Doctor Who’s positive portrayal of LGBT+ characters was a big step in the right direction

The sci-fi series made positive progress with its refusal to embrace the 'Bury Your Gays' trope, says Joshua Haigh

Doctor Who - Jake (Warren Brown) and Adam (Matthew McNulty) in Praxeus

Doctor Who made a big step in the right direction when it came to its treatment of LBGT+ characters during its latest episode.

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Fans will remember that the show faced criticism last year when, in New Year’s Special ‘Resolution’, it introduced a gay character who was brutally killed mere seconds after making his sexuality known. Many saw the incident as yet another example of the ‘bury the gays’ trope, which speaks of the systemic issue surrounding LGBT+ characters being considered more expendable than their heterosexual counterparts.

The tired trope also adds weight to the seemingly unwritten rule within mainstream television that queer stories have to end in tragedy or be based in some kind of inherently traumatic experience.

Not quite ringing a bell? Let me break it down for you.

In 2016, a report from Vox found that a massive 10 per cent of deaths on television that year alone were queer women. This showed no signs of changing in 2018, when, according to GLAAD, LGBT+ characters were four times more likely to die on TV than their heterosexual counterparts.

The representation of LGBT+ characters has come on leaps and bounds in the last three decades, that’s undeniable. But an increase in representation means nothing when instead of complex, nuanced characters, we’re given nothing more than underdeveloped plot devices who exist solely to experience tragedy.

Being a gay television viewer remains, at its heart, an inherently traumatic experience. We’ve grown to assume that we’re unlikely to see ourselves on-screen, and then when we do, said character will likely be killed off, face violence or experience loss.

Doctor Who - Adam (Matthew McNulty) in Praxeus
BBC

This ‘trauma-porn’ phenomenon reduces our community to nothing more than these negative experiences, and wilfully ignores the seemingly shocking notion to many that we are just like you. We fall in – and out – of love, we start families, we have regular issues with our friends and colleagues – oh, and we too enjoy activities that aren’t just going clubbing and engaging in recreational drug use.

Our lives are in many ways just like anyone else’s, and our fictional characters deserve that acknowledgement.

That’s why when the latest episode of Doctor Who aired, I was fully prepared to see two newly introduced gay characters once again be cruelly ripped apart for the sake of nothing more than a weak plot device.

Astronaut Adam Lang (Matthew McNulty) was on the brink of death after being struck by a deadly alien virus that also threatened the rest of the world’s population. His husband Jake (Warren Brown) stuck by his side throughout the episode. Even though a cure was found, the ship’s autopilot broken, and Jake selflessly decided to stay behind and sacrifice himself to save humanity.

Doctor Who - Jake (Warren Brown) in Praxeus

Yet again it seemed like a gay couple was about to meet a tragic end – that was, until the Doctor appeared in the final moments to save the day and the episode end with both characters not only alive, but happy.

Jake also confessed that he had never felt good enough for Adam, which gave his decision to give his life for him all the more emotional weight while demonstrating an act that, at its heart, couples of any type could empathise with. Just a year after facing a wave of criticism from its LGBT+ fans, it seemed as though Doctor Who’s writers not only listened, but were determined to learn from their mistakes.

That’s not to say everyone is as receptive to criticism as the show’s writers. Just as there were many who saw 2019’s New Year’s Day episode as problematic, there were those who were baffled by the response, some concerned there are already too many LGBT+ characters on-screen. But it’s always going to be difficult to explain the importance of representation to communities that have never struggled with having it.

Doctor Who - gay couple
BBC

What is vital to remember is that portraying LGBT+ life as inherently traumatic puts young people, whose experiences are sometimes contained only to characters in the media, in danger. Complaints are still made to Ofcom about same-sex kisses before the watershed; the idea of two men dancing together still angers many; and you only to have to log-in to Twitter to see tweets from troll accounts complaining about the mere notion of gay people appearing in their favourite show.

While straight people grow up seeing themselves as superheroes in blockbuster movies and are inundated with positive depictions of their relationships, LGBT+ people see themselves experiencing violence, facing hardships, and being outcast.

It may be only one step in a larger journey, but seeing a show as big as Doctor Who respond to valid concerns from the LGBT+ community with swift, positive action rather than empty words certainly feels like progress to me.

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Doctor Who continues on Sundays at 7:10pm on BBC One