Home : Archive : TSV 21-30 : TSV 28 : Feature

In Defence of the Typical Companion

By Morgan Davie

Ace is mad, bad and popular. She is undoubtedly the most popular companion to ever accompany the Doctor. The reason for this is fairly clear - she is independent, feisty and tough. She is her own character rather than the cipher person who exists only to ask stupid questions and scream at critical moments, as so many past companions have.

I don't mean to undermine Ace - she is in my opinion brilliant - but this article is in defence of the cipher.

First the cipher characters must be specifically identified, and to do this, it is necessary to set cipher criteria:

The cipher...
  A) does nothing without the Doctor's consent
  B) never has an original idea
  C) constantly asks stupid questions
  D) screams and is helpless regularly
  E) is prone to physical injury (e.g. ankle spraining)

Apply these five criteria to the Doctor's companions, and it becomes apparent that ciphers span the history of the show from Susan to Mel, and taking in Vicki, Dodo, Polly, Victoria, Jo, Adric and Peri - ciphers have been in use from the start and were never really abandoned. It's not hard to see why, as they are useful tools for writers who require both dramatic climaxes and ways of explaining things to the viewer. Cipher characters are a vital part of the Doctor Who mythos.

Whilst boring and more often than not stupid, cipher characters are not unrealistic. Put yourself in place of a companion. Suppose you are on an alien planet, a guest-cum-prisoner in a huge government building. The Doctor has told you to do nothing whilst he goes out to confer with the planet's leaders, when suddenly you have a brilliant idea to escape and solve the problem.

Before you decide, consider this - the Doctor may have already solved the problem. You might ruin his chances at saving you. You could very well be putting yourself in danger by carrying out this plan. The Doctor is a brilliant, if eccentric intellectual being and would be able to see the consequences of your plan much better than you could. After all, he is the Doctor - he's always pulled it off before. Why not trust him to do it again?

So obviously the decision is a bit tougher that it at first seems, and I know that I for one would follow the Doctor's instructions - thus conforming to criteria A.

Criteria B: ciphers never have original ideas. This, believe it or not, is perfectly plausible. The Doctor knows all the answers, and comes up with all the brilliant plans. With such a character to rely on, why should the cipher bother working it out? Suppose they do get an idea - why bother the Doctor with it? He'll either have a better one or may have come up with the same one himself. So ciphers do tend to let the Doctor do all the thinking - because it is the easy thing to do.

Criteria C: ciphers ask stupid questions. The reason is obvious - the Doctor knows all the answers. The ciphers could make astute guesses, but no one likes to be wrong, so they ask anyway.

Criteria D: ciphers scream a lot. This is quite simply because they get scared. I know that if an army of Cybermen were striding towards me I'd be a bit chilled. And I know that if I witnessed a Dalek army retreating, I wouldn't be out there yelling 'wimps!' I'd be grateful for my life. This fear factor also accounts for ciphers' relative helplessness against alien beings. When you're afraid, you don't think too straight. You make mistakes, or you do nothing at all. Being helpless is neither honourable or indeed very entertaining, but it is realistic.

Criteria E: ciphers are prone to injury. When you're escaping from the Ice Warriors or the Sontarans, watching where you put your feet is often the last thing on your mind. Physical well-being is often risked for immediate safety.

What it all boils down to is that cipher characters are realistic. Most companions represent an average person on the street whisked off into space. Any number of people you meet every day would be instant cipher companions.

This does however bring up a whole new problem - what place does reality have in a TV programme about a time-travelling alien who flies about in a police box?

This item appeared in TSV 28 (April 1992).