This post is part of a series about representations of disability in movies, television shows, and books. They contain spoilers.
If you haven’t seen Torchwood, I’m not entirely sure how to describe it. It’s a Doctor Who spinoff where Captain Jack Harkness and his band of misfits battle to keep the Earth safe from aliens arriving in Cardiff, Wales. There is a Rift in Time and Space that is the Plot Device when needed – aliens pop out of it and, sometimes, people get sucked into it.
It’s also a show where sex and flirtation are part of the plot. Episodes have revolved entirely around sex, such as the one with “sex pollen”, but sexuality, flirtations, and explicit sexual relationships – both same sex and opposite sex – have all been main or side plots. One throw-away line that’s often quoted ’round the fandom is recurring guest star (and ex-lover of Jack’s) Captain John Hart’s comments about how attractive he finds a poodle.
But of course no one in Torchwood would ever flirt with someone with a disability. They’ve never had the chance – no one with a visible disability has ever been on the show.
Oh wait! I tell a lie! Of course someone who has a disability and is deformed has been on the show! I totally forgot. Let me tell you about it.
In Adrift, an episode in late Season 2, Gwen Cooper realises that several people have gone missing in Cardiff, and slowly starts to piece together that they’ve been “taken by the Rift”. The episode focuses on the story of one mother, Nikki Bevan, whose son had gone missing seven months earlier. It shows her grief, and her obsession with finding out what happened to her son. She’s loving and emotionally invested in the search, in contrast to the growing hardness of viewer-standin Gwen.
I’ll skip a lot of summary, which you can read at Wikipedia should you wish.
Guess what! They find Nikki’s son! He comes back disfigured, having seen into the heart of a dark star, and has aged 40 years, but he’s still her son. However, Jack has been keeping him in an underground lair with no windows and concrete, unpainted walls. All the doors are locked from the outside, so the inmates can’t possibly get out. They’re even transported to the dungeon with bags over their heads so they can’t see where they’re going, and no one can see them. And they’re left there, locked away from the world. For their own good.
Against Jack’s orders, Gwen brings Nikki to see her son. Nikki is at first horrified at what remains of the boy she knew, but quickly starts insisting that she wants to care for him. That she loves him. That she’s the best person to be with him as he recovers. He’s her son, after all, and even if she has to keep him away from the windows, she’ll love him and take care of him.
Until the screaming starts, of course. Then she can’t cope. She can’t ever cope with someone who screams like that. She runs out of the room, and the next time we see her she’s putting away all of his things. Now, he’s not her son anymore. There’s no turning back. He screams, because he’s seen horrors, and she can’t imagine this thing is her son.
In her final scene, she makes Gwen promise not to tell anyone else what happened to their children, because not knowing is better than knowing your child will spend the rest of hir natural life with a disability.
You may have noticed throughout my write-up I haven’t referred to Nikki’s child by name. That’s because the story isn’t about him. He’s a prop to tell us about Gwen, about Jack, about Nikki. Once he’s revealed as being discardable, we never see him again.
I wrote about my first, gutted reaction to this episode when I watched it, but have never been able to get over it. I want to participate in the general fandom-related squee and enjoyment, but all I can think of is this show thinks having a child with a disability, even a severe one, is worse than having a child disappear. All I can think of is the complete ignorance of the experiences of families with disabilities, whose children do scream and scream and scream, or do some other harming activity, because of their disability, and their parents love them anyway. I think about how this is another episode of television that’s used a person with a disability as a way for the non-disabled to learn something about themselves.
I think about how they decided disability and deformity would be their stand-in for horrible and unimaginable.
That’s what ablism is. It’s implying that a mother is making a huge sacrifice by choosing to interact with her son who has a disability. It’s saying that having a disability is the worst thing that can happen to someone, that it makes them so horrible they should be locked away. It’s not even thinking to add a ten second scene where Gwen, the so-called heart of the show, tells Jack that he will buy some bloody paint for the walls, that he’ll put some carpet down, that he’ll move these people (they are still people, Jack) to a better place, because they don’t deserve to be locked away from fresh air and sky.
His name was Jonah.