D-Day for the Doctor: Of Davies, Daleks and that Disability issue…

WHO turns 60, but Russell T. Davies' otherwise pitch-perfect promotion has caused some consternation...

Doctor Who fans are great, lovely, inclusive and generous. It also has to be acknowledged that they can also be a volatile bunch. To be fair, almost any long-existing television fandom has its disagreements and opposing sub-sections: passionate viewpoints and loyalties that stretch from worthy and deep subject-matter and philosophical interpretation to minor details of continuity and trouble with quibbles. And the adventures in time and space of a Gallifreyan outcast who tries their to solve problems with two hearts and wit – rather than space-bazookas and firepower (and is also mere hours away from a 60th birthday) is bound to generate diverse and disparate opinions about all such aspects.

After recent years – when the show’s publicity department seems stripped back to bare minimums and the creative choices (under Chris Chibnall) certainly created some online consternation – Russell T Davies has stormed back in like a whirling dervish, returning to the show-running role he originally commanded when he brought the classic BBC show swirling into the (then) modern era of 2005. With it, Davies has brought a maelstrom of smart promotion. Since the announcement of his return, there’s barely been a couple of weeks without something to talk about.  Gatwa’s in. Wait…Tennant’s back! Tate’s back! Is that a Meep? How many episodes? Hold on… THREE specials? A whole WHOniverse? Be still both our beating hearts.  Though the proof of the Thanksgiving pudding is in the eating and a majority of reviews won’t appear until The Star Beast has been let loose, it did look as if even the most cautious of Whovians were feeling all was right with what was left of the universe.

Bonus… a five minute short, Destination: Skaro, was aired as part of the Children in Need 2023 telethon and the news of its arrival did nothing to satiate the masses. The first real singular appearance of Tennant’s definitely-not-the-Tenth-Doctor – excellent! Skaro, you say? Daleks… but, of course. And Davros!

For Davies to say he has more interest in a pre-Genesis Davros seems enticing, and I’m sure that’s his reasoning – to boldly go where the character hasn’t gone before and for the best of intentions – is his wider intent. But to bluntly say that in this day and age that an existing character MUST not have a disability because they will be judged badly, is only an argument for better writing and diversity and exploration of the issue. Shine that spotlight, don’t turn it off.

Once again Davros was essayed by Julian Bleach, the man who had been behind the prosthetics of the Daleks creator’s modern appearances, but now giving us an interpretation of the scientist before the accident that gave us the iconic version first glimpsed in 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks. In that previous form, back in the Tom Baker era, Davros (then played by Michael Wisher) was a wrinkled, possibly burned and damaged scientist whose dreams of galactic dominion had made him create an armoured shell for select members of the Kaled race – a Mark III Travel Machine that resembled and extended his own transportation vehicle and would save them from devolution and radioactive misery. Stripping out all emotions apart from the need to ‘exterminate‘ anything that was inferior, Davros intended to make them the most feared race in the galaxy. Ask anyone who has been watching the show since at least those Tom Baker years and Davros will likely remain seen as one of the show’s most iconic villains.

The Children in Need short went down well…taking us (and a newly minted David Tennant)  back to a time before ‘Genesis…‘ with the Tardis’ unruly arrival taking out part of the prototype travellator and the Time Lord replacing the multi-dexterous claw with the infamous plunger. Bleach was every bit as menacing as you’d want – walking the line between pantomine villainy and cold, sterile menace. See? Both dark foreshadowing and slightly cynical, wry irony – ah, old style Doctor Who is back!

Then the BBC iPlayer played the first edition of the new ‘Unleashed‘, which goes behind the scenes. Everyone involved talked about their involvement and ideas going forward. Double Bonus!

And that’s when one portion of the interwebs applauded and one let out a collective ‘Wait, what..?‘ as Davies stated:

Time and society and culture and taste has moved on. And there’s a problem with the Davros of old in that he’s a wheelchair user, who is evil. And I had problems with that. And a lot of us on the production team had problems with that, of associating disability with evil. And trust me, there’s a very long tradition of this…

And the internet cracked.

I’ll put my hand up – I was in the demographic that was immediately troubled by the phrasing. The thing is, I don’t disagree with 90% of what Davies has said or done. He’s utterly right that fiction (and in particular the screen) has tended to equate disability with danger and degeneration. For not mere years, but decades and literal centuries, it was easy to depict the villains as wretched and deformed, as scarred and twisted on the outside as they were on the inside. Captain Hook! Richard IIIThe Lion King‘s Scar, for heaven’s sake! Societies evolve and change, hopefully maturing in some ways in their outlook and inner visions as they experience the ‘other’ and find it far less frightening than they’d been told; hopefully not erasing the past or pretending it never happened, but certainly seeing it with a more informed and educated eye. But, yes, that connection can still linger in examples of overt disdain and sometimes in equally flawed good intentions. I applaud the dramatic representation for any demographic that’s been misrepresented as long as it’s done in a decent dramatic way… basically as long as the preaching doesn’t overshadow the performance. And, personally, I’ve always liked those creators that wrong-foot their audience, who reveal at just the right moment that our preconceptions were just that and that it’s the beautiful, graceful, persuasive and outwardly divine that can be just as dangerous when its conceit can make people do the worst things in its name. I like it when people choose to subvert the subtext and tradition.

Sure, Davies’ idea to bring us a Davros that isn’t in the ‘wheelchair’, yet is still a genocidal supremacist is an interesting interpretation worthy of exploration: the ‘How we got here…‘ rather than the ‘How it’s going…‘ if you will. Despite a few bristles about established continuity (which given Doctor Who‘s track-record, could be sorted with some creative thought and the brush of a quill/keyboard), examining a time between his rise to influence before Genesis of the Daleks is a fascinating, mostly untouched-on-screen era.  It is the through-the-mirror-darkly equivalent to Star Trek‘s mega-successful launch of Strange New Worlds about an active captain (Christopher Pike) we’d only previously seen in similar crippled and post-injury status. Anson Mount makes that character fully alive even with the audience (and the character) aware of events still to come. It’s thinking both outside of the box and outside the travellator. Bravo. And, back in the Whoniverse,  you don’t have to humanise Davros too far or even follow the post-modern trend of turning villains into misunderstood heroes to make it work.

But while he rightfully points out that it’s entirely possible to still go and watch Genesis… and other episodes whenever you want (so it’s not being erased or completely ‘out of print’), I don’t think Davies is cleverly subverting the text either.

Because of this:

…the Davros of old in that he’s a wheelchair user, who is evil. And I had problems with that.

In that one sentence Davies, at least for me, tries to explain his admirable inclusive stance and simultaneously undermines it. In those words, HE is the one linking the wheelchair with evil, not most of the audience. Yes, some kids in the playground of the 1970s might well have been unkind (I work with children every day and the little cherubs can sometimes put a lot of effort into finding new ways to be as cruel as they are generous) but I’m not sure, with his limited appearances this entire century, that ‘Davros’ is any kind of widespread insult in need of righteous extermination. Davies is a well-known, valuable champion of diversity and has sound understanding of equalities (or lack thereof) about the under-dog. But it’s a little surprising that he doesn’t take the stance that disabilities should be, indeed must be seen as no real source of division… on either side of the equation. If we are to take it seriously as we should – we must acknowledge and embrace the fact that some people are unmitigated assholes and, by that reasoning, some disabled people are unmitigated assholes too.  (And, yes, a rare few of those assholes are also meglamaniacal cosmic bad-guys). Moving away from the classic Davros is not the same as moving beyond it. To take one of Who fandom’s other notable grumbles, there’s an important distinction between saying ‘Having the Doctor being played by a woman gives us a new avenue of storylines that we can explore going forward‘ (which is true) and ‘The Doctor MUST be played by a woman because the character’s always been played by a man and that’s not acceptable anymore ‘ (which is not). It’s fine in the creative abstract, less comfortable and just as bad if presented as the absolute.

Listen, to me Davros was never a character defined by a physical disability, not even a man imprisoned by his mobility issues. Even as kid, I genuinely never thought of him as being ‘in a wheelchair’, more like some cool, sinister yet enigmatic cool villain with a Mekon-like chariot – restricted more by his boo-hiss mind-set than lack of lower limbs. He was, let’s be honest, a thinly-disguised Space Nazi, arguably a Mengele rather than a Hitler, a man (or a ‘Kaled’) whose desire for supremacy allowed him to kill, subjugate and sociopathically experiment upon those he deemed unworthy in pursuit of his goals…. and in a primetime family show to boot! He blueprinted his creations in his own image in war-armour that was designed to take them to the stars (if not, for a long while, up the stairs they found there).

I have no problem in watching a Davies story with an upright, fully-mobile Davros, chronicling his early days. Again, it’s potential dramatic catnip. But to me, the argument that Davros shouldn’t, on a societal/moral level, be seen again in a wheelchair just because the character is a bad guy completely misunderstands the equation and resonates as much as suggesting that the Cybermen are some affront to prosthetics. Sure, it’s one way to look at it, but should it be the prevailing one that sideswipes the controversy. Certainly, Davies can decide to (is in a position to and has every right to) shape the series as he sees fit as its showrunner… and science-fiction as a genre has always been a way to explore no end of issues with a twist and a twinkle that Davies has a history of providing. Yet the way to address a balance is not to eradicate one side of the scale but to equally represent the other. We already know that there’s a new supporting character, UNIT specialist Shirley Anne Bingham is joining the ranks (played by Ruth Madeley) and wouldn’t it be good to have both ‘good’ and ‘evil’ represented to underline the fact that mobility isn’t the issue? So far, reaction to Davies’ comments – from both those who are able-bodied and/or with some physical disabilities has been mixed and that, in itself, proves the point.

For Davies to say he has more interest in a pre-Genesis Davros seems enticing, and I’m sure that’s his reasoning – to boldly go where the character hasn’t gone before and for the best of intentions –  is his wider intent. But to bluntly say that in this day and age that an existing character MUST not have a disability because they will be judged badly is only an argument for better writing and diversity and exploration of the issue. Shine that spotlight, don’t turn it off.

As, always, though, it will all be in the execution and I’ll still be watching to see…