Companion Tropes 22
LIZ: I have an important research programme going ahead at Cambridge.
BRIGADIER: Yes, I know. An expert in meteorites, degrees in medicine, physics and a dozen other subjects. Just the sort of all-rounder I’ve been looking for.
The Brig might well be exaggerating a little there, because if he isn’t Liz is truly a remarkable scientist. A degree normally takes at least three years, so fourteen of them would take the average person at least 42 years, and I’m pretty sure Liz isn’t 60. Even taking two at a time would make her a minimum of 39 years old, with no actual practical experience of applying her knowledge. But this is how science works in sci-fi. A character who has scientific knowledge tends to have knowledge in just about every field imaginable.
Once Liz Shaw departs we get to the truth of the matter, that the Doctor really just wants somebody to make him tea and pass him his test tubes. So says the Brig, and he’s probably right about that. But for the Seventh Season of Doctor Who, the newly regenerated Doctor is paired with a scientist to help him out. The problem is, the Doctor’s adventures are varied, so what kind of a scientist does he need to help him? The only answer that makes sense is “every kind of scientist”, but that means a team of companions. Probably a dozen of them wouldn’t be enough. Those 14 degrees the Brig mentions probably means 14 people in reality, bearing in mind that the Doctor really needs a genius in each individual field to help him, in order to be of any use. No normal BSc achiever is going to be able to assist the Doctor, whose adventures tend to involve the Doctor working at the advanced fringes of human knowledge, and often beyond.
So when Doctor Who needs a scientist character, the writers are always going to have to do the lazy thing, and just write a character like Liz, who is an expert at everything. Incidentally, Doctor Who more often gives us characters with capabilities like Liz who are up to no good, and we know them as “mad scientists”.
Straight away, in Spearhead from Space, Liz sets to work analysing the Nestene sphere. She is nominally an expert in meteorites, but the sphere isn’t one of those. Never mind, Liz can provide information on it, whatever the case may be:
It’s not thermo-plastic and neither is it thermo-setting. And there are no polymer chains.
In The Silurians, Liz suddenly becomes a biologist, and not just any biologist. She is an expert in reptile blood:
LIZ: Well, I know this may seem a little far-fetched, but there are resemblances to
DOCTOR: Certain of the larger reptiles?
…and then she turns into a forensic scientist:
DOCTOR: Yes, well, I’d like a word with her. Perhaps you’d like to stay and do some forensic tests, Liz.
LIZ: Yes, of course.
Of course. That’ll be one of the 14 degrees. Then she turns into a nurse, specifically a phlebotomist:
DOCTOR: Have you finished with those prophylactic injections yet?
LIZ: Yes, nearly. Do you think pumping broad-spectrum antibiotics into everyone is going to do any good?
DOCTOR: It’s all we can do at the moment.
LIZ: Will you roll up your sleeve please, Doctor?
DOCTOR: Well, now wait a minute, Liz
LIZ: Now you have been exposed to the infection just as much as everyone else.
LIZ: I know all about your different biochemistry, but we don’t know if it makes you immune. Now roll up your sleeve. Come on.
…and that’s a bit more than just a phlebotomist, isn’t it. Liz understands the Doctor’s biochemistry sufficiently in order to be able to inject him with something without fear of unexpected consequences. Compare that to The Movie, when the Doctor dies on the operating table because of his alien biology.
In The Ambassadors of Death, Liz is just the person to work some mojo with a tape that needs decoding, and then in Inferno she is even capable of working on the TARDIS console.
So is this why Liz had to go, after just four stories? Is she just too capable? Probably not. After all, Romana lasted for four times as many stories as Liz, and she is far more capable than Liz. And Liz’s immediate predecessor, Zoe, was also a genius. But in the end, I think the problem with Liz is that she is just a bit too boring. She might have all the answers, but they are the prosaic, contemporary, scientific answers. That’s never going to inspire an audience like the futuristic genius of Zoe, or the magical science of Romana or the Doctor himself. In the end, Liz is just K9, but without the nose laser or the waggy tail. RP
Caroline John found her truest fulfillment as Liz Shaw thanks to BBV’s P.R.O.B.E. She was also recognized enough to be given returns for The Five Doctors and Dimensions In Time.
Your points on how Dr. Who was challenging for the audience by having both the Doctor and the female companion both equal in scientific intellect. The scientifically-themed dialogue with other shows like Star Trek TNG and X-Files may have felt more accessible. With Dr. Who, given how centrally driven it’s always been by an alien of great knowledge and experience, the tradition for companions to be more about asking questions than presuming to give their own answers is the popular one. But Caroline as Liz was fun to watch for me just because I enjoy intelligent women and particularly so in Inferno when we meet her other self.
Thank you, RP.
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Aside from Caroline through her reprisal of Liz finding her proper recognition thanks to the BBV, P.R.O.B.E. (which debuted on home video the year before Downtime), made a most effective statement on how there can be areas in the Whoniverse that can work as stories with familiar characters, yet without the obvious dynamics that made Dr. Who so uniquely adventurous.
With Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Jon Pertwee, Louise Jameson, Terry Molloy, Geoffrey Beevers and especially Peter Davison as the villainous Gavin Purcell in P.R.O.B.E. 2: The Devil Of Winterborne, we had other familiar Who stars who could appeal more remarkably to Whovians as alternate characters. Caroline as Liz was both a familiar face and familiar character. With her appealing gifts, thanks mostly to her UNIT days, for female charisma, authority and scientific open-mindedness (certainly mirroring Gillian Anderson’s debut for that same point in the 90s as Dana Scully), one would easily envision Liz Shaw originally having her own SF series like P.R.O.B.E. instead of only being created as another of the Doctor’s female assistants.
Someone cared enough about her, as all the powers-that-be behind the companion and monster returns for the Wilderness Years, to help her prove that there was a lot more to her than just a science-minded match for the Doctor. So much so that P.R.O.B.E., as a methodically divergent spinoff, could fairly reach its audiences on direct-to-home-video.
Thank you, Caroline (R.I.P.), and thank you both, Bill and Mark, for P.R.O.B.E. 👍🏻
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I was never a huge fan of hers but I did feel she should have lasted longer.
As for the “dozen other subjects”, perhaps it’s not something common there, but we might use a “dozen” to represent more than average. Today, a guy at work said to me, “a lot of other people are having this problem too.” When investigating, he meant one other. I took the line “and a dozen other subjects” as a way of implying she was very advanced but not actually with 14 degrees.
Still, the point stands even if that isn’t an exact number. She did seem to have a super advanced mind when it came to science. All of them! ML
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