Question: who is the audience identification figure or figures in classic Star Trek? Who is the pudding-brain who has to ask all the inane questions to help the audience along? Answer: everyone. Trek had a clever format: everyone was a subject matter expert which meant anyone outside that subject could ask the clarifying questions. Weird health issue? “Bones, what’s wrong with him?” Strange alien life form? “Spock, analysis!” Ship malfunction? “Scotty, what’s the problem?” It was built into the makeup of the show. The irony is that the “subject matter expert” (SME) approach was done first, 3 years earlier, by Doctor Who. The difference was that rather than doing a military themed organization, we had two school teachers whose expertise was History and Science.
Doctor Who was a different animal from basically everything else on television at the time and really jump-started the desire for Science Fiction TV. Designed as a kids show, it was meant to be educational but rather than those inane children’s shows that only targeted very young children until they could actually think, Doctor Who was an adventure. The target audience was unexpectedly everyone. If it were like those other shows, Ian and Barbara would be singing their ABCs to the Sensorites and explaining to Daleks that “we’re the same but different… just like you and me!” Instead, from the word go, Doctor Who came up with this absolutely brilliant idea to teach science and history, alternating week after week, without being boring! We learned about Aztecs and Marco Polo and Robespierre, radiation, space travel, time travel, and other planets. And it was done by using the SME approach through Ian and Barbara. So it made sense that Susan was supposed to be the student. In other words: the audience identifier.
And how did that work out for the BBC? Not so well, actually. The very first episode is titled “An Unearthly Child” and is about Susan. Before we get to cavemen, we are introduced to the school misfit. She confuses her teachers who believe she’s not just smarter than the rest of the class, but the teachers as well! Are we, the audience, supposed to connect with this nerd? Her teachers are so befuddled by her that they have to stalk her to her home one night. (Yeah, I’m thinking this might not go over so well today…) She was neither identifiable nor much of a role model (Edge of Destruction ring any cloister bells?). The Doctor unceremoniously abandons her on an Earth ravaged by war in the 22nd century. Gads, if that’s what the BBC thought of the viewing audience… Ian and Barbara might have been better role models but as teachers, most children and many adults would view them as “disciplinarians” and fail to identify with them. But what they did do was serve as our companions. We were like invisible passengers and there were things we just did not know, so Barbara could identify period clothing, for instance, while Ian might explain litmus tests. So, did we need an audience identification figure? No. Unless the BBC felt we would connect with the Doctor. That would mean his companions were telling him and us what was going on. That would make the Doctor the “audience identification figure”, right? You know, the crotchety old man who in the first three stories abducts two teachers, tries to bash in a man’s head with a rock, causes everyone to suffer severe radiation poisoning, and threatens to throw his companions into a void? Bear in mind, three stories might not seem like a lot by today’s standards, but that was nearly 4 full months on television in 1963! I may utterly adore that original cast, but I can’t say they were relatable.
Now, after Screaming Susan left, Vicki came along to replace her and be a better audience identifier, and she was! On top of that role, she was the Doctor’s best friend. For a girl from the future, she was surprisingly modern and fun. Though often scared, she laughed a lot with the Doctor. Their chemistry was one that the Doctor actually clicked with. Vicki may be a genuinely great audience identifier in that regard. She brought us into the TARDIS and, through her, the Doctor shows us the universe. The chemistry between the Doctor and Vicki just strengthened that role. She may not have been a role model per se, but we didn’t need that; that was where the Doctor came in and his moral compass was just starting to develop when Vicki came on board so we have both identifier and compass with these two. And then Steven stumbled in.
I hate to admit that Steven always struck me as a little bit dim, but the fact is, he also made a good companion for the Doctor, even if he did sound like he was always morbidly thrown off by everything he encountered. But he was pretty average in most respects and clearly enjoyed the Doctor’s company. He was a strong male and was willing to take care of his companions. That alone may have made him a good role model because he put his own life on the line for others. Whether or not he represented the audience didn’t matter because he was paired with the Doctor and Vicki. For a time, at least.
Eventually Katrina came along. She might have been a great character from the point of view of giving the Doctor someone to protect, but you’ve got to ask: who thought it was a good idea? Katrina was innocent to the point of clueless making her closer to a pet. The poor thing thought she was in the afterlife and still killed herself… Can you even kill yourself in the afterlife? (I don’t expect an answer here!) She didn’t have any time to develop having died basically right after she boarded the TARDIS but if the Beeb were implying that she was the audience’s identifier, they clearly did not think too highly of the audience. Roll over and bark… This is not a jab at her character, but more of a jab at the BBC for missing that mark.
And Sara Kingdom doesn’t fare much better for totally different reasons. If she’s the audience identifier, did the BBC really cater to assassins watching the show? She’s single-minded to the point of killing her own brother; not really what we want watching this show with us. I’m glad I was the fan and not my sister! But Sara too doesn’t last one full adventure, so maybe we shouldn’t really consider her a companion. Even so, she’s certainly not a role model, not identifiable, and not a good moral guide. Maybe she would have developed as time went on, but that’s a story for another timeline.
Dodo might have been a better slice of real life but she seems to be forgettable at best. Perhaps this is due to the lack of remaining episodes featuring her. But the fact is, the Doctor does leave without her the moment he was able to, so one wonders. During her time, she nearly wipes out an entire civilization because she had a cold. In fact, her very entry into the TARDIS is when she comes looking to get help for someone … and then leaves the needy person behind. Does the BBC think we are absent minded klutzes? (And can one be called a “klutz” when one wipes out a civilization accidentally? Um, I don’t want to know if someone has this answer!) I don’t think anyone identified with her.
Ah, but then there’s Ben and Polly… true products of the 60s! This was it: a hippy and a sailor. Maybe that was the thing about the 60s; partying, accepting people, free love, no ties to one place or time, open-minded travelers. Polly is described as both shy and aggressive; maybe she did represent all the viewers. Ben is described as “salt of the earth, dependable and faithful.” If the BBC wanted to make examples of what it took to be an audience identification figure, these two are good choices also. Neither Ben nor Polly get much time with this Doctor, so I’ll come back to them in Troughton’s era. Suffice to say, they are both open-minded individuals, and they were going to need that when the lead actor changed completely.
It is important to remember that it wasn’t that long before the first episode of Doctor Who, that TVs started popping up in people’s homes and they were often called the boob tube or idiot’s lantern. The TV was not a source of enrichment or edification. Doctor Who was new and unusual. It aspired to be something better and give us more than other shows were giving us. It was aimed at children but written in such a way that it roped in adults as well. But when I think back to Star Trek and the audience identification built-in through the whole cast, I’m amazed to realize Doctor Who started that 3 years earlier. Star Trek may have been going boldly where they thought no man had gone before, but the Doctor was actually the pioneer that made that possible!
I think in the original series of Doctor Who, we understood the role of the companion better than we do in the modern era. Or at least until Peter Capaldi’s final season. Don’t worry, I’ll get there… give me time (and relative dimension in space)! ML