The world of Russell T Davies has always been very queer…and always fairly nerdy. So the below extract from my new book seemed fitting…on Nerds in the Russell T Davies universe.
Beyond nerds, Gay Aliens and Queer Folk, how Russell T Davies changed TV (published by Calon Press on September 21st, 2023) is a dive into the queer work of Russell T Davies. The Swansea-born writer started his career in children’s TV (with a few sci-fi stories that would feel very familiar to Doctor Who fans) before entering adult drama. In 1999 the groundbreaking Queer as Folk burst onto TV screens and became a formative experience and rite of passage for many a queer teen. Almost a decade later, he’d become iconic to a new generation of TV viewers when he was behind the reboot of the BBC classic sci-fi series Doctor Who. Under Davies, the series became cool again, and the BBC’s flagship show also became…quite a bit more queer (And let’s face it, Who was always a little bit queer).
Post-Who, he returned to TV drama and, most notably, the already iconic It’s a Sin, first broadcast in the UK on Channel 4 in 2021. This Davies’ long-awaited take on the height of the AIDS crisis was hailed as one of his most accomplished dramas (you can read my It’s A Sin piece for The Queer Review here). It was part of a long line of queer-oriented dramas by Davies from Queer as Folk to Bob and Rose through to Cucumber/Banana.
In Gay Aliens and Queer Folk, I look at the queer TV legacy Davies has created (and continues to create) by taking a deeper dive into his work. Very much not-just-Doctor-Who, I look at some of the lesser-known works as well as some of his most popular ones from a different angle. Mixed into that are some of the recurring themes, from Welshness to women to politics, and how they all inhabit the queerness of his work.
The below extract is one such reflection: how nerds feature heavily and even drive Davies’ work.
Nerds rule the world in Russell T Davies’s universe, and honestly, who are we to argue? Davies gives us Vince, the Doctor Who-obsessed nerd, and Ianto, who is more at home organising the coffee than running around with guns, but still manages to save the world. There’s overlap with the women that Davies celebrates. Bethany, in Years and Years, uses her love of technology to think about the world critically. Martha Jones is a doctor and an infinitely sensible companion to the Doctor. Quiet, sweet Colin is the accidental hero of It’s a Sin. Davies keeps the less-than-cool characters at the heart of the narrative and shows what they can do. He also integrates the beautifully nerdy into the narrative.
Vince in Queer as Folk is the ultimate nerdy guy. But what’s excellent about Vince is that nobody tries to change him. On paper, it seems weird that Vince and Stuart are friends – the gregarious, cool kid and the nerd. Of course, it’s a classic tale of introverts adopted by extroverts that many a nerdy kid will be familiar with. Also, Stuart doesn’t mind Vince’s nerdy behaviour; he leans into it, embraces it and likes it about him. This is shown in the final episode of the first series, where we know that Stuart loves nerdy Vince for everything he is, while Cameron doesn’t. How do we know this? Because Stuart can list all the Doctor Whos, except for Paul McGann. Paul McGann doesn’t count. The speed at which Stuart does it, despite having little interest in an old sci-fi show, indicates Vince’s importance to him. Their little shared in-joke, clearly borne of Vince repeating “Paul McGann doesn’t count”, adds to that.
Stuart doesn’t care about Doctor Who, but he cares about Vince. Or, more likely, he’s grown to care about Who because he cares about Vince. Cameron’s dismissal of the all-important question, “How many Doctors can you name?” is a dismissal of Vince and everything necessary to who he is. Similarly, we see this with the gift of K-9 (the Fourth Doctor’s robot dog companion). As much as Stuart is in part trying to ‘one up’ Cameron here, he’s also demonstrating (with a robot dog) that he knows Vince. He shows that he embraces Vince’s nerdy side. Also, this is the act of a gift genuinely tailored to what Vince loves, how-ever weird/extravagant, a genuine gesture of love from his best friend. It’s a lovely feeling, too, to love the things that make the people you love who they are.
While Stuart might have less than zero interest in Doctor Who, he doesn’t mock it; he embraces it in Vince because he cares about him. All across Queer as Folk, we get Vince’s love of Doctor Who integrated into his character, dropped into conversation, even in the background of his house. It’s a simple thing, and, of course, clearly a projection of Davies’s love of Who, and one that became a lovely throwback once he took over the show. But it’s more than that. How often are nerds the real protagonists? We root for Vince more than Stuart. He’s the quiet, sweet underdog we want to win. More than that, Vince’s nerdy predilections aren’t mocked in the show. Take later series like The Big Bang Theory, where the fact that the group was made up of nerds was the joke (and about the only joke) of the entire series. Vince as a character isn’t a joke because he’s a nerd; it’s part of who he is. Also, despite everything else, it’s Vince that Stuart wants to be with at the end of the day – as his best friend, as someone he loves in all love’s complexities. Nerds do win out in Queer as Folk. In addition, the show illustrates that the unremarkable nerdy boy who works in a supermarket can also be the protagonist of a TV show, which is a wonderfully powerful thing.
Nerds rule the world…
Elsewhere, too, Davies likes to tell the stories of the nerds and outsiders and give them agency. One example is Thorpe in A Very English Scandal, who, despite having power and influence, is also a slightly oddball, nerdy kind of politician, unlike the others Davies has created elsewhere. In It’s a Sin, too, we get sweet Colin, who is quietly passionate about tailoring, and later, photocopying. When asked where he wants to be in ten years, he replies that he wants to know everything. What a simple, pure aim that is, to know everything about his chosen profession. Colin is happy learning, it doesn’t matter that it’s not glamorous, and the tragedy of his short life is that he had such simple aims and pleasures. He was happy to desire knowledge, and he never got to fulfil what he wanted. He’s essential, like Vince is, to the nerdy gays, showing there’s not just one way to be gay. We see him curled up with a comic book after lying to his mum about going out to the pub. Colin goes out with his friends, but he’s equally happy being at home reading a comic. None of it makes him any less part of the queer community. In a community that tends to exclude those who don’t want to do the standard ‘gay’ things (drink, drugs, casual sex), showing a group of friends accepting Colin, who enjoys reading his comic book at home, is essential. It shows that the Colins of the community can find their chosen families. And when the friends mourn Colin, it’s because he is by far our hero of the story, even over Ritchie.
In Years and Years, where Bethany quietly becomes the central voice of reason and cleverness in the story, even when we’re worried for her, even when we doubt her choices, we can’t doubt that the girl who loved to learn about tech became the woman who helped save her family and helped them to do good. While there’s a moral lesson from Bethany’s experience integrating tech into her body, there’s value in showing the younger generation leading the older characters in technology, while also being something of a victim of it, too. The value isn’t through being ‘cool’, it’s through learning and understanding the technology. Much like Colin, all Bethany wants is to learn. When she gets the chip integrated into her mind, she is excited about the knowledge, the world she can see all at once. We see inside her head like it’s a computer, and for many a ‘nerd’ viewer, it is what they’ve dreamed of. Imagine all that knowledge in your mind: accessible, available, to learn from. Bethany experiences this; she sees things, she absorbs them, and learns from them. Whether it’s Aunt Edith and the radiation poisoning – she figures out how long she has left – or seeing what her dad did to Viktor – helping her mum put that right – or bringing down Vivienne Rook, Bethany uses knowledge. While Edith is more practical – protests, infiltration, even rocket launchers – Bethany uses knowledge for good and to help good win out. It’s the ultimate nerd move: defeating everyone else via information.
Ianto Jones: ‘coffee boy’ and ultimate nerd
Ianto Jones doesn’t change because he starts dating a man. He continues to be the same old Ianto Jones, teased by colleagues, efficient at his jobs, helping Torchwood save the world. He doesn’t change how he dresses, sounds, or acts. The only change is who he is having sex with/dating/loves. That’s just as important as seeing all kinds of queer characters – from the outrageously camp or butch end of the stereotype for different genders. Having queer characters whose personality isn’t altered by their relationships is essential. Ianto continues to wear smart suits and be Welsh. He doesn’t suddenly become uber-camp, change his clothing or start shouting ‘yasss queen’ to Jack (maybe in private). He remains himself.
Why was Ianto Jones so important to fans?
In part, because he was the ‘everyman’; he was ‘coffee boy’ who got the guy. He was the sweet, quiet geek who saved the world several times and just went home again afterwards. He was the way in for many people, maybe for the quiet nerds who rarely see themselves as heroes without being made fun of. That was always the essence of Doctor Who, after all. Still, unlike the Doctor, Ianto was a human, someone fans could see in themselves, much like the companions, but again maybe here we have that ‘Doctor Who for grown-ups’ element at play. Companions grow up to be the Ianto Joneses of the world. Even if he was the ‘coffee boy’ and the ‘admin’ of Torchwood, he had a lot of sway; he did heroic things. He was the person fans could see themselves being. For fans, too, Ianto was a nice guy, as was the actor who brought him to life.
Gareth David-Lloyd has remained loyal to the fandom; he continues to work on audio dramas and attend conferences. Fans have equally supported him – from watching his band play gigs in various south Wales venues to supporting him on stage when he’s performed, to, of course, watching his other TV roles. Although Gareth is straight, his respect for Ianto as a queer character has meant a lot to fans. The endless love and mutual respect that exists means that for many fans, Ianto Jones endures. Ianto Jones’s story didn’t have a happy ending. Fans didn’t get the happy Torchwood they so badly wanted and, dare we say, deserved. However, that doesn’t mean that Ianto wasn’t hugely formative, influential and meaningful to many fans. He might have been the first queer person they saw, the first gay kiss on screen, or just the ‘coffee boy’ who saved the world. Either way, he meant a great deal to fans. We might roll our eyes at the ‘shrine’ to him in Cardiff Bay, but who are we to scoff at a depth of feeling and a character that meant something deeply to many people?
The Doctor – ultimate nerd (and very, very queer)
Of course, the ultimate of nerds is the Doctor, which shows that nerds will inherit the Earth or maybe the universe. In Doctor Who, the quiet nerds are often the heroes of Davies’ stories. He makes a point of finding the hero of each story and giving them power, whether it’s the quiet ‘Sisters of Plenitude’ cat-nuns in ‘New Earth’ or Midshipman Frame in ‘Voyage of the Damned’. This plays into the classic underdog trope, of course, but the heroes the Doctor finds are often those who wouldn’t usually be recognised as ‘cool’ or the ones to save the Earth. Instead, they are the unassuming ones with niche knowledge to help the Doctor save the day. Of course, the companions fulfil this role time and time again. In particular, Davies gives us the woefully underrated Martha Jones, who is training to be a doctor and doesn’t need another one to save her. She is her own person; she is strong, but she is also fiercely intelligent and obviously a bit of a nerd too. Davies shows us the clever people – but not in a naturally gifted way, the ones who worked for it – and tells us they’re the heroes of the world.
Ianto Jones is another one of those in the Whoniverse. He’s ‘coffee boy’ but so much more; he knows everything that goes on in Torchwood, and, therefore, ends up being the one who can save them time and time again. So, too, can Sarah Jane when we welcome her back in ‘School Reunion’. She paid attention when she was with the Doctor all those years ago, and she took that and built on the knowledge so that she’s OK to go off and rival the Doctor in saving the world. Davies’ nerds are about wanting to learn and use knowledge as a force for good, and all his companions take that from their time in the TARDIS (even Captain Jack, as distracted as he often is). Of course, the Doctor is the ultimate nerd.
The Doctor is at their best when they’re using cleverness and facts to win the day. Over time and space and 900-plus years, they could have collected anything, but they chose to collect knowledge. The Doctor, too, uses knowledge and being a nerd to save the world. They aren’t the strongest or the fastest person but the smartest – and not from being naturally intelligent, but from collecting information, which is the nerd’s favourite pastime. The Doctor is an illustration that the love of knowledge, sometimes seemingly esoteric knowledge, is cool. The Doctor amasses lots of information, seemingly ‘useless’ to others, or chooses to pass on the knowledge that perhaps nobody else cares about. Information that comes in useful when it matters. In the Doctor, we have the ultimate nerd saving the world, repeatedly.
But, too, for all those who were ever mocked for being that nerd, the Doctor makes it cool. They look cool but don’t follow the crowd; they have friends but are unconcerned with being popular. They choose to embrace who they are, whatever that might look or sound like, and however ‘different’ it makes them. That’s a vital lesson. Davies didn’t invent that aspect of the Doctor. It’s always been the case, but he does lean into that message and reinforces it repeatedly with both Nine and Ten. They both marvel at the universe as they travel it, always learning from the humans and other species they encounter on the way. Nerds do indeed rule the world, and Davies’ universe. Quite right too, as the Tenth Doctor would say.
By Emily Garside
Gay Aliens and Queer Folk, how Russell T Davies changed TV is published by Calon books and published on September 21st, 2023. Available to purchse here. Author Emily Garside will be appearing at several book launch events in the UK and online. Click here for details.