Doctor Who as written by Steven Moffat is peppered with jokes. Pretty good ones on the whole. And occasionally, some are surprisingly filthy. Take this one, from A Good Man Goes to War featuring Silurian detective Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and warrior maid Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart).
VASTRA: Mammals. They all look alike.
JENNY: Oh, thank you.
(One of two tied up prisoners is looking to unlock the door)
VASTRA: Was I being insensitive again, dear? I don’t know why you put up with me.
(And she whips out her enormous tongue and lashes the prisoner’s neck. Cue knowing glances between Vastra and Jenny).
It’s the moment we find out that Vastra and Jenny are more than just friends. And probably Doctor Who’s most blatant joke about female orgasm (though oddly enough, there’s one in our next random story too. Now that’s a teaser!). Two women doing it, and one’s a lizard. As some wag on Twitter recently said, it’s great that Doctor Who brings gay bestiality to family television.
But Vastra and Jenny have gone on to make several return appearances and that lifts them above the status of a throwaway gag about lesbianism. They are the first Doctor Who regulars who are a same sex couple and by their second appearance in The Snowmen, they are married, which is presented as a signal of legitimacy. When Dr Simeon (a glowering Richard E Grant), remarks on their suspiciously intimate companionship, Vastra retorts “I resent your implication of impropriety”. They are the real deal. And unapologetic about it.
They make a perfectly charming couple: Jenny the spunky adventure seeker, Vastra the flirty sleuth. They are clearly devoted to each other, despite Vastra’s occasional sideways glances. The only worrying aspect of it, as noted by Jenny herself in Deep Breath, is despite being in a marriage of equals, she is still the maid to Vastra’s lady of the house (it is difficult to imagine the same situation applying to Amy and Rory and being acceptable to modern viewers). Nonetheless, Doctor Who, in presenting them as a same sex couple as nuanced and as legitimate as any other, is doing what it has often done over the years, and celebrating difference.
It doesn’t hurt that there’s a sci-fi twist to this relationship. It is easier for Doctor Who to tell their story because Vastra is a “lizard woman from the dawn of time”. This makes it more palatable, hides the sex behind a sci-fi veil. Again, it is Doctor Who’s long held practice. Last random’s The Mutants told the story of racial intolerance from the safety of a space station in the future. Real life issues, hidden in plain sight. Would the series be able to show a married human gay couple, male or female, for more than a fleeting glance? I think that Vastra’s very nature shows that actually, the series is not there yet.
But still, it has come a long way. If Vastra and Jenny have a Who ancestor, it’s Jack Harkness, played by John Barrowman. Jack is famously omnisexual, though in Doctor Who this extended only to some ribald comments, and flirty exchanges with members of both sexes and the occasional alien.
By the time he gets to Torchwood though, Jack is more gay than bisexual. He enters into an intense relationship with colleague Ianto Jones, which never makes its way into Doctor Who although both appear in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. Jack might be every-kind-of-sexual in Doctor Who, but he’s never queer in the way that Vastra and Jenny are. But his presence, both in Doctor Who and in Torchwood at least shows that a non-straight character can play a prominent role. I don’t think you could jump straight to the series’ first gay marriage without a trail blazing character like Jack.
Since The Snowmen, we’ve seen Vastra and Jenny (do they have a Brangelina style name conflation? Jenstra? Vasny?) in The Crimson Horror and The Name of the Doctor, and their presence was barely noted by the not-we press. But in Deep Breath we saw them kiss, and that caught some attention. Even then it was under the narrative excuse of sharing oxygen reserves, but chicks kissing is usually enough to get you in the papers. Of course the actual impact of the smooch was over inflated by the media. Apparently six viewers complained, which is negligible.
Of more interest is that the episode was edited for some international territories, the first of two interesting editing decisions in Series 8, the second being the decapitation in Robot of Sherwood. I digress, but leaving the kiss on the cutting room floor shows how international tastes influence the show. Not that editing for international broadcast is new – plenty of classic series stories were snipped for Australian broadcast for instance – but they were always because of violence, not moral concern, if we might generously (if not sarcastically) call it that.
What it shows is that queerness still has only a tenuous place in Doctor Who. It’s highly codified; that lesbian’s not a lesbian, she’s a Silurian. That kiss isn’t a kiss, it’s an oxygen transfer. He’s not gay, he’s omnisexual. It can be excised too; you can watch a version of Deep Breath with or without its girl on lizard kiss. But despite this, we can see the series taking steps to address queer culture. We are surely not that far away from an openly gay companion… Perhaps even a Doctor who fancies blokes?
And I seem to have reached the end of this post without mentioning Vajenny’s (Oh no. Just no.) role in the episode itself. Hmm, how about this… How does cold blooded Vastra cope with the icy winters of London? I’ll leave you with that to ponder.
LINK to The Mutants. I don’t have much, but each does have a spaceship hovering above the action on the planet’s surface.
NEXT TIME… I was going to snog him! We conduct The Lazarus Experiment.