Warning: Discussion of ableism, use of some ableist words (quoted for purposes of clarity)
Spoiler Warning: Spoilers for the first three episodes of Doctor Who season 9, as well as the title of the fourth.
First off, I really enjoyed Doctor Who’s two part season opener–mostly.
That said, there were some things that really bothered me. Some were continuations of behaviors from season eight, others were escalations which took things far beyond what I was expecting, to the point that I actually managed to block them from my memory until someone else’s comment reminded me of them.
Now get ready, because spoilers are coming.
Part way through The Witch’s Familiar, the Doctor stole Davros’ wheelchair. Like, he removed Davros, a disabled (and at this point, terminal) man, from his wheelchair–leaving him on the floor–and he took the wheelchair away.
That is not okay.
Like, I cannot express how not okay that is. It was supposed to be this ‘crowning moment of awesome’ sort of thing, and I spent the whole time basically just whispering “No, no, no, not okay, no” because that is incredibly not okay. And let’s be clear here: this was not a necessary thing. Moffat didn’t have to write the episode this way.
The other scene that I had a big problem with came near the end of the episode, another “crowning moment of awesome”, because goodness knows we wouldn’t want one of those to go by without doing something incredibly offensive. Then the people we’re hurting might actually be able to enjoy the show unimpeded, and that would be terrible. (Sarcasm, by the way.)When the Doctor reveals that he has tricked Davros by slightly modifying the man’s own trap (something which I found both brilliant and reminiscent of Remembrance of the Daleks, by the way), he refers to Davros using a slur that I do not intend to repeat here. It starts with “m”, though.
Look, I understand that there is a lot of disagreement around which words are ableist and which aren’t. Different people find different words offensive, and some disabled people dislike the emphasis that is sometimes placed on ableist language. I understand that there are issues with reclamation and whether it’s an acceptable thing, too, as well as with who is allowed to reclaim a slur. But that word is definitely not okay, certainly not when written and performed by men with no intellectual or even developmental disabilities (certainly none that are publically known).
Both of these moments, by the way, are actually on the TV Tropes list of “moments of awesome” from that episode, apparently without comment, which is a great example of ableism in fandom.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not fundamentally against a morally grey, “not a good man” Doctor. My first Doctor was William Hartnell, who, in his first two serials, hit a caveman with a rock and removed a crucial component of the TARDIS in order to force his companions to let him go exploring. I am actually a huge fan of how morally grey the Doctor is, especially when it comes to the Master. I also really enjoy McCoy’s Doctor, who, while he clearly cared about Ace, was also super manipulative of her. I like when the Doctor is morally grey.
But there is a line. There are things that are not okay, especially when you remember that the Doctor is a character that children look up to. He’s a hero. Kids pretend to be the Doctor. I’m not saying that the Doctor has to be a bastion of morality, but I think we should keep in mind that his behavior and language are things that kids will likely imitate.
The word that was used in The Witch’s Familiar was, I think, more extreme than usual, but it wasn’t the first time the Doctor has used ableist language. The Twelfth Doctor in particular seems to use the word “idiot” at least once an episode–something which is particularly offensive given his policing of other people’s language (usually that of women and POC in particular). He also threw around a fair amount of casual racism and misogyny last season, which probably arose from the writers’ own unexamined and unconscious biases. But even putting aside that this is offensive, especially coming from a character kids idolize, it doesn’t even make sense. The Doctor is a time traveling alien. There is no reason for him to have these biases.
Of course, there’s also no reason for him to regenerate into a white guy thirteen times in a row, but there you go.
Some exciting things have happened in Doctor Who recently. The most recent episode, Under the Lake, and its yet-to-be-aired second part, Before the Flood, feature a deaf character who communicates primarily through sign language. This in itself is great–I would love to see more disabled characters whose disability isn’t a central element of the story, and I’m always happy to see a character using nonverbal communication. But if Moffat et al want to do well by disabled people–and women, and POC, and LGBTQIAP people, and of course those who are part of more than one of these groups–they need to do a lot more than add characters. They need to actively examine their own prejudices and preconceptions, conscious and unconscious, and carefully examine how these biases enter their writing.