Monday, 5 October 2015

Doctor Who's Deaf Character Is A Great Step Forward

Saturday saw the third episode of series nine of Doctor Who 'Under The Lake' air.  As a fan of the show I though that it was a good episode.  We're in an underwater base with a group of survivors being chased through small dark corridors by ghosts with black holes where their eyes should be.  It was tense, it was creepy and it was fun.  Everything that makes a good Doctor Who story.

What immediately jumped out at me about the episode though was the inclusion of the character Cass, who after the death of the team leader in the opening minutes of the episode becomes the De facto leader of the group (well, as much as you can be when The Doctor is around).  You see, what's interesting about Cass is the fact that she's deaf.

With an episode set in the not too distant future it would be easy for the show runners to create some kind of sci-fi device that made the characters deafness something minor, hell, we have hearing aids now so there's no reason to think the technology wouldn't progress far enough by 2119 to help people hear.  Instead of any hearing devices though, the character communicated only through sign language via her interpreter Lunn.

For the first time in the show's history we're given a deaf actress, Sophie Stone, playing a deaf character that communicates in a very real and everyday way, rather than something that feels far removed or alien.

Cass isn't once treated as 'handicapped' or 'disabled' during the episode.  No one treats her with pity or acts differently around her because she's deaf.  Despite the fact that she has Lunn interpreting all of what she says and what characters say to her people talk to her directly, not her interpreter.  In a world where so many deaf people are treated differently or ignored in our society it is refreshing and amazing to see Doctor Who embrace the fact that having a disability doesn't in any way change who someone is.

Sophie Stone was the first deaf actress to study at RADA, and the first deaf
actress to appear on Doctor Who.
Cass is strong, passionate and brave, she puts the lives of her crew first and takes action when it's needed, not because she's deaf, not to balance out that she can't hear, but because she's a real person.  She would act the same way whether she could hear or not, and the show knows that in they way that she's written and the way that she acts.

Her deafness has even come into play in an important way, allowing her to lip-read the silent muttering ghosts and giving The Doctor the chance to figure out a part of the bigger picture.  Her relationship with her signer Lunn is also quite important, her intuition at something being wrong with the strange alien writing the crew finds in the sunken space ship makes her stop Lunn from going inside.  This has already been shown to make him immune to the ghosts wanting to kill him, something that could come to be massively important in the second episode that could help to save the day.

I've seen a lot of incidents where people in real life are treated as less able or less competent because of what other people would see as a disability, so to see a television program showing audiences that being deaf doesn't mean that you're less able, that you can't be a leader is a great thing.  It might not mean much, it's only light entertainment after all, but if this show can take even a tiny step towards influencing people to see people with disabilities as regular people, to be treated equally and fairly, then it's only a good thing.


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