We need to talk about Davros

A montage of Davros throughout the years with the current incarnation front and centre.

A long long time ago (well, on Friday. Wibbly wobbly, timey wimey), Destination Skaro, the planet of the Thals, the Kaleds and latterly the Daleks.  In a monochrome room,  in the heart of an emerging empire,  buzzing with a mechanic pulse we arrive at what we find out to be, the lair of Davros. THE Davros, but not the Davros you were expecting.

Doctor Who has always had a friend in Pudsey Bear, in fact back in 1983, ‘The Five Doctors’ – the 25th-anniversary special was aired as part of the fundraising night. Since then we’ve had some fun trips in the TARDIS including Dimensions in Time – the Doctor Who/EastEnders crossover that nobody wanted but did bring back all the surviving Doctors of the time and their companions glitching them all around Walford. The modern era has treated us to David Tennant’s first scenes as the Tenth Doctor, a multi-Doctor ‘Time Crash’ with Peter Davidson’s Fifth Doctor. Since then there’s been nothing exclusively Doctor Who and specially recorded until now.

The surprise return of Davros and actor Julian Bleach – who has played the so-called Dark Lord of Skaro in the modern era of Who – seemed to delight viewers who took to Twitter (they’ve redecorated and I don’t like it. Opal Fruit, anyone?) praising the return and this hilarious take on the Bootstrap Paradox (Google it!) where the Doctor ends up giving the Daleks both their name and their plunger – which when you think about it makes complete sense. Consequently, the Doctor has even more of a significant relationship with both combatants of the Time War,  having named and effectively arming his enemies while sharing their DNA and regeneration abilities with the Timelords.

The tide seemed to change though following the first episode of Doctor Who: Unleashed, a new companion show to take viewers behind the scenes on the show. Returning showrunner Russell T Davies, the man who jettisoned shaky sets, the Doctor’s traditional posho accent and the sexism of the underwritten companion role.

Davies explained: ‘We had long conversations about bringing Davros back, because he’s a fantastic character. Time and society and culture and taste have moved on, and there’s a problem with the old Davros: he’s a wheelchair user who is evil. I had problems with that. A lot of us on the production team did too, associating disability with evil. Trust me, there’s a very long tradition of this.

‘I’m not blaming people in the past at all, but the world changes. And when the world changes, Doctor Who has to change as well. So we made the choice to bring back Davros without the facial scarring and without the wheelchair – or his support unit, which functions as a wheelchair.

‘I say, this is how we see Davros now. This is what he looks like. This is 2023. This is our lens. This is our eye. Things used to be black and white; they’re not anymore. Davros used to look like that, and now he looks like this. We are absolutely standing by that.’

So to be clear, the Davros we saw on Friday is the same Davros we’ve seen since 1975 but our lens has changed and going forward, if we see Davros again we won’t see him as we used to.

Doctor Who fans – the Whovians – paradoxically have an interesting relationship with change, both embracing and shunning it over the years. The simple fact is Doctor Who survives on change – something baked in from the first episode which took us from the first story set in the Stone Age to the second story, introducing the Daleks in 21st century Skaro and progressing episode on episode.

Changes throughout the show have allowed the Doctor to change their form and to regenerate – a core idea of the show yet in 2018 when a white-haired Scotsman turned into a blonde-bobbed woman some fans were outraged, horrified, furious. Granted, I’m in no hurry to rewatch ‘The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos’ but Jodie’s Doctor took the show in a different direction. The Doctor’s gender identity, for the first time, became a barrier to saving the day in some instances. You don’t need to like Chris Chibnall to applaud the thinking behind these new angles to the storytelling.

A key component of modern Doctor Who is been that it’s rooted in ‘the today’ of when the episode was broadcast applying modern values to how the companions and the Doctor see the universe. 1980s Ace is angered by a sign saying “no coloureds” in the 1960s, Donna is horrified by the human colonies enslaving the Ood, Bill (well, her hologram) is shocked by the First Doctor’s sexism and the Twelfth Doctor shows some remorse for his earlier incarnation’s offering of a jolly good smacked bottom.  As Toby Hadoke, wisely pointed out in a recent feature for the BBC’s Newsnight the early episodes covered capitalism, colonialism, and even the ‘Brentry’ to the EU and the common market.

Ace looking out a window with a sign stating: 'No coloureds'

We’re in the dawn of a new Doctor Who era and the TARDIS doors open onto the planet Earth which has just about recovered from the biggest pandemic in a century, two major conflicts on the go. Closer to home, in the UK we’re thirteen years deep into a Conservative government hell-bent on stirring culture wars. Degrading, demonising and dehumanising asylum seekers, traumatising transgender people with a torrent of laws designed to discriminate and refusing to alter existing ones to make their existence easier, clamping down on protestors and restricting the right to strike – and that’s just for starters.

Why is that important and what has it got to do with Doctor Who? Everything. Television and all forms of culture still have a massive impact on society. It allows people to have a glimpse into the lives of people they might not come into contact with on a regular basis and shares stories from their perspectives.

The reach of television has been harnessed to share stories from all kinds of communities. These stories allow big issues to be shown in human terms. Soaps and dramas can shine a light on communities and worlds that viewers might not come into contact with in their day-to-day lives breaking down barriers and putting a human face on taboo issues.

To use the LGBT+ community as an example; EastEnders for example gave us the first televised gay kiss in 1989, Brookside gave the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss in 1994, the same year that Byker Grove (a children’s TV show) dealt with one character having feelings for another character of the same sex. Corrie introduced us to Hayley, a trans woman, in 1998.  While homophobia and transphobia are still rife, characters like these are now commonplace on TV and representation is improving. At the time were these stories controversial? Yes. Did all gay and trans people support these storylines? Probably not. Is the world a better place because these stories were told? Definitely, we’ve moved the conversation on.

The same can be said for the Black community. TV started small-scale in the 1930s but it wasn’t until almost 30 years later that black people started appearing regularly on TV. Despite incredible groundbreaking dramas such as 1956’s Man from the Sun – a BBC drama about the exploration of the difficulties faced by West Indians new to Britain which we’d now call the Windrush scandal – the jewel in the BBC’s primetime Saturday night schedule was The Black and White Minstrel Show. Defended for decades as “traditional” this show was a variety show influenced by the American minstrel “artform” dehumanising Black people as not much more than slaves. In the 20 years since the show started hearts and minds in the UK clearly changed with the BBC One controller shutting down the show with this statement which doesn’t hit and miss; ‘It’s all very well people who are not Black saying “I didn’t think about it that way”‘, he told them, ‘it’s the people who are Black whose views surely needed to be taken into account.’

From the late 60s, Black people on TV started to become normalised from the mid-sixties.  In 1968 the first black newscaster Barbara Blake Hannah started presenting until 9 months later when her contract was cancelled because, and I quote, viewers wrote to ITV to demand they ‘Get that n****r off our screens’ and producers regretfully bowed to public pressure. Only 5 years later, Trevor Macdonald joined ITN and 8 years after that Moira Stuart took to the air on the BBC and both are considered national treasures due to their exceptional skill in their fields.

I fully accept that racism, transphobia and homophobia haven’t been irradicated by TV showcasing these people and their stories but it’s moved things forward.  The more we develop as a society the more we try to become inclusive and considerate of others.

Russell T Davies has taken a battering on Twitter over the weekend because of his comments. People are outraged that he’s making decisions on behalf of disabled people, some disabled people say they’re not remotely offended. I think he’s right in making this choice. Some people think he’s got a bit of a nerve given that he brought Davros, the chair and his disfigurement back in 2008. I kind of agreed with this at first until I realised a couple of things.

Firstly, and this is a horrendous truth – but 2008 – genuinely shocking, was 15 years ago! A decade and a half. In that time society has really moved on, and disabilities have been able to take centre stage thanks to bold TV decisions Strictly has had dancers with disabilities, and many shows have featured characters who are disabled (such as Liz Carr in Silent Witness) and actually have personality, a career and other character traits outside of her wheelchair.  We’ve had other groundbreaking movements, feminist rallies, the #MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter movement. All of which influence heavily on the arts. I remember speaking to someone who ran a Shakespeare festival and said when the far right goes full throttle, it’s up to the creative industries to embrace who they are targeting and protect them, tell their stories and give them their humanity back.

Looking back at Russell’s own work, Queer as Folk, a groundbreaking bold, brave piece of television from the turn of the millennium isn’t without fault and RTD accepts that if it was to be made today the cast of gay men would be played by gay men and the proof was really in the pudding with the equally groundbreaking (and devastating) It’s a Sin – with it’s own bonus Doctor Who scenes as a treat for fans!

Some of the comments I’ve read online about the change of lens we see through Davros through have included;

Speaking out as a disabled man in a wheelchair, I am highly highly offended by Russell T. Davies’ claim to change Davros to no longer be in a wheelchair, for fear of offending people like me. What the hell comes next. Changing a Dalek for fear of offending a salt shaker. Political correctness gone mad.

Say goodbye to Davros, one of Doctor Who’s most enduring foes. RTD has decided Davros boils down to discrimination against the disabled. He is a war-scarred cripple who is a megalomaniacal genius. His disability does not define or even restrict him as he is one of the most dangerous Doctor Who villains ever. Thanks to RTD though Davros has no injuries and is not in a wheelchair any longer. Goodbye, Davros. We had a good 40 years.

The people who are offended by this change, are missing the point and to understand this you need to go to another slightly less controversial choice that Russell T Davies made about the new era of Doctor Who.

Ncuti Gatwa’s first season with Doctor Who will be called just that Season 1. Not Season 40, Not Series 14. At first, I was a bit perplexed – although anyone who knows Doctor Who – particularly from the UNIT days will know that numbering has always plagued the show. I wasn’t best impressed, I didn’t see the point. Everyone knows Doctor Who has been going for 60 years so why make this change? To be honest, I didn’t understand the reason until RTD’s explanation

For me, the reason is very simple. Doctor Who, both Classic and New Who (2005-2022) is troubled. There’s stuff in those episodes that we probably wouldn’t do now – things like Davros’ portrayal (the worst of which is probably shown in 2015’s The Witch’s Familiar in which the Doctor steals Davros’ Chair and leaves him abandoned on the floor). There’s stuff for example like a racist song in The Celestial Toymaker, The Talons of Weng Chiang features a smorgasbord of casual racism from cultural appropriation to yellowface. This reset allows a new audience to come on board and start from scratch. All the previous episodes are on the Whoniverse (maybe not, An Unearthly Child but that’s a whole other blog), or DVD or Blu-ray if anyone wants to watch them but the message from the new makers of Doctor Who are drawing a line and saying they want to do better, they want to tell better stories using the 60 years of source material but for a modern audience.

The production team are making a bold choice and statement but saying this is how they’ll tell stories. Traditionalists will miss the Davros of old but for me, look at the 5-minute clip and tell me that isn’t the Davros we all know. It’s a credit to the calibre of acting and the sheer evil seeping out of every pore of Julian Bleach’s body that allow all of the evil we know about Davros to completely penetrate through the television and across to the viewer. Some might say Davros should just have been retired but again, Doctor Who is fundamentally a show about change and think about the stories now open to us about Davros’ backstory that viewers will now be able to experience. For me, this opens doors, unleashes potential and takes Doctor Who to a place where it isn’t cruel or cowardly. A new era where children in the playground won’t associate evil with a disability because let’s face it the villains of 21st-century life don’t necessarily look like monsters and similarly the goodies don’t look like a straight white man in a pinstripe suit and converse combo.

Change, my dear, and not a moment too soon?