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The Doctor Who Column: The Shaw Thing


A tribute to the late, underrated Caroline John, who played the pioneering companion Liz Shaw...

Jon Pertwee and Caroline John in their 'Doctor Who' days

It's chucking it down with rain outside on the longest day of the year – and what's supposed to be a hot, sunny time of year. Rainy, windy weather is never very good for morale, and having clicked on the news websites, my mood's not exactly lifted when I find out that another Doctor Who legend has passed.

Caroline John, who played Liz Shaw, sadly died on 5th June 2012. Only 71 years of age. Inevitably, with all long-running TV and film series, the more time goes on, the older people get. But that's no small crumb of comfort to Who fans, and in particular fans of the Pertwee years, considering Barry Letts, Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen.

Liz Shaw may not always have been mentioned in the same breath as Sarah Jane or Rose – she only lasted one season, and regrettably never got a trip in the TARDIS during her four adventures. But in her own, quiet way, Liz was something of a pioneering companion, and definitely one of the reasons why Season Seven remains such a popular set of adventures.

"Liz starts out as the cynic, the sceptic. It's pre-dating The X-Files by a couple of decades"

Caroline John as Liz Shaw in 'Doctor Who'It's fashionable these days to prattle on about the arc – sometimes it's the story, sometimes it's the companion. An even more popular buzzword is “journey”, a phrase only coined by bawling X-Factor or Voice contestants while looking back at past clips of making pained faces into microphones. But many a Doctor Who companion goes on a metaphorical journey – even if Liz never quite got to travel in the rickety Police Box, at least she got her very own character progression.

In a way, Liz's four stories echo the Third Doctor's attitude to his exile on Earth. For his first two seasons, he's arrogant, aloof, and most of all, furious at his imposed exile to Earth. He's forever lashing out at huffy politicians and blinkered businessmen, and come to that, the people he's spending the most time with, such as The Brigadier or Jo. But from Seasons Nine to Eleven, he's far more relaxed, gently poking fun at the UNIT family, enjoying far warmer friendships with The Brig, Jo, Sarah and Benton, and even calling his Earth base “home”.

Now think about how Liz starts out and how she ends her time with Who. In her first scenes in Spearhead From Space, she's scowling, indignant, sceptical. In the last scene of Inferno, she's laughing her head off at a spluttering, trash-engulfed Doctor trying to placate an infuriated Brig. That's some turnaround, but in just 25 episodes, the abrasive, haughty Liz gives way to a much more mellowed, relaxed and likeable figure.

So what exactly happens to make this change? Liz starts out as the cynic, the sceptic. It's pre-dating The X-Files by a couple of decades. She's amused at The Brigadier's seriousness when discussing past alien invasions. “Alien invaders? Little blue men with three heads?” She later adds that she deals with facts rather than science fiction. In a way, Liz is a progression from Zoe the brainbox, given that she's a highly intelligent expert in meteorites with 14 degrees. Her mind is conditioned in the real world – numbers, scientific formulae, rather than wild stories about men in blue police boxes and crazy alien invasions.

Caroline John as Liz Shaw in 'Doctor Who'But when her eyes are opened to a whole new world, it's notable that she drops the rather sniffy attitude that she has for the first half of Spearhead From Space. She's willing to accept The Doctor's offer of a job as his assistant. She's much more willing to muck in during the battle with the Silurians, almost acting as a mediator between a Doctor who just wants to play around with his brand new car and a frosty Brig, who's helping to solve the problem at Wenley Moor. She relaxes a lot more around the UNIT staff, and despite her occasional clashes with The Brigadier and The Doctor, she's obviously made some new friends. She's found that there is actually a real world out there away from clinical laboratories and test tubes.

One of the great things about Liz is that she is a welcome return to the adult style of companion. Much as I like the Troughton companions, they're more the stock teenager style of companion, with The Doctor acting as the wacky father figure or uncle to a kilted youth, a screaming brainbox or a Victorian wallflower. Liz bucks the trend however, and epitomises the more adult style of the new regime. She only screams once (at the end of the second ep of The Silurians), uses her brain much more, and for once, isn't there to ask questions along the lines of “What does it all mean?” She has the brainpower to suss out problems, whether it's Taltallian's computer or the missing formula for Dr Crawford.

Following on from this is her refusal to be treated like a child or a dogsbody. Take her angry confrontation with The Brigadier in The Silurians – he's barking at her to help with manning the phones: “You're a member of UNIT, Miss Shaw and you will do as you are told!” Rather than meekly giving in, Liz yells: “I will not be spoken to in that way!” This is a far more grown-up attitude to Doctor Who rather than a petty, childish squabble. In fact, Silurians is a good one for Liz. She shows far more gumption, refusing to buckle in to the old-fashioned sexism. When told that she can't look around the caves with the UNIT boys, she asks: “Have you never heard of female emancipation?” Two episodes later, The Doctor's trying the same trick, but Liz is shrewd enough to blackmail The Doctor into letting her tag along by threatening to tell The Brigadier about Quinn's death.

Liz also stands her ground well in The Ambassadors Of Death, especially when forcibly imprisoned by ACME baddie Reegan. She's standing up to his constant threats, and isn't easily cowed, unlike the quaking Dr Lennox (although Lennox would probably be terrified of the Pingu cartoons). When she helps Lennox to escape, she constantly dismisses Reegan's threats until he shoves a gun under her chin. Even then, she shows her bravery, refusing to scream or shout, and when flung into the arms of Flynn the henchman, she quips, “It's all right, I won't hurt you!” Liz is pre-empting the forthright companions of the future with her no-nonsense, gutsy attitude. She is paving the way for the intelligent but headstrong Romana, the bolshy Sarah Jane and in more recent years, the more grown-up Donna.

Inferno's a curious one in that we get two Liz's for the price of one. The regular Liz is by now a far more relaxed figure, to the point where she's even humming along to The Doctor's crooning of "Shine On Martian Moon" at the end. Perhaps this is to contrast with her Parallel Earth counterpart. In a way, Elizabeth Shaw is summing up Liz's progress over her past four adventures. She starts out as a sullen, unapproachable second banana to the Brigade Leader – a gun-toting, furious loose cannon. This is not a Liz who listens to reason or opens her mind – she's going along with the facts that she's been told: Military Might rules – Everything Else crumbles. But again, it's The Doctor who proves to chip away at the hard-nosed persona and the cold, logistical brain. He gradually opens her mind, to the point where she is willing to accept that The Doctor is telling the truth about how he really is a refugee from a parallel world. “I think he's telling the truth,” she says to the Brigade Leader. “I think he has been all along.” And just like in the real world, Elizabeth has opened her mind to accept a new way of life. By the time that Parallel Earth is going up in flames, she is willing to sacrifice her life to let The Doctor get away.

It's a great little character arc for Liz: The sceptic becomes the believer. The frosty ice maiden persona thaws to reveal a likeable, humane character. Regrettably, we'd never see Liz during the rest of Pertwee's time as The Doctor. She goes back to university without so much as an on-screen goodbye. The only time we see her in Doctor Who again is as a ghostly companion phantom in The Five Doctors (and it's credit to Caroline John's performance that her contribution here is so creepily effective). For the dedicated Who fans, she would make appearances as Liz Shaw in a number of spin-off audio adventures and also in a straight-to-video dramas about PROBE. I've only seen one of them in which Liz does battle against a smarmy Davison villain (who ends up possessed by a Devil book or something and then ends up as a skeletal husk). But again, it's a sterling performance from John, who makes Liz a believable, three-dimensional character.

I guess there's the old line about how Caroline will always live on through videos, repeats and DVDs. Outside of Doctor Who, she appeared in productions as diverse as The Hound Of The Baskervilles, Love Actually, and a good number of acclaimed stage plays. She also contributed to various Doctor Who DVD commentaries and documentaries with a warm sense of humour and a twinkle in the eyes. That's a fitting tribute to one of Doctor Who's most underrated companion actresses.

See also:

Liz Sladen: "Don't forget me"
Elisabeth Sladen: 1948-2011
Doctor Who: A tribute to Nicholas Courtney, aka 'The Brig'


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#1 Caroline John Paul Mc Elvaney 2012-06-24 22:00
Thanks for writing this. Yet another sad time for Who fans.
#2 RE: The Doctor Who Column: The Shaw Thing Ryan OConnor 2012-06-25 07:48
Just like Elisabeth Sladen, this death shocks me. Why do so many Brits, particularly actors from Doctor Who, die at such premature ages in their 60's and 70's? Average life expectancy for a woman is a solid 80 today, and both my grandmothers are in their 90's. I don't get it.

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