The Doctor Who Column: A 'companion piece' for Jenna-Louise Coleman
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Jenna-Louise Coleman joins an esteemed society where not all are created - or treated - equally....
Huzzah! After much media brooding and betting about the identity of the new Doctor Who companion, actress Jenna-Louise Coleman was announced at a press call last Wednesday.
The speculation had been gathering at pace of late, with a few whispers of Sophia Myles somehow coming back to Who after playing Madame du Pompadour six-odd years ago. Possibly this was some sneaky red herring paper trail left by Steven Moffat who urged his Twitter followers to follow La Myles, while a forthcoming interview in Doctor Who Magazine could have also been a clue. But no – quite how Sophia will be involved in the next series (at the time of writing this) is a mystery, so apologies if early next week she's announced as the next incarnation of The Rani.
The congratulations have flowed for Jenna-Louise, and I'm sure the production team have made an astute choice, but I'll be brutally honest here: I don't know who she is. This naturally makes me an ignoramus of the highest order, but a quick scan of her acting CV suggests some clues as to why. She was a regular in Emmerdale a few years ago, but then the last time I'd tuned into Emmerdale it was called Emmerdale Farm -way back when in about 1979, when Amos Brearley staggered around comparing his sideburns with a horse. No wonder he kept spluttering “Neigh, Mr Wilks” at the top of his lungs.
What else? Waterloo Road, a programme that I dip into about once in a blue moon. It's an odd one in that the school's only open to twenty-somethings trying to pass themselves off as stroppy teenagers. But luckily, there's the chance to catch Jenna-Louise in a big blockbuster ITV drama - only my face falls when I read that it's written by ubiquitous toff Julian Fellowes. Which basically means that ITV's Titanic is little more than Downton Abbey on a big boat.
Actually, this lack of knowledge isn't a particularly bad thing. Karen Gillan was a relative newcomer when it was announced that she was cast as Amy Pond. I'd only seen her looking perpetually alarmed in The Fires Of Pompeii and playing second fiddle to impersonator Kevin Bishop on a Channel 4 show a few years ago. So that meant that I could take her performances at face value rather than expecting her to play Amy a certain way. The same goes for Jenna-Louise Coleman when she makes her début in the 2012 Christmas special.
Jenna-Louise is about to enter a whole new world though. The Emmerdale galaxy is one thing, but Doctor Who's a much larger proposition. And when it comes to the companions, there's tons of analysis and scrutiny, not only with the performance but with the writing, the usage and the consistency. The companion has always been an integral part of Doctor Who. The Doctor needs a sidekick or two at home in the TARDIS. Why? Well, the companion fulfils a number of requirements.
One – The Doctor needs to explain the plot to someone from time to time. He's tried the talking to yourself routine on rare occasions, but this makes him look like a bit of a weirdo or a Johnny No Friends, depending on your point of view. So having a handy companion to ask “What does it mean?” allows for some convenient plot exposition.
Two – the female companion fulfils the token bit of totty, allowing the dads to drool over Leela's leotard or Amy's micro skirts – whether the mums put the ironing on hold for Rory's disappointed bloodhound expression, I have no idea.
And three – they allow the writer to develop the plot into different strands. A companion can frequently wander off or get captured, therefore allowing the writer to add a new dimension to his or her finely crafted plot.
Who companions have gone through a myriad of changes over the years, as different styles and trends came and went. In the beginning, the set-up of two teachers and a whiny grandchild of The Doctor's allowed for a solid dynamic. Ian and Barbara were there for the more adult viewers to identify with, while Susan was there for the younger viewers. Susan did however, already show the limitations of the companion: more often than not, Susan's alien behaviour would be ignored in favour of generic screaming and whining. There's great promise in the early stories, such as her strange behaviour in An Unearthly Child or The Edge Of Destruction when she goes all psycho with a pair of scissors. However, the early promise faded with Susan becoming a generic screaming teenager, running around crying or spraining her ankle.
A big mistake in the early days of Who was to water down the role of the companion by making Susan's replacements slightly inferior remakes. Vicki may have enjoyed some amusing chuckling with The Doctor, but again, her main function was to ask staggeringly pointless questions and whine a lot. Even less fortunate was poor Dodo, a real cut-and-paste job if ever there was one. This was more the fault of the writing team who couldn't make up their minds about any facet of Dodo's character. One minute she's spluttering flu symptoms everywhere and crying: the next she's holding her own against the wretched Celestial Toymaker. One minute she's a gorbloymey forbear of Albert Square, the next she's speaking in upper crust received pronunciation. This lack of care took on jaw-droppingly sloppy levels by getting rid of her off-screen, without so much as a goodbye to The Doctor in The War Machines. There's gratitude for you.
The mid-60s was a particularly inconsistent time for the companion. While we got a well-rounded replacement for Ian in the form of cynical realist Steven and a bravura performance from Peter Purves, more often than not, the companion would either be carelessly written or left on the shelf. Two casualties of this latter problem are Ben and Polly. Initially they held out great promise in that they brought the Swinging Sixties into a relatively genteel family entertainment programme. They are also important in that they were the first companions to try and make sense of the concept of regeneration. Add in some top-flight acting from Michael Craze and Anneke Wills and it should be a happy ending, yes? Well, no, since their characters were largely wasted after The Power Of The Daleks.
It didn't help that Jamie entered the fold, so that meant he nabbed some of the lines doubtless meant for Ben and Polly. What's worse is that their departure in The Faceless Ones is just as shoddy and badly tacked on as Dodo's. They miss just under four episodes of the action, conveniently remember that they're back where they started and then just clear off.
At least one good thing to come out of this was a far better treatment of companions in the late '60s. Jamie, in particular is one of the best remembered companions, not least because he stayed for virtually all of the Troughton stories. Perhaps the key to this enduring reputation is not only Frazer Hines' excellent performance, but also the rapport that he had with Patrick Troughton. The Second Doctor and Jamie were a great double act, always joking around over any number of things whether it's Jamie's ineptitude with the laydeez, Victoria's prim 'n' proper attitude or Zoe's super-efficient brainbox mind.
In fact, a good working rapport between the Doctor and companion actors always result in the most fondly remembered teams. Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning. Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen. Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred. You can tell a billion miles off that these actors greatly enjoyed working together, and that fun and mutual respect is there for all to see on the small screen.
With Troughton's Doctor, the two female companions also generally worked well – again, probably more down to the perfect combinations of the three actors. Victoria's not my favourite companion, but Deborah Watling worked perfectly in tune with both Troughton and Hines – same goes for Wendy Padbury, whose walking, talking computer brainbox Zoe turned out to be one of the most successful Sixties companions. It's like watching one happy family enjoy themselves in the late '60s tales, and just goes to prove that camaraderie can go a long way in being a popular companion.
So forget your flares, fondues and Bay City Rollers, the '70s were the golden years of the Who companion. Poor old Liz didn't last too long – too clever by half? It's a shame in a way that Liz's character didn't progress further, and in the early days of her replacement, the more serious fans were probably none too impressed.
However, Jo turned out to be one of the best-remembered companions, despite her clumsiness and dippy nature. Why? Well, she ticks all of the companion boxes. She's friendly to everyone. She's good fun. She's even brave enough to take flying bolts from Azal or put two TARDISes into Time Ram, whatever the consequences. She also visibly matures over the course of her three seasons, and by the 10th, she's flying the flag for Women's Lib or standing immune to The Master's hypnotism. Barry Letts is remembered for many triumphs during his time as producer, but his respect for the companion is one of his real accomplishments. He gave both Jo and Mike Yates solid characterisation and a clear direction – in the case of Mike, unfortunately, this was walking headlong into a bunch of reactionary, brainwashing nerds. But Jo grew up, married the Hippy and left her Doctor genuinely upset at their parting. Still, at least Matt Smith's Doctor got to meet his beloved Jo some years later, as The Sarah Jane Adventures proved that Katy Manning hadn't lost the knack of portraying Jo with a quirky grin and a warm heart.
"The great thing about Sarah and The Doctor is that this is a grown-up, adult relationship"
Barry Letts' solid gold luck of companion casting continued with the casting of Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, one of the most iconic sidekicks. Nothing particularly new on paper – Sarah was the logical progression of Jo's interest in Women's Lib – but Sladen's natural delivery went hand in glove with Sarah. Her popularity grew to new heights when paired with Tom Baker's Doctor – the two again created that great rapport of mutual respect and fun. Even in more serious tales such as Pyramids Of Mars or The Seeds Of Doom, Sarah knows The Doctor inside out and vice versa. “Your shoes need repairing,” she mutters as The Doctor's moodiness looms large again in Pyramids. The great thing about Sarah and The Doctor is that this is a grown-up, adult relationship. The Fourth Doctor, in particular, doesn't talk down to her, and in return Sarah gives as good as she gets, even out-thinking The Doctor in Planet Of Evil or standing up to grizzly thug Scorby in The Seeds Of Doom. So no wonder that Elisabeth Sladen got her very own spin-off show in the Noughties, with a new generation of kids enjoying the adventures of Sarah Jane.
Giving as good as you get seems to be the watchword of the '70s companion. Admittedly this isn't the case with poor old Harry, who became surplus to requirements pretty sharpish – shame, considering Ian Marter's wonderfully understated delivery (and again, another great example of actors gelling perfectly). But after Sarah's left whistling about her bow wow, it's left to Leela and Romana to stand up to the Fourth Doctor's larger than life personality. Both companions are again, very well remembered – in the case of Leela, the costume helps, but it's the inspired choice of hiring Louise Jameson as the Sevateem outcast that makes this companion such a strong one.
What's great about Jameson's performance is that she'll take anything that's thrown at her and gives it her absolute best. Which is needed in the latter days of Leela's run, given that a couple of her later stories completely miss the point of what Leela's all about. Both The Invisible Enemy and Underworld bypass the tough but intelligent, resourceful Leela and instead replace her with Thicko Comedy Savage Leela. The Doctor barks at her for no good reason. She's easily hypnotised by Orfe And The Magic Torch. She's forced to scream at two giant balls of candy floss. But despite all this nonsense, Jameson gives a committed, convincing performance as Leela, which is some accomplishment in these two stories. Leela's a good example of the writer knowing his or her stuff. Chris Boucher and Robert Holmes knew how to write for Leela in a mature, thoughtful way, but sadly one or two of the other writers didn't catch on quite as quickly.
"there are lots of great moments between The Doctor and Romana, most notably in State Of Decay, to the point where Tom's Doctor whispers 'Pssst, you are wonderful!' in the lughole of his companion"
In Romana's case, luckily, the scripts are more consistent, and again, this assured Time Lady isn't backwards in coming forwards when it comes to holding her own against The Doctor. She can stand up to the smarm of Counts Grendel and Scarlioni. She can ride a horse with perfect ease. She can even build her own Sonic Screwdriver. Generally, the scripts cater well for Romana, although the transition between Mary Tamm and Lalla Ward is pretty much played for laughs in Destiny Of The Daleks. Both actresses again gel perfectly with Tom Baker's Doctor – even in the much debated Season 18, there are lots of great moments between The Doctor and Romana, most notably in State Of Decay, to the point where Tom's Doctor whispers “Pssst, you are wonderful!” in the lughole of his companion. Again, it's a successful Doctor-Companion team because it's grown up. Two equals taking on the world without the need for fool questions and having enormous fun into the bargain. Even with the much lambasted K9, the late '70s is much like seeing a fun-loving, occasionally bickering couple tour the universe with their pet dog in tow.
All good things must come to an end, and by the 1980s, the companion was in danger again. Much as I like many of the '80s stories, there's significant cause for concern with the treatment of the companions. Getting rid of the adult Romana and replacing her and K9 with two immature babies and a barely visible Trakenite was the first such folly. Actually, Nyssa was probably the most successful of the three – the problem was, it's pre-empting The Apprentice by 20-odd years. The loud-mouthed characters always get centre stage for all the wrong reasons, while the quiet one stays put in the background because he or she doesn't make for such good TV copy. Arc Of Infinity shows how well The Doctor and Nyssa would have worked together, and shows off Sarah Sutton's acting chops far more than her other adventures when she was forced to play third fiddle to Adric and Tegan.
"For the first five years of the 1980s, being a companion is all about being loud and shrill and whiny"
Neither of these two really come off well. And neither of the two performances are particularly stellar, with Matthew Waterhouse's acting getting steadily more odd in the 19th season and Janet Fielding falling back on stagy histrionics. But then, the fault's also with the writing, since for the first five years of the 1980s, being a companion is all about being loud and shrill and whiny. There's occasional promise with both Adric and Tegan. Adric shows signs of growing up in Tom's last two stories, but for the rest of his time, he's a petulant, cross-eyed baby. Tegan gets subtle depths in Enlightenment and the two Mara stories, but for the rest of the time she's constantly bleating and moaning like a sheep who's got lost on the moors. The writers and the production team had lost the talent for writing consistent, believable characters – even when they initially showed promise, such as Turlough. For his first three stories we get a unique twist – it's a companion with a mission to kill The Doctor (albeit on behalf of some old nyer-hargh-harg-ing old fossil with a dead bird on his head). Mark Strickson is an actor that gives his all, resulting in some great performances, but sadly after Enlightenment, for the most part all that talent goes to waste because the writers and production team lost focus. They couldn't decide whether to make Turlough a gun totin' badass (Warriors Of The Deep) or a spare part locked in a shed (The Awakening).
The treatment of poor Peri wasn't much better, and again wasn't fair to actress Nicola Bryant, who reliably delivered the goods every time – check out her amazing turns in both The Caves Of Androzani and Mindwarp as just two great examples of proof. The character of Peri started out well, as a brave, feisty kid who wanted to see the wonders of the universe (and getting in a bit too deep even at the point of her second adventure). However, her character descended into petty point-scoring and seemingly eternal bickering with Colin Baker's Doctor (The rapport between Nicola and Colin wasn't seen on screen until The Trial Of A Time Lord). Peri's character also seemed to be forced to fit in with the murkier side of Season 22, as hordes of intergalactic weirdos like Shockeye, Jobel or The Borad queued up to drool over her. Possibly the most hapless Doctor Who companion ever, even Peri's ultimate fate of being abandoned by The Doctor and marrying a shouty freak was the final insult.
"The Doctor's somewhat unorthodox therapy of Ace's troubles may be difficult to grasp sometimes, but there's still more of a conscious effort to make Ace that bit more three-dimensional than some of the other poor attempts at companion characterisation in the 1980s"
Melanie was maybe a better fit with The Doctor because she didn't moan quite so much and had a genuine thirst for fun and adventure. However, just plonking her in the middle of a season without any introduction or back-story didn't help, and the production team also drew on Bonnie Langford's ability to thkweam and thkweam and thkweam rather than attempt to mould her into a three-dimensional, believable character.
Luckily Ace ended the 1980s on a high note, even if her initial character and dialogue were more overdone than a piece of burnt toast. Fortunately, the great working relationship between Sophie Aldred and Sylvester McCoy came through from the beginning, and their on-screen repartee is a return to the golden days of Doctor-Companion teams. Not only that, but Ace pre-empted the Noughties companions by getting more in-depth stories about her. We learn about Ace's troubled childhood, the reasons for her fears and her decision to leave Perivale. The Doctor's somewhat unorthodox therapy of Ace's troubles may be difficult to grasp sometimes, but there's still more of a conscious effort to make Ace that bit more three-dimensional than some of the other poor attempts at companion characterisation in the 1980s.
Mind you, the 21st century companions haven't had an easy ride either. The production team nearly but not quite got it right with Rose. The Rose of the 2005 season is a welcome return to the Great Companions Of Yore in that she displays bravery, good humour and compassion in equal measures. She's feisty but not too in-your-face and can hold her own against Daleks, Slitheen or even a sour-faced Doctor Who chides her for not understanding about Gelth Donor Schemes or messing up the laws of time. “I'm so glad I met you” he says though, so this battle-scarred incarnation seems to have found his soul-mate, culminating in a great big tongue sandwich at the end of The Parting Of The Ways.
Unfortunately, Rose seems to undergo some sort of regeneration in the next season, in that she loses all that good nature in the blink of an eye (Maybe it's gone to Barcelona). In her second and last full season, she forms a cliquey, smug attachment with the Tenth Doctor, cackling away to herself like a little girl in the playground chortling at the class dweeb who's just been pushed in the duckpond. Worse still, she's become all weird and possessive when it comes to The Doctor, sneering at poor old Sarah Jane, rolling her eyes at Mickey's temporary on-board pass and even talking of mortgages (leaving The Doctor slightly agog at leading such a human life). Billie Piper never fails to impress, but behind the scenes, the Rose developed a thorn.
"Constantly living in Rose's shadow, the capable, likeable medical student of Smith And Jones rapidly turns into a lovestruck teen who can't get her man because he's too busy mooning over someone else"
Which was to become a constant thorn in the side for poor old Martha – an even worse example of companion mistreatment (and possibly one of the worst examples in Who history). Constantly living in Rose's shadow, the capable, likeable medical student of Smith And Jones rapidly turns into a lovestruck teen who can't get her man because he's too busy mooning over someone else. We're constantly reminded of this, thanks to less than subtle interludes in otherwise decent scripts and also sledgehammer-themed aaaahhing from Murray's Pompous Choir. Even in her sporadic appearances in the following season, the production team just palmed her off any which way they could as if she was the work experience kid. Doctor? Crybaby? Over-serious robot? None of these three worked – another waste of a fine actress, but at least Freema Agyeman went on to enjoy a prolific career with the likes of Law And Order.
Finally, the next companion was the right fit for David Tennant's Doctor – even if Donna wasn't your average companion. She was in her late '30s, didn't scream so much and gave as good as she got rather than meekly go along with what the Boss Man said. Catherine Tate and David Tennant gelled perfectly, recalling the days of Elisabeth Sladen and Tom Baker. It's thankfully a much more grown-up Doctor Companion team than of late, with Donna questioning the Time Lord's actions in stories such as Planet Of The Ood and The Fires Of Pompeii. But there's still that element of fun, most notably in The Unicorn And The Wasp, as the two breeze through a traditional English country garden mystery with the repartee of Barnaby and Troy. And hey, Cribbins turned out to be Donna's granddad, culminating in one of the most poignant examples of the companion as the great man's name flew towards the viewer in the opening titles of The End Of Time. Always looking out for The Doctor and vowing to protect him, in the end it was his compassion (while releasing another grunt from the deadly phone booth) that led to Doctor Ten's demise and those fateful four knocks.
But it didn't stop The Doctor from travelling with a companion in tow, and so Amy (followed by Rory) stepped into the breach. Again, their characters are by no means perfect – Amy in particular veers between feisty and downright irritating in Matt Smith's first season, while Rory initially comes across as a useless goon. Fortunately, they both redeem themselves in the following season with less shouting, less stereotypical whining and plenty of winning performances from Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill.
So as Mr and Mrs Pond say adiós in a Weeping Angel extravaganza, it's left to Jenna-Louise Coleman to step into the breach. I hope Moffat et al create a good, consistent companion who doesn't fall back on needless shouting or ineffectual screaming. Writing for a companion isn't an exact science – the strength of the acting, the rapport with the Doctor actor and the talents of the scriptwriter all tend to have some bearing on whether the companion is judged a success or an Adric. If everything comes together for Jenna-Louise, then who knows? In about 30 years time, she could also be fronting her very own spin-off show to great acclaim.
John Bensalhia is a freelance journalist who has extensively written for more than 10 years on subjects such as franchising, ports, Italy, DIY, tractors, sports and arboriculture. Not to mention reviews for Blake's 7 and Doctor Who, which he's been a fan of ever since he was a little kid.
When not writing, John likes drumming, guitar strumming, cycling, cartoon drawing, pre-1990s music and animals. He lives with his lovely wife Alison and many guinea pigs. Catch some of John's work or get in contact through his website at www.johnbensalhia.co.uk.
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