We really don’t know how good we had it. You know when you’re young, grandparents talk about the “good old days”? They seem to think the old days were the best. Even those who “climbed mountains barefoot through glass to and from school” will say those adversities shaped them and that today is nowhere near as good as it was back then. “Back in my day…” (I know you read that with an old voice that could host a “Pepperidge Farms” commercial…) But maybe they’re right! I mean, I remember it was always sunny when I was a kid. And then there’s this: Doctor Who was on television for something like 40 weeks per year and only off for about 12. Now we get 12 weeks per year with it and it’s off for 40. (And this year, we’re down to 10 as it stands!) See? I rest my case. Almost…
But back in 1987, as the classic series was drawing to a close, the show ran from September until December and would do the same roughly for the remainder of the series. So things were not always better than they are now and the show was basically giving us the same length as a series today, but with fewer stories. (Remember, each story would consist of 3-4 parts, so one story could take a month to get through. Imagine if you don’t like that story!!) At this point Sylvester McCoy was the Doctor and the powers-that-be wanted to make Doctor Who something interesting again, so they slowly started to bring back the mystery! Who is this man? What special powers does he have? Just how alien is he? And with a lot of rolling of the tongue, McCoy proved to be wholly different from his predecessors. He wore a dopey sweater full of question marks and carried a question mark umbrella. (This latter doesn’t bother me, as I remember back in the 80s when perfumer Aramis released this very umbrella which could be obtained with any purchase of $35 or more! And also, my kids bought it for me, so I carry it proudly.) But what that meant was that this Doctor was going to be darker and more alien. We would need the companion more than ever if we wanted someone to bond with.
And that leads us back to the question of who the audience identification was supposed to be. Unlike before, where Davison was portrayed as a bit ineffectual and C. Baker was initially portrayed not unlike a raging alcoholic, McCoy was almost too alien to connect with. For me personally, this was totally captivating and I connected with this portrayal immediately; I thought McCoy was great but he really didn’t develop into that dark mysterious character until half way through his run, by which point people either liked him as fop and didn’t want the change, or they bailed before they got to the good stuff. Which means it was down to the companion to keep it together. And we’ve already seen enough of Mel. Carrot juice and shrill screams to shatter ones soul didn’t exactly lend itself to easy identification. Her caring nature was actually quite genuine but you had to get past a dizzy cheerleader personae to get there, and it wasn’t sticking.
And then Ace came into the show and you know what? It might have been exactly the right attitude for the late 80s audience. Ace was “with it”. She was all slang and modern, carrying a boom box and being all tough. She put up a strong front for the Doctor, even if she was really frightened a lot of the time. She might have been one of the first audience identification figures to get it right in the 80s. But looking back, what did it say of the audience? We were all rejects from The Outsiders? We liked blowing things up? We had no respect for authority or were just too dim to recognize the difference between “doctor” and “professor”? Maybe we all had mother issues! Maybe we were such nerds, that going to the beach meant jumping into the water fully dressed. (We didn’t have cell phones, so it would not be that costly a leap!) Yes, she might have been an accurate representation of the viewing audience but that’s not to say she was a good role model. But I do think she was the closest we came to a well-written companion since Sarah Jane Smith, and that says something.
And it makes me wonder, how much of the demise of Classic Doctor Who was the result of the BBC not knowing its audience and not knowing the intent of the companion. The companion wasn’t us. If anything, the companion should have illustrated what the Doctor likes about humans. It should have served as a role model to help the youth along, the way the show started: teaching and guiding. The show didn’t have to be an educational, dry show, but it seems the BBC thought the companion was supposed to represent who was watching, instead of connecting with the audience making us care about them. If done right, the younger audience would look on and think “that’s what I want to be”, while the older audience would feel that sense of protecting a vulnerable friend. Which ironically may have been the same path that started the series back with the first Doctor.
So, maybe now we go back in time and look at the companions of the first Doctor… ML