The Imminent Arrival Of A New Companion To ‘Doctor Who’ Has ModCon02 In A Reflective Mood. Watch Out For Shrapnel, Comrades…
Being a ‘Doctor Who’ fan can be nerve-wracking.
If you are old enough to have been a fan of the show prior to the “Glorious Resurrection” by Russell T Davies in 2005, you carry certain psychological scars that will never fully heal. Chief among these is the constant, nagging dread that any slight perception of weakness, any vague admission of a drop in quality or loss of mass appeal will INSTANTANEOUSLY result in the program’s IMMEDIATE AND SWIFT cancellation.
But, in addition to that sword hanging over your head…
You are constantly peering out of the corner of your eye to see if people are snickering at the shoddiness of the sets or the dodgy nature of the rubber masks. But, at the same time, you secretly get annoyed if it looks “…too slick.” You fear that the show is too self-referential, and might put off anyone not familiar with it’s 50-plus-year history. You get uneasy if the show seems to be ignoring it’s past, in some cases outright contradicting it’s own canon. You fret that the show is “too complicated” for casual viewers. You worry that it’s becoming “too simple and Americanized” thereby risking alienating the faithful. (Incidentally? Americans worry about ‘Doctor Who’ becoming “Americanized” more than any other segment of fandom.)
I should mention at this point that I AM one of those “sad anoraks” who started watching the show in the late 80s, when it was being aired on PBS, usually after 11pm. I am unfortunately familiar with all of the above emotional states, and a few others we’ll get to later.
However, “New Who” viewers – that is, the fandom that came aboard post-2005 revival – have it much rougher in my opinion.
I cannot even begin to imagine the horror many must have felt at the change over from Eccleston to Tennant to Smith to Capaldi as The Doctor. A new actor as The Doctor was just… well, just The Way It Was for older viewers. The show had been running for 10 years before I was even born. By the time I became aware of ‘Who’, 5 different actors had played The Doctor. I knew that was part of the deal. In an odd way, no matter how much you loved any one particular Doctor, you looked forward to the inevitable change.
Imagine that attitude towards Mulder & Scully on ‘The X-Files’? Or Crockett & Tubbs on ‘Miami Vice’? ‘Law & Order’ almost gets away with it, but I wager there’s a huge contingent of fans who never quite got over Chris Noth leaving, or feel aggrieved when it’s not Jerry Orbach’s face in the opening titles.
My point is, most TV shows cannot radically change their main cast and remain popular. It just doesn’t work. But ‘Doctor Who’ has been doing exactly that for 37 seasons now. I know for a fact that many “New Who” fans had a slight meltdown when David Tennant walked away from the show, and again when Matt Smith turned into Peter Capaldi. (I’m on record as praising Capaldi to the skies for his performance, but it’s a sad fact that many people are just so used to the idea that The Doctor is supposed to be a dashing young man that I’m sure he’s alienated many of the newer fanbase.)
But I really think the most traumatic thing about ‘Doctor Who’ for new fans had to be the departure of Rose Tyler – the first of the New Who Companions. I’ll say this: it was damned traumatic for me, and I’m a veteran of the Companion Departures.
Mind you, then-showrunner Russell T Davies was pretty much a bastard in how he went about it. Rose didn’t just leave, she was locked in an alternate dimension, never to see The Doctor again. And by this point in the show, Rose was so clearly in love with The Doctor – and he, possibly, with her – that it was so much more of a gut-punch. On top of all that, Rose was one of the first companions to be a real, fully-fledged character. We cared about her leaving because, well, we cared about Rose. I unabashedly love “Classic Who”, but I’m not afraid to say that until Rose Tyler, the companions were woefully underwritten and cliche-riddled. There are of course exceptions, but mostly? It’s one of the hardest aspects of the old show to defend.
You see, to us “Classic Who” watchers, the departure of a companion was clearly always handled like an annoying chore by the show’s creative team. Only three times did “Original Who” come close to giving a companion a decent, emotional send-off. Those three? Jo Grant (played by Katy Manning), Sarah Jane Smith (played by Elisabeth Sladen) and Adric (played by Matthew Waterhouse). And frankly, Adric was a cheat. (The character was killed off in spectacular, if stupid fashion. Noble deaths are so easy to write, if hard to justify dramatically.) Sarah Jane and Jo Grant are two of the most fondly remembered “classic” companions, and that (deserved) affection is due almost entirely to the performances of Sladen and Manning. It certainly isn’t due to the writers – who rarely stirred to write a character who didn’t shriek at the first sight of danger or get themselves held hostage in episodes 2, 4 and 6.
By and large, a companion’s leaving was as perfunctory and inauspicious as their arrival. And as we get ready to welcome a new traveler into the TARDIS in 2017, I wanted to mention two previous exits that highlight just how far ‘Doctor Who’ has come in giving the previously thankless role of “The Doctor’s Companion” much needed depth and weight.
Leela (played by the wonderful Louise Jameson) was actually one of the better introduced characters in “Classic Who”. She was a near-savage, wearing loincloths and carrying a knife that she was all-too eager to use. Her relationship with The Doctor (at the time played by Tom Baker) was meant to have a Henry Higgens-Eliza Doolittle “teacher & pupil” quality. Somewhat undercutting that idea was the fact that producers decided to keep Leela in skimpy cavegirl attire for most of her time on the show. (Another uncomfortable element of “Classic Who” is that the companions were often seen by the producers as being there “…for the dads.” i.e.; an attractive, often scantily clad sex object who the dads could quietly lust over while their kids watched the scary robots and funny man with the long scarf. We were a long way off from Rose Tyler and Clara Oswald.)
Absurd costuming aside, Jameson and Baker had a good rapport onscreen and Leela was one of the more interesting companions; partly for the fact that she was more likely to try and stab the monster of the week to death rather than stand and scream hysterically as it lumbered towards her. So, when the time came for her to end her journey with The Doctor, what send-off did the creative team come up with for this feisty, monster-battling heroine?
They married her off. To a background character she’d barely exchanged three lines with. Even more annoyingly, this happens on Gallifrey, The Doctor’s home planet. Which means nothing except that The Doctor’s previous companion had been told that there was NO POSSIBLE WAY she’d be allowed to accompany him to Gallifrey. That previous companion was Sarah Jane Smith. As I noted above, Sarah Jane’s leaving was one of the very few the writers got right. Leela’s exit manages to be an insult to her character and also undermine the pathos of Sarah Jane’s in one fell swoop. Good one, “Classic Who”.
At least Leela got a good entrance. Poor Melanie Bush (played by Bonnie Langford) never even got an introduction. Literally dropped into the middle of the 23rd season, she’s a fitness instuctor who is first shown forcing the Sixth Doctor (played by Colin Baker) to ride a stationary bike and drink carrot juice.
How she ever met up with and joined The Doctor is never explained, never even referred to, and when she leaves it’s to shack up with an intergalactic con man named Sabbalom Glitz. Mel’s best moment is literally her last – at least her leaving gives The Doctor (now played by Sylvester McCoy) an excuse for a good little speech about the bizarre nature of Time Travel.
Her best moment, and it has almost nothing to do with her!
It’s moments like the ones I’ve babbled on about above that illustrate why, much as I love “Classic Who”, I never EVER suggest that a new viewer start with “the early episodes”. I always tell them to start off with “Rose” – the first episode of “New Who”. It’s got everything that made the original great, but it loses the unneccessary baggage. We just finished out the 9th series of “New Who” in which we saw the departure of the latest “companion” Clara Oswald. The impossible arc of her character – from cardboard “puzzle box” to poorly defined “control freak” to absolutely The Doctor’s equal – would NEVER have happened in “Classic Who”. Again, I love the old show, but I love it enough to admit it’s failings. The way “New Who” has redefined the part of the “companion” is so radical, so all encompassing, that I would argue we need to stop calling them “companions”.
They’re “co-stars” now. And will remain so. Time marches on, Comrades. You can’t stop progress. We are officially done with the awkward “hellos” and over-hasty “so longs” of yesteryear’s ‘Doctor Who’.
To which I say: Thank fuck.
There should be an announcement any day now as to who the new ‘Doctor Who’ co-star is. Stay tuned.