New ‘Doctor Who’ specials give me hope for disability representation

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by Sherry Toh |

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In retrospect, my girlfriend must’ve been laughing at the ridiculous glee in my texts.

“DISABILITY REPRESENTATION!” I practically shrieked at her, my fingers almost tripping over my keyboard. We were watching the first of the three 60th-anniversary “Doctor Who” specials together, though we live time zones apart. (She’s in in Texas while I’m in Singapore.) “THERE’S DISABILITY REPRESENTATION!!!”

I’d anxiously anticipated these specials for a year, having become a fan of the British time-traveling sci-fi series in 2013, when the 50th anniversary was around the corner. My excitement was further heightened when it was announced that Russell T Davies, who ran the show from 2005 to 2010, would return to its helm.

I’d found his version of the show online in 2013, and he quickly became one of my favorite storytellers for his consistent ability to create unique and complex characters — a quality I felt was missing at times after his departure. Now that the show’s lore had changed under his successors and it’d gained financial backing from Disney+, I was curious to see how else he’d tackle “Doctor Who.”

I didn’t expect that one of the first things Davies would introduce in his new run would be a disabled character.

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Once the initial shock subsided and my poor girlfriend had confirmed I was seeing a disabled woman on my screen, the writer part of my brain started taking stock.

The character’s name is Shirley Anne Bingham. She’s in a wheelchair, the slight tilt of her hip suggesting she has scoliosis, as I do, and she’s played by an actually disabled actress, Ruth Madeley. Davies gave her a position of authority as a scientific adviser. Her introductory scene shows she’s insightful and empathetic as she banters with the eponymous Doctor — my favorite and one of the most beloved incarnations of the shape-changing alien, played by David Tennant (who left the show with Davies in 2010 and returned for the three anniversary specials).

Disabled characters aren’t all that rare in “Doctor Who.” The Doctor themself, an ancient time-traveler who’s lived through countless wars, displays symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. One of their recent human companions, Ryan Sinclair, had dyspraxia, a disorder that affects movement and coordination. In 2018, blind actress Ellie Wallwork was featured as a guest star in a moving episode about grief between a father and daughter. These are merely recent examples at the top of my head.

While contemplating writing about Shirley for my column, I discovered that Davies isn’t new to writing disabled characters. He’d worked with Madeley on “Years and Years,” a 2019 miniseries co-produced by HBO and the BBC. When Davies saw her audition tape for the character Rosie Lyons, he rewrote the part to incorporate Madeley’s spina bifida, a condition in which the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly.

Despite all of this, I was gobsmacked by Shirley’s inclusion and how wonderful the character was. That’s how starved I am for disability representation. Without me spoiling too much, she saves the Doctor and shoots missiles from her wheelchair! Her disability is a part of her; it doesn’t stop her from being badass. In fact, I’d argue it makes her more awesome. She’s taken seriously. She’s never an object of pity. She simply is.

So few disabled roles are like hers.

From the past to the present to the future

As someone who’s dreamed of becoming an actress since she was a little girl and who recently auditioned for a local TV drama in Singapore, I had tears in my eyes when seeing Madeley as Shirley. After all of my childhood naiveté faded, I resigned myself to the reality of ableism running deep within our society and arts sectors. I gave up hoping for change and dreaming I might play someone as badass as Shirley one day.

Until watching Shirley, the closest thing I’d had to “good” disability representation that I could identify with was the character of Yennefer of Vengerberg from Netflix’s “The Witcher.” She, too, was a complex badass who had scoliosis. But she was ultimately cured of her disability, whereas Shirley seems to have embraced hers. “Doctor Who” and Davies prove we can do better.

I’ll end with a quote from an open letter written by the Ruderman Family Foundation and co-signed by Madeley in 2020, urging Hollywood to cast more disabled actors as disabled characters:

“Twenty-percent of the world’s population has some type of visible or invisible disability, making this community the largest minority in the world. Yet people with disabilities are systematically excluded from opportunities for social and economic mobility.

“Now is the time to change the conversation. Hollywood can play a significant role in driving socioeconomic progress for people with disabilities. The entertainment industry must embrace disability as a key facet of diversity and can help normalize disability, erasing the stigma that surrounds it.”

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