An iconic part of British television since the 1960s, Doctor Who has a lot of responsibility on its shoulders. But if anyone ever wonders why the show is so successful, they should look no further than the vast selection of characters and stories represented inside the TARDIS.
From the beginning Doctor Who included strong female characters, such as teacher Barbara Wright or feisty Journalist Sarah-Jane Smith. And the show’s women have gained more and more agency as the years have gone on – from being someone for the Doctor to rescue to a woman now playing the Doctor. The “companions” have also taken on more of a co-lead role, from Ace and her explosives to Rose Tyler saving the lonely Time Lord from himself.
In recent years, we’ve seen more LGBT and BAME representation becoming the norm, just as we should. When we, as an audience, are shown emotions and experiences from all walks of life, it creates an impermeable bond with what we’re watching.
This is exactly why the show is so special. Doctor Who has the ability to become an incredibly personal show to its viewers. Whether it’s being the odd one out like the Doctor, or wanting more from life like companion Yasmin Khan, everyone has a character or a story they can relate to.
My own particular bond with the show stems from growing up with the Doctor and Rose Tyler, the duo who brought Doctor Who into the 21st century. I didn’t really realise it at the time, but I identified hugely with Rose and her story. She was a normal girl from a council estate, living with her single mother and trying to get by without much of a kick-start to life. I have lived a similar story; being without a father didn’t feel so unnatural, when Rose only had her mother too.
There are stories like this from all over the vast fandom that the show attracts. Watching characters you can see yourself in is a hugely affecting thing, especially for under-represented groups of people. Imagine finally seeing somebody like yourself on TV, going on an incredible adventure in the TARDIS, saving the universe, even becoming the hero.
This year we have finally had a woman playing the Doctor, and the importance of this is everything and nothing. It’s not a big deal, because of course a woman can do the same job as a man; but still, it’s everything, because it’s showing women that they can and should be the heroes too.
Representation doesn’t necessarily mean watching somebody that looks like you. Seeing an emotion or a situation that you’ve experienced being represented on a show as big as Doctor Who can also provide validation and comfort. People can relate to Martha Jones’s unrequited love, or Clara Oswald’s grief. Even the Doctor – an alien with two hearts and a time machine – can be relatable to an audience who may feel like they don’t fit in with the rest of the world.
This show and its stories do something that not many programmes can achieve – it accepts us. It tells us it is okay to be who we are, or who we want to be. It says, “Who cares? You are valid and important no matter where you come from. Whether you’re black or white, Muslim or atheist, LGBT or straight: you matter.” Being told that you could be as incredible as the heroes you watch on screen is life changing; everybody has a part of the story that they can see themselves in.
The diversity and difference show in Doctor Who creates hope in the hearts of whoever it touches. This is why fans love the show so deeply and unconditionally – because it thrives on making the universe a better place, and includes all of us in every incredible journey.
Beth Axford is one of the founders of the Time Ladies blog.