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Queerness in Dr Who

Doctor Who (1963 – present) has consistently carved out space for members of the LGBTQ+ community, both on-screen and behind the scenes. This all-embracing attitude has won the show a huge LGBTQ+ following, to the extent that the episode ‘Journey’s End’ was screened live in Trafalgar Square as part of 2008 Pride. In its most recent string of specials, the show made its first foray into trans representation, with Rose Noble (Yasmin Finney), daughter to returning companion Donna (Catherine Tate). Snuggled up with friends in a DRA apartment for ‘The Star Beast’, I was excited to see how showrunner Russell T. Davies was to approach the show’s first major trans character. Yet, as the credits rolled on the screen in that dark Hamilton flat, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.

Firstly, Davies seemed to be playing trope bingo in his treatment of Rose’s trans identity. Deadnamed by bullies; misgendered by family; self-described as feeling like she is “from another planet”. These details may be reflective of the real-life struggles trans people face, but would it not have been more meaningful to have Rose exist fully supported and self-assured? If Captain Jack Harkness could rakishly flirt with men and women alike, and lesbian couple Jenny and Vastra could be happily married — why couldn’t Rose be just as secure and happy?

Furthermore, ‘The Star Beast’ misused LGBTQ+ terminology. The episode saw the resolution of the ‘meta-crisis’, which, in summary, involved the dangerous fusion of the “binary” elements of the Doctor’s alien and Donna’s human attributes. Rose, as Donna’s daughter, declared herself the “nonbinary” solution to the meta-crisis. While nonbinary and trans identities aren’t at all mutually exclusive, the episode’s inarticulate approach to what she actually identifies as leads me to believe that the creative team didn’t really know the difference between ‘trans’ and ‘nonbinary’.

The meta-crisis is ultimately solved by Rose and Donna just “let[ting] it go.” With no in-universe sci-fi reason for how this is possible, Rose addresses the Doctor and explains their action as “something a male-presenting Time Lord will never understand”. This misinterprets both the term ‘male-presenting’ and the Doctor as a character. As someone who has the alien ability to ‘regenerate’ into a new body (which often involves the introduction of a new actor playing the role), the Doctor can be understood as biologically untethered to gender. Jodie Whittaker (from whom the Doctor had just regenerated) and Jo Martin have both played female Doctors. Each time, writers have looked away from the fundamental genderqueerness of these transitions. How couldn’t the Doctor “understand”? He was a woman just a few hours ago! Excluding the Doctor from a faculty of understanding due to his appearance speaks to a misunderstanding of what the word ‘male-presenting’ actually means. Typically, the term would be used in order to decouple presentation from gender. By tying the Doctor’s presentation to identity, the line reeks of biological essentialism. It also reflects the real-life exclusion from certain spaces that genderqueer people can face based on appearance.

Gender identity isn’t consistent across human society, let alone across time and space! Perhaps braver writers would seek to explore how the Doctor’s gender identity could be affected by his changing body, thousands of years of life, and alien culture. This Time Lord has wandered the galaxy and has had multiple experiences of gender, but this wealth of potential insight is undercut due to his presentation. It feels like a great disservice to the character.

While Rose marks a breakthrough in queer representation in Doctor Who, the show ultimately fails to cope with genderqueerness as a subject. However, the show’s inclusion of trans characters, alongside its move towards an openly queer Doctor with Ncuti Gatwa, marks steps in the right direction. Davies, too, has been receptive to criticism. With regards to the scene in which Rose is deadnamed, he said in an interview for The Radio Times: “I personally think we should stare into difficult stuff like this but […] I'm ready to be told otherwise.” This all gives me a lot to hope for in this new era. If I ever get my chance to time travel, I’d like to go back to 1963 and show those first fans just how far the show has come — only after I swing by Trafalgar Square in Pride 2008, of course.

Illustration by Clodagh Earl

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