COMMENT: Doctor Who, omnisexuals and penis envy
Last week it was announced that Russell T. Davies is standing down as executive producer of the new Doctor Who series, and with the imminent return of Captain Jack to the programme, what better time to cast our eyes over Davies’ treatment of sexuality in the series?
Right from its origins in 1963, the classic Doctor Who series was highly political and embodied a distinct minority sensibility in that the Doctor, espousing the virtues of liberal humanism, was frequently pitted against oppressive creatures and regimes.
One need only think of his battling the dreaded Daleks, autocratic and racist villains who seek to exterminate those who are different, but there are countless other examples.
The programme also could be highly satirical: one story from 1988, The Happiness Patrol, engages in exaggerated lunacy where a society is presented which dictates that everyone be happy but in order to critique the notion that everyone be happy with their lot, and, in particular, Margaret Thatcher’s government.
In this society, there is a restriction on the type of language that can be used.
Words like ‘unhappy’, which can be used as a form of protest, are forbidden, while the satirist is himself is rebelling against such a society, using the language of the Doctor Who story to protest.
By restricting language, society becomes backward and there is no place for opposition.
While the story concentrates most explicitly on the oppression of the working class and unemployed, the notion of oppression and using the power of language to protest is also relevant to gay men.
As Matt Jones (later script-editor of Queer as Folk and writer for the new Doctor Who series) has argued in the book Licence Denied, there is what can be seen as a gay couple in the story.
So it’s a story which, while characters are dressed in pink, is in reality very un-playful and dark, with a society which the Doctor must ‘correct.’
Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who similarly positions the Doctor as a liberal humanist.
But Davies’ re-imagining of Doctor Who treats sexuality itself far more overtly, not only in the relationship between the female companion and the male Doctor but also through the figure of Captain Jack, the first sexual minority companion in the programme’s history.
Captain Jack, who would go on to have his own series Torchwood was, as revealed in Doctor Who Confidential, brought into the show in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances to ultimately serve the role of muscular action hero in a war against the Daleks in the first series finale.
But he is not the traditional heterosexual action hero and comes from the 51st century, envisaged by Davies as a time of sexual freedom where categories such as ‘straight’, ‘gay’ and ‘bisexual’ no longer apply.
Captain Jack is a fully rounded character with a backstory and his sexuality is simply treated as the norm. Some might call him bisexual.
Others, more accurately, refer to him as omnisexual, since he will not only have sex with men and women but also with aliens.
Which I guess is a polite way of saying that he’ll shag anything with a pulse, or, as actor John Barrowman (who plays Jack), never lost for words, puts it:
“Bisexual is a word that we use in this day and age but Jack is omnisexual. He’ll have sex with anything with a zip cord, anything from any climate, if it is male, female, or alien.
“He doesn’t discriminate. Equal opportunity shagger, he absolutely is.”
It has already been pointed out that such a figure can serve as a role model in a television landscape which under-represents gay and bisexual men. Davies stated in relation to Torchwood :
“I do watch a lot of television science fiction, and it is a particularly sexless world. With a lot of the material from America, I think gay, lesbian and bisexual characters are massively underrepresented, especially in science fiction, and I’m just not prepared to put up with that.”
But what is most important about Captain Jack’s sexuality is the way it is treated playfully in the programme – through both dialogue and imagery – and the ways in which this normalises his sexuality and opens up a space for play with the programme.
While sexuality in new Doctor Who is political, Davies has commented:
“I’ll have a big bloody laugh about sexuality. It’s very rare, and it’s part of my personal politics, that I’ll handle it as a dark and serious story. All I’m saying is, ‘relax!’. If anything, I get a lot more comedy into it.”
New Doctor Who is sprinkled with a sense of playfulness.
The first story in which Captain Jack appears, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, for instance, ran the risk of being terribly dark, set completely at night-time during the London blitz.
It features the well-known gothic motif of transformation, where one touch horrifically transforms people, in this case as a result of nanogenes mistakenly restoring a young boy killed while wearing a gas-mask and searching for his mother, into a gas-mask creature.
Yet there is humour in the story: the cliff-hanger to the first episode sees the Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack being approached by numerous gas-mask creatures, created through the nanogenes, all saying ‘Mummy’, and, if touched they too will become such creatures.
And the resolution to this cliff-hanger is the Doctor ordering them to their room and as they depart him declaring “I’m really glad that worked. Those would have been terrible last words.”
At the heart of this story is a sense of optimism when the son is reverted to his normal form and reunited with his ‘Mummy’ and all the other gas-mask creatures revert to normal human form. But Captain Jack’s playfulness is an important part of the light tone.
There’s a playful chemistry running throughout the relationship between Rose and the Doctor, as played both by Christopher Eccleston and later David Tennant.
The treatment of Captain Jack normalises his sexuality, as well as lightning the tone.
In The Empty Child, for example, Captain Jack flirts with both the female Rose and the male officer Algy, commenting that they both have a “nice bottom.”
The Doctor Dances ends with music playing and Rose stating that she thinks “Jack might like this dance,” to which the Doctor responds “I’m sure he would Rose. I’m absolutely certain. But who with?”
Captain Jack’s kiss with the Doctor in Davies’ The Parting of the Ways is more a sign of affection than sexual in nature.
But when Captain Jack returns in the third series episode Utopia he flirts with the female companion Martha Jones, a young man and the alien Chantho (elicting smiles). The Doctor tells him to cut it out each time but these exchanges are playful and humorous.
It’s also been noted that towards the end of Captain Jack’s first story The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, he is depicted riding a gigantic phallus-looking bomb, which he prepares to dispose of, as he bids farewell to the Doctor and Rose.
And let’s be honest about this. The bomb does indeed look like a very very large penis, as seen in this publicity still where the bomb’s thinner shaft leads up to a massive fatter head, which Captain Jack almost seems to lovingly caress, and a circle around the symbolic number 69 at the tip of the head marking the normal place of the ejaculatory slit. And the bomb’s even grey in colour with beige flesh tones.
Certainly no penis-envy here.
While imagery of riding a phallic-bomb has appeared in numerous other cases such as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, it is particularly appropriate to Captain Jack’s character.
Furthermore, the traditional male heterosexual action hero’s body was muscular and he was frequently involved in stunts and sexual liaisons with women, and Captain Jack’s body is very much a sexual body.
In Bad Wolf Captain Jack is seen in all his glory. Well, almost.
The Doctor, Rose and Captain Jack are transported into different and fatal game shows designed to pacify audiences to aid a Dalek invasion.
While the Doctor finds himself in a version of Big Brother and Rose in a version of The Weakest Link, Captain Jack is to be given a makeover by robots Trine-E and Zu-Zana (Trinny and Susannah).
The robots use a ‘de-fabricator’ on Captain Jack which removes his clothes.
On the first occasion, a frontal view of Captain Jack is provided but with his genitals naturally denied to us. Jack asks “Am I naked in front of millions of viewers?” and after the robots gleefully state “Absolutely,” Jack responds “Ladies, your viewing figures just went up,” casting a cheeky glance down to his penis.
On the second occasion the de-fabricator is used on Captain Jack, we see a shot from behind him but BBC censorship, as it is, deprived us of a shot of his bare bottom.
When Captain Jack is about to be attacked by the robots, in his naked state, he produces to their amazement a laser. When they ask “Where were you hiding that?” he responds “You really don’t want to know.”
When Captain Jack implies that as a result of his naked body the viewer figures for Trine-E and Zu-Zana just went up, the gay and bisexual male viewer of Doctor Who is also being implicitly addressed in a postmodern fashion as ones who will get pleasure from, and in dialogue play with, this aspect of the programme.
It’s a commonplace assertion that a large part of the female companion’s role in the classic Doctor Who series was as sex-appeal for the heterosexual ‘dads’.
In other words, the female companion was the object of the heterosexual male. Think Leela in her leather outfit, for example.
Openly gay producer John Nathan-Turner also put some of his female companions in revealing outfits to appeal to the dads: Tegan’s so-called ‘boob-tube’ and Peri’s leotards.
But, as noted in a feature in The Age newspaper, what we have in the case of Captain Jack is a male who is the object not only of the female but also of the gay and bisexual male gaze.
Captain Jack’s humorous exchange with Trine-E and Zu-Zana indicates that, unlike females who are often the passive object of the voyeuristic heterosexual male gaze, both in everyday life and on television, he is a fully active participant.
Indeed, later in Utopia he strips to his vest, when carrying out an operation, for no other reason than it looks good, the message in both these cases being if you’ve got it why not flaunt it.
And somehow I doubt that actor John Barrowman had a problem with this.
Through what can be described as Captain Jack’s camp playfulness, then, Davies is succeeding in a number of ways.
As well as creating lightness within sometimes dark stories, he is normalising Captain Jack’s sexuality.
When watching television programmes, we minority viewers find our own meanings in texts as well as the preferred reading, but the normalisation of Captain Jack’s sexuality is here overt.
Davies is also tapping into both children, heterosexual adults, and the gay and bisexual collective desire for play.
Those just entering the period of adolescence are intrigued by their emerging sexuality and can joke about it in school.
We can also define LGBTQ culture as one of play.
Gays and bisexual men like to flirt with other men and there is no-one more flirtatious than Captain Jack, a facet that can also be recognised in openly-gay actor John Barrowman whose statements about male cast members caused quite a stir in Doctor Who Magazine.
Who fans have had endless fun with an image seeming like the Doctor giving a creature fellatio in the classic1979 story The Creature from the Pit.
Captain Jack riding a phallus-shaped bomb becomes highly relevant. While very young children play with objects such as rockets, we engage in word-play around phallic imagery.
We also like to gaze at attractive men on television. And we like to play physically, with places such as clubs, cruising grounds and saunas presenting opportunities for sexual freedom.
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Rather than providing narratives which deal with the oppression of gays and bisexuals Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who provides a vision of a utopian future of sexual freedom, highly playful in tone, yet political at the same time.
Even treatments of lesbianism in Gridlock and homosexuality in thelargely comedic The Unicorn and the Wasp are playful.
The closest to seriousness the issue gets is in Davies’ 2007 Christmas special Voyage of the Damned, where echoes of same-sex marriage are apparent when Astrid (Kylie Minogue) tells Banakafalatta that cyborg marriage is now being recognised.
Captain Jack’s normalised sexuality is an extension of Martha Jones recognising that a crew member may be gay in 42.
Unlike The Happiness Patrol which critiques modern-day society by presenting a dystopian society where happiness is devoid of meaning since everyone is forced to be happy with their lot, Captain Jack is truly happy with his sexuality where distinctions no longer exist.
But riding a gigantic phallus, what gay or bisexual man wouldn’t be?