Companion Tropes 35
The English language is an amazing thing. There are probably more than a million words, with the Oxford English Dictionary listing over 170,000 of them, added to which there are a multitude of slang and obsolete words. Quite often a word drops out of current usage without a replacement, and we lose something useful. One such word is “panglossian”.
The origin of the word is Dr Pangloss from Candide, and its meaning is something akin to optimism, but it refers to a specific kind of character who always sees the good in everything and looks on the bright side of life. Amongst a wealth of memorable lines from Pangloss, my favourite is this:
“Troubles are just the shadows in a beautiful picture.”
The term has been subsumed in character definitions by “the Pollyanna”, based on the character from Eleanor Porter’s novel, who lives by her “Glad Game” philosophy, finding something to be happy about in every situation. In other words, she always looks for the silver lining. So “the Pollyanna” has come to describe lively, positive, energetic, optimistic characters such as Mel from Doctor Who, but I’m not so sure that character trope is quite right for her. This is my roundabout way of saying that the English language, magnificent as it is, sometimes needs a little help from further afield… because Mel is a “Genki Girl”.
The popularity of anime has been invaluable for aiding our understanding of character types and adding to the richness of the available definitions we can utilise. One of the best known and most useful is tsundere, which I wrote an article about many moons ago. I think the reason some of these Japanese terms have become so well defined and useful to tropers is that they are so repeated and refined in anime. The Japanese tend to find a character type they like to watch, and then that character type is imitated by the next anime, and so on. So now it’s often possible to watch a new anime series and immediately recognise the kinds of characters being used. The lineup of female characters might often go something like this, for example: tsundere, moe, genki girl. In simple terms, you’ve got the fiery one, the cute one and the… well, we need to look at genki girl in more detail.
To take the literal definition as a starting point, “genki” means “energetic” or “enthusiastic” in Japanese. Genki girls are therefore both of these things, with endless energy. They are confident characters and they make the most of life. They can be tiring to watch. Sometimes their energy levels prevent them from stopping to smell the roses in life, and it can also make forming relationships difficult.
Mel is our shining example of a genki girl in Doctor Who. When we first encounter her she has the Doctor exercising:
How I keep up with you is a constant source of amazement to me.
Then, on board the Hyperion III, she soon identifies that “the quickest way out of this is to solve the mystery”, and fully embraces her newfound detective role, sometimes at the expense of her own safety.
Meanwhile, I wander around, poke my nose into a few nooks and crannies and see if anyone tries to make contact.
Naturally, her “poking around” takes her straight to the gymnasium. The Doctor is using this adventure as evidence in his trial of his cautious, careful approach, something that might satisfy the non-intervention instincts of the dull Time Lords, so Mel is there to provide a useful contrast, with her genki girl motivation:
Look, Doctor, you can’t just play a passive role. We were sent for, remember?
Paradise Towers offers a good example of Mel’s genki girl tendencies, when she gets all excited about the swimming pool, something that the Doctor just can’t get enthusiastic about.
Look, Doctor, look! There’s the swimming pool, right at the very top of the building. Oh, it’s wonderful. I can’t wait to have a dip in that. Paradise Towers, here we come.
Even when it becomes immediately obvious that the place is run down and far from being the exciting holiday destination she was hoping for, she still decides to head for the pool anyway and have a swim in the unheated water. The genki girl makes the best of things, and can’t understand people who don’t:
Aren’t you going to have a swim, Pex? I just don’t understand you. I think all that talk of it being dangerous is just a trick by the Caretakers so they don’t have to come and clean up the pool all the time. Come on, lets investigate. Just a few minutes to take the weight off my feet and then it’s straight in to that lovely cool water.
Surely the term “lovely cool water” to describe an unheated pool at the top of a near-derelict tower block could only come from the lips of a genki girl. In Delta and the Bannermen Mel is undaunted by her failed holiday attempt and decides to try again:
Oh, that’s fantastic! Oh, let’s go, Doctor. Please agree.
Again, the reality is disappointing in comparison to what was promised, and “Disneyland” turns out to be a holiday park in Wales. Mel’s reaction?
I’m determined to try and enjoy myself if I can.
A genki girl is clearly a very useful character in Doctor Who. She won’t be afraid to go off exploring on her own, and the most common structure of a Doctor Who plot is to split up the Doctor and the companion so they can each have their own adventures/dangers. But I mentioned above how a genki girl will often find it difficult to form relationships, and that can often extend even to friendships. Does Mel ever have a meaningful, close friendship with the Doctor? I’m not so sure. Even in Classic Series terms, when you compare Mel to her immediate predecessor and successor, her attachment to the Doctor seems far more superficial than the likes of Peri (against the odds) and Ace. Of course, the Doctor is often a male version of the genki girl, all bubbling with excitement and enthusiasm for the wonders of the universe. River Song eventually sums this up quite nicely:
When you love the Doctor, it’s like loving the stars themselves. You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back.
That’s the price for being close to a genki girl (or boy!), and the Mel/Doctor double act is double the genki. Maybe that’s why, in the end, Mel is quite happy to leave the Doctor and go off travelling with Glitz. I don’t believe for one minute it’s anything romantic, despite some icky attempts to the contrary in spinoff fiction. It’s just from Mel’s point of view, what’s the difference? She’s swapping one adventure for another.
DOCTOR: I’m sorry, Mel. Think about me when you’re living your life one day after another, all in a neat pattern. Think about the homeless traveller and his old police box, with his days like crazy paving.
MEL: Who said anything about home? I’ve got much more crazy things to do yet.
It seems an odd choice, and travelling with Glitz seems perhaps the more dangerous option, but who knows? And what’s danger to a genki girl anyway? She might not be entirely panglossian, but she’ll just scream at the shadows, while never forgetting the beauty of the bigger picture. RP