Doctor Who

Doctor Who’s Davros reinvention is crucial for disabled fans

Russell T Davies made clear that the change was a conscious decision to move away from troubling tropes.

The image depicts Julian Bleach as Davros, with a stern expression, and Mawaan Rizwan as Mr. Castavillian, both in dark sci-fi uniforms against a backdrop with illuminated panels from "Doctor Who"

The decision made by Russell T Davies to change the appearance of malevolent evil-doer Davros in Doctor Who to remove the scarring and wheelchair use is so significant for disabled fans across past, present, and future generations.

As a disabled child growing up with Doctor Who, I was instantly drawn to the mysterious and chilling character of Davros; from the moment he appeared on screen, his presence captivated and unsettled me.

But as I matured, an unsettling feeling of unease crept into my consciousness. I couldn’t get rid of the idea that Davros and countless other Doctor Who villains, such as John Lumic (Roger Lloyd Pack), another wheelchair user, fell into a troubling trope that profoundly impacted me and others.

As a character, Davros embodies a particular trope that has been present in storytelling for centuries. It is the notion that a character’s moral and physiological nature are intrinsically linked. This idea is as universal as it is old. It suggests that physical disability is telling of inherently villainous or tragic characteristics, strengthening the harmful notion that disabled individuals are somehow flawed, lesser or tainted.

My memories of Doctor Who are of the good sometimes mingled too tightly with the bad.

Colin Baker as the Doctor and Terry Molloy as Davros in Revelation of the Daleks (© RadioTimes Archive/Don Smith)
Colin Baker as the Doctor and Terry Molloy as Davros in Revelation of the Daleks. RadioTimes Archive/Don Smith

The power of the trope can be felt before it is fully understood or seen – disabled people feel it in the way we’re taken apart and put back together again. Our experience of the prejudice and stigma such ideas provoke is still fraught and muddy – a mess of feelings.

Over time, you could gradually watch the light behind my eyes change from innocent devotion to betrayal. For years, Doctor Who had told me, unwittingly, something was wrong with me.

But recently, Doctor Who returned to screens with a particular scene featuring Davros, who was played once again by Julian Bleach, without a wheelchair or scarring – and while viewers might have thought that it was simply because this special scene was set before the accident that left the character scarred and needing a support unit and means of mobility, Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies has clarified that it was a conscious attempt to consider the sometimes uncomfortable history of the show, and broader society, and how it ought to evolve.

On the new BBC Three companion series Doctor Who: Unleashed, Davies said: “We had long conversations about bringing Davros back, because he’s a fantastic character, [but] 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.”

I had tears in my eyes as I watched a man I admire utter these words; it was cathartic. But I wish they had been spoken earlier by someone who looked, moved or talked like me.

Many have now risen to address and denounce these former practices and, as Davies further comments: “I say, this is how we see Davros now, this is what he looks like. This is 2023. This is our lens. This is our eye. Things used to be black and white, they’re not in black and white anymore, and Davros used to look like that and he looks like this now, and that we are absolutely standing by.”

Their voices resonate with a generation searching for validation because we’ve been told for so long that our concerns, feelings, and unease don’t matter.

However, changing how Davros was portrayed elicited strong emotions from many fans, who quickly expressed their displeasure. Many argued that they had never perceived Davros as a wheelchair user and believed the character should remain untouched.

But this reaction misses a critical point. The significance of altering Davros’s image lies in the experience of disabled viewers. It is about allowing them to watch and engage with the show without feeling a creeping unease, without that early recognition that they are being othered by their heroes or condemned even in other worlds.

One Doctor Who fan shared their perspective on social media, stating that the change in Davros’s portrayal had “ruined” their childhood. I encourage anyone who shares this sentiment to consider the impact of a consistent stream of disabled villains on disabled children. What it teaches them about their bodies and minds – what it puts in their imaginations.

Russell T Davies wearing a chequered shirt and dark blazer
Russell T Davies. Eamonn M McCormack/Getty Images

While it is crucial to avoid removing disabilities or attempting to “fix” disabled characters, their histories, their narratives or their identities, Davros, being an archetypal villain, exists in that form only to feed on prejudice and misconceptions. As Dr Kirsty Liddiard from the University of Sheffield puts it, these characters must be more than the “sum of their impairments”.

Past, present, and future generations of Doctor Who fans will feel the impact of this change. It allows for more inclusive and representative storytelling, where disabled individuals are seen as equals, and their voices and feelings are listened to – it’s also a moment of validation, of catharsis, for those of us told that our feelings of unease didn’t and still don’t matter.

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