The Queer Agenda Finally Captures ‘Doctor Who’ – and the Show Is Better for It

In retrospect, the giant poster of David Tennant over my bed should have been a dead giveaway of things to come. 

I was in middle school and obsessed with everything Doctor Who. A poster — replaced with each new cast change — was a permanent fixture above my bed and I read episode-by-episode breakdowns of the show until the book literally fell apart. As a kid from an English family, Doctor Who felt special to me, like it was mine more than it was anyone else’s. Which, of course, was ridiculous. But I had a dad who turned me onto Tom Baker and I knew who Romana was and I owned countless DVDs of episodes from decades before I was born. I remember racing home from a family trip to scour YouTube for the first Matt Smith episode mere minutes after it aired in the UK. I defended the disastrous 80s experiment ‘Doctor in Distress. I was, in short, a superfan. 

But, then, gradually, I stopped. 

Part of that, of course, was growing up and developing other interests. But it was also a response to some truly dreadful creative decisions, and a feeling like the show didn’t belong to me anymore. It became less and less the thing that I loved, this strangely profound and deeply campy British show, and more and more…commercialized. Between the spin-offs, the over merchandising, and blatant attempts at pandering to an American audience, the show felt like it had lost its soul. I fell off watching with Peter Capaldi‘s tenure, and even Jodie Whittaker‘s change of guard and gender didn’t bring me back.

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Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor. (COURTESY: BBC)

In writing this, I am trying to put my finger on why I never checked back in, on whether there was an exact reason why I checked out. As simple as it sounds, I just lost interest. The show had spun itself into a web of ongoing narratives that made no sense — I dare anyone to explain what the hell was going on with River Song – and increasingly less iconic characters (Karen Gillan excepting). Doctor Who felt almost entirely devoid of personality, instead relying on bad or played-out sci-fi series tropes and squandering talent both in front of and behind the camera. Its creators depended upon past villains and lore rather than creating a new canon, the better to sell merchandise at the expense of compelling television. For me, Doctor Who dropped off so hard I only now realized, while researching some of its recent storylines, that I actually quit watching in the middle of the Matt Smith era and simply…forgot that I never finished.

I’m a huge proponent of (as my mother and Kenny Rogers like to say) knowing when to hold, fold, and walk away. Doctor Who had a good, decades-long run, one it chose to gamble away in the hopes of breaking America. The show lost its specificity, lost its camp – it’s a law of nature that Doctor Who should not have decent special effects – and, most importantly, lost its heart. This was one of my first experiences with artists who didn’t know how to stick their own landing. Like my former love of Bon Jovi‘s music, my affinity for Doctor Who became a childish obsession that I needed to put away.

And then the show announced that Ncuti Gatwa, of my beloved Sex Education, was the new Doctor. A queer Black doctor is certainly an interesting change of pace, as is the fact that Russell T. Davies (fresh off the queer-rageful masterpiece It’s a Sin, which every single person reading this needs to go watch immediately) was returning as showrunner. But it was the news of Yasmin Finney — an 18-year-old Black trans girl, far and away the best part of Netflix’s Heartstopper — joining the show as Rose that inspired me to write this piece. 

I’m imagining young, queer, and closeted (even to herself) Ezra having a trans girl on Doctor Who and I’m close to tears. That this generation will get that — and from a young trans girl of color — elates me beyond words. But my emotions are complicated, too. I haven’t watched Doctor Who in awhile, but I’ve written so much about how art isn’t enough in the current moment of all-out attacks on trans children. I’ve written about how representational politics is a way for politicians and corporations to pretend to support us while actually underwriting our oppression. I know that simply having trans people on television doesn’t mean that the fight for trans rights is advancing. I’ve railed against tokenism on cis-oriented shows. I know that this won’t do anything to combat the real and material attacks facing trans children right now. And yet, I’m so moved I can barely find the words to describe what this means to me. 

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Yasmin Finney as Elle Argent in Netflix’s Heartstopper. (COURTESY: Netflix)

Maybe it’s because I actually trust Davies to give Finney something more to do than be a token or a mere recipient of trauma (*cough* Pose *cough*). Indeed, Davies deserves far, far more praise than he is currently receiving. He restarted Doctor Who in 2005, then went on to make his personal queer art. And now he’s coming back to make Doctor Who queer. I’m a little in awe of the sheer audacity of it. The flagship children’s program of the BBC is helmed by a queer writer and stars a gay man and a trans woman who are both Black. Like…girl. 

Maybe it’s because, in a moment where every story about trans youth features some new horrific right-wing law, I get to think about my people without feeling a deep fear. Starring on a BBC show isn’t enough, but it’s at least a big “good for her” moment, which the trans community currently and sorely lacks. And Finney is so easy to root for. Having come to prominence by making TikToks about being a Black trans girl, she is an authentic representative of the current generation of trans youth.

Or maybe it’s because my favorite show from my youth has finally piqued my interest again. Apologies to Jodie Whittaker, who I’m sure did a fabulous job, but it feels like for the first time in over a decade Doctor Who is trying something original and specific. They’re not chasing headlines or looking for cheap tokenism points; they didn’t cast these characters to court American audiences or boost toy sales. Great casting isn’t enough to breathe new life into a show by itself, but it does indicate that the show is willing to go in more adventurous directions and shows the value of bringing diverse points of view onto a long-running artistic project. I want to see what Finney and Gatwa will bring. Perhaps it’ll be a disaster and Davies will have no idea how to write for them. Having said that: three of Britain’s most exciting queer artists are making a (relatively) big-budget piece of art together. I can’t imagine it’ll be boring. And that’s what I want out of queer art these days: to be not-boring. That I can even talk about a season of Doctor Who as ‘queer art’ shows the show is finally doing something challenging again. 

More than anything, I’m so grateful that this generation has what mine didn’t have, which is increasing and increasingly positive representation in media. The first time I heard the word “tranny” was as a high schooler watching How I Met Your Mother. That was the media landscape of my adolescence. Trans people were ignored completely, unless they could be mocked. (Go watch Disclosure, if you haven’t already seen it.) In 2017, shortly after I realized I was trans, I googled “nonbinary characters” and found a Wikipedia entry with five entries on it. I texted my partner that I literally didn’t exist in the media.

Art isn’t enough, but I’m glad that the baby trans will at least find more entries on that Wikipedia page. The fact that I’ll be watching Doctor Who for the first time in almost ten years makes me happier than I ever expected the show ever again could. Millions of people, including many young people, will feel the same way. And they’ll see Yasmin, in all her power and glory. As Rose. It’s not enough. But it’s still pretty cool.

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