Since the idea was still fresh in my mind, I felt I would jump into the audience identification for the Sixth Doctor straight away. If you’re coming into this one blind, pop over here to understand where my inspiration came from. In a nutshell, I strongly disagree with who the audience identification figure is. Over the years, in any Doctor Who documentary or commentary one sees or hears, the powers-that-be claim the companion is the “audience identification”. Let’s be clear: we are supposed to see the companion and think “that’s us” and we get to watch them ask the questions we’re supposed to be asking. We need someone we can identify with that asks the inane questions. “Doctor, what’s a chronic hysteresis?” “Doctor, what’s a charged vacuum emboitment when it’s at home?” Because the writer didn’t just say time loop or gateway to another dimension, we have to ask dumb questions. In other words, there are better ways to do that without the audience being made to look like a bunch of dimwits. Sadly, the original fandom of both Trek and Who didn’t portray us fans in the best light and it seems the BBC felt we needed some clarity on what was going on because “time loop” would still be too confusing even with context clues. Thus the companions.
But speaking to Roger recently, who grew up in the UK where Doctor Who was not mocked the way it was here in the US, I can’t help but think that was largely because in the early days, Doctor Who was educational to some extent and the companions were a bit less… inept. As a result, it became part of the cultural identity. For the US, we started with Tom Baker’s Doctor so we didn’t have the buildup that the UK did. We went straight into the most alien Doctor of all, and that meant the show was an easy target for the “cool” kids to pick on. (No worries. As I said it before: we won in the end. Those cool kids give us all their money to go see the things we produce now, so… vindication is sweet!) But that means that this perspective may be heavily skewed toward this side of the pond. Here goes anyway…
Although we’ve covered Peri already during Davison’s era, it behooves us to cover her time a bit more granularly, because she only had 2 stories with the 5th Doctor and the bulk of her time was during Baker’s era. It’s particularly interesting that her strongest story was probably The Mark of The Rani because it’s also the one where her botany studies finally appear to pay off and she’s fully clothed. Thus, her best episode featured her intellect and was her least “sexy”. She appears at her most adept here, and nearly falls in love. And fans should have been happy. The guy was so dim, he becomes a tree. There’s hope for us all. Almost all the other episodes with her, had Nicola Bryant wearing leotards and shorts which, considering English weather, was probably a bit of a challenge for the poor girl. Don’t misconstrue! Like Baker himself said in an interview for Who@40, I wasn’t complaining! Nicola was one of the most beautiful companions of the classic series. But what did it say about the way the BBC viewed the audience? Surely it wasn’t that the companion was an “identification figure” now, right? That would mean that the audience were all sexy girls who were pretty much airheads but knew enough about flowers to expect roses on Valentine’s Day instead of chrysanthemums. And we know that wasn’t the case; the audience was almost exclusively male! So more likely, it really came down to what I previously mentioned as Star Trek’s “Seven of Nine Ploy” where Miss Peri Brown was designed to bait the male viewer with glimpses of her sexy attire. Perhaps one can forgive it now, but back in the 80s hot pink was a thing. And in complete honesty, she did indeed look lovely in her pink outfit during Attack of the Cybermen. Or hanging out with the Doctor while he fished for gumblejacks in The Two Doctors. And even Peter Davison complained (albeit humorously) that his grand finale was eclipsed by a camera angle that drew the viewers’ attention away from the Doctor and straight down Nicola’s top. But that still means, the companion was not the audience identification figure, but rather a lure to up ratings!
So obviously, someone behind the scenes must have complained. “What are you thinking? No girl who looks like that watches Doctor Who! And the guys are already couch potatoes! We need something to get them up and moving! Maybe get jobs… leave their parents basements… you’ve all seen Shatner’s skit!” And so came the extreme opposite. Mel, bless her, was loud to the point of shattering one’s soul and sanity when she would scream, and scream she did. Quite often, in fact. She never wore anything sexy, and if she did, my brain blocked it out for the sake of sanity. And she was all about exercise and carrot juice. (Clearly something rubbed off, because quite literally within the last hour, I bought carrot juice… I have no excuse.) So the BBC was either thinking that the audience was all health food and exercise gurus or, by God, they’d do something for society and drop as many health tips as they could into the show to help the male viewer along. Sadly I know how I’d place my bets. Maybe the idea was to get fit enough to even meet and date someone who looked like Peri. Who knows? I’m not claiming expertise here, I’m merely arguing against the idea that we needed the companion to identify with.
But then, if it were the Doctor, in poor Colin’s case, that would have been worse so maybe we cut the BBC some slack and allow them their delusion. Had they wanted us to identify with the Doctor, he might have been a little less acerbic and more accessible, because what brought the show to that hiatus was the way the Doctor was portrayed. And that was not Colin Baker’s fault! The man is awesome, intelligent and, in fact, the Doctor through and through. He knew everything about the portrayal was wrong right down to the attire, but he’s an actor and needed his job and did what he was told. So what hurt was that his Doctor was often written as a gruff egomaniac. His introduction bordered on being portrayed as an unpredictable alcoholic. So, at least claiming the companion as the audience identifier makes the BBC look better, because otherwise, they seem to have been implying the audience was a bunch of unpredictable drunks who might strangle you as quickly as hug you, and loved themselves for it. Yeah, I’d say it was the companion too.
I’d argue that, like the sonic screwdriver, the psychic paper and the TARDIS itself, the companion is a means to an end. They represent a way to get the plot moving, but John Nathan-Turner didn’t like the sonic because he said the writer relied too heavily on it as a get out of jail free card. Ironically, the same happens with the companions over and over, often making even the Time Ladies little more than whimpering wrecks. We don’t need them to be portrayed that way. It would be so easy to have the companion represent us without that by simply having the weekly guest stars asking the stupid questions because the companion should be somewhat used to what they are experiencing through their adventures with the Doctor anyway.
I will revisit this concept of the audience identification figure for each Doctor. For now, I feel I’ve sat too long and need some aerobic exercise and some “carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice”… ML