We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Download PDF

A Doctor for Who(m)?:
Queer Temporalities and the Sexualized Child

Our analysis of the 2005 reboot of Doctor Who explores how the program has queered the figure of the child by playing upon tropes of innocence and sexuality. Incorporating readings of the televisual text, classic children’s texts, and the production history of the show, we argue that Doctor Who presents two competing models of sexuality and the child. One privileges collective family viewership, emphasizing traditional family values and a sentimentalized vision of the child, and the other addresses child and adult viewers separately, presenting images of the knowing, sexualized child.

Click for larger view
View full resolution


The 2005 Doctor Who episode “Father’s Day” begins with a young woman’s voiceover: “Peter Alan Tyler, my dad. The most wonderful man in the world. Born 15th September 1954.” Accompanied by swelling orchestral music, we see a softly-lit mother showing her daughter pictures of her father and explaining how he “was always having adventures.” This little girl grows up to be Rose, the human companion of a time-travelling alien known as “the Doctor.” The episode sets up a fairy tale for Rose; she asks the Doctor to take her back in time to visit her father, and the Doctor responds, “your wish is my command, but be careful what you wish [End Page 63] for.” At the end of the episode, during which Pete sacrifices his life for Rose, she says “Peter Alan Tyler. The most wonderful man in the world. Died the 7th of November 1987.” One of the last images the episode presents is of the softly-lit mother telling little Rose about a girl who was with Pete as he was dying, planting the seed for Rose’s future life.

In contrast, the 2010 Doctor Who episode “The Eleventh Hour” begins with a view of abandoned child’s toys at night in the yard of a house, accompanied by an eerie vocal track. We hear a little girl’s voice straightforwardly saying, “Dear Santa…I hope I didn’t wake you, but, honest, it is an emergency. There’s a crack in my wall. [pause] Aunt Sharon says it is just an ordinary crack, but I know it’s not because at night there’s voices, so please, please, could you send someone to fix it? Or a policeman. Or ...” This is Amy, first seen kneeling by her bed praying, but her prayer is interrupted by the sound of the TARDIS, the Doctor’s time machine, crashing into her yard. Level-headedly, she grabs her flashlight and goes out to investigate in her white nightdress. The Doctor throws an anchor out of the TARDIS, climbs up, and suggestively asks her “can I have an apple? All I can think about are apples! I love apples! I think I am having a craving. That’s new. I’ve never had cravings before.”

These scenes encapsulate the two dominant images of the child and its relation to the family presented in the first six seasons of the new Doctor Who. The first, produced by Russell T. Davies, shows the sentimental child, who is so integral to conceptions of the nuclear family unit, futurity and time itself, whose life is fulfilled through traditional wishes. The second, produced by Steven Moffat, shows the sexualized child, who exists apart from the family and forges queer relationships with strangers.

The 2005 reboot of Doctor Who offers an excellent case study of the nexus between children’s culture and queer theory. Designed as a “family” show, it illustrates the all-too-often elided distinctions between “family” and “children’s” programming, in particular the differing emphasis on collective familial identity and individualized childhood identity. The program’s production model has allowed it to present two competing models of sexuality and the child: one that privileges collective family viewership, emphasizing traditional family values and a sentimentalized vision of the child, and another that addresses child and adult viewers separately, celebrating the sexualized child and illustrating the dangers of child-protectionism.

The split between these two approaches to Doctor Who roughly corresponds to contemporary divisions within Anglo-American gay and queer communities between a politics that emphasizes the “family values” of gays and lesbians (prioritizing marriage and parenting rights) and a stance that celebrates queer difference from social norms. The titular protagonist of the original Doctor Who (1963–1989) was an eccentric alien time-traveller, more interested in exploring the wonders of the universe than in wooing women or [End Page 64] settling down to start a family. Davies’ reboot presents a more assimilationist Doctor, one who longs for the privilege of a normal family life. Moffat, on the other hand, celebrates the Doctor’s eccentricity, his gleeful resistance to traditional family values. Furthermore, while Davies uses the sentimentalized child to represent the longing for domestic stability, the children in Moffat’s episodes are themselves discontented with domestic order and its expectations. In Kenneth Kidd’s terms, one might say that Moffat “queers the child” whereas Davies shows its “normative power” (183).

More importantly, Moffat shows how the queer child can embody a “queer temporality.” Because, as Michael Cobb explains, children are “required to represent our future” as well as “remind us of time” (119). That is, children signify both future and past, in essence, the relationship between memory and time. Throughout his episodes, Moffat highlights these tensions and demonstrates that time is not “straight.” Judith Halberstam, who introduced the notion of queer temporality, explains that, “One of my central assertions has been that queer temporality disrupts the normative narratives of time that form the base of nearly every definition of the human in almost all of our modes of understanding” (153–54). We want to use the idea of queer temporality to think about childhood in two different ways: first, that it can disrupt and reorder the expectations of how life should progress linearly and, second, that it can disrupt the “straight” and heteronormative expectations of life’s trajectory. Rather than seeing the child as the beginning of a predictable story about “growing up,” Moffat’s Doctor Who allows us to think in “queer time” and to explore what such narratives might mean.

Who Watches Who?

Doctor Who is about an alien who travels through time and space, accompanied by a series of companions, mostly Earth women, although generally not romantic love interests. Together, they visit various times and places where, for example, they cure plagues, end wars, and liberate enslaved races. It is the longest-running science-fiction TV show in the world, having first aired from 1963 until 1989. Following a failed reboot attempt in 1996, the series was successfully relaunched in 2005. Because the show primarily aired on Saturday night in Britain, which is “family TV” time, it is enmeshed in the British consciousness and several generations of Britons are fans of the show—its language and characters are ubiquitous. Played by eleven different actors, the Doctor dies and “regenerates” into a new body whenever a new actor takes over.

Using a combination of approaches, we investigate the ways in which Doctor Who creates images of the family in children’s culture. Our analysis employs materials produced by the BBC and the Doctor Who creative team, including advertising, press releases, interviews, official tie-in books, and episodes of the weekly “making-of” show Doctor Who [End Page 65] Confidential. As media scholar Jonathan Gray writes, such paratexts “tell us how producers or distributors would prefer us to interpret a text” (72). Thus, paratexts are more than simply marketing campaigns.1 Paying close attention to the paratexts of Doctor Who, we observe how the production team hails different audiences— and how its conception of the program’s viewership has changed over time. However, while we make use of these production texts, we view them critically and do not feel bound by their interpretations.

Click for larger view
View full resolution

From the paratexts of Doctor Who, we can see the ways in which the show has been successfully crafted to appeal to children. For the first two seasons, viewers under sixteen constituted around twenty per cent of the show’s audience; that means 1.2 million children were regularly watching Doctor Who, making it by far the most-watched show for that demographic (Russell 252). Furthermore, many of the tie-in promotions for the show have clearly been marketed to children. For example, there is a plethora of Doctor Who toys—action figures, a TARDIS, an alarm clock—and contests.2 There was a “Script to Screen” competition aimed at elementary school children, ages 9–11, which asked them to write a 3-minute script for a Doctor Who mini-adventure (“Doctor Who Script to Screen”). Image 3.

Despite these marketing campaigns, the production team behind the 2005 Doctor Who conceived of it as “family TV” rather than “children’s TV” (Russell 38). This means that children are part of the viewing demographic, but not its sole demographic. James Hawes, a director for the new series, has pointed out that “focus groups …had said family TV-watching was dead…. Somehow [Doctor Who] has proved the focus groups wrong, because Doctor Who made families sit down and share a storytelling experience all over again” (Russell 42). Critic Mark Bould concurs that the new show appeals to “a longing for a return to the golden afternoon (probably Saturday teatime) of empire and the security of family and hierarchy” (225–26). “Family TV” in Britain likely addresses more multigenerational households than in the US. The number of people per household is much higher in the UK (3.90) (“The UK family in statistics”) than in the US (2.57) (“America’s Families and Living Arrangements”), and a much higher percentage of adult children in the UK live with their parents—in 2008, 52% of UK men aged 20–24 lived with their parents (“Third of men live”). The US also has roughly 50% more TVs per capita than the UK (“Televisions (per capita) statistics”). These statistics help explain why the UK is a more conducive environment for collective, multigenerational, synchronous, “whole family” television viewership.

With its appeal to both adults and children, Doctor Who is a quintessential “crossover text.” While the term has usually been used to discuss print, it is particularly suited for the “family TV” that is Doctor Who. While texts can “crossover” from an adult audience to a child audience (more common in the past than now) and from a child audience to an adult audience (more common since the Harry Potter craze), what really defines crossover literature is that there is “a space in which readers of all ages can meet to share their common experience” (Beckett 268–69). As Sandra Beckett emphasizes in her foundational study of the phenomenon, “While differences are acknowledged in crossover literature, they are considered insignificant in comparison to [End Page 66] the similarities. There is a move away from the polarization of children and adults toward a recognition of the continuity that connects readers of all ages” (268). Both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat acknowledge that the Saturday night viewing slot—a time when the BBC schedules mass-appeal, multigenerational light entertainment programs—is key to their aesthetics. However, they have slightly different ideas about how to develop a Saturday-night aesthetic. Davies structures his episodes around big emotional moments that connect with the widest possible audience while Moffat presents ambiguous moments that everyone can discuss from a different angle.

For Moffat, Doctor Who is not “family TV” in the same way it is for Davies. Moffat firmly sees himself as appealing to multiple audiences simultaneously. In response to TV critic Alan Sepinwall’s question about whether his stories were too complex for children, for example, Moffat replied that children watch TV “intently” and “if there’s something that maybe makes them say, ‘I didn’t quite understand that, Dad, what happened?’ and they have a conversation about it, can someone tell me what’s wrong with that?” (Sepinwall). The show for him thus has “semiotic thickness” that it doesn’t for Davies. For example, he explains that he constructs exciting television by periodically showing bizarre, mysterious images (e.g. a horse on a spaceship) so that viewers will want to keep watching (“From Script to Screen”). Moffat frequently references individual viewers such as this rather than groups.

Moffat uses this kind of “family TV” to question traditional ideas of the family. As Alec Charles has argued, Moffat’s era of Doctor Who is “generationally ambivalent” and therefore peculiarly equipped for an “exploration of that which adulthood might seek to repress” (Charles 4). While Charles highlights the role that terror, horror, and nightmares play in Moffat’s “return of the repressed,” we emphasize how he explores the taboo subject of childhood sexuality and its relationship to the construction of the family. First, however, we will explore how childhood sexuality is repressed in the Davies era’s family-oriented narratives.

Russell T. Davies, Family Man

In many of Davies’ public statements about his vision for Doctor Who, the terms “emotion” and “family” are virtually synonymous. For instance, he says that for the 2005 relaunch of the program, “‘we had to revamp the whole thing and I think we set that tone and mood in concrete right from the opening moments of that first episode. That whole Rose story, that whole family environment, that emotional base…most drama is already about emotions. Doctor Who really wasn’t before, but I wasn’t just going to write spaceships and robots and stuff like that.’” (Russell 31). The “tone and mood” that Davies established was a highly sentimentalized and traditional vision of the family.

All of the Doctor’s companions in the Davies era are largely defined by their connections to their families, which are key to the emotional arcs Davies constructs. Rose’s (Billie Piper) mother features prominently in several episodes, as does her dead father. Martha’s (Freema Agyeman) family is so concerned about her welfare that they have the government looking for her. Donna (Catherine Tate) lives at home with her mother, and her grandfather is integral to many of her stories. Mickey’s (Noel Clarke) love for his grandmother is the determining factor in his decision to stay in an alternate universe. In this article, we focus on Rose because she is central to the emotional arc of the first two seasons, which set the tone for the new series and establish the Doctor’s identity. Even though the actor who played the Doctor (and to some extent the character of the Doctor) changed between Seasons 1 and 2, she remained the same.

“Father’s Day,” mentioned at the beginning of this article, reveals Davies’ sentimental take on family relationships. Rose’s father has been dead for years and she asks the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) to take her to see him. However, when Rose saves her father from dying and later comes into contact with herself as a baby, she creates time paradoxes; these must be resolved by her father, Pete Tyler (Shaun Dingwall), voluntarily dying to right time. At the center of this episode is Davies’ trademark: “good, honest, heartfelt emotion” (“Time Trouble”). The aim of the episode was to [End Page 67] make the audience cry; the production team even began referring to it as the “Daddy’s got something in his eye” episode (Russell 170). It is the self-sacrifice of the father figure that is meant to produce catharsis in the viewer, even the usually stoic father; the emotional climax of the episode thus reinforces traditional family models and dynamics.

The implicit message of “Father’s Day” is that the child must be protected from her own desires; thus it simultaneously sexualizes and infantilizes Rose. “Father’s Day” is a story about growing up—leaving behind childish naïveté and the impulsive behavior it inspires—intertwined with an Oedipal narrative about choosing appropriate love objects. It comes in the middle of a story arc involving Rose’s increasing romantic attraction to the Doctor. After Rose saves her father from dying, thus disrupting the “natural order” of time, she is incensed by the Doctor’s indignant response and accuses him of having a personal agenda—“What? You’d rather him [Pete] dead? For once, you’re not the most important man in my life.” That line neatly encapsulates the episode’s central melodramatic conflict—Rose cannot have both men (her father and her romantic interest) at the same time, so one must be sacrificed. After Reapers—monsters from another dimension that “sterilize” time paradoxes, which Pete describes as “wounds in time”— devour the Doctor, Pete chooses to sacrifice himself, thus bringing the Doctor back to life. In turn, he preserves the flow of the Oedipal narrative that dictates that the child must renounce her libidinal attachments to her parent and transfer them to a more appropriate love interest.

Although Rose loses her father in this episode all over again, Season 2 ultimately pushes toward a reunification of the Tyler family. At the end of the season, Rose, her mother, and a Pete Tyler from another dimension are all united in a parallel world. Although they are stuck in that parallel world and unable to communicate with this world, they are together. Davies sees this family arc as crucial to the show: “The parallel worlds story was domestic, and therefore a much more real story… . I took the whole history, going all the way back to Father’s Day, as a big set-up for the only thing that could separate her from the Doctor” (Russell 238).

Seasons 1 and 2 are not just about Rose’s family reuniting but also about the Doctor learning to appreciate the value of family. Davies very specifically juxtaposed the lonely Doctor, who had no planet or family left, with Rose, who had a family and a boyfriend—they were “polar opposites” and this “put some emotion into him” (Russell 29). Davies’ Doctor is thus a “wounded” romantic hero, and one of the central narratives in the first two seasons involves how Rose, the self-proclaimed “ordinary shopgirl,” is able to “heal” him. Rose’s connection to her family helps to enable this “healing.” Though Rose is initially positioned as the child of a “broken home,” fatherless and raised by her irresponsible, downwardly-mobile mother in a council estate, her family home is eventually presented as a site of healing and unity. In the post-regeneration story “The Christmas Invasion,” for instance, Rose carries an incapacitated Doctor (now played by David Tennant) into her mother’s [End Page 68] council flat, providing him with a temporary sanctuary. Where the original Doctor Who show established that the Doctor needs to spend his post-regeneration recovery period in his own “home,” the TARDIS, “The Christmas Invasion” instead positions the Tyler family home as the primary restorative domestic space. Indeed, the Doctor fully returns to health when the aroma of tea awakens him, as the signifiers of the Tylers’ “homey” Englishness literally spill over into the TARDIS. This episode also includes several scenes of the Doctor and the Tylers gathered around the family television to watch major events; “The Christmas Invasion” first aired in Britain on Christmas Day—a high time for whole-family television viewership—and the episode is also set on Christmas Day, so the episode’s closing depiction of contented family viewing holds a flattering mirror up to its intended audience. In Davies’ Doctor Who, family unity, self-sacrifice, and tearful outpourings of sentiment are all integrally tied together.

Click for larger view
View full resolution

Steven Moffat, Champion of the Sexualized Child

With the introduction of Steven Moffat as showrunner, the program’s take on family, childhood, and the Doctor changed dramatically. For instance, the Doctor’s first companion in the Moffat era, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), has no family when we meet her; furthermore, in a direct inversion of how the Doctor’s previous companion, Donna, was introduced, Amy is fleeing her wedding rather than trying to get to it. Moffat’s era is not entirely hostile to families, but even at its most sentimental, it is still a far cry from the Davies era’s paeans to the glory of the family unit. For example, the Doctor appears to accept without comment that Amy has no parents and lives alone with an unseen aunt. Rather than expressing sympathy for the orphaned child, he brags, “I don’t even have an aunt.” An envious Amy tells him, “You’re lucky,” and the Doctor replies, “I know.” The Davies era positioned the Doctor as a tragic hero precisely because, as the last of his race, he had lost his family. A few minutes into his first episode as showrunner, Moffat stakes out his departure from that approach: his Doctor lives a charmed life precisely because he is not tied down by family connections.

Moffat’s Doctor also breaks down binaries between “adult” and “youth” in that he is an extremely old man,3 who appears young and rarely, if ever, “acts his age.” As Moffat himself explains, “There’s a lot of contradictions in the part of the Doctor….He behaves very childishly, but he also behaves in a very, sort of, magisterial way” (“Call Me the Doctor”). Though rather sprightly for a 1000-year-old man, he also often expresses a world-weary wisdom that makes him seem much older than he looks.4 The Doctor becomes a typical child for Moffat in a pattern that recurs throughout his episodes: children who are simultaneously “old” and knowing. He also provides a mouthpiece for the elements [End Page 69] of childhood subjectivity that don’t fit our Romantic conception of “the child;” for example, we discover that the Doctor can “speak baby,” and after communicating with a friend’s adorable infant, he reveals that the baby would prefer to be known as “Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All” (“Closing Time”). For Moffat, childhood is not about blissful innocence; rather, it is about the tensions between play, responsibility, knowledge, and ignorance. The Doctor encapsulates this by being one-part Peter Pan, one-part Dorian Gray.

Peter Pan is one of several quintessential children’s texts that Moffat draws upon. A key way that his Doctor Who positions itself as TV for children is by referencing classic children’s literature such as Alice in Wonderland, The House at Pooh Corner, and Treasure Island. Additionally, the classic status of these books appeals to adults. Yet in many ways, the values in these books are alien to contemporary viewers, as they operate from a different set of cultural norms about the child. Peter Pan, for instance, presents a child that is both innocent and desiring, and all of the texts present children and adults interacting as equals even when it comes to matters such as sexuality. As if sensing Jacqueline Rose’s contention that “there is no child behind the category ‘children’s fiction,’ other than one which the category itself sets in place” (Rose 10–11), Moffat uses these texts to disrupt contemporary expectations about the nature of the child. Thus, not only is the Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature he draws from transgressive in its own right, but he also often uses it in a transgressive manner to challenge adult sensibilities.

Of all of the children’s texts that Moffat references, Peter Pan is the most important, because it permeates his depiction of the Doctor, his companions, and their relationships. When she first appears in the show, for example, young Amy is wearing a white nightgown to emphasize her similarity to Wendy Darling. The episode even begins with a bird’s-eye, or more accurately, a Peter-like view, of Amy’s house: the camera slowly zooms in on her door and window, as if we, the viewers, are flying towards it. In the second episode, although she is a grown-up, Amy still wears a white nightgown throughout. Recalling the tableau at the end of Peter Pan, when the Doctor leaves Amy and her husband behind two seasons later, she watches through her closed window as he flies away.

Both the Doctor and Peter Pan are extraordinarily child-like and lack an adult understanding of sexuality. For instance, Peter is baffled when Wendy tries to kiss him, and similarly, the Doctor does not recognize the sexuality inherent in Amy. When he meets the adult Amy a few moments after he leaves little Amelia in “The Eleventh Hour,” she is dressed up as a policewoman, but there are dead giveaways that she is wearing a sexy costume, not a regulation uniform. The camera emphasizes this by lingering on her miniskirt, panning up her stocking-clad legs and showing us the seam down the back of her nylons, but the Doctor cannot decode these signs. While the Doctor can detect hidden aliens that can only be seen “out of the corner of your eye” in this episode, he cannot see what is plainly in front of him. He believes she is a real policewoman, and Amy has to explain to him that she is a “kissogram.” When Amy describes this work, kissing strangers for money, the Doctor is appalled: “You were a little girl five minutes ago!” Indeed, from the viewer’s perspective, the shift from little Amelia to sexualized Amy is jarring, all the more so because the two look so similar— Caitlin Blackwood, who plays young Amelia, is the cousin of Karen Gillan, who plays Amy.

Using iconic moments from Edwardian children’s literature and placing children at the center of his episodes, Moffat uses the Edwardian child as a way to investigate the queerness of childhood, a time when identity is more plastic. Over the past decade, numerous scholars—including Elizabeth Freeman, Lee Edelman, Kathryn Bond Stockton, and Judith [End Page 70] Halberstam—have developed notions of “queer temporality” that deeply resonate with Moffat’s work. Fundamentally, as Halberstam argues, “Queer time…is also about the potentiality of a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing…. Queer subcultures produce alternative temporalities by allowing their participants to believe that their futures can be imagined according to logics that lie outside of those paradigmatic markers of life experience—namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death” (2). The Doctor also celebrates a very different “marker of life experience”: regeneration, which is figured as a simultaneous death and rebirth. Along the same lines, the show demonstrates both a rejection of heteronormative logics and an optimistic outlook on queer worldbuilding in the future. In his polemic No Future, Lee Edelman famously called upon queers to reject a politics built around the twin strands of a “fantasy of the future” and “the figure of the Child,” a “fantasmatic Child” whose future safety is privileged over the rights of consenting adults (11). However, rather than seeing the queer figure as being positioned solely against the future and “the Child,” as Edelman would argue, Moffat has created queer children who manipulate time and the future for their benefit.

This type of queer child with sexual agency is first introduced in the Davies-era episodes written by Moffat. Season 2’s Hugo-Award winning “The Girl in the Fireplace” foregrounds both the queerly aging child and the queerly folded nature of time. In this episode, the Doctor lands on a derelict ship that shows “windows” into different “spots of time” in the life of Reinette, better known as Madame de Pompadour (Sophia Myles). He peers through a fireplace into the young Reinette’s bedroom and enters it through the time portal. In typical Doctor fashion, he notices that there are extra clocks ticking and defeats a murderous clockwork automaton. The first entrance of the Doctor into Reinette’s bedroom establishes a sexual undercurrent to their relationship, even though Reinette is only a child. The Doctor, though he saves Reinette from the clockwork automaton, appears to be a possible predator himself. Surely it is odd to have a strange older man appear in the bedroom of a young girl? However, when the Doctor enters her bedroom for the second time, he—a time traveler— is flummoxed by the passage of time;10 he is startled to see a beautiful woman and does not realize it is Reinette. She, however, knows exactly who he is and what she wants from him—a kiss. The sexualization of children permeates the episode, particularly in one of the final scenes as Reinette takes the Doctor into her reconstructed childhood bedroom at Versailles; she sends him back to the ship through the time portal in this room. The setting and the melancholy romantic parting bring the viewer back full circle to the first scene, reminding us that children as well as adults have sexual desires.

In his book Child-Loving, James Kincaid argues that modern Anglo-American society has attached “the central features of desirability… purity, innocence, emptiness, [and] Otherness” to the child (5). As Kincaid articulates so forcefully, Victorian society constructed a pure and innocent child that we inherited (13). In Moffat’s two-part Hugo-Award winning episode from Season 1, “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances,” the Doctor and Rose visit WWII London and encounter Nancy (Florence Hoath), a plucky young girl keeping herself and a cadre of young children alive during the Blitz. Nancy, with her long, brown braids and wide eyes, first appears to the viewer as a scared but capable young girl. She initially appears to be an “adorable” and “sweet” adolescent. However, like the Nancy in one of Charles Dickens’ most child-centered stories, Oliver Twist, this Nancy is a knowing “young lady” who uses her knowledge of sex to make her way in the world yet still retains her sense of moral virtue. She organizes the local homeless children into a group and feeds them during air raids by stealing from people who have an overabundance of food. Nancy points out that the father she is stealing from only got his excess food by trading sexual favors with the butcher; thus, she indicts him for both his gluttony and his sexual transgression. In the absence of any adults, Nancy takes on a maternal role, blurring the line between innocent child and knowing adult. [End Page 71]

Although Nancy is a protector of children, she is menaced by a spooky child whose face is covered by a gas mask, whose hand is scarred, and who keeps repeating the phrase “Are you my mummy?” Anyone touched by the child grows a gas mask, gets a scar, and repeats the same phrase. When these “zombies” attack, the Doctor treats all of them as children, ordering them to “go to your room.” Yet this is only a temporary solution; for the crisis to be resolved, the Doctor and Nancy must work together. It is clear that Nancy knows more about the “empty child” than she lets on, and she takes it upon herself to solve the mystery of how the child was created. As both she and the Doctor converge on the solution, the Doctor realizes that Nancy is the “empty child’s” mother—that, as a young girl, she had a child out of wedlock. Suddenly, our perceptions of Nancy switch dramatically as we discover she is 20 years old. While before she was a vulnerable, sweet, erotic, sexually knowing child, she now becomes a sentimental non-erotic maternal figure. As the empty child keeps asking her “are you my mummy?”, she finally answers “yes,” after which the undead are restored to life and all is made right in the world. Unlike the earlier “Father’s Day,” in which the messy overlaps between Rose’s adult sexuality and childhood desires are only resolved through a purifying act of sacrificial violence, there are no deaths in this episode. On the contrary, the embrace of Nancy’s apparent paradoxes (both “child” and “woman,” both sexual and maternal) is what leads directly to the life-affirming resolution.

Click for larger view
View full resolution

The distinctions between the “innocent child” and the “sexual woman” are further collapsed in Season 5, which suggests that Amy’s childhood encounter with the Doctor shaped her adult sexual tastes. She flirts with the Doctor and is reluctant to reveal to him that she has a boyfriend, Rory (Arthur Darvill). When he meets the Doctor—a figure he recognizes from Amy’s childhood references to her “imaginary friend,” “the Raggedy Doctor”—Rory is shocked and tells Amy, “He was never real!...He was just a game. We were kids. You made me dress up as him!” The line is tantalizingly ambiguous, raising more questions than it answers: What kind of dress-up “game” were Rory and Amy playing? Did it end when they entered adolescence? How did it impact Amy’s choice of Rory for her adult sexual partner? Once the Doctor returns, the ambiguity between childhood and adulthood is even greater, as he takes them on madcap adventures that encourage Amy to indulge her fantasies about the Doctor while simultaneously cementing her love for Rory. The Doctor is simultaneously an adult—saving Amy when she is in trouble and a romantic temptation—and a fellow child indulging in silly games. The plot arcs criss-cross so that the Doctor and Amy do not occupy the same times in their lives; Amy and the Doctor are not always “adults” together or “children” together, emphasizing that there are not [End Page 72] activities or feelings that are only appropriate at one moment in life.

The queer quadrangle of the Doctor, Amy, Rory, and the mysterious River Song (Alex Kingston) is at the heart of Moffat’s exploration of queer temporality. As the Doctor slyly observes, “I’ve got a bit of a complex life; things don’t always happen to me in quite the right order. Gets a bit confusing at times, especially at weddings… especially my own” (“Blink”). In Season 4, viewers first meet River Song at the same time the Doctor does, on what turns out be the last day of her life. She is a middle-aged woman, and the Doctor has been the great love of her life, though she was more intimately acquainted with his later incarnations. At the start of Season 5, viewers meet Amy and Rory, who have a baby that turns out to be River Song. Along the way, Amy and Rory meet the adult River but they do not know that she is their child (nor do viewers for a while). In a further twist, their child is abducted and they are not allowed to raise her; instead, she is raised by the Doctor’s enemies, and she comes back to kill both her parents and the Doctor. River is obviously a more complex version of Reinette and even Amy herself; in Moffat’s storylines, the Doctor has a penchant for falling in love with women he meets as children.

As the River Song storyline unfolds, there are constant reminders of the “confusion” of the Doctor’s life. For example, when the Doctor first meets River, she says “Hello, Sweetie,” as if they have known each other for years (“Silence in the Library”). Viewers follow along with the Doctor, trying to figure out who she is, encountering her as a baby, a teenager, and a mature adult, but not in a linear progression. Since the Doctor and River fall in love “out of order,” they even need a book to keep track of their meetings. In several episodes, the Doctor meets River both as a baby and as a sexualized woman in quick succession, challenging the idea that there are boundaries between the two. After spending an entire episode worrying about Amy and Rory’s baby, for example, he discovers that the baby and River Song are the same person. He is simultaneously shocked and delighted by this turn of events, giggling as he tells the mature River, “But that means…ooh…but you and I…we…[makes kissing gesture, then gleefully rubs his hands] How do I look?” (“A Good Man Goes to War”).

So what do we make of all these scenes in which the Doctor “seduces” children who, as grown women, become his lovers? In Moffat’s storylines, the boundaries between the sexualized adult woman and the innocent little girl are non-existent. Instead, Moffat shows the power of the queer child. River, Amy, and Reinette make a strong impression on the Doctor, changing and shaping his character. Precisely because he encounters them “out of time,” he feels an attachment for them that translates into epiphanic experiences. Unlike Davies’ traditional sentiment, Moffat shows the more complex emotional effect that develops from queer time. [End Page 73]

These plotlines suggest a “lifting of the veil” that Moffat tries to perform on children’s texts. Rose has argued that all children’s literature is an implicit “seduction” between the adult writer and the child reader (2), but Moffat foregrounds that dynamic by including dramatic plotlines in which an adult man captivates the imagination of a young girl. Moffat reveals the mechanics of children’s literature, thereby undercutting the powerplay inherent in the usual construction of those plotlines. While Moffat deviates from traditional children’s literature in his presentation of sexuality, his sublimation of the traditional parental role fits with what Kincaid has argued: in most children’s literature “the child does something to release it from being tethered to parents” (283). Thus, Moffat invites the viewer to glory in being child-like with the Doctor and leaves parents out of the picture. Even though Amy and Rory are River Song’s parents, they rarely have a chance to show it. Parenting is not at the heart of these storylines; Moffat is not interested in showing a nuclear family unit. He shows their family displaced in time: a baby snatched from its mother, a mature woman encountering her younger parents, and even a child growing up as her parents’ best childhood friend, ultimately serving as her own namesake.5

Family television is often driven by plotlines in which heroic parents must protect their children from danger, but in Moffat’s stories, it is more often the villains who seek to “protect” the child and go to terrible lengths to do so. For instance, in “The Day of the Moon,” the Silence (a race of alien “super-parasites”) are raising a young girl. To keep her safe, they isolate her in an abandoned children’s home and brainwash the home’s caretaker, so that he follows the mantra, “The child. She must be cared for. It is important” (“The Day of the Moon”). As an extra level of protection, the child is sealed inside an astronaut suit, which includes complete life-support systems, providing her with nutrients and ensuring that she never has to remove the spacesuit.

On the rare occasions that Moffat’s heroes engage in child protectionism and its accompanying rhetoric, their plans often go awry. For instance, in Season 6 the Doctor assembles a multiracial (alien and human) army to rescue his companion Amy and her newborn baby from their mysterious kidnappers. The rescue goes smoothly at first, but soon they are ambushed; as they fight for their lives, one leader of the Doctor’s army orders the others: “At all costs, we protect the child!” (“A Good Man Goes to War”) Yet, horrifyingly, as Amy cradles the baby in her arms, shielding it from the battle raging around them, the child suddenly melts into white goo; it was never a real baby but rather a remotely-controlled “flesh avatar.” In other words, all of the self-sacrifice designed to “protect the child” was worse than useless, because the object they were protecting was a phantasm far removed from the actual child.

Not only does Moffat show villains as protecting children, but he also shows the nuclear family as dangerous, thus undercutting the traditional role it plays in family television. For instance, in the first episode of Season 5, Amy and Rory are searching for a shape-shifting monster in a hospital when they run across a well-dressed mother and her two young daughters. The concerned mother tells them that something terrible has happened to the hospital staff, but before Amy and Rory can investigate, they experience the terrifying realization that the mother’s voice is coming out of her daughter’s mouth. As Amy and Rory try to back away from this monster-in-family-form, the “mother” and “children” suddenly grow sharp, piranha-like teeth (“The Eleventh Hour”). In quick succession, therefore, the family shifts from a “protected” category to what our heroes must protect themselves from.

Conclusion: Queer Theory for Kids

Rather than highlighting the sentimentalized figure of the child, Moffat refigures the child through a queer discourse about childhood sexuality, challenging conventional assumptions about the nuclear family and basic human relationships. Instead of using the child as a way to reinforce traditional narratives about maturation, he offers a series of alternatives that challenge the hierarchical adult/child binary through sexuality. Highlighting the queerness of childhood, Moffat [End Page 74] shows that children can embrace queerness in the past, present, and future. While most representations of childhood queerness emphasize that it is a stage grown out of (Bruhm and Hurley xix), Moffat uses the time bending of Doctor Who to emphasize that queerness is a state that transcends typical linear narratives of family and maturation.

Queer theory might strike some readers as forbiddingly adult, both in its dense academic jargon and its mature sexual content, but Moffat’s Doctor Who demonstrates how accessible and translatable these concepts can be. He brings queer theory into practice and shows its relevance and meaning for the masses, and even more dramatically, for young viewers. Rather than seeming esoteric or avant-garde, Moffat’s queer Doctor Who has resonated with millions of viewers, young and old, suggesting that there is a place in the media spectrum for queer narrative arcs. In the introduction to their volume Curiouser, Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley write that “[the storyteller] decides what is inside and outside the narrative world, which is also, implicitly, a decision about what is inside or outside a world whose language tries to normalize some behaviors at the expense of others” (x). In his vision of the time-traveling Doctor who not only embodies childhood but also embraces children, Moffat has presented viewers with a “new normal” that is queered through childhood.

Adrianne Wadewitz

inline graphic

Adrianne Wadewitz is currently a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Digital Learning and Research at Occidental College. Her research and teaching interests include the history of children’s literature and sensibility, science fiction, and the digital humanities. Currently she is developing a website about the New England Primer and publishing about the gender gap on Wikipedia.

Mica Hilson

inline graphic

Mica Hilson is an Assistant Professor of English at Francis Marion University. He is currently completing his first book, a history of gay erotic fiction from 1965 to 2010. He has also embarked on a second project, tentatively titled Queer Family Trees: Evolutionary Biology for Degenerates.


We would like to thank Lance Weldy, Thomas Crisp, Suzanne Scott, and Bookbird’s anonymous reviewers for their invaluable help in the development of this essay.


1. For an extensive discussion of paratexts, see Gerard Genette’s Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 1997).

2. In the UK, “the top-selling toy of 2005, and the recipient of an industry award, was a remote-controlled Dalek” (Russell 253).

3. He is roughly 1000 years old, though there is no strict continuity on that point in the program.

4. The Doctor has been played by 41-year-old Christopher Eccleston, 34-year-old David Tennant, and 27-year-old Matt Smith.

5. Amy and Rory name their daughter Melody Pond—a name that becomes transliterated into “River Song”—after their childhood friend Mels (Maya Glace-Green). We later learn that Mels, a young Afro-British woman, is an earlier incarnation of Melody Pond/River Song. Thus, Amy and Rory’s “missing” child has been hidden in plain sight and has grown up in close contact with them.

Works Cited

Children’s Texts

“Aliens of London.” Doctor Who. BBC. 16 April 2005. Television.
“Blink.” Doctor Who. BBC. 9 June 2007. Television.
“Castrovalva.” Doctor Who. BBC. 4–12 January 1982. Television.
“The Christmas Invasion.” Doctor Who. BBC. 25 December 2005. Television.
“Closing Time.” Doctor Who. BBC. 24 September 2011. Television.
“The Day of the Moon.” Doctor Who. BBC. 30 April 2011. Television.
“The Doctor Dances.” Doctor Who. BBC. 28 May 2005. Television.
“The Eleventh Hour.” Doctor Who. BBC. 3 April 2010. Television.
“The Empty Child.” Doctor Who. BBC. 21 May 2005. Television.
“Father’s Day.” Doctor Who. BBC. 14 May 2005. Television. [End Page 75]
“Forest of the Dead.” Doctor Who. BBC. 7 June 2008. Television.
“The Girl in the Fireplace.” Doctor Who. BBC. 6 May 2006. Television.
“A Good Man Goes to War.” Doctor Who. BBC. 4 June 2011. Television.
“Silence in the Library.” Doctor Who. BBC. 31 May 2008. Television.
“All About the Girl.” Doctor Who Confidential. BBC. 10 April 2010. Television.
“Call Me the Doctor.” Doctor Who Confidential. BBC. 3 April 2010. Television.
“Time Trouble.” Doctor Who Confidential. BBC. 14 May 2005. Television.

Secondary Sources

“America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2006.” US Census Bureau. 2006. Web. 12 Oct. 2011.
Beckett, Sandra L. Crossover Fiction: Global and Historical Perspectives. New York and London: Routledge, 2009. Print.
Bould, Mark. “Science Fiction Television in the United Kingdom.” The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader. Ed. J.P. Telotte. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2008. Print.
Bruhm, Steven and Natasha Hurley. “Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children.” Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2004. Print.
Charles, Alec. “The Crack of Doom: The Uncanny Echoes of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who.” Science Fiction Film and Television 4.1 (2011): 1–24. Print.
Cobb, Michael. “Childlike: Queer Theory and Its Children.” Criticism 47.1 (Winter 2005): 119–130. Print.
Doctor Who Script to Screen Competition.” BBC. Web. 5 October 2011.
Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. Print.
“From Script to Screen.” Doctor Who Confidential. BBC. 6 May 2006. Television.
Gray, Jonthan. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. New York: New York UP, 2010. Print.
Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York UP, 2005. Print.
Healy, Patrick. “Time-Travel Adventure to Save the Life of Doctor Who.” The New York Times. 15 July 2011. Web. 5 October 2011.
Hills, Matt. Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-First Century. London: I.B. Tauris, 2010. Print.
Kidd, Kenneth. “Queer Theory’s Child and Children’s Literature Studies.” PMLA 126.1 (2011): 182–188. Print.
Kincaid, James R. Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1984. Print.
Russell, Gary. Doctor Who: The Inside Story. London: BBC Books, 2006. Print.
Sepinwall, Alan. “Interview with Steven Moffat.” HitFix.com. 24 August 2011. Web. 5 October 2011.
“Televisions (per capita) statistics.” NationMaster. Web. 12 October 2011.
“The UK family in statistics.” BBC News. Web. 6 November 2007. 12 October 2011.
“Third of men ‘live with parents.’” BBC News. Web. 15 April 2009. 12 October 2011. [End Page 76]