“For the dads” is a phrase that Doctor Who fans of a certain age tend to hear repeated over and over by production crew, actors and fans alike when talking about the 1977 introduction of Leela (Louise Jamieson), the ‘primitive’ companion who wore strips of leather, hunted Sontarans with a throw knife, and was generally as a rare example (along with Peri and her leotards) of the show actually intending glimpses of sexuality to peep through the family-friendly curtain.
Actually, as we discussed recently on the Verity! Podcast, Leela’s leather outfit might look kinky but is far more practical than most of the mini-skirts that were such a regular feature of the show from 1966 through to… well, the mid 1980’s. (the 1980’s, in fact, seemed to have way more restrictive and uncomfortable looking miniskirts than the 1960’s – what’s with that, fashion?)
More important than her costume, Leela had a fully rounded character which gave her interesting and at times unpredictable motivations in her stories, allowed her some contrast and occasional conflict with the Doctor rather than being a yes-girl, and gave a rare sense of alienness in the TARDIS (though in fact she was a descendant of future humans despite her ‘primitive’ nature).
She had a fantastic story arc, though with a better script her final story could have made far more of her remaining on Gallifrey as an end point to her travels with the Doctor…
It certainly makes me wince now to hear the Doctor referring to Leela as a ‘savage’ in comparison to his own ‘civilised’ nature, and I also think that their famous Eliza Doolittle/Professor Higgins dynamic brings out his most patronising and at times least likeable side.On the other hand, considering that there were production stills of Jamieson in her leather gear with her face actually blacked up… um, yes. We dodged a bullet there. Leela herself could well have gone the way of The Talons of Weng-Chiang and Tomb of the Cybermen, as a ‘classic’ of the show’s history that becomes more embarrassing to defend as the years go by due to the thoughtless racism of the era.
Apart from the fact that the production team figured out putting chestnut boot polish on Leela’s face was a bad idea before the cameras rolled, Leela has two important elements that helped to cement her position as a companion memorable for more than her leather costume: the first is clever writing by Chris Boucher (who wrote her first two stories, The Face of Evil and The Robots of Death) and Robert Holmes (script editor, and co-writer of her third story, The Talons of Weng-Chiang). While several of her later stories were more uneven, Leela started out with some very good scripts which showcased the character well, and gave her complex layers such as intelligence and self-confidence. Best of all, the stories allowed her to sometimes be right, even when she disagreed with the Doctor.
The other saving grace of the character was Louise Jamieson herself, an excellent actress who has built a very successful and long acting career since her stint in the TARDIS – playing the companion meant a burst of fame, often before a young actor was ready, and rarely extended into a bigger career after the show than before. Jamieson plays the character with a steely superiority (and occasional deadpan humour) that makes the Fourth Doctor look like far less of an ass than he might have done considering that the scripts regularly require him to treat her like a child. Jamieson was also actively defensive of Leela behind the scenes, sometimes editing lines to make them sound more like the character she started with.
In Big Finish audio, Leela has had not one but three new leases of life in the 21st century: as an old, deeply battered and cynical bodyguard to President Romana in the Gallifrey mini-series; as a younger but still knows-a-bit-about-the-universe mentor figure to Jago and Litefoot in their spin off series, and most recently, thanks to Tom Baker’s revival of his own character in audio, as the original young companion Leela at the Fourth Doctor’s side. It’s to Louise Jamieson’s credit that all three versions of Leela are distinct but recognisable, and that when she plays young Leela there is barely a thread of age in her voice.
While Leela only travelled with the Doctor for a year and a half in the history of the show, her character provided far more than a chance for fourteen year old boys (and their dads) to get a flash of leg. Many viewers were concerned by her ready violence and use of knives in particular, with Tom Baker himself expressing grave doubts that the Doctor would travel with a killer, but Leela’s casual attitude to violence allowed the Doctor to articulate his own philosophy of pacifism, something that he hadn’t had much of a chance to do since the early days of his friendship with the Brigadier, and which is generally regarded as an essential facet of his character.
At this point in 1977, Doctor Who had been going for fourteen years, and had run through all manner of companion “types”. It is to the production team’s credit that they tried such a high concept take on the role this time around, and to Baker and Jamieson’s credit that they portrayed the relationship in such an effective way, considering how little they got along (at the time) off camera. There’s something genuinely touching about the Doctor’s friendship with Leela despite their different philosophies, and while he does spend a lot of time teaching her things, he has something to learn from her, too.
It’s all very well being all touchy-feely about no guns and not wanting to kill people, but sometimes you just have to stick a knife in a Sontaran and hope for the best. And when that day comes… well, it’s important to everyone that it’s not the Doctor holding the knife.
In short, Leela was awesome, and whatever silly sexist reasons were involved with her creation, she brought something original and clever and dynamic to the Doctor Who universe. It wasn’t just “the Dads” who benefited from having a hero like this on their screens – as a young girl watching, I took for granted that I would get to have characters like Leela (and Romana, and Ace…) on my TV forever, and only later came to realise how lucky I was.
[Note: after I had drafted this post, I saw a reference online to Phillip Hinchcliffe’s appearance at Gallifrey One this weekend, and that he was quoted as saying that Leela’s skimpy costume wasn’t part of her original costume design, and that the impetus behind creating her had very much been about giving a hero to the girls who were watching avidly at the time – the pin up for the dads aspect came later. VINDICATED!]
ELSEWHERE IN 1977:
Leela [Marlow Inc]
The Face of Evil [NeoWhovian]
The Invisible Enemy [Wife in Space]
K9 [Marlow Inc]
Image of the Fendahl Episode 4 [The Chronic Hysteresis]
The Sunmakers [Hoo on Who]
The Sunmakers [The Independent]