Review of Frankel’s Women in Doctor Who and The Women of Orphan Black

Review of Women in Doctor Who and The Women of Orphan Black by Valerie Estelle Frankel

Jeanne Hamming

Valerie Estelle Frankel. Women in Doctor Who: Damsels, Feminists and Monsters. McFarland, 2018. Paperback. 253 pp. $29.95. ISBN 9781476672229.

Valerie Estelle Frankel. The Women of Orphan Black: Faces of the Feminist Spectrum. McFarland, 2018. Paperback. 226 pp. $39.95. ISBN 9781476674124.

A quick Google search of Valerie Estelle Frankel paints a clear portrait of a prolific, detail-oriented independent scholar who has found her niche: pop-feminist analyses of pulp genres and cult science fiction and fantasy favorites—Doctor Who and Orphan Black, but also Outlander, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, True Blood, Wonder Woman. The list goes on. It’s clear that Frankel is a pop culture super-fan, which equips her with the enthusiasm, if not the academic bandwidth, to produce the meticulous compendia of observations that comprise the two volumes reviewed here. 

The Women of Doctor Who is a timely addition to critical work on the long-running series given that the 2018 season brings viewers a female doctor for the first time, played by actor Jodie Whittaker. Frankel’s review of human and non-human female characters in the series and its spin-offs (The Sarah Jane Adventures, Torchwood, Class, K9) is exhaustive, arranging Doctor Who’s treatment of women into broad categories: sweet girls, experts, bad ladies, tough girls, and outsiders. From there, Frankel further identifies female characters in the series by their established archetypes: sexy damsel, evil ice queen, trickster-seductress, and so on. While this convenient conceptual schema works well for a quick reference guide, it is less conducive to a deeper exploration of the critical issues surrounding gender, race, species or their intersections, including analysis of the recent trend to gender- and race-flip established characters and the implications, good or bad, of this particular cultural zeitgeist.

 Frankel’s encyclopedic approach works well to highlight the ways that, despite attempts to explore future and alternative worlds, female characters in the series remain firmly fixed as products of twentieth and twenty-first century attitudes that limit the depth and range of the roles women are expected to inhabit. Frankel offers an account of the evolution of women’s roles, from pubescent damsels like Susan in the first seasons, to more “competent” (read: contrary) women in the series’ reboot— e.g. Donna Noble and River Song. This trajectory is both fascinating as it charts the shifting history of feminism’s impact on popular culture, and distressing as you come to realize how little has changed in the past six decades, and how, as Frankel observes, these women remain “trapped within the patterns of their archetypes” (3). One consistently defining characteristic of the Doctor’s companions, Frankel points out, is their collective obligation to serve as his moral compass, to provide, in today’s parlance, invisible emotional labor. While his companions exist to nurture privately the Doctor’s better angel and steer him away from more destructive impulses, he remains free to play the public hero. This narrative through line is brought into starkest relief during the “War Doctor” arc when Billie Piper returns as both the specter of Rose Tyler and as “Bad Wolf,” a sentient weapon of mass destruction that, nonetheless, has a heart (Frankel, Doctor Who 167-168). 

In The Women of Orphan Black, Frankel organizes her analysis of the show around two intersecting histories: the evolution of feminism from first to fourth wave and how this history has been shaped by emerging bioethical issues, especially as they relate to the biopolitical battle over control of women’s bodies. Rich with excerpts and insights from the show’s creators, actors, and consultants, including the fascinating science advisor, Cosima Herter, on whom Cosima the clone is based, Frankel explores how the series deliberately engages in contemporary debates over reproductive rights, bodily autonomy, tensions between science and religion, gender, and globalization. Cleverly, Frankel shows how each female character in the series embodies various feminist waves, from the radical seventies feminism of Mrs. S, to Cosima as second wave feminist-lesbian, to Sarah as radical, “punk” feminist, to Mika/M.K., the elusive cyber-feminist whose hacktivism brings viewers’ attention to issues of disability, virtuality, and neurodiversity (M.K. is portrayed as being on the autism spectrum). Perhaps the most useful part of Frankel’s close look at Orphan Black is her exhaustive catalog of the series’ numerous “easter eggs,” from the literary references in each episode’s title to the allusions embedded in the show’s narrative. Frankel carefully teases to the surface allusions to Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, William Wordsworth, Aldous Huxley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Richard Dawkins, and Donna Haraway, among others, demonstrating how the show’s fast-paced adventure narrative is smartly informed by philosophical, scientific, and literary histories.

The strength of Frankel’s contributions to discussions of Doctor Who and Orphan Black is more curatorial or archival, and one can imagine that this kind of work would make for good starting points to stoke the interests of high school students, undergraduates, or science fiction fans looking to enter mainstream conversations about representations of women and bioethics.

Review of Lothian’s Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility

Review of Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility by Alexis Lothian

Kristen Koopman

Alexis Lothian. Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility. New York UP, 2018. Paperback, 352 pages, $30.00. ISBN 9781479825851.

It would be easy for Old Futures to feel scattered, covering as it does a century’s worth of source material, three different forms of media, and theory ranging from traditional SF criticism to fan studies. Yet somehow Lothian not only pulls it off, but makes it seem effortless.

Lothian’s framing argument is that futures in science fiction have historically written out queerness in favor of timelines depending on implicit heterosexual reproduction, and that queer counterfuturisms instead nurture visions of new possibilities for science, technology, gender, and race. This argument is broken down into a series of roughly chronological case studies, following an introduction that covers the theoretical basis of the book: a chapter on eugenics and reproduction in feminist utopias, a chapter on gender’s relationship with violence and fascism in dystopias written between the two World Wars, a chapter on Afrofuturistic writings in response to eugenics, a chapter linking speculative pleasures to modes of estrangement, a chapter on the (sadly few) queer SF films that create new ways of engaging with the world, and a chapter on fanvidding and remix culture as responses to visions of the future. These chapters are interspersed with three shorter digressions that show how the theories and insights of the previous chapters may be applied to other works.

While Old Futures of course draws upon traditional SF criticism (including the obligatory explanation of why the author chose to use “speculative fiction,” its associated critiques, an expression of hope that the work won’t get pigeonholed into genre-studies, and so on), the breadth of its engagements is truly impressive, as is its depth. Each chapter provides precisely the background needed to understand the particular case studies without becoming repetitive, and so each chapter could easily stand alone. Nevertheless, the chronological organization and consistent throughline of queer futurity keeps the book as a whole from feeling disjointed.

The standout chapters are the first, “Utopian Interventions to the Reproduction of Empire,” and the last, “How to Remix the Future.” The first chapter deftly unpacks the implicit reliance of most futurisms on heterosexual reproduction, noting that visions of futures are frequently visions of worlds for future children. Although the utopias studied in the chapter are feminist, Lothian points out that feminism at the time was deeply tied to other political projects: definitions of scientific and technological progress with undercurrents of eugenics, colonial visions of European futures, and the relationship between the rhetoric of futurity and contemplation of the present. These themes set up a status quo that is then critiqued in the third chapter, although both chapters stand alone well. “Utopian Interventions to the Reproduction of Empire” may be of particular interest to scholars in the medical humanities or science studies, due to its careful illustration of the eugenic values embedded in its cases.

The sixth chapter, “How to Remix the Future,” discusses the role of remix culture in refashioning narratives in mass media to present alternative visions of queer futures and to critique implicitly regressive creative decisions by makers of media. Lothian suggests that fan remix practices (such as the case study of fanvidding) may constitute (or at least contribute to) critical fandom, which counters the view of fandom as unquestioning consumption of media in favor of resistive readings and refiguring narratives. Lothian’s case study of the Firefly fanvid “How Much Is that Geisha in the Window?” is a particularly well-done analysis that is a welcome addition to fan studies. 

Yet Lothian takes this engagement with fan studies a step further and describes her own process taking up the practice of fanvidding in order to make critical contributions to fandom (in this case, Battlestar Galactica). This not only shows that Lothian takes fandom seriously as a means of critically engaging with media, but hopefully marks a path for other scholars to follow in her footsteps. As Lothian notes, fan remix practices such as vidding may provide avenues for scholars to better articulate theories and criticism of media, particularly for marginalized people; this can be seen both in the critiques of gender and heteronormative desire that Lothian describes in her own work and the racial critique of Firefly that she analyzes.

Old Futures is not without its weaknesses. The introduction, by doing much of the theoretical work of the entire text, is dense and abstract compared to seeing the theory in practice in the following chapters. The good news is that in sequestering it all in one place, it frees the other chapters to read much more easily; however, when reading the whole book through, it may be disproportionately slow going. Many of the concepts highlighted in the introduction also simply make more sense when utilized in more concrete analysis later on, which may be an artifact of the book seemingly being the author’s dissertation adapted into a monograph.

Additionally, the chapter on SF film lacks the thematic cohesion of previous chapters. This may be because the films, in Lothian’s analysis, are more focused on futurity, speculation, and politics than the traditional tropes of science fiction. While I have no objection to an expansive definition of SF, it is telling that Lothian’s analysis largely hinges on the depictions of the future in its two case studies (Jubilee and Born in Flames). The analysis is insightful in unpacking the futures depicted on-screen, but the tools of SF criticism that have been used in previous chapters are absent here, and I remain unconvinced that this analysis looks at these films as SF. Lothian does note that there is not exactly an abundance of queer SF film, but nevertheless, this is likely to be the chapter that is least useful to those looking for SF criticism.

Overall, Lothian has constructed an admirable volume that I have already begun recommending to colleagues. This is her first book, and it bodes well; I look forward to seeing what Lothian does next.