Regeneration: A Personal History of Doctor Who

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A planned guest post for today fell through at the last minute, and Anna Wiggins graciously stepped in to deliver her thoughts on Missy and trans issues, which is not really in chronological sequence, but again, the planned post fell through. And more to the point, it's brilliant, so really, who cares about chronology. This is a blog about time travel, dammit. 

Also! The fantastic folks at the Pex Lives podcast invited me on this month to talk about The Ribos Operation and Last Christmas. It was a hoot to record. I'm mostly just ranting and pontificating, but if you enjoy me spontaneously staking out excessively bold critical positions, you'll love this.

It is the summer of 1993. I am watching PBS, which is showing a weird old British sci-fi show that I enjoy watching whenever I catch it on. On screen, Romana (a character I like a lot) is trying on different bodies. It’s silly, and the Doctor is being kind of mean to her, (I don’t know to use the word sexist yet) but the idea of trying on a new body is amazing. In the most secret part of myself, I wish I could do that. I wish I could look like princess Astra.

It is the end of summer, 1998. I don’t want to be alive any more. In a couple of weeks, I will try to kill myself. I will slip outside in the middle of the night, walk several miles into the woods down trails only I know about, to a clearing I spend a lot of time hiding in. I will take the razor blade on my swiss army knife and try to cut my wrist open. But the blade won’t be sharp enough, and the pain and shock of seeing my own blood will stop me before I go too far.

I will spend the next ten years feeling like a coward. I will regret failing. I will think often about trying again.

It is April of 2010. A new friend of mine is in town, and is talking about how great the new Doctor Who is. He suggests I watch it some time. My hazy, pleasant memories of Mary Tamm and Lalla Ward help make his case, and a few weeks later I marathon series 1 with my husband. I am hooked, and catch up just after series 5 ends.

It is May 14th, 2011. The Doctor’s Wife is on TV. Neil Gaiman just used some throwaway dialogue to casually write in the possibility of time lords changing gender when they regenerate. The exact dialogue is a bit irksome, but I don’t care; this is huge and affirming and very clearly a challenge for the showrunners to live up to. I’m thrilled about this. Exactly one month ago, I legally changed my name to Anna Rose Wiggins.

It is August 4th, 2013. I am watching a live stream of the Peter Capaldi announcement. The last few weeks have been interesting for me, because this is the first regeneration I’ve been an active fan for. There’s been a lot of speculation, discussion, and debate about the possibility that the next doctor could be a woman. I don’t know whether past versions of this debate have been as heated as this, but I imagine The Doctor’s Wife certainly added fuel to the fire. I’m a little disappointed when the next Doctor proves to be some old white guy I’m not familiar with. A quick browse of IMDB suggests he’s at least going to be interesting, though.

It is August 23rd, 2014. Finally, we get to see Capaldi in action, and he doesn’t disappoint. Deep Breath is satisfying on a number of levels, but the stand-out moment for me is the introduction of Missy, who is obviously (to me) a new regeneration of the Master. Finally, an on-screen example of a Time Lord changing gender. I can’t wait for the season finale and inevitable reveal, and this immediately becomes the most engaging season of Doctor Who for me so far. The stakes are personally high for me; the parallels to trans experience are obvious, and a tone-deaf approach to this will be worse than not having done it at all. I try not to hope for too much; I’ve been disappointed too many times.

It is November 8th, 2014. I am homesick, in the middle of a 2 week work trip to California, and just watched Death in Heaven, and I’m pleasantly surprised. The parallels to transgender experience were handled with more grace than most media that is explicitly about trans people.. The Doctor avoids misgendering her, even when talking about the past. The Mistress is every bit the over-the-top scheming villain she’s always been; they don’t tone down anything, they don’t make her feel like a different character. She follows logically from John Simm’s performance. I temporarily forget how lonely and homesick I am, because I am too excited by the writing in this episode.

Over the next week or so, I come across a lot of reviews and discussions that are very critical of these episodes. There are a few arguments that stand out to me, although I don’t engage in the debates at the time.

One common argument goes something like this: “After decades of sexual tension between the Doctor and the Mistress, why is it that there is no acknowledgment of this until they become a heterosexual pairing?” And, well, that’s a good point, and ultimately it comes down to “because heteronormativity.”

But I want a better reading than that, and luckily, there’s one available. So in my own head, at least, the Mistress is, well, like me. She has always been a woman. She has secretly hoped, in the deepest part of her mind that she seldom even allows herself to look at, for a feminine body, every time she regenerated. And with a masculine body, she just doesn’t feel comfortable with sex or romance. It raises uncomfortable feelings. It is too complicated. And so she hopes, and when it does happen, she finally feels like she can express the things that have always stayed unspoken. Of course, she is still who she is, still a villain. Her affection is still reflected in a cracked mirror. But here, at least, is a partial explanation, a view into some of the pain that warped how she sees the world.

Another argument is that ‘Master’ is not necessarily a gendered title, and so there was no need for the new name. But, expanding on my little headcanon above… the thing about gender-neutral names and titles is that they still carry a whiff of ‘male by default’, and for a lot of trans women, that has bad associations. The Mistress changed her name because it felt affirming, because it was a choice that reinforced her identity. (As for the statement I’ve seen more than once, “what, are they going to call a female version of the Doctor the Nurse?” I invite anyone who thinks that to say it in front of our host’s wife. Protip: wear plate armor.)

And the last argument I want to bring up is that the Mistress’ regeneration should have reflected the lived experience of real-world trans people more; that it is unrealistic for her gender identity to conveniently line up with whatever her body’s shape is. There are a number of problems with this. If you accept my reading (and I encourage you to) then the Mistress was already feeling gender dysphoria, and this is the first regeneration where she finally feels right. This isn’t particularly reflected in the text, but at the same time, very few people had any clue I was experiencing gender dysphoria before I decided to transition. People don’t always wear everything on their sleeves, and there’s no inherent reason not to extend that to fictional characters when it makes those characters more interesting or relatable.

But even if you reject my reading, this is still a weak argument. Because regeneration has become a metaphor for the way our identities, our understanding of ourselves, change over time. And we only see glimpses of the Mistress. She isn’t the protagonist. Of course there’s a lot of context missing.

And even more than that, one of the key advantages of fantasy is that we can choose to explore things like gender identity in a somewhat idealized way. Gender dysphoria in reality is brutal, and our culture reinforces it, makes it worse, makes it deadly. I’ve seen enough of that in my life, it’s nice to have a bit of escapist fantasy. “She realized that she wanted to be a woman, and so she became one. End of story.” It gives us something to daydream about.

I find myself thinking back to my earliest memories of the show, wishing I could try on bodies like Romana. I was sad at the time, because even if I could regenerate, it didn’t seem like I could change from a boy into a girl. Missy gives me hope. Not just because she makes a female Doctor an inevitability, but because she means that somewhere, a little trans girl might watch Doctor Who and think “maybe I can do that too.” No, this plot arc won’t cure self-doubt and internalized transphobia. But it’s a step in the right direction, one piece of media that is affirming instead of critical.

And the truth is, we *can* regenerate. It takes longer, but sometimes, when the pain is twisting and cracking us, we can change our bodies until they begin to feel alright. It doesn’t undo the damage, but it can keep us from breaking completely. Time Lord technology, right here on Earth.


(This post was inspired, in part, by Chase Harvey's Properly Suppressing Your Gender Dysphoria)

Comments

Daru 2 years, 7 months ago

Beautiful writing and post, thank you Anna.

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Daniel Tessier 2 years, 7 months ago

"The right body... at last!"

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BerserkRL 2 years, 7 months ago

what, are they going to call a female version of the Doctor the Nurse?

I seem to recall a couple of nurses on the show already: Rory and Strax.

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Seeing_I 2 years, 7 months ago

What irked about the "Doctor's Wife" dialog?

My only question would be, if the Time Lords are able to genderswap at will, what cause would any of them have to ever feel dysphoria? Or even to have a "true" internal gender (which I dam not convinced we humans even have, but that's another story) to conform their outer bodies to? Unless the regenerative process is a true crap-shoot they are not able to control, which the show seems to indicate is not the case (though perhaps you have to be very, very disciplined to exercise that kind of control, which neither Doctor nor Mistress ever were).

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Jarl 2 years, 7 months ago

The Master always seemed to have more control over it, though I say that on the strength of literally one on-screen regeneration. Though the fact he felt qualified to try and break the 12-limit speaks volumes.
I actually do agree with that idea, though, that Time Lords are... well, to paraphrase Moffat, they don't really understand the concept of gender dysphoria, since if their biological sex and internal gender don't match up, they can regenerate. And that's leaving aside more convenient options such as hyper-advanced nano-genetic medical procedures. Coincidentally, I've actually written a lot on this topic in the past... being cis, though, I don't really have anything valid or important to add, mostly just nerdy ramblings.

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5tephe 2 years, 7 months ago

Beautiful reading and beautifully written post, Anna.

Thanks for the personal story, but also thanks for the reading. Your head canon makes for a wonderful viewing of the Mistress. I only hope that not to many cis-gendered homosexual fans of the classic episodes take umbrage.

I wouldn't think so, but then that's the beauty of head canons. You can cherry pick. Personally, I think I'll adopt yours.

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Seeing_I 2 years, 7 months ago

I am a cis-gendered homosexual fan of the classic series. What am I supposed to be taking umbrage at?

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Seeing_I 2 years, 7 months ago

How dare you bring your nerdy ramblings to a Doctor Who blog! The very idea.

Of course, I always thought the slash notion that the Master was always secretly in lurve with the Doctor to be tedious in the extreme. As if that was the only thing that could possibly explain the connection. But, it works for some people, so have at it, I say.

“After decades of sexual tension between the Doctor and the Mistress, why is it that there is no acknowledgment of this until they become a heterosexual pairing?” Well, because the sexual tension was something entirely imposed by fan-readings, not anything supported by the text itself. But even so...RTD wrote a very cheeky nod toward that very slash tradition in "The Sound of Drums." So it HAS been acknowledged before.

"I had a friend once. We ran together when I was little. And I thought we were the same. But when we grew up, we weren't." That's exactly how I always read the Doctor/Master relationship - they were friends, best friends, who mistook one another's genius and rebelliousness for kinship, when really their interior aims and motives are diametrically opposed, but the pain of losing that special understanding still lingers. It's happened to me, so maybe that's why I prefer this reading.

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Steven 2 years, 7 months ago

Closing lines, teared up.

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William Silvia 2 years, 7 months ago

I don't know if it's impossible to watch "The Five Doctors" without a slash reading.

That said, Time Lords don't have control over their regenerations, but they have influence. Romana was able to cycle through a number of bodies, even if she wasn't able to just pick a final appearance and keep it, except for one that was extremely clear in her mind. River Song put a significant amount of concentration into selecting a general body shape, as did the Master in choosing a physical age. I think a Time Lord putting all of their concentration into a sex would be able to choose that.

Of course, the fact that they aren't supposed to have genitals, despite what readings of 9/10 and Rose would tell us, helps.

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William Silvia 2 years, 7 months ago

I think the discussion is to whether the Master was gay, bi, trans, etc, etc in the '70s and '80s.

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TheOncomingHurricane 2 years, 7 months ago

@William Silvia If they aren't supposed to have genitals, I would think Clara's gran's reaction to a naked 11 in The Time of the Doctor would have been slightly different to to what it was!

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Daru 2 years, 7 months ago

I really want to thank you for sharing some your own journey, I found this genuinely, deeply moving. And I really feel that the reading you give above is perfect for me. When I saw Missy for the first time in Deep Breath I shouted with glee at the mention of the word 'boyfriend' and went "yes!" inside and to my partner, at her *absolutely* being the Master.

I saw online a lot of the vitriol poured out at the idea of a gender change for the Master, one thing I particularly adored was that there appeared to be hardly any freaking out at the idea of her being the Doctor's boyfriend. Love it.

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TheOncomingHurricane 2 years, 7 months ago

Wow. This was powerful.

It is the end of summer, 1998. I don’t want to be alive any more. In a couple of weeks, I will try to kill myself. I will slip outside in the middle of the night, walk several miles into the woods down trails only I know about, to a clearing I spend a lot of time hiding in. I will take the razor blade on my swiss army knife and try to cut my wrist open. But the blade won’t be sharp enough, and the pain and shock of seeing my own blood will stop me before I go too far.

I sort of went through this a few months ago, after realising that I was trans and I'd been repressing it for several years in August last. One night in late October/early November, I was at my lowest ebb, feeling like I had no way out. I had sleeping pills there and I seriously considered taking all of them, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I've experienced the same feeling of cowardice on bad days.

I felt the same about Missy as well (although I'm not sure whether I stand on genderfluid vs. female all along) regarding pronouns and that. I've written a yet to be published article on DW and Transphobia for Doctor Who TV very recently where I've expressed a similar wish regarding regeneration and questioning the logic of Time Lords experiencing dysphoria:

'if Time Lords can completely control their regenerations when they aren’t dying, as implied by Romana in Destiny of the Daleks, I don’t see why they wouldn’t use up a regeneration purely to get rid of dysphoria if they experienced it. I would. Even if the change was completely random I’d probably risk it a couple of times'

Because I view my body as something I'd throw away if I could only get a different one, your last lines really affected me:

And the truth is, we *can* regenerate. It takes longer, but sometimes, when the pain is twisting and cracking us, we can change our bodies until they begin to feel alright. It doesn’t undo the damage, but it can keep us from breaking completely. Time Lord technology, right here on Earth.

You had me tearing up there. If that's the case, I await the first golden glow of light with anticipation.

Thank you, Anna. You've helped so much.

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elvwood 2 years, 7 months ago

Yes, very moving, and clearly put. Thank you.

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ferret 2 years, 7 months ago

plus both River Song and Martha Jones have doctorates - it's like these people don't watch the show, they just troll on messageboards.

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William Whyte 2 years, 7 months ago

Just a fantastic article. Thank you.

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peeeeeeet 2 years, 7 months ago

Perception filter. Everyone sees Time Lords as their own species, just as everyone hears Time Lords talking their own language. (And yes, I realise this is almost certainly contradicted a hundred times)

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Seeing_I 2 years, 7 months ago

I always thought that well-trained and very disciplined Time Lords would have a great deal of control over their regenerations, especially when they live their whole lives on Gallifrey and regenerate out of old age. In that case, I imagine, it's more of a meditative or tantric process with a great deal of control, as we saw when Romana did it. Her "bodies" were either due to the (retconned) "still regenerating" time frame mentioned in "The Christmas Invasion," or else were avatars as seen in "Planet of the Spiders."

In the case of the Doctor, the Mistress, and River, in each case we see their regenerations happen because of injury and other traumatic circumstances, in which case it's more of an emergency measure and thus the results are much more random. In my head, anyway.

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encyclops 2 years, 7 months ago

I don't know if it's impossible to watch "The Five Doctors" without a slash reading.

I watched it without one when I was nine.

"The Mark of the Rani," on the other hand...

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encyclops 2 years, 7 months ago

That said, I'm entirely aligned with Seeing_I on every sentence of this:

Of course, I always thought the slash notion that the Master was always secretly in lurve with the Doctor to be tedious in the extreme. As if that was the only thing that could possibly explain the connection. But, it works for some people, so have at it, I say.

I think part of it for me is that the dynamics of slash have nothing at all to do with the dynamics of any relationship I've ever had with another guy, or even any attraction I've felt for a guy I didn't have a relationship with. I think most of the time it's a straight person's idea of what ignites and drives male/male romantic relationships, but probably people who are much more interested in slash than I am have analyzed the phenomenon to death. That said, "have at it" is my sentiment too; it doesn't bother me at all, it just baffles me sometimes.

Of course, I know we all know that the question of whether the Master is in love with the Doctor is distinct from whether the Master has always felt that she ought to be the Mistress. Regarding that second question, I will predict now that at some point in the future -- perhaps when Gatiss takes over -- we'll see the Mistress become the Master again. Either way is fine with me, I'm just saying it's going to happen and if I were inclined to theorize about it I'd take that into account.

For Anna's sake, though, I hope it's a long way off. Thanks for an interesting and movingly vulnerable guest post.

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FlexFantastic 2 years, 7 months ago

This entry is exceptional.

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J. du Bois 2 years, 7 months ago

A great piece here. I really appreciate Dr. Sandifer and Anna for sharing this! I am trans myself, and know and have felt many similar things. I suppose another reason why I liked Doctor Who was the idea of regeneration, which we ALL can do, but us trans folk can do more externally. So, time to start my own regeneration...

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Daru 2 years, 6 months ago

Lovely point J. du Bois, I am not trans myself but have always experienced and inner gender fluidity, and I love the way you phrase it as Trans folk can enact the change externally also. The concept of regeneration as shown through Doctor Who has always given me a sense of joy - whilst also showing that the transition from one state to another can be at times painful, but when it comes it's really needed and the way the process has been presented over the decades gives a picture of such amazing life and vitality.

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