Companion Tropes 24
It’s not by accident that I’ve followed Nardole last week with Turlough this week for the Companion Tropes series, because the tropes that best define them are subsets of the “anti-hero”. Our concept of an anti-hero has changed over the years. Nowadays we would probably think of an anti-hero as a lead character who is villainous, evil, thoroughly nasty in some respect. For example, when Big Finish use the War Master as the main character in his own box sets, he is a prime example of the modern idea of an anti-hero. He gets top billing, but he’s a villain. Every so often he does some good instead of doing evil all the time, but mainly because it suits him at the time, i.e. it has some benefit to him. A modern anti-hero does good as a convenience or a vocation or because they’ve happened upon that life. Think Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in the later seasons. Or, for an example closer to home, Missy in her last couple of appearances.
Turlough is clearly not that kind of a character. He is an anti-hero in the more classical sense of the word, somebody who tends to do the right thing because that’s the sort of person he is, but also somebody who struggles with a flawed personality, so the narrative of the classical anti-hero’s story tends to be about overcoming character flaws to save the day.
Initially you might think Turlough is more of a modern anti-hero. He does try to kill the Doctor after all. But that’s not quite right. Is there really any genuine risk that Turlough will bring that rock down on the Doctor’s head? I would suggest that his conscience would have stopped him. He’s no killer. But the events that lead him to be superficially villainous during the Black Guardian Trilogy are extreme experiences. He is under the control of the Black Guardian, and it is pretty clear that he is trapped in the deal he has made and eventually his own life is going to be forfeit if he can’t carry out the BG’s orders. What happens in Enlightenment says a lot about Turlough. He tries to commit suicide. It’s an extraordinarily brave move for Doctor Who at the time, and it makes a very important point about Turlough. Faced with the inescapable choice between actually carrying out the BG’s orders and killing the Doctor, or taking his own life to escape his enslavement to evil, he chooses to terminate his own life. That’s what sets him on the path to the “hero” part of the “classical anti-hero”.
From then on, he’s clearly on the Doctor’s side, and at times shows great courage, but his anti-hero status is never forgotten. He’s always that little bit shady, at times putting himself first, and sometimes apparently untrustworthy. He’s a character of contrasts. In The King’s Demons he is instrumental in the Doctor’s escape from the Master, brandishing a sword so they can get back into the TARDIS:
I’ve had quite enough of you, whoever you are, so don’t try me too far.
In Frontios he saves the Doctor from execution by brandishing another weapon, this time a makeshift one: the hat stand from the TARDIS. But at times he seems to be cowardly. He might put his life on the line for the Doctor, but he’s not so keen to do that for strangers. In The Awakening he tries to persuade the Doctor to stay inside the TARDIS in safety, rather than go outside into the collapsing crypt to save a stranger who is trapped amongst the rubble. In Warriors of the Deep he is quick to give up on the Doctor, when Tegan wants to rescue him:
TEGAN: We should have tried to help him.
TURLOUGH: We couldn’t! Come on, let’s get back to the Tardis.
Whether you consider it a fault or not, he’s practical and sensible, and at times that can make him appear heartless. He plays the odds. But later in the same story he turns all action man, disarming a guard and punching him in the stomach so that he can rescue the Doctor and Tegan from the Myrka. By the time we get to his final story, Planet of Fire, Turlough has completely abandoned his selfish streak, chosing to contact Trion and request a rescue ship, although as far as he is aware that will result in his imprisonment, and then he misses his chance to escape because he prioritises the rescue of the Doctor and Peri (whose life he has already saved earlier in the story when she was drowning). So, like many classical anti-heroes, Turlough follows a path from anti-hero to hero, with a few interesting twists and turns along the way.
Doctor Who was ahead of its time with Turlough. Nowadays a traditional, flawless hero is a rarity, because basically they are boring. Even the Doctor now is an anti-hero – look how much of a flawed personality he had at the tail end of the Tennant era. But flawed heroes were much more of a rarity in the 80s, so Doctor Who was early to the party with Turlough. That’s what makes him one of the most interesting companions from the entire classic run. “Interesting” is not necessarily a word that can be applied to many Doctor Who companions, and fewer still are “complex”.
From trying to bash the Doctor’s head in with a rock, to repeatedly saving the Doctor’s life, all within the space of just a few stories: that’s what I call a character arc. RP
The Doctor himself started out as something of an anti-hero himself, certainly when we see him (in E3/S1) apparently wanting of bludgeon a helpless caveman to death, out of the blatant selfishness of just getting back to the TARDIS soon enough. It may have been a gradual process for him, with Hartnell’s originality for the role, to better himself as the appropriately titular hero for the show. Yet we did see his profound morality promptly come to light soon enough in The Aztecs.
Mark Strickson himself said that Turlough’s problem was weakness, NOT wanting to be evil, but in some sense lacked the strength to express whatever genuine morality he had. In Terminus, when he openly asks Tegan whether or not she could kill someone if she had to, he was clearly afraid to just come right out with the problem he was having with the Black Guardian. It may be analogous to someone who’s trying to escape from a cult, yet still struggling with his or her own conditionings from that cult.
So in all agreeability, even though Turlough has a justly happy ending, it was never tacked on, but more realistically earned through his entire journey with the Doctor and Tegan. Even after a while with the BG’s curse already being broken thanks to Turlough quite courageously driving him away with both the diamond’s light and his own. Dr. Who is a show that dramatizes the moral values of the long way round. So Turlough as a companion searching for and finding redemption, which as we fully understand thanks to the final revelation of his Trion heritage, helped pave the way for all that the modern series has successfully dramatized in that regard.
Thank you, RP, and thank you, Mark.
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