Queering the TARDIS: LGBT+ Characters in Classic Who

❉ Because it wasn’t NuWho who invented pansexuality…

Doctor Who’s recent publicity announcement that TARDIS newbie Bill Potts, played by Pearl Mackie, is the long-running series’ “first openly gay companion” was received with a predictable response of bouquets and brickbats on social media.

Chief among those cries within fandom, was “What about Captain Jack?” Semi-regular companion Captain Jack, played by gay icon, professional homosexual and LGBT activist John Barrowman, is a character that would never have happened in the original Doctor Who, let alone become lead hero in his own spin-off series. Brazenly gay/bi/pan/whatever (labels as we know them don’t exist in Jack’s native 51st century), Jack was a chiseled poster boy for Russell T Davies’ liberal agenda of putting all-inclusiveness into the laps of its teatime family audience.

More recently, we’ve encountered semi-companions Madame Vastra and Jenny, the inter-species lesbian couple that form the hub of the Paternoster Gang; same-sex couples have appeared in NuWho episodes Gridlock and A Good Man Goes To War to name but two, and it’s been hinted at in dialogue that Clara Oswald was riding on both sides of the bus.

But what of the so-called Classic series, dating from 1963 to 1989? On the surface, the number of obviously LGBT characters in Classic Who can be counted on one hand of six pincers – the pronoun-defying hermaphrodite Alpha Centauri, with at least one blog thoughtfully identifying Alpha as gender-neutral.

In its original 26-year run, as a family-oriented series fronted by a deliberately epicene lead character, Doctor Who didn’t trouble its audience with overt instances of non-heteronormative characters, and even examples of full-blooded, heterosexual romance were thin on the ground – largely used as a hackneyed device to write-out companions by pairing them off with male suitors that they had barely met (Hello, Susan, Jo and Leela!).

Yet, reading between the lines, a number of gay-coded characters slipped under the radar of the classic series… So — Bill, Jack – You Are Not Alone.

Marco & Guiliano (The Masque Of Mandragora, 1976)

Louis Marks’ Season 14 story, The Masque Of Mandragora, is a picturesque romp set in Renaissance Italy (actually, Portmerion) blending the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. In this story, we encounter what is arguably the single most homoerotic relationship in Classic Who: Marco and his companion Guiliano (the latter played by a young Tim Piggot-Smith, in his second Who gig). There’s no Brokeback Mountain-style spit-for-lube scene, which would probably have seen Mrs Whitehouse reaching for the smelling salts, but it’s a sensitively underplayed depiction of a very intimate relationship between two blokes.

DWM Time Team commentator Alex Wilcock noted: “Guiliano is clearly rather taken with the Doctor at first sight, so it’s no wonder that Marco spends much of the tale offering jealous put-downs on whatever the Doctor’s doing.”

Producer Philip Hinchcliffe makes it clear that Marco fancies Sarah in the Target novelisation (Maybe he’s bi?), but I don’t buy it. Neither does Count Federico, who tries to hit Marco where it hurts by torturing Guiliano and threatening to have him cut up into tiny pieces.

Adam Colby (Image Of The Fendahl, 1977)

Put simply, Adam Colby is super, thanks for asking. He’s the epitome of what gay Canadian comedian Scott Thompson, calls the “alpha fag”, dismissing every situation that falls before his path with a withering ‘spitting glitter’ one-liner.

I’m reluctant to conflate camp behaviour with gay performativity, but to me, there’s no doubt in my mind that Colby is flamingly fabulous, and his demeanour provides sharp relief in a story where his colleagues are giving it plenty of melodrama, from his acidic put-down of the Doctor as “some sort of wandering Armageddon peddler,” to his eye-rolling reaction to Fendelman’s fiendish time computer, “I always say, if you’ve seen one jukebox, you’ve seen them all…” Colby is proudly, fearlessly FABULOUS, and deliciously camp.

Harrison Chase (The Seeds Of Doom, 1976)

Ostensibly, Chase is your typical, epicene supervillain – he’s so utterly monomaniacal, any kind of gratification or desire has been transferred into his singular obsession, in this case, lush, aggressive vegetation. But he is – to use non-PC vernacular – a screaming queen. He’s one nostril flare away from the full Kenneth Williams when he’s losing his rag over his “incompetents,” like a theatre luvvie bitching about having to slum it in local rep.

Actor Tony Beckley had previous with this kind of role, having played Camp Freddie in The Italian Job and Peter the Dutchman in Get Carter. Harrison Chase is essentially an aristocratic bastard son of these two, turned up to 11.

Amelia Rumford & Vivien Fey (The Stones Of Blood, 1978)

There’s a lot of knowing fun to be had and eyebrows to be arched with Professor Rumford and Vivien Fey’s unconventional partnership. Their cosy living arrangements at Rose Cottage (house speciality: sausage sandwiches before bedtime), as well as trouser suit-wearing Vivien Fay’s camp asides about the uselessness of men, and of course the fun to be had with a bicycle seat…

Lest we sound too much like sniggering schoolboys, it’s clear from the DVD production notes that writer David Fisher did his background research for this story, and thus worth noting that one of Vivien’s aliases is “Mrs Trefusis,” aka Violet Trefusis, the English socialite and writer who had a longstanding love affair with Vita Sackville-West (romanticised in Virgina Woolf’s gender-bending fantasy Orlando).

Professor Whitaker (Invasion Of The Dinosaurs, 1974)

In Genesis Of The Daleks Peter Miles nailed camp menace to perfection with a Herr Flick of the wrist as Davros’ withered-right-hand man, but in Dinosaurs he’s a nondescript bad guy.

However, in the bizarro world of the Doctor Who Target novelisations, writer Malcolm Hulke, clearly in end-of-term mood, made Whitaker as gay as a window in the Target novelisation of Invasion (KLAAK!) Of The Dinosaurs. If he’s not giggling girlishly, casually waving a manicured hand or admiring the Doctor’s physique, he’s nominating Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward as his time-scooped, desert island dishes. The Incredible Hulke also had similar fun in his novelisation of The Green Death, projecting a pseudo-gay relationship between BOSS and his conduit Stevens, with the supercomputer at one point intoning the wedding march (“Do you, Stevens, take this computer…”), and on another occasion quoting – yup, him again – Oscar Wilde.

Dr Judson (The Curse Of Fenric, 1989)

According to writer Ian Briggs, scientist Dr Judson (played by Dinsdale Landen) was partly inspired by Alan Turing, pioneer of computer science best known for his work on the ENIGMA codes.

In reality, Alan Turing struggled with his homosexuality at a time when being gay was not only illegal but also classed as a mental illness. For The Curse Of Fenric, a metaphor was created with Judson embittered by his disability. The Target novelisation – very much of a prototype of Virgin’s more adult New Adventures – adds an extra dimension to the relationship between Judson and Commander Millington, when a flashback to their schooldays reveals that it was Millington’s sexual jealousy that led to the “accident” that caused Judson’s disability. Turing himself met the Eighth Doctor in BBC novel The Turing Test, and in a later novel The Domino Effect, the Doctor claims that Turing was “more than a friend” (!)…

Colin & Robin (Arc Of Infinity, 1983)

Basically, episode one is an extended homage to European gay porn. A travelogue shot on cheap-looking videotape following the travails of two young backpackers, played by poor actors with the pornotastic surnames Boxer and Cumming. Their attempts to find somewhere to bed down for the night are accompanied by a naff synth score, as they decide to try their chances in a “pump house” (“No one ever comes here, except the odd gardener during the day” – ba-chicka-wow!). There’s a bit of awkward banter leaden with sexual tension (“Are you really going to sleep like that?” “Well, what’s the matter with that?” “You’re still fully dressed.” “I’m not taking any chances!” “At least take your socks off!”), and then the chicken arrives… (okay, it’s more of a turkey…) There are gayer moments in JNT-era Who – the Triga skinheads in Silver Nemesis, Nyssa spending a whole episode making a vibrator – but not many.

Ace & Karra (Survival, 1989)

Sophie Aldred’s Ace is what one would quaintly describe as a ‘tomboy’, but would nowadays be recognised as gender-nonconforming. The antithesis of the ‘Doctor Who girl’ who screamed and twisted her ankle, she dressed in leggings and Doc Martens, was handy with explosives and refused to be talked down to by anybody (Hence her dismissive nickname for the Doc: Professor).

We’d seen Ace form an emotional attachment with Mike Smith, until she discovered he belonged to a facsist movement, and – in a rare instance of the original series explicitly acknowledging sexual awakening – manipulatively flirt with a squaddie in The Curse of Fenric (“Have to move faster than that if you want to keep up with me. Faster than light”) but it wasn’t until Season 26 that we saw Ace show signs of bisexuality, forming closer bonds with Shou Yiong, Gwendoline, and Survival’s Karra, played by Lisa Bowerman.

Website Gallifrey Archive wrote: “Writers for the seasons 25 and 26 have confirmed to writing the character as LGBT. An example of this is Rona Munro who wrote Survival. Munro inferred a lesbian relationship between Karra one of the Cheetah People. Although it wasn’t confirmed on screen, it was a great step to take for developing the Doctor’s companions.”

Indeed, writer Rona Munro confirmed that the lesbian subtext between Ace and Karra was deliberate: “There were whole amazing scenes between them and for me, that was supposed to be my lesbian subtext”.

For the keen-eyed there are many more instances of coded LGBT characters in the classic series, particularly the politically-aware McCoy era: To name but a few, there’s Gilbert M and Joseph C swanning off to a new life at the end of The Happiness Patrol, Paradise Towers‘ Tabby & Tilda are arguably the Cassini sisters of classic Who, and it’s fair to say that the Think Tank of Robot would have struggled to spawn a New World Order if power dyke Hilda Winters and her factotum Jellicoe were the only hope for reproduction…

❉ What do you think? Have your say in the comments below, share the post on Facebook, or if you prefer to Tweet, join the conversation over on Twitter: follow us on @wearecultonline

❉ About the author: James Gent is a bisexual activist.

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  1. Survival is blatant!
    DOCTOR: They’re extremely dangerous creatures. They could eat you. Or…
    ACE: Or what?
    DOCTOR: Worse.
    ACE: What’s worse?
    DOCTOR: Let’s just say they are dangerously attractive.

  2. “The Dominators” – The two Dominators bicker like an old married couple. As if the title weren’t kinky enough…
    “The War Games” – The Security Chief, the War Chief and the War Lord have such bitchy banter… and the S&M gear of the guards…
    Captain Yates… um, hello…
    “The Time Monster” – Stewart the research assistant had an Elton John poster in his apartment, a dead giveaway there. And the relationship with Ruth is an archtypical fag/hag pair.
    Adric & Turlough – Matthew Waterhouse and Mark Strickson were cast specifically because JNT was trying to draw in gay viewers… as was Peter Davison.
    “Planet of Fire” – First of all, Peter Wyngarde. Plus, why is it that everyone remembers Peri’s bikini, but not Turlough in a Speedo??
    “Frontier In Space” – I appreciated that the female President of Earth had a personal masseuse.

  3. Personally, I have always felt that the tearful kiss the Graff Vynda-K gives Sholakh at the end of “The Ribos Operation” goes above and beyond the call of mere military honours …

    I gather Rona Munro was less than thrilled at the furry outfits in “Survival”, but the subtext is so blatant that even at the tender age of 10 I could sense the frisson, though I did not twig the bold implications of that scene where Karra is licking water out of Ace’s hands, but her head height and the camera angle imply … otherwise. One can see why they picked this story for the end of the show’s run (What must Mary Whitehouse have thought, or was perhaps she Victorian enough to believe that lesbianism was just an urban myth?).

    A great story, at any rate, and the only one really in the classic series to show mutation in a seductive as well as an unnerving light, as an opportunity for personal growth (I love the fact that Ace becomes entirely reconciled to her partial mutation, as it means her would-be lover will, in a sense, live on through her). “State of Decay” was a rather missed opportunity in that regard … although, on the LGBT subject, Camilla’s ‘interest’ in Romana certainly seems more than just nutritional.

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