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.