Spoilers: Spoilers for some events and characters through Series Four of the rebooted Doctor Who. No significant spoilers after that.
Warnings: This review discusses ableism and references certain events during the Holocaust.
Image Description: Alan Judd as Dortman, a freedom fighter in the First Doctor serial “The Dalek Invasion of the Earth”. He is one of the few physically disabled characters in the series.
I love Doctor Who. I have loved Doctor Who since I started watching it around age ten, and after I got sick it became my coping mechanism. It’s what got me through the three years that I would have been in middle school, but was instead stuck at home being ill, with no idea what was wrong with me or whether I would ever get better. It’s what got me through the first couple years of high school, when I was still sick most of the time, and dealing with the psychological fallout from the last couple years (not to mention all the mental health issues that had been on the backburner since I was nine). It’s still what I retreat to when I’m stressed, and it’s a big part of how I understand the world. My brain can connect Doctor Who to just about everything. (Seriously, don’t talk to me about Doctor Who unless you really want to—I have to make an effort at all times to not talk about it, and once unleashed I can go on for hours. Passionately. In terrifyingly obsessive detail.)
And because I love Doctor Who, I can be very hard on it. I don’t mean affectionate mocking, though that is one of my favorite activities. I mean genuine criticism—and in fifty years, there’s a lot to criticize, particularly in the area of representation. I have plenty to say about women on the show and behind the scenes, both good and bad, and there’s discussions about racism to be had too—but not today. I’ll look at both those things in a series I’m planning on Doctor Who, which I’m hoping to put up around the time of the Series Nine premiere. Today, though, I want to talk about ableism.
When representation issues in Doctor Who affect me personally, it burns. I tend to get kind of ranty, because that’s what I do when I’m hurt: talk, a lot, without volume control (not that I have a great deal of that last one under normal circumstances). I’ll try to keep the rant out of this post though, and look at this in a calm and organized manner.
For the purposes of analysis, I’m going to divide disability into two main categories: physical and mental. Now, there are a lot of issues with these categories and where exactly the lines are, and in general I tend to prefer to look at disabilities in terms of invisible versus visible, as far as broad categories go, but for this discussion I think a divide between physical and mental will work best. In this post, I’ll look at physical disability. Mental disability and illness is another big issue in Doctor Who, particularly with the Master, but I’ll talk about that another time. I’m also going to be looking mainly at two recurring villains from the classic and new series: the Daleks and the Cybermen. This is in order to optimize reader familiarity, and be as general as possible in my analysis of a series that has lasted for more than 50 years and more than 30 seasons.
Davros, John Lumic, and Max Capricorn were the first physically disabled characters who I could think of, minus one woman who is only revealed to be disabled at the end of the episode. You may notice that there is a common thread among them: they’re all villains. There are others—certain characters with scarring, for instance, who could be considered disabled, but they, too, tend to be villains. There are a couple of other characters in wheelchairs, too—there’s one in a First Doctor serial, for instance, who is part of a group fighting the Daleks, and one in a recent episode—though she spent most of the episode without her wheelchair, and it wasn’t revealed that she was disabled until the end. There’s honestly not much to say about Max Capricorn: he’s a villain in a wheelchair, or rather, a sort of massive combined wheelchair and life support system. To the writer’s credit there is a cyborg in the episode, an issue I’ll talk about later, but as far as the viewer can tell Max Capricorn is the only disabled person, and certain the only visibly disabled.
Davros and The Daleks
Image Description: Davros, portrayed by Julian Bleach, in his dalek-style wheelchair. His face is wrinkled and leathery, and he is dressed all in black, with black gloves. Image from the BBC.
Although they are often referred to and treated as robots, the Daleks technically aren’t. They are living creatures mutated by radiation and protected by technology. They’re also Nazis. Allegorical Nazis, but still.
It’s not hard to figure out what drove the creation of the Daleks—I mean the real-life creation, not the in-show one. Fear of nuclear war, fear of radiation, and, especially as they developed into their modern form, the still strong memories of World War II—the Daleks first appeared on television less than a decade after rationing ended in Britain. But at the same time, the technology the Daleks use could be viewed as an extension of prosthetics and assistance technology. It is clear from their very first appearance that they are actually living beings in protective suits, suits which seem to serve as a sort of permanent hazmat suit—or perhaps a life support system. The connection between Daleks and physically disabled people isn’t exactly blatant, it isn’t 100%, and it almost certainly isn’t intentional—modern prosthesis were only just starting to be developed in the aftermath of WWII—but making the Daleks victims of disabling radiation while simultaneously removing their emotions and their personhood is, at best, unfortunate. Were there a counter example of similar technology being used to help disabled people, perhaps the implications would be diluted somewhat—but as far as I can tell, that is not the case. What we do have are Cybermen.
Then there is the Nazi issue.
If the Daleks are allegorical Nazis (though they may not have been originally, they certainly are now—and if you don’t believe me you can watch either “Genesis of the Daleks” or “Remembrance of the Daleks,” they both make it pretty clear), then Davros is an allegorical Hitler. Or perhaps, given his scientific abilities, some sort of allegorical Hitler/Mengele hybrid.
I should not have to explain why an allegorical Hitler/Mengele hybrid should not be in a wheelchair. You do not take someone who committed horrible, unconscionable crimes against a group of people and present your allegorical version of them as a member of that group. Or, I guess some people do. But they shouldn’t, because it sucks.
Lumic and the Cybermen
Image Description: A screencap of the Cybermen from “The Silver Nemesis”, a Seventh Doctor serial. They have metal heads and metal covering their shoulders and chests, and they are wearing metallic silver jumpsuits. Image from TARDIS Data Core.
The Cybermen have similar problems to the Daleks, although they are less obviously a Nazi allegory. They are often used for fear of technology stories, and sometimes as essentially zombies, and—Okay, I admit it. I’ve never really understood the Cybermen. They almost always seem like a lesser version of Daleks to me, with a few exceptions in their very early serials, and if they were intended to have some meaning or allegory beyond “too much technology is bad” and “oh horrors, technology shall replace our humanity”, I never got it. Aside from “Tenth Planet” and perhaps “Tomb of the Cybermen,” I never found them that scary, and I tended to get distracted during their stories.
But okay. Let’s look at this whole “technology bad” thing.
Again, Cybermen are not actually robots. They’re actually cyborgs, although the original Cybermen seem to be much closer to typical cyborgs than Lumic’s Cybermen—the technology is much the same, but the original Cybermen seem to have developed over a period of time, as a sort of extension of typical cyborg technology, rather than being the result of one man trying to gain power. Rather than just having cyborg bodies, however, the Cybermen have had their emotions removed by way of technology, also.
Here’s the thing about cyborgs. A big part of cyborg technology is just advanced prosthetic technology—even though they sound awesome and science fiction-y, the word “cyborg” just refers to a human who has been augmented with machine parts. In fiction, cyborg technology often provides abilities beyond that of the human body, and as such it is often used by people regardless of whether or not they are disabled in the first place. Despite this, there are many examples of fictional characters who became cyborgs due to disability—Ghost in the Shell and The Lunar Chronicles come immediately to mind. In real life, there are technologies being developed right now, technologies that exist right now that could be referred to as “cyborg technology”—and they’re pretty much all intended to deal with a disability or health concern of some kind.
So here we have a villain who comes from technologies of a type that is actually being developed for the assistance of disabled people, and the villain is designed to prey on the fear of technology, on the fear of people being overwhelmed by too much technology, and made into something that is less than human. The same sort of connection can be made with the Daleks, but this is a lot clearer, a lot more blatant. The Daleks, in fact, might be perfectly fine, were it not for both Davros and the Cybermen. As it is, for me at least, the two amplify each other, both sending a message that people, once augmented by machines, begin to lose their emotions, their humanity, their personhood.
And as for the new series Cybermen (or “Cybusmen”, as they are sometimes referred to in fandom)…well, okay, John Lumic is not allegorical Hitler, so that’s something—but he’s still a villain in a wheelchair, and his motivation is still essentially “because I’m disabled”, and you know what? Getting real tired of that as a motivation. I’ve heard of plenty of murders happening “because they (the victim) are disabled”, but not that many happening “because I (the killer) am disabled”.
Image Description: John Lumic,played by Roger Lloyd-Pack, in his wheelchair. Image from Doctor Who Wiki (German).
So that’s my impression of Doctor Who and physical disability. It’s problems are not unusual—dehumanizing the disabled and villains in wheelchairs are common problems. That doesn’t make them okay, and in a show like Doctor Who, a show that, I think, has the ability to push boundaries and break barriers if it wants to, if it tries, it’s really not good enough. To me, the most frustrating thing isn’t the Daleks or the Cybermen (they’re not bad villains, really, just rather damning given the lack of counter examples), and it isn’t Davros, John Lumic, and Max Capricorn, all of whom appeared in the new series (within the first five years, in fact). To me, what’s most frustrating is the lack of good representation. Doctor Who premiered more than fifty years ago. Admittedly it took about a 15 year break in the middle there (because really, representation in the expanded universe is a very separate issue), but that’s still multiple decades. There’s almost no good representation for people with prosthetics or wheelchairs. As for other physical disabilities, like mine for instance—I have fibromyalgia, which is a physical disability that was “invisible” right up until the time I started using a cane—there’s practically nothing at all. There may have been a few characters here and there who’ve used canes, but none I can think of—except perhaps the First Doctor, and if he did it was mostly in serials now lost through the BBC’s junking policy. Aside from that, there have been no primary characters, no recurring secondary characters. There may be villains with chronic pain, though none are terribly memorable—I think there may have been one in Series Seven.
I said at the beginning of this post that I love Doctor Who. And that’s true. I love Doctor Who. I obsess over it. When I was in middle school I went to see this specialist about self-hypnosis, and there was an exercise where I was supposed to go to my safe place, and mine was the TARDIS. It is not an exaggeration to say that Doctor Who is what got me through three years of extreme illness, what continues to be my coping mechanism for stress and grief. But there’s a part of me that wonders, especially now, if someone like me could really have a place on the TARDIS. I think I could. I just wish I could see that in the show.
Image Description: The above image is a banner for Blogging Against Disablism Day, a 5×4 grid of pictures, in various colors, of the type used to represent people on signs. One has a cane, and one has a wheelchair. The image links to the Blogging Against Disablism Day page.