How does Doctor Who present mental health issues?
Guest contributor Alfie Smith looks at eight examples.
Throughout the series, a variety of mental health issues and disabilities have been conveyed to the audience. Examples include Davros in the sense that he is confined to a life-support system which allows him mobility, and the Master, who in the Russell T Davies era, is presented as delusional and insane. But how does the show reflect society’s views on mental health issues? Does it deal with the issues of stigma regarding mental illness in the modern world? That is exactly what I intend to explore throughout this article.
8. Insanity and Impairments
Back in Autumn 2012, Series 7 of ‘Doctor Who’ kicked off with the shocking rollercoaster ride that is ‘Asylum of the Daleks’. Here, Moffat’s main idea was that a ‘tsunami of insane Daleks’ were at risk of being unleashed from the ‘Dalek Asylum’ – which symbolises the institutions for those struggling with mental disorders that are located throughout Britain even to this day.
Now, as a psychiatrist named Rosenhan once discovered, labelling a person as mentally ill can have negative consequences on the individual. However, the Daleks are a ruthless, cunning and manipulative race that parallel the Nazi’s themselves. They have no concern in labelling the Daleks that ‘go wrong’ as ‘insane’ and locking them up on a far-away alien world.
In the Asylum, we see that many of these Daleks are physically impaired, as well as insane – they lack firepower and some are barely mobile. This is reflective of the persecution of the disabled that occurred during The Holocaust back when The Nazi’s were a serious threat. Their mentality is – ‘’If someone is ‘loopy’ or ‘crippled’, we’ll just outcast them and condemn them to lives of pain and suffering’’. This is exactly what the Daleks are doing. And not only does it reflect what the Nazi’s were doing – but it reflects a serious issue that has occurred in our society. Years ago, mental health disorders were not well understood – I’ve heard countless anecdotes from my grandmother about how people who ‘went funny’ were simply locked up in an institution. In this episode, Moffat uses his engaging ideas to reflect issues that have gone on for centuries. Furthermore, we see this idea in ‘The Shakespeare Code’ where a man who has been traumatised after encountering the deadly Carrionites is simply locked away in a home. It’s surely a tragic issue – and certainly a very adult one to portray in a children’s programme – but Moffat does it so effectively that he makes the Dalek’s in this episode reflect humanity itself.
7. He’s hearing noises? Blame it on his psychosis!
Now I’m moving on to the infamous arch enemy of our favourite Time Lord – the Master. In his latter episodes, we see a character who is showing symptoms of psychosis. The Master has been experiencing auditory hallucinations of a constant drumbeat inside his head for his whole life. To the Doctor, it seems his worst enemy is having a severe schizophrenic episode – and Russell T Davies captures the essence of severe psychotic symptoms perfectly by taking us into the life, imagination and world of a person who struggles with intense hallucinations and delusions.
Imagine this scenario – you’re a person living with a mental illness which the psychiatric literature defines as involving beliefs in things that are not real, and seeing and hearing things that simply do not exist. You hear a constant drumming noise in your head and you’re under an unshakeable belief that an outside force (i.e. The Time Lords) are ‘calling’ to you, planting thoughts in your mind for a greater purpose. Doesn’t that sound awfully like the Master? Whilst, quite obviously, the Master was genuinely being manipulated in order to bring back the ancient Gallifreyan race from the Time Lock, from another point of view, you could argue that Davies is trying capture the essence of psychotic illness in order to educate the audience on what conditions such as schizophrenia can be like for an individual.
In the first part of this episode, the Doctor himself is reflective of society’s dismissive views – he is shown as disbelieving the Master, as anybody would. However, he simply describes the Master’s perceived severe mental illness as ‘insanity’. He provides the audience with little insight or depth in terms of understanding the Master’s condition. This mirrors many people in our society, who lack understanding of the world of mental health disorders. Many people describe people with bipolar, autism, personality disorders etc by using derogatory and insulting terms such as ‘mad’ or ‘insane’ or ‘psychos’. Here, we see that whilst the Doctor may be wise, he has a truly human side which can teach us a great deal about ourselves.
6. Loyalty and Love
It might be interesting to recognise that whilst the Master is presented as having delusions of grandeur, his wife isn’t exactly stable either. Way back in Series 3, the Master took a human companion and married her during his time as a politician on Earth during the present day. This companion is known to fans as Lucy Saxon, who is presented as ‘’not especially bright’’, and well – subordinate to the Master. And that’s about it.
From a feminist perspective, Lucy can be interpreted as lacking depth, being a weak and a malleable character who disgraces the name of strong, independent women. However, I feel this is done for a purpose – to show how ‘soft’ and powerless people struggling from mental health issues can be. Many people suffering from emotional disorders can feel trapped in their situation, locked into a mental ‘blur’ in which they feel they can never escape, never be the same or ‘normal’ again. Lucy represents these ideas perfectly, as she, according to popular belief, is suffering from an unusual condition known as ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. This is defined as having an irrational passionate love and loyalty towards your abusive captor.
In ‘Last of the Time Lords’, Lucy Saxon is seen having a black eye. No doubt it was caused by the Master himself. Not only is he a wife-beater, but he is unfaithful – which is shown through his flirtatious and complimentary behaviour towards one of his female servants, and his implication that he would like to see both her and his wife ‘getting to know each other’. I’ll leave you guys to work out what he is insinuating by using that remark. Despite this, Lucy still remains loyal to her captor, never betraying him or leaving his side. In ‘The Sound of Drums’, she had the opportunity to tell the Torchwood accomplice Vivien Rook everything. Who Harold Saxon really was, what he was doing, what the Archangel Network was intended for. But she didn’t.
The Master later described her as his ‘faithful’ companion. This word shows us that despite the fact that he is plotting to enslave or kill her entire species, she is still staying at his side and not breaking his trust, and he knows this and rejoices in the daunting fact. It’s only at the end of the finale where she finally shoots the Master dead (or so we thought) – it’s never made certain how she managed to break free of her condition in order to do this. Yet, this does not steal in any way from the powerful emotion we feel when being told her tragic story – and it really does enlighten us on how difficult and intense mental illness can be for some.
5. Amelia Pond -- Imaginative, Adventurous and Traumatised
The feisty, red-haired and attractive companion of the Eleventh Doctor is widely adored by fans all over the world. However, Amy Pond does have her own personal issues, which are very complex and certainly interesting to explore.
At the beginning of Series 5, we see that young Amelia has an adventurous and spontaneous nature to her character – she’s willing to give up everything on a whim and travel the stars with an eccentric man she’s only just met. However, when the mysterious time traveller takes years to turn up again, breaking his promise to return to her five minutes later – she is traumatised. Not only that, but others regard her intense imagination as the reason for her belief in ‘The Raggedy Doctor’.
In ‘The Pandorica Opens’ we see signs of obsession with the ancient Time Lord – she has dolls, drawings and plenty more items she has made of her so-called ‘imaginary friend’. In ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ we see how River Song directly parallels Amy in the sense that having the Doctor suddenly ‘fall’ into your life can have significant impacts on your mentality. In ‘The Big Bang’ we see how Amelia is being visited by psychiatrists who try to assert that her ‘fantasies’ are not real. In turn, this simply creates more trauma for Amelia which leads her to bite them.
Throughout Series 5, we do see Amelia as quite an eccentric character who is lacking maturity. I strongly believe that this is the result of insecurity caused by traumatic events in her childhood. We see her develop a romantic relationship with Rory Williams – but in ‘Amy’s Choice’ we learn that she is having sexual fantasies about the Doctor and that she had never told Rory that she loved him. Despite their engagement, it takes her time to adjust and realise her true feelings for Rory – and when she commits suicide in the dream world for the small chance that she will be reunited with her loving fiancé, we truly see that she loves him. She does come on to the Doctor in ‘Flesh and Stone’ also, and all these conflicts between her love for both Rory and the Doctor suggest that she is mentally confused and frightened of commitment.
The Doctor himself isn’t the only cause of this – we learn in the season finale that her parents were taken from history by the sinister ‘Time Crack’ on her bedroom wall. Yet, things like her parents were so personal to her, that she still retained some memories of them. When Rory and the Doctor were erased from existence, she still remembered, and would cry for reasons she was unaware of. This truly shows us that because there are aspects missing from her life, and because she has been let down greatly during her childhood, she has become a traumatised individual with many inner conflicts. These conflicts are warded off by defence mechanisms – such as taking out her frustration on the Doctor in ‘The Eleventh Hour’ and denying his existence. But after the events of the season finale, she finally has her parents back and her ‘Raggedy Man’ is here to stay, therefore her conflicts are resolved and her personality develops into that of a mature, romantically loyal and well-adjusted woman. Steven Moffat’s beautifully written storyline shows the complexities of traumatic experiences and their after-effects in ways that convey the true distress that it has for some people. One more point for Moffat!
4. They’re both geniuses – but they’re socially impaired
Here, I’m going to be focusing on two very different, but also very similar – Luke Smith from the popular Doctor Who spin-off series ‘The Sarah-Jane Adventures’, and the Eleventh incarnation of the spectacular Time Lord, the Doctor.
What do these two characters have in common?, you might ask. Well, I feel that both of these well developed and extraordinary characters show characteristics of high functioning autism, or Asperger Syndrome. Autism is described as having a ‘triad of impairments’ – including difficulties with social interaction. However, on the higher end of the autistic spectrum is the well-known condition known as ‘Asperger Syndrome’, which was noticed decades ago by Han’s Asperger, an Austrian paediatrician. Asperger’s is characterised by lacking the speech impairments that many other autistic individuals have, and instead having average, and quite often above average intelligence.
Here, Luke Smith is a perfect example to place into a children’s television programme. Whilst his social impairments and vast knowledge were explained by being the result of the experiments of the malicious Bane, he still possesses common characteristics of the condition which informs the younger generation of what it can be like to experience the condition. Throughout the series, Luke has difficulties at school, with others describing him in a derogatory way, such as by calling him ‘weird’, simply because of his high IQ and eccentric behaviour. As with many people who have Asperger’s, his pattern of difficulties eases as he gets older and gains new social skills, later being able to make and understand jokes, and to interact with others in his age group more effectively. Luke’s story is an inspiring one for anybody with high functioning autism and it shows how the bullying and social isolation associated with the condition can be overcome as the individual matures and gains new experiences.
The Doctor, on the other hand, is representative, especially throughout his Eleventh incarnation, of adult men with Asperger’s. In ‘The Lodger’, his ‘weirdness’ and eccentricity are conveyed and described to show how some people with autism may seem ‘alien’ or ‘abnormal’ to the average person with no history of psychiatric disorder. In fact, his unusual behaviour is quite intense – he wears bow ties, fezzes and stetsons, under the impression that they are ‘cool’, and is heavily engaged in his ‘special interests’ of facts, such as Science and History. He’s very much like an encyclopedia – in ‘The Vampires of Venice’ he comes out with historical facts about people who have visited Venice. In ‘The Big Bang’ he is shown to have a deep scientific understanding of how to ‘reboot’ the universe using the Pandorica. He’s a very intelligent individual, yet his eccentricity and almost poor social skills truly convey both the challenges and perks of being an autistic man.
3. The Creator of the Daleks – confined to a wheelchair
Way back in 1975, we discovered that the deadly and cruel tyrants known as the Daleks were invented by the scientific genius – the best one on Skaro, in fact – Davros. In the novelisation of the classic serial ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, we see that Davros is unlike the other Kaleds in the sense that he is deformed and scarred due to an accident that occurred many years prior to the story. In quite a biased and ignorant time in terms of how the physically disabled and mentally ill were treated, we see that Davros is presented as weak due to his disability. The Fourth Doctor simply has to hold down a switch and shut off his life support system in order to kill Davros.
Years later, in the also Skaro-based serial ‘Destiny of the Daleks,’ we see that Davros can quite easily be pushed around, as if he were in a wheelchair. Because effectively – he is more or less in a wheelchair. Whilst being a far more complex, alien and advanced system, he is confined to a life support system which he depends on for mobility. He is also presented as an enemy – which much like ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ reflects the common view that the physically or mentally impaired are a burden and/or dangerous to ‘normal’ people. Terry Nation captures the stigma that surrounds the disabled in a way that educates the audience on the serious issues in our society regarding people with impairments.
2. ‘’One Psychopath per TARDIS, don’t you think?’’
And now I get to the Doctor’s beloved wife, the mysterious, complex and strong-minded Melody Pond, or as she is better known – River Song. This time travelling archaeologist is a perfect example of how people who are suffering, or have suffered from deep and complicated emotional issues can still lead fully functional and independent lives in which they are academically successful.
River studied archaeology at The Luna University, where she eventually got her PhD (or whatever futuristic qualification people in the 52nd century receive) and becomes a Professor. She got married to the man she loves, and still maintained healthy long-distance relationships with her parents despite them living at completely different points in history. That’s a hell of a lot for a person to manage, isn’t it?
Despite this, we learn in Series 6 that River is even more of a complex and deep character than her own mother, Amy. When she was a young child, she was captured by the malevolent ‘Order of the Silence’ and was raised and conditioned throughout her childhood so that she has one nagging thought in her mind that she simply cannot let go of – she has to kill the Doctor.
In the Moffat-penned episode ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ we see that she has strong psychopathic tendencies in the sense that she deviates from social norms yet still retains a quality of allure and likeability in terms of her character. We see that she has excessively criminal behaviour – stealing buses and cars, being a good example. Her mental and emotional instability shows how conditioning can have a deep impact on our personality. Psychologists such as Skinner have shown over the years in their experiments how processes such as rewarding, punishing and creating association can lead an individual to have new tendencies deeply ingrained into their very being. River is a perfect example of this as we see the lengths she will go to to kill our time travelling hero.
However, she eventually falls into a deep romantic love for the Doctor and this allows her to break free from her conditioning and sacrifice her remaining regenerations to undo her evil actions and restore the Doctor to a state of well-being. After this, we see that she still has her flirtatious, daredevil-ish and mischievous nature which defines her character, yet she has managed to let go of her psychopathic tendencies in order to lead a fully functional life despite the trauma she has experienced over the years.
1. The greatest painter in all of history
And last but not least, I bring us to the episode that was nominated for various awards, including one regarding the presentation of mental health in modern drama – ‘Vincent and the Doctor’. In my opinion, Richard Curtis’s natural flair in writing is evident throughout this classic masterpiece, as we are presented with a story which focuses heavily on a famous historical figure – Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh was a painter who lived during the 1800’s – he is regarded as one of the finest painters in the history of the human race, and his work is worth, to quote Dr. Black who appeared early on in this episode, ‘’tens of millions’’.
However, even though Van Gogh had the ability to portray such ecstatic beauty, he was known to have had depressive, and quite possibly manic episodes which severely impacted upon his life. Towards the end of his life, he cut his own ear off, and when he died, it was quite tragically by suicide. He was believed to have perhaps suffered from bipolar disorder, which is characterised by severe mood swings, and can also have other features such as delusions and hallucinations.
In this episode, his emotional instability is explored as we see the kind-hearted Amy Pond try to reverse his depression with gestures such as sharing wine with him, and bringing him an exquisite collection of sunflowers. We see that this does have an impact on the great man himself – so much that he even dedicates one of his final paintings to Amy – yet he still commits suicide in the end.
This episode perfectly captures the true tragedy of depression and what it can lead to. Furthermore, as the Doctor declares whilst Van Gogh begins painting a church, Vincent is not ‘mad’, he is simply suffering from a complex disorder. Here, unlike the Tenth Doctor, our superb Time Lord is shown as having understanding of the challenges people with mood disorders face, and we see that despite having mental illness, none of us truly have the right to label another human being as ‘mad’ or ‘insane’ simply because they are experiencing problems.
Also, the idea of the Krafayis is an interesting one in the episode. We see the creature being presented as something only Van Gogh can see, which implies that the beast is part of his ‘madness’ and that he is to blame for the unexplained deaths occurring in the town. The story represents, like many others, the ignorance in our society in regards to mental health issues, and shows how disapproval and unkindness from other people can lead to genuine tragedy. Richard Curtis, you are a legend.
And there were have it. I hope you have enjoyed this article on my insights into the world of mental health issues and how it is presented in our all-time favourite science-fiction show. Feel free to leave any comments below on your thoughts and feelings on the matter. Thank you for reading!