Australia, ancestry and Four to Doomsday (1982)

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING (INFO-TEXT EDITION): “New South Wales is just outside Sydney, in Australia”

I love that little snafu on the Four To Doomsday DVD info text with its shaky grasp of Australian geography (for the record, international readers, New South Wales is not ‘just outside Sydney’. Sydney is the capital of the state of New South Wales, one of six states and two territories which make up the Commonwealth of Australia). And it’s apt that it’s adhered indelibly to Four To Doomsday, a story which demonstrates another strange idea about Australia.

Yes, I’m talking about the bit where Tegan (Janet Fielding) reveals that she can speak an ancient Aboriginal language (one of those unusual talents sometimes displayed by companions). I’ll get to that, but let’s go back a bit to who Tegan is, and why she’s in our favourite show in the first place.

John Nathan-Turner, who took over as producer show about a year before Four To Doomsday was made, created Tegan and specified that she should be Australian. This was not a random choice. JN-T was the first producer to consider how Doctor Who could be an international show; it was he, in his role as Production Unit Manager, who suggested and facilitated the show’s first international location shoot for City of Death.

JN-T must surely have had Australia in mind as the next potential Doctor Who location shoot. In 1979, Tom Baker had undertaken a promotional tour of Australia (oh so many awkward TV interviews. The Molly Meldrum one is fun, but the killer one is with John Singleton of all people), and he’d done TV commercials here for Keep Australia Beautiful and Prime Computers. Peter Davison has joked that Tegan was created as an air hostess in order to get cheap flights from Qantas. If true, it wouldn’t have been the wackiest plan JN-T ever embarked upon. In fact, I seem to remember a Sydney Morning Herald interview, which kicked off with Nathan-Turner saying, “I have a vision of the TARDIS landing on top of the Sydney Opera House”. It’s the kind of headline grabbing thing he might have said, but surely there was a grain of truth in it.

So Australia was on Doctor Who’s radar in 1981. And the expression of it was strident sidekick, Tegan Jovanka.

*****

We all know how that name got chosen. JN-T was deciding between two names for his new companion: Tegan or Jovanka. Script Editor Christopher H Bidmead read it as one name, and so it became. Both are uncommon, but not unheard of names. I’ve met a few Tegan/Teagans around the joint and I’ve met a couple of Jovankas.

Tegan’s surname marks her as an exotic outsider among Doctor Who companions, who are generally speaking a lot of Smiths, Jones, Wrights, Grants and Browns. But here’s the thing: Jovanka’s not a surname. It’s a first name of Serbian origin. JN-T got the name from then Yugoslav first lady Jovanka Broz. So why is Tegan using it as a surname?

Which leads us to the question, just who is Tegan?

When we meet her, she’s in her early twenties and living in London. So far, so much the lived experience of many young Australians. She’s on the first day of her job as an air hostess (cabin crew, we call them these days), so we can perhaps assume she’s been living in England for a while since moving from Australia.

Whereabouts in Australia? Well, she talks occasionally of Brisbane, and certainly she has the brash, straight talking approach of a Queenslander (Queensland being just outside Brisbane, in Australia, y’know). In Castrovalva, she says that if the Doctor wanted to go somewhere cut off from the rest of the Universe, Brisbane would be the go. (It’s a nice joke, but Australians might have chuckled a bit more if she’d nominated Adelaide.)

She refers to her father’s farm, which her Aunt Vanessa says is ‘hardly the outback’. I wonder where this not-quite-the-outback-farm within cooee of Brisbane was. Toowoomba? Not far out enough maybe. Roma?

Either way, it’s the only mention of Tegan’s father. Who was he? What did he farm? Was he Serbian by birth, or was his wife, or both? Or neither? There is certainly a long history of Yugoslavs settling in Australia, particularly post World War Two. But they mainly settled in Sydney and Melbourne.

Here’s my theory. A little bit of ‘head canon’, as the Moff calls it.

Tegan’s grandfather (Andrew Verney) comes to Australia from England and marries a woman called Jovanka, a Yugoslav by birth. They have at least two children, Tegan’s Dad and her Aunty Vanessa. Tegan’s Dad buys a farm in Queensland. Somewhere along the line, Jovanka dies and Verney and Vanessa move to England.

That’s the Serbian/Australian/English heritage, but how can Tegan speak an Aboriginal language? It’s highly unlikely that a white Australian growing up in 60s and 70s Australia would learn one. So perhaps the answer is that Tegan is part Aboriginal herself, and her Dad married an Aboriginal woman.

So under this scenario, Tegan is born and given the middle name Jovanka, after her grandmother. She grows up on the farm and the Aboriginal side of her family teaches her some language. When she leaves school, she moves to Brisbane for a couple of years, before moving to London.

And at some stage, she decides to give up her surname and use Jovanka as her surname.

And on Monarch’s spaceship, she speaks confidently with Aboriginal android Kurkutji (Illarrio Bisi Pedro). Even though he hasn’t been on Earth for 35,000 years.

Though I have no idea why she says ‘rabbits’ as an expletive. I’ve never heard anyone – Australian or otherwise – say that.

*****

As for JN-T, he never got to film a story in Australia. Qantas never gave him any cash, although the ABC did, to help him make The Five Doctors.  Was his creation of an American companion to follow Tegan a second attempt to broker international support? Probably

At any rate Tegan’s inclusion in the show was a big acknowledgement that Doctor Who had an international audience. Maybe even that outside the UK, Australia was the show’s biggest market. Sure, it didn’t get many of the details right, but that’s not really the point. Tegan Jovanka, the girl with the loud voice, the oblique ancestry, the mystifying surname and the knack for long dead Indigenous languages can actually be seen as Doctor Who’s first move from being a British show to an international show.

LINK TO The Androids of Tara: more androids.

NEXT TIME: Yo ho ho! It’s The Curse of the Black Spot, ya scurvy rabbits… um, dogs.

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