Companion Tropes 13
In most long-running genre television series there exists a character who is just an average bloke, with no special powers or dark secret. Just a simple audience identification figure. He is the “everyman”, which is generally defined in dictionaries as an “ordinary or typical human being”, if such a thing even exists. In Buffy, for example, the everyman is Xander. In a couple of iterations of Star Trek, it’s Miles O’Brien. There have been many examples in Doctor Who over the years, but Harry Sullivan is a particularly good example, as he is the unfazed everyman.
This is achieved, character-wise, by Harry being just so very British, and being British in a traditional and clichéd sense means being the master of understatement. So Harry often appears to be untroubled by the amazing things he encounters, simply because he is not the kind of person to blurt out “wow” or OMG, or even an “oh my giddy aunt” or “rabbits”. Instead, he does this:
DOCTOR: Hearts beat?
HARRY: I say, I don’t think that can be right.
I say, that’s an understated reaction to a man with two hearts. That’s from Harry’s debut story, Robot. Then, when the Doctor ties Harry up and hangs him upside down “like a pair of old boots”, he doesn’t make a huge fuss when he’s discovered and left hanging there as a forgotten, low priority:
HARRY: Er, excuse me, sir.
HARRY: Could you oblige?
I say, er, excuse me. Even when Harry and Sarah have been captured and their lives are in danger, we just get gentle remarks like “oh, I say. This isn’t gallant” and “that was a near one”, when the “near one” is coming within a hair’s breadth of being “disposed of” as “useless mouths to feed”. Then of course, his closing line of the story is his reaction to stepping into a time machine that is bigger on the inside:
Oh, I say!
An unfazed everyman is often the only ordinary human amongst aliens and superbeings. This isn’t quite the case with Harry, but by the time he joins the TARDIS team Sarah is a seasoned adventurer with the Doctor. Whilst Harry is a member of UNIT, which looks into the weird and unexplained, he is the medic, seemingly immune to the oddness that surrounds him. The brilliance of this kind of character is that he is just so likeable, and often very funny, deadpanning responses such as:
DOCTOR: Vacuum-tight panel, more likely. They used them a lot in these early space vessels. Ah. Just as I thought.
HARRY: No doorknob.
As the character who has no special abilities, the unfazed everyman is also useful as the person who stumbles in and gets things wrong, thus advancing the plot. So Harry, in his first trip in the TARDIS, is immediately the clumsy one, and by the end of the season “Harry Sullivan is an imbecile”. He is also a useful character in that he is the one that isn’t going to understand what is going on, so the Doctor has to explain things for his benefit and therefore for the benefit of the viewers:
Doctor, I haven’t the foggiest notion what you’re on about.
But because the unfazed everyman has a calm demeanor, he is also well placed to apply logic to a situation. Sometimes it’s misplaced logic, which is still useful for prompting an explanation from the Doctor, but it’s logic nonetheless. Freaking out wouldn’t advance the story, but this kind of conversation does:
DOCTOR: It’s like the trail left by a gastropod mollusc.
HARRY: A slug?
DOCTOR: Or a snail.
HARRY: That size? Impossible. It couldn’t have got through this grille.
The more he travels, the more Harry is able to take everything in his stride, becoming a better and better fit for the character trope. His reaction to travelling by matter transmitter is simply this, in The Sontaran Experiment:
I feel a bit like a Morse message. Slightly scrambled.
…and when he finds himself in the middle of a war zone in Genesis of the Daleks, we just get a gentle observation: “I say, that’s gunfire.” This kind of stoicism allows the unfazed everyman to be heroic, something that might otherwise seem like a contradiction. Harry might be just a normal human, but he is also gallant:
I’ll get you out of there if I have to knock his bally head of and grab his keys. Just don’t you worry, Sarah.
That’s from The Sontaran Experiment. Then, in Genesis of the Daleks, Harry insists on risking his life to help the Doctor:
DOCTOR: You back up too, Harry. No point in risking both our lives.
HARRY: No, Doctor, you’ll have a better chance if I hold it firm.
DOCTOR: Please, Harry, don’t be difficult.
HARRY: Don’t you argue, Doctor.
Ultimately the life of adventure is not one that the unfazed everyman will thrive on forever, and as soon as Harry has the chance to go back to his (relatively) normal life, he’s off:
I think I’ll stick to InterCity this time, Doctor.
Unfazed everymen are generally dragged into a life of adventuring and drag themselves back out of it when they get an opportunity to do so. With such a loveable character as Harry, it’s a terrible shame that had to happen so quickly. RP
Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan was the first male TARDIS-traveling companion I got to know (aside from maybe K-9) in Dr. Who and he was indeed one of the best. As a kid I could imagine myself playing Harry. Thanks, RP. 👍🏻
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Male companions may always be particularly good foils for the male Doctors, such as the Brigadier, Ian, Steven, Ben, Jamie, Adric, Turlough, Hex, Jack, Mickey, Rory and Nardole, either by opposing his wisdom or, like most female companions, simply asking him all the obvious questions. In retrospect, Harry was the most likeable for clearly being capable of either putting up with negatives (like the Doctor’s often harsh attitude towards him) or how he could remain a gentleman when opposing baddies. Particularly when he was ready to bludgeon Styre from behind and yet appreciated the Doctor stopping him with the wisdom of finding a better way.
Genesis Of The Daleks and Terror Of The Zygons were Harry’s best stories and he was a joy in Part 1 of The Ark In Space. Knowing that Ian Marter contributed after Harry with all the Target Novel adaptations he wrote, some of which I read, was I think the first example for me of how Dr. Who stars could still find work in the Whoniverse after their times on the classic series.
Thank you, Ian. R.I.P.
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A good example, but probably not the first. Wendy Padbury on stage in Seven Keys to Doomsday comes to mind (1974). Any advance on that?
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A good role model!
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I’ve first learned of Wendy’s stage contribution to Seven Keys To Doomsday just recently when I viewed the documentary on YouTube. I forget when I first noticed Wendy as Zoe. Though I first saw full stories with her thanks to VHS: The Seeds Of Death and The War Games.
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