Pearl Mackie is playing a black lesbian companion, Bill Potts, in Doctor Who series 10. This is a triumph, but a well overdue one. Many different ideological processes driving the formation of the show’s politics have jostled to create the show in which this has happened, and the choice itself is a vital statement on what Doctor Who now is. So now more than ever is an opportune time to reflect on what defined the ideological canon of the new series, how that defines a broader sense of Doctor Who, and what’s at stake in an exciting and uncertain future.
The question of what a canon of Doctor Who is is a useful place to start. “Not giving a toss about how it all fits together is one of Doctor Who’s oldest, proudest traditions, a strength of the series,” proclaimed writer Paul Cornell on the concept. In his eyes, it exists to “set Doctor Who fans at each other’s throats,” being “purely and simply about authority.”  In many ways, he is correct. Doctor Who is a franchise that thrives on the freedom of inconsistency, with gaping discontinuities, contradictions, and irreconcilable errors. However, limiting discussion to just the concept of official canon neglects to address the wider ideological battleground of constructing a history and vision of what Doctor Who is. Paul Cornell, as it happens, just gets to be on the winning side of history as it currently stands constructed, as one of the few writers to help plot the course for the 2005 revival of the show. From several emergent factions of Doctor Who writing in the period between 1989 cancellation and 2005 return, it is a feminist and queer emphasis displayed by some of the writers of the Virgin New Adventures book line, such as Paul Cornell, that has become the dominant power, shaping the myth of Doctor Who in accordance, with distinct inclusions, exclusions, and influences. And even in this, there are distinct limitations to and ambiguities in how feminist and how queer.
In the space between 1989 and 2005 when Doctor Who was off the air, the series was subject to a battle of emergent modes of its continuation, the three most prominent from BBC books, Virgin books, and Big Finish Productions, though these existed alongside various comics, fan films, and other obscure media. All of these lines were dominated by fan content-makers, curating their visions of the show based on a love of what had come before rather than a pure business sense. Paul Cornell, for example, got his start “writing Doctor Who fan fiction,” one of which was even adapted into his first Virgin book, Timewyrm: Revelation.  Similarly, many at Big Finish started off with the fan-made Audio Visuals, “Doctor Who audios that starred Nicholas Briggs as an alternate version of the Doctor.”  With so many different versions of Doctor Who popping up around the same time, the period was defined by a collective negotiation of fan vision, and Doctor Who of today is the product of the clashing and creations of these emergent creative communities. Of the top three, BBC books and Big Finish productions remain to this day, but they are not in dominant power. In the first year of the 2005 revival show, every writer except one got his start in the show with Virgin New Adventures line of Doctor Who books. So one group of fans with specific political and aesthetic tendencies assumed control of the dominant vision of Doctor Who in the eyes of the world, and thus dictated how other stories fit the mold.
For example, the Virgin books used time travel to construct a narrative of history stating the inevitability of sexual freedom and queer acceptance. Creating a narrative of history is far from a neutral action. As Walter Benjamin argues, historicism is an immensely political practice, “indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption,” shapeless historical events reshaped into a constantly progressing line to an idealized endpoint, usually the present.  This is the same practice but inverted, focusing on the redemption history will be seen to provide rather than constructing a narrative of the past of how to get there. This pops up in a number of ways. For Bernice Summerfield, companion in the Virgin novels hailing from the 26th century, the “people of her own time had by and large developed a happy and relaxed and generally unobtrusive ambisexuality,” with the concept of homophobia being something that “like the vast majority of her contemporaries, she had never been able to understand how the people in history could have made such a big deal of.”  The still emergent LGBT movement, rather than jostling for dominance the way it really was when the book was written, is portrayed as the obvious and inevitable course of history and a fact of the universe. This bit of book continuity has since been embraced by various writers. Russell T Davies, the showrunner of Doctor Who from 2005 through 2010, utilized it in his own Virgin New Adventures book, Damaged Goods. In it, another prominent character from the future, Chris Cwej, not only has a sexual encounter with another man, but explains to that man that while there are various problems in his time, “Only once in a blue moon did it hinge on sexuality itself.”  In doing this, the Doctor Who universe is, as far as canon can be established to exist, unabashedly a statement in favor LGBT rights and constructing a redemptive linear narrative in which society only gets more progressive with time.
This vision of the future was further developed once Russell T Davies and other writers he was acquainted with took control of the televised series. Most prominently, this is illustrated by the characters of Jack Harkness and River Song, both adventurers from the future defined among other things by their queerness. In the case of Jack, he is portrayed as an omnisexual man who will flirt with anyone of any species quite happily, with the Doctor explaining in The Doctor Dances that the people of the future are “bit more flexible when it comes to dancing,” or rather sex, with “So many species, so little time.” Similarly, River has been described by writer Steven Moffat as “married about 428 times. Once for each gender.” In a way, it’s the inversion of the reactionary narrative in which the inevitable consequence of gay marriage is polygamy or interspecies relationships as a reason to avoid that purported slippery slope. Doctor Who responds by instead exploring how such a shift could create a liberatory future. Hell, even the interspecies aspect is embraced with characters like Vastra the lesbian lizard with her human wife or Brannigan the married cat man having had kittens with a human woman. And this liberation is extended to the Doctor himself, the core constant of the show, with him exchanging dramatic kisses with both Jack and River and overall becoming a figure of ambiguous queerness. Even the core character himself is thus extended into the redemptive arc of queer acceptance and it is retroactively rewritten as a part of this fifty years old character. While Doctor Who was once marked by “no hanky-panky” rule so firm a recent episode even joked about it, it has in its current version been evolved into a celebration of all forms of sexuality, and that vision is extended right to the core.
This exploration-turned-hegemony present in the Virgin books also extends to gender, with the books providing the seeds of woman-lead Doctor Who. One early notable experiment in this was the Virgin novel Birthright, a book in which the lead the Doctor is sidelined and is instead “focused almost entirely on Benny and Ace,” with “the reader’s options…to invest in Benny or wait for the next book, and the Doctor’s fairly absent in that one too.”  This provided a challenge to the typical man-lead narrative view of Doctor Who, exemplified by, for example, Doctor in Distress, a song providing a very specific fan narrative of the show, that just mentions the lead women in passing as “companions at their side” or as the interchangeable “screaming girl [that] just hoped That a Yeti wouldn’t shoot her.”  Instead, it fetishizes the monsters and dedicates lines to K-9, the Master, and the Brigadier at the expense of the many different women in the show. And, of course, Doctor in Distress was penned by Ian Levine, the official continuity advisor for the show for a time in the 80s, and was a product of trying to keep the show from lengthy hiatus, with significant support from influential people. So suggesting a woman could carry the show as its heart, though not a new notion, was an ideological shift in direction for this period. What’s more, it is one that only grew in strength, expanding from things like Birthright. In fact, Bernice Summerfield went on to head several of her own books even after Virgin lost the Doctor Who license, and was starring in Big Finish audio productions before they ever got the rights to the main series. In this way, it was proven that women could sustain the show as the focus despite the title focusing squarely on the one constant character, the male lead.
But more radical ideas were emerging underneath this, with much of the modern push toward a female Doctor stemming to this period and specifically to the Virgin New Adventures. Here Steven Moffat emerges in a limited but vital capacity, getting the ball rolling for a push that would become core to his time running Doctor Who. In passages contributed to Cornell’s Human Nature, Moffat suggests that Time Lords “dream how wonderful it would be to be able to fly or be of the opposite sex.”  It’s a very small point, but one vital to any construction of a narrative of Moffat’s female Doctor advocacy, predating even Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Death and the Joanna Lumley Doctor. There’s caveats to stress, of course. It is not the first time the notion that Time Lords could change gender was bounced around seriously, nor is it the only radical concept introduced in the Virgin books. But it’s key because it traces a lineage from the Virgin stories to the new series in how the concept grew and was implemented, from Human Nature to Fatal Death, through little Moffat moments all the way to the likes of Missy and the General. This is a pretty key illustration of how ideology of the new series grew from the Virgin New Adventures era to become the dominant form. It’s not all Virgin New Adventures ideology that dominates. We don’t see, say, Timewyrm: Genesys being recreated with the Doctor telling the companion to accept being sexually harassed in historical settings. It’s specific progressive messages of specific content makers from the period snowballing into a part of the modern institution of Doctor Who.
And, of course, none of these visions are perfect. There are limitations, flaws, and complexities to explore… in part two of this essay.
- Cornell, Paul. “Canonicity in Doctor Who.” February 10, 2007. Accessed March 31, 2017. http://www.paulcornell.com/2007/02/canonicity-in-doctor-who/.
- Cornell, Paul. “About the Author.” Accessed March 31, 2017. http://www.paulcornell.com/author/.
- Sandifer, Phil. “A Journey to the Edge of Space (The Sword of Orion).” Eruditorum Press. February 19, 2013. Accessed March 31, 2017. http://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/a-journey-to-the-edge-of-space-the-sword-of-orion/.
- Benjamin, Walter, Hannah Arendt, and Harry Zohn. Illuminations. New York, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.
- Stone, Dave. Sky Pirates! London, England: Virgin, 1995.
- Davies, Russell T. Damaged Goods. London, England: Virgin, 1996
- Levine, Ian and Fiachra Trench. Doctor in Distress. United Kingdom: Record Shack Records, 1985.
- Cornell, Paul. Human Nature. London, England: Virgin, 1995.