Over the last few decades, LGBTQ representation in television has been on rise, with queer characters becoming more overtly featured in media. However, whilst the number of characters has certainly increased, as has the use of an old, problematic trope; sensationalised and unnecessary deaths of queer characters. LGBTQ characters are killed off at a disproportionate rate to their straight counterparts, too often with no real addition to the plot, being treated as an expendable commodity, to add shock value. The most high profile example recently of the so-called ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope was in 2016, with the outcry from fans after the sudden death of Lexa on the CW’s The 100, mere minutes after her true feelings for the protagonist, Clarke, had been shown on screen.
As a result of this trope, many queer people are left having to watch the small proportion of representation we are given be used as canon fodder, over and over again to further lazy writing.
Doctor Who has certainly a mixed history with this trope. On one hand, there have been many positive queer characters within the show and it’s subsequent spin-offs. In 2017, the show made a stir by introducing it’s first queer companion, Bill Potts, whose sexuality was openly addressed across the season. However, her departure following her character’s death at the end of her first season caused disappointment from fans, despite the attempt to lessen her death by showing her as appearing to be living on as a spirit-like form, it still felt it was treading close to the trope. Similarly, Season 11 received backlash last year over its queer representation, which mostly entirely consisted of the brutal murder of several queer characters across multiple episodes, within the opening few minutes of the show, moments after establishing their sexualities.
Doctor Who is not new to dealing with queer characters by any means, having contained both subtle and out and proudly queer characters since its revival in 2005. There have been several subtle references to the sexual fluidity of both minor and main characters, most nobly River Song and Clara Oswald. However, their sexuality was never given anything more than a throwaway comment to an off-screen queer relationship and therefore its weight as representation has rightly been questioned. On the other hand, however, the show has at times featured more direct representation in a few recurring characters, most notably Vastra and Jenny – a Silurian and human married couple solving crime in Victorian London, as well as the shows most famous queer character, the ‘omnisexual’ Captain Jack Harkness.
Even beyond the main show, the spin-offs of Doctor Who have been consistent with trying to tell queer stories, even more so than the lead show it is fair to argue. The Sarah Jane Adventures had set foundations towards Sarah Jane’s son Luke coming out in the scripts for the unfinished season, that was sadly unable to be filmed after Elizabeth Sladen’s tragic death in 2011. Had this been filmed Luke would have been the first openly LGBTQ main character on CBBC. The more recent series Class depicted a well developed teenage gay couple at the heart of the show, and the 2006 spin-off Torchwood, followed Captain Jack Harkness and his team, almost all of whom were shown or implied to be queer.
Jack, in particular, is an interesting character to note in this context, as he famously cannot die. This subversion of the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope was a positive step, back when Jack was permanently resurrected back in Doctor Who’s first season since the revival, and Jack has remained a strong fan favourite, one who is finally returning to the series in season 12 after being absent from the show for a decade. However, even though Jack himself represents a wonderful respite from the trope, whilst he cannot die, the same could not be said for his team in Torchwood. The second and third season of which saw the tragic end to practically all of it’s cast of queer characters, including Jack’s boyfriend, Ianto Jones, back in 2009. My personal first memory of being aware of a queer couple on television was watching as Jack cried over the body of his boyfriend.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not calling for all LGBTQ characters to be bulletproof, nor am I necessarily saying that all the deaths mentioned above should not have been written. However, when queer characters are so much more likely to be used as expendable by writers, their plotlines so often focusing on tragedy, as a queer viewer it can be exhausting. Therefore, when queer characters are allowed to survive, and not just survive but thrive, it makes for a refreshing change.
The writing team under Jodie Whittaker’s run as the Doctor have clearly listened to the criticism of Season 11. ‘Praxeus’, episode six of Season 12, depicted the Doctor and friends attempting to help an ex-cop, Jake, save his astronaut husband Adam from an alien virus. Throughout the episode I was skeptical, having been so trained to expect tragedy within such plotlines. So, when in the last ten minutes of the episode, Jake takes it upon himself to sacrifice his own life for the sake of humanity, I was disappointed, preparing myself to watch this couple cruelly torn apart, just as I had expected they would be. However, the writers decided to take a new direction, allowing the Doctor to swoop in just in time to save Jake and reunite the couple, stating that she always was “a romantic”, as the two share a kiss. (This in itself is significant as back in 2014, a kiss between wives Vastra and Jenny made headlines as it was the subject of homophobic complaints to the BBC and was cut from the episode’s broadcast in Asia.)
Rather than fall back on a shock value death, the writers chose to close the plot by allowing its characters time to resolve their issues without tragedy, closing the episode with the couple walking off down the beach, hand and hand, practically into the sunset. Some could argue that themes such as death and tragedy are what make for interesting television (such as Game of Thrones as example), yet, for queer characters, allowing our characters to walk away from the danger, given them a ‘boring’ or ‘domestic’ ending, is much more unexpected, engaging and original in the scope of queer representation. It may seem a simple thing to some, but even so it is a hugely reassuring sign, showing the writers of Doctor Who are striving to tell more positive queer stories, in an environment where such plotlines can be hard to come by.
Queer people grow up watching reflections of themselves being subjected to violence, hardship and rejection, and an early death on the silver screen. Yet, it seems, I hope, that ‘Bury your Gays’ is finally being recognized as the tired trope that it is, both within the Doctor Who universe and across television in general – for example, the SYFY show Wynonna Earp made similar headlines in 2016 for subverting the trope after one half of its queer couple was shot – only for it to be revealed she is wearing a bulletproof vest.
We can only hope that this trope will continue to be challenged and contradicted moving forward, with more queer characters in bulletproof vests than graves.