Doctor Who and Sexuality
Guest contributor Lewis Hurst examines how the show represents character’s orientation.
Doctor Who is undoubtedly one of the biggest television programs in the world, so the show’s representation of gay characters has great significance. Being gay myself, for the show to represent LGBTQ in a positive light is an immensely inspiring thing. Who would have thought ten years ago that a married lesbian couple would be major recurring characters in Doctor Who? Not me, for sure.
It makes me really happy when I sit down to watch Doctor Who that alongside the Doctor whizzing about through time and space there’s a variety of developed and enthralling gay characters within the show. Now some of you may wonder: why is it so important the show has gay characters anyway? My answer: it’s because of the show’s young audience. Let us not forget that Doctor Who is watched by children all around the world. Some of these children may be having feelings they don’t quite understand. A young boy’s school mates may be talking about how ‘hot’ Gwen Stacy is but he may be more focused on how attractive Spider-Man is instead. Or a young girl finds herself more attracted to Katniss while her schoolmates pine over Peeta and Gale. Such children may begin to ask themselves questions. Questions that they are too scared to talk to their parents about. Questions such as “What if I’m gay?,” “What if I like boys instead of girls?” or “Do I like girls and not guys?”. Sure, times have changed, but there is still a social stigma towards ‘coming out’ as gay. The word “gay” is now used as an insult, changing from a word that used to mean “happy” to a word that is now used for sexual preference. There is always the chance that parents won’t understand; even that they will be ‘outcast’ from the family. Let us not forget that discrimination against the LGBT community is still rife and common in the world today. You need look no further than the terrible events happening in Russia.
So for young children to sit down and watch Doctor Who and then see LGBTQ characters saving the universe every other week and being accepted by everyone else can essentially say to them: “What you’re feeling isn’t wrong; let nobody tell you any different.” Most importantly of all, it can be used as a reassurance: a rock – a show that teaches them the right messages, that helps them to discover their identity. It teaches them that no matter who they are, no matter who they love, there will always be someone out there willing to listen to them and love them back. Doctor Who can become the most important entity in that child’s life, helping them to develop and mature. They may keep their sexuality a secret for many years to come. They may not choose to reveal it just yet. They may even have doubts. A large percentage will consider – and even go forward in – perusing an unhappy but accepted life by being straight. But Doctor Who will always be there; always there to comfort and reinforce a strong message of love and hope. It will teach them to look past the insults others may throw at them. It will teach them not to judge by appearances. It will teach them to be the best of humanity. Why do I know this? Well: that’s what it did for me.
I was going through a tough time in 2011. I was struggling with my sexuality and I was uncertain on whether I was gay or not. And then we reached that pivotal moment in Day of the Moon where Canton turned round and said those two words, “He is”. And then it struck me that I can be happy and be who I was. Despite being a simple scene, it had the potential to be life-changing in that it re-affirmed a message that’s beginning to become entrenched within society: that society itself is beginning to change, and that the best and most self-assured people are those who don’t block out their own identity.
I love how Doctor Who handles its LGBTQ characters. Many other shows will introduce an LGBTQ character and then have that be their defining characteristic. Doctor Who however seeks to flesh these characters out, thoughtfully avoiding television stereotypes. Jack Harkness for example. In Series 1, Jack received little development (probably due to him being introduced towards the end of the series) but when he progressed onto Torchwood he rounded into a more developed personality. Of course, it’s hard to apply any limitations onto Jack’s sexual interests; no doubt he’s tried them all, but it doesn’t change that fact that he is, truthfully, one of television’s strongest and most popular LQBTQ characters. Doctor Who has featured others since but I feel the only other noteworthy ones (apart from Canton) are Vastra and Jenny.
The now-iconic duo have yet to receive any significant development but with only four episodes under their belt this is to be expected. From what we’ve learned, Jenny has been disowned from her family due to her sexual preference. Now this represents a very real issue in today’s world, especially for those in more religious families. If we can get an episode where we see how it impacts Jenny as a person, this would be a very bold move for the show.
Torchwood opens up and shows a wider variety of gay characters, but the two most fascinating are Ianto and Angelo. Ianto isn’t exactly a gay character; as he explains, he is only attracted to Jack and could otherwise be considered heterosexual (viewers will recall his relationship with ‘Cyberwoman’ Lisa). Ianto, though initially questioning his instincts, quickly became comfortable in his new lifestyle and despite the problems in his and Jack’s relationship, Ianto never once doubted himself as a person. Ianto was one of Torchwood’s most authentic and complex characters and, as his enormous fanbase will demonstrate, was one of the most beloved characters on the show. So when Ianto was killed off in the third series there was an outrage. Fans petitioned for Ianto to be brought back. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such outrage after the death of a gay character in a television program, rivalled only by the backlash after the death of Tara in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The ‘Save Ianto’ campaign is still going strong even today. It’s amazing how much of an impact he has had not just on the show, but the world outside the show.
Angelo on the other hand was very different. Angelo, being religious, wasn’t as comfortable with his sexuality as Ianto. Angelo feared his orientation and its connotations at every turn and it was only through Jack that Angelo began to accept his true identity. However, after he and Jack parted ways, Angelo perused a straight lifestyle. Angelo loved his wife dearly calling into question whenever he was gay or bisexual (or, like Ianto, ‘Jacksexual’) but either way, Angelo was a scared and sexually confused man in a time when it was not accepted to be so, which makes his story all the more tragic.
Doctor Who hasn’t always featured gay characters. It’s only in recent years that this has become part of the show. But this is just because of changing times. The world as it is in 2014 is no longer the world that was 1963. Homosexuality is open and is becoming commonly accepted in the world today and is no longer hushed up and ignored like it was back then.
In short, Doctor Who owes it to viewers to ‘properly’ portray the LGBTQ community in the show. I’m not saying that the Doctor should suddenly take an interest in men as it would cause an outrage in terms of continuity. Doctor Who is fine depicting the LGBT community through its recurring characters. The show is a big part of popular culture and children around the world sit down and enjoy the adventures of the Doctor, so this is the best way to reach those viewers who may be questioning their sexuality. The show shouldn’t suddenly be populated with gay characters for the sake of gay characters. Goodness knows; way too many American shows do that. But if Doctor Who can do just a handful of LGBTQ characters well like it is doing now, it might just become something more than the adventures of a Time Lord in a blue box. It may become a show that will mean everything to a young (or even old) viewer out there somewhere. And in a world where homophobia is still rampant, we owe an escape from a society that is in places brutal to those views. For what is Doctor Who at its heart? Escapism – but, indeed, something which is just that little bit more useful. Would I be the same person I am now had Canton not been introduced? I doubt it. Doctor Who is constantly moving forward, and it needs to do so at the same rate as society – and, in some cases, it is mature and morally aware enough to race ahead.