When I want to know the state of a fandom, my first stop is AO3. This is one of the biggest fanfiction archives on the internet, and probably the one that’s closest to the pulse of the common fandom individual. I’m not much of a fan of the website due to the fact it’s moderated with the lifelessness of an aged and syphilitic dog, but I think you can learn a lot about a fanbase just by seeing what characters, pairings, and content happens to be popular. For example, in the ‘Star Wars’ general tag, if you go to the ‘relationships’ section you get this:
From this, you can see that canonical pairings aren’t really popular, and in fact pairing Kylo Ren with Almost-a-background-character Hux is hugely popular, indicating that the fandom is not particularly fussed with canon and likes to do their own thing. Take that as you will.
If we go examine Supernatural and Sherlock, two mainstays in the Tumblr back catalogue, we see a very distinctive trend, where the most popular ships are non-canonical ones between male characters (Dean/Castiel and John/Sherlock being the most popular), followed by canonical straight ships (both media are sparse on canonical gay relationships), and then a miasma of other ships. Often, fanfictions that pair one of the characters with the reader can be pretty popular. Lots of other fandoms follow this pattern, and you’re welcome to check that for yourself, but I want to talk about the one fandom that doesn’t follow that trend at all.
Obviously, it’s Doctor Who, since that’s in the title. When you look at the AO3 profile of the show, what you get is the following:
Our first non-canonical relationship between two men ranks 9th, instead of in the top three like in the other two fandoms. Instead, the first four relationships are all canonical (or semi-canonical) straight relationships, and there are only three relationships on this list that aren’t canon at all. Take it from me, the guy who’s overly fascinated with this shit; this is an unusual statistic. In the world of AO3, enthusiasm is generally low for canonical couples, especially straight ones. Seeing this made me launch an inquiry into exactly what Doctor Who does to make their straight couples so fandom-friendly. I started to rewatch the show, with my dearest boyfriend who had never seen it before, and I started to realise why Doctor Who doesn’t fit the trend set by Sherlock and Supernatural. It’s because Doctor Who, or at least the first few seasons, isn’t like them at all. So, after that lengthy introduction, I’d like to say that my essay today is about the queering of romantic relationships in the first few seasons of the 2005 Doctor Who revival.
The first thing that jumped out at me about the first season of Doctor Who is the fluidity of the relationships between the characters. I’m not just talking about Captain Jack, a character notable for his fluid sexuality; everyone is comfortable with semi-platonic kissing, and no one ever really tries to lay down strict or monogamous rules for relationships. Mickey, Rose’s boyfriend, is more concerned with their relationship than the status of Rose’s relationships with Jack and the Doctor. Rose has been dating Mickey the whole time but also finds time to flirt with plenty of others, and it’s not a problem. Despite how close Rose is with the other three, flirting with other people isn’t viewed as a bad thing, and in fact, when the crew is Rose, Jack, and the Doctor, the fact that all of them kept flirting with other people is a running joke. The Doctor also remains unconcerned with defining his relationship with Rose; it’s made clear over time that he loves her, but the nature of this love and what they want to do with it isn’t the point. It’s just about love. And I think that’s neat.
The lack of delineation of relationships and the casual affection that is shown between the characters invites interest from LGBT people, in my opinion. Most LGBT people I know don’t have anything against straight relationships in media; it’s when these relationships fall into tedious traps such as needless conflict, weird jealousy, or heteronormativity that LGBT people get sick of it, since it’s almost inherently unrelatable for a lot of us. Rose and the Doctor never do any of these things and just joyfully and freely care about each other. Detractors got sick of their relationship and wanted to see more sci-fi, and that’s fair enough, but I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone complain about the quality of their relationship.
The next thing I feel is worth mentioning is gaybaiting. This is an issue that has frequently been raised when discussing LGBT content in Supernatural or Sherlock, as both shows are believed to utilise it when trying to lure in an LGBT fanbase. If you’ve watched Supernatural, you know the painstaking lengths the show goes in implying that maybe, just maybe, Dean and Castiel will have some kind of romantic interaction. It’s why I stopped watching the show, among other reasons; I just turned up for the horror and ended up having to deal with a lot of wanky manpain. Sherlock spends a whole lot of time making jokes about Sherlock and John being gay for each other, but rarely follows through on positive LGBT representation, which is a topic of hot discussion that I shan’t be touching on here.
Unlike either of these, the early seasons of Doctor Who had very little gaybaiting and the two major male characters that are paired by the fandom (the Doctor and the Master) had a tragic rivalry born out of a friendship, and their devotion and obsession with each other is demonstrated pretty effectively, in my opinion. Other male characters include Mickey, who is in a relationship with Rose and later Martha without the show beating around the bush, and Captain Jack, who is openly bisexual in the storyline and has romantic interactions with many genders, so that’s not exactly gaybaiting. The lack of gaybaiting and the confirmation that when the show wants to carry out an LGBT storyline, they will do it and not just hint at it to generate enthusiasm, likely increased the trust that LGBT viewers had in the show.
The final piece of the puzzle for me is the continual background confirmation that LGBT people exist and live normal lives in the universe of Doctor Who, particularly in the future. The show frequently makes a point of showing or mentioning LGBT characters, by mentioning married gay couples such as the old ladies from Gridlock, by giving LGBT characters like Captain Jack and Alonso Frame storylines unrelated to their sexuality, and by frequently confirming the existence of trans and nonbinary people in the setting. “Ladies and gentlemen, and variations thereupon,” is a greeting used in the episode Midnight, and even if it is a little on the nose, it still sends a strange thrill through me to hear it said in a show I loved so much.
Leaving aside the possible discussions to be had regarding the way Gallifreyans approach gender in regeneration, the majority of the main characters of Doctor Who are not shown to be LGBT. But they aren’t shown not to be LGBT, either. The existence of happy and healthy LGBT people is background radiation in this show; even with a limited number of LGBT characters the show does not often resort to cisnormativity or heteronormativity, and very few characters are concerned about reaffirming their sexuality or gender. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Doctor and Captain Jack’s goodbye kiss at the end of season one changed my life.
In contrast, Supernatural and Sherlock take place in a very straight, very cis world where gay relationships are baited and joked about but not often taken seriously. Actually gay characters like Irene Adler have their identities disrespected and are often made into jokes. Supernatural has, on occasion, hit the right beats, such as in the character of Charlie Bradbury, but these are exceptions to the rule, rather than the norm.
Not all of Doctor Who is this good, either, in my opinion. I specify the first few seasons in this review because I think this open approach to queering of relationships is much, much more prominent back then, and it gets progressively worse as the seasons progress. By the time of Jenny and Vastra, the most prominent LGBT characters in later seasons, they are now somewhat of an exception to the norm. Their identities are viewed less comfortably and more othering jokes are made; most glaringly, their identities are disrespected in a very uncomfortable scene played for a joke where the Doctor kisses Jenny and she slaps him. Differing showrunners, actors, and time periods may be responsible for this change; the crew working on the first season of Doctor Who is an entirely different bunch of people from those working on the tenth season. I don’t know; I stopped watching it sometime around the seventh season, and my favourite era is still that early one. I’m also bisexual and my favourite media these days is always LGBT-friendly. Coincidence?
Back to the start; this essay was about why the Doctor Who fanbase might feel differently about the relationships presented in the show compared to other, similar fanbases. In the Doctor Who fandom, the fans are seemingly much happier with the canonical straight relationships, especially the ones from the first few seasons. This is despite the presence of eligible gay pairings, particularly between the Doctor and either Captain Jack or the Master, which fit the typical profile of fan-preferred pairings seem in other fandoms. My theory is that people don’t feel the need to carve out LGBT spaces in media that welcomes them with open arms. A decent majority of AO3 users are LGBT or LGBT-adjacent, if I recall correctly from a site user survey. Sure, in Doctor Who, the majority of portrayed relationships are straight, but the show never acts like that’s the only option, and although all main characters are cis, it’s made perfectly clear that trans and nonbinary people exist in this universe comfortably. The other two shows don’t do that with their worldbuilding or character interactions, forcing the fans of the show to add their own material onto the shows in order to feel welcomed. The first season of Doctor Who is nearly fifteen years old now but this aspect didn’t feel dated to me, which isn’t something I can say for most shows I used to watch at that age.
I just think it’s nice that when I look at the state of a fandom for a show I once loved very dearly, I can see evidence that other people felt as welcomed and joyful watching the show as I did.