Sam Sheppard examines disability and in particular deafness in Doctor Who and in his own experiences as a fan. First published in The Tides of Time number 42, November 2018.
“LIFE”, AS THE NEWLY-REGENERATED DOCTOR OBSERVED IN THE POWER OF THE DALEKS, “DEPENDS ON CHANGE AND RENEWAL”. Doctor Who itself has proven this, time and time again, and Series 11 is no exception. I’ve been reminded of that strange and exciting time when I, as a much younger fan, witnessed the handover from Russell T Davies to Steven Moffat; however, the latest series of Doctor Who has marked an even more striking transformation. Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who feels like a very different show. What has gathered the most attention is, of course, the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, but it’s worth noting that this series has broken new ground in other ways.
In fact, it offers a timely reminder of the power of representation. It can be exciting and empowering to encounter characters whose journeys reflect your own, and there are many people for whom that experience is frustratingly rare. As a disabled person, I’m one of those people. The Woman Who Fell to Earth introduced us to Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), the first dyspraxic character in the show’s history, let alone companion. The episode clearly addressed Ryan’s dyspraxia – showing his difficulty with tasks such as riding a bike or climbing ladders – and this was appreciated.
Browsing social media in the days after The Woman Who Fell to Earth was first broadcast, I encountered a range of responses which made it clear that Ryan’s difficulties in riding a bike resonated with dyspraxic and neurodivergent fans. I could certainly understand the excitement of those who identified with Ryan, for two reasons. Firstly, a few years ago, I was diagnosed with a slight form of dyspraxia: although I can ride a bike, dyspraxia has still affected my motor skills in certain areas. Secondly, the online response to Ryan reminded me of the way I felt in 2015, when Under the Lake/Before the Flood hit our screens.
It seems that Under the Lake and Before the Flood were not popular episodes, and I personally found them somewhat underwhelming. However, I can still appreciate that they gave us something very important: Cass, the first deaf character in the history of the show. I’ve been profoundly deaf since birth, and it’s difficult to deny that positive representation of deaf people in popular culture is inexcusably rare. Indeed, it’s often the case that deaf people are not treated with the respect which we deserve. Many refer to deafness as an “invisible” disability, meaning that a deaf person’s disability isn’t immediately apparent in the same way that, say, blindness or physical impairment are. As a consequence, deaf people often struggle with the problem of accessibility because they aren’t provided with the necessary accommodations. It’s also been noted that many people find it easier to joke about deafness than other disabilities. If you see a deaf character in popular culture, it’s likely to be an elderly person whose hearing impairment is played for laughs. Honestly, I’d struggle to come up with examples of deaf characters I actually found relatable (the one notable exception being David, Charles’ deaf brother in Four Weddings and a Funeral). Consequently, it was amazing to see a character like Cass in Doctor Who.
Cass is a deaf character who is presented as practical and competent. Her deafness doesn’t prevent her from taking charge of the situation. Rather, she appears as an authority figure who is even able to stand up to the Doctor: “I can’t force you to leave, so you can stay and do the whole cabin in the woods thing and get killed or drowned, if you want. But my first priority is to protect my crew.” Nobody questions her reliance on British Sign Language (BSL) or her need for an interpreter. What’s especially impressive is that Cass was played by Sophie Stone, a deaf actress (indeed, the first deaf actress to study at RADA). Writing in March 2005, shortly before Doctor Who returned to our screens, the disabled comedian Laurence Clark examined the treatment of disabled characters in classic Who. He brought up examples including Davros and Dr Judson, both played by able bodied actors. He ended the article by asking: “…wouldn’t it be good to have some disabled actors playing actual disabled characters in the new series?” Ten years after Clark’s article, Doctor Who offered Cass, a disabled character played by a disabled actor. This was, of course, a big step forward. Doctor Who gave me a deaf character in whom I could actually see myself.
Of course, the portrayal of Cass wasn’t absolutely perfect. For one thing, I was slightly annoyed by the flippant way in which the Doctor declared he’d “deleted” his knowledge of BSL, as though it wasn’t particularly important. More importantly, I was troubled by the final scenes, in which it’s revealed that Lunn, the interpreter, is in love with Cass. The idea of a deaf person having a romantic relationship with their interpreter seems unprofessional and inappropriate to me, and – while I’m not really qualified to comment on this, personally – the revelation is arguably indicative of compulsory heterosexuality.
It’s also worth noting that Cass is presented as a non-verbal character who relies exclusively on BSL. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, of course; there are many non-verbal deaf people in real life. The problem, however, is that Cass is, to date, the only deaf character in Doctor Who. One character is not enough to represent an entire community (and the same can be said of any minority group). There is a lot of variation among deaf people, particularly in terms of our hearing levels and the accommodations which we require. Some deaf people use hearing aids or cochlear implants, and others do not; indeed, I believe Sophie Stone uses a hearing aid in real life, although she removed it for the filming. Some deaf people rely on sign language more than others; some, such as myself, will supplement sign language with speech. While Cass is a great character, I really wouldn’t want an audience to think that all deaf people are like Cass.
In particular, I was concerned by the emphasis which the episodes placed on Cass’ ability to lipread. It’s true that many people have praised the writing on the basis that Cass’ deafness is incidental to the plot, but it remains the case that her lip-reading becomes something which is useful in advancing the plot. Certainly, Toby Whithouse admitted in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that the character was initially born out of necessity; he “needed a character who could lip read”. Therefore, I can’t help but worry that Whithouse’s script reinforces the stereotypical perception that all deaf people are good at lip-reading. This is definitely not the case. Lip-reading is a very difficult skill to master, and I myself hardly ever use it. In fact, I’m often annoyed when people ask me whether I can lip read, because this creates (whether intentionally or not) an expectation that I’ll carry out most or all of the hard work needed to maintain communication between myself and a non-deaf person.
Taking all this into account, it can be concluded that Under the Lake/Before the Flood offers a portrayal of a deaf character which is fairly strong, but still flawed. However, I can still appreciate the fact that Cass was included at all. Throughout my life, deafness has affected the way I consume media. When I was very young, for instance, I enjoyed watching Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, and I think this was partly because it felt more accessible than other children’s programmes. The stories were simple and easy to follow from the visuals alone, and the characters were represented by resin figurines or engines with static facial expressions – meaning that there were no lip movements to read. Even as I’ve grown up, deafness has continued to shape the way I consume and react to my favourite shows, including Doctor Who.
For instance, Big Finish’s audio productions – which form a big part of the fandom experience for a lot of people – are completely inaccessible to me, excepting those stories for which I can obtain scripts. This can be difficult or expensive; for example, I was only able to obtain a script for The Kingmaker because I got lucky and happened to meet somebody who could put me directly in touch with the author, Nev Fountain. More significantly, I almost always need subtitles to watch videos, films and television shows. As a Doctor Who fan, I’m often unable to watch things like trailers, fan videos, or interviews because they aren’t subtitled. In fact, this problem was one of the most important reasons why I became a fan to begin with.
I remember how, a long time ago (in 2007, I think), UKTV Gold were showing episodes of classic Doctor Who. I watched these with interest, and I can still remember seeing scenes like the Fourth Doctor trying to confuse the K1 Robot by putting his hat on it (Robot) or the android Sarah giving herself away by drinking ginger pop (The Android Invasion). However, the episodes were shown without subtitles and my mum had to offer a signed translation. I was interested enough in the episode that I asked for DVDs, so that I could watch classic Who with subtitles. This was probably my first major step towards becoming a fan, and it wasn’t the first time deafness would have a unique impact on my fandom experience. When I first joined the Oxford Doctor Who Society in 2015, I was nervous about having to ask the society that they screen Doctor Who episodes with subtitles; hearing people often regard subtitles as a nuisance. However, the society was happy to comply, and I still remember the occasion when Revelation of the Daleks was shown in ‘80s week – the room burst out laughing when the subtitles labelled the voice of the Tranquil Repose computer as “SEXY COMPUTER VOICE”.
I would emphasise that my deafness is an integral part of my identity, and, in many ways, I value the relationship I’ve had with Doctor Who. That’s largely why I felt so excited when Cass appeared on our screens, and I hope that Ryan will have the same impact on dyspraxic and neurodivergent people as Cass had on myself. Furthermore, I also hope that these characters will lead to the appearance of more disabled characters in Doctor Who. This is an area in which the show has historically been lacking. There have been instances of disabled actors, such as Nabil Shaban or Tim Barlow, playing non-disabled characters. Regrettably, Doctor Who has also followed mass media in associating disability with the evil and strange, marking it as something distinctively and worryingly “Other” (think of characters like Davros or John Lumic). It would be much appreciated if the show could override this trend and build on the precedent set by Cass or Ryan. Who knows – perhaps one day we could see a deaf companion?