Queer representation in Doctor Who: Conversations with my 13 year old self

Joint editor discusses the latest episode of Doctor Who. A very personal review of where we now exist in this cultural shift and its significance for Gen X viewers so used to never quite getting what they need from mainstream media.

CW: Thasmin spoilers lay ahead. There is no discussion of the Sea Devils theme.

It’s taken me a number of days to bring myself to write this. I had lost all track of time after the latest Doctor Who episode, Legend of the Sea Devils on Sunday 17th April, having grown up gay in 1980’s/90’s Scotland in a small seaside town, the significance of what had just happened was not lost on me.

I’ve spent days in tears at random moments, wondering why as a fully functioning adult why this sadness and joy can exist within me at the same time over a simple tv programme. A few solid conversations with fellow Whovians and I was convinced I was on the right lines in my analysis of the dialogue in this episode between the Doctor and Yaz, and I could finally see what was so joyfully heart breaking.

A lot of people even in their thirties, the millennial generation, don’t remember Beth Jordache in Brookside, the first on screen lesbian kiss with Margaret in a hallway. A tragic life spent in shame and littered with an abusive past, only to die in prison for helping to kill her abusive father. The ‘bury your gays‘ trope alive and well here. I remember rewinding the vhs tape to replay it over and over again, and my older sister getting pissed off at having to hear it being played from upstairs.

Later we had Willow and Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with Tara eventually being killed by yet another incensed bloke, and so the story goes on. I wont rub salt in the wound of the Killing Eve fans, but pre-L word baby queers don’t have a clue what it was like back then, when LGBTQ+ content on the TV was portrayed in miniscule amounts and even then it was only negative.

I wrote back in January about Eve of the Daleks and said that whilst it hadn’t been made explicit, that the Doctor probably did have feelings for Yaz, but she knows that she doesn’t have much time left .

Everyone has their own interpretation of what the Doctor might be feeling for Yaz, but unless you are an idiot who thinks that those looks she gave after Dan confronted her and the gaze she let fall on Yaz were incidental, may just have to look again. She probably does love her, Dan probably did do her a favour, and she has to face her feelings, but she already knows it won’t end well, her time is coming, and that brings us back to love and loss; scary, heart breaking and very very real.

I had said that ‘the sheer possibility of having even a female queer Doctor/companion moment on such an iconic show will raise visibility and hopes for hordes of fans.

And how right we were, as the anticipation built through the press, with even the show runner confirming that both The Doctor and Yaz had feelings they were supressing and needed to talk about, it felt like a dream that we were all holding our breath for.

I’ve read a lot of the reviews, the better ones by the Independent, Telegraph and Radio Times, and what the consensus was, didn’t fail to make me chuckle; it made it sound a bit like boys-upset-with-their-GI-Joe-doll-set not being quite like it used to be; but more than that, they all agreed, almost unanimously, that the way in which the storyline between Yaz and The Doctor developed was breathtaking, beautiful and very well done, and sets us up for the finale in the autumn, which we see a sneak peak of, and yes Yaz is in it.

The Doctor takes Yaz on a ‘date’ underwater in the first third of the episode, unknowingly of course, then later promises to ‘dazzle [yaz] with her beautiful improvisations’ , which was the most flirty ,[read as gay-as-hell], I’ve ever seen the doctor. Though we were promised that we would see a side to the Doctor we’ve never seen before, I just never thought it would be the flirty side.

The scene unfolded as they admired the sea bed and the Doctor suddenly said: ” Not a bad date am I ?” with hopeful expectation, she sees the slightly panicked look on Yaz’s face, looks away and Yaz finds it in herself to turn and say ” No” [You’re not such a bad date].

They have a few beats where the Doctor looks at her, appears to start to lean in [for a kiss] with a slightly wide eyed look then makes a pun to lighten the moment. That’s just the first gasp out loud moment. We can all see the irony that Ella Road wrote here beautifully as she uses the line ” there’s something missing. …no ship sherlock”, we all wanted this to be it, the kiss, but it was swiped away again.

” something’s missing! ” – Yeah no shit [ship] sherlock- there’s a kiss missing.

The real monumental moment came later in the episode as the Doctor brings them back to this conversation during a jeopardy scene, the conversation slows down for them to catch up. The Doctor explains that she doesn’t really do dates, but if she did, it would be with Yaz, and says she is “the greatest person she’s ever known”. Which coming from a 2000 year old timelord is saying quite a lot.

The Doctor Confesses

My heart leaps out of my chest now still when I see this scene, as it is the singularly most brilliant piece of TV dialogue I’ve seen in my 43 years on this earth, and not just because it’s a LGBTQ+ storyline, I’ve seen them everywhere lately; but this is The Doctor, admitting to sapphic feelings for her female companion. And even elevated her feelings to the equivalent of those she had for her wife: River Song.

How right were we, as the anticipation built through the press, with even the show runner confirming that both the doctor and yaz had feelings they were supressing and needed to talk about, it felt like a dream that we were all holding our breath for.

What a pivotal moment in TV history, a cultural icon being openly LGBTQ+ without the shame, or the homophobia being in the background. Just a love story with two people who are the same sex. *sobs*

In traditional Doctor Who fashion, she saves the day and they finally make it to the beach that she’s been promising since new year. And in the usual way The Doctor has to explain to Yaz that the Doctors’ life is transient and immediately some Who fans can see a parallel with Ten/Rose, but here’s where it’s not the same.

Firstly the very delicate way in which it is done echoes the earlier confession of their shared feelings for each other, this didn’t happen with the tenth Doctor until it was too late, if at all as he was cut off.

The dialogue conveys a desperate longing and want to ‘fix herself to someone’ despite the complicated nature of her life. She’s not quite as resigned to being alone as Ten was , she says: ” It’s not because I don’t want to, because I might”.

A scene that is possibly the most beautiful scene ever shot in this series, was tinged with fear and pain, something that we can relate to, a uniquely queer experience as we strive for what we want but scared of the consequences. As the doctor outlines why its so difficult for her to form long term relationships, she hears Yaz hold her to account with a brave message of courage from her Nani stating: “Courage is knowing something will hurt ….but doing it anyway “.

“Can we just live in the present….. of what we have… while we still have it?”

Cynics could just end there with: ” that’s a rejection”, but as we’ve already found out, it’s not. It’s not Rose, she’s told her she has big massive feelings for her. It’s not Martha because it’s reciprocated. So the storyline at this point is following a narrative and probably had to go here, as heart wrenching as it was to watch, as a stepping stone to set up the final special. Later on we heard from the writer Ella Road who confirmed that the ambiguity of that scene was deliberate, which in a way makes sense even more than trying to figure out its exact meaning.

The outstanding acting in this resisted making this a simple, I can’t , or I wont, or this is it. This kind of relationship discussion is complex and difficult, and essentially these two already have a ‘relationship’, it’s just fairly atypical. But we’ve gone way beyond the friendship zone. The writer Ella Road very specifically refers to them/ this as a ‘queer relationship’ (Doctor Who Magazine) , and it would be odd to suggest otherwise if they were in any kind of ‘friend zone’.
The way in which the Doctor asks if they can ’live in the present .. of what we have ..’ suggests that this might include those shared feelings but without the possibility of a long term relationship. Setting boundaries but the ambiguity of the scene leaves lots up in the air for the finale.

I think some fans are getting caught up in the heartbreak of it all rather than seeing the words for what they are.

A Queer Who fan says this:

“What happened on the beach was the Doctors response to her own trauma reaction/habitual response.”

“In queer [relationships] its [the difference] magnified in ways that are particular, and hard to grasp if you’re not inside that experience, or haven’t been shown it enough authentically on screen, in books, in music…

@WindmillTurning (twitter)

There are so many negative takes by fans on this scene, usually by heterosexuals who only see what they think they are seeing without being able to understand a different experience or the nuances of the conversation. Maybe ‘the present’ is all the Doctor can give her right now, because she knows that Yaz will get hurt when she dies, it’s no longer about her living on without Yaz, (like the Tenth doctor), but the other way around. An act of love for want of a better way of describing it.

The dominant romantic love trope for heterosexuals is ‘forever’ but it’s a delusion, and one they are quite invested in, hence why when something not quite that appears in front of their eyes, it doesn’t seem real to them, hence their cynicism.

One long time Who fan (Classic and Nu) had this to say:

“I don’t see this as a rejection, it’s more of a time to reflect. She lost River and she’s processing about getting into another relationship. Living in the present is how she’s coping.”

Twitter User (anonymous)

This brings us to logic reasoning, and the interviews done with the actors who have acted the scenes, to the director(s), the writer and the show runner; all the things they suggested would happen in the episode, happened, so we have no reason to doubt what else they said.

The comments by the director ,(Radio Times), tell us that Jodie and Mandip’s scenes take up most of the last day they filmed the centenary episode. So we know they are together up until the end, and we know it’s emotional.

Mandip Gill described the conversations started and ‘advanced’ in the Easter special as not being concluded.

“Things have not been resolved by the end of the episode and I think that can be said for the relationship between Yaz and the Doctor but also the Doctor’s history and future”

“Conversations are not concluded in this episode , but they definitely have advanced from were they were at New Year”

Mandip Gill BBC Press office/ Doctor Who TV

Which would make a lot of sense, because when you are feeling your way through a relationship, however that is presented, where big feelings are confessed, there is often a moment of insecurity, and the need for honesty, even if sometimes it’s difficult to hear, before any decisions are made, before people can move forward, and this episode sets that up, to make it more authentically real and developing, because theirs is the most complex of them all.

We are all expecting a heart breaking ending, we are all hoping for them to finally say ‘I love you’ and one kiss, and I think that would leave a lot of fans satisfied, even if this happens in a heart breaking goodbye. Because we all know how this ends.

What I do know, is the impact of this story, the delicate way it was handled, the explicit same sex love confession by the iconic titular character of a female Doctor Who will live on in TV history for some time to come, regardless of the noise by cynics.

The moment is important, and I realised why I was so upset, because when all is said and done, lots of characters in tv programs don’t have a happily ever after so that’s not it, but I think it’s because my 13 year old self really needed to see this, to see this kind of moment with an iconic character rather than a sidekick, in mainstream TV, without niche demographics, without negativity; that emptiness feels less empty, the world feels different and that part of me really needed this.

With thanks to the various Whovians with their insight and Ivy with her link to this beautiful video edit.

Thanks go to @BBCDoctorWho for their stills and screen shots.

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