Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Doctor Who - Queers Dig Time Lords

As a gay Doctor Who fan, the question you get asked quite a lot is—why are so many Who fans gay?” This line comes from Paul Magrs’s “The Monster Queer is Camp”, the opening essay in Queers Dig Time Lords, and it focuses on what is a fairly central point in the book. It’s certainly true that Doctor Who has always attracted a large number of LGBTQ fans, more so than probably any other science fiction programme out there. One likely reason for this—and one that the essays in Queers Dig Time Lords repeatedly draw attention to—is the almost complete lack of sexuality in the original series. Apart from an occasional companion leaving to get married to someone, attraction and sexuality was absent. In a world where the male heroes of science fiction regularly flirted with and bedded the women they met, Doctor Who stood out. The Doctor was an asexual hero. He almost always had at least one woman travelling with him, but there was never any hint of romance or sexual attraction between them. Sure, fans have debated heatedly whether the Doctor was truly asexual (he has a granddaughter, many will point out, while ignoring the fact that children and grandchildren aren’t really evidence of any particular sexuality) or if his sexuality was just behind closed doors because of what was acceptable in a programme that children would be watching. And the new series has established the Doctor as unequivocally sexual while still keeping him chaste. However, with sex out of the question in the original series, the Doctor became a hero that queer fans could more easily identify with. As Paul Magrs goes on to say:

If we don’t see the hero bedding and flirting with sexy young women, then there is room for other possibilities. Or simply the idea of sex not being a primary concern. When you grow up gay and are terrified or in denial about your own burgeoning sexuality, this is very liberating. It allows you to identify or root for a hero who won’t confuse you by having desires of his own.

Queers Dig Time Lords from Mad Norwegian Press (publishers of Chicks Dig Time Lords and Chicks Unravel Time) brings together essays from a wide range of LGBTQ authors who are also fans of Doctor Who. It is very similar in style to Chicks Dig Time Lords, in which the authors write about their own experiences with the programme. Most of the essays are anecdotal, telling stories of how the authors discovered Doctor Who and came to love it, or how their geek lives and queer lives overlapped and influenced each other. A few of the essays are more analytical in nature, looking at aspects of the programme from an LGBTQ perspective; however, these essays are in the distinct minority.

It’s a good, entertaining book overall, but I have to admit as I got further into it, it became a bit of struggle to get through a few of the essays. This isn’t due to any particular problem I had with the essays that appear later in the book—indeed a couple of the best ones appear towards the end of the book—but rather that many of the essays started to feel repetitive, like I’d read the particular story several times already. Which, in a sense, I had. This is a bit of an unfair criticism, really, given that any book of essays with a linking theme is going to have a certain degree of repetition. However, that repetition does feel particularly noticeable in this book. I feel a bit bad for some of the authors whose essays ended up near the end of the book (such as Susan Jane Bigelow, author of “Same Old Me, Different Face: Transition, Regeneration, and Change”), as I suspect I would have appreciated and enjoyed their essays more if they were nearer the front (although that would mean that the early ones would be displaced to later in the book, possibly lowering my appreciation of them—kind of a no-win situation).

The only major criticism I have of Queers Dig Time Lords as a whole is with the editing. There is a surprisingly large number of errors throughout the book, generally missing words, but also occasional misspellings and verb tense errors. The latter is particularly egregious in the first few paragraphs of “A Man is the Sum of His Memories...” by Neil Chester, where the verb tenses switch back and forth between present and past seemingly randomly and sometimes multiple times in a single sentence. For example, “My parents knew that it’s a game, but at four years and eight months old, I genuinely believed she’s not going to let me.” I was initially worried that the whole essay would be like this, as this mixing up of tenses is somewhat common with inexperienced writers (and Chester’s bio at the top of the essay indicates that this is “his first-ever published work”). However, the problem clears up after a few paragraphs and the tenses become more consistent, leading me to believe the cause is due to a combination of inexperience and poor editing. Now, I should point out that I’m well aware that editing is never perfect and that you can find errors in virtually any published work. However, in the case of Queers Dig Time Lords, there are considerably more than I would expect from a professional publication.

That aside, all the essays in this book are quite good. Some are certainly better than others, and my personal preferences tend to lean towards the more analytical essays (one of the reasons why, as much as I liked Chicks Dig Time Lords, I preferred Chicks Unravel Time), but there aren’t any essays I would consider bad. The stories are often heartfelt and moving. “Time, Space, Love” by Emily Asher-Perrin is one of my favourites of the anecdotal essays. It tells the feel-good tale of how Doctor Who brought Asher-Perrin and her best-friend-turned-partner together. Melissa Scott’s “Long Time Companions” tells a similar tale, but one with a heartbreaking ending that is bound to leave readers in tears. “My Straight Best Friend” is a wonderful tale of author Nigel Fairs’s friendship with Louise Jameson (who played the fourth Doctor’s companion Leela). Possibly the most unusual and thoroughly intriguing entry in the book is the final one. It’s hard to call Rachel Swirsky’s “The Girl Who Waited (for the Guidance Counsellor to Get to His Point)” an essay as it’s written more like a short story, one that clearly contains autobiographical elements within a fictional framework—or as Swirsky’s bio says, the “piece is in fact entirely autobiographical and includes absolutely no fictional elements.” It’s the story of Swirsky’s encounter with the Guidance Counsellor, who “resembles—but is legally distinct from—the Doctor,” and her travels with him/her through time and space. It’s a very fun read.

However, the stand-out essays (for me at least) are the ones that take a more in-depth look at the show itself and how it handles LGBTQ characters and themes. “Bi, Bye” by Tanya Huff examines the treatment of bisexuals in Doctor Who. Huff argues correctly that bisexuality makes a first open appearance in Series One of new Who and then pretty much vanishes again early in Series Two after including a bisexual Shakespeare in “The Shakespeare Code”. The essay is a great look at how, even though gays and lesbians have been relatively well represented in recent years, bisexuals remain marginalized. In “Sub Texts: The Doctor and the Master’s First and Last”, Amal El-Mohtar examines the relationship between the Doctor and the Master and the implicit attraction between the two of them, from obvious exchanges like their telephone conversation in “The Sound of Drums” (“I like it when you say my name”) to exchanges between Jon Pertwee and Roger Delgado.

One of my favourite essays is “The Heterosexual Agenda” by John Richards. Ever since Doctor Who’s return in 2005, there has been a loud subset of fandom that has complained about the so-called “homosexual agenda”. This stems from the inclusion of non-straight characters in the series. Rather than seeing this as simply trying to show the variety of people that really exist in the real word, these fans see this as somehow forcing homosexuality upon them, or as Richards puts it, “a sign for them that that the feminista-nazicrats were forcing dildos down the throats of our children, which at the very least was a choking hazard.” But Richards rightly points out that, while there are gay characters, the show hasn’t be homosexualized; it’s been heterosexualized. The Doctor himself is now a heterosexual character (although Tanya Huff’s “Bi, Bye” makes a very good argument that the ninth Doctor could be considered bisexual) and his companions are resolutely heterosexual, too, some of them even falling in love with the Doctor. In contrast, the gay characters, alas, tend to die. I was kind of shocked to read that “so far no gay male couple has ever survived to the end of a story,” and at first I thought there had to be a mistake there. But as I thought about it, the only exception I could think of was Canton Everett Delaware III (from “The Impossible Astronaut”/”Day of the Moon”), whom Richards does acknowledge but points out that his partner is never seen on screen, only mentioned at the very end of the story, so doesn’t really count as a full exception. Richards acknowledges that this isn’t a deliberate attempt to marginalize gay characters, but that doesn’t change the problematic nature of their portrayal. “The Heterosexual Agenda” is in some ways a rather disturbing essay, in that it draws attention to things I’d really rather weren’t true, yet I can’t argue against. But that’s also one of the things that makes an essay like this so important. It’s only through recognizing and acknowledging problems that things can improve.

Not surprisingly, many of the essays in Queers Dig Time Lords talk a great deal about Captain Jack, probably the most prominent queer character on Doctor Who (the book even has an introduction by John Barrowman and his sister Carole). Captain Jack is a popular and influential character to many of the authors, so it makes sense that several of the essays focus on him or Torchwood. One such essay is “Jack Harkness’s Lessons on Memory and Hope for Cranky, Old Queers” by Racheline Maltese. A mixture of anecdotal and analytical, the essay looks at categorization in the queer community—both the advantages and disadvantages of categorization—and Maltese’s own struggles with categorizing herself. The essay opens with a quote from the Torchwood episode “Day One” with Jack saying, “You people and your quaint little categories.” Maltese goes on to say,

Labels and categories mattered and continue to matter, even as they have seemed to proliferate to describe the many shades of our not heterosexual existences. For example, this week I’m a masculine-identified genderqueer pansexual woman in a lesbian relationship, but I prefer the word gay for political reasons. What was once shorthand for what we are has become a toolkit for answering essay questions, and the LGBT group of my university years has now expanded to include at least twice as many letters.

For Maltese (and many others), Captain Jack and Torchwood represent a world where people who are not heterosexual are not strange or abnormal. “Torchwood, Camp, and Queer Subjectivity” by Brit Mandelo covers similar territory, and even makes use of the same “Day One” quote (though doesn’t open with it). Mandelo follows up the quote by saying, “That phrase, really, summarizes a great deal of what Torchwood is doing with its commentary on gender and sexuality that makes it so damned appealing to a viewer with a non-binary identity.” Mandelo argues that Torchwood twists away from the typical heterosexual male gaze of most programmes and instead presents a queer gaze. The usual patterns and responses to non-heterosexual characters and relationships don’t occur in the same way in Torchwood. She doesn’t ignore the problematic elements in the series (which certainly do exist), but does argue that its “active refusal to participate, its insistence on changing the game and context—using camp, using strategies of visual presentation—mark it as unique.”

There’s a lot about Queers Dig Time Lords that is very good. I don’t rate it as highly as Chicks Dig Time Lords or especially Chicks Unravel Time, but it contains a number of excellent essays and moving stories. More than that, I’d say it’s an important book as it presents a prominent side of fandom that doesn’t often make it into print, and gives that part of fandom a voice. There aren’t many other programmes out there for which people would put together a book like this, and I suppose that shows just how special this show called Doctor Who and its spin-offs are.


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