Companions in Comics: The Coming Out of Izzy Sinclair

The Eighth Doctor’s arrival kickstarts an exciting period in Doctor Who Magazine. Old patterns are disrupted. This Doctor is fallible in ways that would have been unthinkable during the comic’s early days. We get numerous female companions with proper character arcs. And we begin to see slightly more space given to the characters’ sexuality. No doubt there’s a post to be written about the Doctor’s transition, in this incarnation, from asexual alien to half-human, heterosexual romantic. But for now, I want to focus on Izzy Sinclair—the Doctor’s companion from 1996 to 2003.

Izzy has geekish interests. She enters the story as a science-fiction-obsessed teenager from Hampshire, in England. After helping the Doctor fight off the Celestial Toymaker she eagerly accepts an invitation to join him in the TARDIS. Her presence makes the stories more knowing and intertextual: her speech is smattered with allusions to Star Trek, the X-Files, Iain Banks and Lovecraft. The pop culture references haven’t all dated well but serve a purpose for her character. Namely that, because she brings her own expectations of space and time travel, she is not a passive sounding board for the Doctor’s exposition. (This was definitely a problem with earlier female companions—I’m looking at you, Sharon).

However, Izzy hints that her SF love only partially accounts for running away with the Doctor. She is also trying to escape a range of identity issues which can no longer be ignored in her home life. These include her resentment at discovering she was adopted as a baby. Less explicitly, her closeness to a fellow TARDIS companion, Fey Truscott-Sade, demonstrates an unspoken attraction to women. Although Izzy intends to return to her family eventually, her plans are thwarted when, against her will, she swaps bodies with a genetically modified alien named Destrii. Izzy must adapt to living in a part human, part fish body, and is certain that her changed appearance will attract fear and hostility on Earth. (To be cynical for a moment, her figure still complies closely with the norm for comic book women. In fact her new swimming prowess grants lots of opportunities for looking at her breasts).

Gradually she comes to terms with her changed form. She continues to believe she will be rejected on Earth, and accepts she will not return home. It takes several stories, across a period of months, for her to reach this acceptance. Nevertheless Destrii turns up again and Izzy is happy to return to her original physical self. Restored to her own body, Izzy acknowledges her attraction to Fey by kissing her. A few panels later, she tells the Doctor she is ready to go home. He drops her off, hugs her goodbye, and she is reunited with her mother.

Izzy and Fay are kissing.

Picture of Izzy and Fay from Doctor Who Magazine, published by Panini.

As a denouement to seven years in the TARDIS these final scenes are poignant. Izzy, unlike many of the eighties’ comic companions, gets a satisfying exit that resonates with her character development. However, there are a few problematic aspects to highlight in her storyline.

Although Fay and Izzy’s relationship has a sexual subtext long before they kiss, the allusions are veiled. Whisking Izzy home as soon as her orientation is acknowledged brings her into line with a wider cultural pattern, in which lesbian, gay and bisexual characters tend to be limited to coming out stories.

Additionally, Izzy’s bodily transformations are a problematic metaphor for the numerous ways in which she feels “different.” By endowing her with an alien form, the body swap literalises her sense of feeling alien in her family as an adopted daughter, and in society as a woman who is attracted to women. (There is also a brief attempt, in the 2001 story The Way of All Flesh, to draw parallels between her transformation and acquired disability.) What then are we to make of her regaining her old body? Anticipating hostility on Earth because of an alien appearance is a realistic fear; but it is solved in the story by simply swapping back again. Obviously this is a troubling “solution” when alien embodiment is positioned as a symbol for being gay or disabled.

This picture shows Izzy with an alien body. Her face resembles a fish and her torso is humanoid. She wears a swimming costume that accentuates her cleavage.

Picture of Izzy in Destrii's body, from Doctor Who Magazine, published by Panini.

My suspicion is that nervousness about presenting openly LGBT characters prompted this use of alien embodiment as a metaphor. Some of the artwork also panders to readers who might feel threatened by attempts to diversify Doctor Who’s range of characters. For instance, the body swap not only coincides with Izzy’s most intense attempts to accept herself, but with a sexualisation of her appearance, as though to assuage an implied heterosexual, male reader who might otherwise feel disturbed he has no place in the story. He gets to ogle her, and accordingly she is less threatening.

Before her transformation, Izzy already complies fairly closely with conventional beauty standards—she is white, slim, and youthful. Still, the way she is drawn doesn’t objectify her. Her clothing is recognisably high street garb, she seems to dress for practicality, and her posture is naturalistic. After her transformation, you see a lot more flesh, and not in a particularly sex positive way; she frequently becomes an object for looking at. (It doesn’t help that Destrii isn’t presented in a sex positive way either: she is more forthright about her desires than Izzy, but she is also presented as manipulative and emotionally damaged. Her character development, which is genuinely compelling, sometimes strays towards pathologising her sexual behaviour).

So much for my misgivings about the way Izzy’s sexuality is handled. This isn’t to minimise the importance of showing a same sex kiss in the TARDIS. I’m sure, too, that Izzy’s success as a companion—because she is a great companion—made introducing openly LGBT characters more feasible for the revived television programme.

6 comments

  1. Thanks for writing this! I remember reading most of the Izzy adventures when they were first published in Doctor Who Magazine, and later discovered through wikipedia that her being a lesbian had been “addressed” in the comics. And I was all WTF because I had missed it entirely, and how do you miss something that important?

    But now I read this I do remember the kiss with Fey, so obviously I didn’t notice it at the time as the major plot development that it was.

    I loved Izzy, and still have enormous affection for her. That the Doctor had a geeky fangirl companion who referenced Pratchett and loved comic books was a big deal for me, and to have the ‘representing fandom’ teen companion be a GIRL was very important. Being a girl who was a Doctor Who fan in Australia was… well, it wasn’t as isolating for me because I had a bunch of friends who were too, but everyone around us tended to look at us like we had two heads for being into science fiction instead of, I don’t know, whatever girls were supposed to like.

    I get the impression that women were even more of a rarity in British Doctor Who fandom, so it was extra awesome to have Izzy representing all those girls who read SF books and loved to natter about them.

    Izzy has only been depicted in Big Finish once, along with novel companion Fitz, Mary Shelley and Bernice Summerfield, in a collection of half hour short plays called “The Company of Friends.” She’s played by Jemima Rooper & I heartily recommend it, and I wish they’d make more with her.

    • Kmasca says:

      Yeah, I can understand the WTF reaction because all of the context for the kiss is really understated.

      I was the same age as Izzy in 1996, and all the references to what she reads/watches are the things my friends were reading/watching too. We didn’t feel isolated as such – in fact I don’t think we fully realised our interests were outside the mainstream for girls. We were in single sex education, so maybe that sheltered us a bit. You’re right that Doctor Who fandom, as a community, had the image of being predominantly male in the UK then. I think I saw that as a different sort of activity from the conversations I would have with friends.

      Izzy is one of my favourite characters in DWM for more reasons that I could fit in one post. Her relationship with the Doctor is so positive – there’s a lot of affection between them and they look out for each other like proper friends. I think that felt particularly reassuring after Ace was killed off.

      • She has a great vibe to her, and I liked their friendship very much. I saw the swapped-with-Destrii storyline as being more one of body horror than having other gendered ramifications, but looking at the artwork now I think that the sexy outfit etc. are really inappropriate – would have been cool if after the initial shock wore off Izzy always wore nice jumpers and jeans etc. over the fish alien body. Given that her personality hadn’t changed it seems weird that she’s constantly bouncing around in a tiny swimsuit.

        There are not enough images of sexy fish aliens wearing geeky t-shirts in the world!

        • Kmasca says:

          Initially it does look like they will go down the jeans and jumpers route – Izzy is very wrapped up in The Way of Flesh – and then her clothing becomes more skimpy. The problem isn’t so much the swimming costume per se as the way she’s drawn. Everything in that panel above directs your gaze to her breasts.

          It interests me that only the alien body is sexually objectified in this period of DWM; the human women are more sensitively drawn. I did wonder if the portrayl of Destrii’s body was a type of complicitous critique, because the Doctor later learns that Destrii’s people have been physically modified for the entertainment of the Horde. But that’s a very generous reading.

  2. Dave says:

    Hi, I came across this article a few days back and it prompted me to go back and read Izzy’s story since I remembered it as a triumph of Doctor Who back in the day. I think the troubling idea that you can “switch back” that you mention in the article may be erroneous, as I don’t think Fishy Izzy is meant to represent her sexuality, i.e. a monstrous left-turn from normality.

    It’s tempting to read Gay=other and Alien=other, therefore Alien=Gay, but I think in the Doctor Who strip, particularly in grand periods such as the 8th and 6th Doctor strips, being alien is actually the norm, what with all the fish-women and cat-men and shape shifting penguins. By becoming the alien, Izzy actually fits in with the world’s “norms” on an external level, but still feels different and trapped on the inside. The ugliness she fees she’s trapped in isn’t her own innate sexuality but her faux-heterosexuality.

    Her new sex symbol status in that skimpy bikini may look false and unreal to readers in the real world, but within the context of the comic strip genre, that’s pretty standard day-clothes for a woman in a comic; the comic book clothing equivalent of marrying a guy and having two kids. She’s become “normal” within the world in which she lives, and that’s what she has trouble dealing with.

    When that painter at the end of The Way of All Flesh draws a picture of her old self “as she truly is”, it’s a portrait of her human body, not the fish body. For the fish=gay metaphor to hold, that ending means “you’ll find your true beauty when you discard your homosexual ugliness”, and I don’t think that’s what is being said at all. Rather, if she loses the uncomfortable ugliness of her fish body, then she’ll be her true self (ergo her true sexuality).

    Alien embodiment is thus not as a metaphor for being gay, but as a metaphor for burying your sexuality. This means the ending to her tale, where she returns back to being Izzy, isn’t as troubling as it may seem, because it actually represents a shaking off of the social norms she was forced into and coming to terms with her true self and finding peace with that. Which is a bit lovelier :o )

    • Kmasca says:

      Hi Dave, thank you for such a considered reply.

      Your reading is interesting, but I’m afraid I disagree that the real world and the comic strip genre can be separated as you suggest. In so far as skimpy bikinis are standard day-clothes for a woman in a comic (not something I’m actually sure is true in DWM), that is *because* of “real world” market forces and the ingrained industry assumption that women’s role in comics is to titilate an implied heterosexual, male reader.

      I would add that we may differ in expecting the messages from this story to be coherent. If this story is a triumph – which I don’t disagree with – that doesn’t mean there are no contradictory elements within it. It is quite possible for a story to be broadly progressive and inadvertently use some problematic metaphors, and I maintain that’s happened here. Attitudes towards gay people in wider society are ambivalent, so it would be highly surprising if cultural representations of gay people split neatly into the good and the bad.

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