Guest Post: Davros, Daleks, and Disability

CapriUni has cerebral palsy. She grew up with, and alongside the Disability Rights movement. She was among the first of her generation to be mainstreamed in education, in starting in the late 1960s, she completed the Masters of Arts program in Creative Writing at SUNY Stony Brook in 1991. And she has been a regular participant in the theatrical and literary endeavor known as The Art Garden for many years. She currently lives in Virginia, where she spends much of her time geeking out on her DreamWidth Journal over the topics of language, disability rights, and general silliness, but not necessarily in that order.

This post was originally written in June 2009.

This post wanders down a primrose path of links — or maybe it makes a daisy chain of links (maybe the all those flowers are fertilized by the BS the essays in these links complain about).


Almost a year ago, I watched again, for the first time in nearly thirty years, Episode Two of Genesis of the Daleks (the one where we first see, and hear, Davros) and wrote this review: I know that this episode predates this PC-ness by about ten years, but still. I tried to articulate how painfully ableist Davros is/was (it might have helped if I’d had the word “ableist” in my vocabulary, back then). But the discussion thread wandered off into Nazism, racism, anti-Semitism, and the internalization of oppression by the oppressed — all are important topics, but Davros’s disability ended up being treated (even by me, woe) as a secondary metaphor for some other issue, and not as an important attribute in its own right (which is another of my long-time pet peeves).

Then, earlier this week, [info]troubleinchina watched Genesis of the Daleks for the first time, and she wrote this review: Davros is not a physically handicapped scientist overcoming his “shortcomings” through technology (the link she posted in that review, btw, to an essay about the cybermen, has been taken down by the author).

In reply to that review, Goldfish (the host of “Blogging Against Disablism Day”) posted this: It would be better if we were represented as a great variety of characters, but Davros did at least have some … spirit.

And she posted this link (from the BBC’s official Disability Culture Blog: “Ouch!”): ReTARDIS: Doctor Who and Disability (written on the eve of NewWho, and expressing the hope that RTD would help Who get beyond its old biases; shall we have a moment of silence for our dashed expectations?).

And finally, I’ve come to the end of my primrose path. For there is one paragraph in this last blog essay clarified for me why I preferred the Daleks before they had Davros as their single, twisted, “Creator”:

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 realized, when I read this, that I was (partially) incorrect in my original analysis, last June. What’s really promblematic about Davros is not (so much) that his “spiritual disfunction manifests as physical disfunction,” but that he diliberately creates the Daleks to be more disabled than he is. He deliberately erases their capability for empathy and compassion. He expects them to be obedient to his every command, and to be grateful to him, as their creator and their “father.” If Davros’s plans unfolded the way he dreamt them up, he’d be the most able-bodied (comparitively) “Emperor of Skaro.”

So, with Davros in the picture, the Dalek mythos only perpetuates and reinforces the hierarchy of Ability and Personhood. The more able you are, the more you’re a “real” person. If you’re disabled, your role in life is to be obediant and grateful, and the more “severe” your disability is, the more passive and grateful you’re expected to be.

But pre-Davros, in the First and Second Doctor’s eras, the Daleks had created their machine casings over time, and under their own initiative. In the Peter Cushing movie versions of William Hartnell’s Dalek stories (thanks again, [info]gordon_r_d!), the Dalek city is full of color, and art for art’s sake. Even though they’re still evil, they’re portrayed as having a complete culture, and being complete people. So yeah, I find the pre-Davros Daleks to be more interesting.

As for the argument that Terry Nation had to create Davros to give the Daleks some unique history compared to the Cybermen, I’d say that both the Cybermen and Daleks represent the abject fear that the Privileged have of the Oppressed:

“They Hate Us!! And if We Give Them Any Freedom, They Will Bring Us Down to Their Level!!”

The Daleks and Cybermen are “mechanized” selves, who have gradually lost their Personhood as they gradually lost their physical abilities, and compensated for their weakness with technology. This, in itself, makes them morally suspect, at best. What makes them evil is their desire to inflict their reality on the rest of us, “robbing us of our humanity.”

Other modern sci-fi examples of this trope would be, I think, Hitchcock’s The Birds (where humans are punished by the avians for our species-based privilege), and Franklin J. Schaffner’s (director) Planet of the Apes (again, with species privelege, with added thinly disguised race privilege). But this trope goes back much further than the genre of Sci-fi, if you consider the ancient (patriarchal) Greeks’ fear of, and fascination with, the Amazons, and what they did to men.

This fear and fascination probably arises out of the subconscious knowledge that:

  • privilege is arbitrary and more a matter of luck than innate goodness, and
  • the acts committed via this privilege are unjust, but
  • the privilege-holders are so dependent on the power of privilege for their way of life that they equate letting it go with Death.

And of course, this fear completely distorts reality. Birds have no desire to wipe out humans as a species. Nor do Apes wish to own human slaves. Women don’t want to castrate and enslave men.

And the disabled have no desire to inflict their impairments on the able-bodied. Christopher Reeve’s advocacy for “The Cure” made me squrim, but I took no pleasure in his suffering. I was simply distressed when his advocacy, and the celebrity status that fuelled it, drowned out nearly all discussions of civil rights and equality.

[I’ve been writing this post on and off (mostly on) for nearly six hours, now (I thought it was going to be a quickie; I didn’t expect it to be so hard to put into words). It’s time I stopped. Here’s my conclusion:]

Davros is a painful character for me to watch because he represents the fear that the Disabled are full of hatred — both self-loathing and hatred of the able-bodied, and is another example of the fearful trope:

“They Hate Us!! And if We Give Them Any Freedom, They Will Bring Us Down to Their Level!!”

(So We better get Them, before They get Us).

I don’t want to bring you down, able-bodied white men, staring at me from the bed of your pick-up truck,* please don’t stare at me with such virulent hatred.


*I’m remembering an actual time when I was leaving the grocery store with Audrey, my aide. This was when I had the old van, with the slooow wheelchair lift, and I was manuevering to get onto the lift. Meanwhile, there were four red-necky-type white guys hanging out in their truck in the next parking space over. And they were staring at me with such angry expressions, I couldn’t look them in the eye. If I’d been alone, I would have feared for my safety. Yes, this was one moment out of my lifetime, and it was atypical in its extremity. But it still sticks in my mind, and it’s still painful.

ETA November 29: I’m temporarily turning comments off on this post because it’s become some sort of magnet for very strange and repetitive spam. I’ll turn them back on in the future. If you come across this and want to make a comment, please let the mods know.

7 Comments

  1. Re “they will bring us down to their level,” some of us deafies have written novels describing just that* 😈

    *Mindfield, by John Egbert

  2. Your mention of the pre-Davros Daleks brings up a constant issue with Doctor Who – in abelism, sexism, racism; that it goes backwards as often as it goes forwards. You can’t look at NuWho and say that’s it’s really much (any?) better than, say, Troughton-era in those areas. Which for someone who loves DW is bloody depressing.

  3. PeanutButter: I’ve actually been contemplating reading Mindfield; is it any good?

    Marge: Yeah, I know… *Sigh* I remember the old days, back on rec.arts.drwho, in between the McCoy vs. Pertwee flamewars, there were occassional discussions of: “Why can’t a future Doctor be a wheelchair-user, or survive with some other life-long injury without regenerating? After all, the TARDIS interior has no stairs…”

    (But in the NuWho it does… sadface)

  4. You just articulated what’s been bugging me about the Daleks and Cybermen for a while. Thank you.
    .-= calixti´s last blog ..Fat, health, invisible disability, and the intersection thereof. =-.

  5. CapriUni: I thought the story overall was interesting. It’s a little rough around the edges (a first book) I’ll be the first to say, and bits struck me as a little unrealistic (but made sense in the context of the points he wanted to make). I’d go for it.

  6. Peanutbutter: I came across it in the Harris Communications online catalog — bookhunting (they have the same books on Deaf culture as Amazon and B&N, but at a much lower price — specifically, Signing the body poetic [I’m not deaf, just a lit. geek]), and what made me scratch my head was the premise that America became stronger when Deaf culture became the majority culture… and I wondered if, once it’s in the majority, Deaf culture would have the same strengths it does now… But I’d forgive weaknesses in premises, if it’s a riproaring page-turner. 🙂

  7. This is so interesting.

    What I’m always struck by is how tech-phobic sci fi is. It seems to me that the audience for sci-fi is generally the computer inclined, so why does it tend to have the message that the vacuum is three seconds away from rising up to enslave you? (And in the case of cybermen and daleks, destroy or enslave you out of automation, not personal malice).

    It’s always struck me as being very backward looking, and you’ve awakened me to how ableist it is, too. The only virtuous person is one who relies on tech for absolutely– a hearing aid, a wheelchair, a voicebox– these are signs of moral not physical decay.
    .-= Gnatalby´s last blog ..Castrated Queers =-.