My family and I have been watching a comedy called Psych. For the first few seasons, it opens with a scene from the main character’s childhood in 1987. By the 4th season, it frequently opens with scenes from 1989 and I can’t help but think, “aw, the year classic Who ended.” Doctor Who would not return to our screens as a regular weekly viewing experience until 2005. (“What!?”) But between classic Who and new Who, America had a shot at the world’s longest running science fiction show, making a one day visit in May of 1996. (“Just because you put syrup on something, don’t make it pancakes!”) Well, I’ve been talking about the “audience identification figure” recently. You know, the one where the BBC always said the companion was the character that the audience would identify with. How would America deal with that?
America has a hard time with the idea of a non-human hero. It just doesn’t happen. Spock is half human, Data is trying to be human, Worf was raised by humans. What’s the deal? So obviously the US didn’t think we could handle that cult favorite and it took just under 90 minutes to screw up 30 years of history with that idiotic half-human comment. (“You heard about Pluto? That’s messed up, right?”) But short of that horrendous mess-up, the movie isn’t all bad. Starring Paul McGann, Daphne Ashbrook and Eric Roberts, it does have a lot going for it. McGann is magnificent and Ashbrook is amazing, and they carried an otherwise weak story by being great actors and loving their respective roles. Eric Roberts’ Master is deliciously evil (“Are you a fan of delicious flavor?”); you can tell he relishes playing the bad guy, even when he does his take on “Popeye”. (Watch the ambulance scene if you’re not sure what I mean.) Coupled with a damned good-looking TARDIS interior, it’s certainly not all bad. (“Sweet!”) But since America had a hand in this venture, what did they do with the companions of the eighth Doctor? How were they audience identifiers?
I say “they” because we may technically only have Grace as the companion, but Chang Lee (played by Yee Jee Tso) may also be considered a companion even if most of the episode sees him as that of the Master’s. Think of him as a modern-day Turlough. Let’s start with him. He’s young, easily mislead, and a thief. He’s a victim of gang warfare. Is this how American youth is viewed? Maybe not; I imagine we were not meant to identify with him because he’s easy prey for the Master. It’s almost like they were saying these were traits that lead to bad guys. Luckily, the Doctor teaches him and he grows because of his involvement with the Doctor. So I’ll concede that we probably were not meant to identify with him. Nor is he much of a role model. Where the script gets it right, it shows the Doctor as the role model and Lee is improved for knowing him. In that regard, bringing Doctor Who to the States might have been aimed at making us better people, which isn’t a bad selling point. See what it did for Chang Lee, and he was a thief and hunted by gangs; imagine what it can do for you! (That’s what should happen with the title hero being the Doctor himself. The new-Who paradigm of the companion being the star of the show seems to ignore who gets the title billing… but I digress.)
Grace, on the other hand, may have made the BBC blush when they realized how wrong they had been getting it. Yes, I’m admitting freely, America created a better companion in one try. Let’s face it: she’s intelligent, she’s not a screamer, she’s practical, able to learn that the universe is bigger than she imagined, she’s an accomplished surgeon, albeit with relationship issues. She likes opera. Grace may have been one of the strongest, most “real” companions to date – well, as of 1996 anyway. Who knows where that would have gone had the series continued with her! As a role model, if that’s what audience members should see her as, she is accomplished, intelligent, and deals with problems head on. Yes, those are traits of a role model. If we are to look at her and see ourselves, I don’t know how many of the fans were medical students, but I’m sure everyone has had relationship troubles. She was very relatable. When put on the spot to save the day, she comes through. I don’t know how often doctors run into hospital in opera gowns or how many surgeons are taking boom boxes into the operating theater and I hope I never find out. Maybe it’s more common than I think; I was out cold the last time I was on an operating table but have vague recollections of waking up thinking of Weird Al’s Like a Surgeon. But McGann had an amazing companion in Grace. And, like Chang Lee, the script does allow Grace to grow. Her involvement with the Doctor makes her realize who she is (although to be completely honest, I didn’t see that as a problem of hers to begin with). And she’s the first companion to kiss the Doctor. If we’re honest, he kisses her (“I’ve heard it both ways!”) but she wasn’t objecting!
I know this was a joint venture, not strictly an American production; I’m not splitting genomes. But I find it interesting where it went right and where it went wrong when America got involved. Maybe we need more involvement when writing the companions. And McGann was an outstanding choice for the Doctor. What a fantastic Doctor he would have made had he been allowed to go on. I’m glad he had the chance through Big Finish. Maybe at some point we can look at the companions from Big Finish too.
Although McGann has a second television appearance in Night of the Doctor, I’m not sure we can include Cass as a companion. She wants nothing to do with the Doctor (“I’d rather fall in love with a vegan!”) and dies before ever traveling with him. There may be something to be said about that though. Maybe it’s that adage that evil succeeds when good men do nothing and the Doctor’s avoidance of the war was, in a way, allowing evil to succeed. If we’re to take anything from Cass, short of a her belt, it may be that we should remember to stand our ground and fight for what’s right! It’s more a message than an audience identifier though! (“I know that’s right!”)
(Why all the Psych quotes, you ask? Yee Jee Tso makes an appearance in the 2007 episode “Meat Is Murder… But Murder Is Also Murder” which is just enough for me to tie the two together and have some fun!) ML