The Tardis crash-landed on this year’s Children in Need BBC show and never has a seemingly throwaway skit achieved more in its five-minute running time. This special “minisode” not only promised much for Doctor Who’s bold new era (which starts on Saturday 25 November on BBC One at 6.30pm), it also enabled the show to right some wrongs from its 60-year past. Well, even those dastardly Daleks need reparations occasionally.
Returning showrunner Russell T Davies has long felt uneasy about how Davros, embittered creator of the Daleks, played into the dated “disabled or disfigured villain” trope. The power-crazed scientist from planet Skaro was heavily scarred and confined to a glorified space wheelchair. A generation of young viewers hid behind sofas, terrified by the raspy-voiced, walnut-faced villain.
The character first appeared in 1975 – a different time, of course, when storylines could peddle racist stereotypes and female companions ran around in leather bikinis “for the dads”. By seizing this opportunity to portray a younger, able-bodied Davros – pleasingly for fans, still played by actor Julian Bleach – Davies has moved the dial.
Seeing Julian Bleach play Davros without the makeup really demonstrates what a great actor he is. So creepy with a brilliant voice. Honestly, he’s scary enough without any effects. #DoctorWho pic.twitter.com/VFFcTlhxEN
— Tom Bowen (@ThetaSigma2017) November 17, 2023
It risked annoying Whovian purists – a social-media backlash began immediately – but as Davies explained in a behind-the-scenes interview: “There’s a problem with the Davros of old, in that he’s a wheelchair user who is evil. There’s a long tradition of associating disability with evil but time, society, culture and taste has moved on. When the world changes, Doctor Who has to change as well. Especially on Children in Need night, when issues of disability and otherness come right to the front of the conversation.”
The dexterity and verve of his writing ensured that it felt far from po-faced or worthy. Indeed, the subtext would have shot straight over many viewers’ heads. They could simply savour a bite-sized adventure which proved a highlight of the BBC’s annual charity telethon.
After a taster of the sci-fi franchise’s new-look logo and tweaked theme tune, the 14th Doctor – who looks uncannily like the David Tennant-shaped 10th Doctor – was introduced when that magical blue box materialised in an alien military base. He accidentally interrupted the genesis of the Daleks as Mr Castavillian (a scene-stealing turn from comedian Mawaan Rizwan) brainstormed a name for the prototype pepperpots.
Since they were a mutated form of the Kaled race, anagrammatic options included “Lekad”, “Adlek”, “Klade” and “Edlka”. It was like an intergalactic game of Wordle. Naturally, an unimpressed Davros waved away these suggestions. When the Doctor realised in horror that he’d broken off his arch enemy’s “multi-clawed adaptable arm”, he hastily replaced it with a toilet plunger.
This origin story provided a neat comic explanation for the Daleks’ name, “exterminate” catchphrase and home-made look. The knowing tone was completed by Tennant insisting that he was never there because “the timelines of the canon are rupturing”. It added up to a playful crossover with the classic era.
Speaking out as a disabled man in a wheelchair, I am highly offended by Russell T. Davies' claim to change Davros to no longer be in a wheelchair, for fear of offending people like me. What the hell comes next. Changing a Dalek for fear of offending a salt shaker. World gone mad. pic.twitter.com/7VRKs8LuVo
— Ian Levine (@IanLevine) November 18, 2023
Only one box went unticked, with no women in this all-male three-hander. Davies addressed this by giving previous incarnation Jodie Whittaker an affectionate shout-out when Tennant referred to “this really brilliant woman”.
For a brief sketch, it achieved an impressive amount – certainly enough for Whovians like me to eagerly ponder. Such a perfectly judged debut for the Davies-and-Tennant dream team augured well, both for the anniversary specials and the rebooted era with Davies’ hand on the time-and-space tiller. Doctor Who’s wit and wonder is back. Allons-y.