|Yes. Total Eclipse of the Heart really was at number one
when this image was on television. And you thought
Doctor Who had lost touch with the zeitgeist.
It’s March 1st, 1983. Michael Jackson is at number one insisting that Billie Jean is not his lover. Lower in the charts are the Eurythmics (with “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” of course), Bananarama, Toto, and Tears for Fears. But for the purposes of this entry perhaps the most significant fact about the charts is Bonnie Tyler hitting number one in the second week of this story with “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which is notable for several reasons, one of which is that it is one of the gayest songs ever written, so, you know. Thematically apropos, that.
In real news, there’s not a lot. The compact disc goes on sale in England sometime in March, so let’s give that to this story. The final episode of M*A*S*H aired between Terminus and this. Bob Hawke becomes Prime Minister of Australia, and the IBM PC/XT is released.
So on television we have Enlightenment. Which is a fantastic little story with one of the most wonderfully captivating central images in Doctor Who. Barbara Clegg is, of course, not the first person to put tallships in space, but it’s such a reliably wonderful image that she really ought to get proper amounts of praise for it. On top of that you have a story that effortlessly moves from historical texture to science fantasy in a way that offers one of the most thorough blurring of genres in Doctor Who, has a bunch of clever ideas and good characters, and is all around one of the gems of the Davison era. None of which I want to talk about today, because it’s well covered by other sources and I don’t have a ton to add to the discussions of why this is good. I want to talk about Turlough.
The first thing we should establish is that Turlough is the first companion that it is overwhelmingly easier to read as homosexual than not. There have been homoerotic undertones to companions before, and there’s been the unfortunate consequence of being played by Richard Franklin, but there’s never before been a companion who is so consistently and from the top down conceptualized in gay tropes. It’s not, in the case of Turlough, a subtext. Turlough is gay. Through and through, Turlough is gay.
For the sake of completion, let’s enumerate the various ways in which this is coded. Turlough is overtly “cowardly,” deliberately played as an unmasculine character. He’s repeatedly shown to be delicate and fragile. He’s introduced in the context of an all-boys school, and seen leading another boy to temptation and ruin. And that’s before you get to moments like his first scene with Captain Wrack in episode three of Enlightenment. He’s thrown to the ground by strapping young men and told to “crawl.” He slowly makes his way across the floor to come to the leather boots of an unseen figure. And who, exactly, is this figure that Turlough looks up at in sheer and unbridled terror? A female pirate queen who, in staggeringly camp fashion, declares him “just what I’ve been waiting for” before swinging a sword around cavalierly. Not until Terror of the Vervoids will the vagina dentata be quite so blatantly literalized in Doctor Who.
(It’s worth pointing out that Captain Wrack is as consciously designed as a gay icon as any female character in Doctor Who not to be the Rani is – the overpowering man-eating woman who visibly wears the pants and is more masculine than any of the lumbering pieces of manflesh who follow her is archetypal. Think of her as a drag queen who happens to be played by a woman. Not for nothing was the woman in question, Lynda Baron, brought back in Closing Time to riff on the notion that the Doctor and Craig are lovers.)
There’s also a degree of authorial intent that can be applied here. John Nathan-Turner was himself gay. Although I am sharply disinclined to use this as prima facie evidence that there is a queer subtext to the Nathan-Turner era, especially because there’s a whole ugly tradition of homophobic attacks on Nathan-Turner (though as Tat Wood points out in About Time the most high profile of those attacks came from a fanzine with a gay editor, so that’s all somewhat more complex than it appears and I’m not going to touch it with a forty-nine-and-a-half-foot pole). But even if Nathan-Turner is not taken as the author for the purposes of the queer subtext it is difficult not to take him as party to it. Simply put, there’s no way in hell anyone who was even remotely aware of gay culture couldn’t have noticed that Turlough was being presented as gay in these three stories. For better or worse, there’s no plausible deniability here.
But it’s worth remarking on exactly what sort of homosexual Turlough is presented as being. Here I should offer a hat tip to Meredith Collins, whose dissertation on the subject of the aesthetic novel provided me with invaluable background for making this argument and who, perhaps more importantly, is awesome. Which I suppose also sets up the sort of homosexual I’m arguing Turlough is presented as being, namely that of an aesthete.
Certainly the tropes are all there. Turlough is exceedingly cosmopolitan in his tastes, in particular in Mawdryn Undead where his knowledge of alien technology is constantly played off of the “provincial” nature of contemporary Earth. But more striking is his first appearance, admiring a classic car. This sort of appreciation of the beauty of mundane objects is textbook aestheticism (which was, in a particularly famous Punch cartoon, parodied as worshipping teapots). Add to that his seducing another young boy to ruin, a textbook aesthetic plot, and you have the general shape of the character fairly well pegged. (The aesthetic movement, to be clear, is intimately connected with homosexuality, with same-sex attractions, both spoken and loudly unspoken, permeating the movement.)
But what’s particularly interesting about the aesthetic structure is a focus on the lengthy exploration of a moral choice in which the negative choice is explored at length. Which is exactly what we get for the twelve episodes of the so-called Black Guardian Trilogy (though he’s an exceedingly minor character in the trilogy – the Turlough Trilogy would be wholly more apropos). Or, at least, what we get for eight episodes with four episodes of him crawling around some ductwork shoved in the middle. Turlough is given a moral choice – betray and kill the Doctor or not – and spends the whole of the trilogy dithering over it, generally committing to the idea that he will kill the Doctor but not actually ever doing much of anything to accomplish it.
All of this could basically be written off as peculiarities of Mawdryn Undead if it weren’t for the fact that the story arc is book-ended on the other side by Enlightenment, a story about a bunch of bored decadents who like dressing up in the trappings of various exotic cultures and having yacht races. Which is to say, more aesthetes. At this point the series is practically begging for it.
But if we take this as the setup for Turlough, what do we make of the endpoint of this story arc? After all, the point of dallying with the negative choice in aestheticism is, ultimately, the idea that there is beauty in what is forbidden and profane. In which case Turlough’s wholesale rejection of the Black Guardian at the end of this story seems to be in part a repudiation of his coding as homosexual. This is an unfortunate endpoint, to say the least.
Several alternative ways to argue through this do seem to present themselves, and it’s worth exploring them quickly. First and foremost is the fact that the usual hullabaloo about the ambiguously oppositional relationship between the Black and White Guardians is on display here, cutting against the idea that the Black Guardian is evil. The problem is that this means taking one scene at the end of Enlightenment as more central to the understanding of the Guardians than all the moments where the Black Guardian shows up shouting things like “In the name of all that is evil, the Black Guardian orders you to destroy him now!” and cackling like he’s played by Valentine Dyall or something. The Guardians have been impossible to take seriously as a concept since their debut, where they came pre-skewered by Robert Holmes.
A second, somewhat cheekier approach would be to suggest that Turlough is only trading one model of queerness for another. Certainly, as I’ve already argued, Davison’s Doctor is a strong contender for the most slashable Doctor in the classic series. So Turlough breaks up with his abusive boyfriend and goes with the Doctor. But if we’re being honest there’s a circularity to this. Davison is slashable as much because he’s surrounded by at least one of Adric, the Master, or Turlough in all but three stories of his run. And one of those is Snakedance. He has, in other words, the incidental combination of being young, played by a television star known for more feminine series, and being the only Doctor since Pertwee to have a male companion in a majority of his stories (though at present Smith is at 17/22 stories featuring a male companion, with next season not set to send him below a majority). I’ll readily grant that the show is overtly coding Turlough as gay. Davison’s Doctor, not so much.
A third defense, which is at least slightly more satisfying, comes by just trying to deconstruct the ending. The declaration that “enlightenment was the choice” is obviously supposed to indicate that for Turlough enlightenment was the act of escaping the Black Guardian’s control. But if we take the long view of the choice, treating it as the entire twelve episode arc, then enlightenment is the same extended dalliance with corruption that is partially responsible for coding Turlough as gay in the first place. But while this works, it just feels smugly clever.
No, let’s go with a fourth defense, which is that the deferral of and stepping back from same-sex desire is part and parcel of what aestheticism does. Aesthetic novels are awash with points at which potentially scandalous details are visibly elided, the most famous of which is probably the moment in The Picture of Dorian Gray in which Dorian is told, “your name was implicated in the most terrible confession I ever read,” but no information about the content of the confession is actually forthcoming. In other words, aestheticism constantly performed precisely this double gesture of alluding to some scandalous content – generally implied, if not outright said, to be homosexual – and visibly obscuring it.
This is, of course, a subset of the larger category of the closet, with which gay culture at large has an ambiguous relationship with to this day. But in 1983 it was still a fairly straightforward one. Homosexuality may have been decriminalized, but it was nowhere close to destigmatized, especially in the face of the dawning AIDS crisis that was in the midst of decimating the gay male community. Clause 28 looms over 1983 as surely as the hiatus looms over Season 20. The consequence of this is something we talked about the last time the series was getting fabulously gay, which is that gay culture became defined in part by the ways in which it hid itself. This has been tacitly clear through the whole of this post, where I’ve been using words like “coded” to describe how we know Turlough is gay. Because coding was, in 1983, still a huge part of how gay culture self-identified and how people in the gay community successfully identified each other. It’s misleading to talk about Turlough’s homosexuality as subtext in this regard. Yes, it’s never explicitly stated. But that doesn’t mean it’s not completely explicit – homosexuality, in the culture of the time, always existed in code and subtext.
(The nature of the closet in the present day is tremendously conflicted, I should note. On the one hand, major battles have been won in terms of acceptance of homosexuality that obviate the need for the closet. On the other hand, gay culture has existed for decades with the closet as a major force, making its removal the occasion for some real ambivalence and anxiety due to it threatening the makeup of the culture. The debates within the gay community over gay marriage, with a small but significant section of the community arguing that gay marriage serves to functionally “straighten” their relationships are one of many, many examples.)
So if we treat Turlough’s storyline as a mirroring of the classic aesthetic structure then the fact that it ends with a phoned in attempt to defuse it and take Turlough out of his decadent gay lifestyle is hardly a big deal. It’s exactly the sort of closeting move that defines aesthetic literature and the gay community more generally. The fact that there’s an overt turn away from some of the tropes that code Turlough as gay really can’t be fairly taken as a rejection of homosexuality in a meaningful sense. Anyone who was aware of the coding up to that point would also have seen it as an inevitable and necessary part of grappling with the subject on a BBC1 family program in 1983. It doesn’t change the basic fact that the series, at this point, would have been visibly gay-friendly.
(Note: The following paragraph was added a few hours after the entry posted. Hat tip to Alex Wilcock and William Whyte, who’s comments inspired the central insight.)
Indeed, the ambiguities of the ending need not be taken as undermining the point at all. A somewhat tortured relationship with the tropes of homosexuality is itself a useful commentary on them. The extended meditation on a negative moral choice that the Black Guardian represents is part of Turlough’s gay coding. So, of course, are many of his more villainous traits. But does anyone seriously look at post-Enlightenment Turlough and stop seeing the gay coding? Of course not. He’s gay through to Planet of Fire. His rejection of the Black Guardian, in that case, is not a rejection of homosexuality, but of a particular subset of stereotypes about homosexuality. Taken this way, “enlightenment was the choice” takes on another meaning, given that this scene also marks where he “comes out” to Tegan and the Doctor as having been an agent of the Black Guardian. (And the implication, of course, is that the Doctor knew all along. As did Tegan, who long suspected that there was “something funny” about Turlough, so to speak.) By rejecting the Black Guardian and making an affirmative claim to his identity Turlough comes out instead of just being outed. The choice thus consists of him having his cake and eating it too – he remains situated in a long tradition of gay culture while at the same time vocally rejecting those aspects of the culture that are negative stereotypes. Turlough’s arc, in this reading, is about a broader question of what gay culture is. And its very existence on BBC1 demonstrates the relevance of this – gay culture clearly was emerging into the mainstream, and its emergence raises the exact questions this reading situates the story as answering.
As I’ve noted, the prominence of various sorts of homosexual coding in the John Nathan-Turner era in no way begins with Mawdryn Undead, and we’re still not up to either of the two most overt engagements with a gay audience in the classic series (Time and the Rani and The Happiness Patrol, since someone is going to ask). But the Turlough arc marks what is probably the most extended treatment of the issue in the classic series. And, of course, all of this is worth discussing in part because Doctor Who’s engagement with the gay community is a fundamental part of its revival. This may not be the era of Doctor Who that Russell T. Davies grew up with, but there’s no mistaking the fact that there’s a coherent line of influence from the homosexual coding that takes place under Nathan-Turner’s watch to the nature, if not the very fact, of its return in 2005.