The New “Doctor Who” Is Casually Queer and Brilliantly Hopeful

The best thing I can say about the best TV of the last two years is that, on a good day, it distracted me — for ten minutes, an hour — from every way the world was burning. My wish was that Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who would be one of the rare shows that would offer me that occasional respite. It did, for a moment. Near the middle of the third episode of this new season, though, right around the time I realized the Doctor and her companions weren’t going to take over Rosa Parks’ story, but guard the timeline so she could simply carry on as the hero she always was, I started to cry. Sniffly tears. Bigger ones.

The feeling I had was familiar, but I didn’t really recognize it; chest pain, not because my lungs were restricted, but because I was breathing big and deep and full of — what was that? Hope? Yes, hope! What I was feeling was hopeful! I wasn’t ignoring the world and its cruelty and its history. I was sitting with it, in it, the worst of it, and the now of it, and seeing, for the first time in a long time that I could find a way through.

Yaz and Ryan and Thirteen and Graham and Grace

Chris Chibnall has rooted Thirteen in Doctor Who‘s mountain of lore, and Jodie Whittaker brings just the right balance of gravitas and whimsy to make it feel like just another regeneration — but neither of them have wasted any time in their quest to reframe how the Doctor sees herself and how she interacts with the world. Yes, there is time travel. And yes, there are monsters. But new Who isn’t about how the Doctor overcomes her adversaries; it’s about what facing those adversaries reveals about her and the people fighting alongside her. It’s about the ways humanity triumphs.

And not just white male humanity — oh ho, no! There’s a white guy named Graham in the TARDIS and he’s surprisingly likable, but the series has mostly explored his character through his relationship with his Black step-grandson, Ryan, who also is in the TARDIS, alongside his childhood friend Yaz, a Pakistani Muslim police officer. We’re getting to know them more and more as the season progresses, and the people we’re meeting along the way aren’t white guys either. The guest star hero of the second episode, “The Ghost Monument,” is a queer woman named Angstrom. The guest star hero of episode three, “Rosa,” is, of course, Rosa Parks. In episode four, “Arachnids in the U.K.,” it’s a team of women of color taking down Chris Noth playing a version of Donald Trump. And in this week’s “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” it’s a renowned woman general/fighter pilot played by the Welsh actress Suzanne Packer, a second generation Jamaican immigrant.

Rosa Parks, played brilliantly by Vinette Robinson.

“Rosa” is the first episode of Doctor Who co-written by a Black woman, and it shows. Malorie Blackman was the UK Children’s Laureate from 2013 to 2015. She’s written over 30 novels, dozens of short stories and books for new readers, stage plays, and a series of radio scripts for a show called Noughts and Crosses that “uses the setting of a fictional dystopia to explore racism.” No wonder “Rosa” doesn’t treat racism as a thing of the past or frame it as something perpetrated by old white Southerners. Ryan talks about being policed more than his white friends, Yaz talks about being called slurs when she’s leaving her mosque. Ryan feels dejected that even after everything the United States’ Civil Rights movement accomplished in the ’60s, moving through the world is still harder and more dangerous for them. Yaz finds light in the fact that 52 years after the day they’re sitting in this alley in Birmingham, Alabama, the United States will elect its first Black president; and no, it won’t “solve” racism, but where will they be 53 years after that?

It’s mesmerizing to see a show written, run, and mostly acted by white men for decades suddenly populated by so many people of color. And it’s just as hypnotizing to see how casually it treats queerness. In addition to the aforementioned queer Hunger Games-esque survivor Angstrom, “Arachnids in the U.K.” had a queer political strategist (who, like basically everyone else in that episode, got eaten by spiders), and it introduced the idea that Yaz is bisexual. It starts with a conversation between Yaz’s mother and the Doctor.

Yaz’s mom: Are you two seeing each other?
The Doctor: I don’t think so. Are we?
Yaz: We’re friends!
The Doctor: *Well, there you go face*
Yaz’s mom: *rolls her eyes.

It’s the same conversation Yaz’s mom has later with her and Ryan, seeming to indicate that Yaz has previously expressed romantic interest in more than one gender and no one’s got a problem with it, including the Doctor. Earlier in the episode, Yaz and Thirteen have a conversation strikingly similar to the one Rose and Ten (more than friends) have about him traveling the alone, and at the end of the episode Yaz breathlessly proclaims to the Doctor as she rushes to the TARDIS, “I want more. More of the universe. More time with you. You’re like the best person I’ve ever met.” (Gay.)

General Eve Cicero (Suzanne Packer) and her brother.

It’s this deliberate commitment to exploring the universe and space and time and the humanity of more than just white men that makes Doctor Who‘s optimism resonate. It’s inhabiting the fictional universe it’s aiming to create in the real world. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. And after this week’s episode, I have no doubt it’s on purpose, that I’m meant to be crying and my chest is meant to be aching with promise. When asked if she’s a doctor of medicine, our Doctor responds, “Well, medicine, science, engineering, candy floss, Lego, philosophy, music, problems, people, hope! Mostly hope.”

If that weren’t enough, consider the words of the android Ronan, offering tribute to his General, and a message to the Doctor and her crew, and to me and you: “May the saints of all the stars and constellations bring you hope, as they guide you out of the dark and into the light. On this voyage and the next. And all the journeys still to come. For now and evermore.”

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Heather has written 720 articles for us.

27 Comments

  1. That speech at the end of the last episode made me cry so hard!!!! I love this Doctor. I love her so much. And after the flaming trash pile that was Moffat’s writing I am So. Fucking. Happy. To be able to love Doctor Who again! For all the reasons you listed!

    Also I ship Yaz and The Doctor so hard.
    Like.
    So hard.

  2. I love thirteen and her faces and her dorkiness and her clothes. I love her and Yaz. I really liked the way they casually clarified they weren’t dating without suggesting it wasn’t a possibility, it was neither heteronormative nor devaluing platonic friendship.

    • This is great!! I watched all the eps this weekend (after figuring out that we DO have a BBC America login after all, thank goodness) and cried during every one. And then I teared up again reading this!

      I agree with everything you say — the Doctor really feels like *the Doctor*, like just another regeneration of the same core person. But seeing a female Doctor casually be the same amazing hero who has a bit (no, a whole volume!) written about them in the history books, someone who is cocky and curious and brash and compassionate, all of those complex things that the Doctor has always been, but also just a bit more adorable and lovable? So, so perfect.

      In general, the show just feels so refreshed without Moffat, like a weight of subtle and sometimes-not-so-subtle misogyny and racism was hanging around its neck and now it’s gone. Not to say that it’s perfect now, or that Moffat didn’t introduce some good characters (Jenny and Madame Vastra!). But it feels so playful and hopeful and queer and just like, so into awesome queer women and women of color. You know? Like you pointed out, the whole world is populated with them, just in a lovely casual way, where you’re only a little sad when a passing queer lady is absolutely gonna get eaten by spiders, because you know they’ll be more, maybe in the very next episode! Doctor Who has always been good at getting you to care about bit characters in one-offs, but it certainly helps that they’ve mostly always been badass ladies this season. I feel like the jokes are better too, like less like your uncool uncle trying to make references the kids will get, and more interesting and genuinely funny takes on like, racism and family and masculinity and gender roles.

      Anyway, that’s all just to say that I said out loud “she’s already my favorite Doctor” like 7 minutes into the first ep and I haven’t changed my mind!!

  3. I am loving this season! Have loved Jodie Whittaker for ages, loving what she’s bringing to Thirteen. Isn’t there also another casual gay-drop in Arachnids? The woman at the beginning is Chris NothTrump’s niece’s girlfriend? Very gay, I love it. Yaz’s mum!!!! <3 I really really hope that River Song meets Thirteen though, I will cry forever if they take a pass on the opportunity to show that the Doctor *is* one of the ex-wives that River refers to.

    • The ring falling off because she became a woman really made me mad! I can’t let that go.

      But I don’t want to burden this season with repairing all of the things Moffat broke. We have a Doctor of Hope, right when we need her the most. Let’s look forward not backward.

  4. I love this incarnation of the Doctor, but I think the plots have been kind of lazily written and for fucks sake, does she have to apologize so much? Like constantly, to everyone?

    Also I had a completely different take on the Rosa Parks episode. They made it seem like she wouldn’t have done what she did unless the Doctor and her team made it happen. Like, her moment was part of a planned bus protest. It would have happened even if there was another driver. She wasn’t asked to move because the bus was full, she and her three fellow protesters deliberately sat in the whites only section. Rosa Parks wasn’t an accidental heroine. She was a lifelong activist. If you’re going to recreate her story for a SciFi program, at least give her the credit she deserves.

    • One thing I REALLY loved at the end of the spider episode is that she’s the FIRST version of the Doctor (well since 9th, i’ve not watched the old ones) who actually understands a little bit about consent when she takes the companions on board. She tells them death is a possibility and that she can’t promise that she’ll be able to always protect them but that she’ll try.

      I think her apologies make sense in the continuity of the previous doctors. Twelve was quite darker because he was dealing with the loss of Clara (and River) and the understanding that no matter how much he tries his companions aren’t always safe with him. I think Thirteen’s apologising is rooted in that if that makes sense?

      • I was so struck by the Doctor’s honesty with the companions and the fact that she asked for their consent after telling the truth. I’ve just been generally really impressed with the sense of equality occurring in this series. It’s like they finally learned that the Doctor can still be incredibly alien while still treating everyone else with respect and care.

    • Yeah, if it wasn’t Rosa Parks at that specific time it would have been another. I did notice that plot hole.

      But I looked at it as the show saying that they were lifting up that moment as precious to humanity and worthy to be protected with great effort.

      • I think too they were concerned futurist-greaser-racist (blanking on his name) had done so many other minor tweaks to the timeline that they absolutely had to 100% make sure history was put back in place. They didn’t want to take a chance and with tiny changes already jacking history, some of which they did (Ryan being at the meeting with MLK, Rosa ending up pacifying that obnoxious dude who threatened Ryan, the fact that Yaz was mistake for Mexican and probably generated some small buzz for being so different) they couldn’t risk breaking it further.

  5. I am a life long sci fi fan, I only got into Who when it returned because I was terrified of Tom Baker’s hair as a child and it helped that I had a massive teenage crush on Billie Piper, she can buzz me up to Heaven anytime *swoon* 13 is overtaking 9 as my Doctor because she is just such a delight. As soon as I saw Angstrom I thought she has queer hair, she better be queer. I am loving the diversity in casting. Every one is so lovely. It’s making me so happy.

    Also, Graham is now my favourite and most relatable character after complaining about not getting food in Rosa. If I was a companion, I would have pockets full of snacks. Ok fine, I currently have very accessible snacks. I don’t think I have a stomach for time travel.

  6. There is a lot of great Sci Fi TV out there this year, but Doctor Who is the one I most look forward to every week. Each regeneration of the Doctor is generally delightful one way or another, but I find myself just wanting to *hang out* with Thirteen in between all the adventures. I keep falling in love with the casual queerness around her, the way she pays attention to the bonds between people, and how the rest of Team Tardis evolves in her presence.
    I also want to hear her accent and look at her shiny hair and coat forever, soooo I may have my first legit crush since Ten.

  7. I used to watch doctor who back in the days (I had to quit when Rose left as a companion, because I missed her too much). BUT a female doctor?? Count me in. I skipped all the episodes in between (I know I know – my mom has already yelled at me) but dear oh dear. I am LOVING this season. I love Jodie as the doctor. I love Yaz. I love Ryan. And to be honest, I quite like Graham as well.

  8. I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who since Peter Davidson. I loved Nine and Twelve, but I *really* love Thirteen! As a life-long fan I can clearly see the difference this season to all the previous years, with the main thing being it not all about white men and the girls that love them. Seeing her this week waxing lyrical to Yaz about science and anti-matter was just pure love for me, because all I could think of was how many little kids that will inspire.

    And there was a line in the spider episode (which I had to watch mostly through my fingers :shudder:) where she said she’d had sisters and been a sister before, which I thought was very interesting. And yes, the casual queerness of it, making it so normal, is absolutely perfect!

  9. This article made me so happy! I am loving Doctor Who in a way I really haven’t since Ten. And now I think Thirteen is actually eclipsing Ten as my favorite Doctor. For all the reasons everyone has mentioned – the casual queerness, the centering of characters of color. Plus I love that the writing is character-focused rather than wild, nonsensical plots (I’m looking at you, Moffat). And my wife is really shipping characters for the first time ever – Thirteen and Yaz, of course. So that’s fun too!

  10. This sounds delightful – do I need to go back and watch the rest of the Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi episodes to get into it though? I kind of stopped watching consistently after the Ponds were no longer the companions, and I don’t think I’ve seen anything past the Capaldi Christmas episode

    • I would say that whenever the Doctor regenerates, you can jump right in there. Particularly so in this case as they have a whole new team running the show and all new companions. There is always continuity because it’s 50 years old, but I don’t think you’re going to lose out if you’ve not seen it for a while.

    • They’ve said this season will have no old monsters, and there’s no indication that any old characters will return. So it should be easy to just jump right in, even more so than usual after a regeneration.

    • I’ve never seen a single episode of Doctor Who but when I heard Jodie Whitaker was going to be the new Doctor, I decided to tune in because I thought she was fantastic in Broadchurch and Journeyman. I haven’t had any problems following along thus far.

  11. I love the new Doctor soooo much…. Ive teared up so many times!!! Seeing the Tardis for the “first time”, all the Doctor’s inspiring speeches!!! I’m so glad for the new series, I missed the show sooo much!

    Also, I ship Yaz and the Doctor so much, they are both so amazing!

  12. i love the new doctor who. i kinda stopped watching part way through 11, moffat really turned me off. but i’m super glad that we have 13 now. she’s such a sweetheart. i don’t necessarily find the plotting stellar yet, but i’m here for the overall characterization and storylines. jodie whitaker has been great so far.

    also, i love yaz. being desi means i’m biased towards south asian representation in media. there are so many desi ppl in the uk, i can’t believe we’re only now getting a main character south asian companion. anyway, tomorrow’s ep they’re going to explore the partition and i’m super-nervous, but i also feel like they’ll do a good job. gonna probably cry a lot.

  13. Doctor who has always made me so hopeful. It’s casual queerness (i.e. Jack Harkness, among others) helped me a lot when I was questioning my own sexuality in middle school. I love this season so damn much- and I love all the characters!!!!!!! I would literally die for yaz lol

  14. (Accidentally did this as a reply above, trying to post it as a regular comment now. Sorry!)

    This is great!! I watched all the eps this weekend (after figuring out that we DO have a BBC America login after all, thank goodness) and cried during every one. And then I teared up again reading this!

    I agree with everything you say — the Doctor really feels like *the Doctor*, like just another regeneration of the same core person. But seeing a female Doctor casually be the same amazing hero who has a bit (no, a whole volume!) written about them in the history books, someone who is cocky and curious and brash and compassionate, all of those complex things that the Doctor has always been, but also just a bit more adorable and lovable? So, so perfect.

    In general, the show just feels so refreshed without Moffat, like a weight of subtle and sometimes-not-so-subtle misogyny and racism was hanging around its neck and now it’s gone. Not to say that it’s perfect now, or that Moffat didn’t introduce some good characters (Jenny and Madame Vastra!). But it feels so playful and hopeful and queer and just like, so into awesome queer women and women of color. You know? Like you pointed out, the whole world is populated with them, just in a lovely casual way, where you’re only a little sad when a passing queer lady is absolutely gonna get eaten by spiders, because you know they’ll be more, maybe in the very next episode! Doctor Who has always been good at getting you to care about bit characters in one-offs, but it certainly helps that they’ve mostly always been badass ladies this season. I feel like the jokes are better too, like less like your uncool uncle trying to make references the kids will get, and more interesting and genuinely funny takes on like, racism and family and masculinity and gender roles.

    Anyway, that’s all just to say that I said out loud “she’s already my favorite Doctor” like 7 minutes into the first ep and I haven’t changed my mind!!

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