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Doctor Who: Russell T Davies’ LGBTQ+ Legacy

When Doctor Who’s return was announced on the 26th September 2003, showrunner Russell T Davies was identified as an “acclaimed TV dramatist.” In a world where television writers are often unknown, Davies had become a household name in Britain. The reaction to the groundbreaking LGBTQ+ series Queer as Folk in 1999 had been more than Davies had expected. He followed this with a successful string of other shows, but the nature of his breakthrough meant that, to some, he could be dismissed as a ‘gay writer’. There were criticisms that the show had a ‘gay agenda’ upon its return – criticisms that have even continued past Davies’ time as showrunner, including as recently as 2014. But Davies was doing what came naturally to him; writing about good characters, writing about the modern world and writing the representation he wanted to see.

Davies himself has talked at length about the sexuality he includes in his writing (I’d highly recommend his book from his years on Doctor Who, The Writer’s Tale, an incredible insight into his writing and personal influences.) He claims that being able to discuss and include it overtly made his writing “better”. The series he had written after Queer as Folk; Bob and Rose, is an incredible drama about a gay man who falls in love with a woman and keeps these themes at its centre. But it’s more than that; Davies’ writing was continuing to educate an audience that LGBTQ+ characters were not just there for the themes. There were so many stories untold—why would you choose not to tell them? It’s no surprise then, that since its return, Doctor Who has incorporated sexuality wholeheartedly.

As well as the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters, the show has begun to discuss sexuality more openly in a wider sense—it’s infused into these characters, and their lives. Rose not only has a boyfriend, but a boyfriend who warns her not to read his emails. Jackie flirts with the Doctor -“there’s a strange man in my bedroom […] anything could happen!” The Doctor flicks through a magazine – “that won’t last; he’s gay, and she’s an alien.” There was a confidence, and a comfort, with sex and sexuality that Davies brought to the show.

Heroes

Davies is rightly celebrated for this. Journalist and author Caitlin Moran has talked previously about how Davies is her “hero”.

I can trace the fact that we now have equal marriage in our country to a gay Welsh writer Russell T. Davies. He wrote Queer as Folk—the original Queer as Folk, then took over Doctor Who. And then Captain Jack Harkness, [he] kissed [the Doctor] on prime time. And on the playground on Monday, kids in my daughter’s class, boys, were fighting to play the role of Captain Jack Harkness in school.

The ease with which Davies introduced sexuality to the show, and presented us with characters who were comfortable, confident and fluid, was of incredible importance to the audience that were growing up watching the show for the first time. I was one of those children in the playground acting out the show. I can remember playing Captain Jack; although, at the time, the idea of same-sex relationships was fairly new to me.

I hadn’t really been surrounded by same-sex relationships growing up, except, perhaps, watching Emmerdale and Coronation Street, two popular British soaps. There seemed to be something ‘adult’ about being gay. No one had ever told me that, but my exposure to same-sex relationships—and even people who were LGBTQ+—was limited. I’ve no doubt that the writing of Davies, and the others who penned the episodes of that opening series, were instrumental in my beginning to understand that same-sex relationships existed. For audience members who knew they were LGBTQ+ from a younger age, I can only imagine the significant impact that this had.

I don’t necessarily believe that the first series of Davies’ Doctor Who gets everything right with regards to its representation. When the Doctor says that being slapped by Rose’s mother hurt, Rose responds with “you’re so gay!” It’s an unusual line of dialogue to write, and one that’s always puzzled me. It is, however, how a lot of teenagers – even 19-year-olds, perhaps – in 2005 talked. Perhaps that’s why I’d assumed being gay was something adult, maybe even taboo, because when the word was used, it was never in a positive context.

It’s only fourteen years since Doctor Who came back and within that time, knowledge of LGBTQ+ issues has grown exponentially. The demand for representation on television from LGBTQ+ people, especially youths, has seen a significant rise. There is an expectation that television, in all its forms, should represent the community, and rightly so. But in 2005, Davies was leading the way. There were shows about gay characters or issues, and featuring them, but they were very rarely family shows.

Captain Jack (John Barrowman) kisses the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston)

Omnisexual

The introduction of Captain Jack Harkness is the most notable step taken in Doctor Who’s early representation. Often referred to as an “omnisexual” character, it’s generally assumed that there’s not many people – or species – that Jack doesn’t find attractive. He seduces Rose, but he also flirts with a male soldier. Steven Moffat’s episodes “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances” deal with sex and sexuality more directly than the show had before. There are many remarks on just how “flexible” Jack is “when it comes to dancing.”

Again, Rose isn’t necessarily written as the most progressive character. Once Jack has gone off to distract a male guard, the Doctor tells her to “relax”, and she looks a little disgusted at the prospect of just how many species Jack might be interested in getting with. Although not intended to be a reflection on the fact Jack is flirting with a man, it can come across that way.

But these slightly awkward moments written for Rose don’t detract on what a groundbreaking series Doctor Who was becoming. Jack’s very inclusion seemed landmark enough, but, as Moran points out, it’s more than that. In the last episode of Series 1, Jack kisses the Doctor. It gets a wry smile from Rose, and that’s it. Jack’s sexuality was simultaneously an incredibly important part of his character, but also completely normal and every day. It’s not a moment that’s sensationalised, and it helps to reinforce the idea that Jack likes women and men, and that this is completely normal. It’s subtle but significant.

The creation of Torchwood, Doctor Who’s adult spin-off series lead by John Barrowman’s Captain Jack, was an opportunity to explore the character’s sexuality in an unfiltered way. The first series of Torchwood goes out of its way to be adult— from a sexualised Cyberwoman, to a pink cloud of alien sex gas—but it doesn’t let up on its confidence. It was called a “very bisexual programme” by Davies, who was keen to move away from the idea that a character must only be presented as being attracted to one gender. The characters of Torchwood all have a same-sex encounter at some point in that series, but it’s hard to say how many of them are actually bisexual. Gwen, for example, is just turned on enough by the alien sex gas to kiss a woman.

But the greatest achievement of Doctor Who and Torchwood is that they were unafraid. We’re still in a time when television, and especially filmmakers, are cautious about alienating an audience by focusing on LGBTQ+ characters. Although many shows have taken considerable steps in telling these stories with and for characters from all backgrounds, there is undeniably still a reticence. Torchwood’s progression, from the more minor channel BBC Three to BBC One in its third series, is remarkable. It was constantly supported and encouraged by the channel—with the lead an omnisexual character played by a gay man. These series provided visibility that had been so desperately lacking, and that we are still seeking today.

Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Heather (Stephanie Hyam) kiss

Legacy

LGBTQ+ representation was continued in the same confident manner by Davies’ successor, Steven Moffat. Moffat’s episodes during Davies’ tenure, always bringing fear and double entendres in seemingly equal measure, were widely considered to be some of its strongest. As Moffat’s time as showrunner progressed, and the demand for representation from the LGBTQ+ community became a more mainstream concern, the number of queer characters grew.

In 2011 we were introduced to Jenny and Vastra, a human/Silurian lesbian couple. “I’m a lizard woman from the dawn of time,” Vastra tells a Victorian gentleman in “The Snowmen”, “and this is my wife.” Clara starts referring to adventures with Jane Austen—“I love her. Take that how you like.” The introduction of Bill in 2017 was announced with the headline “Doctor Who gets first openly gay companion.” Moffat was “astonished” by the attention it received from the media. “This wasn’t, as some people thought, some kind of press release we made—it was just mentioned by Pearl [Mackie, who played Bill] in an interview.”

Despite the attention and praise rightly garnered on Davies for his representation, it’s important to acknowledge Moffat’s continuation of this. Sexuality and representation were beginning to enter the public consciousness more than they had before, and perhaps this is why Bill was reported as the “first openly gay companion” that the show had had. Perhaps this was also because, in a show that had always celebrated the fluidity of its companion’s sexualities, it hadn’t actually had a companion who was only attracted to those of the same sex. Perhaps it’s also because these characters are still so rare on our screen.

Regardless of the media reactions, it’s important to recognise the success of Doctor Who’s representation. It’s important to celebrate all of those who changed the landscape of television with their bravery, their confidence, their fluidity; and important to this day that characters like Bill are being created. “It’s about kids,” Moffat explained at the time of Bill’s announcement. “It’s a kids’ show…and how we address and treat this matter will have long-term effects on our audience.” It’s possibly the most succinct and accurate statement there could possibly be to highlight just how important Doctor Who’s inclusion of sexualities has been.

Recently, in Britain, a law has been passed in Parliament, which means that Primary School (4-11) education on sex and relationships will, finally, reference LGBTQ+ people. This has led to a series of protests, most notably in Birmingham, from parents who believe it is their choice when children should learn about people who are not heterosexual. Recently, one of the now-eliminated candidates in the leadership election for the Conservative Party, Esther McVey, claimed that “parents need to have the final say on what they want their children to know.” There is still debate, to this day, about the lives of LGBTQ+ people. There is still a belief that it is too adult for children to know about. If those first series of Doctor Who and Torchwood were shown now, they may not be as groundbreaking, but they would still be important. In some ways, it’s a testament to them. In other ways, it’s a shame. We’re not yet at the stage where we have moved past this ‘debate’ and so representation continues to be important. It’s vital that Doctor Who, a mainstream television programme for a family audience, shown across the world, maintains this.

The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) in a promotional image for Series 11

Coda

In an interview to promote the latest series of Doctor Who, starring Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, Executive Producer Matt Strevens talked a little about sexuality in the show.

“Since the show came back in 2005, I think Doctor Who has been amazing at blurring the edges of sexuality and being quite gender fluid about characters and relationships […] I’m not going to say if any of our characters are or are not at this point. But it is part, I think, of the DNA that Russell re-imbued into the show […] There will be characters from across the spectrum.”

Indeed, Series 11 of Doctor Who went on to include three explicitly LGBTQ+ characters, although none were present in the recurring cast. This series chose to focus very little on relationships and sexuality in general but, as Strevens promised, we were presented with characters from across the spectrum. Its representation, however, is inadvertently problematic. We’re introduced to Angstrom in “The Ghost Monument” and told she has a wife, but only when we are told that her wife is dead. Frankie, the wife of Presidential-hopeful Jack Robertson’s niece, becomes food for a large spider. A character guarding a security facility, who enthuses about his boyfriend, is killed by Lin, a character being controlled by a Dalek mutant.

In the wake of the ‘bury your gays’ trope, this is unfortunate. Even though, as with any trope, there are exceptions, LGBTQ+ characters are disproportionately killed within television and film. In Series 11 this is especially awkward, considering Stevens’ comments before the series aired. Although perhaps insignificant to a large portion of the audience, to an LGBTQ+ viewer, it’s disappointing when characters who you can immediately relate to on screen are soon killed. I personally found the death of the man killed by the Dalek mutant quite dispiriting, and off-putting. When there aren’t a wealth of other LGBTQ+ characters to find oneself in, we tend to take what we can get, and it’s a shame when this seems arbitrary, or disproportionately, taken away.

It’s essential that we, as an audience, keep demanding representation and that representation is done well. In a time when there is still a divide over how much young people should be told about sexuality, and in a time when there is still debate about the ‘T’ in LGBTQ+, a show like Doctor Who needs to embrace it. It needs to celebrate it. It needs to be at the forefront of representation. Not just because it’s Davies’ legacy, or just because the show has been so strong at it thus far, but because it still matters, today, to every audience member, even if they aren’t aware of it.

There is also still further to go. The series has so far only included one trans actor, Bethany Black in “Sleep No More”. There has only been one character who makes reference to being trans: Cassandra. Although we have made progress on one front, the battle is far from over. It’s now vital that we turn our efforts to supporting the trans community. Doctor Who has been a trailblazer of representation, acceptance and celebration, and it’s thanks to writers like Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat that it has become that. It’s vital that this continues.


Episodes Cited

“Rose, Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways”, Doctor Who, written by Russell T Davies. BBC, 2005.

“The Doctor Dances”, Doctor Who, written by Steven Moffat. BBC, 2005.

“The Snowmen”, Doctor Who, written by Steven Moffat. BBC, 2012.


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Written by James Mortimer

James Mortimer is a writer from Essex, UK. He has a Twin Peaks podcast (Front Three-Quarter View), writes poetry (under the name IOLUS) and is ridiculously excited to be writing for one of his favourite websites.

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