In sci-fi, women mainly exist to wear revealing outfits, shoot space guns and provide sexual frustration for the male protagonist. Very few sci-fi movies or TV shows pass the Bechdel test. If there happens to be a queer female character, she’s likely to die within a few episodes, or will probably be a shallow character with a D-cup. Probably both.
Dr. Who, one of the most popular shows on British television, is taking a step in the right direction. The show follows an extraterrestrial Time Lord called “The Doctor” who explores time and space in a British police box.
Dr. Who show started in 1963. It’s retained its longevity by having the doctor “reincarnate” with a new personality and new sidekick every time the writers get tired of the lead male actor. The current doctor is Peter Capaldi.
But finally, the sidekick – ahem, “companion” – is going to be a queer woman. And not just a queer woman, but a queer woman of color. In other words, something rarer than a unicorn on TV.
If you’re worried about the queer woman being relegated to a sidekick, don’t worry. On this show, a sidekick isn’t a lackey, like the pathetic LaFou whom Disney is touting as their first gay character. The Doctor’s companion is like the Watson to his Sherlock – beloved, insightful and, in this case, very attractive.
Pearl Mackie will be playing the companion, Bill Potts. She told the BBC, “It’s important to say people are gay, people are black – there are also aliens in this world as well, so watch out for them.”
Rumors are swirling that the next doctor may be a woman, another first in the show’s 50-year history. Could there be romantic tension on the horizon if Potts and the doctor find each other very attractive?
Airing in the family friendly times-lot of 8PM on a Saturday night, the most recent series of Doctor Who were never really expected to push the boundaries. There was a always a risk that pushing the queer boat out would alienate parents convinced that LGBT content is not ‘wholesome’ enough for their child.
Yet, against all odds, Doctor Who has been an unlikely source of queerness. Not only is John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness ‘omnisexual’ (he has loved across all genders and species, apparently) but Madame Vastra and her wife Jenny are a same-gender married couple who are touted as fan favourites.
Recently, the show also did some good for trans viewers when it introduced Missy. Missy (formerly the Master) was always the male antagonist to the titular Doctor and now Michelle Gomez, the actress who plays her, has discussed what it means.
“The thing is is that with casting me and having this face, you never really know whether I’m a man or a woman anyway. You just pop a bit of red lipstick on me and I’m sort of Paul O’Grady’s love child.
We still don’t know whether Missy is the Master or the Master is Missy or whether I actually do have an enormous… [looks down] or not. Maybe I am packing. We just don’t know do we, really? That’s something between my husband and I.”
There’s no denying that Gomez’ words are offensive – equating gender with genitalia is incorrect – but they also highlight a concern about Missy’s portrayal.
During the interview, GT also asked Gomez if she anticipated the trans positive reaction to her character to which she replied “You mean did I know I was going to be the Master? [laughs]” seeming to sidestep the question altogether. Going off of this there is a possibility that Missy being female was never meant to be a big deal or was never meant to be seen as trans at all (rather, it was just meant to be a new step in the Master’s lifetime that just happened to be female).
That will be further disappointment to Doctor Who’s trans fans though as GT notes that the actress is “definitely tongue-in-cheek” maybe the smallest glimmer of hope remains.
Despite being one of the longest television shows in history (having aired since 1963), Doctor Who has been unable to shake off its core problems. For example, the show has for a very long time come under fire for its treatment of women, as many feel that it’s unfair that a woman hasn’t been given the chance to be the lead as the Doctor. Always the bridesmaid, never the white, male and cisgendered bride, so to speak.
The show also does little in terms of queer characters. John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness was decidedly queer, like the actor himself, and most recently Madame Vastra and her wife Jenny caused a small minority to file OFCOM complaints (yes, they were that disgruntled) when they two shared an incredibly chaste kiss in a Saturday DW episode.
Furthermore, the show has also hinted at the not so heterosexual identity of Clara Oswald (current companion, former Dalek in one episode) even appearing to make her flirt with another woman, but the show hasn’t really followed through.
It’s a contentious issue then; Doctor Who trying to keep up with the times but not alienating the tiny portion of its user base that it is (seemingly) ignorant and especially vocal. But, we took giant step forwards in queer representation last week when Doctor Who introduced a trans female character to the show.
For some time, a character called the Master has plagued the Doctor. The only other Time Lord in existence besides the titular character, the two have never got on. The Master has also always been male until last week when the Master showed up as female character, the ‘Mistress’, asking to be called ‘Missy’ for short.
But, as any rumbling in one of the biggest shows on the planet will do, we are now having to ask some important questions. Namely, does the Mistress count as ‘trans’ and does this mean that the titular Time Lord will be female at some point too?
Well to tackle the tricky topic of Time Lord labelling (try saying that ten times fast) the Mistress could be interpreted as a trans character because the literal meaning means to move from one gender to another. The Master was male, the Mistress is female and they are the same person albeit with a different gender identity, so naturally, trans is the label that everybody is prescribing.
However, Time Lords regenerate. They can change face, gender or race when they die – although we have only seen the main Time Lord as white and male – and this is how the BBC has kept the show running with new actors playing the Doctor for the past five decades.
Arguably, gender fluid would be a better label for the Mistress, assuming that she will transition back in a future regeneration or just acknowledging the fact that she can. And, even though she might not be trans (again, this is depending on your definition) the fact that the Beeb is demonstrating that changing your gender identity is perfectly normal is at least a good message to put out there.
As for the topic of a female Doctor, Doctor Who showrunner Stephen Moffat told Digital Spy that “It’s absolutely narratively possible [that the Doctor could be a woman] and when it’s the right decision, maybe we’ll do it. It didn’t feel right to me, right now. I didn’t feel enough people wanted it.”
Yes, after casting not one, or two but four white men as the role of the Doctor since 2005, Moffat says that not enough people are banging down his front door for a female Doctor. He probably sits in his living room with ear defenders on, then.
But still it does pave the way – or at least put an order in for the paving slabs – for a female Doctor to happen in the future. Whilst Moffat wasn’t listening, plenty of people were vocal enough when the new Doctor was announced that they wanted him to be of colour, a woman or maybe even both.
It’s a long shot then and if I was a betting woman I’d say that we’d see a more diverse protagonist in one more regen or two. Even that seems optimistic but without a TARDIS to hand, I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.
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