Doctor Who: The Doctor and Disability
This post presumes you’ve seen Doctor Who up to and including “The Lodger”, which is episode 11 of the current season. Since I know this episode hasn’t aired everywhere yet, I’m going to put it behind a cut tag. I’m also going to distract you with a picture of a kitten.
[I went with the smaller size because otherwise it dominates the page like woah. Anyway, final warning: Here be spoilers.]
I don’t mind telling you that I’ve spent a lot of time watching the new series and cringing, waiting for something to go terribly, horribly wrong. We’ve had two characters show up on the screen with a disability, and neither of them have been evil or horrible, and neither has died valiantly so that more worthy folks can live. It’s been kinda awesome.
Doctor Who is, of course, a kids’ show. I don’t say that to sound disparaging – I plan my whole week around my Doctor Who viewing and discussion time, so I do think it’s for adults and kids, but the original mandate of the show was for kids to watch it and get more interested in history and the like. The Doctor really is supposed to teach us something, which is a small part of why the constant “Disability = scary” message has distressed me.1 It’s not that I just think the show has a responsibility – the show does have one, explicitly mandated by the BBC.
This is why I think the two explicitly disabled characters that have shown up in the new series are very important. One, Elliot, is a kid – a normal kid, who does normal kid things, and then gets kidnapped by “monsters”. He also has dyslexia – not exactly uncommon in both kids and adults. The other character, Vincent van Gogh, is deeply depressed – perhaps even having manic depression.
Elliot’s story is in the two-parter “The Hungry Earth” and “Cold Blood“. We’re first introduced to Elliot when his father is reading to him, trying to get Elliot to start reading himself. Elliot refuses, and it’s soon clear that Elliot has dyslexia.
I admit, at that reveal, I started tensing up. The last fictional media representation of dyslexia I had heard of was in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, where having dyslexia is because of one’s special nature and not just because some people have dyslexia.
Elliot, for once, just has dyslexia. He wasn’t some hidden secret agent from the “monsters” who had dyslexia because his brain was wired to “monster”. It wasn’t so that the Doctor could learn a Very Special Lesson About Dyslexia. It wasn’t because of anything. Elliot has dyslexia because Elliot has dyslexia.
In the second part of the serial, we find Elliot has been put in stasis by the “monsters” in order to study him. “Ack,” I thought. “They’re going to cure him, aren’t they? Oh, child, you are flawed by your human standards, let us give you what you most want in the world!” Certainly that is not an uncommon storyline. But again, Doctor Who both surprised and delighted me by not going there. Instead, there’s no indication that Elliot is changed at all by his experience…. Well, no more than anyone else would be changed by being dragged beneath the Earth’s surface by a reptile-like species.
There is no magical cure. And having dyslexia does not prevent one from going on adventures. It just is. I can’t tell you how much that pleased me.
The second explicitly disabled character is Vincent van Gogh. Vincent’s story is a lot more complicated that Elliot’s, being the main focus of the episode “Vincent and the Doctor” In this episode, the Doctor and his companion, Amy, arrive near the end of Vincent’s life, investigating a strange thing in one of Vincent’s painting. They arrive to find the “greatest painter of them all” disliked and reviled by his community, unable to sell a single painting. They immediately befriend him, the Doctor determined to find the “monster” that was hidden in one of Vincent’s paintings, and Amy determined to help the painter she worships sort out his life.
This episode does a lot of interesting things. Vincent is besieged by an invisible monster that only he can see, that’s killing people in the village and making him even more reviled and hated because people blame “the crazy man” for the killings. Even the Doctor cannot see the monster without a magical do-hickey, and he needs Vincent’s help in order to defeat it. Ultimately, the person who slays the invisible monster is Vincent himself.
As a metaphor for depression and other mental health conditions, an invisible monster that no one else can see to help you fight, and one that makes other people distrustful of you because they can’t see the monster, only what it does, is a pretty good one. I admit to having been a bit uncomfortable with it at first – oh, I see, a monster that only the crazy person can see. How stereotypical. And yet, the episode didn’t really go in that direction. The monster was real, it was serious, and the Doctor couldn’t defeat it – only Vincent could, with the help of others.
But what I also liked about this episode was: Good things don’t make everything better.
Amy spends a lot of time in the episode trying to be cheerful and helpful and make everything better for Vincent. She brings him large amounts of sunflowers. She and the Doctor bring him into the future, so he can see how much people respect and admire his paintings, and hear someone describe him as the greatest painter of all time. She tries so hard to make it all better for him, so that things are different. So he isn’t sad. So he doesn’t kill himself.
But she can’t change what’s already happened.
While she’s crying, the Doctor says:
The way I see it, life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.
Depression, like other mental health conditions, doesn’t magically go away because “things are better now”. It’s something that people live with every day. Those of us with mental health conditions are not going to get magically better, although we may have an easier time or a harder time depending on circumstances. But it doesn’t go away.
I really appreciate that Doctor Who said that, so clearly.
I hope there is more like this, and soon.
- Torchwood, of course, is not a kids’ show. The only way to make Torchwood a kids’ show would be to cut every scene that isn’t swooping shots of Cardiff. ↩