18 November 2015

Love in the TARDIS

1980s Doctor Who producer John Nathan Turner once famously said that there would be “No hanky panky in the TARDIS.” Back then it was a reaction to cynical newshounds that couldn’t see an heroic mysterious man whisk an adventurous, beautiful woman into time and space without instantly thinking sex.

Skip forward to the show’s twenty-first century revival and while actual sex is still taboo (it is still a pre-watershed family series after all) the notion of Time And Relationship Dimensions In Space is more accepted. Starting with Rose Tyler, love and affection are front and centre. And what’s more, the Doctor feels it too.

There were plenty of old school fans that have hated this “soap” aspect. But then there are plenty of fans for whom a disengaged ‘higher being’ hero is a welcome aspirational character. These are probably the same kinds of people who saw Sheldon Cooper as a kindred spirit until he took up with Amy Farah Fowler. At least our Doctor never meddled in anything as mundane and petty as human emotions.

Did he?

To fellow children of the '80s that balked when the McGann kissed Grace (without tongues note) or reached for a bucket with one hand and tapped a stiff tweet to Points of View with the other whenever Eccleston or Tennant found an excuse to snog his leading lady, (just sucking out the time vortex? Oh ok…) I’d say get take an objective look at the classic series. Affection in the TARDIS has been there for decades. But like many deep, happy and long lasting relationships, it doesn’t always have to end up in the sack.

When JNT made his statement, the Doctor was about to be the youngest he’d ever been. A virile, youthful Peter Davison would be surrounded by the equally young and gorgeous Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton, with Matthew Waterhouse’s Adric skulking about at the back.

But like the '80s themselves, the show was quite arguably superficial. Back then our focus was much more on the stories themselves, the monsters rather than the intimate feelings of the TARDIS team which was often reduced to folks just being argumentative.

I sometimes wonder if the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa would have developed a closer relationship if they hadn’t been dogged by moany third wheel Tegan. Their ‘old married couple’ act at the start of season twenty, with Nyssa finding little jobs round the house could have been nicked from TV perennials at the time Terry & June. And it’s clear that the Doctor’s not happy about the return of the Australian gooseberry by his grudging welcome at the end of Arc of Infinity. “Damn. There go our romantic fireside nights talking about sonic boosters.”

The Sixth Doctor of course didn’t really have room in his hearts for anyone but himself and the Seventh Doctor and Ace with their teacher/pupil relationship completely redefined the TARDIS team. And it was in this emotional wilderness that fandom seems to have retro-actively decreed that the Doctor was above petty things like human emotion. How very wrong we were.

Granted, the sixties Doctors were short on romance. Troughton was more of a fun uncle and if there was any hint of flirtation it fell to Jamie. But while Hartnell’s role was as a grandfather figure – so no ‘hanky panky’ as such - he wasn’t beyond emotion. Witness in The Aztecs right there in season one, he connects emotionally with kindred spirit Cameca. See his regret at betraying her and his reluctance to part with a keepsake.

However it’s in the '70s that the direct relationship between the Doctor and his companions deepens.

When School Reunion blasted onto our screens in 2006 it was trailed as ‘the Mrs meets the ex’.


Suddenly we’re supposed to treat the relationship between the Doctor and Sarah Jane as a love affair? The modern eye looking back at this innocent '70s friendship sees sex? No, not sex. But a kind of love, definitely. A deep affection between the two of them. And it’s more than just modern sensibilities colouring what went before, it’s a spotlight illuminating what was always there, just under the surface of running down corridors and fighting rubber aliens.

The Doctor and Sarah Jane do everything with a passion. Lis Sladen in an interview for ‘Thirty Years In The TARDIS’ cited her ‘motivation’ as having the best friend and being compelled to do anything to save that best friend. Sarah and the Doctor throw themselves into situations without a second thought. I’m often reminded of the scene in The Seeds of Doom where the Doctor jumps through a skylight and decks a thug to save Sarah whereas with Romana or Leela, while no less heroic, he’d be more likely to hold of the enemy with a quip or a clever rouse, acting from the head rather than from the hearts.

There is an argument to say that it all comes from Sarah Jane, that she’s the one that seems to do all the running. We see how miserable and betrayed she is in ‘K-9 & Company’. We hear her explanation in Invasion of the Bane and School Reunion about how she met someone so incredible she could never fall for anyone else.

But the Doctor for all his alien reactions to things is just as much affected. The way he talks to Sarah is different to any other of his companions. For all his otherworldliness, there is a warmth of delivery that he just doesn’t give to Leela or Romana. It’s significant that like with Rose later on, this is a pairing that has to be forced apart. And I’m sure it’s no coincidence that following the irreplaceable Sarah Jane, the fourth Doctor never takes another contemporary human companion. (Not counting Tegan who stowed away and was more a companion-in-waiting for Davison).

But this affection isn’t limited to dear old Sarah Jane. Remember her predecessor, the charmingly clumsy but gutsy wannabe spy Jo Grant?

Everyone remembers that final scene of The Green Death. The Doctor leaves Jo to her engagement party without a goodbye and drives off alone into the night. It’s a great and heart wrenching finale for their relationship. What’s that? Yes, I said relationship. Oh you didn’t know that the Doctor and Jo were in love? You didn’t see the clues? Let me point some out.

With Pertwee’s Doctor and suddenly in glorious colour, the show finds a more adult tone, usually attributed to the level of 007-like action and slightly more cerebral stories, but I think the human interactions among the team are just as much responsible and could explain why the Pertwee era is so well loved. Here, the Doctor isn’t the grandfather or the uncle. He’s the hero, slap bang in the middle. And like James Bond, to whom he’s often compared, that means getting the girl. He’s charismatic, clever and protective. Even the ready-made love interest of Captain Yates can’t turn Jo’s head for very long.

As it’s her swansong, The Green Death is inevitably the most obvious and up front about their relationship. “All of time and space. I’m offering them to you.” The Doctor literally proposes. They’ve been on day trips to Inter Minor and Spiridon but this is it. Come with me for real. And clock the Doctor's regret and sense of loss when Jo gives up on that long promised trip to Metebelis III in favour of Wales. Worse than that, she ditches him for “a younger” version. An attainable human version of the Doctor himself. Seem familiar?

But there are earlier clues.

As a threat to the Doctor, the Axons age Jo. This isn’t an exercise in vanity, taking away her youthful looks. The Doctor as a Time Lord has a demonstrable fear of seeing those he loves growing old, withering away while he goes on alone. It’s spelled out eloquently in School Reunion and The Girl In The Fireplace but here it is in action.

With this Doctor exiled to Earth it’s inevitable that he’d start behaving like a human and form bonds with those around him. But it’s in Colony In Space, his freedom seemingly temporarily restored, that he’s able to show Jo what he’s really about. It’s a beautiful, tender scene in the TARDIS where the Doctor takes a hesitant, tentative young woman and shows her a larger universe, albeit in the form of a quarry.

And armed with these moments, look at any episode between them, the joy they have just being in each other’s company, the lengths Jo goes to to rescue the Doctor from prison in The Sea Devils, the ultimate sacrifice she’s prepared to make to save him in The Daemons. And look at how the Doctor crosses time to get Jo back in Day of the Daleks or space in Frontier In Space. Compare it to his friendly but efficient relationship with Liz Shaw.

Ok, some of this is filling in the gaps and reading between the lines. I am taking our modern sensibilities and storytelling, our need for an emotional resonance and applying it to our beloved classic series. But you can’t do it to every era. No one would believe that the 6th Doctor and Peri’s arguments were really a cover for a secret unspoken passion. Or that the 1st Doctor and Barbara exchanged meaningful looks over the console when Ian’s back was turned. All the more significant then that there are certain Doctor/Companion pairings you can apply it to without contradicting what’s shown on screen.

It’s a fine line. No one really wants ‘The Doctor and Mrs Who’ (Sorry River, you were far more interesting when we just thought you were his wife) and any TARDIS love affair, whether it’s unrequited or not, should underpin the adventure rather than be the main narrative thrust. It’s still an adventure series about fighting monsters.

But if you’re willing to believe a Time Lord can love, it does add depth not just to the companions but to the Doctor himself. It shouldn’t diminish our hero to admit that he, like ourselves, is sometimes prey to stupid emotions.

Thanks to Philip Lawrence.

The Other Woman (starring Katy Manning and written by Phil) is out this month from Big Finish and you can pre-order it here
Visit Phil's website here.

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