To begin this essay, I feel like I ought to establish what makes a female character enjoyable and interesting to me. For me it's not about being a "strong female character" because well, I don't believe in that term. I think that that kind of conceptualization values masculine traits more highly than feminine traits. For me, what's important for a female character is that they be fully formed with complex emotions and character arcs that are about THEM and not about the men around them. So that's the place I'm coming from, and you'll see that reflected in my discussion of these women. I should also probably come out and say that I love RTD as a writer and I adore Rose, Martha and Donna. I should also state that while I don't really care for Moffat as a writer, I don't think that Amy and River set feminism back or anything like that. Amy isn't my favorite, but she's fun and spunky. I might loathe River's storyline, but her personality really grew on me in series 5. I just find them to be wholly disappointing as characters unto themselves.
I think that most people are in agreement about Rose in series 1 (since the fandom meme that I see tossed around is that Rose was awesome in series 1 but sucked in series 2). Rose's characterization in series 1 was all about being this girl who is bored with everyday life and has no real prospects for her future. She then sees the universe and her eyes are opened. She can't live that mundane life anymore The Doctor is the catalyst for Rose's change, but the story is still definitely about HER. This is exemplified in the speech she gives in the cafe in The Parting of the Ways where she says, "It was a better life. I don’t mean all the traveling and seeing aliens and spaceships and things. That don’t matter. The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life. You know, he showed you too. You don’t just give up. You don’t just let things happen. You make a stand. You say “no”! You have the guts to do what’s right when everyone else just runs away!"
However, I strongly disagree with the idea that Rose in series 2 was completely about the Doctor. Yes, there is a love story going on and the Doctor and Rose are going on adventures, but there is still a definite character arc going on there for Rose outside of the Doctor. Rose in The Christmas Invasion is freaked out and scared and lost without the Doctor. When push comes to shove, she does her best to stand up to the Sycorax, but she's flustered and doesn't know what she's doing. Then as the series progresses she becomes increasingly competent and brave. Rose is becoming a hero in her own right. In series 1, Rose regularly got herself into trouble and has to be rescued more often than not, but in series 2, she's investigating the TV shop in The Idiot's Lanter (though that does end in her having to be rescued), rallying the troops on the space station and getting shit done while the Doctor is in the pit in The Satan Pit, and figuring out how to save the world on her own after the Doctor has been trapped in the drawing in Fear Her. Rose loves the Doctor, but they're not attached at the hip. When they're in the alternate universe, Rose decides she's going after her alternate dad no matter what the Doctor says. When the Doctor wants to go down into the pit, she gives him a kiss on the helmet and tells him to be safe. When the Doctor wants to go after the detectives in The Idiot's Lantern, Rose ignores him and goes off to investigate the TV. Rose spends series 2 on the journey of becoming a hero and this comes full circle in series 4 in Turn Left when Rose essentially becomes the Doctor in a world where he has died. So again, the Doctor is a catalyst to her story, but in the end her story is all about HER coming into her own as a hero.
Is Rose perfect though? LOL NO. She never has been. She takes Mickey for granted all throughout series 1, but I would argue that she and Mickey finally break up in The Parting of the Ways. Rose looks at Mickey and tells him that there is NOTHING left back on Earth for her. And then in "School Reunion" Mickey describes Rose and Sarah Janes as the Doctor's "girlfriend and missus" which makes me think that he doesn't think of Rose as HIS girlfriend any more. He sees the Doctor and Rose as a team while he's the "tin dog". Rose is sometimes petty and makes jealous remarks (which is why her actions in The Girl in the Fireplace are so OOC and lead me to believe that Moffat wasn't actually writing for Rose, Mickey and Ten but was writing for Amy, Rory and Eleven). But all of these things just serve to make her a more believable character.
Rose DOES choose the Doctor over her family, but so what? Rose doesn't want to stay on Earth. She wants to keep on traveling. It's not just about Doctor vs family. It's also about seeing the universe vs being stuck on Earth. As Rose says in The Impossible Planet, "everyone leaves home in the end". She knows what she wants (traveling with the Doctor) and she's not going to let other people decide what to do with her life for her. I do think that her Journey's End ending is a bit unsatisfying because we don't get her specifically choosing Cloen over Ten, but from reading RTD's book, the moment where Rose kisses Cloen was supposed to represent her making her choice, and I can see that even if I don't think it was incredibly clear.
Rose is definitely strong minded. She doesn't let anyone tell her what to do. Nine sends Rose away ~for her own good~ in The Parting of the Ways? Rose is like "fuck that!" and finds a way back to save him. Ten tries to send Rose off to this happy family he's made for her in Doomsday? Rose is like "um. No thank you. I decide what I want for my life." Jackie tries to make Rose feel bad about becoming ~different and not being tied to Earth any more? Rose doesn't care. She just wants to keep on traveling. It's not that she doesn't love her mother, but she's also not going to live her life in order to please Jackie. Rose is living her life for HERSELF and no one else.
As Rose says to Jackie, she had a life with Jackie, but that's not want she wants anymore. She feels like the Doctor needs her, and she wants to stay with him and keep traveling. She loves her mom, but being stuck on Earth is not what she wants from life anymore. So she's choosing life on the Tardis with the Doctor over being with her family. Not a choice that everyone would make, but Rose is pretty determined to live her life without asking others for permission.
We don't know what Rose is up to in the alternate universe, but there's no reason to think that she's just been sulking the whole time. Even by the Bad Wolf Bay scene, Rose is already working at Torchwood. We have no reason to think that she hasn't been working productively at Torchwood throughout series 3 and 4. Rose isn't dumb, but she's also not smart enough to build the series 4 dimension canon all on her own. She would have needed Torchwood's help. Do you really think that Mickey and Pete would have been on board with Rose destroying two universes just to get back to her boyfriend? So to me it's pretty clear that things were going terribly wrong in the alternate world which led to the building of the dimension canon. Rose loved the Doctor and I'm sure she made sure that SHE was the one to go searching for the Doctor because she wanted to see him again, but I don't think that means that she was wasting away pining for the Doctor for however many years they were separated. I'm convinced she was being Rose Tyler, Defender of the Earth.
All of that to say, the reason I think Rose is a satisfying character is because her storyline is definitely about her. Her story is all about her transformation from the shopgirl living on an estate to a hero who saves the world. She's also brave, curious, and clever... but she isn't perfect. She has flaws (tendency towards pettiness and jealousy) that make sense and make her feel like a real person. THAT'S why I think she's a pretty brilliant female character.
Martha Jones is so underappreciated by fandom. I love her sfm. She's brilliant. She's clever, brave, loyal and completely 100% awesome from day one. But her story is about how she doesn't see that in herself. She's the unappreciated peacekeeper in her family, running interference between her parents. She gets this crush on the Doctor and is SO long suffering (much like it seems like she is with regards to her family) while the Doctor is oblivious to her. I honestly don't think that RTD set the audience up to dislike Martha. I think that he set Martha up as a character to be sympathized with. My reading is that the audience is supposed to be on Martha's side. That's why the camera lingers on her and we get her sad looks and long suffering sighs. We're SUPPOSED to feel bad for her and think that the Doctor is being an insensitive jerk. I don't think that the script wants the audience to be nodding along with the Doctor. The Doctor (especially as written by RTD) CAN be wrong. Just look at "Waters of Mars"!
The Doctor loved Rose and she was taken away from him against his will and thus he kind of idealizes her and puts her up on this pedestal and is blinded to how his actions and words are affecting Martha. The text acknowledges that the Doctor was in the wrong even before "Let's Kill Hitler" when her image makes him feel guilty. He looks properly chastised when Martha tells him off in "The Last of the Time Lords" and then in "Partners in Crime" the Doctor says, "The last time, with Martha, like I said it... it got complicated. And that was all my fault," which seems to be the Doctor acknowledging his fault.
In "The Last of the Time Lords", we get the pay off for Martha's suffering throughout series 3. Martha realizes just how awesome she is (something the audiences should have seen from her introduction). When the Master tries to compare her unfavorably to Rose, Martha LAUGHS IN HIS FACE. Evil Time Lord? Martha Jones doesn't give a fuck. She will lol at you. And then she gives her speech to the Doctor. She tells him that she is getting out. She's realized that she's NOT second best. Martha Jones is pretty fucking awesome, and now she realizes that and sees that staying with the Doctor is not a good situation for her, so she takes the initiative and gets out. So again, while the Doctor and her crush on him and her experiences with him are the catalyst, her story is definitely about herself and realizing her own awesomeness and doesn't exist to serve the Doctor. The Doctor's series 3 story (which is about him being more disconnected from people due to his grieving over Rose) definitely intersects with Martha's story, but in the end Martha has a story and personality all her own. She takes that new found confidence and faith in herself to first be a part of UNIT and later goes on to be a free lance alien fighter
The ending with Mickey in End of Time is somewhat problematic. It doesn't ruin Martha for me, but it was pretty blatantly RTD trying to kill two birds with one stone, showing Martha and Mickey together. Supposedly, RTD wanted to include Martha and Mickey into Children of Earth, but Freema and Noel's schedules didn't allow for it, so we missed out on their relationship developing, so them being married in End of Time was definitely out of left field, but in the end, I still feel like Martha had a solid story that was all her own.
Now with Donna we once again get a story for which the Doctor is a catalyst, but is still definitely about Donna herself. Donna doesn't believe in herself. She's content to live a life doing nothing doing jobs that are going nowhere because she thinks that's all she can do. But then the Doctor comes along and shows her that there is so much more out there and she can be so much better. So he takes her along with him and Donna blossoms.
The key to Donna's story is actually "Turn Left". It's in that episode that we see that Donna doesn't need ~The Doctor~ to believe in her. She just needed SOMEONE to believe in her. In "Turn Left" that person is Rose, and Rose gives Donna the confidence to be courageous and save the world.
I do think that Donna's ending is tragic. Although I do object to the term "rape" being used because using "rape" to describe anything other than rape bothers me. But yes, the Doctor violates Donna's mind to save her life. It's a tragedy, but necessary from a Doylist POV. Donna was set up as a character who would never want to just go back to her normal life. She would stay with the Doctor forever she could. However, Catherine Tate was moving on to other projects. So RTD had to come up with a way to lose Donna as a companion in a way that was believable for the character. He could have killed her off, but RTD didn't want to do that. So he created a situation where Donna could never be with the Doctor again or else she'd die.
But it's not a completely hopeless ending. As I mentioned earlier, we saw in Turn Left, Donna didn't need ~The Doctor~ to believe in her, she just needed someone to believe in her, and the script of Journey's End gives us hope that she has that now. Before series 4, Sylvia was constantly harping on Donna and yelling at her and belittling her. But in Journey's End when the Doctor tells Sylvia that for a moment Donna was the most important woman in all creation, Sylvia is basically like "fuck you. Donna is my daughter. She STILL is the most important woman in all of creation to me." Sylvia has seen Donna's potential, and their interactions in End of Time are not nearly as abrasive as they were in The Runaway Bride. It seems to me like Donna now has Sylvia and Wilf in her corner, believing in her and knowing her potential. Donna's husband Shawn also seems like a good guy who loves Donna for who she is (and imo, there's NOTHING wrong with part of Donna's happy ending being getting married because that's clearly something that was important to her). It's not a perfect ending, but with that support system and the money that the Doctor provides via lottery ticket, who knows what Donna could become?
So again, Donna has her own story, separate from the Doctor. The Doctor is a catalyst for her growth, but she exists as a person in her own right with her own story.
All three of RTD's companions had their own unique story to tell and they were definitely affected by the Doctor, but their stories weren't completely defined by him.
The problem that I have with Amy as a character is that her story is never really about HER. Well, that's a bit unfair, but the way in which the story affects her is never fully explored. Amy is The Girl Who Waited [for the Doctor]. That's how she's conceptualized. Her story is about her interactions with the Doctor and how he abandoned her. The crack plot and the fact that it resulted in her losing her parents is never fully developed. I mean, fans can try to extrapolate things, but it's not really concretely there in the text. (Also apparently in some spin-off media, in the post The Big Bang universe where Amy has parents, Amy is not a kissogram which says some interesting things about how Moffat views (pseudo) sex workers.) Amy's experience with the crack ends up being about how now she has special memory powers and can bring back the Doctor with those special memory powers. It's not about her as a person.
Things happen to Amy, but it's all about the Doctor. Melody being stolen? The Doctor's ~darkest~ hour. Really? REALLY? Nothing about how that might suck for Amy as Melody's mother?? Her reaction to the events of A Good Man Goes to War is practically non-existent until The Wedding of River Song, but for me that was too little, too late. The fact that the Doctor essentially screwed her up starting from when he abandoned her in "The Eleventh Hour"? Basically ends up being all about the Doctor. In "The God Complex", instead of Amy being like "you know what? My life has kind of been a mess because of you. I think it's time for me to go home to try to build a life independent of you," we get the Doctor kicking Amy and Rory out of the Tardis because HE realizes that he's been a screw up. In the end her story is really about him getting over his god complex. I mean her issues ARE talked about, but the Doctor is the one telling them to her vs her realizing her issues and confronting them (like Martha did in The Last of the Time Lords).
Your mileage may vary with the objectification of Amy, but the fact that in the Comic Relief special, the joke hinges on the fact that LOL RORY CRASHED THE TARDIS, BUT IT'S NOT HIS FAULT BECAUSE AMY WAS WEARING A SHORT SKIRT AND HE CAN'T CONTROL HIMSELF AROUND HER WHEN SHE'S WEARING A SHORT SKIRT. Therefore he is not responsible for his actions and it's Amy's fault, and the punchline is telling Amy to put on some trousers. Like, I get that it's a joke, but it's still some hugely problematic logic, and making something a joke doesn't make it less offensive. Amy is also kind of literally objectified when she spends the first half of series six being an incubator for Melody. Pregnancy in itself as a storyline for women isn't always bad, but the way it was handled with Amy made it more about Amy's body servicing the larger plot vs how it affects Amy and what it means for her.
The other thing that makes me side-eye Amy's character arc is that Amy "growing up" is conceived of in terms of her marriage. Now I get that what the writer was going for was for Amy to go from being Amelia Pond the fairy tale to Amy Williams the grown up woman, but phrasing it by giving Amy her husband's name was a bit clumsy and leads to the impression that Amy's growth arc revolves around her husband which I don't think was intentional, but still not ideal.
The bit with Amy and the perfume in Closing Time was SO clumsy because all we get from the text of the episode is a picture of glamor!Amy next to a perfume with a name and tagline that relates to Amy and Amy giving her autograph to someone. To me, that definitely reads as "some kind of celebrity who has her own perfume" which isn't horrible, but I just wanted MORE for her. I wanted something that said something about who Amy was. Amy has a talent for art. Why couldn't she have been a children's book author and illustrator who was at the store to do a reading or something?
I think there is a lot to enjoy about Amy on a purely entertainment level, but in the end, I feel like she was woefully underdeveloped as a character unto herself outside of her relationship with the Doctor or outside of how her character served the larger plots. She didn't seem to have a lot of psychological depth to her or a story to herself apart from the Doctor. I think part of this was because Moffat didn't explore Amy's home life, so we really just have no idea who she is outside of when she's with the Doctor.
Now with River, I think that a major part of my issue with her character has to do with the fact that her story is non-linear. The River we meet in series 4 (while grating to me personally) was still incredibly self-possessed and confident. Then from the audience POV she devolves into a woman who is possibly still a psychopath and is willing to destroy the universe for the sake of the Doctor. I mean, that's not what is actually happening because her story is all backwards and what not, but from the audience POV, that is what it feels like.
But now I kind of want to talk about the way in which our experience of River's life is as a life that revolves completely around the Doctor since the structure of the show means we never really see her life outside of when it intersects with the Doctor. Her conception and magical Time Lord-ness is because of the Doctor. She is kidnapped as a baby and brainwashed and groomed into a psychopathic killer by a crazy religious sect because of the Doctor. She gives up her regenerations for the Doctor. She becomes an archeologist because of the Doctor. She is willing to destroy the universe because she cannot bear the thought of killing the Doctor. She spends a significant portion of her adult life in prison so that the Doctor can maintain the illusion that he's dead (except for the days when the Doctor comes by to break her out or calls her to go on an adventure. In The Impossible Astronaut she says, "Every time we meet, I know him more, he knows me less. I live for the days when I see him."). She eventually DIES for the Doctor (except he "saves" her by giving her an afterlife in a computer where she wanders around in a floaty dress with some co-workers she barely knew as far as we know and baby sits some kids). River's life revolves around the Doctor and other than the times she gets go to go on some adventures with him, her life is really pretty terrible, and I don't feel like the text adequately recognizes that fact.
Going off of that, I kind of want to look at how River's story isn't really about River, but it's about the Doctor. We never really a full picture of the way in which what the Silence did to River has fucked her up (outside of a bit of her being a luzy psychopath in "Let's Kill Hitler") because in the end it's really all about her killing the Doctor and what that means for him and how he can get out of that. Much like with Amy, these horrible things that have happened to River feel more like it's about the larger plot and the Doctor than it is about HER.
The other thing that bother me when it comes to River and the Doctor is the power imbalance in the Doctor/River relationship that is a result of the non-linear nature of their relationship. In the beginning it's River who has the power in the relationship. She has all the knowledge and the Doctor has none. But then as the Doctor's knowledge of River increases, the power balance shifts and it becomes what River describes in The Impossible Astronaut. "When I first met the Doctor, a long, long time ago... he knew all about me. Think about that. Impressionable young girl, and suddenly this man just drops out of the sky, he's clever and mad and wonderful and knows every last thing about her. Imagine what that does to a girl."
When we first meet River's she's presented as someone who could be the Doctor's equal. She has a sonic screwdriver and is smart and capable and all those things. (I should mention however, that I hate the idea that someone needs to be super special to be the Doctor's "equal" and therefore worthy of his love. Rose might not have been super educated, but she was clever and brave and a good person and the Doctor loved her. I hate the idea that she was just a basic human and therefore not worthy of a Time Lord's love or something.) But in The Wedding of River Song, when River actually becomes the Doctor's wife, she is in no way treated like an equal. He belittles her and tells her that she is embarrassing him, and then tells her to "do as she's told", a weirdly paternal thing which is something that River herself actually agrees with back in The Impossible Astronaut where River says "we do what the Doctor's friends always do -- as we're told". It totally takes away from the impression of the confident woman we were first introduced to and creates this weird power structure between River and the Doctor.
The other weird imbalance is that we see how much River loves the Doctor. She is in love with him and devoted to him enough to destroy the universe for his sake and later dies for him because she loves him so much. But we don't really get that from the Doctor's side. The Doctor consents to marry her as a sort of deal in which he marries her and she will murder him in return, and also in order to get him to look into his eye so she'll see that he's the Tessalecta AND also so he can get her to kiss him to set time back into motion. I just don't get the impression that the Doctor loves River to the extent that she loves him. Even though he certainly cares for her a lot, it's not that passionate romantic love that River has for him which just makes me feel so sorry for River who has utterly devoted her life to him.
All of this combines to make this character who had the potential to be really interesting- an adventurer who sometimes meets up with the Doctor in a non-linear fashion- into a woman whose life is completely tied up with the Doctor's. She doesn't really seem to exist (at least to the audience) as a character outside of her relationship and interaction with the Doctor. She doesn't have a fully developed story of her own.
I don't mean this essay to seem like I hate River or Amy or demean those who love them. I understand why aspects of their personality appeal to people, and I respect that even if their character arcs do not resonate with me. I merely wanted to explore why I feel like the way Moffat writes women is unsatisfactory to me. Amy and River are both a lot of fun and their personalities can definitely be enjoyable to watch. However, Moffat's women don't seem to have stories of their own separate from the Doctor. Their stories often serve to further explore HIS character as opposed to developing Amy or River more. I feel like the companions of RTD's era (while not perfect and whose stories do have some problems) are fully realized women unto themselves. They aren't cookie cutters who fit neatly into molds, but they are each dynamic women who are strong and brilliant in their own unique ways who have stories of their own.