Companion Tropes Extra 1
Later this year I will be writing quite a few articles in this “extra” series, looking at pseudo-companions, debatable companions, or characters who perform the companion role in particular stories, but I wanted to get this one in early, in honour of the birthday of my co-writer in the Junkyard, Mike.
So today let’s look at another Mike. From the world of Doctor Who: Mike Yates.
An “ensemble dark horse” is a fairly simple concept, describing a character who initially appears to be a one-off or a minor part of an ensemble cast, and then ascends to somebody more important, often as a result of being popular with viewers (or directors and producers). A “dark horse” is of course an unexpected winner or potential winner in a race, a horse racing term that refers to gambling on a horse without a track record (there’s another expression that has sprung from horse racing and entered common parlance).
Interestingly, all the UNIT regulars are ensemble dark horses to one extent or another, with Lethbride-Stewart and Benton created initially without any thought of making them regular characters. Mike was fourth (if I’ve counted them right) in a list of seemingly one-off UNIT captains:
- Captain Turner
- Captain Munro
- Captain Hawkins
- Captain Yates
…and at last becomes the captain who sticks around to assist the Brig on a regular basis. The reason for this is probably how well the Brig/Yates/Benton team gels, and I think part of that success is how Yates and Benton subvert the usual military pairing of “Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough”, another popular character trope. Yates is the epitome of a Captain Smooth, and Benton always manages to be a charmingly awkward fit for Sergeant Rough, so what we get instead is Captain Smooth and Sergeant Cuddly. It’s hard not to love a combination like that.
So the cosy UNIT “family” comes together, with a lineup of Doctor, companion, Brig, Yates and Benton, and that’s the status quo for Seasons 8, 9, 10 and the start of 11. And they really do feel like a family. Yates’s role in the family is probably summed up best by the final scene of The Daemons, when he offers the Brig a dance and the Brig says he would rather have a pint. Note how quickly the idea of making Yates a love interest for Jo was dropped. The team behind Who at the time were obviously astute enough to realise they didn’t have that kind of chemistry. Yates is more like the slightly camp uncle who is eternally single and has a heart of gold.
In fact, he has so much of a heart of gold that he is the one to fall for the “golden age” scam:
They’re going to roll back time. The world used to be a cleaner, simpler place. It’s all become too complicated and corrupt.
It all comes a bit out of the blue, with nothing previously to indicate any dissatisfaction with the modern world from Mike, but in that moment his ascendancy from ensemble dark horse to major player is complete. The knight on the chess board turns around and betrays his own side. OK, bad analogy as you can’t do that in chess, but no worse than a similar analogy in The Curse of Fenric.
Even after traitor Mike is thrown out of UNIT (with compassion: “extended sick leave and a chance to resign quietly”) he is too good a character to waste, and it’s not long before he pops up again for the Third Doctor’s swan song, poking his nose into shady goings on at a spiritual retreat, and roping in Sarah Jane Smith to investigate.
A dark horse can fall at the first hurdle, or surprise everyone by winning the race. Either way, their value is in their unpredictability. As one of a select few companion figures who betrayed the Doctor, Mike certainly lives up to the trope.
Happy Mike Day. RP