Companion Tropes 20
Last week we looked at Ace, a character who was introduced to represent a different aspect of Britain than Doctor Who had ever included before, when late 80s Doctor Who became far more diverse. It is not by accident that I have juxtaposed these two companions, because Polly fulfilled a similar function for the 1960s. However, there is one key difference, because Polly is only representative of the contemporary, not of diversity:
BEN: She seemed a nice bird, friendly. Not stuck up like you, Duchess.
POLLY: Look, don’t call me Duchess.
Ben’s nickname for Polly is more than just a bit of fun. It recognises something about her: she is overwhelmingly middle class. She was brought in as a representation of youth in the Swinging Sixties, but more specifically she is a representation of Swinging London, a phenomenon that has been widely recognised as a consumerist diversion for the young with disposable income. There was a counterculture in the 1960s, but Swinging London is merely the middle class adjunct to that counterculture. This is why Polly can’t be the one who gets brainwashed in The Macra Terror, despite being the usual victim of the same thing (The War Machines, The Faceless Ones). Ben hails from the sector of society that would have visited holiday camps at the time, which Macra is riffing off. He is of that world. Polly is not.
But Polly is still a very different sort of companion to anyone that comes before her, or after, for that matter. She is the embodiment of the Swinging Sixties. To understand how that works, we first need to understand the values connecting with that era. The following is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully gets to the heart of the cultural movement:
- Fashion: the miniskirt, Carnaby Street.
- A new wave of pop music, including the Beatles.
- Political activism, such as the anti-nuclear movement, i.e. activism for the sake of pacifism.
- Creativity and freedom of expression.
- Sexual liberation.
There are clearly some things on that list that aren’t going to trouble a Doctor Who writer. The music of the era, including the Beatles, does feature in Polly-era stories (albeit edited out of the audio releases nowadays for copyright reasons), but it’s little more than a sidenote. We can get that last one on the list out of the way pretty quickly, because this is Doctor Who, so the companions aren’t going to be bed-hopping. However, there are things to note, in that broad area. Firstly, note how Polly has no issue with approaching Ben in a nightclub. Traditional hangups about gender roles were melting away. But probably the closest we can get to liberation is being open-minded about things, and this is a key characteristic of Polly. She is quick to accept the “renewal” of the Doctor in The Power of the Daleks, while Ben, who most definitely does not represent the Swinging Sixties, struggles to believe the evidence of his own eyes. Ben, of course, has been absent from the cultural revolution, onboard ship. He provides a contrast to Polly in many ways.
As for hedonism, and sexual liberation, it is worth acknowledging that the Swinging Sixties way of life was inherently about the self. Almost selfish, in fact. Have a look at the following exchange from The Highlanders:
POLLY: Hey, that ring. It’s gold. Look, you’ve got to trust me.
KIRSTY: It doesn’t belong to me. It’s my father’s.
POLLY: Well, let me just look at it. Come on, now. I just want to look at it, that’s all. It’s beautiful. We should get a lot for that.
KIRSTY: We’re not going to sell it!
POLLY: Not even to save your father’s life?
KIRSTY: He wouldn’t thank me.
POLLY: Oh, you’re hopeless. Why not, for goodness sake?
KIRSTY: He entrusted it to me before the battle. He would kill me if I ever parted with it.
POLLY: I don’t understand you people. Come on, give it to me.
POLLY: Look, give it to me! It’s the. Please yourself! You’re just a stupid peasant. I’m off to help my friends. You can stay here and guard your precious ring.
It’s probably Polly’s nastiest moment, but it’s entirely in character. She hails from the world of fashion, not sentiment, hedonism and the self, not family values. The sentimental value of Kirsty’s ring is beyond Polly’s understanding. To her it’s a trinket, and its only value is monetary.
But there are pros and cons. Note in the same story how quick she is to stand up for herself and rebel against authority figures. This is where the political activism aspect of the Swinging Sixties comes in, and it’s one of several aspects of her background that make Polly such a useful companion from the point of view of a writer.
KIRSTY: Do you want to get us both killed? Tortured? Look, they’re going to hang our men.
POLLY: You’re right. It’s horrible. They’ve got to be stopped.
POLLY: Well, there must be something we can do?
KIRSTY: We can but mourn.
POLLY: Crying’s no good. Have you still got breath to run. Come on. We’re going to create a diversion.
To take the most superficial on the list, but probably the most identifiable with the era, Polly is clearly a strong representation of Swinging Sixties fashion. She even namechecks Carnaby Street in The Tenth Planet. She never exactly wears a miniskirt, despite Kirsty’s shock at her “short skirts of a bairn” in The Highlanders, but her short bob hairstyle in The Macra Terror is pure Swinging Sixties.
Most importantly, despite Doctor Who throwing Polly into the inevitable damsel in distress situations, she is a far stronger, more independent companion than most from the classic series, and she doesn’t need a defining occupation or character trait such as “teacher”, “superbrain” or “scientist” to achieve that. This is due largely to the culture she represents. She drives the narrative, leading Ben into situations that he would never have stumbled into without her, least of all the TARDIS itself in The War Machines.
BEN: Ah look it’s locked. Let’s forget it.
POLLY: Hey, Ben.
BEN: But I’ve only got a couple of minutes.
POLLY: Come on!
When it’s time for Polly and Ben to depart, they simply go back home. This is not quite as common as you would expect in Doctor Who, with so many companions finding a new life to live, a new place to belong. Up to this point we have had Ian and Barbara, who were always defined by their desire to return home, Vicki and Steven, who both started new lives in different times and places, Katarina and Sara, who died, and Dodo, who was so hastily written out, and for such nasty reasons, that we can’t really read anything into that. But it’s hard to imagine Polly ending up like Vicki, getting married off to somebody in classical times, or Steven, finding a new society to help.
The thing is, it is our world.
…and it really is. Swinging London is where Polly belongs, and it’s hard to imagine her anywhere else. RP