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Gender in Doctor Who: Man, Monster and Minor – Part I: The Home Front, Manliness and the Dandy Hero

The first time I quit politics, I gave a concession speech crediting my seven-year career as leader of the BC Green Party to the British science fiction series Dr. Who for “teaching me that a tall, eccentric, clumsy, curly-haired man can, indeed, save the universe.” My valedictory remarks ended with a quotation from the Doctor’s first farewell, in 1964, to his young, female companion/assistant, a traditional feature of the show by the time of its cancellation in 1989.

Although, the first of these companions had been the Doctor’s granddaughter, the young, shapely, wide-eyed female companion became the most predictable feature of the cast. Indeed, out of the original series’ 667 episodes, 647 feature such a character. While Dr. Who companions were generally portrayed as assisting the Doctor, it was only at the apex of second-wave feminism (1977-82) that their role does not consist substantially of screaming, being injured, getting captured, being rescued and asking questions in a way that enables the main character to demonstrate his superior knowledge.

Although there is an argument to be made that Dr. Who companions did more good than harm when it comes to widening the range of possible female roles on television, I don’t think much of it. After all The Avengers premiered in 1961 and, by the year before Dr. Who began, already featured witty, assertive, female action stars. But, as with my views on racism in J R R Tolkien, the idea that a work of literature beloved by self-identified geeks be flawed, even chauvinistic, and yet still do and say worthy and important things, is unlikely to find unanimous acceptance.

And that is a shame because Dr. Who does have a lot of important things to tell us about gender and sexuality in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It was, after all, the crew at Queer as Folk who successfully revived the series in 2004, because the original series could be easily read as having a queer subtext, a subtext that almost spilled over into simple text in the years 1970-74.

When Jon Pertwee played the title character, he portrayed him as a dandyish man with a slight lisp and an over-coiffed silver perm, dressed flamboyantly in a cape, powder-blue frilly shirt and velvet smoking jacket, a man with refined tastes who imported gorgonzola cheese from Italy when exiled to London. And just in case anyone missed what the Doctor was in those years, William Hartnell reprised his original role in the tenth anniversary episode, pronouncing of his two successors, “so, you’re my replacements, a dandy and a clown!

The “galactic hobo” portrayal of the Doctor, first by Patrick Troughton (1966-69) and then by Tom Baker (1974-81) was more typical of the original series, and one for which it is better-remembered. However, it is worth noting that an explicitly dandyish hero was played by Peter Davison (1981-84), featuring two young male companions, for the first time since the 1960s, something that would have simply been too queer for Pertwee’s already sexually problematic portrayal.

Still, one would be hard-pressed to find any portrayal of the Doctor in the original series that could be considered conventionally manly. Neither Troughton’s and Baker’s hobos, Pertwee’s and Davison’s dandies nor Hartnell’s and McCoy’s curmudgeonly know-it-alls were heroic in a conventionally masculine sense. They eschewed physical violence, favouring more ambiguously-gendered forms of aggression, relying on deception, self-control, trickery, superior knowledge and manipulating their enemies, almost none of which showed a trace of athleticism.

Sure, there were some ways the Doctor’s body was capable of feats impossible for ordinary humans but those feats were devoid of athleticism; he could hold his breath for minutes at a time, practice obscure martial arts without breaking a sweat and cheat death by “regenerating” into another body. But when it came to feats like mountain-climbing, the show went so far as to lampoon its title character’s lack of athleticism, having him retrieve from his pocket, the self-help book Everest in Easy Stages and, upon discovering it to be written mostly in Tibetan, Teach Yourself Tibetan.

This kind of masculine heroism, centred in superior knowledge, self-control and cleverness had once been the ideal form of “manliness” in the English-speaking world, as compellingly argued by Gail Bederman in Manliness and Civilization. Back when colonizing and “civilizing” the “darker races” was the job, the manly hero of Rudyard Kipling’s world was not unlike the Doctor. The Englishman or American who carried the “white man’s burden,” had to, by necessity, distinguish his manliness from the “primitive masculinity” he allegedly opposed. Indeed, societies whose theories of masculinity were most congruent with this exaltation of restraint, were those most lightly colonized by the English and Americans, the Kingdom of Hawaii and India’s Hindu principalities outside the formal British Raj.

But, the nineteenth-century drew to a close, concern over declining birth rates or “race suicide” and the rise of Tarzan comics made effete young men like Teddy Roosevelt re-make their refined manliness into a less restrained, more violent masculinity.

Yet, in the English tradition, the ideal of the dandy hero did not die such a quick death, in part because of conscription. There was not just a cultural need to see the continuation of the dandy hero ideal into the twentieth century, but a politicized national interest. Characters like Biggles, the under-aged gentleman-hero of the RAF occupied a contradictory and frequently-lampooned role in British pop culture, increasingly incongruent with the appetite- driven, violent masculinity of the likes of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the heroes who epitomized twentieth-century manliness.

What allowed Biggles to survive through the 1950s, 60s and 70s, as the Second World War, and attendant conscription, receded from the public mind was the fact that, in the Biggles comics, the war never really ended. Because he was defending the home front, the women and children of England, his masculinity, while quirky, could remain undisputed. Wartime masculinity was more capacious and diverse because it could be clearly unified around the defense of England’s territory and non-combatants against the forces of autocracy or fascism. There was a teleology to masculinity: it was the nature that existed in men that motivated and enabled them to defend the non-combatants at home. If they could not be masculine by virtue of their nature, dandies could be so by what they accomplished: the defense of the home front.

And so we come full circle to Doctor Who, the show that captured a nation’s imagination in 1964 by creating a space-age monster that perfectly symbolized totalitarianism: the Daleks, from whom the Doctor is forced to defend his granddaughter Susan and her teacher, Barbara Wright. Fundamentally, Doctor Who kept the ideal of the dandy hero alive in the same way Biggles did, by demonstrating his masculinity teleologically (by succeeding in his defense of women and children) and relationally (because this could be enacted through his observed protector relationship to a woman and/or child). Because a dandy was no longer intrinsically manly, his masculinity (and hence heroism – this is a patriarchy, after all) had to be telegraphed in this way. The dandy-hero defended the home front (i.e. women, girls and boys) from the totalitarian forces of continental Eurasia (Daleks, Cybermen, Autons, Sontarans, Rutans, Axons, etc.) The asexual relationship between the Doctor and the endless parade of pornographic archetype companions (leather-clad savage, stewardess, micro-skirted professor, ditzy secretary, etc.) served to underline their minority relative to the centuries-old Time Lord and, hence, his role as their protector.

As time wore on and we became a people whose contemporary political and cultural struggles came to revolve more around Stonewall and less around the Holocaust, the queer reading of Doctor Who became a more obvious one. And, for more and more viewers, it became a proto-Will and Grace. The companions came to stand in less for the women and children of wartime England and more as the beard or “fag hag” of the gay, male hero, the asexuality of the relationship conditioned less by the woman’s putative minority and more by the man’s queerness.

But this transition ultimately deprived the show of its underlying dramatic tension. As the memory of fascism receded, audience members were not on the edge of their seats, nor, as many fans remember their younger selves, peering out from behind the sofa, to see if fascism incarnate would succeed in its evil design and land on England’s metaphorical shores. The show, by the 1980s, had become a parody of itself (a parody that I personally loved!), with a cult following of gay men, sexually inept geeks and hard-core sci-fi aficionados.

Without the women of the home front to protect, there could be no compelling dandy hero and hence, no mainstream audience.

It is with this understanding that I will visit how it is that the tension and drama that old Doctor Who gradually lost have somehow been restored in the new series, how a dandy hero, who is queerer than ever, is once again a compelling television character. In the second half, I will suggest that this is, once again, centred in relational gender dynamics and our perceptions of the most sinister threats to the virtue and safety of women and children in Anglo society.

One thought on “Gender in Doctor Who: Man, Monster and Minor – Part I: The Home Front, Manliness and the Dandy Hero

  1. Mike Horn says:

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