dold Doctor Who has been in the doldrums. The nasty pandemic caused production delays, panicked rewrites and cut runs. Ratings have collapsed, there has been no buzz and critical kicks have been delivered. But all is not lost for the BBC franchise. Aside from the imminent return of showrunner Russell T Davies, there’s another ray of light — and it comes in the form of a transgender-led podcast.
Written by Juno Dawson, Doctor Who: Redacted was launched along with the Easter TV special, Legend of the Sea Devils, and has been described by producer/director Ella Watts as “very gay, very trans” and sitting “to the left” of the main show. The 10-part BBC Sounds audio drama follows three best friends who create “the Blue Box Files”, a paranormal conspiracy podcast about a particular police box that crops up throughout history. Their ironic theorization suddenly becomes all too real when they are sucked into an action-packed alien adventure of their own.
The friends are college dropouts, now living in several UK cities, but staying connected through their hobby podcast. The ringleader of the gang (and drama) is a trans woman, Cleo, who works as a theater sitter, lives on a South London estate and is saving up for surgery. She is played by transgender activist Charlie Craggs, a scene stealer in her very first acting role, who describes her casting as “a huge step for the trans community. I am so honored to be a part of something so sacred to so many” .
Juno Dawson always had Craggs in mind to play her main character. “She’s such a force,” Dawson says. “The label ‘trans activist’ can be a club to beat transgender people. It’s a dehumanizing term, but Charlie uses her voice so cleverly – with humor and honesty. When it came to casting, I said to Ella, “Look, we can audition Charlie Craggs or find a trans actor and tell her to play it as Charlie Craggs.” There were some nerves at the BBC about hiring someone who was untrained, but I’m so glad we stuck to our guns.”
The podcast-within-a-podcast is founded by dedicated box spotter and faithful Abby (Vigil’s Lois Chimimba), who is bisexual and takes care of her ailing mother in Glasgow full time. Rounding out the lineup is the skeptical Shawna (Grange Hill’s Holly Quin-Ankrah), a proud lesbian who studies computer science at her local university in Sheffield.
Interestingly, this regional diversity came first for Dawson. “Being from Bradford myself, I love hearing regional accents on the BBC,” she says. “I love that Doctor Who who has lived his life in Cardiff, Sheffield and Liverpool for the past few years. There isn’t enough of that regionality in BBC drama, which is often a bit placeless. So before I even get to their gender or sexual identity it was important to me that they were from different parts of the UK Shawna was specified in the script as a black or mixed race woman from the north while Abby would always be from Glasgow which is one of my favorite cities.”
“The Three Loser-Teers”, as they style themselves disdainfully, discover that everyone who has ever met the Doctor is disappearing, their existence being forgotten. They are “edited from reality”. Is there an allegorical meaning here? “Somewhat,” Dawson says. “The idea of being silenced or wiped out is part of the online language these days. But, I would say to the listener: it’s Doctor Who, don’t read too much into it. It’s more about a threat hanging over the world.”
Ironically, the Blue Box Files is so unsuccessful that our heroines are the last names on the chart, leaving Cleo, Abby and Shawna the only hope in the world. They must race against time to discover the truth and avert the “end-of-the-world-like” danger.
As the drama unfolds, they’re joined by familiar faces — okay, voices — most notably the 13th Doctor herself (Jodie Whittaker). Rani Chandra (Anjli Mohindra) of The Sarah Jane Adventures and UNIT’s Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), Petronella Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) and Madame Vastra (Doon Mackichan) also return in their Doctor Who spin-off.
In addition to the Time Lord’s allies, some well-known monsters also appear. “It was so exciting to play with these beloved characters,” Dawson says. “It’s like borrowing someone else’s toy box. As long as you return the toy in new condition, you may just go crazy. I was in the next room while Jodie was recording my dialogue, and admit I cried. I never cry! I never thought that in a million years I wouldn’t see the Doctor lecture dialogue I had written for them.
But the podcast is not only laced with cameos, it also winks at Who storylines from the past and present. Tardis companions Martha, Ryan, Graham and Yaz are checked by name. So are past TV plot details, such as the dodgy diet company Adipose Industries and that time an entire hospital was teleported to the moon talking about space rhinoceroses.
Not that Dawson wanted the podcast to be about pleasing the purists. “I didn’t want it to be too heavy for the fan service,” she says. “The reason Doctor Who has been in business for nearly 60 years is because it has always kept the door open for new fans. Especially with every new doctor there is an invitation to come in and join the party. But there are Easter eggs and minor recalls. The girls have a podcast that explores the legend of the Doctor, so it makes sense that they’d be looking for clues. At the same time, it tells its own story. You don’t need to have seen much Doctor Who to understand Redacted.”
The story of the high stakes is cleverly intertwined with the trio’s personal lives. Abby may have a controlling boyfriend (“the man-baby”) lurking in the background, but she and Shawna have a sweet romantic subplot. Despite class clown Cleo insisting she’s “just here for the sass, honey,” we learn that her mom kicked her out when she started changing in her teens, but is now seriously ill and trying to reconcile. “It’s hard not to feel for Cleo’s character,” Craggs has said. “You’d have to be some kind of sociopath not to empathize with what she’s going through with her mother.”
Dawson agrees: “I wanted to emphasize that Cleo had a difficult old life but, like Charlie, has developed thick skin to hide her pain. That’s something Russell T Davies did particularly well. If you make people’s lives feel real and layered, then somehow the sci-fi feels more real too. There’s something wonderful about seeing a Yeti on the subway or a Dalek crossing Tower Bridge. It is the extraordinary mixed with the ordinary. I wanted the characters to feel like your neighbors.”
She wrote four of the ten episodes herself, with the rest attributed to new writers – again, with a strong emphasis on diversity and regionality. With Redacted, bestselling author Dawson becomes the first openly trans head writer of the Doctor Who franchise.
For a lifelong Whovian who calls the show her “first love,” that’s a big deal. “When I Watched Bonnie Langford” [who played companion Mel] as a child I decided I wanted to be her,” she says. “And then Sophie Aldred came along as Ace, an even stronger character who killed Daleks with a baseball bat. Long before I knew I was a girl, I knew I was Mel and Ace. The show had a huge impact on me, so it’s a privilege to put my own flag on the landscape.”
Whittaker is excited about working with Dawson and Craggs, saying “their energy is ace”. Redacted is indeed irresistibly sparkling. Characters are powered by protein shakes and oat milk lattes. Episodes run at a pace of 20 minutes. The dark plot is leavened by a script that cuts through Drag Race jargon and jokes about alien penises in jars. Harry Styles has been hailed as “an honorary lesbian”. “Live, laugh, love” culture and boomers leaving voicemails are downright ridiculed. It’s like a sci-fi remix of Feel Good by Mae Martin. Or It’s A Sin with aliens that also say “La!” say.
As such, the storm is running. “I was nervous because the fandom is so passionate,” Dawson says. “I’ve been that judgmental fan myself. But people have been incredibly positive. So has the queer and trans community. A lot of the messages I get online are from people saying, ‘I feel seen’.”
Doctor Who has long flirted with gay subtext. Since the reboot in 2005, queer characters have included Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and Madame Vastra’s wife, Jenny Flint, but it wasn’t until five years ago that the franchise had its first full-time LGBTQ+ partner, Bill Potts (played by Pearl ) introduced. Mackie). She was quickly followed by Whittaker as the first female incarnation of the Doctor – recently revealing her feelings for companion Yaz (Mandip Gill).
The show received an Ally award at the 2017 PinkNews Awards for its “longstanding LGBT inclusiveness”. With Redacted’s cast and crew of diverse queer women saving the universe, it’s another step forward for representation.
“Doctor Who has always appealed to LGBTQ+ people,” Dawson says. “There’s something so enduring about the idea that, if you live a somewhat mundane life, this person in a blue box can take you on an adventure across time and space. Many of the Doctor’s sidekicks have been trampled or marginalized, even if they weren’t outwardly strange. So to take that subtext and turn it into text, that means a lot. We don’t have to make a metaphor out of it anymore. We can have three queer women front and center.”
Doctor Who: Redacted is available on BBC Sounds, with new episodes every Sunday.