How Accessible Is The TARDIS Anyway?

At the end of March I hopped over to Cardiff for the BBC convention, and one of the things that came up was the question of whether we could see a disabled companion in the future. A member of the audience asked Steven Moffat whether he thought there could ever be a wheelchair user like herself as a companion. (Moffat’s answer being ‘sure, why not?’ though clearly it wasn’t something he’d ever given much thought to before.)

Which got to me to thinking about what life would be like in the TARDIS for disabled travellers. Travelling with the Doctor does seem to require the ability to escape from monsters at speed, frequently over the steep inclines found on all the mysteriously quarry-like planets the Doctor is so fond of, but a little futuristic assistive technology could help out with that. I imagine that many wheelchairs, scooters and other mobility aids have the potential to be a little more sonic if so desired. In fact, with all of time and space as your back yard, not to mention a spaceship who can redesign herself, companions do have access to the best the universe has to offer in terms of health care, medication, accessible facilities, assistive devices and anything else that might be of use to them.

I think there’s enormous potential for companions with all kinds of different disabilities, whether they would be a wheelchair user like the woman at the convention or something else. I’d love to see the universe through the eyes of a companion on the autistic spectrum, for instance. I’d also get a huge kick out of there being a companion who, like me, had an invisible illness or two, and had to juggle taking different medications at different times and trying to figure out how on earth you assess the nutritional value of food on alien planets and so on.

All of this would only work out if the character was written by the right person, of course. Doctor Who’s history with portrayals of disability is far from stellar. This is the show that gave us Davros, after all, and during RTD’s tenure actually added to the roster of evil meglomaniacs who use wheelchairs by adding Lumic (Age of Steel/Rise of the Cybermen) and Max (Voyage of the Damned). Moffat gave us Abigail (A Christmas Carol), a terminally ill woman who appears to suffer absolutely no symptoms or discomfort but will simply drop dead – in a tragic yet beautiful fashion I’m sure – on a particular day. (I like Abigail a lot, but the framing of her illness was a Dickensian trope that really didn’t need resurrecting along with the Ghost of Christmas Past, thank you.)

So what would a disabled companion look like, ideally? For a start, they’d be a person and not just a cypher for a very special message about disability.

There are a number of overused tropes regarding disabled people in stories that I’d like to see avoided. Davros, Lumic et al represent one; Abigail another. Then there’s the ‘supercrip’ trope (see s. e. smith’s It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s … SUPERCRIP! for more on that topic) where the character in question is capable of ‘conquering’ their disability with no outward signs of hardship, which frustratingly is yet another way in which the real lives of disabled people are not represented.

Ultimately, I’d want someone whose disability does not define them but is a part of them, something that impacts what they do without dictating it. I’d also want their arc to not be related to their disability, e.g. not something about how miserable their life was before they met the Doctor, or how they are on a quest for a magical cure. I’d also ideally want it to be a real disability, not a sci-fi equivalent that doesn’t really exist, because although those kinds of metaphors in sci-fi definitely have a place in the way we explore diversity and difference, they can also be a way to neatly skirt the messy bits by not having to conform to real world rules.

That’s what I think, anyway. What would a disabled companion look like in your ideal world? How would you like the series to handle it?

15 comments

  1. Kmasca says:

    I’ve always wondered how, in practical terms, the TARDIS translation of Sign Language might work. Would a deaf companion, who signs, be “heard” by hearing TARDIS occupants? And conversely, would their spoken language be translated into signs by the TARDIS?

  2. Jess Banks says:

    If Daleks can fly now, all bets are off–BBC finally has the tech to get those old monsters made of inverted rubbish bins off the ground. :) But I can easily imagine a character like Laura Innes’ from ER doing very well in a companion’s role, and a high-functioning autistic (on the order of the new Sherlock) would be outstanding. I also really like the idea of a deaf companion using the TARDIS as a technological interface–that’s completely brilliant. And hey, weeping angels are no problem for a blind companion. Lots of possibilities, and all of them perfectly in line with the Doctor’s ethos of seeing the value in everyone.

  3. Tom says:

    As an autistic, I’d really rather they didn’t have an autistic companion; I think the chances of them doing it accurately or sensitively would be about nil, and I’m good without any more horrible portrayals of autistics in the media.

    • I hear you. I don’t think the current era of Doctor Who is capable of doing a good representation of ANY kind of (dis)abled companion.

      I wonder if any good fanfic has been done with a (dis)abled companion?

      • Kerry D. says:

        It was a very, very long time ago, but I remember reading a good trilogy of fanfics about a then-future 11th Doctor (it would have been before the new series) and a companion with synaesthesia. I remember little of the details now, but I do remember liking them. I have a feeling one was called “Indigo” but I’m afraid I don’t remember much more.

        Edit 1: Found a link to the titles (http://clarksbury.com/mythmakers/back_issues.html – see the last one on the page). I see the author (Rebecca Anderson) is a published author now, so her fanfic may have been pulled off the net. Still, I remember enjoying the stories.

        Edit 2: You can find them archived on Google from alt.creative.drwho (I said it was a long time ago) if you search the author and titles and add “fanfic” as well.

        Touching Indigo
        Tasting Mozart
        Scent of Yesterday

        I can’t promise I’d find them good today or that they’d suit you; as I say, I just remember them sticking in my mind.

        Sorry this got so long and rambly.

      • Sarah says:

        https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10211304/1/Back-Home

        Great Fanfiction with a companion in a wheelchair.

  4. Damon Lord says:

    Blindness, or partial sight. It was recently touched on I think (poor memory) when Amy couldn’t see as she was being chased by those statue things, but I don’t think it was handled well. A sonic white cane could help though, and at a recent blindness disability aids exhibition I actually saw one demonstrated. SF is aleady becoming reality.

  5. Space Crip says:

    I don’t have any specific impairment in mind, but I’d really like there to be a scene where the Doctor is flitting about trying to make the TARDIS accessible having just invited the new companion aboard and realizing that they cannot get on/stay aboard the TARDIS as is.

    A disabled Doctor would be great. I imagine another character would be bound to ask why they don’t just regenerate and heal themself, and the Doctor would stare at them completely agog.

  6. Ally says:

    Oh my goodness, I LOVE this idea! For one thing, it would be a fantastic opportunity to dispel the whole “person with disability as victim” narrative. I can just see it:

    Doctor: (Offering some alien technology to make the companion able-bodied/neurotypical) I can make you better!
    Companion: I do NOT need you to “make me better”. I am ALREADY the best of myself.

  7. mark says:

    I understand that Tardis accessibility will be the least of the problems for a companion with disabilities – if the objective is to get in a specific place in the Tardis, it is enough to materialize her over the companion in a way that places the traveler in the desired position into the machine, the reverse of the procedure shown in Blink, where Tardis dematerialized leaving people out. Ultimate accessibility technology.

    If course the real problem is when the companion needs to fight Daleks, jump over cliffs, and RUN (the best advice Doctor ever gives).

  8. Damon Lord says:

    What if The Doctor had a disability?

    “I use a wheelchair now. Wheelchairs are cool.”

  9. [...] Just Companions”.  For example: fanart imagining “Time Ladies” instead of Lords; a discussion of TARDIS accessibility for the disabled (“So what would a disabled companion look like, ideally?” asks Amy. [...]

  10. Loki says:

    Sounds good to me! The only tough part might be if the companion requires a lot of prep, meds, etc. Domestics was never really a big part of Doctor Who. For example, it’s only in the Snowmen that we wonder if the TARDIS has a kitchen. So a disabled companion might also help us to look into that sphere of things as well.

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