Friday, May 18, 2012

Outside the Government 3 (A Fix With Sontarans)

All right chums, time's up. Let's do this.
This was written both before the Jimmy Saville scandal broke and before anything from Richard Marson's book about John Nathan-Turner leaked. The former alone would have required a complete rewrite of the post. The latter would have required some discussion somewhere in the blog. In tandem, they render this post almost completely beside the point, and it will receive a full rewrite in the book version eventually. Until then, enjoy the most obsolete post on the blog.

Doctor Who fandom is spectacularly bitchy. Sometimes - even often - this is a virtue. Mind  you, it's an often misunderstood virtue. For one thing, the bitchiness is often mistaken as actual dislike, sometimes to puzzling effect. (The most obvious example here is people who take Moffat's somewhat infamous interview comments about the classic series as actual dislike for the classic series) It's not, and the central joke of almost all of fandom's bitchy, snarky comments about bits of Doctor Who is that despite the obvious faults of the series we love it to pieces. Even with the really terrible episodes that we claim to actively hate there's the underlying joke that we've watched them a dozen times and have a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of how crap they are. The fact that this involves being vicious to Doctor Who is almost incidental - after all, for most of the active history of fandom everybody thought Doctor Who was kind of crap. Doctor Who fandom, unusually for a fandom, has tended to favor ostentatiously loving the show in spite of it being crap over trying to defend Timelash, and really, who's going to fault them for it.

But, and it's a big but, there are times when the bitchiness of fandom tips into a bit of a dark side. And to be frank, this is one of them. A Fix With Sontarans is widely mocked and hated. And this is, if not inaccurate, more than a little unfair. Let's start with the context. A Fix With Sontarans is a mini-episode shot for the show Jim'll Fix It, in which the late Jimmy Saville extravagantly grants the wishes of people who write in. And in the case of A Fix With Sontarans, a kid named Gareth Jenkins wanted to be on Doctor Who, so Eric Saward lashed together a little TARDIS-set mini episode featuring the Sontarans, which they had around at the time for The Two Doctors. Nicola Bryant wasn't available for filming it, so they roped in Janet Fielding. The plot is exactly the sort of thing that people do for something like this - the Sontarans and Gareth both get teleported onto the TARDIS, Gareth helps save the day, there's a cute bit about how he'll apparently someday be a great military leader against the Sontarans.

It's crap, of course, but it's crap in the exact ways you'd expect it to be. Gareth Jenkins can't act at all and is utterly timid. Colin Baker got the script late enough that he was forced to scribble lines on the console. Janet Fielding has unfortunate hair. The Sontarans get a particularly poor execution of green slime dribbling death. Blah blah blah. Nevertheless, this miniepisode is the source of an alarming amount of vitriol, no small portion of which is focused on the erstwhile Mr. Jenkins, which... look, he's a kid who's a Doctor Who fan that got picked for a dopey reality show. He's not an actor. And A Fix With Sontarans, in its actual context, doesn't require him to be. He's not supposed to be an actor in a Doctor Who story, he's supposed to be the subject of some schmaltz. To be perfectly frank, extensive criticism of him is at best only barely above bullying, and at worst outright bullying that's been carried on some 25 years after the poor kid got "fixed." At this point this is like the general public mocking a middle aged man for a poor performance in a school play once.

That said, the bitchiness of Doctor Who fandom is, as we just noted, a complex and misleading thing. We don't complain bitterly and angrily about the show because we dislike it. (Or, at least, most of us don't - as with any fandom there are those who seem to measure how much they love the show by how much of it they're capable of hating.) So even if the mockery of Gareth Jenkins is ill judged - and it is, I think - that doesn't mean that the fan reaction to this sketch has much to do with the content of it in any direct sense. Rather, I think this story is hated largely because, well, it had staggeringly bad timing. It aired during The Two Doctors (right after its second episode, in fact) four days before the suspension was announced.

This in and of itself isn't a problem. But think back to The Two Doctors entry and consider the sequence of events. We have a story that's aggressively shredding audience expectations while fairly openly attacking the audience for expecting them in the first place. So right off the bat there's a massive tonal shift between that and this sort of sentimental celebration of child-like fandom. At its heart A Fix With Sontarans is about an uncritical love of the series as a broader part of British culture. Whereas the series, in practice, isn't only visibly cratering in its popular appeal but is immediately critiquing and rejecting its own premises and the act of loving it. One of the cleverest moments of About Time comes when Tat Wood suggests that to really understand the Thatcher years you should watch Vengeance on Varos and then imagine a world in which it is followed by Jim'll Fix It. Similarly, to really understand the nature of the suspension crisis, watch The Two Doctors and imagine it being followed by A Fix With Sontarans.

There's a larger issue going on here about the series' relationship with children and its supposed status as children's television. Simply put, the series doesn't seem to take its status as children's television very seriously or credibly anymore. That's not to say it's not still for children, but there's a difference. In this regard the green slime dribble death is illustrative. It's flagrantly there out a prurient love of gross stuff. And while I'm loathe to pretend that the past of Doctor Who is an unambiguous festival of highbrow children's entertainment, it does seem to me that there's a material difference between a visceral money shot approach to children's entertainment and what Doctor Who has historically done. And it's not as though the snot dribbling in A Fix With Sontarans is an outlier. A week later we'd get a bunch of Sontarans exploding in just as much generic viscera. So yes, Doctor Who still thinks of itself as "for children," but in an appallingly cynical way.

And let's not pretend that there isn't a cynicism to this as well. For all the touching schmaltz of Jim'll Fix It's approach, there is something cynical about it. In reality, wishes are granted based more on sponsors wanting the publicity than on the supposed merit of the wishes. John Nathan-Turner, ever the publicity maestro, saw an opportunity to appear on a better known show and took it. This is part of why criticizing Gareth Jenkins himself seems so off - in many ways he's just an innocent kid who gets caught in the teeth of a publicity machine. Certainly his actual desires seem irrelevant to the process, and he spends most of the episode looking scared and like this isn't really what he wanted. Which, of course it isn't. Wishing to be in an episode of Doctor Who and actually wanting to be are two very different things.

Had this not coincided with the suspension crisis so perfectly, of course, it would just be a slightly embarrassing curiosity. But instead it comes when the series is in obvious crisis, in the midst of an extended attack on itself, and, let's be honest, not very good. So for it to come prancing out saying "oh look, aren't I a good little iconic part of children's culture" just leaves everyone wanting to slap it in the face and say "no, you're bloody well not, you're utter crap." And so fandom did. And poor Gareth Jenkins gets caught in the crosshairs, simply because, standing there, awkwardly, in a replica Colin Baker coat his grandmother made for him, he's the perfect target. The coat, really, is the crux of it. It's too good a symbol. Everybody recognized almost immediately that the coat was a disaster. It's about the only thing even John Nathan-Turner admitted in hindsight was a mistake. And Gareth Jenkins awkwardly in it and clearly unaware of how silly it looks is just too perfect a symbol for how everything has gone wrong. It's a sudden, horrible glance in the mirror for fandom - our collective Borad moment. This is what loving the show is like now. How unfortunate.

But on the other hand, if boiled down and distilled, most of the preceding paragraphs come down to this: we hate Gareth Jenkins for being able to uncritically love Doctor Who when we couldn't anymore. Even if we stand by our judgments - and I certainly do - it is difficult not to view this with a trace of envy.

The other thing about A Fix With Sontarans is that it's the final appearance of Janet Fielding on the program. And I never really focused much on Tegan as a character while she was on the show, nor when she left, so this is as good a time as any to do it. Well, better, really, since getting two thousand words out of A Fix With Sontarans is a challenge without it.

There's a stretch of time, starting with Leela, in which the program tried very hard to avoid the standard Doctor Who companion. Actually, this is a bit misleading. We act as though the single human female companion is the default mode of Doctor Who, but there are actually only five of them in the whole of the classic series - Jo, Sarah Jane, Peri, Mel, and Ace. It's really just that the new series has normalized this mode. So the interruption that began with Leela is, in many ways, the last flourishing of the model of companions where something other than the single earth female was in place.

What's interesting about Tegan, then, is that she sits almost exactly on the halfway point between those. Not only is she one of the last companions to go before single human female reasserted itself, she's also a human female companion herself, just one who never got a solo adventure with the Doctor.

And this is the key thing about Tegan. Because she is a human female companion we tend to think of her as being in the standard mode. But she's not. In many of her stories, in fact, her primary role is actively in opposition to the Doctor. Her job is to give voice to a position that isn't quite the reverse of the Doctor's, but that is nevertheless unambiguously informed by a completely different set of values and judgments. This leads, in some accounts, to Tegan being a bit thick. The show, after all, is fairly steadfastly aligned to the moral perspective of the Doctor. So Tegan, as a character who is atively set on a different perspective, is fairly consistently proven wrong by the series.

But there's also a dignity this lends Tegan. She's one of only two female companions in the classic series to never really drift from her initial interesting "strong female character" conception into a bland peril monkey. She still gets captured with irritating regularity, but there's basically nothing that really knocks her off of her role. In this regard she ends up filling a role we haven't really seen since the earliest days of the series - she's basically the only companion to fill the Barbara role.

And much of the credit for this must go to Janet Fielding, who has proved herself, especially in her time after the series, to be an unrelentingly strong advocate for feminism and for the importance of strong and dignified female characters. She gets an unfortunate amount of flack in fandom for being "strident" about her criticism of how her character was treated and of sexism on Doctor Who in general. The term "strident" being, when applied to women, one of the last refuges of people who are having their privilege challenged and don't like it. A strident woman is, by and large, one who's doing and saying what needs to be said.

And here, paired with little prep with Colin Baker, she manages to demonstrate how a companion can be paired opposite an arrogant and argumentative Doctor. I don't mean this as a criticism of Nicola Bryant - I'll have plenty of good things to say about her when she departs - but Peri, as conceived, was never a good match for Baker's Doctor as originally conceived. Janet Fielding, as has been pointed out by several commenters, would have been. And was. The two of them are by far the best part of A Fix With Sontarans, and in some ways the story is worthwhile for that alone.

46 comments:

  1. Interesting! What's your definition of single human female, by the way? Why doesn't Mel count?

    "Single Human Female" is the best name for a dating show ever.

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    1. Because I momentarily forgot about her, mainly.

      All good things...

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    2. Because she is River Song (prove that she isn't!), and therefore timey-wimey.

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  2. You could even argue that Jo doesn't count, and that Sarah doesn't count for most of her run on the show, as Jo was part of the larger UNIT supporting cast, though she did get the odd solo adventure with the Doctor, and that was Sarah's setting at first, too, and in her second series she had Harry Sullivan.

    Basically, if you take the show as being "the Doctor and his single human female companion travel through time and space", rather than "the Doctor works with UNIT and occasionally pops off somewhere else with his assistant", the only times that was the format were for a year with Tom/Sarah Jane, and for Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy's years.

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    1. No - UNIT are clearly a supporting troupe, while Jo and Sarah are aloof from them, and occupy a special place at the Doctor's side narratively.

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    2. Jo and the Doctor appear without the supporting UNIT cast (as part of the main story) in 7 out of 15 of Jo's stories by my count, nearly as many as Leela or Ace, in total. (You have to qualify 'single human female' with 'contemporary' or 'from Earth' to exclude Leela.) So I'd say Pertwee and Jo pop off more than occasionally.

      That said, those five companions are between them overrepresented among the most highly regarded stories in the classic series. More so if you omit 'highly'.

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  3. I just watched it and though Gareth was great! He didn't fuck up a single line. Wonder how much criticism stems from envy; the jealousy of all those Pomgolian fans thinking, "Why didn't *I* get to be in the TARDIS?".

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    1. The idea of the fans taking out their frustrated fanboy angst on the small child ... this is why people hate fanboys.

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  4. 'Certainly his actual desires seem irrelevant to the process, and he spends most of the episode looking scared and like this isn't really what he wanted.'

    That was how Jim'll Fix It always worked, though - the 'please fix it for me' letter would get translated by the production team into what was actually possible, and then interpreted again depending on what was actually available. It always ended up being a sort of Faustian pact where the letter writer would end up doing something that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike exactly what they had asked for.

    Except in the very early years, when it was usually someone like Lewis Collins sitting in apparent agony while Jimmy Saville very slowly and relentlessly informed him that this prepubescent girl he was sitting next to was in love with him.

    Twas a puzzling programme...

    Except for that one with Peter Cushing in. That was nice.

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    1. Ah, the Peter Cushing one (Naming a Rose after his late wife) was so sweet. Bless him.

      There was a girl in my infants school who went on Jim'll Fix It. I can still remember the assembly where she showed everyone her badge. She wasn't well liked.:)

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  5. "To be perfectly frank, extensive criticism of him is at best only barely above bullying, and at worst outright bullying that's been carried on some 25 years after the poor kid got "fixed." At this point this is like the general public mocking a middle aged man for a poor performance in a school play once."

    Sorry -- are we talking about Gareth Jenkins or Matthew Waterhouse? Please remind me... ;-)

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    1. We're talking about the one who hasn't given any interviews or comment on the matter since his appearance on the program. :)

      I mean, I recognize you're being cheeky, but I think the point matters - as it will in another way for Monday's entry. It's one thing to do a dumb thing when you're young. It's another to double down on it decades later.

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  6. And FWIW, I've always maintained that Tegan Jovanka was the proto-Donna Noble. Just sayin'...

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  7. I just watched this for the first time, and to my surprise it was perfectly charming. I'd rather watch this than Timelash any day.

    As for young Master Jenkins, he's understandably overwhelmed by being in the Tardis with Colin Baker, and he doesn't look like he'll be troubling RADA anytime soon, but he says his lines and hits his marks like a pro and I don't think you can ask much else of him.

    If this did receive such a degree of vitriol at the time, it's simply yet more evidence - if more were needed - that fandom in the mid-eighties was dominated by a bunch of bitter old cunts.

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  8. I thought that was already a well-established fact, Iain... ;-)

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  9. Also, has it been verified that the Gareth Jenkins in "A Fix With Sontarans" is NOT the same Gareth Jenkins who works (worked?) on Big Finish Productions DOCTOR WHO audios??

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    1. They have confirmed that it's definitely not the same person. See Vortex #22.

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    2. He is, however, the same Gareth Jenkins who is now Head of Campaigns for Save The Children. Prompting one Twitter comment from Eddie Robson "Maybe every child should get to be Doctor Who for eight minutes and we'll see what happens".

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  10. When I was 10 I was walking across the playground into class and a younger boy ran excitedly up to me and cried, "You're Dr Who! You're going to be Dr Who!" He didn't explain any more, but I remember thinking: how incredibly unlikely, and also, if it were true, how wonderful. But also, I remember thinking, how crap. How would I feel if another 10 year old boy was cast as the new Doctor? Anyway, as it turned out, they wanted me to dress as the Doctor in a fancy dress parade.

    I enjoyed Fix. And I thought he did perfectly well.

    Btw, I visited a hospital today and came across a patient who looked remarkably like the Borad. He had learning disabilities too, and was maybe unaware of how grotesque he seemed. Which made me think of Timelash of course, and then of Daphne & Celeste and their famous song UGLY (U.G.L.Y. You ain't got no alibi/You're ugly!) and then of D&C getting bottled off the stage at Reading, and then when I came home I looked it up on Youtube. Daphne & Celeste seem careful to create fantasy images of ugly children ("here's a little kid who looks like a squid" etc.) so as not to encourage bullying based on actual everyday characteristics – but then I could never have supposed that anyone could look much like the Borad. So that's Season 22 I thought: brash and mean, or trying to be – and looking back to when they were bottled off, I gather that either girl interprets it differently: one as a career-destroying humiliation, the other as the best thing ever!

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    1. ...was that meant to be stream-of-consciousness? :-S

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    2. All I was trying to say was that the Sixth Doctor persona might have worked better played by someone like Paul O'Grady (as Lily Savage). In which case Peri is less battered wife and more like nervous member of the audience, wondering whether the drag queen is going to say something cutting about one's clothes or hair or face. Colin is certainly dressed brash enough, but as a heterosexual male, he often comes across as boorish. Now Daphne & Celeste, despite a very professional publicity team, fell far short of what was seen as their commercial potential. As part of the background to that failure, I take it as read that their songs (at least UGLY and Stick You) were actually written by gay men. (I've not bothered to research that, but it seems obvious).

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  11. I think the hatred has to be largely jealousy, the fact that some random kid got to do this and they didn't, or maybe because it wasn't a high-ranking recognised member or DWAS. This is fandom in general - all the hatred against Linda McCartney, for example, just for being someone other than each individual jealous girl.

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    1. It's also the assumption that 'Oh, I could have done so much better.' Human beings seem to have a basic flaw in that we tend to think other peoples' jobs are easy.

      How many football fans think they could manage their teams better than the guy in charge?

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  12. people who take Moffat's somewhat infamous interview comments about the classic series as actual dislike for the classic series

    Fair enough. All the same, there is certainly a contrast between his earlier and later remarks.

    there are those who seem to measure how much they love the show by how much of it they're capable of hating

    Or those (cough, tea With Morbius, cough) who prove their love of the old show by being massively uncharitable to the new one.

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    1. To be fair to Moffat, when he made those original remarks back in '95, he had been drinking! The full transcript of that discussion is out there somewhere and it's hilarious.

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    2. I don't think there's so much a contrast between his remarks as there is a context between the fan cultures of the time. I don't think what Moffat said was even scandalous for 1995 - it was standard issue 90s Doctor Who fandom. I think Moffat's later retractions of that interview and switching to an "I love all of it" position has more to do with the fact that Doctor Who fandom in an era where the show is thriving has a very different tenor than the fandom of the 1990s. And even still Moffat has a tendency to let slip a certain distaste for the Hartnell era (though he's always been quite favorable towards the first episode.)

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    3. He seems rather favorable towards "Daleks' Master Plan", as well... ;-)

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    4. The full transcript of that discussion is out there somewhere and it's hilarious.

      Yes -- click on the link above, and the page that comes up has a further link to the whole thing.

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  13. Interesting that you picked up on the 'death by green slime' thing. I remember watching this as a teenager and thinking it was disgusting. IIRC it happens in other stories as well as the Sontaran ones.

    I also remember thinking that maybe the BBC had bought too much of the stuff and needed to get rid of it somehow!

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    1. Well, there's two faces I could never tire of hitting.

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    2. Holy bleep... talk about an inane, vicious, retarded, uncivilized, and unnecessary attack on a kid back when television (ironically) was more innocent... that link needs a disclaimer.

      Indeed, this Jim episode was 24 years old when these two kids did their skit. They might make good writers for SNL or almost anything on Comedy Central since the level of wit they exude is pretty much on par, but they have nothing better to do than brainlessly go after some kid caught in the middle? (the blog spells things out neatly but one doesn't always need it spelled out. There is no reason for Gareth to be so ridiculed...)

      Iain - pummeling is a bit wrong, but those two brats have been off their Ritalin for some time, I suspect... But such addled amphetamine addicts should be left in a padded cell. Maybe those two can share it and save on cost.

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  15. Two points - I hadn't seen this in ages, and presumed the "meson gun" Gareth was given was one of the Sontaran's stick-guns, so a bit naff. But they were huge and awesome! Lucky kid to have that hanging in his room.

    Second, I'd never normally point out a grammar-fix but this one is too funny - while the idea of the late Jimmy Saville extravagantly granting the wishes of people who write in is a fantastic one worthy of Zombie Jimmy Saville's career comeback, you may want to alter some tenses :-)

    "A Fix With Sontarans is a mini-episode shot for the show Jim'll Fix It, in which the late Jimmy Saville extravagantly granted the wishes of people who wrote in."

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  16. I'm rather weary of people repeatedly feeling the need to refer to every deceased actor as "the late" so-and-so... just as much as those with "titles" as "Sir" (zis iss Amerika, ve don't DO zat here!!).

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    1. It seems reasonable enough to refer to Savile as "the late" given that he died only a matter of months ago -- it's not like every post about Hartnell, for example, referred to "the late William Hartnell"

      As for your comment about titles, firstly "zis" isn't "Amerika", it's the internet, where people of every country can talk, not just those from one.

      Secondly, Americans *do* use titles, just different ones. Note the way you refer to every president of your country, past or present, as President X, the way reports of Newt Gingrich's campaign refer to him as Speaker Gingrich, the way your elected representatives will insist on being referred to as Senator Whoever rather than Mr or Ms Whoever, and so on. Your press even insist on giving titles to British people who don't have them, thus press references to "Prime Minister Blair" rather than "Mr Blair, the Prime Minister" (Prime Minister is a job, not a title -- I mention Blair because I've seen little or no US coverage of Brown or Cameron).

      Third, even if you dislike the idea of titles (as I do) then it's still polite to use them when referring to people who have them, because it's always polite to refer to people in the way they wish to be referred to. When someone is knighted, their name becomes Sir Whoever, not Mr Whoever.

      And fourth, given that Dr (another title...) Sandifer here refers to Sir James Savile OBE KCSG as "Jimmy Savile", it would seem rather odd for you to complain about that on this post of all posts..

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    2. "When someone is knighted, their name becomes Sir Whoever, not Mr Whoever."

      More precisely (and I'm only picking this nit because so many Americans get this Wrong on the Internet), when Mr Whoever Whatsisname is knighted, his formal address changes from Mr Whatsisname to Sir Whoever.

      (Of course you know this Andrew, and I'm just being annoying about an ambiguity in your post.)

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    3. Good point. I wrote that comment before I'd had any coffee, or I wouldn't have made that mistake.

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  17. "And here, paired with little prep with Colin Baker, she manages to demonstrate how a companion can be paired opposite an arrogant and argumentative Doctor. I don't mean this as a criticism of Nicola Bryant - I'll have plenty of good things to say about her when she departs - but Peri, as conceived, was never a good match for Baker's Doctor as originally conceived. Janet Fielding, as has been pointed out by several commenters, would have been. And was. The two of them are by far the best part of A Fix With Sontarans, and in some ways the story is worthwhile for that alone."

    I agree completely. Rewatching this in preparation for reading your post, this is what struck me most about it. I don't think Fifth/Tegan or Sixth/Peri ever really worked as well as they could, because neither Fifth or Peri really had enough... bite when dealing with the other one. But Tegan and Sixth just bounce off each other wonderfully in the sketch.

    Now that Janet Fielding's doing Big Finishes, I'm surprise they haven't taken advantage of this, given their bizarre tendency to give Sixth other Doctors' companions...

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    1. They did a one-off with Fielding a few years before she became a regular, in which she met up with the fifth Doctor twenty years after she left him, said she hadn't seen him in the interim, and had a terminal illness which meant she would be dead very soon afterwards.

      Admittedly, they've had 'explanations' for more impossible situations before now, but it would seem to preclude bringing her back with the Sixth Doctor.

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    2. I have to say, I'm fairly new to Who fandom, I watched all of nuwho, about half of the 1st doctor, and just finished season 22, all this year, so my opinion is based on that... Peri is a terrible companion, I like the sixth doctor, I think Peri ruins it with her terrible wishy washy scared ass whiny acting.

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    3. "I think Peri ruins it with her terrible wishy washy scared ass whiny acting. "

      It was the accent that did it for me at the time. She'd have done much better doing an accent she could actually do.

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  18. "Her job is to give voice to a position that isn't quite the reverse of the Doctor's, but that is nevertheless unambiguously informed by a completely different set of values and judgments. This leads, in some accounts, to Tegan being a bit thick. The show, after all, is fairly steadfastly aligned to the moral perspective of the Doctor. So Tegan, as a character who is atively set on a different perspective, is fairly consistently proven wrong by the series."

    Making Tegan Doctor Who's very own Agent Scully.

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  19. Since those allegations have come out, you have to wonder just what else Jim "fixed" for little Gareth... :-(

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  20. In light of certain recent revelations about Jimmy Saville, I can't imagine what the book version of this entry will read like...

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