I am a pretty huge Doctor Who fan, but I haven’t been keeping up with the show for some time now. I burned out, honestly, on the discourse around Chibnall’s tenure on the show. All the fans I know hate Chibnall, and in retrospect, I can’t help but agree with them. Part of me does want to support the show even when it’s terrible, but I do think I made excuses for Chibnall’s shitty takes (for God’s sake, he made one of the companions a fucking cop) that weren’t really justified. After “Rosa” I sort of threw up my hands, said “eh, good enough”, and stopped watching the show or listening to people talk about it.
Davies’ return is in some senses disappointing to me. Ever since its return in 2005, the show has been run by fans from the New Adventures era, when Doctor Who was a niche – in the eyes of the public, a dead – franchise. I also have concerns for what went on with Eccleston. Davies’ public statements on Eccleston have always been respectful and diplomatic, but to me when I look at Eccleston I see a textbook case of PTSD, PTSD that appears to stem from the year he spent playing the Doctor. This concerns me. Also concerning to me are the revelations about John Barrowman’s behavior (admittedly I don’t know the details as, like I said, I haven’t been keeping up with the show).
The show was good under Davies, really good, but that’s not the only thing that matters. Probably more pertinently for the BBC, the show was popular under Davies, a major cultural institution, in a way that it wasn’t under Moffat or Chibnall, under whose tenure the viewership figures rapidly tailed off. Moffat’s several decades… no, six years, I guess. His time on the show was enthusiastically received by hardcore fans, myself included (to an extent – I burned out and stopped watching during the last Capaldi season), but among everyone else seemed to amount to people who hadn’t actually watched the show cosplaying in a bowtie and fez while saying “Bowties are cool”. This was my problem as a fan – I genuinely loved the rich narrative content of Moffat’s stories, and the world was filled with fans, but when I would try to engage them in conversation, they’d say they hadn’t really watched since Tennant was the Doctor. Chibnall was worse. Under Chibnall there wasn’t even a meme fandom, just a bitterly impassioned hatedom. In the meantime I saw this weekend, on my way to Pride, a car with a bumper sticker saying “BAD WOLF”, a reference to RTD’s first story arc on the show. 17 years ago now.
I’m hopeful. When it comes to Doctor Who, I’m always hopeful. I’m hopeful that this won’t be a “Picard”-style second act. I don’t know much about what’s coming for the show. I prefer not to judge a show before I see it. I try to actively avoid spoilers. I know a couple things about the show, though. I know that the new Doctor will be a Black man, though I don’t know his name. And I know that the new companion will be a transgender woman, though I don’t know her name.
I’m really happy about the second in particular. There’d been, for ages, a lot of pressure on the show to cast more diverse actors as the Doctor. People have been pushing the show to cast, in particular, a Black person as the Doctor since basically the show’s revival. To be perfectly honest, the show isn’t exactly on the bleeding edge when it comes to diversity in casting. In fact, the show has a significant history of some fairly egregious racism, racism which is to this day excused and even actively defended by many of the show’s white fans. Star Trek first cast a Black man as a show lead in 1993. It’s taken Doctor Who thirty years to follow suit.
It genuinely had never occurred to me that Doctor Who might cast a transgender woman as the companion until it happened. (Actually until about a month after it was announced – like I said, I really don’t keep up on these things.) I mean, I’m a trans woman myself, I desperately want to see more trans representation in the media, but it just never would have occurred to me to say “Hey, RTD, have you thought about casting a trans woman as the companion?” It didn’t seem within the realm of possibility. I mean, this kind of thing is how the show brought a new generation of fans on board when he ran it, as opposed to the show under Moffat, which was watched, I guess, largely by sad old anoraks like me who have still never seen a Tiktok, let alone considered that it might serve as a good place to find an actress to play a major role in the show. (I figured I should do some actual research at this point to make sure I’m not just making shit up.)
I’m just so used to only seeing trans stories through subtext. All of the trans readings of media on WTOB, they’re all subtextual readings, because that’s all I ever had except for horrible lies. You know, if you look at it and squint the right way, it might be possible to read “Human Nature” as a trans allegory. If you take this particular subset of Nirvana lyrics out of context, Kurt Cobain could possibly be talking about gender dysphoria. Sure, this particular Blue Jam sketch seems incredibly transphobic, but if you look at it in this certain light it’s actually trans-affirming. That’s what I try to do, find myself in a culture (a white European colonialist culture) that has, for its entire history, systemically worked to eradicate gender non-conformity.
Yeah, of course, this isn’t literally the first time a trans actor has played a trans character on a major TV show. There’s Pose and Euphoria and Sense8 and I don’t know there’s probably a trans character on one of the Star Trek shows. And I’m sure those are all great shows, I don’t really watch a lot of TV because I’m kind of emotionally sensitive but I bet they’re great shows, but the impression I get is that they’re also kind of niche shows, just like Doctor Who, when I was growing up, was a niche show.
Doctor Who, in 2023, isn’t niche. Its viewing figures have been marginal for a long time, but it’s prestige programming, a tentpole show for the BBC. I gotta say, us trans women, we are a lot more niche than Doctor Who is. Everywhere in media, but particularly in Britain. In Britain, media outlets such as the Guardian and (yes) the BBC seem apparently consider giving open voice to transphobia to be a responsibility they have. Sure, some people say that we’re deserving of basic human rights, of access to medical care, but British media outlets always frame this as a debate, an opinion, with equal weight given to the opposite side – people calling for our extermination. I mean, it’s just a matter of opinion, right? Who can really say who’s right here?
RTD has been given back his bully pulpit, and apparently he doesn’t intend to be as subtle as he was when he did an entire episode about Britain’s descent into genocidal fascism, the only alternative to which which was given in the episode’s title, “Turn Left”, as subtle as he was when he did a show set in the future in which the adults are upset about these kids and their trans…humanism. Am I happy about this? Yeah, I’m happy about this. If RTD does one season and Doctor Who gets cancelled and there’s never another episode of it, I’m happy about this, because I will give up anything and everything I care about – and I care about Doctor Who a lot – in order to exist.
Because the companion under Davies isn’t like the companion in the show before him. In the Classic Series, the companion was there, basically, so that the Doctor had someone to explain the episode’s plot to. Davies changed this formula entirely when he introduced the character of Rose Tyler, played by Billie Piper. Rose became the new show’s single most beloved character. (It’s one of the more popular names for trans women, incidentally.) Under Davies, the companion was no longer someone to explain the plot to, but the fulcrum the show revolved around. RTD made this new story engine clear from the very first episode, in which the Doctor was, basically, a side character. The focus of the episode, of the show’s first two seasons, was given not in the show’s title, but in the episode’s title: “Rose”.
The new Doctor Who companion is named “Rose”. This is Davies being subtle.
It’s time. RTD knows it’s time. It’s time for trans people to be recognized. It’s time for us to expect that we will be major media characters, expect that our stories will be told the way we tell them, not just for each other, not just as allegory or subtext, but openly, for the whole world to see. It’s time for transphobia to be treated on equal footing – not with trans rights, but with all other forms of bigotry and hatred. And Doctor Who, for once, for once in its sixty years of chaos, sixty years of post-imperial detritus, Doctor Who is actually leading the way.
Yeah. Yeah, I’m happy about this.