Bechdel Tests: Pre-1989 Doctor Who

I have been a bit quiet here lately, and part of this is due to the start of the new academic term. The other part, however, is due that I was working on my pre-1989 Doctor Who Bechdel Test results – the nearer I got to actually finishing my data set, the more reluctant I was about writing about it so as not to spoil my eventual revelations.

Tonight, I can finally unveil my preliminary results.

Methodology below.


I have written about companions and their (sexist) treatment by the show before; others have written about Bechdel Test results for post-2005 Doctor Who.

Disclaimer: I really, really love Doctor Who. Which doesn’t mean I can’t criticise some bits of it. In fact, I think you need to really care about something before you actually can meaningfully criticise it.

Due to the sheer mass of data available of pre-1989 Who, I do not have the sort of in-depth data like companion and female speaking time that they have. I should like to add this at some other point. I also don’t have the time to learn how to do pretty infographics like that, so I’m afraid you’re stuck with my Excel and MS Paint skills.


But without further ado, the preliminary results:

Bechdel Test results

(click for larger size)

As you can see, the Doctor’s incarnations travelling with two female companions automatically score higher; Ace’s awesomeness is also confirmed. While the Troughton Doctor’s companions (Polly, Victoria, Zoe) still score relatively well (especially Zoe), despite being on their own, as does C.Baker/McCoy companion Mel, Pertwee and T.Baker companions score relatively poorly. Peri also shows a sad, sad dip.

When you split up the shared female companions (that is, the companions carrying over to a next regeneration) – Polly, Sarah Jane, Nyssa&Tegan, Peri, Mel – you see clear splits per regeneration.

Polly scores 33.33% over her time with Hartnell, but 71.43% with Troughton – which is an awful lot better than her average.
Sarah Jane scores 100% in the Pertwee era (confirming perhaps her status as a feminist character) but then drops to 44% with T.Baker.
Nyssa&Tegan both score 100% in the T.Baker era, mainly because they have each other to talk to. Nyssa retains 100% with Davison, but Tegan changes to an 85.94% average over her entire set of serials, mainly because after she loses Nyssa, she loses the opportunity to talk to other female characters. She does talk to Susan in The Five Doctors, but this is about the Doctor and thus does not pass the Bechdel Test (assuming the Doctor is male).
Peri doesn’t pass at all in the Davison era – which may confirm suspicions that she was introduced for the Dads – and then scores a wobbly 52.63% in her C.Baker serials. I mean wobbly literally, as her pass rates seems to almost alternate.
Mel, finally, simply scores 100% overall, regardless of Doctor.

Putting both regenerations of Romanadvortrelundar together, by the way, yields a pass rate of 63.88%.

Here’s the pass rates in the form of nice tables:

Companions Pass Rates
Susan 100.00%
Barbara 100.00%
Vicki 91.67%
Dodo 83.33%
Polly 60.00%
Victoria 70.73%
Zoe 82.00%
Liz 56.00%
Jo 55.36%
Sarah Jane 64.00%
Leela 65.00%
Romana I 69.23%
Romana II 60.86%
Nyssa 100.00%
Tegan 85.94%
Peri 43.47%
Mel 100.00%
Ace 100.00%
Doctors Pass Rates
One 78.51%
Two 75.63%
Three 62.11%
Four 58.42%
Five 76.39%
Six 59.09%
Seven 100.00%

My next plan is to split by producers and script editors, and see what sort of percentages that yields. And see whether there’s a correlation between female writers and Bechdel Test pass rates. I can reveal now, however, that when Verity Lambert was producer, the pass rate was an astonishing 94.25%.

About the Bechdel Test

Now, why is the Bechdel Test so important? And can it measure the level of feminism/sexism of a script?

To the latter: no. It can’t. Both are subjective measures and can thus only be indicated through subjective analysis. Tumblr user Whovian Feminism does something cool like that by analysing new Doctor Who episodes from a feminist perspective.

To the first: the Bechdel Test is pass/fail. To pass, any piece of work needs to have;
a) Two named female characters
b) Who interact
c) About something that isn’t a male person.
Sounds simple? It should be. But, given the low pass rates for some Doctor Who eras, apparently not so straightforward for some as it should be. It is important because it is so simple – how is it that it is possible for pieces of literature/film/television/theatre to contain no female characters, or who don’t speak, or who only talk about men? The fact that the Bechdel Test exists shows that it is possible for me, a woman, to sit down and view something and not see any female characters interact in any sort of meaningful way. Which is actually quite sad. This also shows how it is possible for a show to pass the Bechdel Test and still be sexist – female characters can talk about shoes or how to be make a baked Alaska or whatever stereotypical topic, as long as it isn’t men.
Question: why isn’t there a Bechdel Test for men? Answer: because 99% of all works would pass that without issue.


Measuring Bechdel Test pass rates for pre-1989 Who is not as straightforward as it is for post-2005 Who, mainly because the stories were broadcast as serials, not episodes. Each serial holds between 1 and 12 episodes, of each 25 minutes.

Rather than testing each episode separately, I tested the serials and weighted these results by the number of episodes in it. So the failing of ‘Mission to the Unknown/Dalek Cutaway’ is 12 times less important than the failing of ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’. To save time, as soon as any serial passed, I moved on to the next – meaning that in the last few months, most of the serials I have seen fully are those that didn’t pass.

Some experimenting was done in the C.Baker era with 45-minute episodes in serials. To account for this, I doubled the episode count for weighing to retain a possibility for comparison. So serials like ‘The Two Doctors’, with three episodes, have six episodes in my data set.

Serials with no companions (like ‘The Deadly Assassin’) do not count for any companion pass rates, but have been included in Doctor pass rates.

I also had some difficulties especially with Jo Grant – the only not-male character Jo talks to in ‘The Curse of Peladon’ is Alpha Centauri, the hermaphrodite hexapod, and her only audible interaction with a female character in ‘Planet of the Daleks’ is a greeting, although they do sit on-screen and chat inaudibly later. I solved this by passing these serials at 50% and 25% respectively, which may have resulted in especially Jo’s pass rate being slightly higher than it should have been if a stricter interpretation of the Bechdel Test is adhered to.

My data set is available upon request. As no one double-checked my pass rates per episode, I should rather like it if people were willing to go over it and correct me where I’ve gone wrong. I trust, however, that I have not made so many mistakes as to render this blog post totally invalid.

Follow-up post HERE.


Author: Ilse A Ras

There are times when I am doing research on crime news and language; sometimes I'm obsessed, sometimes I'm bored, and sometimes my tea is getting cold.

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