislike her, but lots and lots of non-Black ones who pick apart her place in the story.

Elizabeth: Some of the criticism of Ruth Doctor reminds me of criticism of the Timeless Child storyline, which also retroactively inserts a Black female character (the first Timeless Kid) into the Doctor’s history. When non-Black fans are picking apart Ruth’s place in the timeline, they’re also criticizing the presence of a Black woman in their cherished group of white Doctors.

Jonah: Yes, definitely. There would be far less pushback if Ruth were a white man.

Elizabeth: I agree too. As for me, I absolutely love Ruth. I have never connected more with a Doctor than with her. She’s important to me because she’s an older Black woman in a magical, wonderful position of power and authority. She’s important to me because she doesn’t conform to stereotypes of petite, slender, blond, white, youthful femininity. She’s important to me because she, as an older Black woman, is taken seriously by the story.

Jonah: It’s amazing how she’s managed to connect so deeply with such a short amount of screentime. It shows that she’s hit on something new that DW hasn’t done before. It’s time for this to happen.

Elizabeth: It’s past time. If the show wants to succeed and sustain itself, it needs to push against the resistance to Ruth from more conservative white male fans. It needs to follow the fans that Ruth appeals to: the Black fan, the GNC fan, the woman who loves the show.

Jonah: Yes, they need to not hold back because the older white cishet men might be upset by the changes. Looking to the future is the perfect thing for them to do. They started the ball rolling with Thirteen, but we can do more.

Elizabeth: I think that’s actually a good way to end. We’ve offered our analyses. We’ve issued a challenge, and now we’re looking to see what the BBC will do with this opportunity. I keep coming back to the Thirteen-era tagline: “Space. For all.” That concept — a multiverse where a broad spectrum of characters are depicted with respect and sensitivity and optimism — is really what I hope for the show.

Jonah Akos is an African-American nonbinary trans masc with a passion for dance, learning languages, disability justice, and expressing identities through media.

Elizabeth A. Allen lives, writes, and plays with dolls in Vermont. Her nonfiction has been published in Curve, Out in the Mountains, and Tangent Online. Her fiction has appeared in Unbound, Master Works, We’re the Weird Aliens, and Gender Who? Her AO3 [ModernWizard] features Alison’s further adventures with the Doctor, the Master, and her inevitable fiancee Bill Potts. She’s mostly active on Tumblr [http://modernwizard.tumblr.com], but occasionally she remembers that she has a Twitter account [@modernwizard1].


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