I’m not the only transgender fan of Doctor Who. My friends and I have frequently used the term "regeneration" as a silly way to refer to elements of our transitions, often when posting progress photos, or wishing each other luck the night before someone’s top surgery. At Gallifrey One, a Who convention I attend every year, we even had someone create preferred pronoun ribbons as part of the badge ribbon tradition, wherein attendees hang an increasing number of colorful ribbons until they, intentionally or not, somewhat resemble Tom Baker’s iconic scarf.
Still, while I’m not alone in my identity within this particular fandom, I have had a rather specific connection to the show that has, almost eerily at times, run parallel to my own regeneration.
It started in 2013, when Matt Smith regenerated into Peter Capaldi. It was Christmas night; I was sitting in my best friend’s basement for our annual tradition of watching the Doctor Who Christmas special projected onto his home theater wall, fueled by a fancy bottle of whiskey my dad had bought me. By this point we already knew Capaldi was on the way, we’d seen his eyebrows help save Gallifrey a few months earlier, but it was time to say goodbye to Matt’s Eleventh Doctor. As the action wound down and the end neared, he started giving a speech, which, of course, Eleven was prone to do.
“We all change,” Eleven said, “when you think about it, we're all different people; all through our lives, and that's okay, that's good, you've gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.”
This line really hit me hard. I'd been out as transgender since 2009, but I had for several years been unsure of what next steps I wanted to take. The actual act of transition, in this case specifically of starting Hormone Replacement Therapy, was a step I had been uncertain about taking. I was looking at it still as becoming a whole other person, which is not, I now know, the case. It's a slow gradual change, and at the end of it you're really still who you always were, but there for the world to see.
But that line from Smith’s goodbye really stuck with me. It played in my head, popping up at random times throughout the year. You’ve gotta keep moving. Remember all the people that you used to be. It was like a mantra, a credo.
It was in my head a few months later when I reached out for the first time to clinics in my area to speak to someone, to talk to a professional about moving forward and taking hormones. It was in the back of my mind when, after surviving a transphobic assault that summer, I chose not to wither and hide away again like I may have in the past, but to keep moving.
By the fall of 2014, I scheduled my first appointment with the LGBT Center here in Los Angeles, to talk to someone about transitional care. Also that fall, Doctor Who came back and I again sat among friends excited to watch Peter Capaldi’s first story as the Twelfth Doctor, “Deep Breath.”
There’s a scene at the end of that episode where the Doctor’s companion, Clara Oswald, is unsure if she’s going to continue traveling with him with his new form. In a scene more vulnerable than I think any Doctor Who fan was really used to, the Doctor pleads with Clara to just see him.
“You can't see me, can you? You … you look at me and you can't see me. Do you have any idea what that's like?” He says. “I'm right here. Standing in front of you. Please, just … Just see me.”
I remember crying at this scene when it aired, and pretty much every time I’d revisit this episode after that. Even though the Doctor is not a transgender character, I felt like in this moment, this silly sci-fi show that normally deals in rubber suits with suckers, or talking salt and pepper shakers armed with plungers and genocide, had somehow perfectly summed up how I feel when dealing with the world.
The frustration, the sadness that I feel every time someone sees me and calls me a man, every time someone calls me “sir” by accident, it was all there in that simple set of dialogue. Just this character begging someone to see that he’s still the person she cared about regardless of how he might look, and he’s in there under that face. You look at me and you can't see me. Do you have any idea what that's like?
If I’d had any doubts up till that point about wanting to transition, that episode erased them. I knew from then on that I wanted to do what I could to be seen. I went to my (lowercase “d”) doctor, and within a few months I had begun taking hormones.
That “Deep Breath” scene would stick in my mind a lot, and last summer, after I’d filed court paperwork to get my name and gender legally changed, I got a tattoo to commemorate the occasion, the words "Deep Breath" written in clockwork font, with the number 12 hidden in the text. The words served both as the name of the episode, and as a reminder to myself to take a deep breath sometimes when things get too much.
I’ve never met Peter Capaldi in person, but if I ever do, I hope I get to shake his hand, show him my tattoo and tell him just how important he was to me during a very difficult and scary time in my life.
I had thought until now that this was the end of my strangely timed connection with the show, when the Doctor's regeneration cycle had perfectly synced up with my own. But that all changed on Sunday, July 16, when the BBC announced that Jodie Whittaker would be playing the Thirteenth Doctor. With a camera cut to a lightly mascaraed eyelash and a slow lowering of a hoodie, she turned my silly self-made analogy into the flesh-and-blood real thing.
At the end of this strange journey through self-identity and finding one’s place in the world, the Doctor, like me, is going to regenerate into a female body. Now, I of course know that regeneration is not actually the same as being trans. I know that Chris Chibnall does not intend to present the Doctor as a trans character. I know that this metaphor and how it relates extremely well to my life at this exact moment in time is a happy accident. But that’s part of loving Doctor Who, isn’t it? The way happy accidents fall together to create something fantastic. For those of us who often feel like isolated outcasts, the joy of higher fantasy science fiction is imagining a world where you just might fit in.
I’ve never had a TV character who speaks to me the way the Doctor does. I’ve found myself changing my own behavior because of how much the Doctor believes in the potential goodness of humans. I try, and often fail but still try, to fight less and talk and listen more. Feeling so intimately close to this character has meant the world to me, could even have saved my life. Now, knowing she’s on her way to being even more like me in just a few months is a strange but sort of fascinating feeling.
I anticipate that I’ll be a fan of this show and this character for the rest of my life. It will eventually change in ways I don’t expect, it will likely move away from feeling so personal to me and transform back into just a fun science fiction series that I enjoy watching like it was before Matt Smith took off his cool bow tie. And the Doctor? She will regenerate again, back into men, or into other women, and hopefully only continue to be more diverse, bringing people of color into the mix, at least I hope so.
But I’ll always be here, and I’ll always remember when the Doctor was me.