Influences: Music and Family

[Part of a series of posts previewing the novel Sin Against the Race.]

Sin Against the Race did not start life as a “jazz novel.” When I first started this journey, I listened mostly to classical. Dvořák, Chopin, Mozart, Brahms, the usual suspects. My music habits changed after my mother died. Miles, Coltrane, and of course Ellington & Strayhorn eventually worked their way into the story. I have my parents to thanks for my initial jazz education. And KCSM, Jazz 91 to thank for furthering it. As noted in an earlier post, Sammy plays jazz in his store constantly. Sammy influenced Carlton, who in turn influenced Alfonso.

I first learned early on in my jazz journey that Billy Strayhorn was gay, and not particularly closeted, for his time. That blew me away. His influence comes early in the story, indeed the very first scene.

Sirens broke Alfonso’s sleep, but when he awoke they’d gone. His mind switched on, he again found himself in the desert of another sleepless night. Disasters stirred in the dimly lit alleys of his mind. Sweat sopped his forehead. Closed eyes longed for sleep. Weariness eventually drifted him into what his cousin Carlton described as a halfway to dawn state, neither dark nor light, neither asleep nor awake. He wanted to linger in that state for as long as possible and cocoon himself in its ambiguities.

Halfway to day is a Billy Strayhorn expression, Carlton explained.

Alfonso wasn’t familiar with the jazz legend. Who is Billy Strayhorn? he asked. His cousin scowled and said, You better get an education, young man! That night, they listened to ‘Lush Life,’ ‘Chelsea Bridge,’ and other wonders.

Lady Day’s powerful, intense blues seemed to best match Carlton’s story, so she became his heroine.

“‘Gloomy Sunday’ had filled Alfonso’s head during the service while the organist played anonymous dirges, dreck that failed to capture the complexities of Carlton’s life. His cousin often sought salvation from Billie’s bruised singing, ‘Gloomy Sunday,’ ‘Some Other Spring,’ ‘Good Morning Heartache,’ others.”

Later we hear how Ahmad Jamal and McCoy Tyner influenced Sammy’s life.

Alfonso the dancer also likes electronic music–an influence of my sister Tania. When she was a kid, Mom called her Terpsichore. So it seems natural that Alfonso would listen to folks like Mocean Worker.

Music lived in my household growing up. All music. Jazz, classical, rock, folk, Indian, soul, R&B. My brother JK has a great love of prog rock, and introduced me to some of the genre. My brothers Louis and Robert play soul, jazz, and R&B. Tania sings as well as dances. Mom had a lovely voice. My father bought an LP with a Pt. Chatur Lal tabla solo on it long before I was born, much less started studying the instrument. He loved music, too, though did not perform any. Also, his penchant for quoting queer authors, like Isherwood, inspired my writing. In his understated way, he was letting me know that he was cool with me.

I wouldn’t be who I am today without these wonderful, eclectic people in my life. They made me who am I. So Sin Against the Race is a family effort, because my family is so a part me. I dedicate the book to all of them, and in particular to those who did not see the journey’s end.

Alfonso’s Companions: Bill and Roy

[Part of a series of posts previewing the novel Sin Against the Race.]

In addition to meeting his late cousin’s friends, Alfonso meets two folks closer to his age: Bill Hawk and Roy Prince.

Before there was Alfonso R. Berry III, there was Bill Hawk, an 18-year-old freshman. In early drafts of Sin Against the Race, Bill was my major protagonist. SATR, in fact, started life as a short story where Bill, just coming to terms with his sexuality, witnesses a vicious gay bashing in the large park across from his family’s apartment. In that story, I wanted to contrast his joy at coming out with the fear he has that his new identity will mean new oppressions. One could say, accurately, that Bill’s experiences, as I first envisioned them, mirrored my own at that stage in my life.

Bill comes from a small town and moves to the big city to go to college. He goes to Alfonso’s family church as well as the same college. That’s how they meet, on the main drag on campus where student groups table.

“A young brother with a baby face came and stood at the table. He wore blue jeans and a black hoodie with a green shirt peeking from beneath. Alfonso thought he looked shorted than himself, but he had a stockier build, broader shoulders padded with muscles. The brother seemed particularly interested in the brochure about the tutorial program [the African Students Association] cosponsored with the Beacon Hill First Baptist Church.”

Bill has some history. Early on, we find out that he had a boyfriend in high school, Gabriel. They had adventures of the sort I wish I had had in high school. Any crushes I had in high school I kept quite to myself, and never seemed destined to be reciprocated. Bill and Gabriel met in the locker room showers—a detail I had in earlier drafts, but does not appear in the final book. They were the only ones in the showers and Gabriel was clearly putting on a display, slowly rinsing himself off under the stream of water for Bill’s benefit. Gabriel gave Bill permission to pursue him, and Bill leapt at the chance, willingly allowing Gabriel “to guide them wherever imagination saw fit.”

Bill lives on the periphery of the closet—out to himself and a few select others. Alfonso finds a lot to admire in him.

Roy Prince doesn’t know what a closet is, other than a place to hold his fabulous wardrobe. We meet him when Alfonso sees him sitting on the bus.

“He looked taller, still skinny, still dressed sharp. He accented his outfit with a red vest, a silver feather earring on his left lobe, and a smallish black trilby cocked back, revealing his short red hair. Carlton described Roy as coming out of the womb with zero fucks to give, his first word likely a high-flung snap with lips pursed. He began hanging at Sammy’s as a precocious 10-year-old, with his mother’s blessing. He’d go with her shopping, then just stay there. She died when he was in middle school. With his father often away on long hauls in his truck, the whole village stepped in to raise this child of Carver Street.”

An 18-year-old freshman like Bill, Roy is a theater major, having already done Shakespeare in high school. For Alfonso, the frustrated, wannabe dancer, who viewed Roy only from a distance, the thespian is a beacon of what his life could be. Alfonso sees Roy living life on his own terms, despite having a seemingly indifferent father who doesn’t appear to understand him. A condition Alfonso knows all too well.

Sammy Turner: The Mother of Carver Street

[Part of a series of posts previewing the novel Sin Against the Race.]

Sammy Turner can be a nag. Some might call Sammy Turner a busybody, because he knows everybody’s business. All that know him, however, will eventually admit that Sammy Turner is their rock. His corner grocery story is the kitchen of Carver Street, the place where folks come to hang out, catch up, shoot the shit. Sammy knows everybody’s business because everybody confides in him, not because he asks, but because he listens.

I wish I had had a Sammy in my life, someone to come out to, to confide in, someone to tell me, Yes, you’re OK. Someone who had already traveled the path I was just beginning to set foot upon. Who wouldn’t want such a mentor in their life?

An older gay man who has seen many things, who discarded the closet long ago, a warrior who hitchhiked to the 1963 March on Washington as a teen, Sammy has many battle scars. Or, to use his own parlance, he would describe himself as a cup of blues coffee. Sammy makes his morning cup in an old tin drip pot, the kind with the water chamber that drips into a metal filter filled with coffee grounds and then drains into a bottom chamber. It sits directly on the burner and chars the coffee. My grandmother used one way back to make her Hill’s Brothers.

“It ain’t blues coffee unless it’s been bruised a bit, to get some attitude. The trick, though, is not to bruise it too much or it will get bitter.”

Sammy has seen the best and worst of what humanity has to offer and still he maintains his place in the world. He maintains hope. Bitterness lingers just to the side of his personality.

Anyone who compares coffee to the blues has to be a musician. Sammy played drums in his youth. I always had a feeling that Sammy was a musician, but it took a while for me to explore that side of him. Music always plays in his store, usually jazz. And he has a habit of exclaiming “Great Dizzy!” when something surprises or annoys him. Sammy has a history, though, a reason he’s not playing when the story begins. Alfonso brings it out of him, his reasons for leaving music aside, in a way no one else ever had.

As the neighborhood den mother, Sammy has lots of friends and regulars at his store. Alfonso’s late cousin, Carlton, hung out at the store, sought out Sammy when he got thrown out of the house by his parents, Alfonso’s aunt and uncle. Carlton, already dead when the story begins, continues to guide Alfonso from beyond. Many of the people Alfonso encounters all knew and loved his cousin. They formed Carlton’s real family, since his blood relatives, other than Alfonso, shunned him.

“More than anything, his cousin wanted his immediate family to enter an empty apartment after he died, so that they would receive exactly what they had given. Nothing.”
– from p. 11, SIN AGAINST THE RACE

On Alfonso, though, Carlton lavished much affection. For the longest time, Alfonso was only out to his flamboyant cousin. Only after Carlton’s death does Alfonso begin exploring the world Carlton left behind.

Carlton represents the generation of gay men lost to AIDS, that first wild bunch to burst out of the closet after Stonewall. When I came out, I met many from that generation, particularly in ACT-UP/LA. We’re losing many of those pioneers to other ailments now, ALS, cancer. Theirs is a great generation for which I have much respect.

Sammy’s blues coffee companion is community activist and organizer Charlotte Hunter. She once worked for Councilman James Larkin, the predecessor on the City Council to Ford Berry, Alfonso’s father. And she ran for the job herself, only to lose to Berry. It was a nasty race that left scars for many, including Alfonso. And yet, when he meets her at Sammy Store…,

“He switched his embrace to Charlotte somewhat self-consciously—mindful of a history not his, yet a part of him—but felt only sympathy from her. Carlton always told him that Charlotte was the real deal, always straight, always fair.”

During his first visit to the store, Alfonso also sees Mrs. Parker, Carlton’s favorite nurse. She, too, likes to drop in on Sammy from time to time to sample some of his coffee, “the best in the Huck.” Mrs. Parker is a firebrand, a feisty 80-something who refuses to slow down or go down. The neighborhood historian, she has earned a few scars of her own. Thus, she is the one that den mother Sammy turns to whenever he needs someone to talk to. She’s part Alberta Hunter and part my own grandmother, Julia McVey, the one who used the old tin drip pot to make her Hills Brothers coffee.

Enter The Huck: Sin Against the Race

I wanted an area where black and queer intersected, overlapped. My friend and former college roommate Pete recommended that I create my own neighborhood—from this suggestion The Huck was born.

In its center lies Huckleberry Park, a large urban patch of green that spans several long blocks. A largely African American neighborhood, straight folks live mostly on the south side of the park. Queer folks live around Carver Street, which juts out from the north side. (The name is no accident.) Further along in the book, we learn that Carver Street has a long history as a gathering place for those on the fringes of society. So many urban queer neighborhoods start out this way, a refuge for the forgotten or forlorn.

I imagine Carver Street as a cross between Polk Street and the Castro. Gay life in San Francisco centered around Polk Street in days of old; the Castro, originally called Eureka Valley, was an old Portuguese neighborhood. (Ironically, Provincetown is historically an old Portuguese fishing village.) By the time I moved to the Bay Area in 1989, Polk Street had largely faded. Only a few clubs remained, a couple of leather stores—I bought my first leather pants at one of them. But Polk Gulch had a grittier reputation and older history, an inspiration for Carver Street.

Huckleberry Park itself came from my early childhood. My mother used to take me to concerts and festivals at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, just west of downtown. At one of these festivals, I saw a poster, a cluster of lines and color, and asked my mother why was the woman crying. Mom was stunned: it was a reproduction of Picasso’s The Weeping Woman. My queer, artistic eye blossomed early, I guess. MacArthur Park was a cultural meeting place where folks of all colors and communities met and hung out. And then, as I grew older, it faded, blighted by crime, decay, and neglect. Huckleberry Park had gone through a similar transition by the time of the story.

“Mrs. Parker kept her eyes forward, silently noting, as she always did, the further deterioration of the park—the graffiti, the broken pavement, the crumbling band shell surrounded by a dilapidated chain-link fence. She normally eulogized its yesteryears whenever she walked through it with someone, but uttered none of her familiar verses during their long walk…”
– from p. 14, SIN AGAINST THE RACE

Alfonso, the novel’s protagonist, also has memories of better days in the park. In particular, he remembers playing baseball in the park with his father.

“In the not too long ago, he and his father rushed furtively out of the house together and came to this grassy field to play baseball. The early hours of a steamy summer morning required that they do nothing less. They snuck out to avoid his mother’s disapproving stare. She hated that they played with a hardball, even if Alfonso wore protective gear. Take the softball, she’d say if she caught them leaving. They did, but only for show. During game time, they always kept the ball small, round, tightly wound, regulation down to the last stitch.

“Walking through the middle of the field, he could picture his father’s tall, imposing frame clad in black shorts and a gray tank top striking a familiar pose: body in profile, head turned toward his objective, the ball clasped close to his chest. Alfonso, in deep concentration, held his bat at the ready. When his father played in college, they called him the Wizard, because he made balls disappear. No one saw them as they whizzed by. The years had changed nothing. His father still had a mean fastball. Whenever Alfonso connected, they set their eyes skyward, following the ball like Charlie Brown followed his kite, with hope that they’d be able to track and retrieve it so that they could send it soaring again.”

The Huck has a reputation as a “rough” area. To the east of Carver Street lies Beacon Hills, a place where well-to-do blacks with saditty attitudes live.

Hills folks usually distanced themselves from the grit of the flatlands, even though the distance wasn’t that great. The old rhyme went through [Alfonso’s] head. 9-1-1 don’t mean a fuck, if you’re living in The Huck.”

Alfonso’s family lives on Beacon Hill and has represented The Huck for decades, first by his grandfather Al Berry, Sr. in the state legislature and then by his father, Ford “Al, Jr.” Berry, on the City Council. Both Ford and Al Berry, Sr. have long dissed queer Carver Street, as many on the south side have. Alfonso, black and gay, falls in the middle of this, his personal conflicts melding with the historic ones of his neighborhood.

Sin Against the Race–Look! It’s a Book!

Get ready, folks!

My first novel Sin Against the Race drops Sunday, October 29. Am I excited? Hell yeah, I’m excited! This day has been a Long Time Coming. Indeed, the genesis of this book dates back to my own coming out nearly 30 years ago. Upon coming into the life, I became entranced by the intersectionality of race and sexuality, particularly what it meant to be black and gay.

So, what’s it really about? Glad you asked!

Alfonso Rutherford Berry III—son of a city councilman, grandson of the state’s first African American legislator—believes that history has ordained for him but one life, and it ain’t his first love: dancing. But after a series of tragedies, starting with the death of his fierce, out cousin Carlton, his assumptions explode in his face along with his closet door.

Alfonso emerges into the life on a blanket of the jazz and blues he shared with Carlton. He hangs on Carver Street, the queer Northside of his largely black neighborhood. There, he is befriended by Carlton’s familiars: Sammy, a local storekeeper and neighborhood den mother, Bingo, a leather queen and nurse practitioner, Vera, a transgender activist and photographer, and Charlotte, his father’s political rival. At college, he becomes tight with two freshmen: Roy, an aspiring actor and acquaintance from high school and Bill, a new member of his church. He also finds love (and peril) in the form of Jameel, a long-time crush. His new life sets him on a collision course with his father, his church, and the family legacy established by his revered late grandfather.

Written in taut prose steeped in history and current events—and seasoned with the blues—Sin Against the Race follows the coming-of-age journey of a young black gay man as he progresses from an invisible councilman’s son to a formidable presence in his community.

An ebook version is already available for preorder via Kobo. The paperback version will be available via Amazon and in bookstores on the publication date (Oct. 29, remember the date). Go to your favorite bookstore and ask them to order it! The paperback ISBN is:


Like my page on Facebook and follow me on Twitter for more info, including updates about readings, etc.

I received a proofing copy (WOO HOO!!!) last week. Look! It’s a book!

Want more? Good! Here is a preview of the first two pages:

SIN AGAINST THE RACE, (c) 2017 Gar McVey-Russell. Published by gamr books


SIN AGAINST THE RACE, (c) 2017 Gar McVey-Russell. Published by gamr books

Cassini, The Lord of the Rings

When the Cassini probe launched in 1997, some controversy followed it for the first part of its voyage. Probes heading to the outer solar system need a speed boost. Big chemical rockets are too impractical and expensive. Ion rockets, though promising, can’t provide the power needed at this time. So for decades, rocket scientists have used gravity boosts from planets. They slingshot a craft around a planet, and it comes out the other side going quite a bit faster. A unique alignment of the planets allowed the Voyager probes to slingshot their way all the way to Neptune and beyond.

For the start of its mission, then, Cassini slingshot around Venus twice and then the Earth once. It was the Earth slingshot that got it into trouble. Cassini, like all deep space probes, derives its electrical power from radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). It had three. Solar arrays, like those at the International Space Station and probes orbiting Venus or Mars, were not practical at the time of Cassini’s construction. The Juno probe, currently orbiting Jupiter, does have solar arrays, the technology having advanced to where this is possible.

But Cassini had to do it old school. And when folks found out that it was about to buzz past the Earth, panic struck. What if it crashed into the atmosphere? Where would it hit? Who would get harmed by it? Would it go off like a thermonuclear device?

Well, no. The greatest risk of contamination from the RTGs was during launch. It thankfully survived its launch. By the time the craft came back for a flyby, the risk of an accident plummeted to 1 in 1,000,000. I remember writing to NASA in support of the probe and its mission. Someone sent back a very appreciative note with pictures. (This was back in the snail-mail days.)

But all of that is long ago and largely forgotten. By the time you read this, Cassini will have finished its historic 13-year run orbiting Saturn and crashed into the Ringed World. It’s a protective measure, the controlled crash. While spacecrafts undergo stringent decontamination procedures, there is still enough of a chance that a craft may carry terrestrial microbes that scientists prefer not to take any chances. Rather than risk contaminating one of Saturn’s fascinating moons, some of which may harbor its own indigenous life, they will sacrifice the probe.

I’m rather saddened by this. By any measure, the Cassini-Huygens missions has been one of NASA’s greatest success stories. When it arrived in 2004, Cassini sent off the Huygens probe for Titan. It cruised through the thick atmosphere of the giant moon and then successfully soft-landed on its surface, the first time a probe has landed on a moon other than Earth’s. It survived this harsh environment long enough to send photos from the surface, another first.

Surface of Titan.

Saturn has a collection of wonderfully weird moons. Cassini’s first port-of-call was the moon Phoebe (FEE-bee), one of the outer most moons.

Phoebe, the gatekeeper to the Saturn system.

Hyperion looks just plain bizarre, like a sponge.

The giant sponge, Hyperion.

And Enceladus surprised everyone with its “tiger stripes” that spout geysers high into space. Turns out that Enceladus has water under its smooth, icy surface, a vast ocean.

Jet-setting Enceladus.

Of course, when talking Saturn, one has to talk about the rings. Cassini showed them off in the most fascinating light possible. For thirteen years, we received photos like this:


The Lord of the Rings.

Saturn itself provided endless fascination, with its turbulent, storm-ridden atmosphere. It has hexagon-shaped jets at its polar latitudes, along with large, permanent hurricanes. It has storms and lightening. These features have fascinated the space-watching public and enthralled planetary scientists.

Saturn, getting its stop sign on.

Thirteen years is just a few years shy of half a year on Saturn. Thus, Cassini observed seasonal changes. The blue hues over the northern hemisphere moved south over the course of the mission. I’ve never seen such gorgeous space photos before. How wonderful that we received a treasure trove of them.

The pale blue dot, Earth, as seen from Saturn.

A few times during its mission, Cassini took a photo of home. There it is, that pale blue dot. We aren’t even a tiny speck in the cosmos. Among the stars, our own sun gets lost in the glare of greater, larger stars. But from Saturn, we shine, meekly, dimly, beautifully. I so value the perspective we gain from sending probes out far away. I love the things we learn about those far away places, because they make our home even more precious, if not to the cosmos, then certainly to us. If only we could realize, remember, and retain the knowledge that all way have in the cosmos is that pale blue dot, and each other.

Thanks, Cassini. I’m going to miss you.

Reading at Octopus Literary Salon, 9/2/17 (video)

Here is my reading from this past Saturday. I read as part of Perfectly Queer East Bay @ Beast Crawl in Oakland, CA. This was filmed at Octopus Literary Salon. Video produced and compiled by Friend and Videographer Michael Guleff. (Thanks, Misha!)

Beast Crawl Presents Perfectly Queer East Bay–Reading Event

I’ve been invited to read again by the good folks of Perfectly Queer East Bay. This time, I’ll be with two other excellent writers, Anna Pulley and Anand Vedawala, and we’ll be reading as part of Beast Crawl, the East Bay’s literary festival.

Date: Saturday, September 2

Time: 6:30 pm – 7:30 pm

Place: The Octopus Literary Salon, 2101 Webster Street (@ 22nd St.), Oakland

I’ll be reading from my novel Sin Against the Race (pending, 2017). Come and join us for a night of literature, drinks, and fun!


March of the Tacky Tiki Torches

Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer, 21st century style.

President Barack Obama enjoyed two terms as president. He continues to enjoy mass popularity around the world to this day. That’s why they marched.

When Donald Trump won the 2016 election via the Electoral College, masses of people took to the streets to protest. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by over three million, further casting shade on Trump’s victory. That’s why they marched.

Women continue to assert their rights and power as human beings, despite Hillary Clinton’s loss. They lead the resistance against a sexist president who openly calls for sexually assaulting women. That’s why they marched.

Donald Trump tried to instigate a ham-fisted Muslim ban. Attorneys, paralegals, and citizens from all walks of life ran to airports across the nation to help those affected by the cruel law. The courts invalided the law until the Supreme Court reinstated it in part. That’s why they marched.

Messrs. Ryan and McConnell tried to undo the Affordable Care Act. They did so despite the law’s popularity. They failed because enough Republican politicians realized that their constituents would be hurt by the law’s demise. ACA is a Republican-based healthcare plan (see RomneyCare). But they hate it because Black man. That’s why they marched.

Same-sex couples continue to marry. Transgender identity has forever left the closet. Despite all this, Trump has openly encouraged discrimination against the LGBTQ community. But the hands of time will not move in reverse. People have moved on. That’s why they marched.

Society long maintained the fiction that all the greatness of the world comes solely from the work of heterosexual cis white men. This has never been the case. Women, people of color, LGBTQ folks have always been equal movers and shakers of society despite society’s indifference to them. Under the weight of hatred, these communities thrive. They won’t shut up. They won’t slink into closets or kitchens. That’s why they marched.

It takes a lot of energy to maintain a lie. Look at apartheid South Africa, the Jim Crow South, Nazi Germany. We’re seeing that energy now in Charlottesville, Virginia. Fools marched with tacky tiki torches to perpetuate a world that worships them alone, not for any great accomplishments, but simply for having genes that made them white, male, cis, and heterosexual. And of course in their fear based world, they must show hatred for others in order to lift themselves up.

Donald Trump made some weak statement about resisting violence on all sides. He did not condemn white supremacy, Neo-Naziism, racism, or anything like that. None of those words left his lips. Quite the contrary, his administration is filled with people who harbor the same ideas as the marchers with tacky tiki torches. So his words, as always, rang hollow.

As a matter of fact, they marched because they believe they have an ally in the White House. Having a black president for eight years was likely their worst nightmare. Barack Obama did nothing to attack these yahoos. His mere existence was more than they could handle. Hence, the march with the tacky tiki torches. Donald Trump offers one last hope that never again will they live under a Barack Obama or a Hillary Clinton as their president, ruining their world, breaching their fiction that only they matter.

My husband, sister, and I strolled around the Laurel Street Fair in Oakland, California today after brunch. Under the cloudy skies, folks of all colors mingled and chilled. They ate festival goodies, kettle corn, Jamaican food, hot dogs. They bought clothes. They listened to local musicians jam. The kids played with bubbles blown for their amusement.

We saw the real world, how the world behaves when hate does not lurk. It’s a world that does not require energy to exist because it does not have a fiction to maintain. It’s a world that the marchers with tacky tiki torches fear, because they somehow think that they won’t matter anymore.

Well, here’s a clue. If you think that you need to oppress others to exist, then maybe you need to adjust your thinking.

A world without hate, cold chillin’. Laurel Street Fair, Oakland, CA.

Change, My Dear: Women on Doctor Who

Carole Ann Ford as Susan Foreman

Susan Foreman, an unearthly child. We first saw her grooving to the latest hit on her transistor radio, c. 1963. Her teachers, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, thought her very peculiar, intelligent beyond her years, but still very much a child.  Susan seemed from another time. They couldn’t quite put their fingers on it. All they knew about her was that she lived with her grandfather, the Doctor (William Hartnell). When they met him, they learned just how peculiar the two of them really were.

Carole Ann Ford played Susan for just one year. She quickly tired of the part and its lack of development. Though the show’s writers used an old trope to write the character out of the show — they married Susan off — her final story gave the character some depth that had been otherwise lacking. What happened next to Susan has remained a mystery on the show for the past 53 years. How sad that not even the rebooted Doctor Who has explored this territory. How did the Doctor come to have a grandchild? Who were Susan’s parents? And what happened to them?

Caroline John as Liz Shaw

Cambridge educated Liz Shaw did not come willingly to the United Nations Task Force, or UNIT. She was more or less drafted by Brigadier Alister Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney, RIP). UNIT specialized in investigating the unexplainable, the mysterious, things from “out there.” She joined in time to meet the return of the Doctor, who, unbeknownst to UNIT, had been forced to regenerate (from Patrick Troughton to Jon Pertwee) and banished to 1970s England. Liz possessed great scientific knowledge, but was no match to the Doctor’s extraterrestrial intelligence. Still, she held her own against the uppity Time Lord, but again, only for a year.

Caroline John (RIP) decided to leave after just one season. At the start of Pertwee’s second season, the Doctor asked about Liz. She went back to Cambridge, the Brigadier explained, wanting to get back to her own work. The Doctor protested. I need an assistant with scientific knowledge. “What you need, Doctor, as Miss Shaw often pointed out,” the Brigadier retorted, “is someone to pass you your test tubes and to tell you how brilliant you are.” He then said that the new assistant, Jo Grant, would fit the bill perfectly.

Katy Manning as Jo Grant

Katy Manning played Jo Grant for three seasons. While she had an air of independence and spunkiness, she still was clearly the Doctor’s assistant, not his equal. And in her turn, when it came time to leave, the writers at the time again chose to marry off the character.

Her successor stumbled into the TARDIS quite by accident. Literally. Sarah Jane Smith snooped around UNIT looking for a story about missing scientists. She went into the TARDIS and found herself in the Middle Ages. At first she thought the Doctor was behind the missing scientists, but soon found that he was trying to right things. She joined him in the adventure and for many more adventures to come.

Sarah Jane Smith, played by the late great Lis Sladen

Played by the late, great Elisabeth Sladen, Sarah Jane Smith remains one of the most beloved companions of all time. Spunky, fiercely independent, very pro-feminist, she was very fond of the Doctor, but would not let him push her around too much. Their relationship evolved from a paternal one under Pertwee to an almost sibling one with Fourth Doctor Tom Baker. When Ms. Sladen decided to move on, for once, they didn’t marry her off. The Doctor had to go home to Gallifrey and felt he could not take her with him. So he took her home, where she resumed her career as a journalist. Many years later, during the time of the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) we discover that she eventually had a son and that the Doctor had dropped her off in Aberdeen, not South Croydon.

Leela, played by Louise Jameson

Leela, Sarah Jane’s successor in the TARDIS, could have been a hot mess. Leela is a huntress, a savage, one who stabs first then asks questions, maybe. A lesser talent would have played her to script, with grunts and snarls, perhaps flashing in the very skimpy outfit they gave the character to wear. Fortunately, Louise Jameson played Leela, and she played her brilliantly. Ms. Jameson’s Leela became Liza Doolittle to the Doctor’s Professor Higgins. Very intelligent, yet often moved by instinct, she did not allow the Doctor to bully her, but she looked up to him. She also became very attached to their robot dog, K-9 (John Leeson).

When she decided to move on, Ms. Jameson wanted Leela killed off, thinking that an appropriate ending for the character. But the producers at the time thought that would be too violent a death. So they married her off instead.

Mary Tamm as the First Romana

After Leela, we finally meet a female Time Lord, or Time Lady: Romanadvoratrelundar, or Romana for short. Shapely, sexy, a top graduate from the Time Lord Academy on Gallifrey, she made the Doctor rather nervous. (He was quite chaste at the time.) Despite her intelligence, she lacked street smarts, so inevitably she followed the Doctor lead.

The Second Romana, Lalla Ward

Mary Tamm (RIP) originated the role, but left after one season. Being a Time Lady, Romana regenerated, in a rather silly scene where she tried out different bodies. Ms. Tamm’s successor, Lalla Ward, played the part with less haughtiness and increased street smarts, able to maneuver enemies almost as effectively as the Doctor. Tom and Lalla had a brief romance and left the show together. Romana was not married off, however. She declared her independence at the end of her last story and went off with K-9 to start a new adventure, to become the Doctor in her own, parallel universe. Sadly, as with Susan, the show has never followed up on whatever happened to her.

New Who companions stand on an equal footing with the Doctor. Indeed, Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston has stated that he felt Rose Tyler, played by Billie Piper, was his character’s equal. However, her character was ultimately “married off” to a clone of the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant), a version that could not regenerate and was part human.

Companion Donna, with whom the Doctor “merged” to create the non-regenerating clone, became part Time Lord in the process. The result nearly burned her brain out, thus her memories of the Doctor had to be erased to save her life. She lost her super powers.

So while women on Doctor Who have evolved from screamers to nearly equal partners, they still remain nearly equal, secondary to the Doctor. Ultimately, it’s the Doctor’s show and he’s in charge.

A crack to this narrative developed during the time of the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi). The Doctor didn’t recognize his old friend and deadly adversary at first. She now went by Missy, short for Mistress. As she stated, “Well, I couldn’t very well keep calling myself ‘The Master,’ now could I?”

Missy (Michelle Gomez)

Michelle Gomez owned the screen with every appearance as the evil Time Lord, the Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes. She brought an exciting new energy to the character, first introduced in the 70s during Jon Pertwee’s era and played by Roger Delgado. Instead looking like a classic Svengali, like Delgado’s Master, Missy looked like a deranged, nightmarish Mary Poppins. But during her time on the show, Missy evolved. She turned less evil and began showing compassion for the Doctor openly. She craved their ancient friendship, needed it.

Having gone there with Missy, it therefore seems only logical that the show would “evolve” in terms of casting for the Doctor. How very wonderful that they did. I don’t know anything about Jodie Whittaker, the Thirteenth Doctor. I have never seen Broadchurch, where she worked with Doctor Who’s new, incoming show-runner Chris Chibnall. But then, I never heard of Matt Smith, David Tennant, or Christopher Eccleston either and I liked all of them.

Number Thirteen: Jodie Whittaker

As always with Doctor Who, it’s all about the storytelling. I hope her stories soar.

As for those who have bellyached about the Doctor’s change in gender, I’ve seen three tweets that offer the best responses. The first comes from the Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, who brilliantly paraphrased the first words of his own Doctor:

Merriam-Webster provides lexicographical shade, something it does with great aplomb:

And finally, this response, more than any other, demonstrates why this change matters, why representation matters. (Wait for it…)

Yes, girls have worn long scarfs, fezzes, bowties, and perhaps even celery sticks. But it’s a totally different thing to see a face like your own represented. A woman will be the hero of the day, not just the accessory of the hero. I hope Ms. Whittaker enjoys her run in the TARDIS and that we all enjoy the flights she will take in the ancient craft.