Turlough was one of my favourites. I’m not sure why especially, except that he brought the snark better than anyone. Tegan would complain and shout a lot, but Turlough got to be witty and elegant in his resistance to the Doctor’s particular brand of virtue and heroism.
“What is it about Earth people that makes them think a futile gesture is a noble one?”
There’s a popular idea that classic Doctor Who companions always start out with pots of characterisation and then gradually descend into bland screaming girls until they are finally written out at the request of the actor. I’m not sure that’s entirely true for any companion at all – it is true that many get stronger scripts to start with than later, but it’s rarely such a linear progression as fans (and perhaps the actors) tend to believe. Sarah Jane’s feminism waxes and wanes rather than sliding in a downward spiral, and the same is true for Nyssa’s scientific know-how, Jo’s spy skills, and so on.
It is rare for extra backstory to develop after a companion’s first appearance – though it did happen to some extent with Ace, and with Tegan. Many companions started out with almost no backstory and… never got any more.
Turlough was an outlier. He began as a mystery, and continued to be so right up until his final story where absolutely everything was revealed. Luckily for the producers, Mark Strickson had put a lot of thought into making it look like his character had broody secrets all the time, and so it all fit together surprisingly well, as if it had always been planned.
When we first met Turlough back in Mawdryn Undead, all we knew were a few intriguing details dripped into the script: he was an exiled alien living at a boy’s school: easily swayed by the melodic seduction of the Black Guardian, who promised Turlough his freedom (and not a lot more) in exchange for murdering the Doctor.
“The worst place in the universe – English public school on Earth.”
The trouble is that the Doctor in his fifth incarnation is sweet and adorable, like a kitten in pyjamas, and every time Turlough picks up a rock with any degree of enthusiasm, the Doctor’s general affability works its magic on him and he can’t bring himself to do it.
Once they get all that out of their system, he and the Doctor get along quite well – Turlough’s cynicism balancing out the Doctor’s generally positive view of life. He and Tegan fought a lot, but occasionally managed to stop bickering long enough to save a planet or two. In Frontios, Turlough reveals that the scary burrowing snail monsters, Tractators, have a long history on his own home world, and manages to sell how terrifying they are despite the evidence of our eyes. Apart from that, the character continues with something of a blank slate, with snark and secretive twitches.
Still, the Doctor never holds his secrecy against him, much as he never shows a glimpse of reproach for that whole attempted murder thing. In Planet of Fire, with Tegan gone, they appear to be two mates on holiday rather than the usual Doctor/companion dynamic.
Turlough is not the only companion in this story. Kamelion, the shape changing robot who had joined the crew in The King’s Demons only to be ignored until now, is sent off marvellously. Kamelion ties in with two plotlines: that of the Master (who has managed to shrink himself by accident and is mind-controlling the robot Kamelion remotely to take on his own appearance) and the new companion Peri (repeatedly taking the shape of her stepfather Howard, in order to manipulate her).
Turlough himself has almost nothing to do with the Master-Kamelion-Peri plot, though I enjoyed his interactions with Peri very much – and not just because it’s a bit dreamy the way he rescues her from drowning and gives her a bedroom in the TARDIS before she’s even had a chance to dry off. I always felt a bit sad that this companion combination didn’t have longer together. In any case, Turlough’s own subplot is simmering beneath the surface including a tattoo we have never seen before, and the discovery of his long-lost brother on a distant planet.
In one fell swoop we get the lot: Turlough’s planet is named, we learn that he and his brother were kicked offworld as children because of their parents’ political “crimes” and also that the political situation has changed and he can now go home.
He even gets a first name: Vislor, of all things! There we are, everything explained, and he leaves the Doctor in Peri’s hands with what have to be my favourite companion leaving lines of all time:
“Take care of him, won’t you? He gets into the most terrible trouble.”
Considering that the very next story would see the Fifth Doctor executed, poisoned and finally regenerate into his Sixth Incarnation, Turlough’s line turned out to be horrible prophetic…
ALSO ON 1984:
The Beginning of the End, Resurrection of the Daleks [NeoWhovian]
Planet of Fire [Wife in Space]
A Regeneration for the Ages, Caves of Androzani [NeoWhovian]
The Joy of Six [Tor.com]
Companions in Comics: Can Frobisher Lay an Egg? [Doctor Her]
The Twin Dilemma [Wife in Space]