Thursday, August 4, 2011

Companions: Polly

(Anneke Wills)

Dodo may have been the first attempt from the Doctor Who writers at bringing a modern example of swinging sixties London on board the TARDIS, but Polly was where they got it right. She's the first female companion that audiences of that time - particularly teenage girls - might both recognize from their real lives and aspire to be. Susan was an alien, Barbara a grown-up schoolteacher, Vicki, Katarina and Sara all from other times, and Dodo, although from the present, appeared from and went back to nowhere. We meet Polly in present day (1966) London, working as a secretary, wearing mod fashions and going to the trendiest nightclubs.

Polly (no last name is ever given on-screen, although it was possibly intended to be "Wright") first appeared in The War Machines, working as a secretary to Professor Brett, inventor of the super-computer WOTAN. When the Doctor and Dodo arrive to investigate the machine, Polly (unlike the viewers) takes a liking to Dodo and brings her along to a happening nightspot, where they meet depressed, adorable sailor Ben Jackson.

That's Dodo, looking drab, and Polly, looking fabulous, with Kitty, the owner of the nightclub (because of course Polly is friends with the owner), and Ben, looking like the back of his head. Better pictures of him later. After Dodo makes her ignominious exit halfway through the story, Ben and Polly get caught up in the adventure. Polly is briefly hypnotized by WOTAN but shakes it off after being rescued by Ben. (This is a theme that will recur.) After the dust settles, Polly and Ben track the Doctor down, to let him know that Dodo has decided to ditch him.

My god, she is frigging adorable! Sorry, I really like Polly. Ok, so the Doctor thanks them and enters the TARDIS, and Ben - remembering that he had pocketed a spare key the Doctor dropped earlier - opens the door to return it to him. Ben and Polly climb aboard and are whisked away.

The next story, The Smugglers, sees the trio arrive in seventeenth century Cornwall. Ben is skeptical that they've truly traveled in time and is eager to get back to London, but Polly is excited at the prospect of adventure. Now, Polly could scream with the best of them - she's still a classic series Doctor Who girl after all, it's a job requirement.

Here she is screaming at...I don't know, a skeleton or a pirate or something. But Polly was clever - when she and Ben are wrongfully imprisoned for murder, it's Polly who - having accepted they really are centuries in the past - preys on their jailer's superstitions to get them released.

(A side note about The Smugglers - it concerns a search for the hidden treasure of the pirate Captain Avery, believed dead at the start of this story but whose true fate would eventually be revealed in the new series episode The Curse of the Black Spot. Given that not a single episode of this story survives to the present day, this has to be the most obscure callback the new series has made so far. I guess Moffat wanted to outdo Davies' use of the Macra.)

In the next story, The Tenth Planet, Polly shares with Ben two majorly significant firsts in Doctor Who history.  Arriving at the South Pole in the fantastic future world of 1980, Ben, Polly and the Doctor encounter the Cybermen for the very first time.

Here she is talking to him about feelings and crap (just like a woman, am I right, fellas?). Polly doesn't do a whole lot in this story, but she does get to witness that other significant first - the whole reason this show is still on the air, decades later. The Doctor, weakened by the Cybermen's attack on Earth, rushes back to the TARDIS, collapses, and regenerates!

Here they are at the top of the next story, The Power of the Daleks (guess who they're about to meet), staring in amazement at this new man calling himself the Doctor.

I think they convey the sense of "What the FUCK?!?" quite well, don't you? Ben has a hard time believing this strange little man isn't an impostor, but Polly, as ever, is quicker to accept the evidence of her own eyes. Polly gets to meet the Daleks in this story, but spends much of her time getting captured, so let's move on to the next story, The Highlanders, where she really shines.

Here's the new TARDIS team arriving in Scotland in 1746, shortly after the Battle of Culloden, where they'll get caught up in conflicts between Jacobites and Redcoats. When the Doctor, Ben and the local Laird are captured by the British, Polly works with the Laird's daughter, Highland lass Kirsty, to work out a plan to rescue them.

Although all three of the main characters get plenty of action, to my mind The Highlanders is Polly's story. Since all of the episodes are lost it's hard to judge it fairly, but listening to the audio, any scene without Polly in it suffers. The story really gets going when Polly and Kirsty meet the stuffy but good-hearted Redcoat Lieutenant Algernon Ffinch - or "Algy", as Polly insists on calling him. The two girls (mostly Polly) trick Algy into a trap, threaten him, and steal his money and his identity disc, which they use throughout the serial to repeatedly blackmail him into helping them. Despite their being on opposite sides, Anneke Wills does a wonderful job of showing a growing genuine affection for Ffinch through her semi-threatening teasing. It's a good performance of an increasingly complex character.

But character development came and went from story to story as the writers changed on classic Doctor Who, and in the next story, The Underwater Menace, Polly has little to do except once again get captured and almost turned into one of these things.

Which, as much as I love Polly, would have been kind of awesome. They're called Fish People, and they are one of the many utterly insane facets of this wonderfully bizarre story.  The TARDIS quartet - oh, I forgot to mention, they picked up Scottish piper Jamie McCrimmon in the last story - here's the new team of companions...

Anyway, the four travellers have arrived at some indeterminate time in the future in the underwater city of Atlantis. The survivors of the sinking of the city use the aforementioned Fish People to farm plankton to survive underwater. Now the mad Professor Zaroff has convinced the Atlanteans that he can raise the city, when in truth he's actually planning to blow up the planet for some reason. So yeah, bizarre, but awesome. Anyway, Polly is about to undergo surgery to become a Fish Person...

...when she's rescued by the Doctor. There's a slave revolt, Zaroff goes even crazier, blah blah blah, Polly puts on an awesome costume and hides out with a disguised Doctor...

...and everything's fine. So yeah, good story, check it out. (What's left of it - most of it, you guessed it, no longer exists.)

Polly's back to kicking ass in the next story, The Moonbase. Arriving on the moon in the year 2070, Jamie takes sick with the same illness that's been affecting much of the base's crew.

While playing nursemaid (because, you know, sixties, woman...), she discovers that their old enemies the Cybermen are behind the mysterious illnesses. While everybody's freaking out about what to do, Polly - inspired by, no kidding, her nail polish remover- mixes up a batch of chemicals which they use to dissolve the Cybermen's plastic chest units, killing them. Polly's chemical cocktail keeps them all alive long enough for the Doctor to ultimately see the invaders off. Fuck yeah!

Next up -The Macra Terror. This story is also completely lost, but here's a shot of Polly in the grips of the malevolent Macra.

Say what you will about sixties Doctor Who, they knew when a monster was good enough to show and when it was best kept in the dark. (Seventies and eighties Doctor Who would frequently forget this lesson. See The Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Androids of Tara, Warriors of the Deep...I could go on.) As I mentioned above, the Macra would reappear to terrorize the Tenth Doctor and Martha in Gridlock, in the second most obscure callback in the new series' history. If you add in a dialogue call-out from the Eleventh Doctor and Amy story Victory of the Daleks to The Power of the Daleks, that's three from the Polly and Ben era. Considering how few of their episodes actually exist - only their introductory story exists in its entirety - they must have had a monumental impact on Messieurs Davies and Moffat. I put it down to Polly. (Is it clear yet that I'm rather fond of her?)

The next story, The Faceless Ones, sees the TARDIS returning to Earth on the very same day Ben and Polly left - July 20, 1966. Like Dodo, Ben and Polly get a bit of a short shrift in their farewell story. Polly gets hypnotized and disappears for a good chunk of it, returning only to say goodbye to the Doctor and Jamie at the end. Since the Doctor can't control where or when the TARDIS lands, the duo are taking the opportunity to return to their previous life. They wouldn't appear again in Doctor Who, but a 2010 episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures suggested that Ben and Polly are presently running an orphanage in India together.

Polly was a great companion, and Anneke Wills did a great job of portraying her. It's a real shame that her and Ben's stories were hit hardest by the BBC's purging of old videos in the sixties and seventies - most of their episodes exist now only in soundtracks and snapshots. Although later female companions (most often Ace or Sarah Jane) are often cited as the forerunners of Rose, Martha, Donna and Amy, it's really Polly who set the precedent of the brave, smart, witty, modern-woman "Doctor Who girl" with a life of her own outside the TARDIS.


  1. Heheh, that's a brilliant synopsis of the Polly/Ben stories. Oh, would that all episode guides were like this...

  2. Thanks! I'm working up my next post on Ben, but it's taking me a while to come up with new things to say about the exact same set of stories...