Doctor Who has always been a beacon of diversity and acceptance in British culture.
This article examines its groundbreaking approach to transgender representation, highlighting the positive impact it has on viewers and the wider community.
When I go down the street, it’s a rare blessing when someone doesn’t yell something at me. If I cross the road, I brace myself for what slurs might come forth from the windows of passing cars.
If you’re someone who is openly trans, these things may feel familiar to you, even more so in a political climate where MPs are openly stating that they’re going to draft laws banning “biological men” from entering “single-sex spaces”.
What fewer people realise, however, is that there’s an added challenge to avoiding street harassment if you don’t have reliable use of your own body. As soon as you add a mobility aid into the mix, the fear increases tenfold. In a wheelchair, you can’t turn around on the spot as quickly, there’s no way to hide the machine you’re sitting in if you don’t want to be seen.
The UK mainstream media has created an environment where targeting people who are “different” has become acceptable and normalised, in some circumstances even actively encouraged.
So, then along comes this show, Doctor Who.
It’s not just the longest-running sci-fi show of all time, it’s a deeply rooted part of British culture. I grew up with tales of my Mum hiding behind the sofa when Daleks were on screen. I begged my Dad to change the channel when reruns of Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy were on the telly because “it’s boring, I don’t get it.”
Then in 2005, at the age of 17, I sat down with my parents and saw Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper together on TV for the first time with Russell T Davies’ new revamp of Doctor Who, and I was absolutely transfixed. I didn’t know it at the time, but Davies’ previous works and life experiences meant that this revitalised series carried with it an energy of campiness and tolerance that didn’t just correlate with the show’s history of acceptance and diversity, but also brought an innate queerness that spoke to LGBTQIA+ viewers on a deep level.
I was an immediate fan of “new Who”, but I had no idea that 18 years later I would be cosying up to watch a new 2023 special featuring familiar faces and characters, only to find myself absolutely bawling my eyes out.
Of course, the fanservice was great, sure I was excited to see David Tennant and Catherine Tate again, but that’s not what had me openly sobbing.
Some mild spoilers ahead!
‘The Star Beast’ features a character called Rose Noble, daughter of returning character Donna Noble.
It’s revealed fairly early on in the episode that Rose is trans, as a group of boys from her school pass her and Donna on the street, deadnaming her as they ride by on their bikes.
In my opinion, the use of deadnaming in fiction is typically unnecessary and rarely anything except to serve as a way to other the character and show that they will always be the gender they were assigned at birth in some sense, and it makes their portrayal feel disingenuous and tokenistic.
Doctor Who managed to bypass this feeling for me, and I think that the way they treated it was very smart. The deadnaming is immediately met with anger from Donna, whose instinct is to go after the boys and only doesn’t because she’s stopped by Rose. It isn’t drawn out, it isn’t sensationalised, but it’s made clear from the get-go that what those boys have done is wrong.
There’s also a more subtle technique used, which is that the boys’ faces are out of focus in the shot the entire time. They’re never given identities, they’re never given more screen time, they are unimportant. Rose is the focus of the shot and the story, and the emphasis isn’t on her deadname, but on the fact that this is an unpleasant part of the reality of being trans.
We get a taste of what it’s like to be accosted for no reason other than existing, but then the show immediately pulls us to the side and says, “But there’s more to it than that, here’s what you should be doing with the trans people in your life” with the following scene.
Donna pulls Rose to one side and says, “Listen, you. I would burn down the world for you, darling. Anyone has a go, I will be there, and I will descend.”
For anyone that has not had this kind of unbridled love from a parent, it hits you hard. This is how parents should be. They should be your number one supporter, through thick and thin, and Doctor Who tells us this unreservedly.
The scene continues with Rose no longer in the room, and again we get to see a mixture of the reality of the trans experience intermingled with the ideal way to act when you have a trans person in your family.
Donna explains what happened to her Mum Sylvia, Rose’s grandmother, and we see Sylvia questioning how she speaks to her trans granddaughter. “When I say she looks gorgeous, is that right? I mean is it sexist? I never said it to him when he was-… Oh, oh sorry.”
I’ve had so many conversations like this with work colleagues, friends, family members. People suddenly become hyper alert when they meet a trans person for the first time, and they start to second guess everything they say. Are they going to accidentally offend? When all we want is for them to speak to us like there’s nothing special or different about us.
When Sylvia misgendered Rose, my mind instantly went to my own Mum. Ironically, the same year that Russel T Davies revamped Doctor Who is also when I started going by a male name and pronouns for the first time, and 18 years later my Mum, who fully accepts who I am, still accidentally misgenders me. There’s no malice behind it, just a forgetful brain that still sees both the child I was and the adult I am.
Donna’s response is, again, flawless. “Does she look gorgeous? Yes. Well, stop worrying.”
Without giving away too much for those who have yet to see the special, the episode from this point on continues with normality in regards to who Rose is. They shift the focus less on Rose being trans, and more on how very loved she is. This eventually leads to a climax that will make any non-binary nerd beam with pride.
There’s also a scene that discusses pronouns, some funny lines about people who are male-presenting, and a general undercurrent of modern thinking that has had the “anti-woke” mob frothing at the mouth (so you know it’s good.)
In a time where the mainstream media is so focused on villainising and dehumanising us, it feels almost like a form of protest for a show to say, “Trans people are our family and they deserve love.”
So, this trans representation focuses very much on how the world should be treating us compared to how it actually does, but when it comes to disability representation the show takes a different direction.
Allow me a moment to reference a different show featuring David Tennant, the wonderfully queer Good Omens. The second season features the amazing Liz Carr as Saraquel. What let me down about her character was the fact that they had this brilliant disability activist on show in what is a clearly inaccessible environment, and they never took that opportunity to make a statement.
I will never forget the shot of her going up the street in her wheelchair to Aziraphale’s bookshop, and the shop clearly has these massive steps at the front with no accessible entrance. In the next shot, she’s just magically inside like it’s no big deal, and it’s never touched upon how on Earth she got in there.
‘The Star Beast’ goes in the total opposite direction. We’re introduced to Shirley Anne Bingham, “UNIT Scientific Advisor No. 56”, played brilliantly by Ruth Madeley. Her character is competent, intelligent and outgoing which is of course fabulous, but the real kicker is that they never shy away from the fact that she is in a wheelchair.
It isn’t just representation because she exists, it’s because they acknowledge that part of her. There’s a scene where a soldier under her command is about to ascend to a spaceship they have under surveillance, and the camera pans up a huge set of stairs as the soldier says clumsily, “Ah… That’s uhm… Sorry about the stairs.”
Shirley replies, “Don’t make me the problem, just get in there.” This one small moment alone felt momentous to me. It’s so rare to see a show bother to depict the fact that the majority of the world is still inherently inaccessible to disabled people (not just us wheelchair users), we are treated as an afterthought and often we have no choice but to get on with things the best we can, even if that means not being as involved as we should.
I hope that depictions like this make able-bodied folks realise how much they take for granted, and how little energy they actually put into remembering that we exist and deserve the same access as them to everything in life.
There’s also a moment later in the episode that is a little silly but honestly wonderful when you remember that the target audience is families which includes teens and kids, where it’s revealed that Shirley’s wheelchair can launch tranquiliser darts.
This special gives an amazing first impression of Davies returning to the helm when it comes to representation and diversity, and I truly cannot wait to see what else he has up his sleeve.
I’d also like to start a petition for all wheelchairs to come equipped with weapons.