Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Companion Way

What is the point of Catherine Tate? Or rather, what is the point of Donna Noble, her character on Doctor Who? Although thinking about it, both questions are equally valid.

Back at the very beginning, with television science fiction still in its infancy and only just learning to crawl, the adventures of an alien character tumbling back and forth through space and time certainly needed a human touch, especially since this was, after all, primarily a children’s show. The human companion reflected the fears and desires of the audience watching the exploits at home, asking the questions that would help process the information they were receiving.

The first companion, Susan, was the Doctor’s granddaughter, which meant she was alien too. So her history and science teachers from school were brought along for the ride. The show, conceived by Sydney Newman and developed with Donald Wilson, the BBC’s new Head of Serials, was meant to have an educational thrust after all.

In the first six seasons, from when Doctor Who debuted in November 1963 until the end of the decade, the show got through a total of thirteen companions: nine women and four men. After the original trio’s turn was up they were replaced by a selection of characters from the past, present and future, including a handmaiden from ancient Troy; a 41st Century Space Security Agent; a young woman and merchant seaman from the 1960s; an 18th century Scottish Highlander; and finally a 21st century astrophysicist.

Some lasted only a year because the actor’s contract wasn’t renewed, others longer. One didn’t even make it out of the adventure she was introduced in alive. Characters plucked from the past proved difficult for the writers because it meant even the simplest things in the modern age had to be explained to them. Their last attempt was the daughter of a Victorian-era scientist who could at least, I suppose, comprehend what has happening around her.

Whatever it was, it was making her scream. The historical dramas were soon dropped in favour of fantastical adventures populated by the sort of bug-eyed monsters Newman specifically didn’t want. And the girls turned out to be forever finding themselves in peril.

With the format of the show becoming less of an alien concept, the companions’ role was still to glean information relating to the where, why and who, but they also had to get themselves in deep trouble. Each adventure was made up of multiple episodes, and each episode had to end on a cliffhanger to ensure the audience tuned in next time.

Typically, like in the old Republic serials, the danger was immediately resolved the following week, but getting into deep shit at least gave the companions something more to do. In later incarnations the odd one or two were a little bit more pro-active, but most looked to be rather wet and pathetic and in constant need of rescuing from something in tinfoil.

The thing with the new incarnation, now four years old, is that each story is contained within a forty-five minute running time. Apart from the odd two-parters, the cliffhanger as was no longer exists. So what use do the companions provide?

Toward the end of Rose, the first episode of the reinvented Doctor Who, it soon became evident that Billie Piper’s character was really Buffy, The Doctor was Giles, Mickey Smith was Xander and Rose’s mother was... the Zeppo. Once Rose was stolen away in an end-of-season climax that heavily thieved it’s way from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the replacements haven’t been up to snuff.

From the few episodes of the following year I caught, Martha Jones seemed to be a character in search of something to do. One and one-sixth episodes in and Donna seems even more pointless. It doesn’t help that Catherine Tate’s acting range seems to alternate between being mouthy and not being mouthy. So the question remains: what is she for?


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