1) Fanfiction – Never Change
3) Fan podcast – Breaking The Glass Slipper Representations of Disability With Marissa Lingen
4) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds Caps Lock Harry
5) Fan podcast – Witch, Please Episode Rho Live and Professional at Tufts University
6) Video – The Gayly Prophet
7) Essay – The Future Is (Not) Disabled
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!
Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.
My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the tenth episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I talk to Robert Shepherd about the representations of dyspraxia and autism in Doctor Who – both the TV series and its online fandom. We chat about some difficult issues related to disability, specifically family, trauma and abuse so please consider this as a content warning.
Media representations of disabilities have a huge impact on people with those disabilities. The downside of seeing their disability represented onscreen is that it can reify fraught relationships and troubling experiences that they recognise from their own lives. Even well-intentioned representations can have really damaging consequences. Centering the needs and desires of the family rather than the needs and desires of the person with the disability can have harmful impacts – both in media and in real life.
You can find examples of structural ableism not only in media but also in fandom. Fans with disabilities read themselves into characters who aren’t explicitly written as disabled to counter ableist representations. The kinds of stories which are told about autism – both in media and in society – can perpetuate distressing eugenics narratives. Fanfiction can be an important way for fans with disabilities to assert their agency by writing their own stories. Fanfiction can challenge fixed notions of disabilities and show a different way of being human.
Find our conversation about all this and more in today’s episode.
Parinita: I’m so happy to have Robert Shepherd on the podcast today. Robert was diagnosed with dyspraxia and autism at the age of ten and now writes about living with both. And he has been a fairly obsessive fan of both Doctor Who and Harry Potter. He’s the age where Harry was his obsession as a teenager and the Doctor came along at the same time as adulthood. Unlike me who grew up with Harry Potter but never grew out of it. I met Robert in Scotland about three years ago and we’ve been friends since then. During Jodie’s first appearance as the Doctor a couple of years ago, Robert wrote an essay about one of the Doctor’s companions, Ryan, and how happy it made him to see some representation of dyspraxia in one of his favourite shows. And the essay was great. I found it really illuminating as someone who, like many others, hadn’t encountered dyspraxia before that. And we’re going to talk about that more a little later in the episode. But before we do that Robert, do you want to introduce your own experiences with disability?
Robert: Hello! I’m Robert. Obviously it’s hard to talk about your experiences of something like dyspraxia ’cause you’ve had no experiences not having it.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Robert: I don’t know if it’s technically called a developmental disorder, but it’s the sort of thing you have for life. It’s not something that comes along later like maybe some disabilities can. So since I’ve been alive, I suppose, I would have difficulty picking up things, doing things, tying shoelaces … but also kind of like being in the world and relating to it in a way that is maybe quite hard for other people to understand. In the same way as if someone has to suddenly do a calculation that’s quite complicated in their head and suddenly find that their whole head is just frozen working it out. It feels like an intense amount of work. Often things that are quite day to day for people like putting on your trousers take that having to work something out, having to use a huge amount of brain power to a point it’s quite exhausting. And sometimes these things happen when you’re with other people in social situations. So at the same time you’re trying to do this, there’s another part of your brain that’s starting to panic thinking, “Uh oh, I’m not responding in this social situation because I’m having to do this. And the parts of my brain that would do that are trying to cross this road. And now I’m trying to make a joke as I’m crossing the road and there’s a car over there. And now I have been run over!” sort of thing. So I guess that’s my experience of being alive. Which might be different to the experience of being alive to someone who doesn’t have dyspraxia, if that makes sense.
Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. And I really appreciate your sharing even that little bit, because I know it’s such a weird question. Like you said, it’s something you’ve been living with. You basically don’t know any other experience of being in the world.
Parinita: And for me, it’s also really helpful. And again, this is something that I’ve come across a lot that it’s always the burden of – well any marginalised identity – but like here because we’re talking about disability, a person with disabilities – to explain themselves.
Parinita: Because otherwise the world is so neurotypical and able-bodied. That’s what the norm is considered to be. So everyone has to explain if they don’t fit in with the norm.
Robert: I am on the autistic spectrum as well. And that’s quite common for people with dyspraxia to either have a lot of traits that are associated with the spectrum or actually have a spectrum diagnosis. But I guess the extent to which it’s physical stuff and the extent to which it’s stuff more typically associated with autism is not always clear to me either. So I guess the extent to which it is both physical and mental and that boundary not really existing.
Robert: I remember actually that when they were doing promotion for Jodie Whittaker’s first season of Doctor Who with Ryan who is dyspraxic, they said that was something they had tried to make sure was the case. That they were considering the mental as well as the physical attributes of dyspraxia
Robert: Which at the time I appreciated. And then later on had some concerns about. But I think the extent to which it’s not just dropping things but significantly more of that, isn’t always understood if dyspraxia is understood at all. Which it’s often not. ’Cause it’s not talked about much at all.
Parinita: Yeah. Which is why thank you so much for being willing to share your experiences about it. And I’m glad that you are because I’m learning from you and I’ve learned a lot from our conversations before that. Hopefully people who listen to this podcast will learn as well. Especially because for me it’s very much an outsider perspective. I haven’t been personally identified with any disability. So I have huge blind-spots around it. Most of my friends are non-disabled as well. But it’s something that I’m thinking about now a lot more since I’ve moved to the UK. And a few of my friends in India are a lot more vocal about talking about different kinds of disabilities. So it’s been an education for me. I think on the internet at large as well, at least the sort of spaces that I inhabit, there’s a lot more conversations about disabilities. In general and especially now during the pandemic, mental health and mental disabilities have been a huge topic of conversation. So it’s something that I appreciate because I know it’s a blind-spot and I’m trying to educate myself through other people’s experiences. And in India, I think mental health services are not yet mainstream enough, though there are more advocates working on it. And working to raise awareness about the need to have mental health services. So it’s still an uphill battle but we’re getting there. We’ve chatted about this a little bit before, about our very different experiences in terms of disabilities in our families and how it was seen. Would you like to chat about that a little bit?
Robert: Yes. It’s quite a long story. Or a lot of long stories. My family – my mother particularly – I don’t know was ever entirely comfortable with my having what was then referred to as Asperger’s syndrome and would now be considered autism because Asperger’s syndrome is no longer considered distinct from autism. But I think she always had an image of me – or wanted a child – who was fairly what she saw as normal. Liked football, was good at football, went around doing laddish things. And because I was simultaneously very bad at all sports and had no interest in those laddish things, I think that was often quite challenging for her. And so a lot of what she did, in well-intentioned ways, to try and make me what she would see as better, involved effectively trying to cure me of things that are I suppose fairly fundamental that I can’t really conceive of not being part of myself. So as a child I would spend a long time going to various places and doing various things with no scientific basis in them, to explicitly try and cure me of dyspraxia, cure me of autism. And eventually when I was a teenager, she would do things like hire a shaman for me to come and try and cure me with shamanism. And it didn’t work! Which I’m pleased about now. But my mother is disabled herself. She has multiple sclerosis which is a degenerative condition and it got steadily worse throughout my adulthood. And her relation to disability is a huge part of her identity as well. And her ex-husband found both our disabilities particularly challenging and our relationship ended up being quite fraught because of it. And I suppose for context in Doctor Who Series 11, Ryan who’s the character with dyspraxia, has his own fraught relationship with his step-grandfather Graham. And it was similar enough to my own experiences that it was quite challenging to watch. Because it was almost like – well not like I was experiencing exactly what had happened to me, but I could see enough of what had happened to me in it, that it was quite difficult.
Parinita: We’ve spoken about trigger warnings, just with this podcast as well. And I suppose that’s not something the creators of Doctor Who thought about when they were trying to represent Ryan’s dyspraxia in a way that was realistic. And they perhaps didn’t think about the effect it would have on an audience with dyspraxia themselves who have a fraught relationship with their families. I know we’ll talk about it a little bit later as well but I’m wondering just in terms of the difference between intent and impact.
Parinita: Where your intentions might be good but the impact can still be really damaging.
Robert: Yeah. I guess it was very difficult for me because I think Ryan is genuinely the only explicit example of representation of a dyspraxic person in fiction – maybe even nonfiction – I can think of. Dyspraxia is such an almost non-existent condition that to criticise the way it’s portrayed at all is something I was unsure about. But I think the things that bothered me about it – first of all, in the first episode, Ryan’s step-grandfather Graham says something … I can’t remember the exact line. Ryan is worried because he’s caused an alien invasion. And then Graham is like, “Oh you’re going to blame the dyspraxia on that as well?”
Parinita: Um hmm.
Robert: And I guess the implication there obviously is all the time that these things are going wrong for Ryan, then he’s saying it’s by dyspraxia, but it’s not actually. If he’d had strength of will or tried hard enough, he would have been able to overcome these things that are, in fact, not possible to overcome because they are a disability. And when I saw that the first time, I thought that well this is something that will have happened because in the future in this series we will all be led to see that this isn’t the case; in actual fact, the way he said this is wrong. But I don’t think that really happens at all. And if anything, the reverse happens in terms of Graham’s expectations of who Ryan should be. For him, he wants Ryan to respect him and to see him as a legitimate father figure or grandfather figure. And he wants him to understand him without necessarily understanding how his own perception of Ryan’s dyspraxia might be affecting him or discussing that. And the fact that that sort of active ableism was in there and then not really addressed later on bothered me quite a bit. With Russell T. Davies in Season 1 of Doctor Who in 2005, there’s a scene where Rose, the companion then, uses gay just as a joking way like, “That awful thing is so gay.”
Robert: Because obviously he’s gay himself. And he’s thinking, “Well I want to deliberately do this to reflect that this thing is still wrong and uncomfortable but it’s also something people do. And I want to reflect it to make it clear that Rose Tyler is a real person.” That level of being confident that the author has actively thought about it and talked about it off-camera is not really a sense that I got from this example later on. And also I don’t feel like it was criticised in the same way. Because I know that a lot of people who are gay said, “We understand what you’re trying to do here but this sort of thing is still damaging because it implicitly says to people watching that this character who I identify with is doing things that are okay that we can do as well. And potentially it’s a gateway to behaviour that’s much worse.” I’m not in contact with my step-father anymore but I often thought afterwards that if we had been in contact he would maybe use this example laughing about it, making a joke of not being able to do things as an example that our relationship was all right really. And I was like, but it’s not all right, really.
Robert: And this example that is dominated by his perspective gives me as the dyspraxic person no way to really say I’m not comfortable with this. What you’re doing isn’t right for me. And I’m not sure that’s a place Ryan ever really gets to or something he’s ever able to really say. And the fact that hasn’t happened in the only representation of dyspraxia that exists ended up making me quite uncomfortable.
Parinita: Yeah. And it’s like something that you expect to give you comfort – whether it be your favourite TV show or book or fantasy fictional world or your family – it leaves you so much more hurt. Something I’ve not shared on the podcast before or indeed with many of my friends either, was my childhood experience with an alcoholic father who beat up my mother. And he gambled much of his and my mother’s money away. And this alcoholism was inherited; his parents had a similar relationship as well = just how the cycles of abuse continue. And I don’t know explicitly how this has impacted me and my own interactions with people because I’ve not been to therapy or I’ve not examined this aspect of my life. But I feel like this sort of childhood experience does leave scars. Because there has been a lot of trauma related to this even otherwise. And when I was away from the situation, and a few years had passed, I realised how much he would have benefited from therapy and just being able to … I don’t know like your step-father or maybe your mother – just having to talk to the other person and having an equal and respectful exchange of opinions and perspectives. But I think this complex intersection of addiction and ideas of masculinity and mental health not being considered important in India means that he never would have approached the idea of therapy. That’s not something that would have ever occurred to him. There’s such a close experience with physical violence and fear and trauma which for me, now still – domestic violence and things of that nature – it does … it’s not a trigger as such but it’s something I don’t like to think about just because I want to move on with my life, I guess. I don’t know how healthy that is. And of course, my mother was impacted by it much more than I was. But I think childhood experiences like that shape you in a way that you don’t even really realise … except I guess with therapy. For me, books in general, but Harry Potter in particular was very important while I was growing up because it was this escape from real life. My parents divorced when I was thirteen, but even after that, being raised by a single mum with not much money was difficult. So Harry Potter was very much a gateway. And that’s why now even with all the problematic things that J. K. Rowling has said and all the holes that we find in Harry Potter on this podcast and in fandom in general, I still can’t let go of Harry Potter because for me it was that comfort. But then the fact that the person who created this world has let us down so much is what is more – it’s something that was supposed to provide me with – and it did provide me with comfort and hope and everything. So like with Doctor Who with you as well, that’s sadder.
Robert: Yeah. No, no totally. I really didn’t know what Doctor Who was till it the new series – new? It’s fifteen years old now. But the revived series in 2005 came along when I was seventeen almost eighteen. And that was an extremely difficult time in my life ’cause my parents were having a very traumatic divorce and my mother was about to tell us all that she had multiple sclerosis because her health was visibly declining. And I remember a lot about it being very powerful for me then. Obviously there’s a difference in that Doctor Who doesn’t have a single creator in the way Harry Potter does.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Robert: And if someone came along and said is Snape from Brazil [laughs] and asked J. K. Rowling, she could say no! But if someone said is there a Dalek under the sea, there’s no one you can really ask that to give an authoritative response or whatever. I think what I would relate to is maybe more with the fandom community in particular in that well I think a lot of stuff that made Doctor Who comforting for me is related to autism or being on the spectrum. Often, I found my experiences in Doctor Who fandom to be the least inclusive and most actively … maybe not quite discriminatory but definitely uncomfortable experiences I’ve had in relation to being autistic.
Parinita: Do you mean online fandom?
Robert: I do yes, because I’ve not really had any experience with non-online fandom to be honest. So yes, specifically I think online forums. Although some of the stuff I saw on Twitter recently and beforehand but haven’t really engaged with as much. So yeah definitely stuff that would happen a lot on social media, but which does precede social media as well because as something for nerdy people, Doctor Who has a very long internet history that goes back significantly further than that.
Parinita: Yeah. And with Doctor Who, like you, I also discovered it through the New – well fifteen-year-old – Who, the revival, but not when it first came out. It was I think a few years ago that I started watching the new series because Doctor Who had always been on my radar but I always thought I would have to go back to the 60s show and watch everything to make it make sense. And I tried and I couldn’t do it. I tried watching the very first season and I watched a few episodes and I just couldn’t get into it.
Parinita: I was like nope I can’t do this! Life is too short. I’m just going to go with Christopher Eccleston and that’s where I’m going to start. And I loved it. But I’ve heard about this with Doctor Who fandom online that it has been very white, male, able-bodied – the fandom has been dominated by that. And it’s not been inclusive to … well I’ve heard about women, but like you’re saying with disabilities as well. Luckily for me, I’ve just encountered – I think it’s just the spaces that I very purposefully visit in terms of fandom, it has been mostly positive. Not just with Doctor Who but with Harry Potter as well. Because Harry Potter also has some really problematic elements within the fandom.
Parinita: Again this all through research and what I’ve spoken to other people. I think I just move around the internet and life generally with blinkers on [laughs] so all the problematic bits just pass me by.
Robert: [laughs] Aye.
Parinita: Which is good because that’s how I cope. But yeah it’s really … interesting I guess but also sad to hear about other experiences that don’t mirror my own.
Robert: Yeah. I guess if there is a difference, it would be that well it is absolutely uncontroversial to say that Doctor Who fandom has been terrible to women and to people who weren’t white and basically to everyone who wasn’t a white man. However, to say that you find it discriminatory to autistic people, I think that would be quite a bold thing to say because obviously Doctor Who is archetypically associated with autistic people. It’s something that autistic people latch on to. So to say as an autistic person, your own experience in the fandom has been very negative specifically around things that manifest as a result of that condition and sometimes explicitly around having that condition, is something that I think people would probably be more reluctant to accept. Whereas if you said Doctor Who fandom is sexist or racist, that would be a significantly less controversial statement, I think.
Parinita: So do you think the ableism in the Doctor Who fandom, is it something that’s understood by the fandom? Is it something that’s been done very explicitly or is it structural ableism?
Robert: Oh I think it would be far more structural than intentional. Just that in practice the things that you would mock maybe or the things that you would insult would be overwhelmingly things that are more likely to happen to someone who is autistic. If someone is incredibly obsessive with Doctor Who and obviously if someone has a special interest as an autistic person, Doctor Who is disproportionately a special interest they might end up having, then that would be something which would be widely mocked. I think finding Doctor Who important is something that’s deeply taboo within Doctor Who fandom. And I wonder if that is structurally challenging for autistic people in a weird way because often I think autistic people would find Doctor Who important. Because becoming invested in a special interest to a huge extent is something that’s quite fundamental and quite distressing if it’s invalidated, I suppose. Or if it’s not seen to be important. So I think when people say from an outside perspective that it is not important at all; if hearing that the button is on the wrong way on the 1966 version of the TARDIS console is clearly not as important for social justice as more or less anything else at all. And if for reasons that make sense within an autistic lens, it is something that’s a passionate concern to you, it can still be very taboo to say that this matters to me. It distresses me that you say it doesn’t matter.
Robert: I think it’s that sort of thing where the validity perhaps of autistic special interests or autistic experiences are not only not understood but actively mocked and marginalised … I think it’s a real problem in Doctor Who fandom and has been basically forever. And it has concerned me recently that while obviously Doctor Who has made huge strides probably literally everywhere else, the idea that this might be a problem that should be addressed and that continually continuing to talk in this way because the way people are reacting can’t be understood by you as a non-neurodivergent person. Therefore not only are they not valid, they’re things that deserve to be mocked to a point that is probably bullying – this is something that made me increasingly uncomfortable with Doctor Who fandom over the last many years.
Parinita: Yeah, that’s really interesting because some of the conversations that I’ve come across just in fandom in general, not Doctor Who specifically, is more through the lens of gender. Where transformative fandom – in both internet fandom as well as the field of fan studies – is seen to be more the domain of female fans. Whereas the male expression of fandom is seen to be this obsessive knowledge of everything within the series or within the media or whatever.
Parinita: So something like you were saying which is having this detailed knowledge about a very specific, hyper-focused aspect of the show would be something that would be seen as a male thing. But the sort of discourse that I’ve encountered has been male gatekeeping against female fans. But what you’ve spoken about I think is a really interesting and really important aspect to look at as well. Because it’s not just this male-female binary; there are nuances within male fannishness as well.
Robert: Yeah. Obviously I have created a lot of fan stuff myself. But I think a lot of the time when I did that, it almost was because of this deep sense of how I thought things should be specifically for me to be comfortable with them. So I would see the idea of obsessively arranging things to be a certain way and being actively creative – the idea that those are necessarily opposed is one that would be quite strange to me. And I think from the fanfiction I’ve read, often how people write fanfiction, is almost out of a sense of needing to order things.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Robert: And often it’s ordering things from a character’s perspective. But I think wanting to make things a certain way because you feel that a character has behaved inconsistently and that’s wrong. And wanting to make things a certain way because the props are wrong in an episode – I don’t know that they’re completely different things necessarily. Even though one is more about people and one is more about … I guess they’re both about ways in which you perceive the world and relate to them and they’re both out of a desire to make it fit better and how you understand it to be.
Parinita: And also I think representing an aspect that you’re missing in canon. Something that you want to see represented and fixed or whatever. So I suppose fans from any marginalised identities would write fanfiction to be able to counter that singular narrative, if that makes sense.
Robert: Oh, definitely yes. I think maybe Doctor Who is unusual in that that would also overwhelmingly apply to the show itself. The show itself is almost like an aggressive commentary on itself over ages.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Robert: Saying this hasn’t been right before and now we have to fix it in various different and incompatible ways.
Parinita: Especially the new one more than anything else.
Parinita: I wanted to go back to your new short story in the Stim anthology.
Robert: Oh yes.
Parinita: Where you said that it had featured selkies as a metaphor for difference. And I was really interested in finding out more about that.
Robert: So a few years ago, I read Sofia Samatar’s story Selkie Stories Are For Losers. Which is explicitly about someone who is strongly implied but maybe not the case that her mother is a selkie. And that she’s had a difficult life because she’s been abused by men. And the whole story is about the idea that in selkie stories, usually what happens is, a selkie who is a seal who takes off their skin to become a person and often in stories a woman ends up going to sleep with a fisherman. And the fisherman steals the selkie skin. The selkie then can’t get back into their skin and is stuck in human form and then the selkie has to be his wife and has a miserable time.
Parinita: Yeah not problematic at all!
Robert: Yes. Well that’s what the story is about – that the selkie as a story is almost always about being stuck in someone else’s world in a way you didn’t choose. And not really getting to be the centre of the story and just have any kind of power or agency herself.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Robert: And the idea of having that as a metaphor for autism is something which appealed to me because I’ve often felt like in order to function in the world at all I’ve had to put away a lot of stuff about myself and pretend it wasn’t there. Or often try and make it so it was no longer there. And end up having a miserable time basically for other people in their stories. I thought writing a story explicitly about that with that metaphor would be quite useful for me. ’Cause Stim is an anthology of nonfiction and fiction and they were like, “Oh my god we don’t have any fiction.” So they accepted open pitches for it. And I was like this story is very odd and I doubt it’ll get accepted but I’ll pitch anyway. And then they were like, “Wow! This story is exactly what we’re looking for.” I was surprised by that and now it’s in the book.
Parinita: That’s amazing! And I think that the Doctor Who fanfic that you suggested I read, the one that you’d written, whose name I’m completely blanking on.
Robert: Yeah. It’s called Never Change.
Parinita: Never Change! That’s right.
Robert: I really struggled with coming up with it. All the other ones I’ve written, the title I came up with very easily. But that one I was like I have no idea what to call this.
Parinita: What I found interesting from what you said about your selkie short story but also when we were talking about your fanfic briefly, you said that you hadn’t been thinking about it in terms of disability specifically when you were writing it. But a lot of what you’ve said today and we’ve spoken about otherwise, as well as your short story, I feel like as a reader from the outside who is reading it for the first time, I could feel a lot of those themes coming in. Especially the whole “I don’t understand!” Everyone’s saying that.
Parinita: And again, this is not something I think I would have understood had these conversations not been at the forefront now – about disability and neurodiversity and things. Because again, as someone from this outsider dominant culture, this blind-spot means that unless it is explicit or unless it is placed in context, I wouldn’t get it because it doesn’t reflect my experiences. But I loved the fanfic anyway just as a story – I think it captured Jodie … the Doctor’s Jodie’s – I don’t know what you refer to them as – whatever – the Thirteenth Doctor? I think she’s the Thirteenth Doctor?
Robert: Yeah well it’s very confusing now. We had a nerd quiz and the nerd quiz had a furious debate about that for half an hour.
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah, I can imagine. But I feel like it captured that character so well. I could see her saying these things. But because I was also reading it in preparation for this episode, I could feel that aspect come through so much that you can’t divorce your identity from what you’re writing even if you’re not meaning to write about your identity. If that makes sense.
Robert: Oh my god yes.
Parinita: [laughs] So just going back to Ryan, I’ve heard this critique by other people as well who write about disabilities and I think it came up in a couple of the podcast episodes that we listened to where the family or the friend of the person with the disability is centered in the narrative rather than the person with the disability themselves. And not just in fiction but also with charities. I think Marissa Lingen in the Breaking The Glass Slipper episode, talked about how that happens even in charities. Or was it the Witch, Please episode? Well one of them. That even a lot of charities tend to focus on the families or the caregivers rather than the person with the disability themselves. Which going back to Ryan and Graham, I was thinking about it not from your perspective but just as someone who’s learning about dyspraxia through Ryan, it seems to come up in the first few episodes and then on and off later. But then it just seems to have disappeared. There doesn’t seem to have been any mention of that later. Unless I’m misremembering.
Robert: No, I don’t think there is much later. I had to watch less and less of it because I found it genuinely impossible to watch ’cause I got too invested in Ryan as a character. I was just like, “Oh no he looks so unhappy!” Because this is obviously an escapist show predominantly. When someone you strongly identify with appears on an escapist show who looks like he wants to escape from the escapist show –
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.
Robert: [laughs] It becomes quite challenging to watch. So I always felt like – I don’t know how you say his name, that’s terrible – Tosin Cole who plays Ryan, his acting has been criticised a lot. But personally, I felt like it was really good. I felt like he was portraying someone with dyspraxia accurately to the point I found it uncomfortable to watch. I was like, “Oh my god that’s me on there looking awkward and sad.”
Robert: I’ve forgotten the question.
Parinita: No that’s fine, you answered it, I think. I’ve forgotten the question myself.
Parinita: It just made me think of something else. Ryan is a black man in England. I feel like that intersection could have been explored as well – disability and how other factors impact it. I think he’s from a working-class background as well.
Parinita: So you know the race, the gender, the disability could have been explored. As a man maybe he’s privileged in certain contexts. In terms of disability discourse in general and through these fan podcasts we listened to as well, I know that they spoke about how white men in certain contexts seem to be privileged over others. But then there are nuances in that as well, right? So I feel that there could have been more interesting possibilities that may still be explored. But I believe Ryan is – I don’t know how true this rumour is – but I think he’s leaving at the end of the season.
Robert: Yeah. He’s leaving at the end of the next episode.
Parinita: Yeah. So I don’t think there’s any room for exploration.
Robert: Seems unlikely. [laughs]
Parinita: Within the context of the Christmas episode or the New Year’s episode, I don’t think that’s going to happen. But apart from Ryan, you were also excited about Jodie Whittaker being the Doctor, right?
Robert: Yeah, definitely. For a few reasons. I found the last Doctor, Peter Capaldi, very challenging. To be honest, it took me a very, very long time to see him as the Doctor.
Robert: More so than any of the others really. And I think looking back on it, it’s because the Doctor’s transformation from someone who’s relatively warm and young to someone who’s relatively cold and difficult reminded me of my own experiences with my mother as she grew older. And then I was like oh no I don’t want that. It’s weird – when Jodie was cast as the Doctor, I retrospectively realise on some level I’d always seen the Doctor as a maternal figure. Even though the Doctor had always been a man. It had always felt intrinsically right to me that the Doctor would be a woman. And so when the Doctor actually became a woman, I was really, really excited. And then when I watched the movie Adult Life Skills which Jodie is in, I got even more excited. In that movie, she plays a character who I don’t know if in the context of the movie she is on the spectrum, but she very, very much reminded me of someone who was. As someone who’s awkward. In the opening scene where she tried to microwave her bra because it’s wet and then the bra catches fire and the microwave explodes.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Robert: And I was like, “Oh my god I would totally do that if I was a woman!” And I saw myself in her character more than I think I had any character ever before. And I felt she was able to act with a sort of dignity in that role and treat someone who’s kind of weird and finds relating to the world difficult as still a real human person in a way that’s depressingly rare perhaps among actors. So I had a huge amount of respect for her as an actor for treating the role with respect and for being able to convey that.
Parinita: Yeah. And I find it really interesting that you read yourself into that character even though she wasn’t explicitly written as dyspraxic or autistic. And it’s something that I think in the Witch, Please episode, they mentioned as well where fans with disabilities – neurodiverse fans – read themselves into characters in Harry Potter.
Parinita: Because Harry Potter is something I know better than Doctor Who. I love both but Harry Potter has been something that’s closer. And it’s something that would never have occurred to me. For example, they read Hermione and both Luna as autistic.
Parinita: Hermione for being socially awkward and she doesn’t fit in but she has this obsessive knowledge about all the things that she decides to learn. And Luna who talks without considering social cues and doesn’t conform to normative ideas and conversations and she’s dismissed for exactly that. And Newt Scamander from Fantastic Beasts, fandom has read him as neurodiverse as well. Which I find really interesting because I think in Witch, Please they said that often fans do this – and I don’t know if this reflects your own experiences – but when creators, especially creators who don’t have disabilities themselves, set out to write a character with a disability, they fall prey to certain ableist ideas. Or they promote certain ableist ideas. Whereas when fans are reading themselves into a character who isn’t written as a disabled character, they can then see their whole complex and nuanced identity reflected in that character.
Robert: Yeah. I had a bit of that myself when Matt Smith was the Doctor.
Robert: Because among dyspraxic people, there was a tendency to read Matt Smith as dyspraxic. Which I think has been confirmed as not being intentional. But a lot of what he does in terms of falling over and causing messes and thinking he’s being cool and impressive but is actually causing a disaster, is quite resonant to people who have dyspraxia. So we’ve definitely done a bit of reading that in things ourselves in the dyspraxia Doctor Who community such as it is. I used to like imagining how his Doctor and Ryan might work together. I think Ryan would have a bit more fun and maybe his Doctor be a bit more responsible.
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah that’s true! Oh have you – I should – you should write fanfic about it! I’m like I should read fanfiction about it.
Parinita: I would love to read your fanfic. [laughs] You also mentioned an overlap with uncomfortable narratives around autism and how autism and dyspraxia often come together?
Robert: It goes back to what we were talking about in terms of when things are portrayed by family members. Because the fact of a disability or a marginalised identity being portrayed almost exclusively with children and almost exclusively by the people who live with them or care for them rather than the people themselves is something that is very, very common in autism and maybe even more in dyspraxia. But because I would say autism liberation is a lot more advanced than dyspraxia liberation, and because conversely the … autism non-liberation [laughs] is also more advanced in a terrifying way, I think if something like Ryan’s narrative had been attempted with autism, there would be a substantial amount of criticism, in a way I don’t think has been because it was dyspraxia.
Robert: Because of Autism Speaks of course who are – for people who don’t know – an American-based charity, which I think is the premiere autism charity in America but who also literally campaigns for the eradication of autism. They fund research into eugenics. So these genes [?] are responsible for autism can be removed from the human race. And whose campaigning is very much around the concept or the idea that autistic people aren’t worthy and the challenges families face are the most important aspect of something like autism rather than the legitimacy of people who are autistic themselves. I think that’s much, much, much, much, much more extreme than anything that’s happened in any portrayal of dyspraxia and I wouldn’t want to suggest otherwise. But I guess that the reason that autistic people are uncomfortable about things being centered on family members is because once our own voices become marginalised and once our own humanity begins to be diminished, it does leave us open to narratives that are abusive. And makes it more difficult to counter abuse when it happens to us. Even if that abuse is nowhere near that extreme. And I think that something that we probably need to talk about more. People need to talk about dyspraxia more because they don’t really. I think the whole concept of dyspraxia liberation – that I don’t even know that exists really – but I think fundamentally reclaiming stories is as essential in dyspraxia as it would be for autism. And that would be true even if they weren’t often in people at the same time. Because otherwise we’re marginalising our own stories and that’s a very painful thing to experience in a story whoever you are.
Parinita: Yeah absolutely. The importance of this representation in science fiction and fantasy was explored in this essay that we read The Future Is Not Disabled. And the writer, they were talking about exactly what you said but in terms of science fiction. About how science fiction and these futuristic, technologically advanced worlds, seem to have no room for autistic characters or any kind of disabilities in general. And they are not using technology as access. There’s so many potentials and possibilities of using technology in creative ways in your worlds to show how people with disabilities can be included. And it’s not a deficient way of being; it’s just a different way of being. Basically science fiction and fantasy either relies on either technological or magical eugenics. They’re erasing any kind of disabilities from their future or their fantastical worlds.
Parinita: Which is also really problematic.
Robert: Yes. You saying that has made me realise that’s why I’ve been uncomfortable for so long with humanism as it’s commonly portrayed in science fiction. Because it is often overwhelmingly about erasing things that don’t fit the writer’s idea of what being human is.
Robert: And putting things into a narrow perspective that I’ve always felt has excluded me. And often taking as an assumption a centered world that to me as an outsider seems quite different from how I would perceive the world to be. I guess that’s probably true of any marginalised person that if they were to read a non-marginalised person’s account of parts of the world they’ve experienced, there would be things about it that are obviously wrong just because of that person’s own ignorance of that.
Robert: And the sort of science fiction I enjoy and I try to create would probably usually be about explicitly challenging that idea that that’s what the future is or has to be. Or that something that ends up looking like that is progress or anything like it.
Robert: Because it comes back to the idea of always being told that a progressed world is a world which has eradicated you. And being able – having the self-confidence to say that is wrong.
Parinita: Yeah. I know there has been this movement with disabilities and also Afrofuturism that is the same sort of movement that came to be because of the erasure of black bodies and black lives and black culture in the future. Unless it’s still a racist society. It’s 3000 years from now but racism still exists. And ableism still exists. Talking about your own writing, even though Never Change was not about disability, you said that you realised that it had become an unintentional version of Ryan’s story?
Robert: Yes. I realised while I was writing it that that story is way more autobiographical than probably any of the other stories I’ve written. It’s about a young man whose whole family regenerates because a regeneration bomb goes off at his house. And then they become completely different people who don’t remember him. And they want him to turn into a completely different person as well in order to satisfy them. And in the story the main character’s mother is someone who has found the world very challenging. Because she is someone who legitimately has real problems that need real support and that she has relied very heavily on her son. But something that’s quite important in this story is that to regenerate into someone else, you lose everything about who you are. You literally become another person. And that other person is happy but they don’t have any memory of you or any resemblance to you really. You lose everything about you, that’s important to you. And the end of the story is ultimately about the main character saying, “I don’t want to do this.” And saying that the main character rejecting that is okay. Which is honestly not a message I would expect to see in Doctor Who. Because there’s a way in which it feels quite at odds with the narrative which often is about people sacrificing themselves for other people. And making an assumption that they have to even in cases like Ryan’s where often it feels like he’s sacrificing himself to someone who’s got significantly more power and privilege than he does.
Robert: And for their expectations and thoughts without really much consideration being given to them. To him. So having a character stand up and say I’m going to do this thing for myself that is explicitly selfish in this way was something that simultaneously felt like it was important to have a story about but also felt like it was something very taboo to say. Pretty much all the Doctor Who fanfiction I wrote was stuff that I thought an actual Doctor Who episode would never be able to do or never be willing to do. But stuff that I felt was still true and important to say. And I think that sort of someone who is in vulnerable position asserting their own needs and asserting their own boundaries with the knowledge of destructive consequences was a story I felt should be told somewhere. Even if it would have to be in a fanfiction that people don’t read.
Parinita: No, I’m so glad that you did because like you said, it’s something that might reach someone that doesn’t see this in canon. I think a lot of fanfiction not only has the potential to do that, but does do that where you discover things you’re missing out in canon. And that where’s a lot of fanfiction starts from as well where you’re not seeing this in canon in your favourite world. You want to fix it.
Parinita: Or challenge those notions and those ideas and make up your own while you play around in that world.
Robert: I guess I’ve always felt that fanfiction is a way to be able to say that these things you think should be true or are true somewhere.
Robert: And so it’s not necessarily because you think how things are in canon is wrong or because you’d do them better, but because you need them to be true somewhere.
Parinita: Oh, I love that idea! And it also is different in terms of who’s reading it. Different people might get different things out of it as well.
Parinita: I loved your fic. When I was reading it, it made me think of different expressions of trauma – not just in your fic itself in the way that the characters engage with different kinds of traumatic experiences but also in Doctor Who in general and Harry Potter. I was recently re-watching the Christopher Eccleston series of Doctor Who. And when I’d first watched it, it was my first encounter with Doctor Who and I didn’t realise how traumatised his character was. I know he dropped hints about Gallifrey [the Doctor’s home planet] being destroyed or him believing Gallifrey is destroyed and him being a refugee of war and him being the last Time Lord. But just the trauma that he carries and the way that it impacts his whole life. Even though Rose sees him in a certain way. And everyone else sees him in a certain way. Because he has these … I don’t know if I’m saying this coherently … but he has both this lightness and darkness in him at the same time. In the way that he engages with the world. Which I thought was really very sad because I think in a lot of Doctor Who conversations, David Tennant and Matt Smith’s Doctor seem to be the most popular and well Jodie now because she’s awesome. But Christopher Eccleston, because he was only there for one season and I think the actor left on not very good terms –
Parinita: His Doctor is very much side-lined in conversations. Which I understand but it just struck me as so profoundly sad – his character. Especially since he’s only there for a season. And then that made me start thinking about trauma in Harry Potter as well. Because of all these conversations that make me see things differently. When I go to these worlds again, it makes me see these characters in new ways. And it’s something that we’ve spoken about in a previous episode where Harry Potter’s PTSD is something that I never caught.
Parinita: I would never have had the knowledge or the tools or resources to identify that myself. But in fandom, the conversation has just given me this new lens to view the character. I re-read The Philosopher’s Stone and I’m currently reading The Chamber of Secrets and the Dursleys’ abuse! Forget his parents and what other things happened with Voldemort and Sirius and everything to come. But even when he’s eleven and twelve, the kind of abusive household he’s lived in. It’s very Roald Dahlesque.
Parinita: I think that’s what J. K. Rowling was going for. But in one of the fan podcasts that I listen to, The Gayly Prophet, they said that in Roald Dahl, the narrator usually very quickly shows themselves on the child’s side, which J. K. Rowling does as well. But in Roald Dahl’s books, the child immediately starts – well not immediately, but soon starts countering and challenging the adult abuse. Whereas Harry, he has to live with them for another – we meet him when he’s ten.
Robert: Hmm. Yes.
Parinita: And he lives with them until he’s seventeen. He has to keep going back to this abusive household for a reason that he doesn’t know. And that makes it so much more difficult. And Dobby as well. In The Chamber of Secrets, I’ve just met Dobby again.
Parinita: And the accounts of self-harm that he does and just his sense of identity and inferiority – he’s so happy and so grateful for just the smallest semblance of kindness from Harry. The most basic decent behaviour. Just an example of how trauma has such different and complex impacts on mental well-being. And it’s something that I’ve been thinking of more now than ever because with the pandemic and the lockdown in India and the UK and in different parts of the world, the whole world is going through this collective trauma and dealing with it in so many different ways. I’m dealing with it in so many different ways. I prefer not to examine my trauma.
Parinita: So I cope with work or books or media or whatever. But that’s also a coping mechanism I guess. It’s just that’s now so much more at the forefront of my mind.
Robert: Yeah. As someone who’s had a lot of trauma, I found in some ways the pandemic to be quite liberating because everyone being traumatised and talking about it all the time made me feel much more normal and comfortable in the world so that was quite nice. And the idea that fiction in general would be exploring these things much more because they would be experiences that were so common and widely known is something that’s almost like, “Oh my god now everyone sees the world the same way as me!”
Robert: That makes me feel less exhausted somehow. Which doesn’t mean that I’m glad it’s happened. [laughs]
Robert: Because it means a lot of people are having awful experiences that feel like awful experiences I’ve had. But I guess it does feel like these things we’re talking about are likely to become much more – I mean I don’t know what speculative fiction becomes after this.
Robert: I was just thinking like Doctor Who itself. How does something like the Doctor who is someone who travels through time and space handle the whole future changing very suddenly? Because the character is fictional, obviously the character never said, “Hey how about that Coronavirus that changes everything?”
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.
Robert: But then obviously when you come back, you have to say, “There’s been this Coronavirus that changes everything.”
Robert: And that whole sort of changing what future is and what speculative fiction is, is quite well hopefully leads to some positive things and not just negative ones. I should have said that more positively.
Parinita: [laughs] For me, it has been more positive. And of course, this comes from a huge position of privilege.
Parinita: Because I don’t have to worry about money because I’m on a university scholarship and they’re continuing to pay me. And I have a house. I can buy groceries. I even have access to parks. I don’t have a garden but I can go to parks in socially distanced ways. And I can bake and cook and things. Whereas in India – I know in the UK there’s a lot of different bad contexts and the US as well that’s in the news. But in India, oh my god, everything’s so much worse. [This episode was recorded before George Floyd was murdered in the US which sparked riots across the country, so the situation in the US is quite terrible as well for different reasons]
Parinita: Because there are so many really dispossessed people who don’t have access to even the basic things that they need. And there are no systems in place to fix that. Whereas in the UK or other developed nations, there are. So of course, this all comes from a huge place of privilege. But at the same time, I really like seeing this feeling of community, I guess. Where like you said, you feel like you’re not going through this yourself. That’s what’s giving me a little bit of comfort as well. Even something like art because I’m in the children’s books industry, I’ve seen a lot of writers are coming and reading out their books daily.
Parinita: Some of my favourite writers are doing this. And trying to add some joy in a world which seems devoid of it. And just trying to have some hope and comfort, which gives me hope and comfort.
Parinita: You know that meme that’s going around that everybody thought that a dystopia would involve looting and violence and whatever. And people are just baking and cooking and putting out more art in the world.
Parinita: Which, again, is a privileged view. And I know in some parts of the world, this is happening. This dystopia is and was present. But I’m speaking from my experience. And hopefully these conversations – not just about trauma and other things but the broken systems that are so much more in relief now.
Parinita: I hope that gets fixed in the future. I don’t know – this is just – I’m an optimist. Maybe naively so. But I’m just … yeah.
Robert: Oh no I was just thinking I’m writing fanfic about all the stuff you’re talking about now. I was like that’s quite funny.
Parinita: Oh really?!
Robert: Yeah! About the coronavirus and trauma as a result of it. And trauma coming up from it. And trying to resolve it and what to build after all of it. And I was just like gosh we’re all – well we’re both on the same page there. So that’s nice.
Parinita: Yeah that’s perfect. I can’t wait to read it. I turn to art for comfort – mostly books but also TV shows and movies and things. Like a lot of people are in the world right now.
Parinita: So I love that you’re creating art to add to what’s out there. Which for me, I currently can’t do. That artistic part of me is just shut down and it’s gone for a really long nap. So currently I can’t do this. I need some time. I’m pushing myself into this podcast which seems like a different part of my brain than my writing children’s books writing part of the brain. Which I’m still not ready to do.
Robert: Thank you for having me on your show and listening today.
Parinita: Thank you so much for being on this podcast and being a part of my project! It was just such a fantastic conversation, I think. I really enjoyed – well catching up with you but also with this very focused hyper-specific thing. I learned a lot from our conversation and I hope our listeners will as well. Thank you so much for being a part of this conversation!
Robert: Thank you.
You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of dyspraxia and autism in Doctor Who. Thank you Robert for so generously sharing your experiences and perspectives on the podcast. You can find Robert’s short story in Stim, an anthology of writing and art by autistic people published by Unbound Press and edited by Lizzie Huxley-Jones. His piece is a story about meeting a seal who pretended to be a human, then finding out that she was better at it than him. I’d also highly recommend Uncanny Magazine’s special issues about disability – Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction and Disabled People Destroy Fantasy. Both issues have a wide range of fiction and nonfiction about different disabilities and all the stories and essays are accessible online for free. You can find the links to both issues in the transcript. Thanks, as always, to Jack who somehow manages to edit my episode in the middle of all the other things he’s doing.
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