The assistants, the screamers and me

Wendy Padbury (Zoe)When I was in college, I was involved in student government in the dorms. We had thirteen dorms at Florida, each of which had its own area government, and our umbrella organisation, the Inter-Residence Hall Association (IRHA). Each of these groups had a board of elected executives–President, Vice President, Treasurer, Business Manager and Secretary.

In both the individual area governments and IRHA, we had a running joke that Vice Presidents don’t do anything. This is because, unlike the other elected positions, pretty much the Vice President’s only constitutional duty was to hang around in case the President needed to leave office–just as is the case with the Vice President of the United States (though while the VPOTUS might expect that he’ll succeed to the Presidency because of a death in office, in the case of IRHA and the area governments it was more common for presidents to have to resign because of poor grades).

Zoe in 'The Dominators'The year I was elected IRHA Business Manager, the candidate who was elected to the vice presidency, Nicole Taub, made it the central plank of her platform that, “After my term in office, no one will say vice presidents don’t do anything.” What she meant, of course, was that she had so many projects she wanted to get involved in that we would all be impressed by how hard she worked.

The problem with that proposition, though–and I pointed this out at the time–is that all these projects Nicole did were things she did by choice, and in no way altered the role if vice president. So while we were all impressed by Nicole’s performance, her year in office still didn’t mean that VPs actually did anything. Indeed, if we’d accepted Nicole’s argument on the terms she wanted us to, it would necessarily have demanded that she was in fact saying that all vice presidents who’d gone before her–including her predecessor, under whose presidency she was serving as VP–were lazy bums who never did anything simply because they didn’t feel like it.

I’ve been reminded of all this while watching the uncut editions of the first series of Doctor Who Confidential. (In its uncut form, Confidential takes an aspect of this weeks Doctor Who episode and relates it to how this was handled in the classic series. The uncut editions are rather hard to come by, since all the various permissions involved in using clips from both new and classic series mean that all the classic series material is removed for rebroadcast or DVD release.)

Zoe in 'The Mind Robber'In the Confidential episode on the Doctor’s companions, the new series production team–particularly Christopher Eccleston–rave on about how in the character of Rose they have brought the role of the companion into the modern day, by making her just as competent as the Doctor, rather than a screaming damsel in distress. Eccleston even goes so far as to say, “She’s his equal in every respect, except possibly [he lays great stress on this word] his scientific knowledge,” which is, of course, ridiculous–the Doctor is Rose’s superior in every area of knowledge, from science to history to culture.

In talking about this, they lay great emphasis on the received idea that the companion’s traditional role has been to look pretty (to keep “the dads” watching, Doctor Who’s traditional timeslot being immediately following Match of the Day on a Saturday afternoon), get into trouble (to get the story moving) and scream.

Except that it occurs to me that we have, in fact, been getting “competent, intelligent, non-screaming” companions for the overwhelming majority of the programme’s history, going all the way back to Zoe Heriot (1968-69), the super-intelligent astrometricist (first class) and astrophysicist from Space Station W3 who managed to maintain her intellectual equality with the Doctor (even solving the logic puzzles that were beyond him in “The Krotons”) while running around the set in that diaphanous nightie from “The Dominators” and that wonderful sparkly catsuit from “The Invasion” and “The Mind Robber”. (Photos of Wendy Padbury as feminist icon Zoe sprinkled liberally throughout this post.)

Zoe confronts the Karkus in 'The Mind Robber'In fact, ever since Zoe, to list the Doctor’s female companions who have been conceived of specifically as ways to break away from the “helpless companion” model and put a strong female role model into the TARDIS as the Doctor’s equal, is to list almost all of the Doctor’s female companions over that time.

There’s Liz Shaw (1970), who was so successful as the “hardheaded, competent scientist” companion that the producers fired actress Caroline John after only one season and replaced her with the most bimboish companion the programme ever had, Jo Grant (1971-73). Following Jo was Sarah Jane Smith (1973-76), who started off as the archetypal 70s liberated feminist–professional (a journalist), single, dressing in men’s suits and wearing a masculine, right-parted haircut (nowadays I guess we’d assume she’s a lesbian)–but her feminism seems to slowly fall to the wayside over the course of her three seasons (especially once Tom Baker replaced Jon Pertwee as the Doctor in 1974) until she eventually ends up dressed as Andy Pandy in her final story, “The Hand of Fear”.

LeelaSarah Jane’s successor is Leela (1977-78), who, as a warrior of the Sevateem tribe, is savage and brutal; a number of the Doctor’s opponents meet their ends on the point of Leela’s knife or her poisonous Janis thorns, and she only ever screams once (when pursued by the fluffy fuzzy bunny–I’m sorry, I mean scary giant rat–that Steven Moffat remembers so vividly from “The Talons of Weng Chiang”). But while Leela is running around being this brutal huntress and killer, she is doing so wearing the “amazon warrioress” costume with which the costume department has outfitted her, a leather leotard so revealing that actress Louise Jameson’s natural modesty demanded she request a short skirt be added–prompting the producers to respond by providing her with a small leather loincloth with flaps at the front and back. (Again, journalistic integrity demands that I provide a photograph.)

Then we move onto the Doctor’s Time Lady companion, Romana, who–particularly once she regenerated from the lovely Mary Tamm (1978-79) to the joyful Lalla Ward* (1979-80)–is, I think, by far the best Doctor Who has ever done (including both Rose and Martha, both of whom she puts to shame) at creating the companion who actually equals the Doctor, whether we’re talking about intellect, bravery or ability. Romana 2 is quite clearly the Doctor in his younger days, except female, and when she leaves him in “Warrior’s Gate” we’re left in no doubt that she is about to become for E-Space everything the Doctor is for our own universe–she even takes along a companion of her very own, K9.

NyssaPeter Davison’s Fifth Doctor actually had two separate “modern, competent” female companions travelling with him at the same time: Nyssa (1981-83), the brilliant intellectual and expert in bioelectronics played by the enchanting Sarah Sutton (the first girl I ever had a crush on, at about the age of two), and Tegan Jovanka (1981-84), the Australian air stewardess whose “liberation” and “feminism” came in the form of being annoying and gratingly whiny, and constantly berating the Doctor for not being able to get her back to Heathrow.

Moving over Peri** and Mel, who were both screaming companions in the traditional mould (Mel’s background as “computer programmer” notwithstanding), we next come to Ace (1987-89), the final companion of the classic series, and perhaps the companion to be most openly, obviously and explicitly constructed as the antithesis of the traditional, screaming damsel in distress: a teenage delinquent pyromaniac who carries around in her rucksack all the materials she needs to construct powerful homemade bombs and who thinks nothing of attacking Daleks with a baseball bat.

Then in the 1996 TV movie, we got Grace Holloway. It’s been pointed out to me–by a Who fan, though I have no recollection who–that, if you take away all the classic series continuity with which the TV movie is weighed down, the movie and “Rose” (the first episode of the new Doctor Who series) are actually the same story: a young woman (our viewpoint character) in modernday Earth stumbles into the Doctor’s attempts to foil the Earth’s destruction by an old enemy who can hide himself amongst us. The difference is that in “Rose”, made in 2005, our viewpoint character Rose Tyler is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a spunky teenager, whereas in the TV movie, made in 1996, Grace Holloway is a thirtysomething medical doctor–Dana Scully.

Lalla Ward as RomanaSo what’s my point here? My point is, just like a vice president really only exists to have a built-in someone to take over in the event of a president dying or becoming academically ineligible, the companion, fundamentally, only exists to be the audience’s proxy, to ask “What’s going on, Doctor?” so that the Doctor will explain the information the audience needs to know, to wander off and get into trouble to get the story moving, and–yes–to scream, so that we know what’s meant to be scary (without having to resort to the Doctor being scared, so that we can save that for the once-or-twice-a-season incidents that are really scary, like the cliffhanger at the end of this past Saturday’s “Utopia”). And more often than not, also to look good for that segment of the Doctor Who audience referred to as “the dads”.

As long as that remains true, you can make the companion as bright and competent and equal to the Doctor as you like, but the companions will still be remembered as pretty faces who scream. So all endlessly chirruping about how much more capable your current companion is to all the ones who’ve come before her does is show up how little you appreciate what’s already been done or understand what it is you’re doing now.


Romana 2*Lady Sarah Ward, daughter of the 7th Viscount Bangor (through whom she is descended from King Edward III via the Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV and Richard III) and known professionally by the forename Lalla, and now married (after a brief marriage to Tom Baker) to Richard Dawkins, who she met through Douglas Adams when Adams was script editor of Doctor Who and whose books she now illustrates–meaning that Doctor Who can actually claim to have made a real, concrete contribution to the science of evolution.

**I loved actress Nicola Bryant’s description of playing Peri in Confidential: “I started off in a bikini and never seemed to get fully dressed after that.”

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