CN: spoilers and discussions of ableism
On November 17th, 2023, Doctor Who’s short “Destination: Skaro” aired during the Children in Need telethon. This was the first time the iconic villain Davros stood and walked and was not scarred or using a wheelchair. As the current showrunner, Russell T. Davies, explained on the behind-the-scenes show Doctor Who: Unleashed:
“We had long conversations about bringing Davros back because he’s a fantastic character. Time and society and culture and taste has moved on, and there’s a problem with the Davros of old in that he’s a wheelchair user who is evil. And I had problems with that, and a lot of us on the production team had problems with that, of associating disability with evil, and trust me, there’s a very long tradition of this. I’m not blaming people in the past at all, but the world changes and when the world changes, Doctor Who has to change as well.
So, we made the choice to bring back Davros without the facial scarring, and without the wheelchair, or his support unit, which functions as a wheelchair.”
Davies also noted that it would have been ironic to have a villain in a wheelchair during a fundraiser benefiting sick and disabled children. I’m so glad he made this change and statement, specifically mentioning the old depiction of Davros as a facially scarred wheelchair user. Disabled writers, including Fin Leary and Ariel Henley, criticized the prevalence of villains with scars, limb differences, and facial differences in 2017.
Davies has done ret-cons before. A “timey-wimey” SFF show like Doctor Who has a unique opportunity to change Davros. The Doctor could travel to times before Davros became disabled, as the Fourteenth Doctor does in “Destination: Skaro.” Or “time could be rewritten” to prevent him from becoming disabled. In a SFF show, imagination can be unlimited.
I’m a disabled writer who uses mobility devices and started watching a lot of Doctor Who in September 2022. In January 2023, I blogged some of my thoughts, including its past use of stereotypes. I wrote:
“The villains Davros and John Lumic are wheelchair users, and their disabilities and fear of death directly motivate them to create evil, armored Daleks and Cybermen, respectively. These ableist villain arcs and motives were typical of fiction in general in 2006 and even 2016. The show has gotten so much better lately regarding disability.”
Davies is right that many SFF villains link disability with evil, which is inherently problematic. I want to unpack how Doctor Who specifically used ableist tropes in the 2000s. Davros, Lumic, and Max Capricorn (the villain from the 2007 special “Voyage of the Damned”) are all disabled villains, but they also fit a specific, ableist stereotype: the implication that disability is worse than death.
In the 2006 episode “Rise of the Cybermen,” Lumic says when creating a Cyberman, “Skin of metal and a body that will never age or die. I envy it.” People must be murdered to be “upgraded” into Cybermen, so Lumic is strongly implying he’d rather be dead than disabled. Dom Evans calls stories like this the “better dead than disabled” trope, and a lot of US fiction uses it too. Having three disabled villains whose disabilities motivate their evil inventions and plans reinforced these ableist stereotypes way more than just one would have done.
Doctor Who also used ableist humor in the past: in the 2015 two-parter “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” from Steven Moffat’s era as showrunner. The Twelfth Doctor rides in Davros’ chair, asking, “Anyone for dodgems?” Sure, that might be a funny image out of context — if Davros didn’t ride in that Dalek casing like it’s a wheelchair. It’s literally his mobility device! Immediately afterward, we see Davros, an amputee, unable to move without his mobility device. There’s nothing funny about ableism, especially taking someone’s mobility device or prosthesis. The Doctor jokes that he’ll keep Davros’ chair.
In context, the Doctor demands Clara back from Missy and the Daleks. He’d do anything to save Clara, as he later shows in “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent.” The Doctor’s attitude is smug and triumphant here, taunting the Daleks. However, the Doctor mocking Davros’ disability in the process is uncharacteristically ableist, cruel, and unnecessary to the plot.
Chris Chibnall’s Thirteenth Doctor era, despite some flaws, had great disabled characters. In “The Halloween Apocalypse,” we first meet Dan Lewis and his coworker and friend, Diane. Nadia Albina, an actor with a limb difference, plays Diane. Dan wants to go on a date with Diane. She works at a museum and plays an active role during the Flux. No one comments on her disability. It’s just a part of her. It was great to see disabled characters in Chibnall’s era not experiencing ableism or reinforcing stereotypes, just living their lives.
I mentioned Ryan Sinclair in my January 2023 Medium post. I think his character arc is great. In “Kerblam!”, Ryan explains his disability to Kerblam employee Charlie on a need-to-know basis:
RYAN: I should let you know I have a coordination problem. Not super serious, but you know, makes life really interesting. And frustrating. And difficult. Especially at moments like this.
CHARLIE: You don’t have to come. I can find Kira on my own.
RYAN: Mate, that’s not how we roll. Is it, Yaz?
YASMIN: Nope. We’re all in.
Some people think we’re oversharing when we explain our disabilities like this. Ryan thinks Charlie needs to know because their plan could be dangerous and physically demanding. Of course, Yaz already knows Ryan is disabled. She was Ryan’s childhood friend. She’s already reconnected with Ryan and traveled with him, the Thirteenth Doctor, and Graham for months at this point. I like that Ryan describes his disability in a realistic way. Neither Yaz nor Ryan himself would let him get excluded because of his disability. They’re friends — a team and a fam.
Thank you to Doctor Who for taking criticism seriously and adjusting to the times. I’m excited for the anniversary specials, starting this Saturday!
I also publish original, short fiction in literary journals. (This is not fan fiction, but I love that too!) In my 2022 short story “The Only Way to Travel,” taking someone’s mobility device is ableist violence. I later expanded on my ideas on my Medium.