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A fiction developmental editor’s thoughts on Dr Who and queerness

Recently, Dr Who has been making the headlines with viewers commenting on “woke” storylines and scenes. Examples include the character Rose Noble dealing with transphobic bullies and suggesting the Doctor ask the Meep (a cute but deadly alien) about their pronouns. Some viewers are uncomfortable with the first Black, queer Time Lord, played by the wonderful Ncuti Gatwa.

Well, I’ve got news for them: Dr Who has always been woke.

Image by Dante Candal on Unsplash

Section 28 and the 1980s

I grew up in the UK with the Sylvester McCoy era, which seemed modern to me in the early 1990s. (I look back now and cringe!) My uncle was (and is) an avid Whovian and each time we used to visit him, I’d pick a different story from his Tardis video cabinet.

So what do these stories look like in 2024? And what issues were they grappling with? After all, fiction developmental editing is about context as well as structure, and understanding how an audience will perceive a film, TV show, play, or book should feature in the advice we give.

Now, television is a different format to the book. Some things work very differently – it’s much easier for the viewer to follow POV shifts on camera than in text, for example. But all formats have many aspects in common – they all have characters, plots, and settings, after all.

And one pro tip: reading a book is a substantial time investment, but you can study story structure and pacing in a film and learn a trick or two in ninety minutes! (Or double that, if you watch it twice for next-level insights).

Anyyyyway, here are my thoughts on two Dr Who Sylvester McCoy serials (even that word takes me back to another era!)

The Happiness Patrol

This was a camp piece of political satire directed at the Thatcher government. It’s set on a world where people have to be happy all the time, and all people who express negative emotions (known as Killjoys) are killed (there are “forced disappearances,” which made me think of Thatcher’s friend Pinochet). An evil robot called the Kandy Man (who looks like Bertie Bassett, which got the BBC in trouble) delivers justice by pouring burning fondant onto Killjoys.

There’s a lot of political subtext going on here. Neoliberal economics, which 80s, 90s, and 00s kids grew up on, is grounded in an idea called the principle of marginal utility. It’s about the added satisfaction a person will gain from buying one extra unit of a product or service, so it links happiness to consumption.

Helen A is the antagonist, modelled on Margaret Thatcher, with an empathy-lacking backstory to boot. She turned her own parents over to the Happiness Patrol when they were grieving for her after a fall she unexpectedly survived.

Looking back, this serial feels particularly ridiculous (especially the evil Bertie Bassett robot) but it has a kitsch taken from gay subcultures that makes it endearing.

And the Happiness Patrol paint the Tardis pink (a “happy colour”) at a time when Section 28 was being passed, which sends a clear message, especially alongside the inclusion of gay characters.

For a more detailed review of The Happiness Patrol, check out this review.

Survival

This was, ironically, the last serial of the old Dr Who ever filmed. It was clearly made on the cheap, but watching it was like discovering an undiscovered B-side from a band I used to love.

The first developmental editing point I noticed was that loads of the main characters kept stating the theme (“survival of the fittest”) in really unsubtle, grating ways!

What I liked about this episode was that it was really set in late 1980s London, and it took you through some working-class settings and landscapes (drinking with friends on a hill in the park, self-defence classes at a youth club), etc. Ace’s relationship with one of the cheetah people, Karra, had a lesbian subtext (and this was before furry fandom was a thing).

What I liked most about this story was realizing that the writers had given Ace a character arc. Her main character goal has always been to find a way of getting home (Perivale), and when she finally does get back there and sees that it has changed, her arc completes and she views the Tardis as her home.

I know Ace is a popular companion among Dr Who fans, but one of the reasons why she has appeal, besides being countercultural, is that she was a much more fully formed, three-dimensional character with goals, motivations, and a character arc. This wasn’t the case for most of the earlier companions, their main role in the story being an audience surrogate – asking questions the audience wants to know, which the doctor would never ask (“So why is the Tardis bigger on the inside …?”). Let’s be honest, this was gendered, too – the “companions” were often attractive women and the questions they asked would be “stupid questions” that the wise Doctor would patiently explain to them.

Survival was also a good episode because it depicted Ace in her “natural” surrounds – one big issue with her characterization is the fact that her street persona and language don’t travel easily halfway across the galaxy. Because it’s partly (or mostly) a show for kids, she couldn’t swear and the bizarre solution they find for her countercultural character is to make up a bunch of ridiculous insults, like “Right, you male chauvinist bilge bag, just you wait.” Can’t say I noticed or cared as a kid, though!

Dr Who has always been “woke”

In conclusion, Dr Who has always been “woke” – with John Pertwee standing up for gay rights in the 1950s when a gay actor-friend was sacked from a production. But the seventh doctor accelerated this trend and tackled important social issues. Sure, the show was losing funding and popularity at this time, but the final incarnation of the old Doctor helped make the show what it is today.

Dr Andrew Hodges
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