Review 2006



Kate asks:
Who's your favourite and least favourite doctor, and companion?

When Doctor Who Magazine recently published the results of their periodical poll asking readers who their all time favourite Doctor was, David Tennant won by a fair margin, dislodging Tom Baker for the first time in years. Since he's the incumbent and a percentage of voters will be new fans who didn't grow up with the floppy haired one and already have that in built affection for him. Whoever takes over from Tennant has a fair chance in a few years time unless something extraordinary happens and they cast Jimmy Carr.

I didn't remember to vote but if I had been there I would obviously have picked Tom Baker. The man was in the part for seven years and defined the role. That's why everyone who followed seemed blander somehow. But actually for me, naming Tom as the best is like saying The Beatles are your favourite rock band. Yes, and? We love Tom. Tom is our hero. Tom is the hero. But even then, there are some stories were he's acting his socks off, doing everything he can to keep things moving and it just sits there. Season Fifteen might start out well with Horror of Fang Rock but by the end you're watching Leela being chased by a Sontaran through what looks like a leisure centre after hours. If Douglas Adams hadn't shown up as script editor a year later, I really don't think we would have held Tom in such high regard.

Which is why whenever anyone asks I tell them it's Paul McGann. It's the interesting choice. It's the one that raises eyebrows, especially with the people who think he got back into the TARDIS in 1996 and didn't come out again. But I don't think I've heard or read an Eighth Doctor story I haven't loved or at least liked. With the shortest TV screen time of them all, he became the experimental Doctor, a way for the many authors who'd written for him to play about with the format, of what a Doctor Who story is.

For the uninitiated, since his short burst on screen the Eighth Doctor has appeared in a series of novels from BBC Books, in an ongoing comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine and on audio with McGann himself in a series of cd plays for a company set up by fans called Big Finish (there was also a brief comic strip moment in Radio Times and a few novellas too). Because many of the writers work across these formats, using the TV Movie and the actors previous film and tv appearances they hashed out a character for him, so that this one voice is heard no matter were he appears.

He's brash and unpredictable, he's nervous but clever, curious yet all knowing. He'll bound into a situation, make mistakes and then relish dealing with the consequences. Unlike Tom you're never sure if he'll really win and sometimes he really doesn't. In the novels, he's literally lost one of his hearts, destroyed his home planet and been exiled on Earth for a century with amnesia. In the comics he took as his companions, a British teenager, a cyberman and a fish-like woman who'd tried to kill him on numerous occasions. On audio, he caused a rip in time, became his own mortal enemy and banished himself into another universe in which time as a concept doesn't exist.

But what I really love is the sheer randomness of it all. Unlike the tv series were all the eras are carefully mapped out and you know were you are with whichever Doctor you're watching, you're never sure what the Eighth is going to do next. In a special moment at the end of The Next Life, this non-reality he's been exiled to is caving in on itself and his only escape route into his real universe is fading fast. But he stops for a moment or two to chide his two companions for not being able be friends along and gets them to grudgingly to bury the hatchet because he doesn't see the point of carrying on if they don't see eye to eye. Life's precious but so is quality of life.

I'm happy the Doctor's back, but I'm sad to see the back of the Eighth. The fact the new men are being considered the Ninth and Tenth perfectly commemorates the work done by the various writers, authors and producers who've kept this multi-media incarnation alive as much more than an hour and half of Americanisms. It was exciting to see Chris stepping out of the TARDIS last March, but for me The Doctor had never been away. He'd just been traveling elsewhere for while.

[One of the, if not the best Eighth Doctor novel, The Dying Days by Lance Parking is available to download at bbc.co.uk. They also have the audio version of Douglas Adam's Shada which is at least worth hearing for McGann's performance even if the dialogue was mostly written for Tom].

Selecting a least favourite Doctor though is a bit like trying to choose the chocolate you don't like in a box of Milk Tray. There simply aren't any toffees. If I have to choose one, obviously it's going to be the Sixth, Colin Baker, although for reasons that will become clear that isn't as easy a choice as it might have been when he first appeared in the role in the Eighties. As I think I've already indicated, a Doctor is only as good as the production team and when Pete became Col, the late John Nathan Turner was the producer. Many fans don't really like John. The perceived wisdom is that he took what was an excellent show into the Eighties, turned it into a pantomime and sucked the pleasure out of it. Inevitably its not that simply because even the Peter Davison era is filled with gems, including Davison's final story The Caves of Androzani being an all-time classic.

The problem with JNT was that his decisions were inconsistent. On paper, the selection of Baker as the Sixth Doctor wasn't that bizarre. He'd already appeared in a popular show called The Brothers and had given a nice little performance in Doctor Who already as Maxill of the Gallifreyan guard in The Arc of Infinity. But then they took the collective decision of sticking him in a brightly coloured patchwork coat and making him an arrogant, unlikeable, shouty little bastard.

Post regeneration he was unstable and in the midst of everything attempted to strangle his current companion Peri, then proceeded to grump around for three episodes before regaining some sympathy at the end cradling a timelord mentor of his who is finally dying. The Twin Dilemma is an all time worst story for the series and coming after Androzani a catastrophic choice especially appearing at the end of the season. The summer gap is probably what did it for the fans as they wondered if they were just going to get another season of the same.

Actually they got a season of the production team trying to deal with a new episode format (45 minutes instead of 25) and the Doctor and Peri bickering constantly. It was fairly obvious that this was supposed to be gentle banter, the annoyance that develops between people who spend their every waking hour together (see also Steptoe and Son but often it got in the way of the story and such scenes usually went on far too long because the stories were being so badly structured. Sometimes it would take whole episode of them standing around in the TARDIS or traipsing around a planet doing this before they would become involved in the main plot and in some cases they'd frequently have little or nothing to do in or with the climax.

All of which has a knock on effect for the appreciation of Baker's Doctor who despite some moments of charm is often brash, conceited and egotistical. Whereas the majority of the other Doctor abhor fatal violence he'd often be in there with a gun or a punch, hardly ever solving problems with his mind. When the hiatus was announced I'm not sure that many people were surprised - even I wasn't at such a young age. If your main character is so unlikable, who's going to tune in.

When the series returned with The Trial of a Timelord, a story spanning a season, some thought had obviously gone into softening the Doctor's personality. There was a new warmth in his interactions with Peri and some of his 'humanity' had returned. Although the bluster was still in evidence in the trial scenes (essentially the story was portmanteau - a metastory framing three others) it was tempered with the obvious defense of his life. It made sense in context.

But by then, that was enough for me. I kept watching but I simply wasn't enjoying the show as before. It just didn't seem relevant, and as well as the production itself it was down the portrayal of the Doctor who'd become a distant figure and certainly not someone you could care too much about. It didn't help that the stories had become so esoteric with the Doctor once again going off the rails as the season progressed.

But it's difficult to say that I completely hate the Sixth Doctor because now, in the Big Finish audios, he's gone into something of a renaissance. Through a general tweaking of the character, this Baker Doctor has gained something of the schoolmaster with all of the bluster and arrogance being part of the bluff rather than a defining character trait. Shorn of the distraction of the costume, Baker's performance too has taken a step up and across the audio is much more coherent. The introduction of a new companion too has, helped with historian Evelyn Smythe telling him off when he's going just too far. Actually their relationship is rather sweet - like too old retirees on a day trip to Brighton, were Brighton is all of time and space.

[Brilliantly, BBCi have one of these stories, Real Time as a webcast.]

Oddly enough this isn't a question which the non-fan usually asks - it's mostly favourite Doctor and Monster. Yet, as Rose in the new series has demonstrated the companion is as much a part of the show as either of those elements, and to a degree more so, but often they're forgotten even though time and again they can be the prime-movers of the plot even if that is getting captured or stumbling into said monster just in time for the cliffhanger ending.

In the new series, Russell T Davies has gone for the iconic. The Doctor and his young female companion who he'll be teaching about the universe. It's the dynamic which has cropped up through all of the latter incarnations during the original series. The cliche is correct in this case, she will be asking him what's going on so that the audience can keep track. As with Chris and Neil, Billie Piper's performance and the writing of Rose Tyler have redefined the role of the companion for the television audience. Although Rose has still done all of the things you need a companion to do, it's been much more subtle and indeed often it's the Doctor who's been asking her for an explanation.

A pattern I've always noticed is that the stories are weaker when this dynamic hasn't been thought through. I've read interviews with former producers, well alright John Nathan Turner, whose attitude was to introduce a companion based on some basic attributes and let the actor fill in the gaps. The problem with that is that it doesn't take into account how that will play with The Doctor of the day -- there needs to be some kind of chemistry and to be honest a good reason for the timelord to choose them as a companion. When this doesn't work is when the companion seems to have been plonked into the TARDIS at random with the hope that magic will happen.

Which is why picking a favourite companion is difficult. The easiest way would be to choose the one you fancy. So either Romana on the beach thank you, with Sarah Jane Smith visiting later for drinks. As with Tennant, Billie Piper scored extraordinarily highly in the DWM poll and for much the same reasons. She was certainly the most clearly defined of the television companions, far more three dimension than most of the others.

But she was standing on the shoulders of giant. Once again we're in the realm of the spin-offs were the Eighth Doctor's companions have all contributed to the new approach. In the BBC range, his first companion was Sam Jones, a teenager from the East End of London (Coal Hill School) with liberal politics and a sharp wit whose in love with the Doctor. Sound familiar? Reading some of those books its often quite easy to imagine that you're reading an adventure for the Tenth and Rose.

But if I'm bring this to the realms of true appreciation, I'm going to have to go for the unusual decision again. Rose, Sarah-Jane and Romana aside, my favourite companion, for the purposes of the people who know what the hell I'm talking about is Charley Pollard. She's McGann's friend in the Big Finish Audio cds (also recently broadcast on BBC7) and over the course of five seasons, redefined the role of the companion to the extent that she's an equal with The Doctor (again sound familiar?).

For the uninitiated, Charley's an Edwardian adventuress who stowed away on an airship, the R101, and rescued by The Doctor just before it blew up in flames. Unlike innumerable television companions who seemed to want to leave the TARDIS as quick as they could (see Tegan etc), Charley genuinely wants to see the universe, grab hold of this opportunity which has been put before her. Aided by India Fisher's superb performance, we heard her present a feeling of utter wonder at what was being shown to her, time and again. But even more unusually considering the job description she's saved The Doctor's life almost as many times as he's saved hers, a hand to hold when the universe is falling apart around him.

The chemistry between Fisher and McGann is so potent that often you're happy just to listen to them chat as the plot passes by around them. One of the best stories of the era, Scherzo (written by Rob Sherman, who's contributed the Dalek episode in the new series) is just them, no other characters, stuck in blank universe where they just walk round and around and its utterly compelling. They were living through the fall out of a previous story, equally classic (for different reasons) Neverland in which Charley told The Doctor she loved him and for the first time we knew the feeling was mutual. Which was somehow less controversial than that kiss in San Francisco and just as touching if not more so than The Girl In The Fireplace and the close of Doomsday combined.

But what's perfect about Charley is that despite the time differential she comes across as a real person. There is the aforementioned outburst, but also her constant irritation that The Doctor drops them in it time and again, and that the universe never quite works right, ever. In later seasons, a third companion was introduced, the chameleonic Cr'zz and although she was polite there was a definite irritation at having to jostle with someone else for the timelord's attention. Such jealousy, as she might say herself it was 'Silly, childish and very human...'

In later stories, Charley has tended towards the generic although this is a side effect of being with the Doctor for so long having drifted beyond her Edwardian roots (which is precisely what Jackie warned Rose about in the last television series). Fisher's performance has still held up though which is why the rumour that her contract hasn't been renewed at Big Finish is a shame - it signals the end for Charlie soon, no doubt because of the introduction of Eighth's new companion Lucie, appearing in the new BBC7 series beginning on new year's eve and ensuing cd releases.

Selecting a least favourite companion should be easy, because there have been so many. One of the reason the series drove itself into cancellation bay in the first place was that the writers fundamentally misunderstood the dynamic of the companion being the viewer's way into the series by making them so alien even when they were human. At no point is anyone going to sympathise with a Tegan or an Adric even if vast android hordes with big guns are massed just inches away. When Adric flew a ship into the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs in his exit story Earthshock, the only reason it was shocking and sad was because it had taken so long to give him something dramatic to do.

But if I was to give any of them the sharp end of a Dalek gun it would be Dodo Chaplet. Dodo was a companion of the first Doctor and literally stumbled into the TARDIS thinking it was a real Police Box when it landed at the end of a historical adventure when the Doctor's ship randomly landed in contemporary (for then) London. In her first story, The Ark she managed to pass a flu bug on to the last vestiges of the human race living in a space ark, giving room for their servants the Ood-like Monoids to take over. And that's about the most exciting thing to happen to her. From then on in she's a placeholder, someone for the other companion Steven to talk at, her only other high point being a song and dance routine in The Gunfighters. As an editor at the Wikipedia describes her: "Dodo's personality was a bright and happy one, but she was ultimately not very sophisticated."

It was probably not actress Jackie Lane's fault. For much of the previous story, the Doctor has knocked about with Steven the space pilot and the cool but ill-fated Sara Kingdom and there was probably some directive that said that the Doctor couldn't just knock around with another man. But Dodo was simply ill thought out and lacked depth and she found herself stuck into a string of not great stories - the tedious The Celestial Toymaker and the dry The Savages. She was eventually inauspiciously replaced by the far more swinging Polly in her final adventure The War Machines but wasn't even granted a proper farewell. Feeling ill she was shipped off to the country for a rest and never heard from or mentioned again.

Inevitably she gained an afterlife in the spin-offs and in David Bishop's Who Killed Kennedy by David Bishop is was revealed that Dodo had suffered a nervous breakdown and was unable to remember her adventures with the Doctor, drifting in and out of psychiatric institutions. She eventually became involved with a journalist that was investigating the truth behind UNIT and was ultimately murdered by the Master. Unless you're reading Daniel O'Mahony's The Man in the Velvet Mask in which case its inferred that she contracted a fatal dose of VD.

The reason I've picked her as my least favourite that she's everything that people who know nothing about Doctor Who expect a companion to be - bland, lacking in characterization and a screamer. About the only good moment she has is in the beginning of The War Machines when the Doctor leaves an out of order sign on the TARDIS because they're in the 60s and its in its right era at least visually. She and the Doctor share a giggle and it feels right and finally there is chemistry. I can't remember a single thing that she did in the rest of her time on the show other than that she knocked Peter Purves's Steven, who was becoming one of the best ever companions, off his stride by stealing half of the material.

Not long now until Martha Jones takes a bow and like Rose she's appearing with a family and back story already in place. Although there's a debate about whether she's the first non-white companion (What about Mickey? What about Anji and Ros or Alison in the spin-offs?) its another sign of the new version of the show wanting to do more with the Doctor/companion dynamic. To what extent will her ethnicity be an issue when they travel into a past when the colour of someone's skin was still a barrier - will they confront or avoid? Either way its got to be handled better than Dodo's cockney origins ...

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