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?