This most recent season of Doctor Who has had me thinking about just how bad and limited the representation of disability has been on the show. The show which is often very socially conscious has created a universe past, present and future where disability is generally nonexistent or tokenized.
This is of course not just a problem with Doctor Who but is a wider issue of disability representation in the media more generally. The thing that makes Doctor Who stand out (other than the recent storyline of the Doctor going blind) for criticism is that on the rare occassions that there are disabled characters, they are either done very well or very badly. Most recently both at the same time.
The season 9 episode Before the Flood included Cass, a deaf character whose deafness was not a major plotpoint. The character was also played by a deaf actor. This kind of representation is revolutionary. A disabled character who just happens to be disabled.
This trend continued in the 10th season with the character of Erica in The Pyramid at the End of the World. She just happened to have dawrfism. It played no part in the plot. This positivity was however, overshadowed by the Doctor’s blindness–part of a three episode arc–which was dramatically cured at the end of the episode.
It really threw into sharp relief how tokenistic these disabled characters–and it is relevant to mention that not all people who are deaf or who have dwarfism identify as disabled–despite how good they are. They are still really noticeable because of how rarely they appear and yet they appear without question. In order for disability to be truly unnoteworthy is to make it normal and a part of the world of the show but these characters appear and are gone. Disability isn’t even visible in the background as extras. So as normal as the characters are in their stories, they remain noteworthy exceptions outside of them.
This is particularly clear when you look at what happens to the narrative of disability when it happens to the Doctor. Suddenly, the writers fall back on many harmful stereotypes and storylines.
The Doctor’s blindness which begins in Oxygen and is conveniently cured in The Pyramid at the End of The World is purely a plot device that is used to create tension and then conveniently discarded to again further the plot. The fact that this plotline intersected with actual disability representation is offensive.
A blind doctor was an ineffective one. His blindness had to be cured because he could no longer really be the Doctor. Having that moment of cure in an episode also starring a terrifically competent disabled character, really undercut the power of that representation. Particularly because the thing that foiled him was absurd. He needed to enter a code but instead of the more realistic keypad–which he could have navigated without sight–he was inexplicably presented with a combination lock.
The moment was so utterly unrealistic (yes I know it’s sci-fi) and clearly contrived to create the need to quickly cure the Doctor because if he doesn’t get through that door he’ll die.
So the audience is presented with the paradox of the real representation provided by erica’s character and the played out disability as plot device provided by the Doctor all in a single episode.
I want the future–both in the real world and in the universe of Doctor Who–to be accessible but it isn’t. We generally only see disabled characters in if not the present day then in earth type settings. The future in Doctor Who is very much not accessible.
The TARDIS itself is horribly inaccessible which limits who the Doctor can have as a companion and how well he would function if the Doctor became disabled in a way that couldn’t be magicked away for the convenience of the plot. The TARDIS doesn’t have automatic doors, though the amazing Mike Mort designed a shirt with just such an adaptation (buy it here)
The real inaccessibility of the TARDIS goes beyond getting in the door. There are stair to access pretty much everywhere. There are stairs to get to the console and even more stairs to get to the rest of the ship that we never see. I can only imagine that the inaccessibility extends throughout the vessel.
the world of Doctor Who, very much like the real world is inaccessible but in some ways it’s worse because it shows that the world doesn’t get better and that the future is just as if not more inaccessible than the present unless it’s briefly convenient for the plot or to accommodate a single character who will never be seen again.
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6 thoughts on “The TARDIS is Inaccessible: Disability in Doctor Who”
couldn’t agree more, this plot device was a contrived one because as soon as he became blind he needed to be able to see to do things people asked of him. Highlighting his disability only pointed it out as a weakness (at one point the Doctor refers to it as a weakness himself) and so it further pushes disabled people away from their television and movie heroes. The Doctor has practically told every blind child who watches the show that they can never be like him because their blindness makes them weak. I use a wheelchair and I’m a lifelong Doctor Who fan so I always imagined that the Doctor would have to open both doors for me to get in (like everywhere else) and if I was a guest I’d expect ramps and lifts to be put in because the Doctor cares about everyone. The writers need to remember their audience and those who will always dream bigger than their limitations allow.
I definitely agree about what you’ve said. We need more representation and without the ridiculous and offensive magic cure at the end.
Just on a side note though.and correct me if I’m wrong because I haven’t watched doctor who in ages, doesn’t the tardis change depending on what you need? I know it changes every regeneration but I was under the impression it changed to accommodate things as well?
Perhaps having a disabled sidekick when the next regeneration happened so it could change into something accessible might be a good dialog opener.
I’ve never seen a disabled person in the TARDIS and I’ve never seen it change except as a regeneration accompaniment or direct action of the Doctor. Even if it does though, It’s still disheartening that accessibility is only considered when you actually show up. Disabled kids can’t watch Doctor Who and imagine having adventures in the TARDIS because they would be lucky to get in the door, much less navigate the space.
I’m autistic and I kinda always headcanon the Doctor as autistic and his traits shift since he’s physically a new person every time he regenerates, so part of his almost post-ictal behavior and confusion after regenerating is his autistic brain going “wtfffffffff is going on?!” as it adjusts to new sensory needs.
While I’m not blind myself, I know someone who is and I’ve watched youtube videos by blind youtubers as well as a few books about blindness written by blind authors. That is what taught me how blindness isn’t a tragedy. I challenge that narrative if I see it, both about blindness and about autism.
I got *really* annoyed by people saying how tragic it was that the Doctor went blind in Oxygen and the outpouring of “helpless blind Doctor” fics that followed. I wrote a fanfic to counter that narrative ( http://archiveofourown.org/works/10938483 ) before the other two episodes aired. (I write the Doctor as autistic, too :P)
I wrote him adjusting to blindness and being cool with it because he thinks adjusting to a new body after regenerating is a helluva lot harder than adjusting a change in one sense. I had him getting annoyed at Nardole’s overprotectiveness, dabbling in Braille and using a *sonic* white cane…but the actual show kinda pooped all over it. Boo.
I hated how his eyesight was magically returned and wish he could’ve finished his run blind and maybe had his sight come back during the “reset” preceding a regeneration, since that kinda heals his body back to its default form before injuries (or aging, 11’s case). That would’ve been more plausible, but I guess those Monks ruined it.
I’m sad that Peter Capaldi is leaving the role, though. He’s been the most ‘visibly’ autistic-coded Doctor I’ve ever seen and he’s the reason I have an autistic headcanon for the Doctor at all.
I realize that most companions couldn’t easily operate the Tardis but, as someone who is blind, I wouldn’t even have a chance. You’d think a race as sophisticated as the time lords would at least allow for voice control and optional speech output. I’d think those features would be convenient even for sighted time lord operators/universal design benefits everybody, not just people with disabilities.
These are all very good points. I wish the Doctor could have experienced more realistic blindness and actually stayed blind until he regenerated. Unfortunately, Moffat has never been inclined to let his characters stay hurt/dead/disabled/emotional for any length of time. However, as a massive Whovian, I must point out that the TARDIS does indeed have automatic doors – snap to open, as first (only?) seen in Forest of the Dead, curtesy of River Song. I really like the design with the button though, and it would be great for people who can’t snap. Not sure if you could easily get a wheelchair or walker over the step up though no matter how the doors came to be open.
I like to the think the Doctor could and would provide any modifications to the TARDIS that his companions might need, but I also don’t think we’ll ever see a permanent companion with a disability unfortunately.