“She was sassy.” Donna Williams: My review of Dr Who: Under the Lake

Posted on October 13, 2015

As a deaf whovian, I’ve sometimes wondered how the TARDIS would translate in sign language.

Would there be words floating in the air, a ghostly voiceover, a PADD link-up with the TARDIS?

A hologram interpreter, a setting on the sonic sunglasses, the Doctor suddenly breaking out in fluent sign language to the bemusement of his companions?

As you see I’ve put some thought into this, and also into the circumstances under which the Doctor might meet deaf characters.

Perhaps they’re mining metal so dense it absorbs sound, or there’s a local genetic mutation, echoing Martha’a Vineyard or an alien species that’s evolved with no concept of sound whatsoever (note to Doctor Who showrunners: I am available for brainstorming sessions. Ahem.).

So when I discovered that there was a deaf character using sign language in an upcoming two-parter, I could hardly contain myself. How would they do it? How would the BSL be translated? How would the deaf character be portrayed?

Please god, not a helpless patsy played for laughs and then killed off because they couldn’t hear a fire alarm.

Not that I would suspect the producers of Doctor Who of such a thing (though you never know) but with such a well-known show beaming to millions of viewers, and my favourite show to boot, was it going to be great or was it going to break my heart?

It was great. It was better than I dared hope. There were no special circumstances needed to explain the deaf characters’ presence. They were just there. Not only there, Cass was the acting commander. She was sassy. She was kick-ass. She looked the Doctor in the eye and told him exactly what she thought of him.

As for how the BSL would be translated on screen, on realising that Cass was being voiced over by a crewmate, it first struck me as almost… pedestrian.

Here was the TARDIS’ opportunity to shine; surely the translation matrix could tackle anything? Apparently not, though the Doctor’s attempt at signing thoroughly justified the look Cass gave him and the line about the flags did make me laugh.

That said, I liked how BSL was incorporated into the show and in fairness having words dancing around the screen, while showing off the TARDIS’ translation skills, would probably have distracted from, say, the stern stare Cass gives Clara while Lunn translates her question.

Lunn’s style of interpreting was informal and often shorthand, but suited the relationship between him and Cass, and Cass and the rest of the team, which was believable as a close-knit team working together on an isolated base.

I was lucky enough to see the first part on a big screen at the Watershed in Bristol for See Hear weekend, followed by a Q&A with Toby Whithouse (writer), Derek Ritchie (producer), Daniel O’Hara (director), Zaqi Ismail (Lunn) and Sophie Stone (Cass).

We got some insights into how the episode and characters had evolved, with Toby Whitehouse explaining that the original spark of an idea of having a deaf character who could lip-read as a plot point had developed and evolved into a character whose deafness was a secondary consideration; the character was loyal, smart, fierce, selfless, sassy and happened to be deaf.

We got more background on Lunn’s character, who it turns out is not an interpreter by trade, but a teammate who happens to be able to sign thanks to growing up with a deaf family member.

This explained a lot about Zaqi Ismail’s performance, and I did wonder if that could have been made clearer on the show that he wasn’t a professional interpreter and thus the informality of his interpreting wasn’t a professional failing but a developed shorthand between himself and Cass, but then I figured that in a two-parter that took in ghosts, the bootstrap paradox and why one must not interfere with time, a five minute aside on the difference between a professional and an informal interpreter may not have been best for general movement of the plot.

We also got an insight into the work that went into the BSL, not just from the actors, but also Jean St Clair, a BSL consultant, with them meeting every evening after shooting to prepare for the next day, and it showed.

While the camera didn’t often focus directly on the BSL, saving that for Cass’ big moments (and they were good), it was often in the background; I caught iconic signs being used for jargon such as ‘co-ordinates’, clearly carefully chosen, and Lunn using a mixture of BSL and English syntax when translating, but understandable, both in terms of meaning and between two people who know each other as well as Cass and Lunn.

If I have any gripes, it’s that once or twice someone was speaking and Lunn appeared to be just standing there even though Cass couldn’t see who was talking. Perhaps the camera cut away from his translation, but still.

Beyond that, I found Cass completely believable as a deaf character, a highly skilled professional who also happened to be a highly skilled lip-reader, and her interactions as part of a close-knit group, were authentic to my own experience of working in a small, majority hearing group, relying on a mixture of lip-reading and signing.

The fact that all of this was in the context of a great Doctor Who story, with brilliant acting, fantastic visuals, scraping tension, it was… words fail me. It was vee! (closest translation: great / brilliant / outstanding).

I need to go lie down now, but I leave you with some of my favourite Cass moments – spoiler-free, if you want the context, you’ll have to watch it!

The look Cass gives the Doctor when Lunn signs ‘pet’.

Cass giving the Doctor a piece of her mind.

The disdainful snort Cass gives Clara.

“OK, didn’t need anyone to translate that.”

Actually, all of Cass’ interactions with Clara.

Lunn starting to translate something obvious in a moment of high peril; the look Cass gives him as she just grabs him and runs.

Bonus points for use of vibration to detect danger.

And some non-Cass moments, in case I’m coming off slightly obsessed:

“It’s bigger on the inside, it’s bigger on the inside, it’s bigger on the inside!”

“It’s OK, I understand. You’re an idiot.”

“Please don’t say ‘on Earth’.” “…on Earth before.” *Groans*

“…and a selection of objects you can oppress me with.”

A hearty well done to Sophie Stone, Zaqi Ismail, Toby Whithouse, the whole Doctor Who team, Jean St Clair and anyone and everyone involved in bringing British Sign Language to this iconic British show. Bloody well done.

Further links:

(UK only) Watch Dr Who with Sophie Stone in FULL

Andy Palmer’s interview with Sophie Stone

See Hear’s 7 minute behind the scenes clip of Dr Who being filmed

Donna Williams is a Contributing Editor for Limping Chicken. She is a Deaf writer and blogger living in Bristol and studying part-time in Cardiff. As well as being a postgrad student, she’s a BSL poet, freelance writer, NDCS Deaf Role Model presenter, and occasional performer. She tweets as@DeafFirefly

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