In case you haven’t noticed there’s a new Doctor in the TARDIS—but is Jodie Whitaker really rewriting the show’s approah to gender and sexuality? Paul F Cockburn investigates.
Just in case you’ve not noticed, Doctor Who is now a woman.
The original announcement – made after the 2017 Wimbledon Men’s Final – horrified some people, surprised more and was generally treated with the attention it deserved by everyone else. The world kept spinning and, for every “Doctor Who RIP” fanboy lost in the second stage of grief and loss, there were young girls on YouTube near-bursting with excitement.
Forty years ago, in the autumn of 1978, things were a tad different—Doctor Who’s new lead, Jodie Whittaker hadn’t even been born, for starters! Tom Baker was confidently embarking on his fifth season, accompanied by a new character which – according to Radio Times journalist Liz Hodgkinson – saw the companion evolve from screaming teenage girl into “the supreme position of Time Lady—the Doctor’s equal”.
It’s debatable whether Romana (played originally by Mary Tamm, and later Lalla Ward) ever truly was the Doctor’s equal, but she did confirm one thing: the Doctor’s race definitely had two genders.
The Time Lords had been introduced into Doctor Who back in 1969, originally as an excuse to “regenerate” Patrick Troughton into Jon Pertwee, and later send the Doctor on extraterrestrial adventures. Each and every time, they were played by men. Indeed, after nine years, some fans started wondering if Time Lords were only male—despite the fact that, when he had originally coughed his way onto our TV screens in 1963, the Doctor has been travelling with his granddaughter, Susan.
Such a “boys-only” idea wasn’t inconceivable; a common trait of 20th century Doctor Who aliens was that we only ever saw one gender—and the default was invariably “male”. The only exceptions were those aliens so similar to humans as to be indistinguishable; they could be – and sometimes were – played by both men and women.
There were a few anomalies, of course; not least the Time Lords—at least until 1978. Arguably the most incredible, though, remains the “hermaphrodite hexapod” Alpha Centauri, a creature with the voice of a nervous girl-guide and a body resembling a giant green penis wrapped in a condom-like cape. The critic Elizabeth Sandifer, in her Eruditorum Press blog, describes “it” as not just the show’s “first firmly genderqueer character” but also “one of the most bewildering sights in Doctor Who history”. Family-friendly entertainment was clearly quite different in 1972.
Even more so back in 1963, when the core DNA of Doctor Who was established; BBC executives still had firm ideas about what was – and wasn’t – appropriate for their new family-orientated, educationally-minded adventure series. Gender, sexuality and sexual relationships were not on the list.
One unintended consequence of this – and an alleged reason why so many gay men would become fans of the show – was the Doctor’s asexual nature—despite, by the 1980s, him being as physically young and pretty as Peter Davison. That said, LGBT viewers looking for characters in Doctor Who who somehow resonated with their own experiences still had to read “between the lines”.
When the BBC announced Russell T Davies as Doctor Who’s new “showrunner” in 2003, much of the initial media coverage focused on him being the brazenly gay writer responsible for 1999’s groundbreaking Channel 4 drama Queer As Folk. While Davies clearly proved he could write popular family drama, there was nevertheless criticism – including from some darker corners of Doctor Who fandom – about him bringing a “gay agenda” to Doctor Who.
Davies may have denied the charge, but he never hid the fact that he frequently included non-heterosexual characters in the stories under his watch; indeed, as early as the revived show’s second episode – “The End of the World” – chief villain Cassandra was said to be transsexual. Then, mid-way through that first series, John Barrowman burst onto our screens as the omnisexual Captain Jack Harkness—a man whose desires crossed not just genders but species! He wasn’t presented as a monster to destroy, or a problem to be solved; he proved to be one of the good guys, and later even picked up his own spin-off, Torchwood.
Time and again under Davies’ tenure, characters were revealed to be non-heterosexual. Arguably, this was radical precisely because it was presented as being totally unimportant: alternative sexualities were no longer absent from Doctor Who, but they weren’t presented as being significant either. Alternative sexuality was just “dancing”—fun, natural, and normal.
Although Captain Jack was clearly Davies’ invention, he was first introduced in a story written by Davies’ eventual successor. Curiously, Steven Moffat would also be criticised for having a “gay agenda”, albeit one in which he was sometimes accused of writing “lesbians for straight men”.
Only now, though, do we know what Moffat’s most significant longterm contribution to Doctor Who’s “canon” actually is, and it was there in the very first scene he ever wrote as showrunner—when Matt Smith’s newly regenerated Doctor briefly wondered if he was a girl. At the time it was seen as a throw-away joke; in hindsight, it was our first indication that Time Lords might actually be a “bit flexible on the whole man-woman thing”, as companion Bill would later point out. Though, of course, they still for the most part call themselves Time Lords.
New showrunner Chris Chibnall cast Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, but it was Moffat who helped make it possible by seeding the concept into the programme. Again, in hindsight, it now seems almost inevitable, given the success of Missy – a female incarnation of the Doctor’s arch-enemy, and fellow renegade, The Master.
The final proof of the reimagined Time Lords came in Peter Capaldi’s swansong, “The Doctor Falls”, when Missy (Michelle Gomez) was teamed up with the most recent incarnation of The Master (John Simm). Few viewers had any problem accepting them as two aspects of the same character.
“Is the future going to be all girl?” the Master asked. “We can only hope,” replied the Doctor. Prophetically, as it turned out.
First published in Pride Life #25 Winter 2018.