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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Down With This Ship: Loving Ben & Polly [WHO-50—1966]

December 4th, 2012 at 8:05

As a child I discovered Doctor Who in bits and pieces, fragments of borrowed VHS tapes, Target novels and TV repeats. While Tom Baker was most often on our screens, a great deal of my fascination of the show came from its complex history, and I fell hard for the early black and white stories despite (or because of) how much harder it was to access them.

A lot of my early relationships with the characters involved mad shipping, but the fandom I had access to didn’t seem to view it in those terms – or didn’t talk about it like that in front of me, as I was only a kid! I knew my Mum fancied Tom Baker, but that was about it. Immersed in modern fandom ideas as I now am, it becomes obvious that I have firm, unbending views on the relationships in the show, developed all in my own independent bubble.

I only have a handful of Classic Who ships, and they are pretty unadventurous ones. It never occurred to me to speculate on the Doctor’s love life at all, even in the days of Romana (though come ON), and the only ship of the 1970-1989 era that held any appeal to my younger self at all was Turlough-and-everybody-except-Tegan. These days I’m more interested in shipping Jack Harkness with EVERYONE IN THE 1970′s, but we’re not talking about current me here!

The black and white era is a hotbed of romance! When it comes to Ian and Barbara, Ben and Polly, Jamie and Victoria, I am sold forever. Barbara and Ian is practically canon and always was – and thanks to Russell T Davies and the Sarah Jane Adventures, we have official confirmation of what all fans pretty much always knew, that they got married soon after returning to 1965 and lived happily ever after. Jamie and Victoria is slightly more a product of my romantic imagination and several soppy publicity pictures of the two actors while filming The Abominable Snowmen, and I have to admit to being a lot less invested in them these days under the weight of the gorgeously crafted Two/Jamie ship that a small but fervent percentage of the internet are so very convincing about. (The internet has also introduced me to the joys of the Brigadier/Three ship, which changed the way I view Doctor Who forever)

But Ben and Polly are my favourites and my best. They’re the only ones I ever wrote fanfic about in my teens to ensure they got together (again, before I knew fanfic was a thing, oh internet where WERE you). Possibly this happened because of my shock discovery that there were fans out there in the world who thought MAYBE BEN AND POLLY DIDN’T GET TOGETHER. I seem to recall one of the Short Trips anthologies making it clear that there was no permanent relationship between the two of them, and I don’t believe anything else happened in my teen years which caused more of a sense of inner outrage. YES REALLY.

Luckily Big Finish felt the same way I did, and recently made it canon of their own in the Christmas special “The Four Companions” which reunited Polly with the Fifth Doctor. When he asked if she ever sees anything of Ben, she replied archly: “I see all of him, every day,” and then challenged him for not shipping them all along because of class issues. I danced, reader. I danced. As if it was ever going to be anything else for those two.

The sailor and the “duchess,” a rough-speaking Cockney lad and a posh blonde secretary, running around time and space with the Doctor. I loved these two insanely, despite the fact that I had only seen them in a few fragmented episodes from The Moon Base and a tiny bit of Tenth Planet. Later – much later, actually, I secured the VHS tape of The War Machines, the only story which exists in its entirety, and fell in love all over again, delighted at Polly’s sparky wit and Ben’s general competence and loyalty.

The War Machines is a strange, compelling piece of Doctor Who history. For the first three years of the show, An Unearthly Child remained an anomaly, with only a few other brief stops anywhere near what you might call ‘contemporary Earth’ – Barbara, Ian and Susan visited modern Earth in Planet of the Giants, but were distracted by having been miniaturised. There were a couple of brief pit stops in The Chase, but none of them were a focus of the story, and only right at the end was it clearly the ‘current’ time rather than the past or the future. There was the Christmas episode in the middle of The Daleks’ Master Plan, but only a tiny piece of it was set in a modern police station, the rest being taken up by a romp through early Hollywood. Even Dodo, herself a contemporary English companion, was picked up in a fleeting ‘last five minutes of the story’ visit to the 1960’s.

The War Machines, though, is thoroughly contemporary. It’s 1966 and then some. In many ways, it serves as the model for the modern ‘introducing the companion’ story. Only a few stories away from the end of the Hartnell era, it launched a new tradition which would quickly eclipse the historical stories. Not until the late 80’s (the gap between the Two Doctors in March 1985 and Silver Nemesis in late 1988) would the Doctor go even a whole season let alone three without having at least one story substantially set on ‘contemporary Earth’ or a near-future so close as to be almost indistinguishable from it.

In fact the three Ben and Polly stories with the First Doctor reflect the formula now so familiar to New Who viewers: contemporary with SF monsters/problems, historical, and futuristic/space.

How contemporary is The War Machines? Well, there’s the Doctor going into a nightclub, there’s flirting, there’s a computer that goes crazy, and most of all there’s the streets of London, beautifully shot on location and serving as host to a robot invasion. There’s also a strange fixation upon the Post Office Tower, possibly best known to Australians as that one that got knocked over by the giant kitten in the Goodies.

Most of all, we have Ben and Polly being adorable, solving mysteries and teasing each other, having so much fun that you quite forget that poor old Dodo has been written out mid-story. The new TARDIS team is here, and they are groovy.

I will go down with this ship.

ELSEWHERE ON 1966:

Anneke Wills (Polly) on achieving cultural immortality [Radio Times]

Kingdom and Katarina – the Women of the Dalek’s Master Plan [tansyrr.com]

The Gunfighters [Hoo on Who]

The Celestial Toymaker: Jem Watches the Existing Episode [Tansy's Tumblr]

Blood Upon the Sawdust [Radio Free Skaro]

The War Machines [Wife in Space]

The Smugglers [The Memory Cheats]

The Tenth Planet [Wife in Space]

The Tenth Planet [Calapine]

A Modern Woman’s Guide to Classic Who – The Second Doctor Years [tansyrr.com]

The Power of the Daleks [Wife in Space]

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