Companion Tropes 15
When we looked at The Face of Evil we examined how the phenomenon of cargo cults were utilised in the story. During the Second World War, the islands of Melanesia were strategically important, and American planes started using them as bases. The native population of some of the islands had previously had little or no contact with the Western world, and started worshipping as gods the amazing people in flying machines bringing cargo. When that happens, it is known as a “cargo cult”. The Face of Evil introduced a companion from a cargo cult society, Leela, but she was notable as the one who rejected irrational beliefs.
Flash back to 1965, and we have a companion who creates her very own cargo cult: Katarina. Before we leave the comparison of Leela behind, let’s just acknowledge that a companion from this kind of background can be hugely successful and completely fascinating, so John Wiles’s decision to write Katarina out of the series as soon as possible because he didn’t think that type of companion could work represented a depressing lack of vision for Doctor Who. The reason he did so was because of dialogue like this:
DOCTOR: I have my key to let myself in.
DOCTOR: Yes. This, child. Key. This opens the door from the outside.
KATARINA: Are these tablets?
BRET: What do they look like?
So Wiles thought it was an insurmountable problem to have a companion from the distant past, because she lacked basic knowledge. For the sake of a few seconds of dialogue like this (and these really are the only two examples in five episodes) Katarina was judged to be unworkable as a companion. And it’s a tragedy in more ways than one, because she is one of the most interesting companions from the entire classic run of Doctor Who. We see her build her own cargo cult around the Doctor, and just when we get to the point where she is starting to rationalise things in a religious way less and less, she’s killed off. Katarina was right at the point at which she was becoming the kind of viable companion Wiles wanted, and then she was written out of the series.
When we first meet Katarina she is a handmaid to Cassandra, so basically she’s a servant, albeit one that carries some status. To start with, virtually everything she says is a misunderstanding:
You’re from the other place?
Vicki, who has no time to explain what the TARDIS really is, describes it to Katarina as their “temple”, unwittingly fueling the fire of her beliefs. When Katarina enters the TARDIS what she sees is just too mind-blowing to be rationalised as a temple, so Katarina assumes that she is dead.
DOCTOR: That’s not good. That’s not good at all. We must get help.
KATARINA: What help is there in limbo?
That is the only way Katarina can rationalise what has happened to her. She is dead, and the Doctor is a god:
KATARINA: Strange god, you bring me peace.
DOCTOR: No, I don’t know what Vicki has advised you, but…
KATARINA: Oh, the Priestess Cressida told me all would be well and I knew it was to come.
DOCTOR: What was to come my dear?
KATARINA: That I was to die.
DOCTOR: My dear child, you’re not dead. That’s nonsense.
KATARINA: This is not Troy. This is not even the world. This is the journey through the beyond.
When the Doctor insists on being called “Doctor” rather than “great god”, from Katarina’s point of view he is simply a god who wants to be named “Doctor”. It does nothing to shake her beliefs. So, when we start the next story, The Daleks’ Master Plan, as far as Katarina is concerned everything that happens is a journey through the “underworld”, on their way to “the place of perfection”, and trying to stop them on their journey are the Daleks, the “evil ones”.
From a writer’s point of view, this makes Katarina an absolute gift. She is easily tricked by Bret Vyon, so he can gain entrance to the TARDIS. Imagine the opportunities for character development with somebody like Katarina, had she survived, gradually becoming less gullible as she learns about the universe.
There is the slenderest of hints in her final moments that Katarina is having her eyes opened to a wider universe of possibilities than her self-created cargo cult. Despite already believing herself to be dead, she is genuinely terrified when Kirksen captures her, and who knows whether she understands the final sacrifice she is making? One thing is for sure: her faith in the Doctor is unshakeable. When she is separated from him she prays to him. And these are her final words:
You show me so many strange mysteries. With you I know I’m safe.
What a shame. So much potential, unexplored. But if a future Doctor Who showrunner wants to introduce a companion who is somebody fascinating and different from the standard approach of a contemporary human, they need look no further for inspiration than Cargo Cultist Katarina. RP