Queerness in Doctor Who is hardly a new frontier.


From Rona Munro writing a lesbian subtext into her script for the Seventh Doctor serial Survival in 1989 to the Thirteenth Doctor and Yaz's dynamic, gender and sexuality have never been static in the TARDIS.

Russell T Davies brought queer themes and characters when his tenure as showrunner began with the 'New Who' revival in 2005. While queerness has remained a part of the programme during the reigns of his successors Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall, the return of Davies for the 60th anniversary brought high expectations for the placement of queer and trans characters at the fore.

The Star Beast, the first of the 60th anniversary specials – aired before this weekend's Wild Blue Yonder – meets those expectations with aplomb. During the opening sequence, Donna Noble played by Catherine Tate catches us up on her life, including the introduction of “the most beautiful daughter in the world”. The smiling face of Yasmin Finney as Rose Noble appears in close-up, the first openly trans character in the televised series.

David Tennant and Yasmin Finney in Doctor Who: The Star Beast
David Tennant and Yasmin Finney in Doctor Who: The Star Beast. BBC

The groundwork for her appearance was laid by writer Juno Dawson and director Ella Watts on official audio series Doctor Who: Redacted, which starred the first trans woman as a trans character in Who history, Charlie Craggs as Cleo Proctor. And, as we all know, the Doctor is capable of changing sex, having returned to being played by David Tennant from Jodie Whittaker. This becomes the central question of The Star Beast: how does the Doctor’s gender presentation impact his (her? their?) character and behaviour?

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When the Fourteenth Doctor introduces himself to Donna’s husband, Shaun Temple, his psychic paper reads "Grand Mistress of the Knowledge" rather than “Grand Master". "Oh, catch up!" he exclaims, hitting the paper on the wing mirror. It is an acknowledgement of how the Doctor’s gender is no longer presumed to be fixed, but instead something wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey itself.

The same shift was navigated by the Doctor’s enemy, the Master, as portrayed by Sacha Dhawan opposite the Thirteenth Doctor, after taking the form of 'Missy' in his previous regeneration.

The dialogue Davies inserts into The Star Beast could be considered clunky and heavy-handed, but one could argue it reflects real-life conversations around pronouns or names when someone begins their transition. When The Doctor is talking about the Meep, Rose says, "You’re assuming 'He' as a pronoun?" – it’s an amusing interruption, grounded in the absurdity of attempting to gender creatures from other planets as is so brilliantly explored in such science-fiction as the works of Ursula K Le Guin.

The Doctor is ready to learn and accept his mistake, proceeding to ask the Meep for their chosen pronoun. "My chosen pronoun is the definite article. I am always 'The Meep'." "Oh, I do that," the Doctor replies. It’s not preachy but playful, a fun attempt to show the ease of using people’s preferred pronouns.

Donna’s mum, Sylvia Noble played by Jacqueline King, shows how these challenges play out with humans. She tells her granddaughter that she looks "gorgeous", worries if that was sexist, before accidentally misgendering her. She immediately apologises, Rose apparently still in the early stages of transition – Davies wants to show that not everyone will get it right at first, and that the families of someone transitioning must also go through a process of change.

But even when mistakes are made, they are done so with the best of intentions, with empathy and love. Donna reassures Sylvia: "It’s what happens. You have a kid, you think, 'Good. I’ve got it. That’s mine.' And then she grows up into this extraordinary beautiful thing, and you think, 'Where the hell did she come from? How lucky am I?'"

This tender scene of affirmation is a foil to the cruelty of the world outside. As Rose walks home with her mum, boys from her school ride past on bicycles. They jeer at her, calling out her deadname. Rose is visibly upset but frozen quiet, while Donna shows outrage and says she will tell one of the boys’ mother. It’s the darkest moment in the episode, a moment of real fear and hate grounded firmly in reality rather than aliens and spaceships. Transphobia is the monster, and Donna shows real strength to take it on. In this scene, the writing also reflects transphobia that's sadly all too common in the real world.

Davies doesn’t show this kind of hate for its own sake. The Star Beast is Davies planting his banner firmly in the ground, calling out hate speech as hate speech, and telling his audience that he sees his queer and trans audience, that they are loved and recognised, and that he and Doctor Who will never let them down. In a landscape where it can be difficult to identify allies, it is remarkable to see the showrunner of such a vastly popular programme take such a bold stand. At a time when it can be frightening to exist as a trans person, Davies is just what the doctor ordered.

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, visit the LGBT Foundation for support and further information.

Doctor Who continues next Saturday (2nd December) at 6:30pm on BBC One. Previous episodes are available on BBC iPlayer and on BritBox – you can sign up for a 7-day free trial here.

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