Voices: Doctor Who is a lifeline for queer people like me

Doctor Who is back, and it is queerer than ever (BBC Studios/Bad Wolf/James Pardon)
Doctor Who is back, and it is queerer than ever (BBC Studios/Bad Wolf/James Pardon)

Doctor Who is back, and it’s queerer than ever. Original reboot showrunner Russell T Davies, of Queer As Folk and It’s A Sin fame, is back at the helm, and we even have openly queer actor Ncuti Gatwa in the lead role. Who would have guessed back in 2005 that the Doctor would be number one on the Independent Pride List?

Not me. In 2005, I was desperately sad. Growing up at the tail end of Section 28, I was regularly called homophobic slurs in school and ignored by teachers when I expressed my sadness. We sometimes forget that the law which banned the “promotion of homosexuality” was only repealed in 2003, when I was 14. It just so happens that 2003 was also the year Doctor Who was announced as returning from its decades of dormancy.

Some things don’t change. Back then I was broken, I was gay, and I was living in the armpit of the country. Now, decades later I find myself washed up here, after surviving a suicide attempt in London, still gay, and broken again in more ways than one.

And once more, Doctor Who is healing me.

It is at its heart a TV show about a time-travelling gender-bending alien with two hearts who is older than time, has worn more faces than Joan Collins, and has slept with everyone from Houdini to Queen Elizabeth I. Gatwa seems to understand this better than most people, and plays the role as definitively queer.

“Ncuti is the perfect hero for these troubled times,” Paul Burston, host of the Polari literary salon and prize and author of We Can Be Heroes – A Survivor’s Story, tells me. “A black queer man who came to the UK from Rwanda now plays the time-travelling Time Lord on peak time Saturday night TV. He embodies everything the ‘anti-woke’ mob hate – and I couldn’t love him more.”

And how pleasurably woke it is. Over the years, we’ve seen a whole ensemble of queer characters: from trans actor Yasmin Finney who played Rose Noble in last year’s specials, to the lesbian Victorian married couple (one of whom happens to be a reptile) Jenny Flint and Madame Vastra. Not to mention pansexual Torchwoodagent Jack Harkness. Last week’s episode saw Drag Race alumni Jinkx Monsoon play the personification of music, “the Maestro”, wrapping people up in anthropomorphic music scores. It’s camp. It’s extra. And it’s glorious.

It’s not just me who finds Doctor Who a lifeline in times of need. “The Doctor, in the most peculiar of ways, is one of the very few television characters I thought was in some way, like me,” says Gerry Potter, poet and author of the memoir 6A Blackstock Gardens. “I was a working-class effeminate child in Liverpool’s hard-as-nails Scotland Road and they were a noble lord of time from Gallifrey. My gut and creative instinct was always about change, regeneration thrilled me. One day, just like the Doctor escaped Gallifrey and changed, I’d escape Scotland Road and do something indelibly similar. My guess is, I was always part queer, part Time Lord.”

In 2021, 64 per cent of LGBT+ people had experienced anti-LGBT+ violence or abuse. More than ever, Doctor Who is a safety blanket disguised as a show about monsters. It’s a way to live vicariously across alien worlds through a TV screen. “We choose our families. And the Doctor is a lonely wanderer, looking for their next adventure … I know many a gay man, many a gay man, I could describe that way,” Ncuti Gatwa told The Guardian in 2023. And he’s right. I know people with chronic illnesses whose highlight is watching what the Doctor gets up to each week.

And for the broken, it is a reminder that you won’t stay broken forever. Time heals. Sometimes you might get a new face but it will all end up OK. More or less. It is a reminder that being kind, resourceful, and to keep running are some of the most important qualities a person can have. To enter the Tardis, bigger on the inside, is to open a closet door and realise just how big and beautiful the world can be.