Steven the Deuteragonist

stevenCompanion Tropes 28

Most readers of this blog will have probably heard of the term “protagonist”, and also “antagonist”, but in less common parlance is the “deuteragonist”.  This is mainly because the term describes a far rarer kind of character in fiction and drama.  I would argue that Doctor Who has just one deuteragonist in its entire history, and that’s Steven.

Doctor Who is built on a clear hierarchy: Doctor, companion(s), villain(s).  I suppose that Doctor should have an (s) on the end of it as well, just so we’re not ignoring multi-Doctor stories, but that’s beside the point.  So, in the normal course of events we have the protagonist, and that’s our hero, the Doctor, and we have our antagonists, the villains.  Then we have the companions, who are sidekicks, or supporting protagonists.  But Steven is unusual in the realms of the companions in that he is more than just a sidekick.  There are plenty of occasions where the show revolves around Steven just as much as the Doctor, and he is just as important in driving the plot forward.  There is also at least one occasion where he is more important than the Doctor, who is absent or largely absent.  That makes him a deuteragonist (from the Greek for “second actor”), or second lead.

Without getting into the whole back story of Doctor Who at the time Steven was onboard the TARDIS, this happened because Hartnell was either (a) ailing and/or incompetent or (b) considered by some of his behind-the-scenes colleagues to be ailing and/or incompetent.  Which version of history you believe is a matter of choice, but I prefer (b).  Either way, Steven got a much greater chunk of the action than most companions, and was often written as the hero of the show.  The closest comparison to be made is probably Ian, although he is very much one half of Ian+Barbara.  They might not be a couple as such, but they are written basically as if they are in narrative terms, most notably in The Romans.  Steven is different.  He’s the second hero of Doctor Who, and has five different companions of his own: Vicki, Katarina, Sara, Anne Chaplet and Dodo.  He is almost invariably paired with his companions, while the Doctor goes off on his own and either drives his strand of the plot, or disappears from the narrative.

The Time Meddler is really Steven’s first proper story as Doctor Who’s deuteragonist, and he is immediately paired with his first companion, Vicki.  Together they advance much of the narrative, discovering Eldred wearing a watch, getting captured by Saxons, going to the monastery, figuring out that the Monk is lying, breaking in after dark, finding the gramophone, trying to get back to the TARDIS and failing, going back to the monastery, finding the Monk’s TARDIS.

We’ll skip swiftly past Galaxy 4, in which Steven is barely utilised beyond getting held hostage and trying to escape, although in that sense he does have his own plot strand, but The Myth Makers finds Steven in much more traditional second-lead territory, venturing out of the TARDIS alone to try to save the Doctor (note, the Doctor is damsel-in-distress and Steven is hero), captured by Odysseus, concocting a plan to get taken prisoner by the Trojans to save Vicki (again, driving the plot without being a Doctor-follower), fighting Paris, imprisoned and freed by Vicki, and finally fighting a Trojan soldier and getting badly wounded.

In The Daleks’ Master Plan, Steven is briefly paired with new companion Katarina, gets the plot strand meeting Bret while the Doctor is wandering around on Kembel.  Then he gets paired up with his new companion Sara and has his second encounter with old enemy the Monk.  Later, Steven and Sara get separated from the Doctor again and find the Dalek underground base, until they get captured by Mavic Chen.  Again Steven is strongly driving the plot with help from, let’s face it, transitory female companions who turn up and get written out rapidly.

The Massacre turns all this up to eleven on the deuteragonist scale, with Steven now paired with another one-story companion: Anne Chaplet.  The whole story is told from Steven’s perspective, and at the end of the story he gets that big dramatic moment where he threatens to leave, placing the two leads at odds with each other due to their different ethics and methods.

In The Ark, Steven collapses with a fever.  Note how often he gets captured/injured/taken ill.  Placing the hero in jeopardy is standard dramatic stuff.  Then he tries to organise a revolt against the Monoids.  The Celestial Toymaker once again finds Steven in the main hero role, while the Doctor is absent, a disembodied voice playing a board game.  Steven is paired with his companion Dodo, and I think that is a perfectly fair assessment of the situation, what with Dodo living fully up to her millstone status for this one.  So for 8 of the last 12 weeks Steven has basically had all the action, while the Doctor has been either absent or invisible.

In The Gunfighters the Doctor is taken into custody by the Sheriff, virtually dropping out of the narrative again.  Steven tries to smuggle a gun into the jailhouse to help free him, is confronted by a rabble who think he is an associate of Doc Holliday, then heads out of town to search for Dodo, ending up eventually at the Clanton ranch.

In his final story, The Savages, Steven and Dodo venture outside the city and make contact with the “savage” leaders.  After returning to the city to help the Doctor, Steven finally shakes off the shackles of his co-lead and becomes the hero in his own story, as a mediator between the “savages” and the elders.  Later Big Finish stories reveal that Steven became a sort of a king, and that makes a lot of sense.

But look at that exit from the series, and how it reflects on the importance of Steven as a co-lead.  Susan gets dumped.  Ian and Barbara go home.  Vicki becomes “and Cressida” (i.e. married off).  Katarina and Sara are killed off.  Steven becomes a king (well, near enough).  The only way for a character like Steven to leave Doctor Who is to follow his own path, and it has to be an important path.

If you made a list of the most significant companions in Doctor Who, most people would probably overlook the ones from the mid-late Hartnell years, and I think a lot of that is due to so many of the episodes being missing.  Vicki is probably the most important companion there has ever been, in terms of securing the longevity of the show, but Steven deserves to be near the top of the list, carrying the show through a period of intense instability.  Steven Taylor: Doctor Who’s only deuteragonist.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Companion Tropes, Doctor Who, Entertainment, Science Fiction, Television and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Steven the Deuteragonist

  1. scifimike70 says:

    I think I’ll remember Peter as Steven most for his great line to the Monk in The Daleks’ Master Plan:

    “If you try any more of your funny business, I’ll exterminate you myself!”

    Thank you, RP.

    Liked by 1 person

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