Companion Tropes Extra 2
We always celebrate October as our scary Halloween month in the Junkyard, and this year is no exception. So, although I haven’t quite exhausted the list of Doctor Who companions for my “Companion Tropes” series, I’m taking a little detour into the realms of pseudo-companions, debatable companions, or characters who perform the companion role in particular stories, with a focus on the pseudo-companions at the more monstrous end of the spectrum. Later this month I will be looking at Ashildr, Strax, Dorium Maldovar and Missy, but first let’s take a look at everyone’s favourite disembodied Cyberman head: Handles.
“The Wilson” isn’t actually a recognised character trope, but it should be. There is a trope that fits the bill, which the excellent TV Tropes website lists as the “companion cube”, but for me the pet volleyball in Cast Away (magnificent, like all Tom Hanks films) is the ultimate example of this kind of “character”.
There are plenty of other examples in film and television, of course. One of my favourites is Mad Murdock’s pet lobster Thermadore (The A Team). There are even other examples to be found on the fringes of the trope within Doctor Who itself, from Steven’s stuffed panda Hifi to Amy’s handbot companion “Rory”. Even from these examples it is clear to see that there is a spectrum of Wilsons, some more inanimate than others. It’s hard to know where to draw the line in the definition, but I would suggest that K9, for example, doesn’t fit the bill. He can move (although that’s not necessarily a reason for exclusion from the trope), and has personality traits, with inflection in the voice work. The Wilson (or “companion cube”) really needs to tend towards the “object” end of the scale to qualify, but with somebody treating them like a real person. With no organic components remaining, Handles is little more than talking computer in a novelty box: a bit more sophisticated than a volleyball, but not something that would normally, rationally, be considered a friend as such. Despite that, he becomes the Doctor’s “buddy”.
Why does this kind of thing happen in film and television? The origins probably go back to childhood, with teddy bears, imaginary friends and security blankets, coupled with the more adult superstition that investing love into something inanimate might just give it some kind of sentience (and not just love – plenty of horror movies go down that route). The TV Tropes website suggests the uncanny valley could be a factor, and that was never more in evidence than with the disembodied head of Doctor Who’s most uncanny valley triggering monster: a Cyberman.
Of course, teddy bears and security blankets are largely childhood or private things, so extending something like this into adulthood tends to be used to indicate insanity. That is certainly the case for all the examples I have given above, to one extent or another. This is often brought about by isolation: Chuck in Castaway, Steven and Amy in Doctor Who. It helps to drive home the point to the viewers: this person has been so alone that he has anthropomorphised an object. And the one thing that is constantly being stressed throughout The Time of the Doctor is the extraordinary length of time in which the Doctor suffers his enforced exile on one planet.
And he does anthropomorphise Handles. It goes far beyond the logic of talking to a computer who can talk back. He asks him if he is comfortable, which Handles of course points out is irrelevant. He’s made of metal, after all. Then, having tried to comfort him physically, the Doctor tries to comfort him emotionally:
Hey, don’t you worry, Handles. you’re just dreaming. The sun’s coming up very soon. You just hang on in there.
And, just like Chuck’s attachment to Wilson, we can’t help but find this emotional. It hits us right where it hurts: our childhood. It’s nothing less than the death of an imaginary friend. So, in the words of the Doctor, “thank you Handles, and well done. Well done, mate.” RP