Doctor Who made its return to television last weekend with “Asylum of the Daleks,” Nu!Who’s latest attempt to bring back the Daleks and make them scary again. In this episode, Moff tries to freshen up the Daleks by introducing an entire planet full of insane Daleks. Beyond blatantly capitalizing on ableist fears of people with mental illnesses as senselessly violent, this episode’s disability fail makes the Doctor–if he even is the Doctor anymore–look like a complete monster once again.
I must admit that I might be more disappointed with this episode from a disability perspective than other like-minded (read: awesome) individuals, because I went into the episode believing (hoping, really) that the story would be quite different than it turned out to be. Based on promos of thousands of Daleks yelling, “SAVE THE DALEKS” at the Doctor, and an episode synopsis saying the Doctor and the Ponds would go on a scary mission inside a Dalek asylum, I assumed (dreamed, hoped, wished fervently) that the Doctor would stumble upon a Dalek mental institution, where the conditions would be deplorable in true Dalek fashion (but relatable enough to Human mental institutions so as to make a meaningful parallel to how Humans treat people with mental illnesses), and be asked to liberate the Daleks with disabilities from their incarceration. The Doctor would hem and haw. “I’m the Doctor; I don’t go around helping the Daleks.” And then Amy would say something like, “You’re the Doctor and that’s why you need to help these Daleks.” The Doctor would swoop in, do his hero bit, and everyone would live happily ever after. It’s not a completely unproblematic story I imagined. It still had an able-bodied hero saving characters with disabilities, who are cast as largely helpless… unless…. Unless the Daleks in the asylum purposefully led the Doctor there to appeal to his sense of mercy, using the stereotype of disabled people as pitiful and harmless to their advantage to get the Doctor to do what they want. Anyway… whatever I imagined for the episode did not happen.
What happened was truly horrific.
Having been snatched by the newest model of Daleks, the Doctor and the Ponds find themselves in the Dalek parliament (because, apparently, the Space Fascists operate under the parliamentary system) where they are told of the Dalek asylum–once thought to be a myth and one that never made much sense to the Doctor. Why wouldn’t the Daleks just kill their disabled population? Answer: the Daleks still find value in the hatred those Daleks with disabilities (here on: DWD) possess. The Doctor shows disgust at this because Hatred is Bad, rather than, say, reconsidering his opinion about the Daleks as heartless, genocidal killing machines. “Good for you, Daleks, on not killing all your disabled. Sticking them all on an isolated planet forever isn’t exactly progressive or humane, but it’s better than the Nazis–you know, the Earth people you’re a metaphor for.” But, no, that moment is sacrificed for the Doctor to go, “You think hatred is beautiful. That makes me hate you even mo–oh, shit.”
The Doctor can’t see any good in the Daleks, so he can’t recognize that not killing an entire population group is good, because that population group is Dalek and therefore who gives a fuck?
Certainly not the Doctor. In fact, he continues to give zero fucks about the DWD on that planet for the entire episode. When the Dalek prime minister tells him to go down to the planet and help them kill all the DWD, the Doctor’s main objection goes something like this, “Why would I help you?” Rather than, say, “Why would I help you murder all these people?” Because according to the Doctor, Daleks aren’t people. There’s no redeeming them.
The Doctor and the Ponds are pushed onto the planet, which they can only escape by turning off a shield thing which would then send the Daleks hovering in a spaceship above to setting the whole damn planet on fire. At the end of the episode, it comes down to the Doctor enabling the Daleks above to burn the entire disabled Dalek population alive so he and the Ponds can transport out of there. And the Doctor doesn’t bat an eyelash at this. There’s not a moment where the Doctor shows even the slightest regret at having to be party to yet another genocide to save himself and his friends.
Because according to the Doctor, Dalek’s aren’t people. He says this to Amy when she sees a group of Daleks as a group of Humans interacting, laughing, and dancing. This is a hallucination, we are to believe, caused by the nanites converting her into a Dalek. Yet, when the hallucination fades, one Dalek is still twirling like a ballerina. It is then I wonder if Amy isn’t hallucinating the Daleks as Humans, but, by virtue of her conversion into a Dalek, seeing those DWD as they see themselves–as people. People who dance and laugh and interact and manage to live in this utter shithole of an institution. Amy sees Dalek disability culture. Until the Doctor talks her down. These are Daleks; not people.
So the logic goes: we shouldn’t care about every DWD being burned alive at the end of this episode, because they are Daleks. The show isn’t saying people with disabilities in general deserve to be segregated and murdered wholesale. Only the bad ones like the Daleks. Moff and co. shouldn’t face too much backlash for expressing that viewpoint, given that much of society pities caregivers who murder uncooperative cripples, like the mean Alzheimer’s patient or the unaffectionate autistic–to use a few archetypes.
Steven Moffat, unintentionally I’m sure, argued that it’s cool to commit an act of genocide as long as the victims aren’t people. Which is unfortunate, because those committing genocide rarely if ever view their victims as people. In the case of people with disabilities, we’re seen as problems rather than people by those who kill us–whether that be a government eliminating a drain on society or an individual supposedly pushed to their limits by one of those mean, demanding cripples. Even if intentions were magical and the messages conveyed by this episode were whisked away by Moff not meaning it that way, the man still introduced his audience to the disability culture of an iconic alien species–and then destroyed that culture and everyone who belonged to it.
That, for me, as the closest thing this side of the Internet has to an anthropologist studying alien disability culture, is unforgivable.