Daleks and Disableism: Steven Moffat on Mental Illness

Posted on September 4, 2012 by | 89 Comments

The character Davros, taken from the 2008 series of Doctor who.

Davros: with the right attitude, anyone can fight an interstellar war.

With the start of a new series of Doctor Who comes the inevitable unpicking of writer and producer Steven Moffat’s perceived attitudes and prejudices. Other feminist bloggers will no doubt have plenty to say on fetish boots, throwaway comments about bisexuality, and the extent to which Amy Pond’s behaviour is dictated by her reproductive system, so I’m going to put the gender analysis to one side briefly to talk about the other problematic aspect of Asylum of the Daleks: how it deals with mental illness.

Although the Doctor Who team showed that they could approach mental illness in a sensitive and constructive way in the 2010 episode Vincent and The Doctor, the programme’s track record on disability issues isn’t great, and disabled characters seem to be disproportionately represented amongst the villains. Davros, the creator of the Daleks (who has appeared regularly since the 1970s), is visibly disabled, and uses an electric wheelchair and artificial eye which give him the appearance of a prototype Dalek. Sinister adaptive technology is also found in the 2006 episode The Rise of the Cybermen, where the Cybermen are created from technology that was built to prolong the life of terminally ill John Lumic. In recent years we’ve also seen a version of The Doctor’s Time Lord nemesis The Master who is driven to evil acts by the drumming that he constantly hears in his head.

Throughout Asylum of the Daleks, Moffat seems rely on stereotypes about mental illness, and shows a lack of tact in discussing the subject. Within the first few minutes, The Doctor has described the asylum planet as “… a dumping ground. A planet where you lock up all the Daleks that go wrong…”, and its inhabitants as “a tsunami of insane Daleks”. This kind of language is usually considered inappropriate and offensive when discussing mental health, but here it’s used without challenge in one of the BBC’s most popular programmes, and for many viewers, it will reinforce the idea that this attitude is acceptable. If the episode can draw flippant comments about “demented Daleks” from a TV critic at the normally right-on Guardian, then we can probably assume that plenty of other people will have got the impression that it’s okay to use these terms too.

The Daleks’ attitude towards the asylum planet also reinforces the idea that mental illness is something to be feared. The Daleks are terrified of the asylum, and they’re Daleks – permanently angry, genocidal bastards. They’re so afraid of what they see as a serious threat to Dalek-kind that they ask their mortal enemy The Doctor to “save the Daleks”, and he’s worried enough to go along with the plan. The implication is that since Daleks are scary, and mental illness is scary, then mentally ill Daleks must be really, really scary.

However the reality of the asylum planet isn’t as terrifying as we’ve been led to believe, and rather than being violent, the Asylum Daleks are almost comically easy to defeat. The only noticeable difference between the “normal” Daleks and the “insane” ones is that those in the asylum are slower, easily outwitted, and not very good at exterminating things. Moffat doesn’t really explain what it is about these Daleks that makes them “insane”, which leaves it open to misinterpretation. Is it their anger and tendency towards violence – which, although abnormal to us, would be normal for a Dalek – or the fact that they’re generally a bit rubbish at killing? Either explanation would reinforce a negative stereotype, but even worse is the idea that it’s the mechanical faults which some of the Daleks appear to have (even though the mechanical parts are just a piece of technology used as armour and transport, and not the Dalek itself), because that would implies that other forms of disability can be equated with insanity. For the record, I don’t think this wasn’t Moffat’s intention, but it’s plausible that some viewers might have interpreted it like that, particularly if it reinforces their existing beliefs.

There’s always going to be at least one smart-arse who thinks I’m wasting my time analysing the semiotics of a sci-fi series because it’s just a story – but there’s no such thing as “just a story”. Fiction, and in particular, science fiction, has often used to explore difficult issues because it’s more comfortable than addressing them in a realistic setting. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (often considered to be the first science fiction novel) isn’t really a story about a man who builds a monster in a lab, but a discussion of how to define humanity. Fiction can also give us insights into the society that created it, and at a time when disabled people are under attack from the government and the media, and are increasingly victims of hate-crime in their own communities, it’s difficult to see this as just a story about a hero going off to fight some baddies.

The Daleks are supposed to represent the worst aspects of humanity – war, eugenics, genocide: all the awful things that the Daleks have done in Doctor Who, humans did first in the real world – and in this episode, their attitude towards the “insane” Daleks has a direct parallel with current human behaviour. The reason that the Daleks in the asylum have been allowed to live is because the others see their condition as beautiful and inspiring, but they’re sent to the asylum because the others don’t want the inconvenience of dealing with them on a day-to-day basis. Just as some of us might romanticise the “creativity” of mentally ill artists, or praise the “bravery” of paralympians, then insist that the government pays out too much in disability benefits. Perhaps inadvertently, Moffat has given us a painfully honest picture of our society’s attitude towards disability. If fiction holds up a mirror to reality, then in this case, the reflection looking back at us has a glowing blue eyestalk.

 

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Comments

89 Responses to “Daleks and Disableism: Steven Moffat on Mental Illness”

  1. EmmetNo Gravatar
    September 4th, 2012 @ 10:37 am

    Excellent piece. I was reminded on the unusual trope of having pop starlets cavorting in strait jackets.

    I did not quite understand the plot hook that this was a place the Daleks were themselves unable to access, given that the cruise ship had managed to do just that.

    But then it was probably just another over elaborate plot to kill the Doctor, somewhat poetical by destroying him along with this colossal monument they had created in his name – a planetoid of his victims.

  2. michaelNo Gravatar
    September 4th, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

    Hello, I’m that smart-arse. So as well as being a misogynist and a writer of weak male characters (yes, he’s both) now Moffat has unhealthy prejudices about mental illness? Okay, you and you’re like are nuts. Get out in the real world more. P.S I’ve heard a wicked rumour he also leaves the seat up in the loo. Bastard!

  3. seanieNo Gravatar
    September 4th, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

    No, I’m that smart-arse.

  4. AcanthiumNo Gravatar
    September 5th, 2012 @ 1:44 pm

    It would be good for everyone if disabled people could be more integrated and could contribute what they could. Sadly we have made the choice that people with low productivity will be banned from work by the ‘minimum-wage’ laws (more accurately called minimum productivity laws).

  5. RoddyNo Gravatar
    September 6th, 2012 @ 3:02 am

    Interesting post. I’d agree that any depiction of disability at the moment is very politically charged, given the assault on disabled benefits/rights/etc; I’d also agree also that some of the terminology used is also pretty dodgy.

    What might undercut the “problematic” nature of the portrayal is that it’s the daleks that are doing the banishing to the asylum. I mean, given that they are the classic Doctor Who Personification of Fascism, it’s not surprising that they would hold such a dismissive/fearful attitude towards physical/mental disability; presumably we aren’t meant to agree with that! That, as you say, it holds a mirror up to how 2012 UK society (is encouraged to) treat[s] disability surely provides, if anything, grounds for a more stark critique?

    I think the scenes in the asylum are interesting in that respect – we’re not presented with an Arkham Asylum-style array of “crazed” gibbering wrecks, more daleks that’ve been physically worn-down by the effects of constant combat (they’ve been damaged beyond usefulness, now literally “unproductive units”…) – it’s essentially a dumping ground for the war-wounded. The only mentally traumatised ones we’re shown are the five that the Doctor encounters before meeting Oswin, who had each narrowly survived battles with him in the past. This is surely also a resonant topic for the UK at the moment…

    Anyway, I’ll stop wittering before sleep-delerium fully takes hold. I think what I’m trying to argue is that the main thing that’s problematic for us about the portrayal of disability in the episode is that it mirrors the real attitudes that we are being encouraged to adopt by our own Parliament…

  6. tomdaylightNo Gravatar
    September 6th, 2012 @ 10:04 am

    You seem to have ignored a rather large aspect of the episode – that the one thing the Daleks themselves considered “most insane” was actually a Dalek that had held onto its humanity. And given that was the very centrepiece of the plot, it trumps everything else you’ve read into the episode.

  7. toodoorNo Gravatar
    September 6th, 2012 @ 10:48 am

    They’re Daleks. They’re a Nazi analogue. Why in the world would you look to their behaviour for a positive presentation of, well, anything?

  8. Action FigureNo Gravatar
    September 6th, 2012 @ 4:06 pm

    I think you missed the point. The Daleks in the Parliament weren’t afraid of the Daleks in the Asylum. They were afraid of Oswin.

  9. ThrashNo Gravatar
    September 6th, 2012 @ 6:04 pm

    Know what I find offensive? Not Doctor Who, but this article.
    As someone who has dealt with anxiety and depression, and the stigma that goes with those conditions, I fully enjoyed ‘Asylum of the Daleks’. Sadly I can’t say the same about this article, where some silly little woman felt the need to et some attention for herself, and decided to use a currently popular TV show to do it. Fuck off.

  10. ClintNo Gravatar
    September 6th, 2012 @ 6:19 pm

    Hmm, good article for reflection. I think you are right and wrong. Where I live there is a big push to integrate those with handicaps, mental and physical into “normal” situations like schools etc. I think it must be very challenging to be handicapped as we are not very inclusive.

  11. Invisible GreenNo Gravatar
    September 6th, 2012 @ 6:19 pm

    “The Daleks’ attitude towards the asylum planet also reinforces the idea that mental illness is something to be feared.”

    No, it reinforces the point that DALEKS are fearsome. THEY’RE DALEKS!!!

    “The only noticeable difference between the “normal” Daleks and the “insane” ones is that those in the asylum are slower, easily outwitted, and not very good at exterminating things.”

    Yes, because they’ve “gone wrong.”

    “Moffat doesn’t really explain what it is about these Daleks that makes them “insane”, which leaves it open to misinterpretation.”

    He doesn’t explain because they’re all different. There’s no need to explain.

    Next time, think before you write. That way, you’ll avoid sounding dumb.

  12. WillNo Gravatar
    September 6th, 2012 @ 10:04 pm

    I’m smartarseacus!

    Daleks aim to produce perfect hatred, basically. That which they cannot make into a lean mean hating machine, they destroy.

    However, the insane daleks are close enough to lean-mean-hating machines that the fully operational hate-filled daleks do not want to destroy them.

    Daleks are just fearful of imperfect Daleks that do not hate as purely as them becoming the predominant group of Dalek terrorising the universe.

    Not that anyone would notice a mote less hate from the insane Daleks.

    The only legitimately insane Dalek was the only Dalek there that was shown to not be descended from Daleks…

  13. LokiNo Gravatar
    September 6th, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

    This never crossed my mind. The Daleks were never described as “demented”. The memory loss of the Daleks at the end was not connected with the fact that we had “insane Daleks”. That was Oswin’s hacking that did that. As for the number of disabled villains in the show, I think it’s just the genre. Sci-fi is trenched in the history of stories about technology going wrong and it’s also about making commentary on the human condition. The idea of humans using technology to augment or distort themselves is common. And a common instigator for that is some who is disabled- because they have a legitimate plot excuse to want to use this technology for “good”. Villains augmented with technology make good villains because the technology makes them seem less than human. This is commentary about technology and humanity, not disability.

    At worst this episode perpetuated the idea that asylums are bad places, otherwise I don’t think many people took notice of this.

  14. ireactionsNo Gravatar
    September 7th, 2012 @ 12:28 am

    Why would anyone expect a work of fiction to present their views and talking points on mental illness? Specifically, why would anyone be looking at a fantasy series about alien monsters and expect it to provide a tract on mental illness and its various distinctions and how society should rightly perceive it? That’s a job for a pamphlet or a documentary, not a TV episode about an adventurer who fights monsters.

    In fact, if your analysis of what ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS has to say on mental illness concludes that ASYLUM OF THE DALEKS has nothing rational or applicable to say about mental illness, doesn’t that raise the question of why you’re then examining it on that angle?

    It’s not the job of an entertainer to make sure his work lines up with your beliefs and represents them fully and depicts an ideal existence in which your worldview is upheld as the one true way. It’s their job to tell a story and have fun.

  15. LizNo Gravatar
    September 7th, 2012 @ 8:59 am

    Gosh there is some vile trolling here- when women wrote articles about things they think it’s not to ‘draw attention to themselves’ when in this article did Alyson talk about herself? I actually think it might be time for Bg to get some kind of comments moderation otherwise people will get put off writing stuff for fear of sexist attacks. Minimum wage stops disabled people working? What planet are you on- I assume one where it’s ok to assume that disabled people deserve less money and are of intrinsically less worth. Great article,shouldn’t have read these comments.

  16. ireactionsNo Gravatar
    September 7th, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

    I didn’t even assume the author of this article was a woman; I’ve known two men named Alyson. I find this article absurd because the author is clearly impassioned about how the mentally ill are labelled and dismissed, but then tries to make her rational concerns irrationally connected to a DOCTOR WHO episode about Daleks. Daleks! Since when are Daleks meant to represent the mentally ill? In what way does the story even offer any comparisons between Daleks and the mentally ill?

  17. ThrillsNo Gravatar
    September 7th, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

    ‘In what way does the story even offer any comparisons between Daleks and the mentally ill?’

    By…by having them in an…asylum, perhaps?

    Incidentally, I wish fans of things would realise you can like something while still being critical of it.

    And the people saying “why are you reading this stuff in to it? It’s just a sci-fi show!”, well, there’s a whole paragraph in the article addressing this.

  18. ThrillsNo Gravatar
    September 7th, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

    PS some nice comments here saying the author is ‘nuts’ and ‘dumb’. On an article about attitudes to mental illness.

  19. Raymond TerrificNo Gravatar
    September 7th, 2012 @ 3:32 pm

    Will someone please tell me what Doctor Who is saying about mental illness and mentally ill people? Then I’ll know what opinion I should have. I mean, you do all let Dr Who inform your social consciences and approach to life… don’t you? Or is just the less stable, less educated, less middle-class than yourselves that are affected by the attitudes of daleks?

    Mind you, they let a bloke with no legs, a speech impediment and serious skin disorders be their ruler, so they can’t be all bad?

  20. mmessNo Gravatar
    September 7th, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

    Wow, I read this episode completely differently! I *just* watched the episode (and I’m in a sleep-deprivation fog) so I haven’t had much time to think about it deeply, so maybe after more time and consideration I will see it differently.

    I thought that the Daleks’ behaviour (quarantining “defective” Daleks in an “asylum”–in a manner much like, as you point out, how we view and treat people with disabilities and mental illness) was supposed to closely mirror the way humans think/act about disability/mental illness, and in doing so, make us more aware of our reprehensible attitudes and behaviours. If the Daleks, the most hateful, destructive creatures in the universe, act in this way that is so similar to our human behaviour, then maybe it’s time we make a change…

    I may be back with more comments after further thought.

    As a feminist with mental illness and a physical disability, I found this very interesting and I look forward to giving it further thought. Thanks!!

  21. EmmetNo Gravatar
    September 8th, 2012 @ 9:18 am
  22. xenuNo Gravatar
    September 8th, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

    The only valid option I can offer to explain why the Daleks thought they were insane would be that while they still hated every other creature, there were suffering a kind of shell shock – now called Post traumatic stress- (from generally losing to the doctor) that they would freeze in battle or display compassion. They still want to kill, but can’t, so they are insane by dalek standards. Thw Daleks lock them up because they are afraid they will contaminate the rest of them with emotions.

  23. WhovianNo Gravatar
    September 8th, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

    Really? I’m sorry, but you are looking into things that do not exist, and are over-analyzing a great work of fiction. I guarantee you that 99.99% of the general public did not pick up on this…and I can see the rest of your readers agree.

  24. wtfNo Gravatar
    September 8th, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

    Are you high? Or just terminally stupid?

  25. ThrillsNo Gravatar
    September 8th, 2012 @ 5:03 pm

    “and are over-analyzing a great work of fiction.”

    A ‘great work of faction’ can handle over-analysis, and should, in fact, encourage it.

  26. ThrillsNo Gravatar
    September 8th, 2012 @ 5:03 pm

    ‘fiction’, sorry

  27. vmosNo Gravatar
    September 8th, 2012 @ 8:28 pm

    Hang on, we’re talking about Daleks. Mutant aliens in polycarbide armour, tentacled blobs that have had the emotions genetically engineered out of them, everything except hate. They exist only to kill anything that isn’t a Dalek. I don’t think it’s unfair to call them mental.

  28. ToneNo Gravatar
    September 8th, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

    Very well written article, but, really? Great Dr Who episode, very entertaining, hope you called the RSPCD tonight to report the tragic death of that Dinosaur.

  29. Keir LiddleNo Gravatar
    September 8th, 2012 @ 11:40 pm

    This episodes subtext is fairly simple: The Daleks are the coalition government.

    The Daleks are a facist analogue, as many above have pointed out, their ideas and value are not meant to be lauded they are meant to be despised. As the doctor does when he chastises them for using the planet as “a dumping ground”.

    If the rest of you thesis rests with the idea that the Daleks attitudes are reinforcing cultural attitudes to mental health than your thesis falls. Who wants to be like a Dalek? A creature of pure hate? Who aspires to that? If anything rather than reinforcing by giving the Daleks that attitude the story criticises those attitudes as they appear in society it doesn’t support them.

    Also the Cybermens fetish for spare parts was established long before 2008. Both Davros and the Cybermen are products of the mid 70s and late 60s. What is missed out in your reading of the 2008 story (and the original modus operandi of the cyber race) is that yes they turned to implants for health reasons initially but then became obsessed with upgrading and improving themselves through technology. The Cybermen aren’t about disability they are about transhumanism. Changing from biological beings to cyberneticly enhanced ones. They are a tale of self improvement and a flawed search for perfection through technology. They are more of an allegory for plastic surgery than they are for disability.

    The masters recent characterisation is somewhat vexing. RTD attempting to retcon an explanation for the Masters machivallen scheming by making him a pawn of the time lords (not mentally ill by the way actually a puppet and a pawn in a grander scheme). If anything the doctors line about “it’s your madness it’s not real” etc is a hundred times more offensive than anything else in who canon related to mental health issues.

  30. KatherineNo Gravatar
    September 9th, 2012 @ 12:27 am

    Asylum doesn’t just mean hospital, it means ‘safe place’. And the Daleks who live there aren’t just ‘insane’, but also battle scarred.

    We saw the Battle scarred in Intensive care. Ballerina Dalek is a good example of a dalek who ‘went wrong’. And well…I think we saw an excellent example of the Parliament would have considered an ‘insane’ dalek right at the end of the episode. Think about it for a minute and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

    Furthermore it was explained that when Daleks are a bit slow upon waking. Which is consistent with what we saw in The Big Bang.

  31. ScottNo Gravatar
    September 9th, 2012 @ 12:54 am

    I think you’re projecting some very serious, personal issues of your own into this episode.

  32. ANo Gravatar
    September 9th, 2012 @ 1:12 am

    Great article, good to have some critical analysis of Who, I haven’t seen much written about its issues with disability and mental health before.

    To all the naysayers – critiquing a show doesn’t mean you think it’s rubbish. In fact, I think taking the time to analyse episode of a show shows you’re a fan. Also, whether or not you agree, this discussion is valuable for making you think about things a different way.

  33. LizNo Gravatar
    September 9th, 2012 @ 9:19 am

    I have never met a man called Alyson but I know that calling someone a silly little woman is misogynist. Though I guess I’m the real sexist for bringing up sexism and thinking Alyson is a woman

  34. Eric S. SmithNo Gravatar
    September 11th, 2012 @ 3:10 am

    “Perhaps inadvertently, Moffat has given us a painfully honest picture of our society’s attitude towards disability.”

    I don’t think you can call this inadvertent if you’re going to claim that he’s doing all of the stuff that you *don’t* like on purpose. As others have pointed out, you’re perhaps confusing the evil Daleks’ attitudes with the message of the show. I think your reading of the Doctor is a bit off, as well: when he’s talking about the “dumping ground,” he’s clearly ascribing that viewpoint to the Daleks he’s talking to. There’s hardly a word in any of his speeches to them that’s not sarcastic, sardonic, or snide.

    Time will tell if the derogatory use of terms like “mad,” “insane,” and “demented” will ever clang as badly as “gay” et al do now, but I think you’ll find that disordered thinking and an inability to perceive the real world reasonably — which is what the first three imply — are always going to be seen as undesirable as such, regardless of how positively *people* with mental illness are perceived.

    Keir Liddle has responded to your objection to the Cybermen pretty well: they’re monsters who want to cut you up with power tools, not scary disabled people. Unless it’s “ableist” to be scared of losing your body parts.

  35. Owe WildishNo Gravatar
    November 17th, 2012 @ 3:34 am

    Hmm, wouldn’t it have been an intresting twist if it turned out that the Daleks in the Asylum were the “sane” ones and wanteded to help the Doctor while the Parliment Daleks were the ones that had gone “mad” in some way, however arn’t the Daleks suppose to be somewhat insane anyway, what with living there lives trapped within a shell and there primary emotion is a hatred for anything not Dalek?

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