Doctor Who and the Evil Wheelchair Users of Evil

Also see: Davros, Daleks, and Disability and Bloody Torchwood.

Contains minor spoilers for Doctor Who from “Voyage of the Damned” through to “The Next Doctor”.

I’ve been compiling a list of all the characters who are wheelchair users in New Who. For everyone who has no earthly idea what I’m talking about, I’m referring to British television show Doctor Who (which is well worth watching by the way) specifically the episodes airing since 2005 after a long hiatus. The show had, shall we say, not the world’s greatest history of representing disability up until that point. I’d noticed a trend of characters who are wheelchair users (or users of SF-ish devices meant to echo wheelchairs) in recent years, and some rather sinister commonalities. Here they are (though if I’ve forgotten any, do add them in comments):

  • Davros: The creator of the Doctor’s enemies, the Daleks. Evil as they come, wanting to destroy reality itself at the end of series 4!
  • Max Capricorn: The villain of “Voyage of the Damned,” who wanted to crash a ship into Earth and frame his former cruiseliner company for mass murder.
  • Mercy Hartigan: I can’t remember “The Next Doctor” so well, but seem to recall her being wired in a chair in the CyberKing towards the end, shortly before her death.
  • John Lumic from “Rise of the Cybermen” and “The Age of Steel”. Dying and desperate to stay alive, he invents the parallel universe version of Cybermen, kidnapping homeless people to experiment on and seeking to “upgrade” all of humanity. Cybermen convert him into one of them against his will.
  • Timothy Latimer: From “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood”. A noble and brave young man who saves the day, we see him as a old man in a wheelchair towards the end of TFoB.
  • Colonel Hugh Eddison: From “The Unicorn and the Wasp”. He reveals himself to have been faking needing a wheelchair for many years in order to keep his wife at his side (presuming she’d do so out of obligation or pity, I guess).

As we can see, the trend with wheelchair-using characters in this show is that they’re evil and must die at the hands of our charming able-bodied hero. Of the two exceptions, one is a Fakerâ„¢. The other is only shown in his wheelchair right at the end; he’s allowed no dialogue.

Doctor Who makes me sad because, as much as I love it, those running the show clearly have a fair bit of contempt (or contemptous indifference) regarding PWD. We’re represented very narrowly: when real, when having agency, wheelchair users (because disabled characters are always wheelchair users) are bitter villains. The very few disabled characters aren’t allowed to be anything other than caricatures. There’s nothing grand or beautiful or important or good about them, they just exist as plot points to help the story along or to be obstacles for the Doctor to overcome.

11 Comments

  1. Love the show. Did you see this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/features/retardis_doctor_who_and_disability.shtml ? I think that author agrees with you and wants better wheelchair using characters.

    Also, I thought Mercy Hartigan was in a sort of throne at the end of that episode? It was not movable, in any rate. She had taken her place there as a kind of ruler or overseer and then found out she was tricked by the Cybermen.

  2. Yeah I think so. It brought up that whole association for me and the CyberKing was movable, you know?

  3. I don’t get the sci-fi channel on my tv but I can probably rent Dr. Who.

    Did you ever see, “Unbreakable?” it’s a sci-fi movie about, (Mild spoilers,) what if comic book archetypes really existed IRL. Well the hero (Bruce Willis) has super-strength & some psychic power, and his anthesis, played by Samuel L. Jackson, has osteogenesis imperfecta and super-smarts. So at one point, Elijah (Jackson) has an accident & is in a wheelchair. And he’s the super-villan so he’s disabled and bad.

  4. @K – I’ve seen Unbreakable several times. He is Willis’ opposite, his nemesis. I always thought of him as the inverse to Professor X. But superheroes and villains are kind of a whole different animal than Dr. Who’s sci-fi, I’d think. I have seen every episode of all four seasons of the new Doctor Who and am wracking (racking?) my brain for even one visibly disabled good person. Whereas, disabilities are not uncommon among superheroes. (I wonder if that’s not what that recent link to that article about “bionic” amputees was trying to get at).

  5. I always liked to think that amongst Wilf and his friends, all seniors, there might have been a few not-immediately-obvious disabilities. I know, I know, but it takes the sting out of all the evil wheelchair users. And the evil or stupid fat people. Maybe.

    [Relatedly, that’s one reason I like old-school British murder mystery series or police dramas, they have older people who aren’t Botoxed and primped to the nines and who are intelligent and visible, and have (gasp) relationships and are not in the “silly old bugger/biddy” role. Which then relates to negative stereotypes about people with dementia or other neurological conditions.]

  6. Oh Doctor Who, I love you, but you do disappoint me so sometimes.

    I’m also disappointed that Torchwood (the adult-oriented Doctor Who spinoff, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the franchise), although it loves to kill characters off in the name of “realism”, never explores the implications of what might happen should one of the team members have a disability — either because the best person for the job happened to have a disability (as surely would be the case sometimes) or because a team member acquired a disability as the result of their work with Torchwood (which surely must happen sometimes too). There would be a lot of potential for the show to explore many different types of disability (and the intersection of disability and sexuality), but I am pretty certain it won’t do that. And honestly, with RTD at the helm, given his record on Doctor Who, it’d probably be a complete disaster if he did.

  7. The BBC.co.uk article didn’t mention a bit in classic Who which has only just struck me with how problematic it could be – in Battlefield, a Seventh Doctor story, two side characters are an older heterosexual couple who run a pub – the woman is blind, having gradually lost her sight over several years, but is not shown having any difficulty helping to run the bar. Then a dimension-travelling played-by-Jean-Marsh Morgaine le Fay decides to repay the couple (after Mordred has been a right wanker to them) in a rare stroke of “kindness” by restoring the woman’s sight. The couple subsequently appear once more (to show they’re happy and … still running their pub with the woman now seeing) and then … vanish.

    And it only just clicked to me that the only reason they appear is basically to show Morgaine having a “generous” side and doing a “good” thing (before pottering off to try to nuke the planet).

  8. Fair points, but in only considering 21st century Doctor Who you’ve missed one prominent counterexample. In the Sylvester McCoy episode “The Curse of Fenric”, by Ian Briggs, the wheelchair user Dr Judson is a brilliant, cantankerous but basically sympathetic character, thoroughly patronised by his nurse. Then [SPOILERS!] he is possessed by the evil force of Fenric, whereupon he becomes both villainous and able-bodied.

  9. Ian: Yes, and? Does one episode in 1989 where someone becomes villainous and able-bodied counteract a history of disability-related fail?

    Also, apparently disability is a stand-in for being gay: “In an interview for the DVD release of this story, Briggs said that since at that time it was not considered appropriate to depict a character’s struggle with homosexuality in a family programme, he transformed Turing’s frustration at being unable to express his true sexual identity into Judson’s frustration at being crippled.”

    So, when disabled people represent themselves, they’re sad, pathetic, evil creatures out for revenge against the able-bodied, but if they represet someone else’s experiences, it’s different.

    It seems from your comment you want to just point to an example that isn’t so irritating or upsetting, but your comment comes across as “And thus your argument is invalid”. Is that your point?

  10. Thanks for this.

    In general I love New Who (I’m a huge fan of David Tennant) but I do feel they go for the crippled (deliberately choosing that word, cos that’s how they’re portrayed) = evil trope far too often. And otherwise, disabled people are notable by their absecnce from the Whoverse.

    Beppie – I agree. It’s a problem in the Trek ‘verse as well. Lots of fights, battles, wars. Lots of injuries, but none result in a permanent disability.

  11. I read the title and immediately started laughing. Before I read a word of the post proper, I was already naming off the evil wheel-chair users in my head.

    I love Dr. Who, and Torchwood. I just wish they were better about some things.