Companions in Comics: Can Frobisher Lay an Egg?

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.

This picture shows a drawing of Frobisher, lying on the ground with a spherical object between his legs. He is saying, "Doctor, I feel sick, something terrible has happened... I've laid a blasted egg. That's what! And it's all your fault!"

Frobisher thinks he's laid an egg. From Doctor Who Magazine, published by Marvel Comics.

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.

10 comments

  1. Thanks for this! Unlike Sharon, I do have (hazy) memories of Frobisher in the comics of DWM, though I didn’t really get a handle on his character until listening to the Holy Terror by Robert Shearman from Big Finish (which, OMG you guys, an amazing play – funny and light and horrid and devastating all at once).

    I do find it interesting how many shapechanging characters in media are aggressively gendered, occasionally playing with the shapechanging equivalent of drag, but only for cheap laughs.

  2. Paige says:

    Thanks for this, I didn’t know much about Frobisher besides general name and concept and you make some good points!

  3. Jennie says:

    Hi,

    I’m a bit of a Frobisher fan. (I’ve named my cuddly toy penguin after him. It’s nickname is Frobie.)

    Interesting post. I’ve always seen Frobisher as male. However, I also think it would be good to see him shapeshift into the female of a species and accept it. And now the following questions have popped into my head.

    What would happen if and when the Doctor regenerates into a female form or if he had done so from previous incarnations. For example, what if Jon Pertwee or David Tennant had regenerated into women? What do you think their reactions would have been?

    • Kmasca says:

      I think that’s quite an illuminating question for bringing out the differences between Frobisher and the Doctor. With Frobisher, we see him possessing the same sense of self even when he changes. His personal identity is continuous. Whereas the Doctor has a bunch of different selves who are strung together by shared memories; the reaction, on changing, wouldn’t belong to Pertwee or Tennant, it would belong to a whole new self.

      Still, my gut instinct is that Pertwee would be appalled at the *prospect* of regenerating as a woman, while Tennant would revel in it… I’d have to spend a bit more time unpicking why!

  4. Jennie says:

    Thanks Kmasca:)

    I was part of a production company made up of (mostly) Dr Who fans and we did a short film called “Possabilities” that got shown at a couple of conventions. It was about three possible Doctors trapped in an alternative London and at the end, they run out of energy and die.

    We toyed with plans for a follow up featuring a female possible Doctor, (played by your’s truely). Having just regenerated from one of the previous possible Doctors, I think I would have played her as shocked at first, then delighted. I think a strand of the story line could have been the villan singling her out as the weak link and my Doctor proving that she was anything but!

    • Kmasca says:

      I can imagine the programme also taking that approach to the progression of feelings if the Doctor regenerated as a woman :) (I think they’d be very unlikely to present it negatively, if they made the leap to casting a woman).

  5. Jennie says:

    True:)

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