Companion Tropes 1
She’ll often be wearing leotards and bikinis. A lot of dads watch Doctor Who and I’m sure they will like Nicola.
That’s a quote from John Nathan-Turner, the producer of Doctor Who during the 80s. I’m not sure of the source of the quote, having only found it in books about Doctor Who, so I hope it’s not apocryphal. Either way, Peri does seem to be the companion who was introduced to play fanservice to the dads. The fascinating TV Tropes website lists this as “parent service”, although presumably JNT was not unaware that Doctor Who had a large teenage following, so perhaps he had this in mind as well. In fact, one bugbear I have with the final season of the Peter Davison era and the entire Colin Baker era is that they seem to have been shooting for a teenage audience above all else, abandoning the family demographic, resulting in some particularly hideous trainwreck television.
But let’s break this down a bit. What exactly is “fanservice”? It refers to a character who is introduced to appeal physically to the viewers, often female but can also be male. In fact, Turlough could also be seen to be a fanservice character. If you watch Planet of Fire you can see Doctor Who’s idea of fanservice in full force, with both Peri and Turlough in their swimming outfits.
A fanservice character tends to be dressed in a way that shows off her figure, so we see Peri repeatedly dressed in leotards. It’s of course somewhat contrived. Admittedly there was a kind of 80s fashion for leotards, as dance wear and for aerobics, but would leotards have been day-to-day clothing for many women during the 80s? Not that I recall, although I was probably too young to take much notice at the time! As fanservice goes it’s fairly low level. This is hardly fishnets and stilettos, but there were obviously limits beyond which JNT couldn’t push things, and also limits beyond which things would have started to look silly and rob the series of credibility. One might argue that those limits were passed anyway.
Another feature of a fanservice character is that the camera really, really likes her. The camera basically becomes a pervert. What function does a camera perform in the narrative of a television episode? It’s a kind of extra person in the room, a silent observer. In the case of Peri, that silent observer is wearing a long mac and has a shifty look on his face, because in Planet of Fire the camera pans slowly up Peri’s bikini-clad body. Then in The Caves of Androzani, the regeneration plays second fiddle to her cleavage. Accidental? Did nobody notice when they were filming the regeneration that the camera was pointed down Nicola Bryant’s top?
So it’s all pretty nasty stuff when you break it down, but probably the most sickening aspect of fanservice like this is its dishonesty. And that is evident in the attempt to ameliorate the fanservice by playing lip service to the character’s other qualities. So Peri is a botanist, who was studying at university. It’s probably something that’s in the script as an apology for the character, a kind of an attempt to say “look, it’s ok for us to linger on the bikini shot, because she’s a three-dimensional character, see?”
But is fanservice always a bad thing? In any live action television show, I would say it almost certainly is. You can’t really employ an actress (or actor for that matter) to play a fanservice character without asking them to demean themselves, unless it’s some kind of a comedy self-aware critique or something. The actress concerned might do a stirling job trying to make something of the character beyond the fanservice, and Nicola Bryant has of course done that over the years with Peri, particularly for Big Finish. But the starting point is always going to be less than ideal.
In animation it works better. Anime has a lot of fanservice characters, and in fact in recent years there seems to be a move towards including moe characters (a kind of “cute” version of fanservice, but that’s beyond the scope of this article) who know they are moe characters, and let the humour spring from that. But again, this is self-aware. Peri is not self aware fanservice. She’s just a character who was built on the idea of putting a pretty actress in leotards to gain a few extra viewers. Doctor Who should be, and is, better than that. RP