The last time I randomed a story by Paul Cornell, I speculated on which Doctor Who stories contained each Doctor’s best performances. The equivalent of awarding Oscars for Doctors. 2005 weepy Father’s Day gives me the chance to offer a (ahem) companion piece.
Which companions would we give Oscars too? Actually, maybe we should call them Botcherbies, after Doctor Who‘s own thespian Oscar from The Two Doctors. And then we won’t be infringing any trademarks.
(This reminds me of one of my favourite passages from Robert Holmes’ masterful novelisation of that story, where Oscar recounts that a critic of the Boston Globe said that one of his performances was ‘quite monumental’, but then added ‘in its ineptitude’. That’s apropos of nothing. I just love that book.)
This episode, carefully plotted and expertly directed, is heartbreaking and there’s not many Doctor Who stories you can say that about it. Billie Piper seizes the opportunity to reveal a vulnerability in Rose, and in doing so gives her best performance in the role. This script asks a lot of her – to show delight turning to disillusionment and the sheer raw grief of losing a parent – and there isn’t a moment when her performance feels false or pushed too far. She’s outstanding.
So a Botcherby nod for Piper. Who else should we dish out nominations to? With the caveat that not every companion gets the chance to star in an episode like Father’s Day, where the plot revolves around them. It’s pretty hard, for instance, to pinpoint a standout performance for Louise Jameson. Even though she was excellent as Leela in all her stories, she was never given a story which focused on her character and gave her a chance to show what she could do. We could say that about many a companion, hopefully without causing offence by omission.
When a companion gets an episode which concentrates on them, there’s a chance to outshine even the Doctor. Catherine Tate in Turn Left is a spectacular example. Few would have guessed after her debut performance in The Runaway Bride that the character of Donna could generate the gravitas needed to have her be our guide through post-apocalyptic England. Tate nails it, being brave and scared, embarking on a suicide mission to the past to save the future. Out of the combination of comic character and harrowing setting, something truly touching emerges.
Classic Who gave its companions fewer chances to hog the limelight. Some had to wait until their encore performances to offer they’re best work. I love Nicholas Courtney’s performance in Mawdryn Undead, which gives us more of an insight into the Brigadier than we had in seven years of UNIT stories. Here, he gives us two versions of the same character, and makes them both instantly recognisable through body movement and demeanor. For the first time, we see the deleterious effects of being part of the Doctor’s retinue, and in the Brigadier’s case it’s a taste of post traumatic stress disorder. One of my favorites.
Years later, Elisabeth Sladen would get the chance to give a similar character reading in School Reunion, and she also manages expresses the loss and longing of life without the Doctor, despite the script’s tiresome efforts to whip up Doctor jealousy between her and Rose. It’s a touching performance, but for me her Botcherby worthy turn lies in the classic series, specifically in The Hand of Fear. Her ‘possessed’ acting in that story is particularly eerie but of course, it’s those last few scenes when she’s leaving the Doctor that her greatness is really on show: funny, sad and so clearly expressing so much which is unsaid, it alone is worth the price of admission.
The 1960s episodes don’t give our companion friends much to work with, as this was an era which paid their roles little consistent attention, but how about Jacqueline Hill in The Aztecs? It’s those scenes with Tlotoxl that I’m thinking of, showing Barbara’s inner strength and poise during her combative moments, but also her deep insecurity when she falters. To pinpoint one moment when she shines, how about when she takes a knife to Tlotoxl’s throat to save Ian? A desperate and surprisingly violent move which a few stories earlier, might have belonged to the Doctor. If we could see The Massacre of St. Bartholemew’s Eve, we might be able to properly assess Peter Purves in a similar set of circumstances as Steven. But otherwise, the black and white era offers little else in the way of Botcherby worthy companion turns.
Janet Fielding’s performances as the Mara possessed Tegan in Kinda and Snakedance have rightly been praised. On first glance, you might say that Snakedance, which contains the most screen time for evil Tegan, is the Botcherby worthy one. But while the sequel offers greater scope, the original packs the harder punch. Fielding’s performance first as the terrified girl being tormented by an unknown demon in Part One, then as the Mara infested version in Part Two are both palpable and real, and must have been a huge factor in commissioning a sequel. It’s even more of an achievement when you consider she’s left unconscious for the whole of Part Three and returns to her normal state in Part Four, so the considerable impact of that role is achieved in a very short time.
There’s one example of a companion’s best performance being outside Doctor Who. Captain Jack Harkness, of course, has his own show, Torchwood. John Barrowman gives some impressive performances in each series, but it’s the third, Torchwood: Children of Earth which really stands out. Here, Jack is put through an emotional wringer, losing his lover in his attempts to save the world, and ultimately sacrificing the life of his grandson to do so, and atone for the sins of his past. It’s a storyline which Doctor Who could never offer the Doctor, let alone a companion, but in Torchwood, Barrowman gets his chance to show what he can do.
A couple of others kicking around: Sophie Aldred showing us Ace growing up and discovering her inner animal in Survival. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill giving their all in their tear jerking finale The Angels Take Manhattan. Alex Kingston, never better perhaps than on debut in Silence in the Library. And in Human Nature/The Family of Blood, the story which started this whole thread, I suggested David Tennant gave his Botcherby best, but we shouldn’t overlook Freema Agyeman, who beautifully played lost, desperate, determined and in love all at once.
What have I forgotten? Best turns by companions or Doctors? Comment away, faithful readers. Then let’s start planning the after party.
LINK TO The Mark of the Rani: hmmm. How about both feature companions with dead fathers?
NEXT TIME: You’re too short and bossy, and your nose is all funny. Add the Cybermen and we really do have a Nightmare in Silver.