Doctor Who was—and still is—ahead of its time, and has been ever since its return in 2005. There was a bisexual companion, a trans villain, and plenty of guest stars who would reference their same-sex partners. Being queer was a normal part of the show’s culture, something accepted and so nonchalant that people would make passing references to it like any other heteronormative character. So much of this progress was thanks to Russell T Davies, an openly gay showrunner helming Britain’s biggest sci-fi show at a time when LGBTQ+ characters and themes were far from normalised. Now he’s back, and that same queer culture is already bleeding into Doctor Who for a whole new generation.
To put into perspective how far ahead of the curb Doctor Who was, another landmark British show called Misfits started four years later in 2009. I recently gave it a watch to see what the fuss was all about only to find misogynistic, ableist, and homophobic remarks across practically every episode. Then you have shows like Little Britain that started in 2003, featuring black face, homophobia, transphobia, and again, sexism. The early ‘00s was a minefield for offensive schlock that tried to pitch itself as progressive only to fall back on dated stereotypes and comedy that wasn’t smart.
We don’t often have that kind of outright bigotry in TV and movies anymore, but there is a reluctance to embrace queerness. Gravity Falls had to tone it down, Loki made a passing reference about princes and princesses, while Star Wars opted not to embrace the Finn-Poe ship, going for a blink-and-you-miss-it gay kiss between two extras that was edited out for international markets. Finding meaningful queer stories can be difficult—for every Heartstopper, you have 20 Lokis, and for many, it still isn’t good enough.
I’m grateful that in 2005, I had Doctor Who to look up to. It’s soured now what with the allegations and reports of abuse that I’d be remiss not to mention against John Barrowman and Noel Clarke, but at the time, having a bisexual companion was huge. It was a character who was more than who they wanted to sleep with, embracing meaningful and heartfelt queer relationships in their very-own spin-off with Torchwood. A bisexual character—in 2006—got a bloody spin-off from the biggest British sci-fi show. And it didn’t shy away from his bisexuality. If anything, it sought to actively build upon it alongside other queer characters. That was monumental.
As someone who was struggling to accept being attracted to men and women, thinking that there was something wrong with me or that I was abnormal, seeing it on the small screen was life-changing. I didn’t really get what bisexuality was. I was a kid—I knew about gay and straight. You like men or you like women. That was my narrow-minded worldview because there was very little representation. Then came Captain Jack, the suave time traveller whose first on-screen appearance had him flirting with Rose. Then he snogs the Doctor. Then he falls in love with Ianto Jones. Holy shit, he likes men and women? And I kinda like him? It was strange, but comforting.
Seeing that helped me come to terms with my bisexuality over the years, especially when I was a teen going back to rewatch Who and Torchwood. I saw myself and my own struggles embraced in Jack without holding back, without shame. He was openly and unabashedly bisexual and there was no contempt, no bigotry, no jokes—Jack was bi and that was that. Sarah Jane Adventures was similarly going to explore a character coming out as gay with Luke Smith before Elizabeth Sladen’s passing, and that would’ve been yet another hugely comforting embrace for fans still in the closet. RTD set the foundation for a much queerer Who.
Elements of queerness remained, so much so that we got an openly lesbian companion in Bill during Steven Moffat's tenure, but RTD lit the torch and is back to carry it even further. He has an important philosophy he’s sticking to—queer characters should be played by queer people. We’re seeing that already as a new character called ‘Rose’ is being played by a trans woman while Neil Patrick Harris has been cast, seen dancing with David Tennant’s Doctor. Things are about to get villainous and fruity. And that’s just the 60th. When Ncuti Gatwa takes over as the Doctor, he’ll have his own series under RTD, and we’ll no doubt get new Captain Jacks and Ianto Jones', openly queer characters that kids can see themselves in.
It’s exciting because so many modern blockbusters are shying away from queerness—Star-Lord is meant to be bisexual, but has Marvel ever tapped into that? No. But Doctor Who on the other hand is going full-throttle without holding back. It’s a sci-fi series about a person in a blue box fighting aliens and saving the day, but ever since 2005, it’s been a show about acceptance, embracing people for all their differences and unique qualities. Seeing that come back in a meaningful way will no doubt mean so much to queer kids growing up today.
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