I wish Doctor Who took its queer romance seriously

The sapphic representation is glorious, but I could do without the mind games.

A miniature TARDIS in a patch of brown leaves.

It’s been more than a year since I posted a long essay arguing that the BBC wasn’t prepared for the queer implications of casting a woman as the lead in Doctor Who. I was pretty convinced that nothing substantial would come of the ambiguity surrounding Yaz’s feelings for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor and that maybe it was all in my head.

Turns out, the queerbait wasn’t bait! No spiky hook, just tasty gay fish all the way down! 

GIF: the Ninth Doctor excitedly saying "Just this once, everybody lives!"

I admit this article is a little late in arriving, considering we’re about halfway between the Jan 1 episode in question and the Easter 2022 special. But people are still finding this website with search terms like “is jodie whittaker a lesbian”, so. (You’re welcome.)

To recap: Eve of the Daleks, which aired on New Year’s Day 2022, had Yaz (Mandip Gill) finally confess her feelings for the Doctor to fellow companion Dan (John Bishop). The Doctor has had straight love interests and a lesbian companion before, and there have been relationships between various queer side characters – a few of whom even survived their adventures – but this is the first ever confirmed same-sex romantic storyline between members of the main cast of Doctor Who. 

In a quiet moment, Dan asks if she’s ever going to tell the Doctor how she feels about her, and after a pause in which you could have used my nerves to string a violin, Yaz answers: “Is it that obvious?” And then I shrieked until my girlfriend gently told me to calm down.

Yaz’s admission that she’s never told anyone, “not even myself” is a nice nod to the often-confusing process of coming out as an adult. Dan outs Yaz to her crush, with the best of intentions, and the Doctor pleads ignorance – but by the end of the episode she’s gazing softly at Yaz bathed in the glow of fireworks and it’s clear a reckoning is approaching. 

Since Yaz arrived on the show in 2018 as the first Asian woman to join the TARDIS team, she’s tended to suffer from a certain lack of personality. It’s unclear whether this is because the writers don’t know what to do with a woman of colour or because of the general lack of strong character choices that has typified Chris Chibnall’s time as showrunner.

“While Yaz’s backstory has all the elements for a strong, dynamic character, she hardly ever has an impact on the story, and is rarely the centre of attention, even in stories that ostensibly focus on her,” said Screenrant’s Max Plainview. “Season 13, episode 3, “Once, Upon Time” has the story once again simply unfolding around her. Yaz takes a stab at having an active role in the story, attempting to solicit information from The Doctor, only to be shot down…the moment is intended to show The Doctor’s secrecy, but instead it highlights just how little impact Yaz is allowed to have on the plot.”

What Yaz does get to do is act gay as hell: sleeping in a spare TARDIS when she and the Doctor are separated and desperately attempting to find her lost love instead of going home to her family; referring to the Doctor as “my person” and continually telling her off for not talking about her feelings. It would have been obvious where this was heading if the object of Yaz’s interest was male, but I’ve spent the past three years wondering who was deluded, the showrunners or me? 

According to a fan reporting from the US Doctor Who fan convention Gallifrey One on Feb 18, it now appears that the writers hadn’t planned on a queer storyline at all to begin with. The first they heard of it was a comment from Whittaker that “there’s speculation out there” – which shows just how much speculation there was, considering she’s not even on social media. They allegedly forgot about it until they were restructuring the 2022 season and decided to “play with it.” (I’d almost rather they’d considered and decided against it. No one likes to be an afterthought.)

Not that I haven’t enjoyed the guessing games, but it was the toxic kind of fun you have being strung along by someone sexy and emotionally unavailable. We still live in a world where queer fans are used to living on scraps of representation and a romance is only fun when I know the couple in question is a real possibility. Otherwise, the tease becomes ‘will we or won’t we?’ as the network flirtatiously dangles a rainbow carrot. 

Instagram post from @bbcdoctorwho: A photo of the main cast of Doctor Who laughing during filming. Caption: What's everyone laughing at? Wrong answers only 🤣 #TBT. Replies include "The script", "People thinking yaz is straight", "Chibnall's era" and "The last five years".
The BBC’s Instagram gets dunked on.

It would have been nice to have some sort of reassurance that something LGBT was afoot so I could wholeheartedly lose my mind about it. But that’s a quibble. To have this almost 60 year old show allow its main characters to have explicitly, unmistakably queer feelings between them – it feels like coming back to your conservative hometown and finding pride flags everywhere.

Doctor Who and I have spent a lot of time thinking we were straight. When I fell in love with it in 2005, aged 14, I longed for a boyfriend just like Rose Tyler longed for Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor. I didn’t start reckoning with my queerness until 2018, the year of Jodie Whittaker’s first season as the Thirteenth Doctor. I’m not saying she was a lightbulb moment, but I will say that when I bought myself a copy of her iconic stripy t-shirt that year, I also bought one for the girl who would become my first ever girlfriend, with whom I sat on the sofa as we watched Yaz confess her feelings in 2022.

I’ve grown up and grown into my queerness along with this show, and I’ve been hoping we’re still on the same page. I’m not sure that we are – and I don’t hold out much hope for the return of Russell T Davies next year, given his track record of forgetting that queer women exist – but no one can deny there’s more sapphic content on our screens than ever before. Queer storylines still feel huge in media this mainstream, and will for a long time yet – but for Doctor Who, perhaps the tide is finally turning.

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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