Activism, Disability, Doctor Who, Equality, Feminism, Mental Health, Race, Representation, Social Issues, TV

As a Northern disabled woman with anxiety, I feel seen by Doctor Who Series 12

Featured Image: Headshots L-R Jodie Whittaker, Jo Martin, Tosin Cole, Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill, John Barrowman and Sacha Dhawan with a starry sky filter covering the bottom half. Series 12 Promo Image.

Content Notes and Warnings

  • Spoilers for Series 12 of Doctor Who
  • Discussion of anxiety and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
  • Reference to Tibo and Yaz’ mental health scenes in Can You Hear Me? and to the end of the Spyfall Eiffel Tower scene
  • There is a MS Word version of this post attached at the bottom in case you find it more accessible to read it that way than in a browser

Back in April I wrote an essay on viewing the development of the Doctor/ Master relationship as a disabled woman. I use the lens of Independent Living and deinstitutionalisation to unpack the problems with the 12th Doctor/Missy relationship in the vault. I then argue that the shift in the 13th Doctor/Dhawan Master relationship, and particularly the anger they share with each other, does so much to make me feel seen as a disabled woman. As amazing as it is to watch, the Doctor/Master relationship isn’t the only reason I tell people Series 12 was made specifically for me. As a Northern, disabled woman with mental health issues I feel represented by Series 12 in a much broader sense.

For me, representation in Series 12 comes both in specific scenes and more widely, in the diverse settings, characters and casting choices. I’ll explore both in this post, starting with showing how my life experiences are reflected in particular scenes in Series 12. The first example of this is in Tibo and Yaz’ mental health stories in Can You Hear Me? and the second is in the Doctor experiencing fatigue in the Matrix in The Timeless Children. I’ll then explain why the Northern representation in Series 12 is so important. I couldn’t write this and not dedicate a section to the significance of Jo Martin’s casting as the first black woman Doctor and the second woman Doctor! I’ll then talk about feeling represented by Sacha Dhawan because he lives with anxiety and a chronic illness, and touch on the portrayal of Ryan as a dyspraxic companion. I might feel well represented by Series 12, but despite the title of this post, it’s not all about me and I know there’s much more Doctor Who could be doing to be inclusive, so I’ll reflect on the show’s general move towards diversity, before giving a few examples of how Doctor Who can do better in terms of diverse and inclusive representation. Finally, many other wonderful creators have produced excellent content on representation in Series 12, lots of which goes far beyond my own experiences, so I’ll add a resource list at the end for further reading and listening. In my Doctor/Master essay I said that I feel like Chris Chibnall had a window into my brain when writing Series 12, and nowhere is this more true than in Can You Hear Me?. I’ll begin by explaining what I mean! 

My mental health experience in Can You Hear Me?

In my many re-watches of Spyfall and The Timeless Children, I’ve been able to map my own experiences and emotions onto the Master’s arc over time. However, there were a couple of times watching Series 12 when I felt like my life was being thrown back at me through the screen more explicitly. The first is in Episode 7 of Series 12, Can You Hear Me?. I watched the episode the night that it aired, and I knew that I really enjoyed it; a dream based story with a mental health theme was always going to be up my street. However, I felt as though I didn’t take it all in and I knew that I wanted to watch it again soon to appreciate it fully. 

The following day I returned to my Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) group for the first time in 3 weeks, after missing a few sessions because I was physically unwell. I attended a course of CBT in late 2019/ early 2020 to treat my anxiety and I consistently found the sessions to be positive and helpful. I always felt so much lighter and empowered to take on the world afterwards, and this day was no different. I didn’t think about the connections to Can You Hear Me? though, until I re-watched it later that night. I was not prepared for what I was about to see!

In piecing together Yaz’ story, and watching her commemorate the third anniversary of the day she ran away from home, I realised that the day I was re-watching the episode, a mere 24 hours after it first aired, was also exactly 3 years to the day since the biggest and scariest weekend of my life! Thankfully, my weekend was centred around a much more positive event than Yaz’; it was the day I left home for the first time to move to Belgium to do my European Voluntary Service. However, I could still relate to the intense emotions she must have been feeling on that day, particularly the terror and uncertainty about the future, the vivid memories she must have of it and the need to mark it as a significant turning point in her life. 

I was already thrown by this spooky and very specific coincidence, but there was more to come. Towards the end of the episode, Ryan convinces his best friend Tibo to attend a mental health support group. Whilst there, he tells a story of going to the shop to get some human contact only to be greeted by self-service checkouts. Directly following this, there’s a close up on his face and you can see the weight come off him as he smiles with the relief of sharing his experience. In that moment, I was hit with emotion and realisation. In Tibo’s face, I saw myself from earlier that very day. I too had shared an anecdote about my week with a group of strangers going through similar challenges. I too had felt the weight lift off me with the relief and the pride of having shared my efforts. It resonated so strongly because Tibo doesn’t make a great impassioned speech about his struggles, or lament how hard it was to admit to himself that he needs help, he just shares a seemingly mundane story which is meaningful to him, and that’s what therapy was for me too. It was feeling anxious about something ‘normal’, trying out a new behaviour or technique, and then sharing successes and failures in a safe space the next week. To see that reflected so accurately and so soon after my own experience blew me away. Going even further, the police officer offering support to Yaz only echoed the encouraging words I heard from my therapists during the session. By the end of the episode I was an emotional wreck! To see an underrepresented subject like mental health portrayed in such a sensitive and realistic way that was so true to my own experience was frankly a little scary, but it was also incredibly meaningful and I think it was for a lot of other viewers too. I’m so grateful that Doctor Who was brave and considerate enough to do the subject matter justice. 

Seeing myself in the Doctor

The second example of a life experience of mine being unexpectedly reflected on screen in Series 12 comes in The Timeless Children. The Doctor is stuck in the Matrix and comes face to face with Ruth Doctor. The 13th Doctor, having had quite the day so far, shares her feelings:

13:                      “I’m so tired! The Matrix is zapping all the energy out of me!”

Ruth Doctor:     “No time to be tired. Still work to do out there: lives at stake, armies being born. People need the Doctor.”

I don’t think I’ve ever related to the Doctor as much as I do in that moment! The Doctor is usually tired of something: tired of fighting, tired of losing people, tired of having to regenerate, but so rarely are they just tired. My disability means that I live with daily fatigue so to hear the Doctor, as a woman, say out loud “I’m so tired!” because her energy is drained from her by an invisible force outside of her control, rather than by an overexertion of emotion or physical activity, and then to have a past, calmer, more experienced version of herself (also a woman?!) talk her round and convince her that she can continue, is incredible, because that is my everyday reality. Even if it’s just grabbing my lunch from the fridge, on so many days I feel overwhelmingly tired, and I have to tell myself that I can do the thing, and then go on to do it. I repeat this on at least a weekly and often daily basis, so to see that reflected on Doctor Who means a lot! 

It’s especially impactful because 13 doesn’t just look tired, she looks fatigued. Her shoulders are hunched, her face is pale and shiny, her lips are dry, her eyes are drooping and she’s not slurring but she does struggle to get her words out slightly. In short, she looks and sounds like me on a bad day. I so rarely see my disabled self in the Doctor, so to see her presenting as a woman, having the vulnerability to admit that she’s tired, then gaining the strength to pull herself round and get herself out of trouble, is so special. Ruth Doctor might say “No time to be tired” to spur 13 on, but the important thing is that she does take the time to be tired, then takes a breath, then pushes forward by literally thinking her way out of the situation. Oh, those memories! I can’t express how important it is for me to share such a specific and familiar experience with the Doctor, especially when they are presenting as a Northern woman, and in an episode which means a lot to me on many different levels (check out my Doctor/Master relationship essay to see me expand on that!)

Lots of planets have a North

Moving away from my specific life experiences being reflected on screen in Series 12, the next section will focus on how I feel more generally represented by the diverse settings, characters and cast. Firstly, it is wonderful to see so much Northern representation in Series 12. There are still significant social, cultural and economic differences between the North and the South of the UK, and one manifestation of this is that the North is underrepresented in popular culture, including on TV. Up until recently, this was also the case in Doctor Who. The 9th Doctor might be from the North, but he’s surrounded by Southerners, and the 10th Doctor’s time is all based in London and Essex. Looking at Moffat’s era, we do have 12, Missy and Amy from Scotland and Clara from Blackpool, and Moffat does a better job of mixing up the locations of episodes than RTD, but it’s all still based out of the South, in Leadworth, (fictional but still half an hour from Gloucester), London or Bristol.

It was amazing to see the show finally ground itself in the North in Series 11. I’m from Durham, in the North East of England, and I live in Leeds which is the middle of the North, so it’s fantastic to finally see my favourite show come physically closer to me, and recognise where I’m from as worthy of representation. Series 11 is based in Sheffield, the Doctor and 2 of the 3 companions are either from the North or playing Northern, and 5 episodes out of 11 (including Resolution) are partially or fully set in the North of England. Even though I didn’t feel especially connected to Series 11 story-wise, I did feel closer to Doctor Who geographically than I had ever done before.

Series 11 actually does a better job in terms of being set in the North than Series 12 does. In Series 12 we visit all the old favourite locations of London, Essex and Gloucester as well as many more global cities, with only a few flying visits to Sheffield. However, I definitely felt the Northernness more in Series 12. This probably comes in part from being much more engaged by the new series, but there are a few other reasons for it. The first is that Series 12 opens up the companions’ personal lives more and we get to spend quality time with Yaz’ sister Sonya and Ryan’s friend Tibo, who are also both from Sheffield. The second is that Sacha Dhawan also gets to keep his Northern accent as The Master, and Jodie Whittaker’s accent is definitely stronger in Series 12. We now have 4 of the 5 main cast members either from the North or playing Northern, and what really drives it home for me is that Jodie and Sacha get so much time opposite each other, being absolutely brilliant as Northern actors with Northern voices. It means so much to hear main characters that sound like me (a bit at least, being from the North East, I actually talk more like Shona from Last Christmas!) They completely own the show and they’re such incredible role models. It makes Doctor Who feel even more like a second home than it already did, and I hope the Northern and regional representation continues well beyond Jodie’s tenure as the Doctor.

The Doctor’s a woman (twice!)

I can’t do a blog post on representation in Series 12 and not include that we now have a black woman Doctor!! I was as blown away by the reveal and as impressed by Jo Martin’s appearances as everyone else! Pretty much all (not actively racist) fans agree that Jo did a phenomenal job in her episodes but beyond that there’s been a mixed response from fans of colour. I’ve mostly seen lots of excitement and joy that black women finally have representation in the role, but I have also noted that some fans feel uncomfortable that the first black Doctor isn’t a full-time one, arguing that it would have been much better to cast a black actor in the role of the 13th or 14th Doctor in the first place. Of course, there’s a lot of crossover between, and nuance within these viewpoints. In the resource list below there are 3 amazing articles on this by black women so please take a look!

The perspectives of black women on this are obviously the most important, but personally, I’m over the moon for black women nerds who now have a Doctor that looks like them! I’m also thrilled that we now have 2 women playing the Doctor, and that we didn’t have to wait until the next regeneration to see another woman in the role or worry that it might never happen again. I love that we get to see Jo and Jodie on screen at the same time playing off each other; it’s incredible to watch them spark together! As a disabled woman, it’s also important for me to see someone who likely faces multiple discrimination, that is unequal treatment based on more than one aspect of their identity, as the Doctor. Doctor Who and TV in general often forgets that people can face more than one form of oppression at a time, so to see Jo Martin who has lived experience of being black, and a woman, and specifically a black woman, in the lead role of Doctor Who is very significant. I’m still as in awe watching Fugitive of the Judoon now as I was when it first aired, and Jo and Jodie’s performances put it firmly in my top ten episodes!

Sacha Dhawan talking about mental health and chronic illness

Anyone who read my Doctor/Master relationship essay will have already seen me wax lyrical about Sacha Dhawan’s Master! I love his version of the Master and I relate to the character very strongly (despite his awfulness!) Over the course of Series 12 airing I was touched to hear Sacha talking openly about having anxiety and Chron’s Disease, both on his own social media and in interviews. To discover that the actor who brought to life this character I connect with so deeply, because of my experiences as a disabled person, is also someone who lives with mental health issues and a chronic illness, is pretty special. Sacha comes across as such a warm and community-focused person and to hear him speaking honestly about having anxiety, what it means to be a British Indian actor, and the importance of rest when you have a chronic illness, is wonderful. I’m very grateful and proud to feel represented by Sacha on Doctor Who. I don’t know how much of his experience of anxiety and chronic illness influenced his performance as the Master, but whatever the case, it undoubtedly makes the portrayal even more meaningful to me. 

Ryan as a disabled companion

Here, I want to give a particular mention to Ryan’s dyspraxia. I’ll be honest, this was going to go in the areas for improvement section, because apart from in a few Series 11 episodes, I personally couldn’t see much evidence of Ryan’s disability. It turns out, that’s because I don’t have dyspraxia! Thankfully, Wils (@spacegalwils) put together an amazing thread on Twitter (in the resource list below), highlighting the many different examples of how Ryan’s dyspraxia manifests itself in both Series’ 11 and 12. I’m very happy and grateful to have been called out on this and I am thrilled to know that the accurate representation is there! 

To wrap up this section, I want to highlight that Doctor Who’s general move towards making the show more diverse is in itself important to me. I’m studying my Masters in Inequalities and Social Science and I care about challenging all forms of discrimination and oppression. Even when a character or actor doesn’t necessarily represent me, I’m always excited to see a more diverse cast and show. Of course, diversity alone doesn’t equal inclusive representation. It has to be done well to be meaningful, so I’m always listening out for the viewpoints of those who are affected by diverse casting (or lack of it) to build a clearer picture of how Doctor Who is doing. Series 12 seems to have made some strong moves in the right direction though, and that is worth celebrating. 

More to do

Given what I’ve just said about being committed to gaining a clear picture of where Doctor Who is when it comes to representation, it wouldn’t feel right for me to do a whole blog post on how much I feel represented and then not point out the areas in which the show can still improve. It would be remiss of me to pretend that Series 12 got everything right, so here are some examples of what Doctor Who could do to better its representation in Series 13 and beyond:

  • Firstly, can the powers that be PLEASE stop killing off characters of colour and disabled characters, and especially black women, for no good reason? Black women fans have been highlighting the problems with colour-blind casting for years (check out Nicole Hill’s article in the resource list.) There’s no point having a diverse cast of characters if all you’re going to do is kill them off. It’s like the writer’s saying that that’s all they’re good for. Underrepresented viewers deserve to see their own fleshed out stories without fear that their representative character is not going to make it to the end of an episode. That’s not to say that diverse characters should never die, just that they should die less often and when they do, it should be meaningful.
  • I don’t know why Chibnall thought it was a good idea to have our white lady protagonist out our new iteration of a beloved villain, now a British Indian man to the Nazis, especially in the current political climate, but it definitely wasn’t!
  • As happy as I am that Ryan’s character is a good example of dyspraxic representation, I still would have liked the executives to cast a disabled actor in the role. I’m also still waiting for a companion who uses a wheelchair. I live in hope! 
  • More Ruth Doctor please! Jo Martin was incredible in Series 12 and she was definitely underused! It would be a huge shame if she didn’t appear in Series 13 and I think it would undermine the impact of her casting if we don’t see her again.
  • It was great to see the centring of the relationship between 2 men in Praxeus, and for them to get a proper, genuine romantic kiss, but did they really have to be 2 white cis dudes?! Especially when there’s such a big supporting cast of characters of colour and 3 of them get killed off, it feels like Praxeus misses the mark. It was a shame not to see that spotlight on LGBT characters of colour. As I highlighted earlier, people aren’t just LGBT, or a person of colour, or disabled. People have multiple identities and face intersecting oppressions, so let’s see that reflected on screen! 

These are only a few examples of what Doctor Who could do to achieve more inclusive diverse representation. There are definitely more, and I’m not an expert on all forms of representation, so make sure you have a look at the resource list for a wider range of lived experiences and opinions. 

Seeing how much there is for Doctor Who still to do, it’s easy for me to feel weary or guilty for being so happy and fulfilled watching Series 12. However, it’s important to remember that as underrepresented fans we can both appreciate the feelings that come with being seen and represented, and be critical when the show gets it wrong. It is possible to listen to fans with a different lens to your own, to call out the show on its missteps and to embrace the joy wholeheartedly when it comes along. I’m still working on that, but I’m getting there!

I hope that in both this post and in my Doctor/Master relationship essay I’ve managed to get across why I have such a strong emotional connection to Series 12 of Doctor Who. In the intimate character relationships, the ambitious stories and the diverse settings, characters and cast members, I feel very seen and well represented. Series 12 hasn’t got everything right, but it’s done so much to connect me to Doctor Who again, and to make me feel like I and my story matter as a 26-year-old Northern, disabled woman with mental health issues. I haven’t experienced so much concentrated joy in a long time, and I have to keep reminding myself that it is both real and valid! I know that won’t be the case for everyone, and Doctor Who still has miles to go before it can claim to be fully inclusive. I intend to keep holding Doctor Who to the highest standard and to amplify others’ attempts to do the same. However, I’m also taking the time to enjoy this feeling, and to express my gratitude, because I didn’t think new Doctor Who could ever make me feel like this again. As I said in my last post, I’m still getting my head around it all and it’s taken over 10,000 words worth of blog posts to work through everything! It’s been strange and wonderful, and I want to say again just how grateful I am to everyone who worked on Series 12 of Doctor Who for creating something so meaningful to me. I’m at once eternally thankful, and cautiously watchful for what’s to come in Series 13!

Do you have thoughts on representation in Series 12? Please share them by tweeting me @rebecca_15 or @BlueBoxRebecca

Have a look at the resource list below for more thoughtful content on representation in Doctor Who Series 12. 

Resource List

Articles

Constance Gibbs. Chris Chibnall Cast a Black Woman as the Doctor, But It’s Only Just a Start https://io9.gizmodo.com/chris-chibnall-cast-a-black-woman-as-the-doctor-but-it-1841309265

Tai Gooden. What DOCTOR WHO’s First Black Woman Doctor Means To Me https://nerdist.com/article/doctor-who-first-black-woman-doctor/

Nicole Hill. Doctor Who and the Complications of Color-Blind Casting https://www.denofgeek.com/tv/doctor-who-the-complications-of-color-blind-casting/

Mel Perez. Why Doctor Who casting its first black Doctor after 57 years is so important https://www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/2020-01-30/doctor-who-first-black-doctor-representation/

Riley Silverman. DOCTOR WHO Takes Mental Health Seriously With ‘Can You Hear Me?’ https://nerdist.com/article/doctor-who-can-you-hear-me-mental-health/

Podcasts

Rule Not the Exception. Discovering Your Identity with Sacha Dhawan https://rulenottheexception.simplecast.com/episodes/sacha-dhawan

The Queer Archive. Series 12 episode reviews (episodes labelled Echelon Circuit) https://anchor.fm/the-queer-archive/

Who Watch: Time and Relative Blackness in Space. Series 12 episode reviews http://blackgirlscreate.net/category/tarbis/

Social Media Posts

Sacha Dhawan (@sacha_dhawan) on having anxiety and working on Doctor Who https://www.instagram.com/p/B61P5LsH7k0/

Wils (@spacegalwils) on the portrayal of Ryan Sinclair’s dyspraxia https://twitter.com/spacegalwils/status/1258941810870796288

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