In Darkness We Are Revealed: A (More) Authentic Look at Blindness in Doctor Who

Hello all, you are in for a treat today, as I’ve convinced my husband to talk to me about Doctor Who!  Much as I enjoy listening to various podcasters’ opinions about the show, the past few episodes have left a bit to be desired, specifically in representational voices. If you’ve been keeping up with S. 10, you’ll know that the Doctor lost his sight at the end of Ep. 5 (Oxygen), and was blind for all of Ep. 6 (Extremis) and nearly all of Ep. 7 (The Pyramid at the End of the World).  And this plot twist has enjoyed a lot of talk, but the thing I haven’t heard yet is opinions from actual blind people on the representation of blindness in Doctor Who that has been created.

So, why is this blog post relevant?  Well, my husband is legally blind, and has been watching Doctor Who with me for the past 4 or so years, so he’s conversant with the major themes of the show (in its NewWho iteration), and he’s seen all of the 12th Doctor’s episodes, and pretty much all of the 11th, which we have been watching with my stepson.  The following is a transcript of our conversation in which we talked about the blindness arc in S. 10.  The format was basically that I asked questions and he answered them, with some extra discussion thrown in.

But first, in his own words, a little bio of James, just for some context.

“First off – we can start right out with the real reason why I was asked to this interview – I’m legally blind.  It’s difficult for me to describe exactly what my vision is like to those who can see because I’ve never been able to look through your eyes.  I’ve been told that what I see at roughly 20 feet away is what a person with good eyesight sees at 200 feet away.  I hold all my books close, I’ve never seen a whiteboard in my life, and when I watch tv I rely heavily on the dialog and sound to tell me whats going on.  And sometimes, my wife.  Because to me the television screen is very blurry at best despite us having a 60” television.  Thank goodness for great speakers.

I’m in my mid thirties.  I have a 9 year old son.  Despite my low vision, I graduated college among the top of my class with a degree in computer science.  I’m a computer nerd.  I’ve gone on to have a successful career as a software engineer or leader / manager of engineers.  In my spare time, I love long distance running, brewing beer, spending time with my family and working on my house.  I’ve never let my vision slow me down – I just figure out how to adapt my actions in order to accomplish what I want – anything from carpentry and hanging drywall to playing soccer or flying drones.
As far as television goes, I’ve never been a huge television watcher.  I prefer reading.  There aren’t that many television shows that have really been able to capture my attention and keep me hooked for long.  Lost, Star Trek (the Next Generation), and a handful of sitcoms like Seinfeld come to mind as noteworthy for me.  Mostly I end up falling asleep within a few minutes of turning the TV on.  It drives my wife crazy.
I started watching  Dr. Who casually with my wife a couple of years ago because she enjoyed it.  I’d say its been interesting but it hasn’t been able to capture my attention like it has hers.  Some of my favorite episodes were the ones involving the the Weeping Angles.  And my favorite companion has been Clara.  A while ago my wife tried to get me to watch some of the classic Dr Who, but I found it impossible to be interested in.”
And now, our discussion of Doctor Who, helped along with liberal application of Scotch (for me) and Gin and Tonics (for him).  Enjoy.
M = Me;
J = James;
Disclaimer, I tried to start out with some softball questions just to get things going, but of course he had to be difficult and go all “I don’t analyze my tv,” so the first few minutes were slightly comically unproductive.  Don’t worry, it gets better!

M: So we’ll start with some general questions.

Ok, you’ve watched DW as a bit of a captive audience for the past 3 or 4 years, what do you think about the show in general?

J: I find it… it’s interesting. I don’t find it as addictive as I’ve found other shows, but I do find it interesting, because it’s… I dunno, there’s a lot of creativeness that goes into it.

M: What do you like and dislike about it?

J: I like the creativity that comes in dreaming up what creatures, or whatever, are happening in the show, you know, I like that. I like seeing what somebody thinks the future’s going to be like and some of the stuff from the past. Some of my favorite episodes seem to have been the ones where they go back in time and they’re either in the past or in some mythical world like the Robin Hood one, I just remember that one and I liked that quite a bit.

M: What do you dislike?

J: What do I dislike? Right now I’m not really sold on the new companion. I don’t think I like that very much.

M: What do you think of Peter Capaldi’s portrayal of the Doctor?

J: I think it was better last season, when he had a different companion. (laughs) I don’t really know how to compare that really, cuz, I dunno, it’s just not really my area of expertise.

M: Well, do you like the character that he is? Like, the Doctor as a character right now? What do you think of him?

J: I dunno. As a character… I don’t know, in comparison to what? That’s what I’m trying to figure out.

M: You can compare him to previous Doctors that you’ve seen, or main characters of other shows that you’ve watched, or anything.

J: I don’t know. I guess when I watch television I watch it for entertainment value and I get some amount of entertainment out of watching him but I don’t analyze it, I just sit there and watch it and let it, you know, be, and don’t put mental energy and thought into it whatsoever, generally, for most things, and he’s never really made me put mental thought into it.

M: So is that a good thing or a bad thing?

J: It’s just a thing. It basically makes it hard to answer this question. What do I think of his character? I dunno, it’s alright, he exists.

M: If you watch it for entertainment, do you find it entertaining enough to want to keep watching it?

J: Sure, I keep going back and watching it. Let’s say you and Ayden decided to go on vacation for a month, it wouldn’t be on my list of things to do to watch Doctor Who, it never had been, it just isn’t. And watching Doctor Who now and seeing the show and the episodes and stuff like that, I still.. I’m not addicted to it, it just is, it exists.

M: What do you think of Bill and Nardoll?

J: Not thrilled. I like the characters who seem to drive the plot along more than the ones that just kind of hold back. And so, she’s like the student and kinda getting dragged along and asks a lot of questions but doesn’t seem to have any… until this episode, this episode that we just watched, she was just kind of like, always confused about what’s going on and just was sitting back and learning and watching, and, I dunno, it didn’t really do it for me.

M: Ok, what has been you favorite episode of the season so far?

J: Favorite one so far? I’m trying to think back through which episodes there actually have been. I only remember the last couple.

M: There was The Pilot, the first one.

J: Yeah, I fell asleep in that one. Guess that wasn’t it.

M: And the second one was the emoji one, Smile, in the far future.

J: Yeah, mmhmm.

M: And the third one was Thin Ice, the Victorian, yeah, that one.

J: And then the last to were these…

M: And after that was Knock Knock, the haunted house one.

J: Oh.

M: And then Oxygen, and then Extremis, and then…

J: Alright, Oxygen was probably pretty good. I like the concept of the capitalist… like capitalism to extreme, and how it had gone horribly awry.


And then we moved on to some more topical questions. This is where it gets interesting.

M: At the beginning of Oxygen it is broadly suggested that the Doctor’s blindness is a result of his hubris, for example when the Doctor expands the air shell from the TARDIS to the whole station, Nardoll comments, “So cocky,” and when both Bill and Nardoll want to leave the Doctor sees himself as a savior who must rescue the four survivors. What do think about this suggestion?

J: That’s who the Doctor’s always been. Just because they put Nardoll in there to point it out, I dunno, doesn’t really seem… like, sure, maybe his hubris actually caused him to get blind, but that’s just his character, so…

M: So in the past, he’s done things out of arrogance that have caused him to be killed and regenerate, but this time instead of regenerating, he was blinded, so I guess did you see anything different in that, or anything notable about that? Because it always seems like he gets a big run up and then he gets to the end and has a big crashing ending and then becomes a new person, and this time he didn’t, he just had to go on with what he had.

J: Do I see anything big in that? Not really. I dunno, it’s just a plot twist. The writers were like, hey, that sounds like something interesting to do. Let’s see what happens here.

M: What was your first reaction to learning the Doctor had been blinded during the space walk?

J: At first I thought it would be kinda neat to see where they would go with it. What are they gonna do, how are they gonna let him accomplish the stuff that he accomplishes without his sight, so it sounded intriguing to me, to figure out, to see what other people would come up with to do.

M: Did the Doctor’s companions’ reactions to, and treatment of the Doctor after strike you as any way familiar?

J: I’m trying to remember what the reactions were… Ok, oh my god you’re blind, or something like that. Did they seem familiar?

M: Or, I dunno, the way that they acted around him, the way that Nardoll tried to lead him.

J: Eh, people kinda tried to lead him. I guess, in a way, sometimes, you know, people figure out that I can’t see and then they try to help me do things that I can do on my own or whatever, but then again it’s a different scenario for somebody who has had sight and always had sight and then all of a sudden it was like, ah, we took your sight away! They don’t know how to move around quite the same, you know, so the Doctor’s a smart guy but there’s the initial not being able to see factor that he needs to figure out how to deal with, so the fact that other people were reacting like, holy crap what happened to your sight let me help you, it just seemed like a relatively normal thing.

M: When the Doctor is in the core trying to wire up his solution and Nardoll keeps assuming he knows what the Doctor is trying to do and telling him it’s not going to work, did this strike any chords with you, such as Nardoll possibly assuming the Doctor is no longer thinking as clearly because of his blindness?

J: No. Nope, never really put the two together at all, because Nardoll, since the inception of the character as far as I’ve seen has always been telling the Doctor, like, “whatever you’re gonna do, you shouldn’t be doing that. You shouldn’t leave that person in the tomb, you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that,” so the fact that Nardoll was sitting there saying, “whatever you’re thinking right now, it’s not going to work,” that’s just his character and I never really saw it as having anything to do with him being blind.

M: So you just saw it as a plot driver?

J: Yep.

M: How did you feel when we found out at the end of Oxygen that the Doctor is still blind, and why did you feel that way?

J: I guess continued to be excited and intrigued to see where they would go with it, because he had to figure out how to do more than just one mission, but whatever comes next, he had to keep working with the fact that he couldn’t see and figure out how to solve whatever problems were being thrown at him.

M: A lot of people have commented that it doesn’t make sense for the Doctor to continue hiding his blindness from Bill in the episode Extremis, so do you agree with this, and what about him hiding it with everybody else?

J: I think that, so, first of all I have to put myself in the world and pretend he’s a real person, which seems kinda funny to me, but (laughs), if it was a real person, then it’s the real person’s choice as to whether they feel like exposing that part of themselves to anybody else because there are a lot of times where I don’t feel like being blind and showing that I can’t see and I will do a lot to stop other people from noticing including writing terrible signatures on non-existent lines of receipts or whatever else it is that, you know, I just don’t feel like dealing with the fact that somebody else can tell that I can’t see, so it’s the Doctor’s choice. The fact that he wants to hide it from Bill shows that he doesn’t want to expose something that he is currently feeling as a weakness, and that may lead her to not trust him as much, or at least he thinks that it would, and having Nardoll there to help him is in a way gotta be nice for him because sometimes having someone that will just help and know your situations and then help you get around is helpful and comforting and nice.

M: So, as much as he feels close to Bill, there’s still a line that he’s already crossed with Nardoll, or maybe he’s just accepted that somebody has to know and that’s who he wants to know, and that’s who he’s willing to deal with that situation with?

J: So, in a way, Nardoll is just as much a companion in every episode of this. Even though the Doctor was leaving him behind initially, now Nardoll seems to travel around with the Doctor and he is the second half of the companion just like when there was two with Amy and Rory, and in a lot of ways the Doctor has to trust a companion to get things done and to push plots along and do the stuff, and I don’t feel like—this goes back to the whole Bill being just a student who is just long for the ride and watching, and as I said is not my favorite position for a companion to be in—but Nardoll is the plot driver-alonger, the person who the Doctor trusts, the one who’s guiding him along and helping him see stuff that he can’t see, taking actions that the Doctor can’t take—go take the TARDIS and move it over here—and all this stuff, and in past episodes it would have been Amy, or somebody,

M: Or River…

J: Yeah, like River, and now it’s Nardoll, it’s not Bill, and so, Bill is basically there because the Doctor likes to pick her up and take her places but she doesn’t really do anything, so why would he trust her?

M: Ok, that makes sense. So at this point you see it as more of a writing tool, like the writers need someone who’s gonna do that, and that’s who they decided on.

J: Yeah.

Probably the most surprising–ok not surprising, but thing that made me glad I asked that question–was the fact that James has real experience, pretty much on a day-to-day basis with having to decide who is going to know that he’s legally blind, and so his reaction to the Doctor’s having to make that decision is authentic and is the kind of thing people should be listening to.  Essentially, only the person with the disability gets to make the decision about how they deal with it, including who in their life needs to know about it.

Ok, moving on to Extremis

M: In the scenes when Nardoll is trying to surreptitiously describe what he’s seeing in order to cover for the fact that the Doctor can’t also see it, did you feel those scenes rang true to your experience of having to rely on others for cues, or did Nardoll’s attempts to obfuscate the Doctor’s situation undermine his ability to be helpful?

J: Well, honestly, I felt like that was really dumb, because anybody with any tiny amount of perception would’ve figured out the hell was going on, so it didn’t take any amount of perception, so the fact that they wrote all of that in there, and Bill never picked it up, I just felt like that was kinda stupid. There was plenty of ways they could have written it where maybe it wasn’t so, let me just lay it out there and be… stupidly surreptitious… is that a thing?

M: I feel like they were playing it more for laughs than actual, like, this is a real thing that’s happening.

J: Maybe, but I didn’t really find it funny.

M: Yeah, and I’m not saying you should have, but maybe the writers thought that it would be funny if it was so obvious and yet nobody was figuring it out.

J: Yeah, I really felt that all of that stuff was kinda dumb.

M: So there was a point where Nardoll was actually being helpful, but then he was also trying to cover for the Doctor, so did it tip more into someone who knows him trying to be helpful, or someone trying to cover for him and just, you know…

J: There’s been a mix of both. I can’t put specific examples on it, but it feels like when the writers decided to write Nardoll saying something on his own, of his own thinking, then at those points in time it felt more like Nardoll was doing a helpful thing, that was helpful genuinely, and even not stupidly surreptitious, as I’ve decided to call that thing, but when the Doctor is literally cuing the whole thing along all the time, that’s when it felt stupid. And I wouldn’t say anything about undermining, so if we put all the stupid factor aside I would say that it was hepful?

M: To me sometimes it seemed like Nardoll was either being resistant to helping or waiting for the Doctor to force him to help, and if he had just taken the initiative and just been his self, his independently thinking self and helpful, do you think it would have been more helpful overall?

J: Probably. So, when we’re just walking along and you point out a step for me, that’s super helpful.

At this point I think James was going to make a connection to when people get self-conscious about thinking they need to help him all the time–particularly people who just meet him or just find out that he can’t in fact see the thing they just tried to toss to him or whatever–and how it’s really the opposite of helpful, versus when we’re hanging out or doing errands in normal life and I have a general idea of things that he needs to know about so as not to fall on his face on a step he can’t see or whatever, but he kinda lost the thread of his thought so I skipped over it.

M: Given that it kinda went back and forth, did that seem realistic to you, that someone not really understanding how all this works would act in the way that Nardoll did?

J: Probably. It seemed mostly realistic I guess.

M: How did you react to Nardoll’s continuing insistence that the Doctor “face” what had happened to him? Did you feel that Nardoll was trying to dictate how the doctor face his own disability, and if so do you think that the show left room for the Doctor’s own feelings about his blindness to be a priority?

J: I guess that’s just part of Nardoll’s character. In the same way that he’s always telling the Doctor that his plan isn’t going to work, or that he shouldn’t be doing what he is doing, he’s telling him now what he’s supposed to be doing instead. Most of the time Nardoll’s the voice of reason, right, and the Doctor’s the crazy one. And Nardoll’s like, you should probably do this thing which is the right thing to do, so I was pretty ok with Nardoll saying that. What was the second part of the question?

M: Did you feel that Nardoll was trying to dictate how the Doctor dealt with it?

J: Well, yeah, that is what he was doing. There’s no doubts about that one. But everybody knows that the Doctor doesn’t listen so you can dictate whatever you want to and the Doctor just does what he wants anyway.

M: Ok, so given that, did the show and the writers leave room for the Doctor’s feelings about his blindness to the priority within the story?

J: Mmm, no. There wasn’t… I still don’t know how the Doctor feels about his own blindness, I have no idea. Of all the shows that we’ve watched, that doesn’t feel like a thing that ever came up.

M: So when he’s doing all the quotes about “In darkness we are revealed,” and at the end of the pyramid episode that we just watched he’s talking about how, when you realize what your fear is you realize something about yourself, does that just feel like him quoting stuff to keep avoiding it, or…?

J: I don’t know, I haven’t even thought about what the heck that was, just ramblings about crap that… I thought he was talking about the alien situation and talking about how they were going to invade, or something, that’s what I thought he was doing, so. And if that’s how he talks about his feelings, well whatever, but I can’t actually interpret that.

M: What did you think of the Doctor’s use of the sonic shades as a visual aid?

J: It’s alright, but he could get way better tech. (laughs). Come on now, like, all the technology he’s got he must have come across something better than green wireframes. With like, little squares that maybe represent people or something and he can’t even tell when a pyramid door’s opening. He should be able to do way better than that.

M: So you think it was poor writing?

J: Yeah, kinda dumb.

M: How did you react to the Doctor’s borrowing sight from his future self?

J: I thought that was crappy. So I didn’t like it all because I felt like, the Doctor was faced with a serious challenge that he actually had to figure out how to do and what’s the first thing they ran to but was where can I find another source for some sight. I need actual eyes so that I can solve this problem. Well, that’s kinda stupid, because, I dunno, I don’t get to go do that. Why don’t they figure out a different way to solve the problem where you don’t need your eyes? So I was really disappointed with their first chance to actually show how to overcome a disability and what they ran to immediately was, the way they overcame it was to just steal some sight. It’s just dumb.

M: So do you remember the episodes Under the Lake, Before the Flood where they go to that underwater base with the alien space ship on it and they had the deaf character who was the leader of the base?

J: No.

M: Oh ok, because they had a scene in there where she was being sneaked up on by a ghost, so she couldn’t hear anything coming up behind her but the ghost was dragging an ax that was vibrating the floor, so the reason that she saved herself and figured out that she was almost about to be murdered was she touched the floor and felt the vibration and realized what it was…

J: That’s way better, way better.

M: So you wish that the writers had something more like that…

J: Yep.

M: Anything else, besides…

J: Anything besides going to steal some sight.

M: What about after the Doctor ran away and ended up using the text-to-speech on the laptop anyway? Did you feel it was a writer mistake to have him not think of that in the first place?

J: I don’t know. So, I was thinking about that trying to figure it out, and the one thing that crossed my mind was that everybody else had read it and gone crazy, and he decided not to read it, he listened to it instead, so he’s bending the rules in the way that the Doctor bends rules. “Oh, I just had listen to this, rather than read it, maybe that won’t make me go crazy.”

M: Do you think that that made the Doctor look less competent because he didn’t immediately look at the laptop and think, oh, here’s technology I can use rather than trying to get my sight back to read a book?

J: Hmm. Do I think it made him look less competent? I dunno.

M: The Doctor’s supposed to always be ten steps ahead, so the thing that you think he’s gonna do is not the thing that he does and you realize that half an hour ago he was already on to the idea that was going to save the world, whereas this time he didn’t pick up on it until he just happened to pick up the laptop and run away. Or is it the kind of thing that anybody could have missed.

J: I dunno. Not sure how to answer that one. I guess I just feel like that was the Doctor’s deciding to bend rules and I… dunno. Don’t know how to answer that one.

M: How does Doctor Who compare to other media with blind protagonists such as Daredevil?  And… I can’t think of any other examples. (laughs)

J: Daredevil is way better. Daredevil is more addicting by a lot, I mean just as a tv show, for me, at least. I enjoy the portrayal of a blind person who figures out how to overcome his disabilities by using his other senses and the rest of his brain, and didn’t go steal sight from somewhere although he can, you know, see, and I’m doing air quotes, he can see by way of using what he hears and the way that sounds bounce off of things and the way he feels heat and tastes and smells and all that stuff. I dunno, really interesting to me, but the Doctor just, he lost his sight but keeps running back to sight and then he runs into scenarios where he needs to figure something out and so far they’ve had a few opportunities and in one he borrowed sight from the future in order to solve it and the other one he was completely incapable of figuring out how to open a stupid door lock that had probably nine digits on it that, you only lay digits out in one of two configurations and I’m pretty damn sure that he should have been smart enough to try them both. He had to type in four numbers in a keypad with nine digits…

M: It was a flippy numbers, it had a pin and rotating things. So it would have taken more combinations, but still…

J: Unless the numbers were actually moving on him… if it wasn’t a set pattern that might have been actually complicated. But anyway I just generally feel like they’re not doing a good job playing up the fact that you can do things in the world without sight. So.

M: Oh the other example I just thought of was in Rogue One with the blind monk.

J: Oh the blind monk was also pretty awesome. He didn’t have sight and he just went on faith all the time, or whatever, I dunno how he made it work.

M: But he found a way to overcome it versus…

J: Yeah, exactly.

M: Ok, second part of that, do you think Doctor Who has done a good job and would you like to see this storyline continue?

J: I’m about done with the blind thing because so far since it happened I was initially intrigued and then disappointed repeatedly so. So they can be done with that now.

M: Well, apparently after the episode we just watched I guess it is technically done, so he can just go back to being blind in other ways.

J: Yeah, cuz look he had to go back to getting his sight back, because there’s no way the Doctor can save the world without his sight.


…there’s no way the Doctor can save the world without his sight.

That was the end of our interview, and though we’d originally thought we might talk a bit more about Ep. 7, it also kind of seemed like a good place to stop.  If that’s the message James got from Doctor Who’s attempt to portray a blind character (yes, I know there have been instances where companions have been temporarily blinded in Classic Who) through the Doctor, then I’m not sure they ought to try it again.

It makes one wonder if they actually consulted any blind people before they wrote these episodes.  If anyone knows, I’d like to hear about it.  But mostly it felt as though blindness were just another plot device and not something thousands of people live with every day and somehow manage to make a life around.  Given Peter Capaldi’s acting capabilities, it certainly seems as though if they’d made an effort, the creators of the show could have constructed a much more nuanced representation of blindness, instead of just setting it up as a way to examine the Doctor’s supposed flaws and, again, drive the plot.

I’d be happy to hear your comments, but please note that any ableist nonsense will be deleted without seeing the light of day.

Thanks for reading!

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