Over the next few months, Elliott Freeman will take a look at a dominant genre storytelling trope — what he refers to as the Jean Grey Effect. In the first episode of the series: Doctor Who.Fantasy and science fiction live in the shadow of their archetypes. Critics of “genre” fiction often pick at the most egregious examples of bad writing that both scifi and fantasy have to offer, works that are more deeply flawed than their flat prose–works that blindly embrace tropes, stereotypes, and easy archetypes, without any newness or ingenuity or soul.
The Jean Grey Effect
So stop me if this sounds familiar: there’s a character, a young lady (probably either full of pep or, more likely, reserved and shy; there’s very little in-between). She’s outshined by the other characters in terms of her power (whether it’s superpowers, mutant abilities, what have you). Or at least, she is until That One Day. Maybe she snaps. Maybe she gets a visitation from an alien un-god. Maybe she’s just always been the really powerful one. Whatever happened, she’s now disruptively strong — usually strong enough that her strength derails the other characters, completely overshadowing them.
That’s a problem for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that writing for this suddenly-empowered character is difficult: things that would challenge the other characters are probably trivial for her now (and yes, I am choosing my pronouns very carefully, because these characters are overwhelmingly female). So the writers generally end up making her her own worst enemy: she goes, often literally, mad with power.
The big example of this, at least for me, is Jean Grey. For the uninitiated, Jean Grey was one of the original five X-Men, a woman, with by far the weakest powers of the group, who served as little more than a token for women and an object of affection for Scott Summers, aka Cyclops. Jean gets generous character development over the years, but her existence — in any continuity or medium — is overshadowed by one storyline.
Maybe you’ve heard about the Phoenix.
Explanations for the Phoenix vary wildly from writer to writer: sometimes it’s a cosmic force, ancient and alien, that possesses or clones or merges with Jean Grey. At other times, it’s just a name Jean gives to her true potential. Since the original Phoenix Saga in the 1970’s, though, Jean Grey has basically been in a steady holding pattern, one that takes her from low-powered logistical support to cosmic brawler with a taste for genocide.
But this pattern, this trope, repeats throughout fiction — Jean Grey certainly isn’t the first woman to go crazy from getting too much power. At its best, this trope helps writers explore the consequences of power, the way it separates those who have it from those who lack it. At its worst, it risks seeming like a stale retread of retrogressive gender stereotypes about hysterical, emotional women and how they have to be protected from the pressures of the world. Whether good or bad, though, the Jean Grey Effect is present in a startling number of sources — and the afflicted character is almost always female.
Doctor Who and the JGE
If you haven’t been following the revived Doctor Who, currently awaiting its 50th Anniversary Special, then you might not know that it’s had something of a rocky history with female characters. The titular Doctor is almost always accompanied on his jaunts through time and space by a Companion, usually young and female and, of late, in love with (or at least obsessed with) the Doctor. The Companions for the past seven seasons — Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, and now Clara — have varied wildly in their competence, but they’re pretty invariably spunky and (a few questionable instances aside) fun to watch. What they’re not, generally speaking, are fully developed characters, perhaps because no one gets to be truly special except the Doctor himself.
This has been an especially noxious trend of late, but that’s for another time.
For all their spunk and pluck and moxie, the Doctor’s female Companions have been struck with the Jean Grey effect pretty regularly. We’re not going to touch on Clara — her story is still playing out, and so we’ll let it run its natural course. But anything up to and including “The Angels Take Manhattan” is fair game. You have been warned.
There’s probably not a cleaner or clearer example of the Jean Grey Effect in all of New Who than Rose Tyler’s “arc” in the show’s debut season. Beset by Daleks and desperate to save the Doctor, storeclerk turned Companion Rose Tyler looks into the heart of the Time Vortex itself to become (however briefly) the Bad Wolf Entity. Armed with godly power, she scatters the Dalek invasion fleet into its constituent atoms, resurrects a fallen friend…and promptly begins to burn up, because humans weren’t meant to contain this power.
The theme of “burning up” is going to be a big thing for Doctor Who.
Regardless, the Doctor pulls her close and sucks the Time Vortex out of her, sacrificing his ninth incarnation in the process. It’s almost sad to think that the show’s first flirtation with this trope was also its most successful, perhaps because “arc” is an entirely too generous term for the bare smattering of hints scattered throughout an otherwise episodic season. Still, we’re ticking the boxes: Rose Tyler becomes a five-minute goddess out of desperation, the power rebounds on her, and the Doctor has to save her through sacrifice. It’s a pretty clear-cut case, and it’s emotionally satisfying to have it be the culmination of Rose’s sexual tension with the Ninth Doctor.
Then came Donna Noble, and there was much grousing among the fans, for she had been little-loved in her previous appearances. But to it’s credit, the show managed to make quick-thinking, brass-balled Donna Noble one of the Doctor’s most endearing Companions, and anyone who disagrees can feel free to meet me in the parking lot after sundown where we shall do some violence with knives.
But Donna’s finale follows in the theme of women “burning up” to become briefly, beautifully great. This time, it’s not just a Dalek fleet but an entire armada of Daleks kidnapping planets at the behest of their devious creator, Davros. By taking regeneration energy into herself, Donna acquires the Doctor’s intelligence and knowledge — and that might not seem to fit the Jean Grey Effect because as smart as the Doctor may be, it’s not quite the same as being able to devour suns or resurrect the dead. But Doctor Who is a show that has a love affair with being clever, and there’s no trait it privileges more than the Doctor’s ability to think up a (sometimes almost plausible) deus ex machina.
Armed with the Doctor’s mind, Donna defeats the Daleks, saves the universe, and then promptly keels over. The knowledge is too much; the power is too great! And so she burns, very nearly, saved only when the Doctor takes away her memories of everything she has done.
For viewers invested in Donna, a brash woman worried first and foremost with her place in the world, that seems worse than death. She’ll live out the rest of her small life never knowing that, however briefly, she was The Most Important Woman in the Universe.
It’s not a bad story or even necessarily a bad ending — it flows fairly naturally from the preceding events, and it’s returned to. The characters deal with the consequence, and it’s treated as that — a consequence. But the biggest and most compelling reason for getting rid of a character in the throes of the Jean Grey Effect is to sidestep the problem of writing for them in the future: Rose can’t keep the Bad Wolf powers. That’s a whole ‘nother show right there, a show about a lonely goddess and her time-travelling boyfriend. It would warp the entire fabric of the story, constrain and damage it in a fundamental sense.
But Donna, clever as the Doctor?
Well, that’s not really as disruptive. The show’s fetish since being revived is the Doctor’s solitude: it’s the only aspect that cannot be challenged. They can’t give the Doctor anyone truly and utterly equal, or he’d stop being so alone. Instead of cheapening that, they cheapen Donna, an easy route to an emotional charge for the audience.
But wait, I hear the fans cry, what about River? Surely she’s the Doctor’s equal.
Maybe, briefly, but even she gets hit by the Jean Grey Effect. Of course, Jean Grey herself is prone to bouts of Dark Phoenix-insanity, and River inherits that part of the trope admirably in “Let’s Kill Hitler.”
All criticism aside: one of the most fun episodes of the entire show.
But in terms of the Jean Grey Effect, River doesn’t fare much better than Rose or Donna. The show portrays her as clever, of course, and competent, but in “Let’s Kill Hitler,” they reveal that River Song is Amy’s stolen child, a jury-rigged Timelord brainwashed into an assassin for the Doctor. So not only is she clever, she’s as hard to kill as the Doctor himself.
Of course, this is Doctor Who, and you can’t have another Doctor running around, someone clever and able to regenerate. By the episode’s end, River sacrifices her regenerations to revive the Doctor — who she had just recently killed.
I’ve heard Steven Moffat’s arguments about that sacrifice, but those don’t stop it from seeming, at best, rushed. Years of conditioning and brutality are wiped away by the prospect that she will, one day, love the Doctor–and this prompts her to sacrifice a part of her that made her, in a very real sense, the closest thing he’s had to a proper equal in seven years of New Who. Giving up power is often the prescribed penance for a character afflicted by the Jean Grey Effect, so River has to give up this chance at being nearly-immortal, from a purely narrative perspective, because the Doctor has to be alone, singular and special.
Well, and because we already saw River die, but that’s all wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey.
The Jean Grey Effect isn’t a bad thing in and of itself — used well, it can create interesting and engaging stories that work to expand the scope of a line. There have been wonderful examples from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (we’ll get to that, soon) to Babylon 5 and beyond. But all tropes should be examined head-on; allowing them to continue unexamined is the surest way to endorse lazy storytelling.
The women of Doctor Who live in the shadow of the Doctor–but then, so do the men. When they get power — enough to overshadow or even just rival the Doctor — then of course they have to fall. While there may be worse examples in books, television, and movies, there’s still something unsavory and overly simplistic in Doctor Who’s dealings with the Jean Grey Effect, a sense that’s only amplified by the show’s spotty history with female characters, both in its current and previous incarnations.