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“Ladies, Gentlemen, and Variations Thereupon”: Gender Queerness in Doctor Who

A silhouette of the newly regenerated Thirteenth Doctor in the TARDIS, lights glaring

At its core, Doctor Who feels like a queer television show. An array of aliens, planets, and even dimensions are just some of the ingredients that create such an eccentric and often heart-warming portrayal of all things weird and wonderful. This focus on spectrums of existence and outsiders to everyday life as we know it makes it easy to understand why many LGBTQ+ people latch onto the show. It provides comfort and reassurance, offering an environment that not only accepts but celebrates queerness in any form. It’s no coincidence that Russell T Davies, a gay man, was at the helm of the 2005 reboot; when asked about his sexuality and Doctor Who, RTD said:

I think, marvellously, if you’re gay, if you’re being quiet about it, if you’re an outsider, there’s a comforting sexlessness about Doctor Who.

Although this is in reference to sexuality specifically, the term “sexlessness” could easily be applied to gender as well. Such vast space and time travel forges a space outside of typical perceptions and representations of sex and gender, e.g. different alien species. Right before Series 11 aired (the first series involving Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor), Executive Producer Matt Strevens also made reference to queer sexuality and gender non-conforming themes 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 the characters and relationships.

James Mortimer’s article on RTD’s LGBTQ+ legacy on Doctor Who addresses the showrunner’s wholehearted incorporation of queer characters and contentment with sexuality that continued as a thread throughout the show to this day. In the very first series, Captain Jack Harkness was immediately introduced as an omnisexual character who has an on-screen kiss with the Ninth Doctor in the Series 1 finale. Other recurring LGBTQ+ characters include Jenny and Vastra (a human/Silurian lesbian couple), River Song (makes reference to having had a wife), Clara Oswald (hinted to be bisexual), and Bill Potts (the first openly lesbian companion). But even aside from these more major characters, there are many side characters casually mentioned to be LGBTQ+, such as Sky Silvestry referring to an ex with she/her pronouns in ‘Midnight’, an old lesbian couple in ‘Gridlock’, Alonso Frame showing interest in Captain Jack in ‘The End of Time’, and Canton Delaware III explaining that he got kicked out of the FBI for wanting to marry a black man in the 1960s in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’. Any references to being LGBTQ+ in this way is noteworthy for solid representation without being the ultimate focus of the character, which helps to normalise LGBTQ+ people being a part of everyday life.

Vastra and Jenny face each other, deep in conversation
Jenny and Vastra in ‘The Snowmen’.

Focusing on the ‘T’ part of the acronym, the only actual transgender character in the television series (apart from the Time Lords, but I’ll get to that) is Cassandra. Both Michelle Kerry and Samantha Riedel look at Cassandra as a trans character in detail, the former writer also looking at the general lack of trans representation in Doctor Who. There are some trans characters in the Big Finish audio productions: Seventh Doctor companion Eleanor Blake (a trans woman), Torchwood worker and Eighth Doctor companion Tania Bell (a trans woman), and bounty hunter Calypso Jonze (non-binary). Additionally, a friend of Mickey Smith’s is a trans woman called Sally Salter in the novelisation of ‘Rose’, and Captain Jack mentions a trans co-worker called Vanessa in the Torchwood episode ‘Greeks Bearing Gifts’ (albeit in an outdated and offensive way). Bethany Black was also the first out trans actor to be in the television series as a Grunt by the name of 474 in the Series 9 episode ‘Sleep No More’.

It’s important to acknowledge that aside from the overall limited inclusion of explicitly trans representation, Doctor Who still incorporates gender queerness and challenges our perceptions of gender in a multitude of ways. In the earlier series, and in Torchwood, there’s multiple references to how Captain Jack was once pregnant, despite being a cisgender, human man; but he’s also an immortal being from the 51st century who evolves into the Face of Boe, so who’s to say he couldn’t be pregnant at some point? In Series 11, ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’ also brought us a pregnant cis man by the name of Yoss Inkl, who is a Gifftan—a humanoid species from the 67th century, of which individuals of any gender can give birth. The episode received a lot of backlash claiming it was “transgender propaganda” (in line with political criticism that has been made since the reboot began in 2005), so it definitely hit the mark in challenging people’s rigid perceptions of gender and biology. The titular quote of this very article is how the Hostess from Series 4’s ‘Midnight’ addresses the passengers, making a direct acknowledgement of people in the middle of the gender spectrum, e.g. non-binary people. Again, this is much more likely to be normalised among aliens or a mixture of different species who have other perceptions of gender and existence in general.

Which brings us to the Time Lords. When discussing gender in ‘World Enough and Time’, the Twelfth Doctor says to Bill:

We’re the most civilized civilization in the universe. We’re billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.

This essentially sums up the perception and meaning of gender to Time Lords: it means very little. Since they are extremely advanced aliens, Time Lords do not subscribe to our human concept of gender, and it barely even weighs in on their sense of self. The implication here is also that the aliens are non-binary or gender-fluid, since they are “beyond” limited categorisations of gender. Even for humans, gender is an extremely complex thing, so applying this concept to an alien species is even more reductive (although I’m obviously having to discuss Time Lords’ gender in human terms here).

Regeneration is a key component in the discussion of gender and Time Lords. Each time a Time Lord regenerates, certain psychological aspects or personality traits change alongside their entire physical appearance, making them an essentially new person (despite being the same core character). This process is centred around renewal and transformation; in ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’, the Thirteenth Doctor describes regeneration as being “born”, and the Eleventh Doctor states in The Sarah Jane Adventures episode ‘Death of the Doctor’ that Time Lords could become “anything”. So, a trans reading of Time Lords isn’t exactly new—the idea that they could change any aspect of themselves, including physicality and mentality regarding gender, has been part of Time Lord lore for years already. 

The Tenth Doctor regenerates inside the TARDIS, golden energy radiating out of his head and arms
The Tenth Doctor regenerates.

When the Doctor regenerates, they always have a total identity crisis, having to rediscover their persona. In the Tenth Doctor’s first episode, ‘The Christmas Invasion’, he’s asked who he is, to which he responds:

I don’t know! See, that’s the thing, I’m the Doctor, but beyond that I just don’t know. I literally do not know who I am—it’s all untested. Am I funny? Am I sarcastic? Sexy? Right old misery? Life and soul? Right handed? Left handed? A gambler? A fighter? A coward? A traitor? A liar? A nervous wreck? I mean, judging by the evidence, I’ve certainly got a gob.

Although this is all in reference to the Doctor’s personality, the focus on figuring out who he is and what his new face and body means to him lends itself to a trans reading. The fact that he is “judging by the evidence” shows that he has no inherent feeling of who he is, but is simply realising himself along the way, something that strikes a chord in relation to figuring out gender identity. Furthermore, the Doctor often only deduces their gender after seeing their physical reflection, or touching certain features of their body. For example, the newly regenerated Eleventh Doctor does a checklist of his body parts in ‘The End of Time’, feeling slightly longer hair and exclaiming “I’m a girl?!” before feeling an Adam’s apple and deciding “No, I’m not a girl”. Allocating these bodily features to a particular gender is obviously reductive (the episode came out in 2010 so it’s understandable), but it’s also how us humans are assigned a gender from birth. Since he’s spent so much time around humans, the Doctor has perhaps learned from them that this is how his gender is perceived by others, therefore that must be his gender, even if it’s not accurate. Additionally, gender is a feeling, not a physical appearance; gender identity and gender expression are two separate things. So, the Doctor having to deduce their gender from physicality actually represents how they have no gender on the inside. Their gender is purely linked to how they are perceived on the surface, rather than any feelings, implying they have no leaning towards a particular gender. A conclusion of this, then, could be that the Doctor is non-binary, specifically agender—of course, this is the closest term without complete accuracy. 

That moment in ‘The End of Time’ is also the first reference to the possibility that Time Lords could present as any gender. The next acknowledgement of this is in Series 6’s ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, in the following dialogue regarding a Time Lord called the Corsair:

Fantastic bloke. He had that snake as a tattoo in every regeneration. Didn’t feel like himself unless he had the tattoo. Or herself, a couple of times.

This is the first explicit reference to a Time Lord who had changed gender with certain regenerations, therefore is transgender and gender-fluid by textbook definition. A few years later, we were reintroduced to the Master as Missy (Michelle Gomez), confirmed in Series 8’s ‘Dark Water’. This makes her the first on-screen trans Time Lord. It’s important to note that the Twelfth Doctor isn’t surprised by the reveal because of her gender, but because she’s his old nemesis who he thought was dead. Shortly after introducing Missy, Steven Moffat confirmed that gender is “fluid” for Gallifreyans, linking it to how the Master/Missy switching her appearance and pronouns wasn’t an odd thing to the Doctor; all Time Lords have that capability. Missy later regenerated back into a male-presenting person (Sacha Dhawan) and changed his name back to the Master when we meet him again in ‘Spyfall’. This backs up the idea that gender is completely fluid for Time Lords which Moffat laid the foundation for, as they don’t have to stick to one gender forever. However, it’s implied that some Time Lords do have a proclivity for one gender. In ‘Hell Bent’, the General regenerates from a man to a woman, observing that she’s “back to normal”—throughout her previous ten incarnations, she was a woman.

Missy and the Master sit on either side of a stone wall
Missy and the Master in ‘The Doctor Falls’.

The reverse applies to the Doctor. July 2017 brought in the announcement that Jodie Whittaker would be taking up the mantle as the Thirteenth Doctor. Rachel Stewart’s coverage of the reveal addressed how reactions “ranged from ecstatic to raging mad”, highlighting the Who fandom schism. Stewart also mentions Moffat’s 1999 Red Nose Day special, ‘The Curse of the Fatal Death’, which involved a variation of Doctor incarnations ending in Joanna Lumley. Its handling of a female Doctor is… not great, to say the least, and the comedy stems from the idea that a woman portraying the Doctor is absurd and unrealistic. Gradually, the idea evolved so it was no longer a laughing matter.

Contrary to popular belief, the idea of casting a woman as the Doctor initially came about in the 1980s, proposed by Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner in 1981, and co-creator Sydney Newman in 1986. From this information, technically the idea of the Doctor being gender-fluid, or at least not restricted to one gender, has been around for decades. Then, when cast as showrunner, Chris Chibnall reportedly accepted this role on the condition that he would cast a woman as the Doctor, therefore it was a conscious decision.

Despite the deliberate nature of this choice to present the Doctor as a woman in the most recent couple of series, the way in which they handle this change is to ignore it. For the most part, they simply let her get on with being the hero of the show, and her gender (or perceived gender at least) isn’t an important factor in this. It’s extremely refreshing to witness a female protagonist—an action hero, even—be powerful and intelligent without misogyny weighing in on her conflicts. More specifically, to take this character that has been portrayed by men since the 1960s in such a widespread, beloved franchise, and not have it be a big deal within the narrative is even better. There are moments where the Doctor’s presentation as a woman is necessary to address, such as in ‘The Witchfinders’; the Doctor is almost killed after an accusation of being a witch in the 17th century, and acknowledges women’s struggles in saying, “If we aren’t being drowned, we’re being patronised to death”. Facing misogyny in this episode is relevant for the time period, and reflects the Doctor’s loss of male privilege. It’s realistic to recognise how society would perceive and treat her accordingly, but it’s not overdone, and doesn’t undermine her power and authority.

Within the show itself, the Thirteenth Doctor’s gender doesn’t really factor in, but in the real world, it very much does. Strangely, when discussing Jodie Whittaker’s portrayal of the Doctor, a controller of BBC Drama, Piers Wenger, described it as a “powerful female life force”. It’s notable that Whittaker’s energy was emphasised as “female”—what exactly makes someone’s performance “female”? The fact that she’s a woman? I’m sure David Tennant’s portrayal of the Doctor wouldn’t be referred to as “male life force”, so why make a point of highlighting this when the actor happens to be a woman? When asked what it felt like to be the first woman Doctor, Whittaker responded:

It feels completely overwhelming, as a feminist, as a woman, as an actor, as a human, as someone who wants to continually push themselves and challenge themselves, and not be boxed in by what you’re told you can and can’t be. It feels incredible.

Whittaker acknowledges her input as a woman, but also as an “actor” and “human”, emphasising how she is a person above all else. Her reference to not being “boxed in”, rejecting categorisation, also highlights the ultimate deflection of gender roles in how the Thirteenth Doctor is portrayed. Gender insignificance and neutrality is more the focus for Whittaker herself.

The newly regenerated Thirteenth Doctor with a massive smile on her face
A newly regenerated Thirteenth Doctor rejoicing.

A key point that Michael McDunnah makes in regards to the Thirteenth Doctor’s gender identity is that she sometimes gets confused with gendered terms in referring to herself, and claims that she “can’t get used to” being called “ma’am”, suggesting that she may not identify as a woman. Personally, I interpret these moments as the Doctor just getting used to being perceived as a different gender; it’s natural that, after presenting as a man for thousands of years (potentially even billions, but that’s a whole other debate), it would be jarring to suddenly adopt or be referred to with more feminine-associated terms and names. However, the fact that gendered terms confound the Doctor could also reflect how gender has always been irrelevant to them, and that they feel genderless on the inside. Not forgetting that quote from the Twelfth Doctor—Time Lords are beyond gender, and terms that people use to refer to them are based on human concepts of gender that do not align with them. I agree that these sorts of lines are “the writers’ attempts to humorously dismiss the issue’s importance”, but it’s an interesting discussion to bring up.

There is also the question of pronouns. How should we refer to the Doctor? As I see it, when referring to the Doctor in general, I often use they/them, but I’ll use the specific pronouns of certain Doctors, e.g. he/him for the Twelfth Doctor, she/her for the Thirteenth Doctor. McDunnah posits the important perspective that just referring to the Thirteenth Doctor (and no previous Doctors) with they/them pronouns would be reductive considering her portrayal as a woman is a historical milestone of Doctor Who that shouldn’t be overlooked. However, I would again mention that the Doctor and all Time Lords are most likely non-binary or gender-fluid by nature, which goes for every Doctor. Another necessary point to mention here is that pronouns don’t equal gender; the Doctor could still be non-binary and use only he/him or she/her pronouns. Overall, I honestly don’t think it matters. The Doctor is a fictional character who we can all interpret subjectively (to a certain degree, obviously), therefore any conversation about their pronouns or gender is purely speculation. Like I’ve said, gender is a complex thing, especially Time Lords’ gender, so nothing is right or wrong. But the very fact that this topic is up for debate in the first place is why it’s a key discussion. The Doctor’s gender is ambiguous, that much is for certain. 

Not many television shows could spark such a vital conversation about gender, sexuality, and queerness in such specific and out-of-the-ordinary terms. The sheer complexity and prevalence of these themes in one of the longest-running and influential television shows is what makes it so valuable. Again, it’s understandable why a significant percentage of Doctor Who fans are LGBTQ+—the focus on outcasts and outsiders applies to a wide range of people, but is explicitly made queer in the show. Having a powerful, kind, quirky, empathetic, gender-queer alien at the helm absolutely helps.

Written by Robin Moon

Robin writes for 25YL and Horror Obsessive as much as their scattered brain will allow. They love dark fantasy, sci fi, and most things horror-related, with a huge soft spot for vampires. Don't make the mistake of mentioning Buffy around them or they won't shut up about it. Seriously. They're also a fiction writer and aspiring filmmaker; in other words, they much prefer spending time in made-up places and far-off universes than in the real world.

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