Companion Tropes Extra 7
When I wrote about Mike Yates for this series I touched upon how Yates and Benton gloriously subvert the “Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough” character tropes, instead more of a Captain Smooth and Sergeant Cuddly. However, the one aspect of that trope Benton does conform to is the steadfast reliability of the sergeant character, and that makes him our Sergeant Rock.
The trope is named after the DC Comics character, who first appeared in G.I. Combat and then Our Army at War (both in 1959), before getting his own comic in 1977. The comic Sgt. Rock ran until 1988. He doesn’t look a lot like Benton, but he lends his name to a character trope that fits the bill for Benton very nicely.
The Sergeant Rock is a military subset of the Reliable One trope. This is a character who tends to appear in ensemble casts, and is generally a background character rather than a lead. He or she is an integral part of a team but often works without fanfare, can always be relied on, and is never one to panic. Doctor Who doesn’t have many of these kinds of characters because it rarely has much of an ensemble cast, but on the fringes of the trope can be found companions such as Ian, Steven and Rory, at least from the point of view of their calmness and reliability. Harry would qualify too if he wasn’t such a klutz. In sci-fi shows set in space such as Star Trek, the Reliable One character will often be found in Engineering, keeping the ship together in a crisis.
Benton is Doctor Who’s ultimate Reliable One / Sergeant Rock character. In terms of UNIT he rarely rises above something like the fifth most important person in the team. Our hierarchy of importance to the narrative generally goes something like this:
- The Doctor
- The Brigadier
- The Companion
- The Captain
- The Sergeant
But without the Sergeant Rock to support the hierarchy we wouldn’t have a solid foundation. Benton is always calm, attentive and alert, and he’s there when needed. Despite being the one who often has to lead the charge against aliens on the front line of battle, he takes everything in his stride, whether he’s shooting at a statue or a blob. The extent to which nothing phases him can be best illustrated by his first and only trip in the TARDIS:
DOCTOR: Well, Sergeant, aren’t you going to say it that it’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside? Everybody else does.
BENTON: It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Anyway, nothing to do with you surprises me any more, Doctor.
In contrast, as I mentioned last week, the by now Flanderized Brigadier bizarrely refuses to believe he has travelled any further than Cromer. But the ultimate example of how reliable Benton is can be found in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, when Sergeant Cuddly is betrayed by his Captain Smooth. This act shakes the foundations of his UNIT family, but he immediately takes it in his stride, adapts straight away to the new status quo, identifies Yates as the new enemy and deals with him. In the same story he is willing to go against the orders of a superior officer and fight and disarm him. Importantly this is not the Brig, to whom Benton is always completely loyal, but an officer outside of his immediate organisation, the army General Finch. Shows such as Star Trek and Babylon 5 do this sort of thing as well, with somebody superior in rank but outside of the “family” of starship or station having to be disobeyed, and the Reliable One character will always side with the Captain/Commander/Brigadier (i.e. his superior in the “family”) rather than the General/Admiral (i.e. the higher echelons outside the “family”). Also in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, which is Benton’s most heroic and important story, he allows himself to be rendered unconscious so the Doctor can escape. The Sergeant Rock will always put the greater good above his own safety and well-being.
The Sergeant Rock can also be a very useful character for comedy moments. He is the ultimate straight man, with nothing ever affecting that calm exterior, so it can be fun to throw him into bizarre or humiliating situations and watch him retain his unfazed demeanour. The comedy springs from seeing the Sergeant Rock never freak out, whatever the provocation. Doctor Who has a go at that in The Time Monster, by turning Benton into a baby and then bringing him back naked. Were this a more adult show, you could imagine him saluting and walking calmly from the room in the buff at that point. But don’t picture that. You’ll never be able to unsee it.
We have a few more “extra” companion tropes to look at, including some Christmas specials, but next week we’ll be looking at our last regular companion in the main series of Companion Tropes articles. Some would say we’ve left the best until last… RP