One of the delights of Doctor Who comics is that they offer different creative opportunities from television. In 1984, Doctor Who Magazine introduced Frobisher: an alien companion who seemed tailor-made for the format. He belongs to a shape-shifting species, and habitually assumes the form of a wise-cracking penguin. Perhaps the TV programme could have rendered his characteristics well, but I doubt it, given the show’s record of dubious special effects. In the strips Frobisher becomes a very effective source of irony and visual gags. More covertly, his shape-shifting also raises interesting questions about the comics’ treatment of gender.
Frobisher features in forty-eight issues between 1984 and 1987, as a regular companion to the sixth and, briefly, the seventh Doctor. Occasionally he crops up in later comics, prose fiction and Big Finish audio stories too.
Like many companions, he has a life he wants to leave behind. At the outset he is a jaded gumshoe, working under his original name of Avan Tarklu. He intends to capture the Doctor and claim a substantial reward. Of course they end up travelling together instead. En route Tarklu adopts his new moniker and hints at the recent failure of his marriage. Although Peri accompanies them on several adventures, much of the time the Doctor and Frobisher travel alone, providing a rare instance of a long term male-male pairing in the TARDIS. Their interactions are fun, yet bring a few depressing implications; Frobisher’s friendship with the Doctor is closer to a buddy story than the father/child dynamic we normally see with female companions.
But is Frobisher male? I want to consider that more closely.
Over three years of strips, Frobisher metamorphosises into forms as varied as telephones and hamburgers, human beings and birds. He also periodically acquires a disease called monomorphia, where he is no longer able to change his form at will. Throughout these many transformations, Frobisher is framed as a male character. His gender identification is by no means clear from the dialogue (my suspicion is that the authors didn’t distinguish between identification and presentation in their thinking). But we are led to read him as male. When Frobisher wears clothing, it is always normatively masculine clothing. If he appears in humanoid form, he tends to adopt roles – like the gumshoe – that are culturally marked as masculine roles. And even when these markers are absent, the Doctor, and all the other characters, consistently refer to Frobisher as “him” and “he.”
Big Finish would later be willing to confront the possibility of shape-shifters changing gender; Frobisher’s wife Francine, for instance, temporarily presents as a man in The Maltese Penguin. The comics shy away from this idea. I suspect the authors were trying, with partial success, to uphold the gender binary. Categorising Frobisher as male within that binary is a conservative act: the majority of characters from the mid-eighties comics are also framed as male, with the implication that female characters are less interesting, compelling, or important. But the act is not wholly conservative. Consistently assigning one gender to a shape-shifting character has subversive potential, in queering associations between assigned gender and morphology.
The relative silence on Frobisher’s gender identification, rather than assigned gender, also gives us some freedom of interpretation. As a demonstration I want to look closely at a particular incident in the story Time Bomb, which was first published in issues 114 to 116 of Doctor Who Magazine. The story relates how a time cannon hits the TARDIS, propelling Frobisher and the Doctor into prehistoric Earth. Previously the cannon has been used by aliens called Hedrons to eliminate genetic imperfections in their species. The genetic waste is transported alongside Frobisher, and on arrival, he mistakes it for an egg he has laid in shock.
As a joke, this sequence makes me uneasy. The humour is premised on combined misogynist, ablist and transphobic assumptions (“Haha, childbirth is like incontinence! Haha, you can’t be male and give birth!”). But there is plenty of potential for resistant readings. It interests me that online references to the incident, like this one, suggest that Frobisher has misunderstood penguin physiology, as though his shape-shifting is a type of impersonation that can be held up to an external standard of accuracy. Can’t we instead wonder whether Frobisher identifies as male at all? Perhaps Frobisher doesn’t even present as male here, if we take that to mean appearing normatively masculine; as cartoon penguins go, Frobisher looks androgynous to me. Assuming Frobisher does identify as male, maybe his reaction is a sign he construes a fluid relationship between gender and physiology? Perhaps he knows he can lay eggs, even if he hasn’t this time? Might his understanding of what it means to be male encompass that capacity? Alternatively, perhaps laying an egg is incompatible with his gender identity, and the anger and anxiety he shows here is an expression of dysphoria? Certainly Frobisher has lots of moments of feeling trapped in a body that he wants to change.
Ideally, it wouldn’t be necessary to address unsatisfactory representations with resistant readings. I hope in later posts to discuss less problematic portrayals of queer characters.
But in the mean time: all the above questions make as much sense as Frobisher not understanding how penguins work; and they can be accommodated just as easily by the text.