By Emily Valentine (Twitter: @emivalx9)
Emily Valentine is a trans/genderqueer identifying and disabled/neurodiverse writer who has recently completed their Creative Writing MA at Brunel University London.
“This piece of memoir-like essay is about how the Jodie Whittaker era of Doctor Who helped me come out as trans. I wrote as a way of capturing my thoughts and feelings about Doctor Who and how it has impacted my life and been a helpful guide to navigating the world around me.”
Doctor Who has been around for nearly sixty years (at the time of writing) and it’s safe to say that, with such a global fanbase spanning generations, the show about a regenerating alien in a police box will mean many things to different people. The fact that fans of the show ask each other who their favourite Doctor is should give a big indicator as to how easily it can be drawn into its world with the right era, and highlight how expertly the show has been able to offer something new without steering too far away from its core ideas. I’m sure that there are some Who fans out there who even struggle to narrow down who their favourite Doctor is because of what each actor in the role has brought to the character. While I have attachments to multiple Doctors for various reasons (mostly the modern era Doctors as I’m still working my way through the classic era), I thought now would be a good time to express my thoughts towards the recently-regenerated thirteenth Doctor played by Jodie Whittaker.
In 2017, fans got their first glimpse of who was going to be replacing Peter Capaldi as the Doctor and, to widespread surprise, it was going to be a woman for the first time in the show’s fifty-four year history. Discussions about the Doctor turning into a woman had been stirring since the 1980s, and changes of sex and gender had been discussed during Peter Capaldi’s time as the Doctor but to actually commit to it for real was shocking. It made me worried for the future series. I had grown so used to the male Doctor/female companion dynamic of the show that I thought that there needed to be that male/female dynamic. The thought of a female/female approach was just too much. However, sometimes shock makes you worry needlessly. As I watched that reveal trailer more and more, the thought of the Doctor as a woman didn’t fill me with anxiety in the way that it did with my first reaction. I never found myself spiralling into “Not My Doctor!” territory because how could I when all I’d seen her do as the Doctor at that point was holding the TARDIS key and take a hood off her head?
As time passed, I found myself excited for Jodie Whittaker’s first series and ended up bingeing the first batch of episodes when I visited my mum’s that autumn, as I didn’t have a TV licence at the time. Despite the video essays on YouTube, I actually really liked it. To me, Jodie’s first series as the Doctor (and future series and specials) felt more in line with the classic era and it was refreshing to see the show in a lighter tone to its grand, epic and often brooding storytelling during the Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat eras. The writing wasn’t quite the same, but part of Doctor Who’s charm comes from the mixed bag nature of its stories (despite the neverending discourse over how good or bad the writing is). To me, what makes Who as popular as it is is its great choice of actors whose performances have transcended the need for expensive budgets and perfect scripts. However, as I watched on, something felt wrong. Not with the show, but with myself and my relationship with it. For the first time, it felt upsetting, even painful, to watch sometimes. This show that had been a guiding hand to me throughout my childhood and teens had changed from my safe haven into a trial of endurance. This feeling didn’t come from the new Who creative team or the direction of storytelling they took the show. Instead, the origin of this struggle to enjoy my comfort television show was coming from somewhere within me that felt trapped and was hurting because of it.
For any trans person reading this, I’m sure at least some of you are very familiar with what gender dysphoria feels like. To look at yourself and feel that disconnection with your body. Up until that point in my life, I had only experienced brief, intense periods of it. I had experimented with what my name would be like if I was a woman, I had bought fake boobs to stuff into bras, I had worn some make-up and dresses and discussed such feelings with counsellors and close friends in the past. I would even look down at myself and panic because I didn’t have boobs, and I remember watching Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name (2016) and thinking that I would do anything for a body swap. I’d read books on crossdressing and, later, some old material on transgenderism. However, I could bat these feelings away. I would think about what my life would be like as a woman from time to time but I questioned myself and relied on the opinions of others to tell me how I felt. In retrospect, I’d seen female musicians and actors and thought about wanting to be them, as opposed to being with them, but it wasn’t until I saw Jodie Whittaker dancing around the TARDIS that I truly recognised those feelings (and I don’t just mean that I saw my body in comparison to hers and thought “I wish I was that skinny”).
I kept watching the show with those feelings of dysphoria playing in the back of my mind, but what made an impact on me during this time was seeing Jodie talk about the role, and how eloquent and thoughtful she was in interviews when she shared her thoughts and experiences of gender. The way she described the process of deciding what her costume was going to be, how she wanted it to be something for everyone, and how excited she was about seeing fans wear it felt so welcoming to hear. Her words showed me that it was OK to be myself. Her openness to gender expression within herself, and seeing her excitement over fans wearing her costume made me feel that how I wanted to present myself wasn’t something to be ashamed of. As a neurodiverse person (who struggles with the idea of fitting in with my peers and wider society) it also didn’t make me even weirder than I already felt that I was. The comfort and care behind her words made me feel like Jodie (and by extension the Doctor) was speaking directly to me, and what she was saying was “be you!” Seeing the LGBTQ+ fan content being created about the thirteenth Doctor and how inclusive and receptive this part of the fanbase was towards Jodie Whittaker only filled me more with the warmth of acceptance I needed. After all, the most important person in my life, even though they are fictitious, didn’t turn into a woman and go “oh no, I’m a woman now, everything is falling apart”. Instead, they gave us the biggest smile and expressed happiness with the word “brilliant!” (which carried over into her first full episode) and as her tenure carried on we only got to see more of this brighter version of the Doctor. A Doctor that wasn’t downtrodden by war, hiding pain in their smile or in existential dread over whether they were a good person or not. As Colin Baker said at a comic con panel I went to, Jodie’s Doctor gave us the joy of being the Doctor and, to me, the joy of gender euphoria.
In a time where our society and culture is rife with transphobia and so-called gender critical rhetoric is dividing us, I feel that seeing Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill and Chris Chibnall be so supportive and receptive of the LGBT+ community is what has helped me feel safe in my trans/genderqueer identity and I’m sure that I’m not the only one who has found comfort in this era of Who. It gave me the courage to come out, and stay out, as myself. Jodie’s Doctor will always be special to me because of this. You can only imagine how upsetting it was to hear that this era would come to end, and has since finished with a new Doctor and logo to show for it. The episode of which this brief memoir-like essay is the namesake of was Jodie Whittaker’s last episode as the current Doctor. It was also Chris Chibnall’s last episode as showrunner and Mandip Gill’s last episode as the current companion.
As a quick note on Chibnall’s time as showrunner, I felt that what makes his era truly his own is how he was able to bring in the campiness of the classic 1980s era, without compromising on the overall quality of the modern era. If Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat were trying to make Who more grounded and grown-up like its 1970s run, then Chibnall was the right person to bring the fun back in, and he did it splendidly. You only need to see the cameos in the 90 minute special to see that this episode was as much Chris Chibnall’s love letter to Doctor Who as it was Jodie Whittaker’s farewell.
As the second modern Who regeneration to make me cry, seeing Jodie’s regeneration be a thing of beauty that spreads out into the world instead of one that destroys and blows up the TARDIS, with the swell of soft choral voice singing her theme instead of the epic explosion of past goodbyes, and the emotions of the Doctor in that scene being those of real anticipation and excitement of what's to come is what I think perfectly bookended Jodie Whittaker’s time as the Doctor. While I am excited for what Russell T Davies’s return as showrunner will bring and how Ncuti Gatwa will play the Doctor, I am forever grateful for Jodie Whittaker’s era of Doctor Who for giving me the strength I needed to be myself in the face of adversity. I've even decided to refer to my transition as my regeneration, as I feel that calling it my transition sounds too medical and boring for me (and I'm also just a massive nerd so why not?). There are a few ideas as to what The Power of the Doctor meant within the show. To me, it’s something that goes beyond the confines of television, theatre, books, audio, comic books and videogames. The power of the Doctor is that they inspire those around them. It is to give those who feel powerless, the power to be themselves and be heard. It is the power to do better and become better when others are hellbent on dragging others down and perpetuating hate and suffering. So, when you feel afraid or unsafe, just think… What would the Doctor do?
By Emily Valentine Twitter: @emivalx9