Bicycles, disability and Doctor Who

The recent Pixel Scroll at File 770 included a link to this piece on the BBC website about one of the new characters in Doctor Who: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-45784822

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]

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24 comments

  1. Micael Gustavsson

    I have not much to comment right now, but I really. want to give some kind of positive response to this surptisingly personal and touching blog post. You were brave to write it!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. lenorarose

    What Micael Gustavsson said.

    But then I fall into the geek mode. They don’tquite ignore it in the rest of the episode. It also shows up in the climb up the crane, but subtly. Yaz asks Ryan if he’s sure he wants to do it, and Ryan later drops the flashlight. It’s intentionally not the focus but not forgotten.

    I hope it continues to show up like this in later episodes; occasional pause doing the daunting physical stuff that will happen in an action show, not just being overcome by magical willpower, and not, as you say, turned into the comic stereotype.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. jonesnori

    Thank you for this. My disability (I am hard of hearing) gets played for laughs sometimes, too, and it’s meaningful when it shows up in stories in a straightforward, non-comedic way.

    Liked by 2 people

    • frasersherman

      I actually read two novels earlier this year which, while I didn’t like them over all, both showed deaf people as part of the supporting cast and didn’t make a plot point out of it — it was just a character detail, treated matter-of-factly.

      Liked by 2 people

      • jonesnori

        That’s great to hear. I’d love to see a story with someone like me, too – not deaf, not a signer, but hard of hearing. I depend heavily on hearing aids, lip-reading, and captioning, but I don’t sign. It takes a lot of energy and attention to cope. I come off as more introverted in person than I really am, because I’m always a fraction of a second behind in conversation, and also sometimes working too hard to have the extra brain cycles needed to contribute.

        Actually, seeing someone convey the energy drain of almost any disability would be interesting. The emotional drain gets shown sometimes, but there is a physical drain and/or a brain processing drain with most, if not all, disabilities.

        Liked by 1 person

      • frasersherman

        I have a close friend whose ears are similarly weakened. If she sees me looking at her, she sometimes assumes I said something she didn’t catch. She can’t stand hearing aids, but she lip reads well (she’s also good at reading body language

        Like

      • Lurkertype

        The previous Doctor had a story where the boss of the people he had to save was deaf. She signed, one of the others spoke what she’d said when it was needed, and nobody including the Doctor even *mentioned it*. She was just there, running the operation when Bad Things happened and the madman in a box showed up. IIRC she was also South Asian and that wasn’t mentioned either.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Contrarius

        Which reminds me of Eileen, the deaf hunter in Supernatural, a recurring character who was finally killed off in Season 12 (I’m slowly trying to catch up with old episodes).

        Personally, I thought it was a very bad idea to take up that profession when she couldn’t hear the monsters sneaking up on her from behind, but nobody asked me!

        Like

      • Lurkertype

        I wouldn’t take up fighting monsters while deaf either. Of course the woman in the Who episode didn’t normally have to fight supernatural evil, that was just a one-off. Her regular job, it was no problem.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Micael Gustavsson

        Unless necessary, I wouldn’t take up fighting monsters no matter how well I see or hear. Of course, if it is necessary, it is necessary no matter what.

        Like

  4. Regular Commenter

    Sometimes things can hit us in really unexpected ways and from unexpected quarters. It’s generous of you to share this bit of raw self-reflection.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Lurkertype

    I’m a bit this way myself — I was the last one in the neighborhood with training wheels on my bike, which gets you put down quite a bit as a kid. I vividly remember trying and falling over so many times just like Ryan did. Thankfully I wasn’t at the edge of a hill. (Really, Grams and Graham, was that the best place?)

    I can dogpaddle and backstroke such that I won’t drown in a pool, but not really swim, and that’s after *years* of lessons. I don’t float, I sink.

    Jungle gyms at recess, I always avoided, and I was always terrible in all PE classes, regardless of activity.

    I can’t play video games — all those buttons on the controls and getting my fingers to move fast enough is completely impossible. IRL target shooting, either with bow and arrow or gun, I’m also terrible.

    This has not magically cleared up in adulthood or middle age, so I hope Ryan continues to be clumsy, drop things, and all that. OTOH, he might get a bit better just from the sheer necessity of things companions have to do. Not magically, but just to keep from dying. That’s much more motivation than riding a bike.

    And of course the Doctor is “they”! 13 different people in that head. The Doctor contains multitudes.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Alecto

      This is really interesting. Also the last kid on my block to learn to ride a bike and can’t really swim. I spent a lot of long, frustrating years in martial arts classes, which I think were worthwhile–I never got proficient in a martial art but people who know me now don’t seem to think of me as clumsy. Still no better at swimming though.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. JJ

    I remember what a mind-blowing revelation it was for me the first couple of times I got to read science fiction novels where the main character was a smart, capable woman who was neither a bimbo nor a male author’s caricature of what he imagined a woman to be. I can only begin to understand what it must be like to finally get to see yourself represented in a way that neither plays it for humor nor makes a huge production out of it.

    Thank you for this post, which offers some powerful insights.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. katster

    Huh. I could bike and swim relatively easy, even hit softballs and make baskets — but I’m a penguin when I run, I couldn’t tie my shoelaces until seventh grade, and things like the monkey bars and sliding poles were bafflements. I can play video games, but if they involve twitch reactions, forget about it. So maybe there’s a bit there.

    But it’s cool to have representation. I’d love to see a smart person who isn’t either amazingly competent or played for laughs. One that’s human — has human problems, maybe even issues over the ‘super competent’ stereotype. Not that I’m speakimg from personal experience.

    Anyway, Cam, thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Friday Five (learning opportunities edition) | Font Folly
  9. Regular Commenter

    So, about the importance of representation and its on-the-ground resonance. I’ve recently had cause to be passing through Parliament Square in London semi-frequently and there is always (and I mean ALWAYS) people taking selfies or family photos with the Gandhi statue (South Asians), the Mandela statue (Afro-descended) and the Millicent Garrett Fawcett suffagist statue (women, esp young women). I have never, ever, not even once, seen anyone doing this with Lloyd George, Peel or Churchill.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Kat Goodwin

    I was struck by two things with it. The first is that his grandmother Grace expects him to throw the bike over the cliff and warns him not to do it. Clearly, Ryan had gotten frustrated before with trying to do various tasks and it not working, possibly trashing a previous bike. She is annoyed but accepts it matter of factly, having dealt with it since Ryan was a kid and understanding, while for Graham who doesn’t know Ryan well and has Ryan distanced from him, it was stranger and perplexing and he complains more. It showed how disabled people have to deal with the pressure to perform and with impatience of others if they don’t always manage to be calm and determined at tasks that give them greater trouble and frustration.

    And that then tied in with the other thing later when Ryan has to climb the crane. Now his disability is not simply annoying but dangerous for him — he is a young man who should be able to shimmy right up the crane but instead his disability puts him in serious danger of falling. The obstacles of Ryan’s disability are made much starker to the audience as he slips, nearly falls and drops the flashlight and you are scared for him. But in that more dangerous situation, he takes the risk to help save someone else. He is still frustrated and his disability is not something that is ignored, but it also isn’t the only thing he is. So I thought they did a really good job on that.

    Liked by 2 people

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