Companion Tropes 23
What is cowardice? The Cambridge Dictionary gives a fairly standard definition: “the condition of lacking bravery, being easily frightened, or being eager to avoid danger”. The problem is, that definition doesn’t get us very far from what would be considered a normal human reaction. “Lacking bravery” – well, that’s just offering us up an antonym. “Eager to avoid danger” – I would suggest most people would be foolish to welcome it, and we are genetically programmed to avoid it. The only bit that maybe helps to set a “coward” apart from anyone else is “easily frightened”. But that’s not it either is it. If you’re easily frightened, but perform acts of great bravery despite that, then how can you be defined as a coward? So it’s not an easy thing to get a handle on. I would suggest that the key point is not the impulse to avoid danger, or even how frightened a person is. These are normal human reactions. The key point is the response to a dangerous situation when a friend or relative, or just any other human being, is in danger. Maybe it’s fair to say that a coward will retreat in those circumstances, whereas somebody brave will rise to the challenge. That’s one possible definition.
The “Cowardly Lion”, which is the trope I am suggesting as the best fit for Nardole, is of course a character from The Wizard of Oz, and the film in particular examines the nature of cowardice, with the wizard actually pointing out to the lion that cowardice can simply be common sense in disguise. That’s the “avoiding danger” bit of the definition. But the trope that springs from that character is more specific than all that. The lion has that “easily frightened” disposition that marks him out as a “coward”, but when push comes to shove he will face up to his fears to fight on the side of good, to protect Dorothy. Note how this kind of a character in fiction is not an evil one. They are not cowardly due to any kind of a nasty nature, but just tend to get easily scared, and that’s Nardole.
When we first meet him in The Husbands of River Song, he is by and large helpless and terrified. It’s understandable, as he is facing an appalling situation, and pays the price. But as his time with the Doctor progresses he gradually grows accustomed to being in dangerous situations, although he still tends towards a nervous disposition for a while, and is particularly keen to avoid trouble. The prospect of 1000 years with the Doctor stuck on Earth and Nardole playing the quiet life of a butler seems to suit him very well, and when the Doctor is keen to go off adventuring Nardole is resistant. I don’t think that is just down to the oath the Doctor took to guard the vault. The safe, humdrum life (or as humdrum as life can be with the Doctor) is clearly appealing to Nardole.
But he does grow a backbone pretty quickly (or at least quickly in terms of episode count – from his point of view it’s a long time) and stands up to the Doctor well, also proving to be a useful ally in dangerous situations. By the time we get to The Doctor Falls, Nardole is ready to play the hero and sacrifice his life:
NARDOLE: I think as soon as this place is evacuated, you’re going to blow the whole floor, killing as many Cybermen as you can.
DOCTOR: No. No, course not. I won’t do that until I’ve left.
NARDOLE: Liar! It can’t be done remotely.
DOCTOR: You couldn’t do it remotely.
NARDOLE: Neither could you. And more to the point, you are not sending me up there to babysit a load of smelly humans.
DOCTOR: Yeah? Well, I’m afraid that’s exactly what I’m doing.
NARDOLE: Huh? This is me we’re talking about. Me. You know what I was like. If there’s more than three people in a room, I start a black market. Send me with them, I’ll be selling their own spaceship back to them once a week. Please, I would rather stay down here and explode. You go and farm the humans.
Although he’s making a joke of it, pretending he prefers to die rather than “babysit a load of smelly humans”, his motivation is clear. He is willing to sacrifice his own life to save the Doctor. That’s why the “Cowardly Lion” trope fits Nardole so well. He might be a nervous person who wants to avoid danger, but when he’s thrown into a life or death situation he is ready to lay down his life to save his friend. So a “Cowardly Lion” is ultimately a hero, or at the very least some kind of an anti-hero. In the end there is no difference between cowardice and bravery, as long as the person can step up when it matters. As the Doctor says in Planet of the Daleks, courage is about “being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway”. Sometimes a cowardly lion can be the bravest of them all. RP