Envying the Daleks

In her latest column, Victoria Brignell mourns the hours that pass without the beloved Doctor who ma

For the last few weeks I, together with thousands of other people, have been suffering from an uncomfortable and distressing condition. It’s known in medical circles as Doctor Who withdrawal syndrome (DWWS).

Yes, dear reader, I thought it was about time I 'came out' as a Doctor Who fan. Series 3 reached its grand finale in June and now all I have to keep me going are the BBC3 repeats and the occasional tantalising titbit of information regarding the content of the Christmas special or the next series. (I’m delighted to hear that Geoffrey Palmer will be among the actors taking part.)

I am a relatively recent convert to this cult. As a child, I watched the odd episode in the era of Peter Davidson’s Doctor but it didn’t make a huge impression on me and frankly I was too young to properly understand the plots. However, since Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper graced our screens in the first episode of the revived series back in 2005, I’ve been an ardent and regular worshipper at the altar of Doctor Who.

These days my models of the Tardis and K9 have pride of place on top of a cabinet in my bedroom, next to a print of Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks – there’s an interesting juxtaposition. (Incidentally, the National Gallery paid £22 million for their Raphael. Mine cost 70p).

What’s more, I’m proud to say I can even spot most of the in-jokes in the scripts. For example, in the latest series, when a human version of the Doctor says his parents’ names are Sidney and Verity, I knew it was a reference to the creators of Doctor Who, Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert. And I am well aware that the scene in this year’s episode The Sound of Drums where the Master is shown watching the Teletubbies, alludes to a 1972 story The Sea Devils that featured the Master watching a clip of the Clangers.

As a wheelchair user, I am particularly interested whenever disability makes an appearance. Doctor Who afficionados will correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that the first disabled character in the series was the scientist Dortmun in the 1960s.

He was a member of the resistance during one of the early Dalek invasions of Earth. Fearing that he was hindering his colleagues’ efforts, he discarded his wheelchair and crutch and decided to fight a group of Daleks on his own. Not surprisingly, he was annihilated almost instantly – either a supreme example of self-sacrifice or a naïve and pointless gesture, depending on your point of view. (It reminds me somewhat of that classic Beyond the Fringe sketch in which an army general says to one of his troops, “Perkins, I want you to lay down your life. We need a futile gesture at this point in the war.”)

Disabled people are not always portrayed as heroes, thank goodness. In series two of the revived Doctor Who, talented actor Roger Lloyd Pack plays an evil wheelchair-using scientist, John Lumic, who decides that human beings should be 'upgraded' from vulnerable, mortal flesh to Cybermen, incapable of feeling emotions and pain. He sets about forming an army of these seemingly indestructible metal warriors with the aim of taking over the world. Inevitably, the Doctor thwarts Lumic’s plan and he meets a suitably dramatic and grisly demise.

The most recent character to use a wheelchair is the Doctor himself. Towards the end of the last series, the Doctor comes up against his old enemy, the Master (brilliantly played by John Simm). When they eventually come face to face, the Master gains control over his adversary by using a laser screwdriver to turn the Doctor into a frail, elderly man. Later, the Doctor is depicted sitting in a wheelchair and we see the Master humiliating him by pushing him around in circles, to the accompaniment of pop music. It’s a scene which cleverly highlights the Doctor’s powerlessness and the Master’s domination over him.

Of course, the Doctor’s most famous opponents are the Daleks and being a wheelchair user has certainly affected my attitude towards them. Most viewers find them frightening but when I see them, I can’t help feeling a touch of envy. A Dalek shell is essentially a very sophisticated mobility aid. Daleks are actually weak, physically-impaired octopus-like creatures but when they are installed in their Dalek casing, they become invincible. Daleks are even able to climb stairs simply by saying the word “levitate” – an ability any wheelchair user would be over the moon to acquire.

Although Roger Lloyd Pack is able-bodied, over the years Doctor Who has pioneered the use of disabled actors. Who could forget Nabil Shaban’s notable portrayal of Sil, a monster that looked like a giant slug? And the series has also provided roles for actors with restricted growth such as Mr Sin and, more recently, Moxx of Balhoon.

Perhaps one of the reasons why I enjoy watching Doctor Who is the distinctive message of inclusion the programme sends out. As Christopher Eccleston reportedly said, "The Doctor is…completely non-judgmental. He accepts everything and everyone, whether they’re black or blue, gay or straight. If he meets an alien, his first reaction is not revulsion, but joy. He celebrates life in all its forms, shades, colours and creeds."

Let’s face it, only in Doctor Who could you find a 1930’s New York cabaret singer called Tallulah choosing to form a relationship with a man so facially disfigured by the Daleks that he resembles a pig (as happened in the episode “The evolution of the Daleks” this year). The Doctor doesn’t regard diversity as a problem but as a concept to be welcomed and valued. That’s a philosophy which potentially benefits everyone, and not just disabled people like myself.

Victoria Brignell
September 2007

Victoria Brignell works as a radio producer with the BBC. After reading classics at Downing College, Cambridge, she undertook journalism training at Cardiff University. She lives in West London and is 30 years old and is a tetraplegic wheelchair-user.