I mentioned briefly on Twitter that the opening scene of the first episode of the new season of Doctor Who was surprisingly upsetting. To recap, the character Ryan is on moorland outside of Sheffield being given bike riding lessons by his grandmum and his step-grandad (who also feature as key characters in the episode). Ryan tries and fails to stay upright on the bike and eventually chucks the bike off the hillside in frustration. The lost bike precipitates the rest of the events in the episode in normal Doctor Who fashion.
It’s an interesting scene. Ryan is an adult but the structure of the scene is intended to look familiar but only in a context where the person learning to ride is a child. The audience is not given an explanation until further into the scene: Ryan has “dyspraxia”, a condition better described as developmental coordination disorder. I can attest to at least some aspects of that scene being accurate – I also tried (eventually with some marginal success) to learn to ride a bike as an adult and felt both humiliation and frustration with my inability to master something that is treated culturally as a right of passage for children. Bike riding just being one of a litany of things that you are supposed to learn as a child that proved to be frustratingly difficult.
I mentioned one aspect of that here and I said in that post that I’d talk some more about it. What I didn’t know (and yet oddly should have guessed) that I’d be provoked into writing about failing to ride a bike or why I still tie shoe-laces badly by Doctor Who. I’m also still processing the way I was quite discombobulated by that scene — to the extent that I didn’t properly engage with the rest of the episode until I watched it the second time.
I’ve obviously engaged with and discussed questions about representation and also about content warnings and how television (and other media) impact different audiences in complex ways. I’ve also tried to be clear the extent to which I’m clearly seeing things from a position of entrenched privilege — I’m a middle-class cis-het white guy from England living in an English speaking country with all the economic and social advantages that they entail. One scene in a show briefly flipped the script on me. That’s not a criticism, I think the scene was well thought out and done with some sensitivity but I wasn’t expecting it and I really wouldn’t have guessed it would have affected me quite the way it did. But it did.
The secondary piece of discombobulation was reading reviews which quite correctly described Ryan as being a disabled character. That’s clearly true, yet I can’t say I’ve ever really thought of myself as being disabled despite having exactly the same condition. Yet I’m in an odd position of feeling like I have to say that when before I said that representation really does matter I now have to say that, yes, representation really does matter. I can’t imagine how big a deal Ryan’s character would have been for me as a kid, on any show that I watched then and then even more so on Doctor Who.
The pernicious aspect of DCD is that it is by definition unobvious. “Dyspraxia” is a poor name for it as the term relates to the more apparent discordination of movement which may relate to a much wider range of conditions. DCD is, diagnostically, a condition where there isn’t some other reason why a person has difficulty coordinating their movements. It’s also most obviously a learning disorder but one of physicality — why riding a bike was a clever example. Learning to tie your shoe laces, or ride a bike or swim or write aren’t trivial for anybody new to them as activities but that initial obstacle is substantially higher if you have DCD and even after the initial difficulty progress is much slower*. These kinds of tasks are (not unreasonably) also things seen to varying degrees as developmental milestones for children, either formally (e.g. tying your own shoe laces) or socially (e.g. riding a bike, being able to swim**). I say ‘not unreasonably’ because a young child who is struggling to learn to dress themselves (another basic task, which is just that much harder) may well have many different conditions that are better diagnosed early. The thing with DCD is that it lacks any obvious deeper cause, it manifests more obviously in childhood precisely because it throws up bigger developmental red flags than the actual condition entails.
Put another way, while the condition doesn’t go away in adulthood, the extent of the disability is relative to the environment around you and that can (potentially) be much more accomodating as an adult than as a child or at school. Of course, computers are part of that. Nobody expects me to write anything out by hand and nobody at my current work knows that I can only write legibly with great effort (I mean, I tell people my handwriting is awful but I think that just sounds self-deprecating rather than indicating that if computers weren’t ubiquotous I would struggle to function in a workplace that wasn’t manual work)
Ah, there’s another one of those quasi-epiphanies about something which I already knew but which I’m only thinking about in terms of myself now. “I would struggle to function in a workplace…” because, say thirty odd years ago or fifty odd years ago finding it exhausting and difficult to write legibly would have restricted the kind and scope of paid work that I could do. What is more of an inconvenience now would have had a severe impact on my adult life. What has change is the working environment, which at least in my case has pushed a significant issue into a minor issue.
The other aspect of that scene was the dynamic between the three people. Ryan trying to make his grandmother happy, Graham trying to be a replacement dad and becoming frustrated himself with something he didn’t understand. I don’t know how intentional this was by the director. Where the grandparents meant to look a bit awful by pressurising Ryan into doing something that he was going to struggle with (and Sheffield’s not a great place to ride a bike anyway)? Or was it that they were supposed to seem supportive of Ryan’s efforts and determination? I know my reaction was not to like either of them initially and that right thing to say to Ryan is that riding a bike is overrated and while hard work & determination are virtues they might be better deployed to a more satisfying end.
And that takes us to the second bike riding scene. Towards the end of the episode Ryan is (more or less) by himself with the bike on the moors. This time he is more grimly determined to succeed and the scene is set up for a triumph of will over gravity. Thankfully the scene defies that expectation and Ryan continues to lose his balance and fall off. The repeated efforts are shown at a greater distance and this time with the Doctor looking on (but also from a distance). I’m not sure what the scene was trying to say here, something about grief perhaps or something about Ryan’s character.
The remaining question is how Ryan’s disability is presented beyond these scenes. “Not at all” makes sense in some ways – it’s not a particularly visible disability- but then would this negate the representation of the character from the first episode? The obvious bad solution would be Ryan as comically clumsy (I mean, I’d rather be comically clumsy than just plain clumsy but the pathologically clumsy person as a comic figure is the negative stereotype of the dyspraxic person). The unintentionally chaotic, the person who accidentally triggers a chain of escalating events is caught up within that stereotype of the comically clumsy (the Frank Spencer or Inspector Clouseau) but it is also seperate from it. It is a character trait caught up in the chaotic nature of the Doctor themselves*** where “chaotic” is not the Dungeons & Dragons sense of chaos but rather the cloud of disruption and change that follows in their wake regardless of their intent. Interestingly Ryan is gifted with this trait in the episode and not due to any physical clumsiness (or not directly) but out of curiosity and the irresistible impulse to press a literally shiny button. Ryan’s confession that he precipitated the crisis is met with different reactions: Graham (in his most unpleasant moment) asks sarcastically if Ryan will blame the alien invasion on his dyspraxia whereas the Doctor confesses that she too would have pressed the button just to see what would happen.
I’ve never been a small person. I’ve always been tall for my age and did I mention my eye-sight isn’t the best either? Long-sighted, which is easily the most positive name for poor vision anybody ever had, and dyspraxic and like Murderbot says, never entirely sure what humans are supposed to do with their arms to look natural. The world has always seemed a bit more chaotic and fragile than its supposed to. The Doctor’s character trait of trailing chaos around them has always been something I loved about the character. It’s relatable and positive and interesting and not a physical trait or a lack or a disadvantage or a problem but part of a character. I’m glad Ryan had that as part of his character (a person who things happen to) that is seperate from his DCD but which is relatable to in those terms.
And I’m back to the beginning. A bicycle and Doctor Who and how that would have impacted me when I was 10 or 16 or how it did now.
*[I did eventually learn to ride a bike as an adult (‘ride a bike’ as in stay upright and moving the bike by pedalling for several metres) but I am not sufficiently confident to ride on a road where there are other vehicles.]
**[Luckily I didn’t grow up in Australia]
***[and the singular “they” has surely been the most appropriate of pronouns for the Doctor since Patrick Troughton]