Companion Tropes Extra 9
Around 1980 the editor of Asimov’s Magazine, George Scithers was issuing his guidelines to writers, and he explained a variety of twist ending where a minor detail known to all the characters is kept hidden from the reader and then revealed at the end. He gave the rather bizarre example of the hero turning out to be a tomato (which nobody mentioned because being a tomato is of course a normal state of affairs… for a tomato).
“Tomato Surprise” has therefore become the accepted trope term for that kind of plot resolution/twist, and the inversion of the trope is the “Tomato in the Mirror”. This is when a character believes that they are something different to their true state of being. People keep reacting to them in ways that make them think something is wrong with the world around them, but the revelation is that they are the one who is wrong. They are the fake.
This is one of the favourite tricks of Doctor Who writers, and it might just be the case that it happens in Doctor Who more than any other sci-fi series. There are many examples, but to help illustrate how the trope works, here are a few instances of tomatoes in the mirror in Doctor Who, just from 21st Century episodes. There will be spoilers by necessity:
- Utopia: Yana is the Master but thinks he is a gentle old human scientist.
- Victory of the Daleks: Bracewell is a robot created by the Daleks, but thinks he is a gentle old human scientist.
- The Pandorica Opens: Rory is an Auton, but thinks he is… well, Rory.
- The Almost People: Amy is a Ganger, but thinks she is… well, Amy.
- Asylum of the Daleks: Oswin is a Dalek and doesn’t know it.
- Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS: Tricky is a human but thinks he’s an android.
- Extremis: Bill and Nardole don’t realise they are simulants.
- The Doctor Falls: Bill doesn’t realise she’s a Cyberman (a nice literal one, because we see her as she sees herself until she looks in a mirror).
So these crop up regularly, and the key is that we are taken on a journey with the character where we believe what they believe. If the writing is really good we will come to the understanding of the true state of affairs just before they do. Playing on the fringes of the trope are the times when we know from the outset that something is up with the character, but can’t necessarily pinpoint what immediately, such as John Smith in Human Nature, who we know is the Doctor but he doesn’t realise it. This of course also works on the level of dramatic irony. Falling somewhere between those two approaches, and probably unique among Doctor Who characters for that reason, is our pseudo-companion for today: Jackson Lake from The Next Doctor.
To understand this we need to think back to watching the episode on first broadcast (or put ourselves into that mindset if you can’t do that). More than any other, this episode collapses like a soggy sponge pudding on repeat viewing, or really for any viewing after the original broadcast, because the trick it tried to pull only really worked on 25th December 2008. There was a genuine possibility that the Doctor was actually meeting his next incarnation in this episode. On 3rd January 2009, Matt Smith was announced as the real next Doctor, so this storyline had a shelf-life of just over a week.
So the idea, on a fairly superficial level, is that we go along with Jackson on his journey of genuinely thinking he is the Doctor, with many of the characteristics the general public thinks are typical Doctorish things (but rarely are in reality) thrown in to add credence. This could theoretically work just like any of the other Doctor Who examples in the list above, with the viewers finding out the truth at the same time as the character, or maybe just a small step ahead of them.
And yet it doesn’t quite work like that, and didn’t really at the time either. We knew a new Doctor was on the way, and we didn’t yet know who it was going to be, but what we did know was that David Tennant had another year to go before that was going to happen. There was a slim possibility that this was Doctor Who doing something it had never done before, but it was a possibility as slim as the Boneless on the walls. So instead we fall somewhere between the trope played straight and an inversion of the Human Nature inversion (keep up). Rather than spending too much time thinking Jackson could actually be the Doctor, most viewers watching this would probably be trying to figure out why this man thinks he is the Doctor and possesses the Doctor’s memories, and the journey we take is the path to discovering the truth behind that mystery.
Jackson’s character has therefore lost much of his impact over time. Just over a week after the first broadcast, the way the viewer interacts with this episode went through an irreversible change. On Christmas Day 2008 we didn’t know for sure that we were watching a tomato in the mirror. Now all that remains for the viewer is the question of why Jackson doesn’t know he’s a tomato in the first place. The Next Doctor now stands as a relic from the past, its publicity stunt premise torn to shreds. Maybe tomato is the wrong foodstuff in the circumstances. Jackson Lake is that unloved treat at the bottom of the Christmas stocking. He’s the orange, with his own “companion” Rosita serving as the handful of nuts. He’s the Not-Doctor, an ordinary human…
But if there’s one thing Doctor Who always teaches us, it’s this: there’s no such thing as an ordinary human. RP