The strange sex life of Doctor Who

Ncuti Gatwa in Rogue
Ncuti Gatwa in Rogue - James Pardon

Warning – contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode Rogue which airs on June 8

Any doubts about the Doctor’s sexual appetite are put to bed in this week’s Bridgerton-inspired episode of Doctor Who. The Doctor – once seemingly celibate for the best part of a millennia – is now revealed to be a sexual being.

Rogue – written by Kate Herron and Briony Redman – sees the Doctor and Ruby get involved with social season courting at a Regency Era ball. As soon as Ncuti Gatwa’s 15th Doctor claps eyes on a mystery man named Rogue, his two hearts are aflutter. He’s soon giving Rogue the glad eye while lip-syncing to Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head.

Scenes of the Doctor cavorting with a fellow in breeches might get some viewers hot under the collar. After all, his sex life has remained, by and large, one of the universe’s great unknowns.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Russell T Davies’s second reboot sees Gatwa’s Doctor having a loud and proud gay tryst. The new series is bold and gleefully diverse. There’s a sense of telling Doctor Who fuddy-duddies to get onboard or have it rubbed in their faces.

The Doctor on-the-pull feels like genuinely new ground. But read between the (time) lines, and the Doctor has had a mysterious sex life.

Back in 1963, William Hartnell’s Doctor’s original companion was his own granddaughter, Susan (Carole Ann Ford), confirming that the Time Lord was what we would now call heteronormative – though it’s never been definitively stated whether Time Lords reproduce in the same way us earthlings do.

Decades later, David Tennant’s Doctor would admit that he had once been a father and married (“I’m rubbish at weddings. Especially my own”) though the story of how Susan came into existence – or who her parents/the Doctor’s children are (or, indeed, whom the Doctor had slept with in the first place) – was never revealed.

The Susan character wasn’t originally meant to be the Doctor’s granddaughter. That detail was added by writer Anthony Coburn, who wrote the first serial. According to producer Verity Lambert, Coburn felt uncomfortable about the sexual connotations. “I think Anthony Coburn felt there was something not quite proper about an old man travelling around the galaxy with a young girl for a companion,” said Lambert.

The First Doctor’s only romance came in 1964’s serial, The Aztecs, when he was accidentally engaged to Aztec woman Cameca (Margot Van der Burgh). It was a cultural misunderstanding. Not knowing the courting customs of 15th century Mexico, he unwittingly proposed to Cameca by offering her a cup of cocoa.

The crotchety Doctor manipulates Cameca but clearly falls for her. “You’re a very fine woman, Cameca,” he tells her at one point. “You’ll always be very, very dear to me.”

Cameca gives him a brooch to signify her love. He means to leave it behind but can’t bring himself to do it – he secretly pockets the brooch again before leaving in the Tardis.

Carole Ann Ford as Susan Foreman and William Hartnell as Dr Who
Carole Ann Ford as Susan Foreman and William Hartnell as Dr Who - BBC

The Doctor was then chaste for several centuries. By the time he’d regenerated into Sylvester McCoy in the 1987 series, the Doctor was 953 years old. Sex – hardly the stuff of Saturday teatimes – wasn’t part of the language of the show. Certainly, he travelled with his share of young women, but while he had deep affection for some (notably Katy Manning’s Jo Grant), it always appeared platonic.

Even Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor – younger than his predecessors, with a certain amount of rambunctious energy – didn’t flinch at the sight of barely-clad warrior Leela (Louise Jameson). And though his relationship with Time Lady companion Romana (Lalla Ward) looks flirtatious, that’s probably coloured by the fact that Baker and Ward became a couple in real life.

The general consensus is that the female companion was part of Doctor Who to please the dads, who were still sitting in front of the TV following the football results.

Script editor Terrance Dicks once made a note to writer Robert Holmes, joking that he’d written a script called “The Secret Sex Life of Doctor Who... I’ll spare you the details but it is sufficient to say that it’s not only hearts that he has two of...”

As longtime fans will know, John Nathan-Turner, who produced the show throughout the 1980s, had a “no hanky-panky in the Tardis” rule. It wasn’t until 1996’s much-derided TV movie that The Doctor – now Paul McGann – showed any interest. His new partner in saving the universe, Dr Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), was more love interest than companion. It’s little wonder: the British-American co-production was a more Hollywood-style attempt at reviving Who. The Doctor kisses Dr Grace under explosions of New Year’s Eve fireworks, though she refuses an offer to enter the Tardis and a poke around his Eye of Harmony.

Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones and David Tennant as the Doctor
Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones and David Tennant as the Doctor - BBC/Adrian Rogers

At the time, the kiss – among other changes – was controversial with Who fans. Future showrunner Steven Moffat defended the romance on an early Who forum, pointing to The Doctor’s taste in “bimbos in miniskirts” as proof that The Doctor was far from asexual. “What, you think he was choosing them for their brains?” wrote Moffat.

When Russell T Davies relaunched the show in 2005, The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston followed by David Tennant) and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) were the two beating hearts of the show.

The love affair was more emotional than physical. With Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, the romance was more unspoken – and more powerful for it – though he kissed Rose in the end, to suck the time vortex out of her (Eccleston’s Doctor also fancied a tree woman and got a kiss from John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness).

The Doctor-Rose romance was more overt with David Tennant, and indeed his incarnation often felt like a romantic lead, albeit one with a heavy dose of eccentricity. Tennant’s Tenth Doctor “danced” with Madame de Pompadour (Sophia Myles) – interpret that as you will – and fell in love with school nurse Joan Redfern (Jessica Hynes) after briefly becoming sort-of human. New companion Martha (Freema Agyeman) pined for him and he kissed the ghost of Kylie Minogue’s Astrid.

The love life of the Doctor intensified further when Matt Smith took over the role in 2010. It was revealed here that the Doctor accidentally got engaged and married Marilyn Monroe. There was also sexual tension with the Tardis itself, when its matrix is transferred into the body of Suranne Jones. “The first time you touched my console...” she says. It does raise questions about what he gets up to when he’s alone in that blue box.

It’s not hard to imagine what happened off-screen with the Doctor’s eventual wife, River Song (Alex Kingston). Their timelines crossed paths in reverse order, and she had to stop herself from giving him “spoilers” about his future. There was no explicit word on the wedding night shenanigans, though her innuendo says it all. “Don’t worry, I’m quite the screamer,” she says at one point. “Now there’s a spoiler for you.”

Their last night together, on the planet Darillium, lasted 24 years – an opportunity for the Doctor to make up for lost time, no doubt. Though it’s all a bit creepy: River is the grown-up, twice-regenerated daughter of companions Amy and Rory, and was conceived in the Tardis.

When the Doctor regenerated into Jodie Whittaker, an unfulfilled lesbian romance with companion Yaz (Mandip Gill) felt – like the show at that point – a bit po-faced. They never even kissed.

Doctor Who has often been a progressive show – from liberal politics to gender-bending aliens, though the Doctor has been a bit more prudish when it comes to his own sex life. However, the shenanigans of Ncuti Gatwa’s incarnation suggests his sex life might be a bit more like the new series going forward: loud, proud, and in your face.


Doctor Who is on iPlayer now

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