For this critical study of a media text, I would like to examine Doctor Who using an aspect of queer theory called chosen family. Chosen family is a phenomenon in the LGBTQ+ community that stems from the stigma many of these individuals face from both blood relations and local communities. It was first defined by anthropologist Kath Weston in her seminal work, Families We Choose. The definition reads as follows: it is “ deliberately chosen networks of support in LGBT communities, consisting of friends, partners and ex-partners, biological and nonbiological children, and others who provide kinship support.”  In response, many LGBTQ+ people have over time created small, nuclear friend groups that function as family units in larger society. Keeping this in mind, I posit that the Doctor’s chosen family unit is a key sign of character growth that also mirrors how the audience interacts with the franchise. As such, as queerness has come to a forefront of society and media, the Doctor increasingly reads as queer. Please also note that these observations are based mainly on the television series, with limited information from the novels or the comics.

The most famous instance of the Doctor as a family man is from Classic Who, in their very first series. The first Doctor traveled with their granddaughter Susan Foreman, adding a couple of her school-teachers by the name of Ian and Barbara to their traveling unit as the show progresses. Eventually, Susan grew up and  fell in love with a freedom fighter on Earth. While she recognized her love for him, she was insistent upon traveling with her grandfather. As such, the Doctor locked her out of the TARDIS and told her that though they loved her, Susan was sure to live a better life staying with the man she loved. The history behind this narrative arc lies in the path of the actress, who was the first to leave the show. Her exit established precedent for rotating cast on Doctor Who. From a character perspective, that goodbye shaped the way The Doctor takes on friends and companions in the TARDIS. Their character became really defined by the movement away from people, both human and alien. They don’t again actively meet any blood family members until their 10th regeneration, meeting a genetic clone that functions as a daughter to them but doesn’t stay with the Doctor or their companions beyond her introduction.

This socially aversive quality is reinforced in modern Who, as a founding principle of Doctors 9 and 10. Though they have meaningful connections with one individual at a time, they don’t truly amass a family unit in which to operate in. In terms of chosen family members from the time period of Doctors 3-10, the most important individuals are both Sarah Jane and Rose. Both of these women have lasting power over regenerations, connecting to the Doctor and re-inserting themselves into the their travels often. The Doctor introduces themself to these humans over and over again, with each new face. Between the two of them, they have known almost all of the Doctor’s regenerations, but these women never stay longer than a moment in time. It isn’t until the 10th regeneration that the audience begins to see the Doctor emphasize the importance of maintaining relationships to others beyond these short interactions, due in part to their companions Martha and Donna. Both of these characters functioned closer in iteration to Sarah-Jane, with storylines focused outside of romance and on personal development, as well on development of the Doctor as a modern and well-adjusted individual. This along with Jack Harkness as well as subsequent interactions with Torchwood agents forms the beginnings of the traveling family unit in the TARDIS.

The 11th Doctor is where we see the series make an organized effort at traveling with a family, for the first time since Classic Who. From almost the very beginning of the regeneration, this doctor travels with Amy, Rory and River almost constantly. At least two of them are in every episode, they all (except Rory, bless him) are comfortable operating the TARDIS, and most importantly their characters and relationship to the Doctor are necessary to drive the plot forward. The narrative only moves when all of them are traveling with the Doctor. This elevates all three people from the previous role companions were expected to fill; these responsibilities and expressions of agency in choosing where to go and what to do make them undeniable powers in the Doctor’s life. The level of trust exhibited in these relationships mirrors the dedication that had previously only been given to singular individuals such as Sarah Jane, Rose, or Martha. In short, they begin to affect the Timelord’s life beyond contained interactions of short adventures, moving into a deeper relationship. Interestingly, as the show progresses we do see the show’s application of theory truly turned on its head because while the individuals start as a bunch of friends who choose to travel together, it is revealed that they do indeed form something closer to the traditional nuclear family model in the end of their narrative arc, with Amy and Rory functioning as the Doctor’s in-laws and River as his wife (spoilers!)

What makes the arc of the 11th Doctor so interesting is how the writers of the show have continued that introduced desire for family into future regenerations of the Doctor. This most evident in the way the 12th Doctor interacts with Bill, a companion who was openly gay but struggling to find her place in life. She regularly identifies herself as the doctor’s granddaughter, and while the Doctor banters with her about their age, they accept it and act as mentor to Bill throughout their series. The 12th Doctor’s chosen family also includes another Time Lord, for the first time onscreen since Susan traveled with her grandfather. The 12th regeneration is also seen counseling the 13th in the space of their traumatic regeneration, when the Doctor is building their identity as they build their new body despite being torn away form the TARDIS. 12 reminds them of the fond memories they have of Ian and Barbara, and how their chosen family members have helped them to feel alive despite their age and extremely checkered past.

By the 12th regeneration of Doctor Who in 2013, queer representation in Western media was a norm. The established fanbase by this time is also young, linked into technology, and part of a generation that interacts with definitions of gender and queerness almost constantly. Classically, the Doctor has been considered a queer icon in the community, because they have never shied away from insinuating they were previously female or genderless, and have had mates of all genders. Russell T Davies was the first writer to explicitly include this aspect of the Doctor’s identity in their chosen family and self-identification. This fluidity has become explicitly evident with the 13th regeneration, who is a woman. Notably, this is the first female Doctor the franchise has ever had, and her regeneration was spurred into existence by the overwhelming voice of the fanbase that wanted to explore the aforementioned queer aspects of the Doctor’s identity. Most importantly, while their gender has changed, the character continues to apply this concept of chosen family to their travels. The 13th Doctor has three regular companions introduced in her first special, all of different walks of life unlike the previous homogenous family unit of the 11th Doctor, and all still traveling with them throughout the universe.

Narratively speaking, from the beginning of their life the 13th Doctor has Team TARDIS, a large chosen family that is helping her figure out the world again, a vast cry from one lonesome Timelord and their clever granddaughter. The chosen family unit has become a characteristic of the Doctor, showing that the character has learned to trust others and understand the world in a different manner than before. Overall, the premise of the show lends itself well to the concept of this theory, but has accomplished it in many different ways. Over time, the rotating cast and subsequent complex relationships between characters has become one of the most identifiable parts of the franchise, and that alone lends itself towards a queer reading. In the future, as the Doctor approaches the end of their last life, I hope that they continue to boldly challenge our notions of human relationships as they have done since they first landed here on Earth in a blue police box.

 

Citations:

“Russell T Davies: LGBT inclusion” TARDIS DataCore, September 29, 2018, http://tardis.wikia.com/wiki/Russell_T_Davies

“The First Farewell- Full HD Colorisation” YouTube video, 0:43, posted by “John Smith,” March 13, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UsM216JCnZM

“The Thirteenth Doctor: Behind the Scenes” TARDIS DataCore, October 30, 2018, http://tardis.wikia.com/wiki/Thirteenth_Doctor  

Gates, Trevor G. “Chosen Families.” In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Marriage, Family, and Couples Counseling, edited by Jon Carlson, and Shannon Dermer. Sage Publications, 2016. http://proxy.library.nyu.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/sagemfacc/chosen_families/0?institutionId=577