Face it, BBC: Doctor Who is queer now

With Jodie Whittaker rumoured to be on her way out, it’s past time the show got to grips with the inherent queerness of a female Doctor.

The main cast of Doctor Who and two showrunners giving a talk at San Diego Comic Con 2018. Jodie Whittaker is gesturing and Mandip Gill is listening attentively and smiling.
Mandip Gill: giving Jodie Whittaker that look since 2018.
Credit: “Jodie Whittaker, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Chris Chibnall & Matt Strevens” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Rumours swirled this week that Jodie Whittaker will be leaving Doctor Who after next season. If true, it means the BBC may be on its last chance to confront the gay elephant in the room. Showrunners have spent the last two seasons ignoring the implications of a female Doctor with past relationships with women; the most we’ve had is nudges and winks surrounding her companion Yaz’s sexuality. For a show that has a history of being unafraid to push boundaries with its representation, this is getting embarrassing. But there was a flicker of hope in the latest offering – the 2021 New Year special ‘Revolution of the Daleks’, guest-starring John Barrowman as omnisexual fan favourite Captain Jack Harkness.

Despite mixed reviews, I found ‘Revolution of the Daleks’ a tonic. Every time we’ve seen the Prime Minister on TV this year it’s been a sign that we’re in for another dose of misery, so I was well up for watching Daleks blow a 10 Downing Street press conference to smithereens, but of particular note was the weight given to the incredible gayness of Yaz (Mandip Gill). I don’t take this bait lightly, for reasons I’ll go into in a minute, but let’s review the evidence.

Come on, the bisexuals claimed leather jackets years ago.

The three companions have been stranded on Earth for ten months and capable Yaz is losing her mind with grief, sleeping in a hidden spare TARDIS and obsessed with finding the Doctor, while Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) have started to move on with life. She’s at the point of whispering “Please be her” at the sound of the real TARDIS arriving and greets the Doctor with an angry shove because “we were worried about you”. Later, she has a heartfelt conversation about it with Jack:

“It felt cruel to be shown something that I couldn’t have anymore,” she says. “I’d rather not have met her, ‘cause having met her and then being without her, that’s worse.”

Yaz has a brief but moody scene with the Doctor (“I won’t disappear again!” “Yeah, you will. One day you will”), shenanigans unfold, the Daleks are crumpled up and discarded like so much Christmas wrapping paper, and the episode draws to a close with Ryan and Graham announcing their departure from the fam. Yaz doesn’t even let the Doctor finish asking her, “Are you – ?” before interrupting: “- staying? Yeah, definitely. I’m not ready to let you go yet.” Significant gazes abound – and is it me or is the Doctor flustered? Their final scene has Yaz telling the Doctor, “It’s okay to be sad” –  getting on with the emotional processing like any good sapphic couple.

Taking Yaz’s feelings seriously turns the dial further towards gay than it has ever been. Doctor/companion romance has been part of the show’s MO since 2005 – the first time a straight female companion wasn’t in love with the Doctor (Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble, sorely missed) she seemed to be constantly explaining it to confused onlookers. Yaz has always echoed Martha Jones’ adoration for the Tenth Doctor, or perhaps Amy Pond’s intense but label-defying feelings for the Eleventh Doctor, but unlike her hetero forebears Yaz has never left plausibly deniable territory – see ‘Arachnids in the UK’ early in season 11, when Yaz’s mum asked if they were seeing each other and the Doctor responded, “I don’t think so…are we?”

On the other hand, Whittaker’s Doctor is still largely removed from human sexuality, which was the traditional approach before Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor turned the character into a romantic hero. You get the impression that the most any suitor can expect from her is a wide-eyed gaze and a brisk change of subject. In bolder hands this might have been an opportunity for much-needed ace representation (fun fact: Michaela Coel, currently among the bookies’ favourites to replace Whittaker, is aromantic). There’s a fear that showing the Doctor’s capacity for sex and romance will weaken her authority now that she’s female, but clearly the BBC have also queered themselves into a corner. If the Doctor still likes women, it’s no longer in a straight way, and if she likes men, she might also like them when she is one. (I mean, obviously she’s a bisexual free agent not tied to human binary gender notions, but nobody asked me.) There is no longer any heterosexual way forward.

An action figure of Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who stands on a wooden shelf, leaning on a copy of Bi - Notes on a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner, with a bisexual pride flag as a background.
The BBC won’t let us use their official image library, so I’ve had to improvise.

I’ve watched with mild frustration for two seasons as the show tiptoed around its queer conundrum and milked it for laughs without ever engaging with it. Captain Jack’s brief return felt like a sign that perhaps showrunner Chris Chibnall and co had finally noticed the value of what they had – even though we’ve still seen nothing more definite than a hint.

Jack was probably the first positive queer representation I ever saw on TV. Aged 14, I watched in astonishment as he kissed Christopher Eccleston right on the lips and then everybody just carried on. It seemed unreal that his romance with Ianto on Torchwood was even allowed.

Speaking to PinkNews in December 2020, John Barrowman said of his time playing Jack Harkness in 2005: “That made a huge impact for young queer boys and girls at that time…to realise that here’s a man who’s openly gay, unapologetic, he’s playing a hero on a major TV show that is broadcast around the world…So it changed everything. It was actually, if I can say, one of the first positive iconic roles for the queer community.”

A note left at the fan shrine to Ianto at Cardiff Bay, with a faded picture of Jack kissing Ianto on the forehead and the text: "The relationship between Jack and Ianto was to me a symbol of hope. A sign that times have changed and that people aren't going to burn down BBC's headquarters just because there's a gay relationship on a sci-fi show. The relationship had gained huge acceptance on both sides of the Atlantic. Wasn't this what RTD and the BBC wanted to achieve?"
A note left at the fan shrine to Ianto at Cardiff Bay: “The relationship between Jack and Ianto was to me a symbol of hope. A sign that times have changed and that people aren’t going to burn down BBC’s headquarters just because there’s a gay relationship on a sci-fi show. The relationship had gained huge acceptance on both sides of the Atlantic. Wasn’t this what RTD and the BBC wanted to achieve?”
Credit: “Ianto Jones Shrine at Mermaid Quay Cardiff Bay” by A.Currell is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

I felt the weight of that history in the little scene between Jack and Yaz in ‘Revolution of the Daleks’. Jack, trying to help Yaz deal with her anger at being abandoned by the Doctor, starts by remarking knowingly: “Saw the way you shoved her.” When Yaz confesses her hurt, Jack reveals that he, too, had a hard time when his travels with the Doctor abruptly ended – using male pronouns for the past Doctor, in a nod to gender fluidity that also happens to highlight the queerness of their relationship. He ends with: “We’re the lucky ones, Yaz. Enjoy the journey while you’re on it, ‘cause the joy? It’s worth the pain.”

I couldn’t help thinking of the scene in 2020’s hit lesbian Christmas movie Happiest Season where John (Dan Levy) talks Abby (Kristen Stewart) through her feelings about dating a girl who isn’t ready to come out, as only another queer person can:

“Once you say those words, you can’t un-say them. A chapter has ended and a new one’s begun, and you have to be ready for that. You can’t do it for anyone else. Just because Harper isn’t ready doesn’t mean she never will be, and it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you.”

Happiest Season’s director Clea Duvall told Elle she specifically wanted her movie to include queer found family supporting each other.

“We speak the same language. There’s an instant connection and familiarity,” she said. “That is something so beautiful about our community. That’s something we all share. It’s that chosen family that helps us survive.”

Forgive me my rainbow-coloured glasses, but what I see is Jack Harkness, trailblazing elder queer, passing on his wisdom to a baby gay of a new generation.

An accurate illustration of queer representation by gender in Torchwood.
Credit: “Torchwood: Miracle Day – John Barrowman” by warriorwoman531 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

For all the revolutionary wonder of Jack and Ianto, Torchwood – for which Chris Chibnall was head writer and co-producer – had very little queer representation I could relate to: there were no ongoing, onscreen relationships between women. It had trouble just passing the Bechdel test. Doctor Who has done better, with couples like Madame Vastra, the gay lizard woman from the dawn of time, and her wife Jenny Flint, as well as Bill Potts, the first lesbian companion and first regular queer character of colour, and her alien puddle girlfriend Heather. Since Bill’s departure, queer representation has been mostly confined to one-shot characters who casually mention same-sex partners five minutes before they’re killed – apart from astronaut Adam Lang and his husband Jake Willis in season 12’s ‘Praxeus’, who notably made it to the end both still alive and happily married. This is why, as a bi woman, I’m hesitant to take the bait on Yaz – and I know how that sounds after I’ve just spent half this article trying to hook you with it.

The thing is, I’m not here to argue that the Doctor needs to kiss a woman on screen. Not that I would object, but being queer is also about gaining a deeper understanding of who you are and seeing the world more clearly; it’s about asking impertinent questions; it’s about found family; it’s fun and it’s scary. It is, yes, a lot like travelling with the Doctor. That kind of representation – the kind straight showrunners don’t immediately understand – is much harder to find.

My fear is that Whittaker’s time will end with an anxious fumble in which Yaz is paired off with the nearest man, or both characters exit the show without ever leaving the realm of plausible deniability. I’d be happy to see Yaz own her feelings out loud, even if they’re acknowledged as only the beginning of a much bigger journey. More than that, the developing plotline about the Doctor’s hidden past is the perfect opportunity to allow her to engage with her previous relationships on screen. It’s only in the past few years that queer women and their relationships have begun to show up regularly on our screens at all. Imagine the power of hearing the Doctor say, “Sorry, Yaz, I’ve already got a wife.”

In its boldest moments, Doctor Who is a mirror for the best things about us. It believes in its audience; it shows us things we might not have thought we were ready for. After all the boundaries this show has broken, to end the tenure of the first female Doctor with its newfound queerness unacknowledged would be a betrayal of its own principles. I want to believe this show understands the potential it holds to tell a queer story like none it’s ever told before.

“Sometimes new can be a bit scary,” Ryan told us on New Year’s Day. “Confront the new…and everything will be all right.”

Author: Ellie Wilson

I’m a features and lifestyle journalist of six years’ experience. I spent 18 months in 2017-18 writing profiles of businessmen and I haven’t written about a single man since. Thanks to formative obsessions with both Lord of the Rings and Anne of Green Gables, I like my entertainment wholesome, gay and overly invested in trees. I am white, cis?, middle-class and have no diagnosed disabilities, pronouns she/her. You can see my work at thephasemag.com and elliewilsonwrites.com, and find me on Twitter @writative.

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