Audience Identification: Fifth Doctor

nyssaThis week, I began working on a review for The Visitation when inspiration struck for a weekend article; possibly a series looking at each Doctor’s “Audience Identification Figures”.

It came from a piece of dialog between Adric and the Doctor, and how the Doctor responds.

Nyssa: Where are we going?
Doctor: Ah, in search of our Terileptil.
Adric: You know where he is?
Doctor: Yes… yes, that’s why I’m searching.

The Doctor, whose “always try to be nice but never fail to be kind” attitude, doesn’t quite live up to that kindness with Adric.  And do we blame him?  As companions go, Adric got a bum rap.  This got me in a humorous mood and I started thinking about the notion that the companion is meant to be the audience identification figure. Which in turn, lead me to ask: “really?  How’s that?”

Let’s face it, back during the classic era, Doctor Who wasn’t known for attracting mainstream viewers and those that it did attract had a history of being something of the local outcast.  In fact, the classic image of the nerd might have been based on Doctor Who and Star Trek fandom.  Shatner’s infamous “Get a life” skit on Saturday Night Live really drove that point home like a stake through the heart, making fun of the very people who ensured Shatner would never be out of work.  But classic Doctor Who was that image, magnified!  And it was predominantly a male fanbase.  Of the female viewers… they made what, 1.5% of the audience?  And the only reason it was above 1% was that Big Bertha, Brooklyn’s Bearded Behemoth, was watching and on her own pulled in more than a percentage.  Outcasts, indeed.  Oh, don’t think for a second that I’m making fun of “them”; I was one of them!  I’m not coming from some “high and mighty” place, immune to the teasing!  Who has two thumbs and was a nerdy-fan back in the early days?  This Guy!  I’m pointing those thumbs at myself, you know!  Believe me, I remember the teasing and can only look back and say “haha, we won!” because, finally, all the stuff we loved back then has become mainstream and those fans are making all the movies and TV shows those other guys are spending their hard-earned cash on.  So, believe me, like Jack, Rose and the Doctor, I’m giving us all high-fives as we fly off again into “time!  And Space!”

But what was the attraction back then?  Surely the audience wasn’t really identifying with the companion?  We can largely thank David Tennant for his dashing good looks that worked like a light to a moth, bringing it a larger female audience.  Once they arrived, the show captivated them as it always could have but they didn’t have the “bait”.  Suddenly, a new generation of viewer popped up, bringing the reputation of fans up to much more respectable levels.  The discovery was that there were Doctor Who fans that even held prominent jobs!  VPs, doctors, lawyers… incredible!  Who knew?  (Should that be a question or a statement?)  Vast numbers had their own places, having moved out of their parents basements!  Many had even … get ready for this… kissed girls!  Sorry, Bill Shatner, it’s true!  And of those girls, there were many fans!   They are so far on the other end of the spectrum from the early days too.  Those I have encountered are beautiful, funny, intelligent… Basically, they are real people, just deeper than their non-fan counterparts.  Go figure!

So what actually attracted the audience?  The Doctor!   Which begs the question, why is the companion always referred to as the “audience identification figure”?  And what does that say about Adric?

Was Adric meant to be a lure to get female viewers?  He wore the same pajamas every episode and when he did get to change (Black Orchid) he put the pajamas back on afterward!  Maybe people who evolve from Marsh creatures don’t have body odor but I wouldn’t bet money on that.  And he complained all the damned time; or at least that’s the lasting memory one has of the poor mathematician.  His best interaction was the 10 minutes he had at the start of Logopolis, when it was just him and Tom Baker’s Doctor, probably because they were like two bachelors just hanging out before Tegan crashed the party.  After that, he was competing for the attention of the Doctor and, failing to get it, trying to think on his own, usually with catastrophic results.  Was this the way we wanted men to be portrayed to the female viewer?  It’s no wonder the classic image of male fandom was one that got mocked all the time.  Courtesy of our least favorite Alzarian, this was how Adric painted the male fan: we wear the same clothes every day and whine about not getting our way, often to the point of wanting to go home.  (…Even when that home has a staple food that is watermelons filled with spiders from which we evolved… making it all a bit cannibalistic…  Clearly their evolution was an up-and-down thing…)

Adric finally gets a good story with Earthshock and once again when he tries to think on his own, he dies horribly.  As compensation goes, the human race evolved as a direct result of his demise.  Kudos for going out in style and thanks for helping spawn life as we know it!  (Sadly it took until 2005 for the nerd gene to evolve and give us non-geeky fandom!  As I said, evolution: it’s an up-and-down thing…)

Well, you say, there were more companions than Adric!  Sure.  So was the audience meant to identify with Tegan and Nyssa?  One was a biochemist from nobility who was an orphan, and saw her father get both murdered and younger right in front of her!  Basically a traumatized genius…  The other was a stewardess on her way to the job who preferred the cramped quarters of a plane to the TARDIS and was constantly trying to get back home, usually complaining in the process.  I’m not sure who the audience was meant to identify with, but if public opinion boiled down to men being infantile, maladjusted creatures and women either complaining working class people or upper class, traumatized scientists, I’m not sure who they thought was watching the show.    I have often said, it was no wonder Davison’s Doctor was viewed as the most vulnerable Doctor; look at the company he kept.  By the time we got to Turlough, he wanted to kill the Doctor because he trusted a dude wearing a bird on his head!  Get out much?  And poor Peri was just a deeply confused youth.  (Although I’ll throw her a bone because she was supposed to be American and she was probably confused by the improved accents!)  And while Nicola’s Peri certainly ramped up the sex appeal aspect of the show, I don’t think it constituted “audience identification” so much as a “cheap shot to get more men watching”.  Don’t worry, Trek pulled it off too with Jeri Ryan’s 7 of 9, but tried it weekly and without making any sense.  (7 of 9 was a Borg for whom they were able to remove all the Borg implants with the exception of the highly dangerous ones: eyebrows, hands and breasts.  But humanize her all they wanted, she never had a name, like, you know, Alice, and she never wore clothes like everyone else.  All Peri did was wear a bathing suit to actually GO SWIMMING!)  [Equally, in fairness, that one scene with her was far better than all of Jeri Ryan’s, but that’s beside the point!]

So there we have it: the companions of the 5th Doctor.  A freak who complained until he died.  A working class woman who complained that all she wanted was to get back to her job (this is counterintuitive by the way… most people complain that they want a holiday but have to work too much… she complained she had too much holiday and not enough work!  Aussies!)   A traumatized upper class scientist with no family (who eventually leaves the comfort of the TARDIS for a plague ship).  A would-be murderer and political refugee who had no idea about fashions.  And a confused American whose strongest skill was talking to plants.  I feel vulnerable just talking about it.  But I’m left no wiser as to who the audience identification figure was supposed to be if not the Doctor.  Or for that matter, who the BBC thought was watching the show.  It’s always fun to blame Michael Grade, but the whole thing confounds me!

I guess that means we still have at least one confused American!   ML

About Roger Pocock

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5 Responses to Audience Identification: Fifth Doctor

  1. Mike Basil says:

    I always thought that Adric could have used a change of outerwear, at least for his stories set on the Earth and even in Earth’s future. I think Ian and Steven were the only male companions who would change their outerwear most of the time. But as to my regards for how Davison’s era went along as more eye-candy for the audiences, certainly for the first young Doctor who was the least pompously heroic and most vulnerably identifiable, it was easier for me to enjoy Dr. Who during that time with a nwere sequence of stories, particularly action-adventure ones like Earthshock, Resurrection Of The Daleks and The Caves Of Androzani, that mirrored the early 80s. Because that was when I myself was getting into Star Wars (for me starting with The Empire Strikes Back), Blade Runner, Star Trek II & III and The Terminator. So it felt appropriate enough to me for Dr. Who to get somewhat grittier with its sci-fi drama.

    The more dramatic stories, certainly with Ainley’s Master and Courtney’s return as the Brigadier, as well as the family-reunion format for The Five Doctors, were okay with me as the specific departure they were from T. Baker’s era. Because T. Baker’s era was the first era I began viewing just before the regeneration elements astonished and fascinated me. So maybe that was fateful in my regard and enjoyment of Davison’s era, even for C. Baker’s and McCoy’s as well. Fans may be fickle to a certain point with regenerated Doctors and Doctor-eras as they originally became with Troughton’s breakthrough and the UNIT phase. Davison was pivotal in paving the ways for McGann, Eccleston, Tennant, Smith and now Jodie in regards to the youthful appeals of Doctors. Because the mixes of the Doctor’s old-soul in young bodies provides young Doctor actors with a great dynamic, for which Tennant’s and Smith’s success were both quite pivotal. As Nicholas Briggs asked during Dr. Who’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, “Does age matter?”. Davison established that it depends on each of the Doctors.

    And now that Davison’s Doctor has now crossed paths with River Song in Big Finish, that will prove to be an intriguingly additional chapter in the 5th Doctor’s era.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In the early 80s the West swung into the inhumane neocon economic era, and amid it the Space Age’s initial optimism expired. In the angry polarised politics of that shift, anger and inhumaneness paired in deadly mutual reinforcement, as the style drivers on comedy, creating the extremely emotionally savage “alternative comedy” style, and on what counts as cool talk.
    Its cruel emotionally biting milieu frightens folks to conform to it in vulnerably self-conscious fear of becoming its target, That has been a self-perpetuating cycle, worthy of the worlds that Classic Who shows trapped in dystopias. We still live under that culture shift’s impact. Ever since it, folks trying to sound cool have felt obliged to be full of rough cynical sneers against nerds, teenagers, smells, and the often economically sensible rational position of living with parents.
    This negative custom carries no pleasure, does nothing constructive, it repeats itself to monotony, all who do it sound ritually the same, and sound like the unfree cultural prisoners they are. Adric was unlucky in timing, to happen just when this stupidly damaging era was starting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • DrAcrossthePond says:

      Which is to say what exactly? That Adric was actually pretty cool? I’m not against your comment, mind you! Actually delighted to have you here sharing something thought provoking! So thanks for that, but I fail to see the final point: did you like Adric? I’ve re-watched the series a number of times and always find him hard to stomach. Oddly, I once found Tegan to be great and Nyssa to be sort of lame too, but as an adult, I think Nyssa is one of the best of the classic era. So I’m curious to know if I’m missing something. Not something established by cultural shifts, but something in my own psyche that says “that dude was lame”. ML

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. For being an escaper and rebel, a youth who did not accept the life he was given. Eventually became conflicted about the course he chose, but that only reflects that he had no perfect options and still chose a more exciting life than his starting point.
        He was nothing at all like, totally opposite to, the humiliating dutiful-obedient-twee type of teenage character who is an insult to viewers and right to be against. Yet he was taken just as badly as those, from there being such acute self-consciousness around teenage.
        Cool is not what I look for. Sure he was not cool, because cool is a Cyberman style conformity, it’s good that he was himself instead of cool. He’s flawed, but aping coolness is not among his flaws.

        Liked by 1 person

    • DrAcrossthePond says:

      I like your drive. I don’t agree that just being non-conformist makes him a likable character though. I ended up liking Adric during his final episode but the rest of the time found him too awkward. I realize that’s less about the character than the writing and the challenge (seen again during Whitaker’s era) of writing for too many Tardis occupants, but it still impacts the opinion I have of him.
      I will grant you points for giving me something to think about with his decision to seek out more excitement and actually doing something with his life. You could say that about many companions though.
      Re: dutiful-obedient-twee type of teenage character who is an insult to viewers – who did you have in mind? (And I had to look up the definition of “twee”. Thank you for that. I love new words.) ML

      Liked by 1 person

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