1980s Doctor Who impresario John Nathan-Turner used to have a matronly rule, banning “hanky-panky in the TARDIS”, to ward off any suggestion that the Doctor might have a romantic interest in any of his companions. It’s a rule which had a cold shower-like effect on the show in the early 80s, which became its most platonic era. The 70s, by comparison, had allowed companions to have gentle romances with guest stars. It dabbled with sexual tension between characters like Jo and Mike Yates, and Harry and Sarah. And by the end of the 70s, the Doctor and Romana were basically an item. But in Nathan-Turner’s early years, romance in any form, even among guest characters, was rare. The only exception to this puritanical regime was Mariner’s obsession with Tegan, which had the unsettling air of stalking about it.
In 1983, something began to change. Nathan-Turner became interested in girls. Specifically, he started mandating that the female leads in the show be costumed in more revealing clothes. Tegan started wearing skimpy shorts and tight skirts and in one story, Nyssa stripped down to her underwear. This increasing sexualisation of the companions (after a period of relative chasteness), culminated in the casting of Nicola Bryant as Peri. Who, in her very first episode, appeared in the scantest of hot pink bikinis.
Like a (straight) teenage boy suddenly hitting puberty, mid 80s Doctor Who abruptly became obsessed with emphasising its female companion as both desirable and desired. In Peri’s case, it did this in two ways. Firstly, by some particularly exploitative costuming, favouring shorts and bust boosting tops (watching Doctor Who randomly really makes this stand out; returning to a Peri story always puts this costuming brazenness into sharp contrast). Secondly, by presenting a string of male characters who express their carnal interest in her. And these men are not kind, charming heroic types who used to make eyes at Jo or Sarah. These would-be suitors are villains and monsters.
The first is deranged drug dealer Sharaz Jek. The next is giant slug Mestor (who expresses his ardour with the classic line, “I find her pleasing. Pleasing!” regularly mocked in the Spandrell household). Later on, there is the sleazy Jobel, and before him there’s Shockeye, who wants Peri for his dinner, but whose hunger is often indistinguishable from lust. Even Sil, who famously finds Peri repulsive, is compelled to join this horny bunch by judging our Bostonian friend on her appearance.
In Timelash (which I had to get around to eventually), Peri’s admirer du jour is the Borad (Robert Ashby), half man, half saurian. His plans for Peri are the most explicit of all her creepy admirers. In the ultimate homage to b-grade “I married an alien” type films, he wants Peri so that he can procreate. (Why it has to be Peri, and not a Karfelon woman is not made clear). And with that intent we have reached, I think, Doctor Who’s nadir in both its treatment of Peri (a big call as she was once, infamously, strangled by the Doctor) and its treatment of its female regulars.
When the plot revolves around using the companion as a breeding machine, something really has gone seriously awry. And to add even more shame to this already awful scenario, Peri gets nothing else interesting or proactive to do in the story. Plus, there’s the whiff of sexual violence about the thing. She’s tied to a pole and menaced by a phallically long necked monster (twice). She’s shackled by the neck and led around by a man holding her by a rod. It’s icky.
Timelash has its faults (he says, in the understatement of the year) and chief among them is its treatment of Peri. But coming a close second is its uncomfortable alignment of physical deformity with evil. True, Doctor Who (particularly as written by Robert Holmes) has a long history of this, but here, it collides with the story’s degradation of Peri in a truly awful narrative conclusion.
The Borad takes Peri hostage and in response, the Doctor (a bullish Colin Baker) taunts him about his ugliness. “Show yourself to Peri,” he suggests. “If she doesn’t scream, the wedding can take place.” As Peri points out, she has no say in this. The Doctor then reveals a hitherto boarded up mirror (all mirrors having been banned on Karfel, along with fan art and naturalistic dialogue) and the Borad is consumed with self loathing. As predicted, Peri screams. “I told you she’d scream,” says the Doctor, helpfully.
The Borad’s a killer and a despot. But the Doctor doesn’t defeat him in a contest of ideas. Or by showing him the error of his ways. He defeats him by taunting him about how ugly he is. “The possibility of perfect companionship shattered because of your grotesque, ugly, excuse for a body,” he says. He doesn’t even upbraid him for his crimes. The overriding message is that it doesn’t really matter what wicked things you do, you’ll ultimately be judged on your appearance – just as Peri constantly is. The Borad spirals into anguish and the Doctor pushes him into the Timelash with a last brutal confirmation of the story’s moral, that you’ll never be loved if you don’t fit the bodily norm. “Nobody wants you. Nobody needs you. Nobody cares!” he booms. Yup, that “never cruel or cowardly” thing has definitely gone out the window. Or down the tinsel covered time corridor.
If there’s a light of hope in this dull, matte story, it’s that it marks an end to this thoughtless, exploitative treatment of female companions. Peri’s successors Mel and Ace will both be more proactive presences in the series and neither will be the constant focus of villainous lust. And Peri too, although she still has Jobel to manouver around, has more to do in her final stories, and is at last, costumed without so much consideration to the randy teenage boys in the audience. Timelash at least marks the point where the lot of the female lead starts to improve after a brief but blatant period of decline into sex objects for men (in the narrative and in the audience) to leer over.
I mean, she’s still got to get married to Brian Blessed. But after that.
SPARE A THOUGHT FOR: innocent Scots in 1189, who keep getting bombarded with banished Karfelons, wearing bewildered expressions and jumpsuits made out of dirty curtains. What will they do with them all?
LINK TO Let’s Kill Hitler: cases of hidden identity in both.
NEXT TIME: Paper! How fascinating! We’re off to find The Witchfinders.