Dr Who goes deaf?!

Spoiler Warning!!!

There’s a Deaf character in Doctor Who. I’m not a Whovian in any sense of the word, but I do have at least two friends who are (including Well-Read Robyn, herself a doctor), and excited commentary from one of them got me interested enough to watch these two episodes: “Under the Lake”, and its sequel, “Before the Flood”, episodes three and four (respectively) of the ninth season.

I am impressed with this portrayal in quite a few ways. Cass, the Deaf character is played by Sophie Stone, who is herself deaf, is called by the Doctor “the smartest person here”. She has an important role, not just in the sense of being a main character of these two episodes, but in the sense of being an appointed leader with a strong character. (Of course, since Doctor Who is a British show, I did not understand her, and I presume she used BSL (British Sign Language).

Sophie Leigh Stone

Sophie Leigh Stone

I only have one point, really, that didn’t sit well with me. As typical of TV shows, the hearing character, Lunn (Zaqi Ismail) does SimCom (simultaneous communication; speaking while signing) when communicating with Cass. As you must know by now, I hate that about the media. Sure, it allows the viewers to understand what’s going on, but it presents a very unrealistic portrayal of Deaf culture when so many hearing signers do that. And gives people all kinds of incorrect ideas about the natures of sign languages.

Most of us voice off while signing because it’s virtually impossible to sign grammatically and speak grammatically at same time. Think of it this way: writing Hebrew while sounding out the corresponding words in Japanese would cause all kinds of strangeness, and at least one of the languages would lose grammatical fidelity. Sign languages have different structures and features than spoken languages, even those that they occupy the same geography with.

Oh, right. Another point is that Cass is able to read lips. And old stereotype about Deaf people. Cliché. Rolling my eyes now.

Anyway, there’s something else that I found interesting. When the Doctor meets Cass, he tells Lunn that he doesn’t need his help interpreting for him. He says he knows how to sign. The TARDIS, a sort of time travelling space ship, I think, normally translates languages for him so he’s able to understand. But when she starts signing, he finds himself lost.

“It’s been deleted,” the Doctor says.

Riva, the only(?) Deaf character in Star Trek: The Next Generation

Riva (Howie Seago)

Remember Riva? I blogged about him January of last year when I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He is a Deaf character who uses sign language, and, for some reason, the USS Enterprise’s universal translator was unable to bridge that communication gap.

First in Star Trek, then in Doctor Who; why are almighty translating devices unable to understand sign languages in sci-fi? (Sorry, but, “It’s been deleted” just doesn’t cut it for me.) Perhaps they’re designed sound-based interfaces? Nah. At least not for Star Trek. In the episode “Home Soil”, the universal translator is able to help the Enterprise’s crew communicate with crystalline life forms that use light to communicate.

But my theory is simple: The relevant actors don’t know the sign language of the Deaf actors. So, the writers just make it so that the TARDIS and the universal translator are unable to translate for whatever reason.

But is there a way around this…? Maybe they could do voice-overs for the Deaf characters’ signing? (Subtitles are clearly considered too much work if they keep making people SimCom.) The viewers would have to use their imagination to pretend that the hearing characters’ spoken words are being translated to signs for the Deaf characters, but is that so much of a stretch for the viewer? After all, the viewers use their imagination when it comes to spoken languages being translated, right?

There is, arguably, an advantage to the sign languages being untranslated by universal translators and TARDISes, though. The Deaf characters get to be seen more as they are in real life, with the real issues of communication that Deaf people face.

At least nowadays they’re using more Deaf characters to play Deaf roles. That’s progress!

Even though the black guy dies first.

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