Theta Stigma Part 2: The Companions

This article was originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of The Terrible Zodin.

Theta Stigma: A New-Whovian’s Journey of Preconceptions, First Impressions, and Watching Classic Who Out of Order

Part 2: The Companions

Companions: like the Doctor they come, stay for a bit, we love them or don’t, and then they inevitably leave to be replaced by fresh faces. Coming from New Who to the Classic series, there was a pretty significant trade-off where these faithful friends of the Doctor were concerned. Under the wings of RTD and Moffat, companions were fully developed characters with families, friends, homes, hopes, and dreams, but the primary companions (Rose, Martha, Donna, and Amy; not counting those who were only in specials or traveled for less than a season) were all generally the same “type:” modern-day British young women. In the Classics, companions had virtually no lives beyond their TARDIS travels (with the notable exception of the JNT-era companions, most of whom had at least one family member appear at some point) but there were so much more of them and they were so much more varied. They didn’t have to be girls, they didn’t have to be English, they didn’t have to be from modern-day Earth. Heck, they didn’t even have to be human! Fan-received wisdom about this crop is nearly as conclusive as it is for the Doctors: there are the champions of justice and there are those the Doctor should never have let onboard the TARDIS. Well, what makes a good companion? What makes a likeable companion? What makes a bad companion? These questions and many others convulsed themselves into an intricate, complex, and often contradictory web in my mind that lead me to conclude that maybe there isn’t a concrete way to judge a companion: you just take them as they come and see who tickles your fancy. If one doesn’t, there’s plenty more to choose from.

Ace
I Heard That…: Dalek. Baseball bat. That is all.
Then I Watched Her And…: Not that much to say here, really, since she turned out to be exactly as awesome as everyone said she was. Fandom promised a rough-and-tumble teenager who blew things up, and the show delivered a rough-and-tumble teenager who blew things up.

Adric
I Heard That…: He’s the annoying whiny one that nobody likes, but his death either made you cheer or cry.
Then I Watched Him And…: Oh Adric, you poor thing. Before I started watching Classic Who, everything I knew about him I learned from TV Tropes, which gave me a pretty thorough grounding of his negative traits: arrogant, petulant, obnoxious, and “always” siding the bad guy. I found myself thinking “Surely he can’t be that bad…” and when I got to the Davison era, he wasn’t. My first Adric story was “The Visitation” which I came away from thinking, “Wow, he really seems to have his heart in the right place, he’s always trying to save his friends (even though he always goes about it rashly), and he can fly the TARDIS without achieving God Mode first! I really kinda like this kid.” Yes, he complained sometimes, but it all felt justified, wasn’t detrimental to the story, and later had personal concerns that I could relate to. Actually, Adric is the only Classic Who companion that I really identify with. (Bored with a mundane life of rote learning? Check. Won an award for excellence? Check. Felt like an intellectual big fish in a small pond? Check. Was made to feel bad about it? Might still be suffering the emotional repercussions from that. But enough about me…)

In retrospect, I’m still a bit surprised that I grew to like Adric through the Davison serials; the one major complaint about Adric I definitely have to agree with is that I think he worked better with the Fourth Doctor than with the Fifth. With Four, he had an older Doctor as a figure of guidance and had less company in the TARDIS, therefore giving him real chances to do Good Companion Things like saving the Doctor (the giant cannon from “Warriors’ Gate” and the stunt with the bicycle from “Logopolis,” anyone?) Then the Davison era gave us “Four to Doomsday” and “Kinda,” the only serials I consider to be Adric’s “problem stories” because they showed him at his most dense and arrogant (though in “Kinda” this pertains mainly to one scene in the last episode where he, completely out of nowhere, starts blaming Tegan for everything). On the other hand, my first three Adric stories were “The Visitation,” “Black Orchid,” and “Earthshock,” in which I saw him as proactive, adorably naïve, and frustrated and lonely, respectively, which endeared him to me relatively quickly.

A few months later I watched him in “Four to Doomsday,” being aggressively vocal about how he was right and no one ever listened to him, and I thought, “Ah, this is the Adric that the internet was warning me about.” Unfortunately, this also seems to be the Adric that a lot of the fandom remembers, even though it really isn’t the Adric that we see onscreen most of the time. Watching “Four to Doomsday” and “Kinda,” I found his moments of negativity to be more the exception to the character than the rule. I have to admit, after watching all of his serials I can certainly understand why he’s unpopular, but not why he’s so passionately reviled in some circles of the fandom. He strikes me as someone who has some growing up to do, but really does mean well: he cares about his friends and wants them to be okay (yes, even Tegan, but especially Nyssa), he believes in peace and freedom, he’s willing to sacrifice himself to try and save an entire planet, and even his bone-headed agreement to help Monarch in “Four to Doomsday” happened because he honestly thought he was doing the right thing to help humanity. At the end of the day, I think he’s ultimately a good kid and I really do love him.

Mel
I Heard That…: She screams. Way too much.
Then I Watched Her And…: Mel is an oddity on this list because she’s the only character that I was first introduced to through Big Finish audios and Short Trips instead of a televised serial (well, okay, technically I first saw her in “Dimensions in Time” but I don’t count that because…well…that was “Dimensions in Time.”) Her appearance in “Mortal Thoughts” in Short Trips: Life Science didn’t leave much of an impression, but the audio The One Doctor certainly did. I knew going in that Mel was one of the stigmatized Doctor Who regulars who got cleaned up significantly by Big Finish and, considering I didn’t have any serial to go on by that point, I could only assume they were right. The Melanie Jane Bush of The One Doctor was confident, competent, had an excellent rapport with the Sixth Doctor and the capacity to endure his weasel-y doppelganger Banto Zame, with whom she spent a good chunk of the story. She never screamed, either (considering I was listening to this with headphones and while working on an art project, I was very grateful for this). She turned out to be a companion that I rather liked. However, it wouldn’t be for another few months until I finally watched her in action on screen. What all was this Mel missing that the audio Mel took up?

Into my DVD-ROM drive popped “Terror of the Vervoids” and with it, proper-Mel. Lo and behold…I rather liked this Mel, too! She still got along well with Six, she was enthusiastic about getting to travel through time and space despite the dangers (unlike multiple other recent companions) and, most significantly, she formulated and carried out plans on her own based on deduction and solo investigation. Then of course, there was the screaming. In the context of the cliffhanger for the first episode, it worked really well since stuff was suddenly exploding everywhere. Then it kept happening, venturing further into “is this really necessary?” territory. Still, it happened infrequently enough that I could give it a pass in favor of her stronger traits (forgive me if I’m committing a sacrilege in saying this, but personally I think that the Troughton-era ladies are the crowned queens of Who screamers). But what about when the Doctor regenerated? How would she fare with Seven instead of Six?

While story-wise, “Time and the Rani” is $5.99 I’ll never see again, Mel remained diligent as ever to help the Doctor and it took an entrapment in a bubble that would likely explode to get the first scream out of her. It was after this that I realized an integral but somewhat abstract Good Companion Trait that Mel possessed despite all the fan-driven negativity towards her: one of the big ways that I judge companions is whether or not I would trust them to handle a dangerous situation on their own without the Doctor. Would I feel safe if I was traveling with them? It can be a bit of a tough call, considering this is completely a gut feeling (one of the only companions to fail this is, ironically, one of my favorites). However, Mel passed this test with considerably more ease than I was expecting (actually, there are very few companions who haven’t; I could probably count them on one hand). I always found myself trusting her to figure something out at nearly any given time. If she got captured, well…that was something that happened to every Doctor Who companion at some point. As does screaming, to an extent. Although, I have to admit I found Mel’s choice of scream-priorities in “Delta and the Bannermen” to be a bit odd. Having a gun waved in your face is okay, but an egg hatching is like being advanced on by a Tetrap? Really?

Peri
I Heard That…: She’s made of accent-fail and is really only around to show off her cleavage, but at least they fixed her up a bit in “The Trial of a Time Lord.”
Then I Watched Her And…: There are exactly three things I don’t like about “The Caves of Androzani.” One: good luck expecting me to follow the political subplots. Two: that cave monster. ‘Nuff said. Three: Peri, would it be possible for you to be capable of something other than getting captured repeatedly? Other than that, love it. Brilliance all around. Its subsequent story, “The Twin Dilemma,” is (for me, anyway) almost the exact inversion. Comprehensible but poor story, ego-driven Doctor, monsters looking slightly less awful, and me cheering for Peri. I make no secret of the fact that I don’t like this serial, but I found Peri to be its one redeeming factor. Why? Because I feel that every companion should be able to tell the Doctor off when he’s in the wrong, and Peri took on this role with gusto in the face of the blustering post-regeneration Sixth Doctor. Actually, I found myself being endeared to her not just by what she did but by what was done to her. Imagine that you’ve started traveling in time and space and suddenly find yourself right off the bat poisoned, captured repeatedly, and lusted after by a deformed man in bondage gear…only to be rescued by a nice young(-looking) man who gives his life for you and then literally transforms into crazed self-centered egomaniac know-it-all who suddenly decides that you’re evil and tries to kill you (and for extra kick, he doesn’t even remember it a few minutes later). There are many ways you can get me to like a character, and the one sure-fire way is to get me to feel bad for them. Miss Brown was well into this territory before the end of Part 1 of “The Twin Dilemma.” After a few more serials I still retained my view that she isn’t the greatest companion, but I was content with her few shining moments. As for the accent…I’ll admit that, as an American, it bugged me at first, but then I reached a point where I was more amused by it than annoyed.

Then I finally made it to “Trial” and popped the first DVD into my laptop with an eager smile. Peri’s going to be cool now! She’s even wearing real clothes! Well, yes and no. Yes, she was dressed more modestly (and, is it just me, or did she steal Nyssa’s hairstyle between seasons?), no, her character did not get the upgrade I was hoping for. She didn’t feel completely useless, but I never felt that I could trust her to handle a dangerous situation on her own. When she had a major villain at gunpoint in “Mindwarp” she simply abandoned control, threw the gun down, and ran. Although, to her credit, that’s probably the most realistic reaction (I know I probably would’ve freaked and done that, too). Still, there was one noticeable change for which I will always be grateful: the improved relationship between her and Six. More smiles, more hugs, less bickering, and I didn’t have to wait until the very end of each serial for that “aww, they really do care about each other” moment. When all said and done, Perpugilliam Brown is not one of my favorites but I was sad to see her go (and before you ask me which of her two endings I believe, don’t. I’m still working on that).

Sarah Jane
I Heard That…: She’s the ideal companion. You’d be hard-pressed to top her.
Then I Watched Her And…: Imagine, if you will, that you have been newly indoctrinated into the Whoniverse, making your way through New Who at an approximate rate of about three episodes a week, and you reach a little episode early on in season two called “School Reunion.” “That’s Sarah Jane Smith,” says your friend and Whovian sire. “She was a companion in the Classic series who traveled with the Fourth Doctor and she’s really amazing and is one of the best companions ever.” Further perusing through the interwebs turns up similar information. She has her own spin-off show. Serial-wise, she’s the longest serving companion in the show’s history. She’s an intelligent, capable, professional woman who can look after the Doctor as much as he looks after her. Then you decide watch to “The Ark in Space.” Oh boy, now you get to see what Sarah Jane was like in the good ol’ days! Ten minutes into Part 1, she wanders off, gets trapped by a machine, is put into cryogenic sleep, and isn’t rescued and revived until partway through the next episode. And then you notice that she’s wearing heels.

Umm…what?

Somewhere along the line, the endless stream of praise I gleaned from the fandom regarding Miss Smith congealed into the misconception that she was the perfect companion: someone who never screamed, was never captured, never needed to be rescued, and always knew exactly what to do in literally any given situation. How this braingasm came about, I’m really not sure, but needless to say it was a quite a blow to have my expectations raised so high and then spend the next several serials waiting in vain for her to do something really just…awesome. Over the course of my first three Sarah Jane stories (“The Ark in Space,” “Pyramids of Mars,” and “The Sontaran Experiment”), the only thing that fell into this category was her surprisingly expert use of a 1900’s hunting rifle in “Pyramids of Mars.”

Now, to be completely fair, I’m somewhat lacking in the Sarah Jane department. As of this writing I’ve only seen six of her serials, excluding “Dimensions in Time”/“The Five Doctors”/all New Who appearances, so I still feel like I’ve yet to see her at her best (although I certainly gushed over her prison break plot from “Genesis of the Daleks” when that happened). What I can say for certain about Miss Smith for the time being is that, of all the Fourth Doctor companions, I love her relationship with him the best. She brings out his most human qualities and seems to be the companion that he cares for the most openly (similarly, try watching the featurettes on the DVD for “The Hand of Fear” and not getting warm fuzzy feelings when Tom Baker talks about how much Elisabeth Sladen still means to him). At first I thought this was mainly because she was a carry-over companion from his last incarnation, but then I remembered how none of his subsequent companions were really “invited onboard” per se…

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