The Women of The Five DoctorsDecember 7th, 2010 at 11:05
Something I’ve been thinking about through my Xena rewatch is the way that long-running TV shows occasionally use key episodes to define and redefine their own mythology. The ye olde clip show was one method used by comedies in particular to look back on their own history and remind the audience of key moments and character traits. Often in an SF drama series, it is the weird gimmicky or unexpectedly humorous episode that does the same job – and these are often the most beloved and/or divisive episodes as well as the most memorable. X-Files visiting the set of a TV show parodying their adventures, the boys of Supernatural finding a roleplay convention based on their life, the Buffy musical, the Farscape animated episode, any of the Star Trek “evil beard universe” stories, or Fringe’s “Brown Betty” take on film noir.
Old School and indeed New School Doctor Who never really did that sort of thing because, frankly, there was no formula to shake up. Every episode was different and odd and completely different to the one before. But there are several key stories throughout the classic run in particular which you can see are working to define the mythology of the show. During the Fifth and Sixth Doctors’ runs in particular, there were so many stories which looked backwards, or became self-referential, throwing in so many details from “canon” that it’s hard to keep them straight. There was even a whole Fifth Doctor season in which every episode featured a returning monster or character… Unsurprisingly, this was also a period responsible for many of the most head-scrambling canon inconsistencies of the show. The more references there were to the past lives of the Doctor, the more opportunities there were to get it wrong. More recently, episodes such as School Reunion and the many season finales of New Who have worked quite hard to cement a new mythology, bringing back beloved characters again and again for hero moments and dramatic ensembles, something which has caused much squee and much eyerolling among fans. Just like in the good old days.
But the stories which were most effective in defining and redefining the mythology of the show were the first two multiple Doctor stories, The Three Doctors (1973) and The Five Doctors (1983). In the days before VHS rentals of the show, and even in the repeat-heavy regions of the world such as Australia (which provided endless loops of 70′s Who for whole generations of children but mostly ignored the black and whites of the 60′s) The Three Doctors was the story which introduced and cemented the characters of the first two Doctors in the minds of many. This meant unfortunately that, regardless of any Target novelisations one might or might not have read, many of us ended up with a vague feeling that the First Doctor was a sickly, slighly cranky advisor floating in a scanner window, and the Second Doctor was basically a sidekick with a recorder. Needless to say, a re-examination of the 60′s stories reveals far more complex characters.
Far more dramatically, The Five Doctors (still just before the period when it was common to record, rewatch and purchase or hire old shows) was a major event story which not only served to redefine the characters of many previous Doctors, but also many of the companions. I could talk at length about the returning Doctors and how their characters come across in this story and whether or not they are served well (including the First Doctor now played by a different actor in a white wig) or are written as parodies of their former selves, but for the purposes of my own take on the Women in SF week, I want to discuss instead how the female companions are served by this story.
The Five Doctors features five former companions in featured roles, four in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos, and one (along with her Doctor) in clips borrowed from a story only partly filmed and junked thanks to strike action, several years earlier.
Of those ten characters, four are male, though only two – the Brigadier and Turlough – have more than a cameo. The Brigadier had already returned after a long absence earlier the same year, in Mawdryn Undead – here, he appears to be about to retire from UNIT which suggests the story is set before MU, though he later recognises Tegan which suggests not. It is confusing. The Brigadier is awesome and he and the Second Doctor get to gently amble around the Death Zone reminiscing about old times, which is enjoyable even though technically they only have two stories to reminisce about, because most of the Brig’s adventures were with the Third. Turlough, one of the current companions, is one of the least well served by the script, but he’s coming off a season where he had plenty to do, so really he should just lie back and enjoy the paid holiday in Wales.
That leaves us with Sarah, Susan and Tegan.
It’s true that of the three of them, Sarah probably gets the best go of it. We get to see a glimpse of her home before she is nabbed by the scary black triangle. She gets plenty of peril and adventure; even if that peril does include falling down a very mild slope, facing the Raston Warrior Robot and abseiling for no apparent reason into a tower more than makes up for it. She is reunited with the Third Doctor, her first, and has a jolly adventure.
What she doesn’t get is any addition to her personal narrative. I was reminded all over again of the oddness of Sarah’s return in the new series episode School Reunion – which I love beyond all measure because it’s Sarah Jane, it brought her back, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have faults. In particular, in an attempt to make a parallel to Rose, it implied two things: that Sarah was in love with the Doctor, and that she was devastated when he left her behind to the point that her life since has been shallow and meaningless. This was rage-inducing for many reasons – retconning the wrong emotional relationship into her past, but also making it seem like a life without a husband and children was somehow emptier than her actually quite awesome life of being a reporter, solving mysteries and saving aliens. Luckily Sarah’s own series has rectified many of these oddities, and I don’t mean by presenting her with a ready made son.
In the Five Doctors, apart from the godawful outfit they made her wear, which has none of the feisty Sarah Jane style of her companion years and actually was considered awful in 1983 too (Elisabeth Sladen makes that very clear on her commentary) we see for the most part a Sarah who is true to the character she was ten years earlier. She copes with the adventure, screams when it gets a bit scary, makes the odd sarky remark at the Doctor and basically gives it her all. But when it’s time to go, she just LEAVES because she has a life to get back to, and she doesn’t seem to mind a bit. And that’s just fine.
You could argue that because the Fourth Doctor – the one who abandoned her and the one in RTD Who she is supposedly (bluh, gak) in love with – isn’t there, she can’t get her closure and therefore keeps it bottled up until David Tennant flashes his soulful eyes at her, but I don’t buy it. Sarah is fine, she’s not sad, and if she was she had the reasonably pretty Peter Davison right there to sock in the jaw about hurting and abandoning her.
[and how much more awesome would School Reunion have been if she gave him hell about abandoning her but also expressed relief that he wasn't this hot back in her day, otherwise she might have been all mopey about him...]
It’s a conventional fannism that Sarah was painted as a feminist in her first story and becomes less so as her companion run continues. I think that there might be a little truth in that – as with all companions she was written erratically from story to story – but from what I remember she always had an enjoyable bolshiness to her, willing to stand up and tell the Doctor off when he is being a dick. Her farewell scene back in The Hand of Fear showed that very clearly, and you can see shades of that here in The Five Doctors. She’s a little muted, perhaps, but her character is (mostly) treated with honour.
Then there’s Tegan. Like Turlough, she’s a current character, and thus how she is portrayed inspires less weight or excitement than the returning ones. There are a few points of interest, though – she actually gets some things to do, more so than Turlough, and as was noted in the Tennant-Collinson-Raynor commentary on the Five Doctors, she is paired with the First Doctor, which actually shows both characters off to good effect, as they are both the grumpy ones. I was never fond of Tegan when I was a child but am starting to come around to her now and appreciating her more as an adult viewer. I think that seeing her in the same space as Sarah is relevant because she is also one not shy of telling the Doctor off – but because the Fifth Doctor is quite gentle in manner and doesn’t snark back at her for the most part, she comes off looking bullying, which is a bit weird. He’s the DOCTOR, he can take it, surely.
I enjoy several of Tegan’s moments in this, particularly when the First Doctor tries to send her to make the tea and she is utterly outraged. The Fifth Doctor then calms things down by sending a muttering but compliant Turlough to help her, making it equal opportunity. It’s a funny scene, not least because what they produce is more along the lines of Bahamas party cocktail hour, including whole pineapples, but it’s also part of the self-referential commentary that this story is making about Doctor Who as a programme, and its history.
Ha ha, it’s funny, the old companions used to make the tea because they were girls! Which, okay, is partly true – I still shake my head about Polly making the tea on the moon, and Anneke Wills talking earnestly about how her character was a terribly original companion because she screamed and was girly instead of being all tough like Sara Kingdom – but this is akin to making a trite joke about Daleks going upstairs. It’s one of the many cliches of the show, being repeated to an audience, and I think it, along with many other moments in The Five Doctors, did a lot to bolster the myth that Doctor Who companions of the past were just there to look pretty and pass the test tubes and make the tea.
Which brings me to, you know. The sprained ankle.
Susan’s return is probably the worst handled character in this whole special. Bringing Susan back should have been massive. She had last been seen in 1965, eighteen years earlier, when the Doctor – her grandfather – closed the TARDIS doors against her because he’d seen her eyeing up a young man while running from Daleks in a post-apocalyptic Britain and thought he knew best for her. Which, I have to say, makes the “one day I’ll come back” speech played at the beginning of this special just that bit… icky.
Like Sarah, Susan didn’t go willingly.
But even if they weren’t going to address the awful paternalistic way in which the Doctor left her (on a planet alien to her, at the end of a horrible war, WITH NO SHOES) the return of Susan should have been epic. There were so many opportunities to address questions left hanging about her – what did she make of her life, did she marry David Campbell, how is the Earth getting on after that pesky future Dalek invasion, is she actually the Doctor’s granddaughter or was that a metaphor, is she a Time Lord, was she lying when she said she named the TARDIS?
But no. Instead, the one thing Susan gets to do in The Five Doctors, is sprain an ankle. Because that’s funny, get it? Doctor Who companions were constantly spraining ankles! It’s a funny joke!
Only, you know, I don’t remember that many sprained ankles. There are a lot of stories, and I’m sure there are one or two stumbles or sprains in all that, possibly as many as there are tea-making incidents or wobbly sets (which is to say, a tiny number of incidents over twenty years, which somehow become the defining characteristics of the show in the minds of many).
Instead, what we get is Carole Ann Ford, doing a pretty good job of replaying her old role, and given almost nothing in the script to make it worth her while to turn up. Apparently the actress did her best to deal with the fact that she was meeting future versions of her grandfather, particularly when she set eyes on Peter Davison who appears younger than her, but it wasn’t in the script and so she had very little opportunity to do much of anything. She spends most of the movie-length episode standing in the console room with Turlough, watching Cybermen build a very slow bomb around the (dudes, indestructible) TARDIS.
It’s understandable that Susan is one of the characters from the old show that fans would most like to see come back. We didn’t get even one shivery awesome moment of her reunion with the Doctor in this story, which utterly wastes her. It’s almost like Terrance Dicks couldn’t be bothered to check who she was, and wrote her as a generic companion. In fact, I may be making this up, but I vaguely recall Carole Ann Ford even saying that the script called for her to say ‘Doctor’ rather than ‘Grandfather’ and she changed that herself.
For some years, before home video made it possible to revisit old stories, in Britain at least (where they didn’t have the same circuit of repeats as in Australia) The Five Doctors was a show which defined the history of Doctor Who. It absolutely is aware of that and makes several nods in that direction, not least with the redesign of the console room at the beginning, and the Doctor’s very sweet panic at being made Lord President at the end, and his lines with Tegan about running away in a rickety old TARDIS, and “that’s where it all started.” Everything with Chancellor (soon to be President) Flavia is utterly brilliant and almost redeems the other sucky things that the script does to the women of the show. No wonder that woman got her own theme tune.
I think the problem is that the point of view of the script and the production is so concerned with the Doctors and cementing his status as an icon, that it entirely forgets that the companions have more to offer the show than a splash of colorful costuming. It’s unsurprising that the script treated many of the returning companions generically, as the production dramas meant that companions were having to be swapped out and around, but there is really little excuse for the finished script continuing to treat them generically. The Brigadier gets several splendid nods to his past with the Second Doctor, to the point that both of the threats he faces are relevant to those stories (Yeti and Cybermen) and he then gets a nice little showdown with the regenerated Master. Sarah, on the other hand just tags along with the Third Doctor’s adventure (tailored to him, not her, because he had never faced Cybermen before) and because she doesn’t know the Master, it adds nothing to have her see him at a distance but never know who he is. Even her best line in the episode, how the Doctor had changed to be all teeth and curls, was stolen by Jon Pertwee, which rendered it nonsensical. And Susan gets a Dalek scene at the beginning, but there’s no hint or connection made back to the fact that the world she lives in (assuming she’s still there, we don’t know) is one intimately connected with Daleks, and she might in fact have more experience with them since her time with the Doctor, or grown beyond begging him to come up with a solution now she’s at least in her 40′s). Oh, and ankles are so sprainable. Which is funny.
I do wonder whether the female companions in particular might have been better served if the original plan had come about – before Tom Baker pulled out of the production, he was supposed to team up with Sarah (which would have made the School Reunion choices even less justifiable). The Brig would have been with the Third Doctor, Jamie would have been given a better go at being with the Second… (he got his moment in the sun a few years later as the only returning companion in The Two Doctors) and one assumes, Susan would still have been with the First, which means there is absolutely no excuse for how limited her script was. The Fifth Doctor would have had far less interesting to do in his own show… it’s hard to see how anything would have been radically improved, except that in that original instance we wouldn’t have had the interesting situation of companions who travelled with more than one version being paired with the earlier incarnation – which is one of the few elements of mythology that actually comes across well.
There’s a scene right at the end of the Five Doctors in which the companions are all introducing themselves to each other, while the Doctors work out a vital puzzle. It would have been a nightmare of a scene to film, as is shown in the special features on the DVD, but it’s rather sweet, and actually acknowledges that there’s something rather special going on here. The finale works quite well, even if the only companion given a hero moment is the Brigadier. It is the Doctor’s show, after all, isn’t it?
It’s interesting to see where this story in particular works and where it falls down. For all the criticisms of the RTD era, he did a brilliant job at prioritising the point of view and storyline of the companion, which I think goes a long way towards explaining why the show was suddenly far more accessible to so many more female fans. I know that the parts of the story that most interested me were always the bits that weren’t shown or told, the bits left out, such as what Susan was doing when that black triangle grabbed her, or how Ian and Barbara explained that missing two years back in 1965. For all its faults in making a few too many presumptions about Sarah Jane’s “empty” life, School Reunion had so many moments in it that made it a lovely, satisfying reunion episode – reflecting a new companion through the eyes of the old and vice versa, seeing the Doctor’s alarm at two companions talking about him, female teamwork, that powerful moment when Sarah sees the TARDIS again for the first time, and when the Doctor sees her.
There is an emotional core utterly missing from The Five Doctors, only evident in tiny moments here and there, while the larger ones are wasted. I still enjoy it as a story, I always will – it’s a grand adventure and one of those Doctor Who stories that is burned on to my ten-year-old psyche – but for a show that was working so hard to define the mythology of Doctor Who, it missed the mark when it comes to defining and redefining the role of women in the show. By acknowledging the cliches about girl companions and not doing enough to counteract them or even comment on them (we needed more pineapple cocktail moments to balance out the tea-making!) it only serves to cement those cliches as being essential to the show’s history, rather than one of the least interesting aspects of it.
The female companions had so much more to offer than being the punchline in cheap jokes about ankles, screaming and fetching refreshments. Even back in 1963, when it all started. Which is why The Five Doctors feels very much like it let them down.