Retardis: Doctor Who and disability

by Laurence Clark

BBC  Ouch 22nd March 2005

As Doctor Who returns to BBC ONE on Saturday nights, disabled comedian Laurence Clark takes a humorous look at how the series has portrayed disability over the years.

A lot of us men in our thirties have been coming out of the closet these past few weeks. You see, after years of liking a show that was widely thought to be geeky and camp, it finally looks like Doctor Who is going to be cool. But as a thirty-something man who is also disabled, I’m interested too in how disabled people have been used and portrayed during the programme’s forty year history.

The first ever disabled character to appear in the series was Dortmun, the stereotypical ‘crippled scientist’ who helped the resistance during The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Feeling that he was slowing his comrades down, and armed with just a couple of small bombs, Dortmun stupidly cast aside his wheelchair and walking stick to take on a few Daleks single-handed. Needless to say, the bloody fool got exterminated within seconds. Whilst this may have appeared noble and brave to a sixties audience, today it just seems staggeringly stupid!

Dortmun’s demise is somewhat ironic, given the fact that the Daleks themselves were created by Davros. Whilst some may argue that Davros is simply half of a Dalek, in my opinion he’s a fellow wheelchair user. Come to think of it, he’s probably visually impaired too, given that he has two empty eye sockets and ‘sees’ with an artificial third eye!

To cut a long story short, Davros foresaw that his entire race, the Kaleds, were slowly turning into slimy, green blobs. Being a wheelchair user himself, his solution to this problem was to build mobility aids for everyone to travel around in – a.k.a. the Dalek machines. Now you’ve got to admit, turning your entire race into wheelchair users is quite an extreme way to bring about disability equality!

I like to speculate over what would happen if, like the Kaleds, we all started turning into blobs. A recently leaked government document said: “people in comas or too ill to speak for themselves … should be allowed to die because it costs too much to keep them alive” (Mail on Sunday, 30 January 2005). So I guess that if the Kaleds had been governed by New Labour, there would have been no expensive ‘Dalek machine’ mobility aids to enable them to lead fulfilling lives after becoming blobs.

I rather suspect that, under Blair, the plugs on their life support machines would be pulled the minute their skin developed a green tinge.

Over the years, wheelchair users have certainly come to empathise with the plight of the Daleks. After all, we both have the same barriers to negotiating the outside world, and, unlike most outdoor electric wheelchairs, Daleks don’t even have curb climbers!

Tom Baker’s Doctor once taunted a Dalek from the top of a flight of stairs, shouting: “If you’re supposed to be the superior beings, why don’t you try climbing after us?” It’s not hard to see whose side we’d be on, is it? A decade later, the Daleks gloriously got revenge for this taunt by chasing Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor upstairs; he wasn’t aware of their newly developed hovvering ability.

The Nasty Girls, a comedy trio of frustrated, bitter and cynical Disabled/Deaf women, have also been inspired by the Daleks. In their last show, Time Troupers, they travel through time and space in an accessible loo called the Retardis. For me, the highlight of the show was the ‘Dalek carer’ sketch, which compared the Daleks’ fanatical need to dominate the universe with carers’ needs to pretty much dominate everything as well!

Personally, my favourite baddies in Doctor Who were always the Cybermen, pictured here supporting their early, bandaged, post-op look. They were human once, before they gradually swapped all of their imperfect organic body parts for mechanical replacements. To my mind, the Cybermen amount to a warning of what will happen to us if the search for medical cures goes too far!

In the past, it’s fair to say that a lot of Doctor Who‘s portrayals of disability were less than positive. A large number of so-called ‘monsters’ were portrayed as evil because they looked different. Villains such as Magnus Greel and Sharaz Jek (pictured) were simply people with facial disfigurements, huge stereotypical chips on their shoulders and possibly some mental health issues too!

Disabled characters were also routinely cured. The last series in 1989 featured a blind woman regaining her sight and a possessed, walking wheelchair-user taking revenge by killing his intensely patronising ‘carer’. There’s a message here somewhere!

According to The Independent, we could be getting something very different in 2005. New Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston is determined that his Doctor will value inclusion. “The Doctor is … completely non-judgmental. He accepts everything and everyone, whether they’re black or blue, gay or straight. If he meets an alien, his first reaction is not revulsion, but joy. He celebrates life in all its forms, shades, colours and creeds.”

So how about using a few more disabled actors in the series?

My first childhood memory of seeing a disabled actor was watching Nabil Shaban play Sil, a slimy, green slug. OK, so a slug maybe wasn’t such a great role model for an 11 year-old boy, but at least it showed me that disabled people could be actors.

The series has also us1ed its fair share of actors of restricted growth, most notably the murderous Chinese mannequin Mr Sin. According to the Daily Mirror, new series executive producer Russell T Davies has found that: “It’s very difficult to employ persons of restricted growth when, as our producer Phil Collinson says, ‘Bloody Gringotts and the Chocolate Factory are filming at the same time'”.

However, this problem must have been resolved as the new series features at least one actor with restricted growth: Jimmy Vee playing the Moxx of Balhoon.

But wouldn’t it be good to have some disabled actors playing actual disabled characters in the new series? A friend of mine recently remarked how Lisa Hammond would make a great Doctor Who companion. Fabulous idea. It’d be a welcome change from us being embittered, vengeful, evil, cured, alien or exterminated by Daleks!


Leave a Reply