Archive for the ‘TV Waffle’ Category

As they say in Rome, after a fat Pope, a thin Pope. Anyone wondering what the sound of thousands of men in early middle-age sighing with a combination of relief and joy is had the perfect opportunity to find out on Sunday night, as a generation of veteran Doctor Who fans were delighted to discover that their hero was now back to being older than them again.

There has been a colossal amount of coverage of a piece of news which boils down to seven words: Peter Capaldi is the new Doctor Who. More, in fact, than seems possible, or at least sane: but I suppose this is the modern reality of the show, which is a moneyspinning brand for the BBC as much as it is a fantasy drama.

What do you mean, you're sick of seeing this photo?

What do you mean, you’re sick of seeing this photo?

I mean, even I, who love and think upon the show more than is sensible, thought that devoting thirty minutes of live TV to the announcement was a little bit OTT. Possibly this is mainly because I have an allergy to the brand of brainless, manic enthusiasm which is Zoe Ball’s default setting – but I defy anyone to honestly suggest that the announcement programme wasn’t just twenty-five minutes of pap and filler leading up to a revelation which can’t have shocked anyone who’d been following the news last week.

Ah well. Peter Capaldi, eh? A good choice, surely; but also a very different one and thus a very interesting one. Before I dive into all that with some pointless, empty speculation of my own (everyone else is doing it), it is quite interesting to survey all the ways in which Capaldi’s casting is being analysed and deconstructed.

This is mainly down to the fact that the Doctor is yet again a white male – and back to being a distinctly mature figure (though a quick comparison of photos of William Hartnell and Capaldi will instantly show you that being 55 in 2008 is a very different thing to being 55 in 1963). The chorus of militants who, to judge from their utterances all summer, seem to think that having a male Doctor is a flaw in the programme, are still there, emitting the odd grumble, while the reliably contrarian Daily Mail, ever alert to age-related controversies, have managed to dig up some fans complaining that Capaldi is ‘too old’ – a particularly priceless comment being ‘Very very disappointed! The Doctor meant to be someone young (sic), both matt and David were very cute and funny doctors, and now they give us an old guy, no offence to the new guy he may be an amazing actor but he just doesn’t fit the part’. This was from ‘Fara23’. I am going to stick my neck out and guess that a) Fara23 is a young lady and b) her all-time favourite story probably isn’t The War Machines.

But you know what? I’m sort of reminded of Andrew Cartmel’s contribution to OUTSIDE IN: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers (still on sale at only $24.95), where he sat down to examine the racial politics of The Talons of Weng-Chiang but eventually concluded all the arguing and fretting about this was just refrigerator noise – the only thing that really matters about this story is that it is brilliantly written, acted, and directed (except perhaps for the rat). It’s the same with Peter Capaldi being cast as the Doctor – his age, accent, class, ethnicity, and so on really is very secondary to the fact that he’s a brilliant actor of exactly the right type.

Even so, and even given that we know virtually nothing about what he’s going to do with the part (it’s amusing that every fan seems to automatically assume that any new Doctor will be playing it darker than their predecessor – wishful thinking I suspect), adding to the refrigerator noise is irresistible. Capaldi’s not the first Scottish Doctor – and it’s easy to see why he wasn’t approached when David Tennant moved on, the two of them are a little too similar in appearance and energy – and it’s debatable as to whether he’s more or less of a household name than Christopher Eccleston was when he was cast. The real talking point arising from this announcement is, inevitably, that of Capaldi’s age.

As I said, 55 now isn’t the same as 55 in 1963, but he’s still at least 15 years or so older than every other full-time Doctor cast in the last 40 years, and the question is simply one of how much this will inform his performance and the nature of the show. On the face of things Capaldi looks like much, much more of an old-school Doctor than anyone else this century, and in an odd way this is actually makes him quite a radical choice.

I can’t imagine a Capaldi Doctor having the same quasi-romantic relationship with his companion that characterised David Tennant and to some extent Matt Smith’s takes on the character, and this will be a major departure: I suspect a lot of the new fanbase (the ones I probably wouldn’t get on with if I met them) really gets off on this sort of thing. Also, Christopher Eccleston famously found the schedule of making the programme gruelling; it made David Tennant ill – so how is an actor approaching 60 going to deal with it?

What I draw from this – and I may well turn out to be totally wrong, as usual – is that we may be in for a really radical shift in the dynamic of the series: rather than the dominant, central Doctor of the 70s series, with a single companion, could we be in for a return to a different style of storytelling – three or more regular characters, and a more equal division of screen-time between them? This would lighten the load on Capaldi, for one thing, and allow for the soapy nonsense to take place between the various companions.

It would be a bold step, but I think the series at present needs to take one, and it might even inspire Steven Moffat to raise his game a little and go back to thinking in terms of proper storytelling rather than gimmicks apparently inspired by fanfic and early-80s issues of DWM. He might even think again about doing longer stories, which I’m really starting to miss. But, as I say, it’s much too soon for any speculation to be worthwhile and so I shall stop. At the moment all we know is: Peter Capaldi is the Doctor! And I for one am very happy that he is.


Refrigerator Noise Update:

1. It really does seem to be a fact that everyone automatically assumes that any newly-cast Doctor is going to play it darker than their predecessor: a friend whom I didn’t have tagged as much more than a casual Who watcher came up to me at a party (yes, it was that night of the year) and basically said ‘So – Capaldi! Going to be darker, isn’t he?’

As I said, it’d be foolish to make predictions so very early, but I’d be a little surprised – there’s a limit to how successfully dark you can make the lead character of a Saturday night family adventure series. Also, it kind of presupposes that ‘dark’ is all Peter Capaldi either wants to do or is capable of doing: in short, it’s a form of typecasting.

But even so, why this default presumption of a dark Doctor? Is it what the dedicated fans really think they want, and if so, why? I think it really must be what the fans are after, but it would be unwise to assume a single reason for this, for there is not a single breed of fan. For the older fans, it may be that they still have the strongest memories of Doctor Who as the terrifying experience it was in their childhoods, an incredibly potent brew of monsters and menace. Naturally they are going to associate the best of the show with darkness. Many of the new generation are probably of that age where they still spend time in their bedrooms writing poetry revealing how unfair life is, and a brooding, dark hero would probably appeal to them too. I suspect that both groups are still a little sensitive to accusations that being a devotee of a fantasy adventure TV series is quite silly, and anything which gives the appearance of gravitas will be fine with them, too. I still suspect the twelfth Doctor will end up being a lighter shade than most people are anticipating.

2. Saw my first op-ed piece crowbarring the announcement of Capaldi-as-Twelve into a supposedly serious piece of political analysis (from the London Evening Standard). I don’t have it to hand, but the thesis was that casting a more mature Doctor may influence politicians into thinking that more seasoned patriarchal figures may be acceptable. On average, British political party leaders have got a lot younger over the last twenty years (not unlike successive Doctors, of course), but I am dubious as to whether my show (wonderful as it is) has quite enough clout to convince veteran politicos to revert to electing an older generation as their candidates to lead the country. If nothing else the piece shows just how massively newsworthy the show remains, which must on some level be a good thing.


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Further to my thoughts yesterday on the importance of keeping in touch with the news media, I woke up today and – as I usually do on a Sunday – popped on Not the Andrew Marr Show just while my brain put itself into gear. They were reviewing the papers, particularly the front of the Mail on Sunday – which has as its headline some pointlessly vague nonsense about a terribly important political sex scandal which they aren’t actually permitted to give any meaningful information about. Sharing the front page with this was a picture accompanying the announcement that Matt Smith had announced his departure from Doctor Who.

We take it for granted that an outgoing (or indeed incoming) Doctor is big news, but it really does prove that this is not a TV show like other TV shows… will there be a dedicated programme just to make the announcement of the new guy this time? Hmm.)

Anyway, I mention this just because had I gone straight onto the internet this morning without looking at the TV my first inkling would probably have come from an invitation to ‘Like’ a Facebook page lobbying for ——– ——— to become the twelfth Doctor. I don’t want to be unkind to the performer in question, which is why I’ve —-ed their name, but they would probably not be amongst the top 7000 names on my own wish-list.

In short, here we go again. I’m not sure I have anything substantive to add to the masses of slightly frenzied speculation already clogging up vast swathes of the internet (I mean, I don’t want to be a killjoy here, and I’m aware I’m going to come across as a massive hypocrite, but come on, folks: there’s everything happening in Syria, and now Turkey’s kicking off, not to mention the current government’s attempts to destroy the fabric of British society by stealth, and we’re all discussing personnel changes on a TV show? If future generations were to describe us as decadent, how would we be able to respond?). However, there are just a couple of points that occur to me.


Firstly, with Matt Smith leaving the show before the end of the year, surely the clock must now be ticking on Steven Moffat’s own tenure with the programme? I don’t say this purely because of my lack of enthusiasm for Moffat’s version of the show (although considering the high hopes I approached the eleventh Doctor’s tenure with, I have to say that most of what’s happened over the last three and a half years has been disappointing), but because if history shows us anything, it’s that now is the right time for Moffat to go.

If you look back at Doctor Who‘s production history, you do see that a change of Doctor usually coincides with a change in the production team: Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks’ time in charge matches the run of the third Doctor to within a story either side, Tom Baker was motivated to finally leave by the arrival of John Nathan-Turner as producer, incoming producer Innes Lloyd was the instigator of the first change of lead actor, and so on. (This is not to say that a change of producer is necessarily always accompanied by a change of Doctor, by the way.)

The only times we have seen the same regime overseeing multiple Doctors have been with Rusty’s work with Eccleston and Tennant, and John Nathan-Turner’s tenure with Davison, Baker, and McCoy. We’re still not quite sure when it became apparent that Eccleston was only going to be a one-season Doctor, but in any case this is surely a special case; it’s hardly as if Rusty and the crew had done all they wanted to do with the show in the space of 13 episodes. But as far as the JNT years are concerned – as I said just recently, if there was ever a time when the show wobbled and threatened to look tired and irrelevant, it was in the 80s, with a production team who seemed to be running out of ideas and didn’t want to be there.

The character of the Doctor is so much a creation specifically of the showrunner these days, rather than the script editor, lead actor and individual scriptwriters working in concert. (Gareth Roberts has observed that Rusty Davies and Steven Moffat both wrote the Doctor almost as idealised versions of themselves.) Does Moffat have ‘another’ characterisation for the Doctor in him that will match the eleventh? Even if he does, doesn’t that commit him for staying for another three years, until the Next Guy in turn announces his departure? I can’t quite imagine another showrunner coming in and taking over a Doctor created by someone else (though I suppose it is possible: there was a distinct possibility of David Tennant staying on for the first year with Moffat, after all). Also, Moffat’s effectively cracked America for the series and is in the process of overseeing what’s looking like a very successful anniversary year: what else can he realistically expect to achieve by staying on?

Still, unless talks have quietly been going on and a successor is already moving into place (in which case we can expect a departure announcement from Moffat fairly soon), I expect we will be seeing at least one full season with Next Guy with Moffat as lead writer. A shame; a completely fresh start with Next Guy and New Showrunner would have been a genuinely exciting prospect. As it is I’m just battening down the hatches for more of the same, albeit with different hair.

Secondly – I love Tom Baker. For me he is the Doctor above and beyond all others (sorry, no discussion on this one). But I really, really wish, when planning the announcement of his own departure in 1981, he hadn’t turned to JNT and said (I paraphrase from memory) ‘Let’s have some fun with the press – how about if I feed you a line that the next Doctor could be a woman?’ And I really wish JNT hadn’t gone along with him on it.

I know the possibility of a transgender regeneration has now been written into the text of the series (I love Neil Gaiman. But I really wish etc, etc), but if there was one thing guaranteed to drive a wedge between me and the show in perpetuity (and the very idea is a shocking one, it’d be like losing a leg or a major sense organ in terms of how it would affect my sense of myself) it would be a sex change of the main character.

Partly this is because many of these cries declaring ‘now’s the time!’ seem to come from people who don’t really seem to care about Doctor Who as such, but simply have an agenda to push or are just looking to make mischief (one such burblehead popped up on News 24 to give his, ahem, informed opinion on the issue). But also I think it would be genuinely bad for the series as a piece of drama, and completely at odds with the way it has developed over the last eight years.

The 20th century version of the show frequently treated characters as collections of plot functions, rather than actual people: when a regular character did succeed in coming to life it was most often down to the efforts of the performer involved. What 21st century Doctor Who has managed to do (and whether, in fact, it’s gone too far in doing so is another story) is to treat characters as people. In this context suddenly turning the Doctor into a woman would be a massive retrograde step: it’d be effectively saying to the audience that there are no unbreakable threads of continuity where the Doctor is concerned, just a narrative construct that can do or be anything necessary to either propel the plot, or – in this case – grab some publicity.

Or, to put it another way… I have issues with Steven Moffat as a showrunner, as I think is abundantly clear by now. But I’m really reassured by his response when this very issue was put to him a few years ago. His response was (again, I paraphrase from memory) ‘sure, in the fictional universe of the show maybe it’s possible – but I’m not sure you could make it work as a story. I worry that you might not believe it was still the same Doctor.’

So, in short, I’m really hoping that Moffat takes the opportunity to move on, gracefully, soon. But I’m also very relieved that, as far as we know, he’s the one in charge of casting the new guy, whoever he may be – and I use the word ‘he’ with precision.

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This is what happens when you take a bit of a time out from the stresses and strains of normal life, as I currently am: you start losing touch with the important points of current affairs. When I’m not on the dawn patrol, I usually make a point of at least looking in on the BBC’s heavyweight news and current affairs show Newsnight, but this has been slipping recently (also, it clashes with Parks and Recreation on the other side, but I digress). As a result I completely missed a surprisingly lengthy item on the May 29th episode.

Now, as we know, the world is going through one of those rocky periods at present. It is not what you’d call a slow news decade. So did Newsnight decide to devote many precious minutes to the worrying impetus given to English neo-fascist groups by a terrorist killing in Woolwich last week? Did it look at the responsibilities of ISPs in the wake of a child murder to which online pornography may have been an inciting factor? Or was it perhaps looking at the future of the European project as the single currency seems to creep ever-closer to meltdown? No. Rather gobsmackingly, Newsnight ran an item discussing the important issues of a) whether Doctor Who went rubbish in the 1980s and b) if so, why?

Andrew Cartmel revisits a past, er, triumph for Newsnight.

Andrew Cartmel revisits a past, er, triumph for Newsnight.

Well, as anyone who knows me will be all too aware, taking Doctor Who much too seriously is my default setting, but even so this surprised me. (I look forward to Jeremy Paxman’s series of reports attempting to resolve the UNIT dating problem and determine when exactly Revenge of the Cybermen is set.) And part of the reason for this surprise is that this is an issue which even Doctor Who fans don’t seem to actually discuss very much. It is certainly something which I have spent much time mulling over, but I’ve always been reluctant to give an opinion on it. However, if BBC News is going on the record…

I iPlayered the Newsnight piece, and while it was slightly tongue-in-cheek it was still an impressively thoughtful and balanced look at the question. Okay, a clip of the Myrka got wheeled out, also that tedious old self-mythologiser Michael Grade, but there was an in-depth look at The Caves of Androzani which took pains to point out what a really remarkable piece of TV this is, and identified just what made it so different from most other stories of the period.

That said – and this may be due to this being an item made, ultimately, for a mainstream audience, not well-versed in the particular narratives of the series – if a single cause was identified as being responsible for 80s Who‘s downfall, it was the production values: not just dodgy sets or props, but also the often studio-bound multi-camera VT method of production. Wheeled out in tandem with this was the slightly tired old assertion that audiences had got used to the look of big-budget SF movies like Star Wars and so on.

Well, I’m not even close to convinced by that one, as it seems to suggest that either Hollywood never made a single SF film prior to 1977, or that if it did, they all had comparable special effects to Doctor Who of the same period. The word ‘piffle’ leaps irresistibly to mind: films like 2001, Planet of the Apes, and Silent Running were all around while Doctor Who was being made in the 60s and 70s, and the show didn’t appreciably wobble then. And let’s not forget that the programme consistently outperformed big-budget filmed SF shows which were put up in opposition to it in the 1970s (Space 1999, for one).

But back to the main issue at hand: did Doctor Who go rubbish in the 1980s? This question seems particularly pertinent to me right now as I am currently picking my way through selected middle-lights of season 22. Actually, that middle-lights crack is a bit uncalled for, as the last episode I watched was the opener of Vengeance on Varos, which – whatever else it may be – is certainly not rubbish. Misjudged and morally dubious it may be, but it’s still a story which seems more and more prescient as time goes by: a weak leader of a bankrupt population, forced to entertain the masses through cruel reality TV shows and endless votes. And this is before we even get to the way in which the programme smartly deconstructs the whole process of making and watching TV.


On the other hand, not all the stories from around this time have the same intelligence and inventiveness, but most of them share the tendency towards badly-misjudged creative decisions: most of these stories are deeply cynical, punctuated by startlingly graphic violence, and populated by rather unsympathetic characters. (I’ve heard it suggested that most stories of season 22 are unsuccessful attempts to copy the style of Caves of Androzani, and I think there’s a grain of truth to that.) Given that script editor Eric Saward apparently didn’t agree with Colin Baker being cast as the Doctor, it’s perhaps not surprising that the main character seems almost to be sidelined much of the time.

Despite this, I don’t think season 22 is quite the nadir of 80s Who; that dubious honour goes to its successor, which always seems to me to be an example of a questionable idea, indifferently executed. But just as season 22 has moments of brilliance, so even The Trial of a Time Lord is not wholly without merit. And as for the McCoy seasons that followed it – well, I don’t think they’re perfect by any means, but I think they’re a vast improvement over their immediate predecessors. As you watch them you can see Andrew Cartmel, in particular, figuring out how to work with the available resources to produce stories that are contemporary, imaginative, and entertaining.

When 21st century Doctor Who first appeared, the talents involved – while not exactly dissing the 80s incarnation of the series – made it very clear that they were drawing their cues primarily from the previous decade. Rose plays with images from a 1970 story, and the Doctor-and-girl dynamic is apparently intended to remind us of ‘classic’ companions like Sarah. But this seems to me to be spin, motivated mainly by the poor reputation of 80s Who – if you go back and look at the final years of the series’ 20th century incarnation, you can see a lot which points the way to where the programme is now.

Primarily this is in the McCoy years, which feature housing estates and the companion who originates from them, an increased fascination with the character of the Doctor (even to the point where whole stories focus on his identity), and a greater interest in characterisation. But even before this, you could argue that the years have been kind to stories like Mawdryn Undead, with its intricate timey-wimey plot – and JNT’s much reviled obsession with attracting publicity to the show by any means necessary surely has an echo in the ‘movie poster’ culture surrounding the current series.

In fact, if you look at the long list of charges levelled against John Nathan-Turner’s regime – and if we’re talking about 80s Who, we are inevitably talking about JNT’s Who – something very odd occurs. JNT’s Who is always bringing back old monsters rather than breaking new ground (we have, of course, just enjoyed a season featuring the Great Intelligence, Silurians, Sontarans, Cybermen, Ice Warriors and Daleks). JNT’s Who is obsessed with fannish continuity references (in the most recent season there were shouts out to Tegan, the Eye of Harmony, the Valeyard, and many others: not to mention the way that all the stories seem to link up with one another). JNT was always inappropriately casting comedians and pop stars in key roles (recently there have been guest spots by David Walliams and one of the So Solid Crew).

I’m not a particular fan of the current version of the series, as regular readers may have discerned, but I do not draw all these parallels to suggest that Doctor Who currently is as rubbish as it was in the 80s – nor to suggest that it was no more rubbish then than it is now. The two versions of the show were made in different contexts, and in different cultural situations, and directly comparing them is futile. However, given the parallels exist, it’s very hard to avoid the idea that 80s Who was in some ways ahead of its time.

Nevertheless, I do think the quality drop-off in 80s Who is more pronounced than the one we’re currently going through: the never-completely-resolved Doctor-centric plotlines of recent years may be a bit exasperating, but the stories themselves are generally snappy, good-looking and reasonably well-thought-through. You seldom get a story where the director appears to be operating entirely on autopilot or where the production designs are actually depressing.

And one further way in which JNT seemed to be ahead of his time was in his conception of Doctor Who as a brand, something the BBC takes very seriously these days but was unarticulated at the time. It’s the branding of Doctor Who in the 80s that results in some of the most-criticised aspects of the show: primarily the costuming of the leading characters as icons rather than actual real people, but also the general concern with the cosmetic details of the programme simply as a set of icons, rather than the substance of the storytelling. As a result, one gets a gradual sense of the programme slipping off into its own solipsistic world where it does not exist as mainstream drama, or an element of a larger culture, but always and only as Doctor Who. The end result of this process is a set of stories like season 22 or 23, which may be okay on their own terms, but are frequently wildly inappropriate for a mass family audience.

If current Doctor Who succeeds where 80s Doctor Who fell down, it’s because – so far – all due care and attention has been paid to ensure that the stories do not actively repel casual viewers. It’s hard to imagine, in the 2040s, another news report discussing whether Doctor Who went rubbish in the 2010s (then again, foreknowledge of this week’s report would have come as a nasty shock to anyone in 1983) – but does this mean the show is now miraculously proof against ever going rubbish again?

Of course not; the idea is ridiculous. And, as I hope I’ve indicated, I think any slide into rubbishness in the mid 80s was only a relative and partial thing. However, a slide did occur, largely I think because the makers of the series took its continuing success for granted. Whatever their faults (and I’m aware that for many people they can do no wrong), the current production team of the series seem fanatically determined not to let that happen again. And even I can only applaud them for that.

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In the past I have occasionally written about the political attitudes to be seen at work in the storytelling and concepts of Doctor Who (sometimes only to be seen if you screw your eyes up tight and put your head on one side, but even so). However, it occurs to me that there is fruitful territory for investigation if one looks at the actual political mechanics of Who-world, especially in its version of contemporary (or recent-history) Earth. Which politicians and other public figures do Who-world and our own reality share? What are the differences, and can we tease out some kind of story behind them?

The Doctor’s own credentials as a Republican or a Monarchist have never been articulated in detail, but given he’s happy to hob-nob with the royalty both of Earth and other planets (he is, after all, a Lord) it seems unlikely he is dogmatic about this sort of thing. In terms of the Earth royalty he encounters, Who-world and real-world history seem to agree in every respect –  his encounters with Rick One, Liz One and Two, and Vicky are all at the points in time when one would roughly expect them to occur.

(Although, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, there’s a mild point of conflict when it comes to Battlefield, which alludes to the possibility of a reigning male monarch despite being set prior to the ‘present day’ of the more recent UNIT stories – at which time, specifically in Voyage of the Damned, Liz Two is still depicted as being on the throne.)

Well, this fidelity to fact is not entirely surprising if you think about it – politicians and other figures come and go on a fairly regular basis, but the Royal Family are pretty much a fixture. It’s in the storytellers’ interest that the fictional world and the real world be as similar as possible, just to maximise viewer engagement. A fictional prime minister requires much less suspension of disbelief than a fictional monarch.

Of course, there are also things like libel laws to consider, which largely prevent the show from using contemporary figures as characters. Possibly as a result of this, the general principle is that the show tends to stick closer to real-world fact in matters of history than it does when dealing with the present day – the most obvious example of this being the appearance of Winston Churchill as a character in Victory of the Daleks. Churchill is such a mythologised figure now that it’s easy to forget he was still alive when Doctor Who started broadcasting, at which time using him as a character on the show would probably have been unthinkable.

Despite being fairly heavily embedded in the side of the British establishment from the mid-60s on, the Doctor’s dealings with the political class for much of this time tended to be with junior figures – principal private secretaries, and suchlike. These are the sorts of figures regularly appearing in stories like Doctor Who and the Silurians (Masters, decent but doomed), Inferno (Gold, amiable but ineffective), The Claws of Axos (Chinn, pompous and inescapable), and The Sea Devils (Walker, grotesque and incompetent). The civil servant is a nuisance-figure in many of the third Doctor’s stories, and it’s only towards the end of his run that we meet a contemporary politician who’s an actual threat – Charles Grover, Minister with Special Powers, is one of the leaders of the Golden Age group in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Naturally, the BBC wanting to stay neutral, we never learn which party Grover belongs to, or indeed much about his policies beyond his being environmentally-conscious.

It's all the bloody government's fault I expect.

It’s all the bloody government’s fault I expect.

Only very occasionally do we get an idea of who’s really at the top of British society during these stories. The first occasion is during The Green Death, when such is the clout of Global Chemicals that they are able to have the Brigadier slapped down by the Prime Minister himself – whose face we don’t see, but who’s addressed by a colleague as ‘Jeremy’.

Now, whether you think The Green Death is set in 1973, 1979, or 1984, the fact remains that the UK has never had a Prime Minister called Jeremy! It seems a safe bet that the production team were suggesting, not necessarily seriously, that Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe would get into  Number Ten. In the real world, Thorpe never made it: persistent rumours of a sex scandal, a dead Great Dane and an alleged conspiracy to commit murder all combined to end his career. In Who-world things may have gone differently.

Nevertheless, not that long after The Green Death, the mysterious ‘Jeremy’ is definitely out of office (unless there have been some fairly remarkable surgical developments) as when the Prime Minister phones up the Brigadier in the final episode of Terror of the Zygons, he respectfully answers ‘Ma’am.’ You could argue that at this point (whenever it is – 1975, 1980, or 1986) Who-world and real-world politics are back in sync and the Brig is talking to Maggie Thatcher, but there’s no reason why he can’t be talking to Shirley Williams, Barbara Castle or someone completely fictional.

From this point on, the Doctor spends less time in Britain, and when he’s there he spends much less time dealing with civil servants and other bureaucrats (although he seems to enjoy the company of Sir Colin Thackeray of the WEB in The Seeds of Doom). This is a trend which continues, on-screen at least, until the end of the original run. Time-Flight indicates that the Doctor’s dealings with the British government happen under the auspices of something called Department C-19, run by a Sir John Sudbury in 1981, but we learn nothing more about it. Is this the section of the Ministry of Defence which liaises with the United Nations where matters involved UNIT? Could it (a tantalising thought) be the official designation of Torchwood at this point in history? It is never expanded upon.

The 1989 stage play The Ultimate Adventure deserves a mention for its opening scene, in which the TARDIS is summoned to Downing Street and the Doctor given a mission by Thatcher to preserve world peace. This was broad stuff, played at least partly for laughs (Colin Baker attempted to slip a few topical jokes in when he took over the show) – but it was fun.

At some point before Who-world’s 2007, its politics and ours definitely had one point in common – in Rise of the Cybermen Mickey suggests a parallel world might be a place ‘where Tony Blair was never elected’, indicating he was Prime Minister in Who-world for at least a while. Quite when this was is never made clear, and the late 2000s in general proved to be an even more challenging time to be a senior politician in the UK than they did in real life.

The years of turmoil start in 2006, with the Slitheen attempt to infiltrate the UK government by impersonating (obese) minor members of the establishment (in Aliens of London). For these people to rise to the top, the then-current Prime Minister had to be removed, which he duly was. The PM’s corpse tumbles out of a cupboard on-screen – apparently a Tony Blair lookalike was considered, but the man on screen is visibly someone else (maybe Blair looked different in Who-world).

For the remainder of 2006 the Prime Minister is apparently Harriet Jones, a sitting MP under the previous incumbent. Jones is depicted as a rather Thatcherite figure once she actually becomes PM – there is a veiled reference to the General Belgrano controversy in The Christmas Invasion – but not an actively malicious one. Given that he previously predicted she would be in office for a considerable period, and oversee something of a new Golden Age (Charles Grover would have approved), it seems perhaps a little harsh of the Doctor to topple her government and drive her out of office: possibly even hypocritical, given his own lack of remorse when it comes to blowing up alien craft. It was almost certainly unwise, given what follows.

Yes, you know who she is.

Yes, you know who she is.

Exactly who it is that immediately follows Harriet Jones as Prime Minister in 2007 and part of 2008 is never really made clear – at this point Blair may have had his moment – but their government seems to have been an unpopular one. Towards the end of the year a new grouping led by the eerily charismatic Harry Saxon is enjoying a healthy poll lead, as reported in Victor Kennedy’s newspaper in Love and Monsters. There may be an election producing a hung parliament towards the end of the year, as by Christmas 2007 Saxon is in a position of authority over the armed forces, ordering them to open fire on the Racnoss ship over London in The Runaway Bride. The logical deduction is that Saxon is Minister of Defence in a coalition government – it was probably at this point that he worked with UNIT to design the Valiant carrier.

Saxon becomes Prime Minister in his own right following another election at some point in 2008. Following the not very thinly veiled ‘massive weapons of destruction’ and September 11th gags in World War Three, the Saxon-as-PM storyline is another piece of broad satire from Rusty Davies, as an implicit parallel is drawn between Saxon (who is, of course, the Master, the show’s quintessential supervillain) and Tony Blair. ‘We didn’t really know what his policies were… we just liked him,’ Martha says in The Sound of Drums, trying to explain the Master’s electoral popularity, and echoing criticisms of Blair’s own supposed ‘all style no substance’ appeal. This seems to me to be just more apparently-satirical comfort food, as Blair had become a deeply unpopular figure by the time these episodes were broadcast (almost in the same week he left the office of Prime Minister himself). Likening Blair to the Master is not particularly fair to either of them, surely.

It’s interesting, by the way, that one of the celebrities endorsing Saxon as Prime Minister is a real-world politician, the cat-loving non-dancer Anne Widdecombe, who was a sitting Tory MP at the time the episodes were broadcast. Are we to conclude that Widdecombe is amongst the MPs who abandoned their former loyalties to join the ‘Saxon party’? Was Anne herself really in the picture about what she was appearing to do?

One of the most dangerous beings in the universe, with... oh I can't be bothered. Finish it yourselves.

One of the most dangerous beings in the universe, with… oh I can’t be bothered. Finish it yourselves.

Widdecombe does not appear to be in the Saxon cabinet, which briefly appears in The Sound of Drums before the Master murders them all with nerve gas. It is a necessary quirk of maintaining a fictional universe closely based on our own that the near-complete slaughter of the government (not long after the death of a previous PM and the demolition of the seat of government) has no apparent effect on the everyday lives of people in the street. Things certainly seem to be back to normal by the Doctor’s next visit to the present day in Partners in Crime – some tongue-in-cheek dialogue about the sheer unlikelihood of the events of the previous episodes (the PM killing the American President then vanishing without a trace) was cut from the episode on the grounds it took lantern-hanging a shade too far.

Normally one would have expected a protracted period of political instability to follow not just the death or disappearance of the entire cabinet but also (one would assume) the total collapse of the party elected to power – one can’t really imagine the Saxon Party continuing in the Master’s absence, for all that he clearly still has followers in positions of influence.

Nevertheless, by late 2009 normal service appears to have been restored, with the sitting Prime Minister during Torchwood: Children of Earth being a Brian Green (more subtlety from Rusty: Brian Green as opposed to Gordon Brown), whose party is, as usual, left indeterminate. Five different Prime Ministers in the space of three years is, obviously, unprecedented in British history; the conclusion of Children of Earth offers us the prospect of a sixth, with Green’s premiership looking threatened.

A rare example of a recent cabinet meeting in Who-world not concluding in violent death.

A rare example of a recent cabinet meeting in Who-world not concluding in violent death.

The same story reveals that Torchwood Three, at least, liaises with the Home Office. Given that Harriet Jones, while Prime Minister, indicates that she isn’t supposed to be aware the institute exists, there are some curious indications as to how the UK establishment operates in Who-world – although, following the events of Doomsday, it would hardly be surprising if Torchwood One, at least, found itself dragged out into the public view – or at least the awareness of the elected government.

The whole area of contemporary politics is one of those which the series has pulled back from since the installation of Steven Moffat as showrunner. An early draft of The Power of Three featured another new Prime Minister in office in 2014, this one openly hostile to the Doctor (presumably due to the effect he and his associates have had on the political establishment over recent years), but this element proved unpopular with the  production office and was dropped.

The series’ dealings with the politics of other nations have been much more limited, particularly during the original run. The same principles hold true, however – the President in 1969 during Day of the Moon is, as you would expect, Richard Nixon, for example.

When the plot of The Sound of Drums requires the Master to murder the President of the USA, however, the programme opts to wheel on a wholly fictional character rather than a nudgy-winky version of George W Bush. That said, the gentleman in question introduces himself as ‘Arthur Coleman Winters, President-Elect of the United States’ – the fact he is specifically President-Elect appears to be an attempt to suggest that Winters is actually Bush’s successor, but yet to be sworn in.

Either the American political cycle in Who-world is very different from ours, or this means that The Sound of Drums takes place very late in 2008, following that year’s election. There’s nothing essentially wrong with this idea, but it does mean that Torchwood series 2 now mostly takes place in 2009, making an already busy year in Who-world even more frenetic.

Presumably the gentleman who is the President of the USA by the end of 2009, and who addresses the world with his scheme to save the global economy (given the popularity of The West Wing with the makers of the current show, he may well have a secret plan to fight inflation), is the person originally elected as Winter’s Vice-President, promoted into the top job upon his assassination. Nevertheless, he is Barack Obama, who has obviously had a very different career in Who-world.

This is another example of the show’s world seeming superficially identical to our own but being rather different once you dig into the detail of it – something which is virtually a necessity given this is a fantasy show with a real-world basis. It’s unlikely to change for as long as the show remains in production, and watching the makers continue to walk the political tightrope will no doubt retain its odd fascination.

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In the last instalment of Natural History of Evil I looked at Season 32 and concluded that the central conflict between Good and Evil which has been the narrative motor for most Doctor Who since the early years of the programme was now much less in evidence than it had been in the past. Episodes about machinery running out of control, and the ethical crises arising from this, were now much more common, and while there were still clearly-defined villains and monsters in nearly every episode, the main attraction and central idea of the episodes were not necessarily rooted in the conflict between the protagonists and antagonists, but instead in increasingly convoluted and self-referential plotlines. I expressed curiosity as to whether this trend would continue into Season 33 and the associated episodes – even though we had been promised that the arc-intensive Season 32 was a one-off and not to be repeated.

Well, how did things actually work out? What is the crux of Doctor Who‘s storytelling these days, and how does it handle its monsters and villains – especially the recurring variety?

I suppose we must start by looking at The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, an episode I’m afraid I can summon up virtually no enthusiasm for, largely because the plot is so insipid. There is a storyline about the industrialised destruction of the environment, but little sense of moral outrage about this – and the characters who embody this are comic relief, not intended as a credible threat. Instead, we get a peculiar mixture of spectacle and sentimentality, all sluiced over with imagery from both traditional Christmases and the works of C.S. Lewis (who, one is tempted to assume, died in protest rather than share his lifetime with Doctor Who). This is a Christmas story with too much Christmas and not enough story.

One notable thing about Season 32 is that returning villains are thinner on the ground than in any other series since the revival – the only full-scale appearance by an old enemy is by the Cybermen (as wonky a threat as ever), and the writer of this story has admitted he only included them because nobody else was using a big-name monster that year.

In comparison, in just six episodes of Season 33 we have seen practically all the big names back – with most of the others promised in the balance of the season: Daleks, Weeping Angels, Sontarans and Silurians (although Strax and Vastra have both to some extent transcended their races, as I’ve mentioned earlier), with Cybermen due some time this year.

In previous parts of this series I have suggested that the recurring big-name monsters of the original series often constituted a ‘shorthand for evil’ – using the Daleks or Cybermen saved writers from having to come up with a new concept or motivation for an antagonist.

However, these days the classic monsters have become genuinely iconic, and their use now often taps into this – rather than being used as a shorthand for evil per se, they are deployed to ensure a particular episode draws attention and is perceived as of greater importance than the norm. This certainly seems to be the case with The Angels Take Manhattan, the return of the Weeping Angels just upping the ante (and expectations) in episode already primed to grab people’s attention. The way the series operates now, it would feel wrong for a companion to depart following a battle with a ‘new’ enemy.

Possibly the use of the Daleks in Asylum of the Daleks was designed to ensure people were lured in to enjoy the surprise appearance of Jenna-Louise Coleman – the inevitable ‘the new companion is a Dalek’ headlines may have been lurking at the back of Moffat’s mind, as well. At least the episode attempts to do something new with the Daleks and their culture, even if that means riding roughshod over existing continuity, plot coherence, and common sense.

The surprise return of the Great Intelligence in The Snowmen is not quite the same as the other classic revivals of recent years – for one thing, the Intelligence’s appearance is a surprise, not the main publicity hook for the story, and for another, one doesn’t need to be aware that it is a recurring enemy for the story to work. It is, and this is not especially appropriate for a Christmas episode, an Easter egg. The episode works quite well on its own terms, with a plausible (if not exactly nuanced) villain and some interesting monsters.

There was another bona fide villain in the shape of Solomon from Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. As I said when I was talking about this episode at the time, the fact that there was a genuine, unequivocal villain in this story was one of the main reasons I enjoyed it as much as I did. Not a villain to add to the list of all-time series greats, by any means, but a properly malevolent embodied presence for the Doctor to take on, and rare enough these days. Of course, if we’re going to talk about the series’ approach to evil and morality, we should probably touch on the controversy surrounding the episode’s denouement and Solomon’s demise: hoist by his own petard in the classic style, Solomon found himself blown up, with the Doctor choosing to leave him to his fate rather than save him.

He may be small fry, but there's not much else around these days.

He may be small fry, but there’s not much else around these days.

There was a significant response arguing that this was too callous and brutal an act on the Doctor’s part, and that he would never leave anyone to their death, no matter how evil they were. I’m not sure where this idea comes from: possibly the modern audience has been seduced by the lovely-fluffy-boffin approach of Matt Smith, and the romantic-hero persona of David Tennant, because the main conception of the Doctor for the course of much of the series has been that this is a man who, when it all kicks off, is utterly ruthless in putting his enemies down: there are countless examples of this, including several from the new series (the death of Cassandra in End of the World being just one). That he usually does so without picking up a weapon himself is one of the things that makes him so interesting as a character, but he’s never been presented as any kind of pacifist.

This naturally leads us on to A Town Called Mercy, in which we do see the Doctor picking up a weapon and getting into a bit of a tizzy when facing a war criminal. A bit like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’s ‘Team TARDIS’, this in one of those ideas which works in the context of the episode but feels a bit at odds with the series’ usual style – Kahler-Jex isn’t a very nice man, but he’s not quite (for example) Davros, whom the Doctor has showed every sign of being unable to kill in cold blood. The best one can say is that the Doctor’s hostility towards Jex is understandable, but his utter fury seems very out of character.

Then again, this whole episode seems to be playing by subtly different rules – most of the time Doctor Who operates in terms of Good and Evil, with perhaps the occasional carefully deployed shade of grey. A Town Called Mercy seems to have wandered over into the Star Trek universe – it wouldn’t take a massive rewrite for this to be an inconspicuous Trek episode – with its knotty moral problems, redemptive (and predictable) self-sacrifice, and general sense of its own profundity. At the time this was my favourite episode of the season, mainly because the plot actually makes sense and it has some kind of weight to it, but at the same time it’s the least like traditional Doctor Who.

Then again, with the exception of The Snowmen none of these episodes felt much like my kind of Doctor WhoAsylum of the Daleks is a gimmicky spectacle which doesn’t even make sense on its own terms, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is a silly romp (again, slightly gimmicky), A Town Called Mercy we’ve just discussed, The Power of Three is a deliberate attempt at format-busting to which the putative A-plot is very secondary, and The Angels Take Manhattan is all about the convolutions of its own tangled timelines and how they conspire to generate an appropriately melodramatic climax.

In all cases the opposition between the Doctor and that week’s enemy is either not the main focus of the episode, or shares that position with whichever gimmick is being employed. This is less a series about moral conflict, and more one about playing with ideas and elements of characterisation and the format.

However, The Snowmen goes a long way to redress this problem, if indeed that’s how you perceive: probably why I like it much more than any of the other recent episodes. One would hope that in this anniversary year the series would be looking to respect its heritage, roots and traditions, and that the improvements of The Snowmen are the first sign of this. We will find out soon enough, I expect.

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I’ve often said in the past that Russell T Davies’ genius in overseeing the return of Doctor Who lay not in what he changed about the series – and let’s not forget how controversial the focus on the companions’ families was, at least to begin with, nor how strange the change to the 45-minute story initially felt – but in what he didn’t. I myself was firmly in favour of rebooting the continuity from scratch, entertained various notions of a mercurial, Hartnellesque Doctor, and so on – but the series that eventually appeared stuck very closely to the template the original had used, especially from 1973 to 1977: the Doctor and a single companion, with frequent trips to a ‘home base’ of sorts on contemporary Earth, with a bunch of other recurring characters there.

At this point in the original run, the TARDIS was semi-steerable and so it was implied that the companion travelled with the Doctor out of the sheer joy of it – Sarah is clearly pretty distraught upon being told that she has to go home at the end of The Hand of Evil, and many years later it’s during Rusty’s tenure that this is properly articulated.

That it’s done so at all demonstrates one of the distinctive things about the modern show: the focus on the regular characters as just that, individual characters rather than ciphers carrying out plot functions – there’s an overall swing away from it being a plot-driven series to a character-driven one. Obviously this extends to how companion arrivals and departures are dealt with.

As part of the series’ new style, one thing totally (and thankfully) absent is the out-of-the-blue departure, with a companion deciding in the last five minutes of a story that this would be a nice to move on. (This may be due to the artistes’ contracts being handled much more professionally, who can tell – in at least one case during the original run, the producer kept hoping an actress would stay on, only finally accepting they were leaving while their last episode was actually being filmed.) Companion departures are foreshadowed, written into the overall story of a season, and arise seamlessly from the way they’ve been characterised.

And so it is that Rose, who is established (however objectionably, if you’re anything like me) as the Doctor’s One True Soul Mate throughout her stories, has to be physically ripped from his side and banished to a parallel universe by a series of wobbly and arguably contrived plot devices. There is no way this character, as written and performed, would ever leave the Doctor’s side voluntarily, and her departure reflects this. Doomsday, until very recently, was unique in that it is fundamentally the story of how a companion leaves the Doctor. This is not the story of how the hubris of Torchwood unleashes a Cyberman-Dalek conflict on present-day London – all that is just window-dressing for Billie Piper crying on a beach somewhere. The Daleks and Cybermen are just there to lend heft to the circumstances of Rose’s leaving – the same is not true of the Master in Martha’s final regular story or Davros in Donna’s.

Oh, stop milking it.

Oh, stop milking it.

If you want to properly characterise companions and not make them basic ciphers, you almost instantly run into the problem of how to differentiate them. We have yet to see how Steven Moffat will make the new girl distinct from Pond – although having someone likeable whose backstory isn’t completely wrapped up in the Doctor would be a good start – but in Rusty’s case the defining characteristic of the lead companion was the nature of their romantic feelings for the Doctor. After the quasi-romance between the Doctor and Rose (and I’ll fight to the death to keep that ‘quasi’, dammit), the dynamic between the Doctor and Martha was one of unrequited affection (the way this is played has the unfortunate consequence of making the Doctor look like a thoughtless arse and Martha a drip, but that can’t be helped) and this again feeds into her departure and provides a decent rationale for it – all the business with her traumatised family helps too.

(Although one has to wince a bit at the way Martha Jones gets treated after her initial departure – shuffled over into Torchwood for a bit, then dragged back for three dud episodes with Donna, then a lot of running around with plot devices in the finale where she plays third fiddle to Donna and Rose, and then finally showing up in what can only be described as a marriage of convenience never even hinted at before. Really? Really?)

In the same way, the relationship between the Doctor and Donna is explicitly framed in platonic terms – that this, which was implicitly the default setting throughout the original series, was stressed as something new and unusual at the time, tells you a lot about how the series has changed – but again, she is, like Rose, presented as someone who finds travelling with the Doctor to be a transformative, utterly fulfilling experience.

So here again it’s obvious that there can only realistically be an involuntary departure for this character. I find it a little curious that after frequently vowing he would never kill off a companion – this would send the wrong set of messages to the show’s young audience – Rusty effectively does just this to Donna, or at least the Donna the audience has come to know and care about. Another set of wobbly plot contrivances is invoked, requiring the Doctor to wipe her memory of him – or, to be more precise, block it from her, on the understanding that if she gets it back her brain will fry. Hmmm. Or, possibly, she will just shoot energy out of her face and then faint for ages, which is what actually happens in The End of Time. So much of the latter end of Rusty’s tenure is deeply suspect in narrative terms that it feels mean to pick on this particular element: suffice to say that it is another example of a companion not quite leaving the TARDIS feet first, but certainly doing so kicking and screaming.

'My mind's burning! I'm about to die - oh no, sorry, I just feel a bit faint.'

‘My mind’s burning! I’m about to die – oh no, sorry, I just feel a bit faint.’

With two of the three previous companions departing via some form of banishment (with a liberal helping of mind-wipe mixed in in Donna’s case), should we be surprised that the same fate ultimately awaits the Ponds? It’s interesting that after a set of stories that specifically sets out to explore the consequences of a long-term association with the Doctor – lasting over a decade, if Amy’s maths is to be trusted – their actual relationship concludes with a bang rather than the whisper and a slow fading from each others’ lives that one might expect. It’s tempting to conclude that the overblown sentimental finale is now so entrenched as a staple of the programme that not even Moffat can break its’ grip; personally I rather hope not.

And so the Ponds are banished also. Even the bods at DWM, who are contractually obliged to be broadly positive about the new series, accept that the actual plot mechanics of The Angels Take Manhattan are chiefly notable for Not Making Any Sense. Once again, the need for an overblown sentimental finale trumps all other considerations – I’m tempted to make my standard complaint here that, currently, Doctor Who is much more interested in being Clever and Moving than it is in actually constructing coherent narratives, but that’s kind of the subtext of nearly everything I’ve written about the post-2010 series – and again it’s a finale revolving around an involuntary departure from the TARDIS.

It’s tempting to blame this spate of moderately soap-opera-inflected tragedies on the shifts in the series’ format that occurred in the mid-70s, most notably the convention that the TARDIS gradually became more and more susceptible to the Doctor’s controlling influence (The Doctor’s Wife probably constitutes a semi-retcon to this, but no matter). With this in place, the plot device of the companion wanting to get home (one of the series’ initial drivers) instantly became redundant, with the replacement idea being that the companions were there out of choice.

I’m not sure this explains everything, though. It seems to me that one of the key characteristics of the modern series, and one of the few which really betrays the deep fan roots of its creators. The characteristic in question is this: the new series routinely takes things which, in the original run, were either deeply-buried or unconscious subtext, and foregrounds them as key narrative elements.

The loneliness of the Doctor is never really addressed head-on in the original run, but only alluded to in passing in a few memorable scenes. It’s one of the key themes of many tenth Doctor episodes. His status as a mythic, titanic figure, which has been at the heart of so many recent episodes, never really gets going in the original run – significantly, the few references to this were picked up and elaborated upon in the fiction coming out of the fan culture which was in many ways the place of origin for the revived series’ approach and style.

One of the main principles of Rusty’s tenure on the show was ‘The Doctor is wonderful, and travelling with him is wonderful too’ – and Steven Moffat seems to have retained this as a precept, too. This is an idea which, stated in those terms, is entirely new to the revived series – it’s almost literally impossible to imagine anyone from the original run talking in such an on-the-nose fashion – emotional articulacy was an unknown concept back then. Watching the original run, you can infer that Jo and Sarah and so on must clearly feel this way, but no-one ever talks about it quite so directly.

Nevertheless – and this may be a consequence of the compressed storytelling demanded by a 45-minute timeslot – in the new series this idea is dragged into the foreground and recited almost as a mantra. Given that we’re frequently and explicitly told that Travelling With The Doctor Is Wonderful, options for plausible companion departures, particularly of the voluntary kind, naturally become rather limited. Hence the wobbly logic and involuntary nature of so many recent leavings of the TARDIS.

I hope I’ve made it clear that, even if I think recent companion departures leave a bit to be required in the plotting department, they’re no worse – and, in many ways, arguably better – than the way most companions were written out during the original run. With a few very distinguished exceptions, this is one aspect of the format that the series has always struggled to come to grips with in a truly satisfying way. Whatever the problems currently attendant in this area, they seem bound up with the wider issues of the series’ storytelling style. Whether a change in the latter would produce an improvement in the former remains to be seen: not that such a change would appear to be imminent. The big goodbye is now, I suspect, part of the format, for good or ill – and it’s likely to remain a tragic goodbye, too.

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If the second Doctor has the metonymical soubriquet the Cosmic Hobo, then his predecessor should really be known as the Cosmic Kidnapper – because when you look at it, hardly any of the people who travel with him actually do so of their own accord.

The first Doctor has a bad enough reputation in some circles already (mainly due to that incident with the caveman and the rock very early on) so we should be absolutely clear about this: there is very seldom malice aforethought, it’s just that he’s terribly unlucky about characters wandering into the TARDIS just as he’s about to take off, who end up going along with him as a result.

Of course, his abduction of Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright at the end of the very first episode is completely premeditated, as is his decision to remove Vicki from the planet Dido (and what hardly appears to have been an especially gruelling lifestyle) very shortly before a rescue mission arrives to collect her. But, to be fair, Steven wanders into the TARDIS interior while delirious, and Dodo, Ben, and Polly all make ill-timed entrances while under the impression that the exterior shell is a genuine police box. (The situation with the two minor companions Sara and Katarina is a little more complex, but neither comes along wholly of their free will.)

If none of these people is with the Doctor by choice, why don’t they just leave straight away? The answer lies in two key differences between the original format and the modern show: the near-total absence from the first Doctor’s era of stories with a contemporary setting, and (the cause of this) the Doctor’s essential inability to control the TARDIS.

People don’t usually travel with the Doctor for fun early on, nor do they find it a particularly pleasant experience. The first couple of seasons in particular are dominated by characters desperately trying to get home. As a result, it’s not that difficult to write characters out convincingly, and most of the departures are voluntary – interestingly, most of the common routines are minted at this point. Susan and Vicki find Love at First Episodes, Ian and Barbara get Home at Last!, Steven Has A Better Offer, and so on. (Sara and Katarina both get Grim Reapered in the same story.)

Things continue in a roughly similar vein in the second Doctor’s tenure – people still aren’t going off with the Doctor because it’s such a fulfilling lifestyle choice, but usually because the alternative is probably a nasty death. Zoe is the first companion on screen who actively chooses to go with the Doctor and leave a (reasonably) pleasant life behind. The early second Doctor departures are similar to those of the first – Home at Lasts! for Ben and Polly, and a sort of Better Offer for Victoria.

Despite their expressions, they really are doing this for fun.

Despite their expressions, they really are doing this for fun.

With Jamie and Zoe it gets a little more interesting – Jamie may not have made an informed choice about joining the Doctor, but he’s amongst the most dedicated and loyal followers the Time Lord’s ever had, while, as mentioned above, Zoe is there out of choice. The fact that, really for the first time, this is a TARDIS crew travelling for the fun of it is not much mentioned or considered, but it is a significant innovation. Getting rid of them requires an involuntary departure, and so we end up with the series’ first use of the mind-wipe, administered on this occasion by the Time Lords on their debut appearance.

The series has a whole new dynamic with the third Doctor’s arrival: he doesn’t do a great deal of travelling himself, and his ‘companions’ are really just colleagues from work. The usual ‘Doctor plus boy and girl’ dynamic is initially retained, although they become a man and a woman and the Brigadier is a considerably more complex character, in terms of his narrative role, than a strong-arm foil like Jamie or Ben was. This set-up delivers one of the worst companion departures (Liz Shaw disappears between stories) but also one of the very best: Jo’s final story has clearly been very carefully written in order to make it seem plausible and positive, but at the same time moving. I would personally say that most of the departures from the recent series don’t match up to this one in terms of subtlety and adherence to the series’ traditional style.

From this point on the programme usually sticks to the ‘Doctor plus girl’ dynamic (with occasional quirks such as robot dogs or naval surgeons thrown into the mix), but a more important change has occurred: the TARDIS is now steerable. Not always, but often enough for the Doctor to be able to take a companion back home without it being a noteworthy occurrence (it happens off-screen between The Monster of Peladon and Planet of the Spiders, for instance).

This in turn impacts on the whole dynamic of the series – life with the Doctor can’t be all that bad, or the companion would demand to be taken home. From this point, broadly speaking, they are there by choice. The first person this fully applies to is the peerless Sarah Jane Smith, and the programme acknowledges this by making her departure an involuntary one: she is exiled from the TARDIS when the Doctor has to return to Gallifrey. (The question of why he doesn’t just go back for her later is never really satisfactorily addressed on-screen, though Terrance Dicks has a go in his novelisation of The Face of Evil.)

This is the situation that persists throughout most of the second half of the original run – companions are there out of choice, not just hitching a ride until they can get home. Not necessarily a choice the Doctor is initially on-board with, of course, which is why we get the Doctor’s justified complaint towards the end of Logopolis that he’s never chosen the company he keeps – other than the robot dog and the naval surgeon, all of the companions who first appear in the fourth Doctor’s era are foisted on him to some extent.

The first season of the fifth Doctor in many ways is looking over its shoulder at the very early days of the programme, and this includes both the number of regular travellers – a mighty four, and the format almost audibly creaks when it tries to accommodate them all – and to some extent their motivations. Adric and Nyssa are both aliens, unable to return home for different reasons, but Tegan is a human who really wants to get home (she’s got a job to go to). Obviously, this coincides with the TARDIS intermittently proving awkward to steer – although, of course, when the plot demands it the Doctor, and even other characters, can arrive on-time, on-target at the first attempt – which is why it’s a whole season before Tegan gets back home. At which point, though it’s not immediately apparent, she decides that home is rather less fun than TARDIS travel (the 70s dynamic reasserts itself).

The fifth Doctor’s era has been much analysed (and occasionally criticised, even by its star) for its attempt to do more interesting things with the regular cast – arguably for the first time, a proper companion meets the Grim Reaper, there’s an ‘evil’ companion, a robotic companion, a companion who’s a marketing gimmick, and so on. Despite this, the majority of the actual departures are fairly routine, although by this point most of them are not quite what you’d call voluntary: Nyssa leaves out of a sense of moral duty, while Tegan decides she’s had enough of all the slaughter and walks away. This is almost played as if it’s a spur of the moment decision she begins to regret nearly immediately, but, given the nature of the show at the time, it hasn’t been foreshadowed or built up to in any way. It would be interesting to see the modern series handle an idea like this – a companion walking away in disgust – but I can’t imagine it ever happening.

That cussed Kamelion.

That cussed Kamelion.

Perhaps the oddest and most frustrating way a companion is handled is the treatment of Kamelion, who gets an arrival and a departure but doesn’t appear in the intervening five stories. Given the very iffy nature of the Kamelion prop this is hardly surprising, but anyone missing the second episode of The King’s Demons would be blissfully unaware that the TARDIS now had four occupants. The decision to write out Kamelion is, once again, unsurprising, but the way it’s done is startling to say the least – rather than having the android sacrifice himself in order to foil the Master’s schemes or save the Doctor, he gets critically damaged in the course of the plot and winds up pleading with the Doctor to put him out of his misery. Which he does. With the Master’s gun.

Quite why Kamelion qualifies for such horrendous treatment is not clear, though one inevitably detects the gory hand of Eric Saward at work behind the scenes – no ‘normal’ companion would be disposed of so brutally, nor, surely, K9, Kamelion’s closest analogue (prop, punning name, etc). It’s hard not to conclude that despite all the evidence to the contrary, Kamelion is really just a companion in name only.

From this point on in the original run, we get companion departures which are peculiarly muted and arbitrary (one gets the impression that Turlough leaves out of a sense of personal obligation more than any real desire to go, and Mel’s departure is so inexplicable that there’s a popular theory that she’s surreptitiously hypnotised into going by the Doctor), or… Well, here we come to the departure of Peri, which on paper looks like the result of Eric Saward having eaten too much cheese – initially she gets her mind completely wiped, and is then shot dead by Brian Blessed, only for the audience to learn a few weeks later that actually she’s fine and the two of them have shacked up together.

(Whether you go with the majority view that Peri went off with Yrcanos to be queen of Krontep, or – like me – find the idea of her taking Yrcanos back to the States to be an all-in wrestler rather more fascinating, this is surely the most absurd example of a companion being married off in the entire history of the show. The total lack of chemistry between, say, Andred and Leela is barely an issue set next to a relationship based entirely on sweaty-handed lust on his part and panicky avoidance on hers.)

Peri’s departure is at least supposed to serve as some kind of story point, in terms of the development of the Doctor’s trial – although you have to put your head on one side and really squint to discern this – but overall, one gets the impression that 80s production teams were treating the refreshing of the companion role as a routine part of the series’ format, not requiring any particular thought or care. Things may well have proven different if the series had continued for another year and Ace had received the departure we are told was in the works for her (being sent off to Gallifrey to become a Time Lord), as – whatever the shortcomings of Andrew Cartmel’s approach to storytelling – he did treat characterisation and character development with due importance. As it is, a combination of factors, not least of them the untimely death of Elisabeth Sladen, leaves the path between our last sight of Ace on Perivale Common and her reemergence as a charitable entrepreneur shrouded in mystery.

This never actually happened, apparently. But it's probably Gary Gillatt's fault anyway.

This never actually happened, apparently. But it’s probably Gary Gillatt’s fault anyway.

Companion departures these days are handled with a good deal more thought; in fact, one sometimes gets the distinct impression that the showrunner thinks up the departure first and writes the rest of the stories to lead up to it. But then, the programme itself is a subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) different beast these days, as we shall see.

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