It may have taken 57 and a half years, but the Whoniverse is to finally gain its first openly transgender character. British actor Rebecca Root will play Tania Bell alongside Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor in the new Big Finish production, Stranded. In the first of this new series of stories, the TARDIS is gone and the Doctor is stranded in one time and place: London’s Baker Street in 2020. Not all the neighbours are welcoming, and someone has a dire warning for the future.
Root previously starred in the 2015 BBC comedy, Boy Meets Girl, as the first transgender character in a sitcom. Of course, she’s not the first trans actor to appear in Doctor Who. That accolade goes to writer and comedian Bethany Black, who played 474 in Series 9’s Sleep No More.
The creation of Tania Bell is another step forward for a series that, for all its nearly six decades’ wanderings through infinite time and space, has only recently presented a universe that is much other than straight, white, male, and cisgender. On TV, Who only gained its first black companion with Dr Martha Jones in 2007 and its first lesbian companion, Bill Potts, in 2017. When one recalls that Coronation Street’s Hayley Cropper debuted in 1998 — to become one of its most beloved characters for the next 16 years – it seems clear the TARDIS needs to catch up. As Root says in her interview with Nerdist,
It would have been amazing to see a Trans person in a show like Doctor Who. In fact, to see a Trans person period would have been amazing. But I [grew] up in the ’70s and society was differently populated back then, and gender ID was not really “a thing.”
Not everyone will be happy letting this into their headcanon. Just as there were those who bridled at a bisexual male companion, a black female companion, a gay black female companion, and a female Doctor, there will be those who baulk at this or deride it as ‘woke’. But we should remember that the Doctor, if not Doctor Who, has always not merely tolerated difference and diversity but valued it, celebrated it, and rushed out into the universe to embrace it. The series is now opening up to different voices and better representing its own audience. This greater inclusivity actually dates back at least as far as the McCoy era, which opened the series up to the avowedly working class and ‘street’ Ace McShane and was celebrated during the renaissance under Russell T Davies. Even recently, in his novelisation of Rose, Davies reached into future-past, when visions of the ‘man with two suits, brown and blue,’ the ‘tweed jacket and bow tie,’ were accompanied by a ‘blond woman in braces’ before he gave us a ‘tall, bald black woman,’ and a ‘young girl or boy in a hi-tech wheelchair’.
And while allegations of tokenism are once again inevitable, it’s important that the series and the audience do not define the characters by one aspect of their identity. While Tania Bell’s gender identity is the most notable thing about her right now, what’s important is that she be viewed as a person who happens to be trans, not simply as ‘the trans one’.
She’s a person like all the other people I have played and hope to play in the future. She’s not perfect, but she’s not a mess, and certainly, I don’t think her gender identity has any influence on her behaviour in the story.
Stranded is a four-story package, written by Matt Fitton, David K. Barnes, Lisa McMullin, and John Dorney. It stars Paul McGann, Tom Price, Hattie Morahan, Clive Wood, and Nicola Walker, with Tom Baker as The Curator. It will be released this week and is available to order for £24.99 on CD and £19.99 as a digital download. To listen to the trailer, click here.