From avenger to screamer: How Dr Who assistants remain trapped in time

Carole Anne Ford (BBC copyright)

Carole Anne Ford (BBC copyright)

The Reunion programme for Radio 4, produced by Peter Curran, recently brought together some of the original cast and crew of the first episode of Doctor Who. The first Dr Who team was notable for its diversity — Waris Hussein was the first British Asian director at the BBC — and the late Verity Lambert its first female drama producer. But it always seemed strange to me that the women in the early episodes could sometimes look and seem very dated — almost 50s in the hairdos and the screaming,  considering it was late 1963.  When I commented on this on a recent Dr Who DVD extra Being a Girl, the Women of Dr Who, it got a sneery review only in Dr Who Magazine.

But I felt wholly vindicated when, Dr Who’s granddaughter Susan, (Carole Ann Ford), revealed how the plan for her character had changed and she had been made “ordinary”:

“I was told I was going to be rather like an Avengers character and have the physicality.. And I could have done it because I was a trained dancer and an acrobat… And also that my wardrobe was going to be extraordinary.. And none of that happened. It all went out of the window. I just became ordinary.”

After all, As Ford  pointed out, it wasn’t likely that a character who was part alien herself, as the Doctor’s grandaughter, and who had been travelling through space and time for so long, would still be screaming at things so much. Director Waris Hussein revealed the rigid male TV mindset of the time, claiming the female screamer was “a part of the suspense point”; an essential dramatic fixture, “going all the way back to King Kong.. It is a part of the ritual and unfortunately Carole Ann had to bear that burden.”

All geuninely admired Matt Smith, feeling he had the “oddness” that suggested his Doctor would grow old to be like William Hartnell. But it seems frustrating that the assistants now may get to deliver karate kicks, yet have to be tied to being sexy and in search of teen-style romance & snogs.

Waris Hussein commented with polite regret about the “sexuality that has crept in” with the Doctor’s will he/won’t he romances with assistants ,which he felt had diminished the “mystery and the unavailablity” that had been so central to Dr Who’s original appeal and now seemed to reside only in Sherlock.  “Why bring in this element when in fact you needn’t have it there? I raise it because I think it’s a loss.”

You  can listen again here. The insights about the assistants and the more recent snogging plots start from around 29 min in.

Further reading

Doctor Who? It destroyed my acting career. Interview with Carole Ann Ford (Telegraph)

About samiraahmed

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